Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Sermon: Proverbs 1: 1-7 Wisdom for Life: Wise Up!

Here in Northern Ireland, we seem to have an overabundance of memorable phrases. Every so often, you’ll come across a list of Northern Irish phrases that don’t really seem to make sense to anybody else. It’s a bit like the books from the 1980s and 1990s that John Pepper produced in Belfast - John Pepper’s Ulster-English Dictionary and his Ulster Haunbook. He would take Northern Irish phrases, and then translate them into proper English. So, for example, ‘Bout ye, wee man!’ would be translated as ‘How are you, my fine fellow?’ You get the idea.

Tonight we’re starting to think about wisdom, and there are a couple of relevant Northern Irish sayings that you have either said or heard. Here’s the first: ‘He’s not wise!’ meaning, the person in question doesn’t appear to have carefully thought the matter through. And the second: ‘Wise up!’ or in other words, reconsider and get a bit of sense.

Over the next few cafe church nights, we’re going to try to wise up. The question is, though, how do we go about it? We’ve already asked the question tonight - what is wisdom? We’ll think about that a bit more. And we’ll try to discover where we can get wisdom from. So as we start, let’s ask: what is wisdom?

Some people might think that wisdom is the same as common sense. Have you noticed, though, that common sense doesn’t seem to be very common? What you might think is common sense isn’t what someone else might think - so it’s not common; and everybody doesn’t think the same way about everything, so it might not be very sensible either. So wisdom is not just common sense.

Some people might think that wisdom is the same as knowledge. But there seems to be a but more to wisdom than just mere knowledge. As someone once said, ‘knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, but wisdom is not putting it into a fruit salad.’ Wisdom is doing something with knowledge - working it out practically; applied knowledge, perhaps, but it is more than just knowledge. Many’s a time I remember dad coming home from work despairing about these graduates with their degrees and letters after their name, but without an ounce of wisdom between them. So wisdom isn’t just the same as knowledge. There’s more to it.

Perhaps the way to consider what something means is to look at its opposite. So the opposite of tallness is ... shortness; the opposite of hot is... cold. And the opposite of wisdom is...? Folly, or foolishness. Throughout the Bible, we see this contrast between wisdom and folly. On the other Sunday nights in the month we’re working through the Sermon on the Mount, and at the end of it (spoiler alert!), Jesus contrasts the wise and foolish builders - the wise man builds his house upon the rock (I think I know a song about that!), whereas the foolish man builds his house on the sand. And when the storms came down and the floods went whoosh, only one house remained standing.

So wisdom is the opposite of folly. And in the Bible, foolishness isn’t just being silly; there’s also a moral quality to it, a moral deficiency. So, for example, Psalm 14 says ‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”’

If there’s a moral quality to foolishness, that is also mirrored in the idea of Biblical wisdom. So someone has suggested that the idea of wisdom is living well in God’s world in God’s way. And if that’s the case, then who wouldn’t want to live well in God’s world in God’s way? Just think of the situations you come across every day - the many choices you make, big and small, which can change the outcome of your day, your month, your life and even your eternity. How do you decide what to do, or not do? Where do you turn for help? Who do you look to for advice? Where will you get wisdom for tomorrow morning?

If, like me, you want to grow in wisdom; if you too want to wise up; then how do we do it? Where will we find wisdom?

That’s the question that Job asks in chapter 28 of his book. He says: ‘There is a mine for silver and a place where gold is refined. Iron is taken from the earth, and copper is smelted from ore... The earth, from which food comes, is transformed below as by fire; sapphires come from its rocks, and its dust contains nuggets of gold... Man’s hand assaults the flinty rock and lays bare the roots of the mountains. He tunnels through the rock; his eyes see all its treasures. He searches the sources of the rivers and brings hidden things to light.’ (Job 28:1-2, 5-6, 9-11)

Humans have been able to mine and explore and discover all sorts of treasures and all sorts of precious metals. But here’s his next question... ‘But where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell? Man does not comprehend its worth; it cannot be found in the land of the living.’ (Job 28:12-13) It’s a mystery. And then, in the last verse of the chapter, the mystery is revealed. But we’ll keep it hidden for a moment or two longer.

Within the Bible, there are lots of different types of writing. There is history and narrative (telling stories); there are poems and songs, like the Psalms; there are letters written to churches and individuals; there is apocalyptic (like Revelation - which we’ll be doing on Thursday nights at Growth Group); and there are the wisdom books - Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. We’ll be focusing in on Proverbs at Cafe Church, and next time we’ll look at what we typically expect Proverbs to be like - short, pithy, wise sayings. But the start of the book is a father’s instruction to his son, an introduction to what wisdom is like. And our reading tonight stands at the entrance to the whole book, ushering the reader in.

So what will the book of Proverbs do for you? ‘for gaining wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight; for receiving instruction in prudent behaviour, doing what is right and just and fair; for giving prudence to those who are simple, knowledge and discretion to the young - let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance - for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise.’

So to read this book will help you to increase in wisdom, or in the Northern Irish version, to wise up. And did you notice who is included in its reach? The simple, the young, the wise and the discerning. So however you see yourself; whatever you may think of yourself; there is something here for you. No matter how wise you already are, you will grow in wisdom and learn something more.

And where does wisdom start? What is the first baby step of being wise? Here’s what Solomon says:

‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.’ (Prov 1:7)

And remember Job’s mystery of finding wisdom? God answers his question in this way:

‘The fear of the LORD - that is wisdom,
and to shun evil is understanding.’ (Job 28:28)

To fear the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, the beginning of wisdom. But when the Bible talks about the fear of the Lord, it doesn’t mean a phobia type of fear - the way people can be afraid of spiders or confined spaces or open spaces - no, the fear of the Lord is a healthy sense of awe and reverence for God. To put God first is the first step of wisdom. But to refuse to listen, to refuse to bow the knee - this is folly to the fullest.

God is wise. And, like every aspect of his character, we see it expressed in the cross. Just think for a moment of the cross - in it we see the love of God, and the holiness of God; the wrath of God, and the justice of God; the grace of God, and the mercy of God. And in the cross we see the wisdom of God.

To the world it seems entirely weak and utterly foolish. A man dying on a cross, in agony, abandoned and alone. As Paul writes to the Corinthians:

‘For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.’ (1 Cor 1:21-25)

The cross looks so weak and so foolish, but this is the way God saves - Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. To refuse to come to Christ is to refuse God’s wisdom, which is the ultimate expression of folly.

But here we have the invitation to wise up - to begin to be wise, or to grow in wisdom - as we learn from Christ, the wisdom of God. Wisdom calls out - will you listen? Will you heed the call? There are 35 days until the next Cafe Church, and 31 chapters in Proverbs (so you’ve a couple of catch-up days built in!). Why not read a chapter a day; slowly, carefully - see what jumps out at you; what speaks to the day you’re having; what helps you along the way.

Will you wise up, as I seek to wise up too?

This sermon was preached at Cafe Church in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 8th September 2019.

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