Sermon delivered on Trinity 15B, Sunday, September 13, 2015 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Proverbs 1.20-33; Psalm 19.1-14; James 3.1-12; Mark 8.27-38.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today I want us to explore some of the often neglected treasure of biblical wisdom. What is it and why should we care about it? In answering some of these questions, we will have the chance to assess our humility quotient because ultimately our acceptance or rejection of biblical Wisdom is directly related to how humble or proud we really are.
In our OT lesson we are introduced to Lady Wisdom, the very personification of God’s Wisdom. In our passage, we see that Wisdom is not simply a set of passive principles we have the option of accepting or rejecting. No, Wisdom is seen as a teacher who is very active. She is one who cries out in the streets, peddling her wares. Like a good teacher, she is willing to do almost anything to attract and maintain her students’ attention because there is much at stake here. But sadly, the implication is that while she is actively pursuing students to learn from her, there are not many takers to be found. Hmmm. Are we one of those people?
Specifically, Lady Wisdom addresses three types of folks: the simple, the scoffer, and the fool. The simple are those who are either young or naive. They haven’t really had a chance to learn wisdom and by implication are ripe for the picking. The scoffer, on the other hand, not only rejects Lady Wisdom’s teachings, but is actively opposed to them by ridiculing the wisdom found in her teachings. We all get how this works. How often do we hear Christians being ridiculed or mocked when espousing biblical Wisdom to a world that is increasingly hostile to it? Take this proverb, for example. “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15.1). How ridiculous, the scoffer snorts! Everyone knows that he who shouts the loudest or carries the biggest stick gets the prize! Who cares how many feathers get ruffled in the process? Following this advice would give the appearance of weakness and any who do follow it are fools! Or how often have we been silenced out of fear that we will be scoffed at for holding a biblical perspective on any of the current hot topics in the public forum? Then there is the fool, those people who are said to “hate knowledge.” Indeed, to love folly is to hate Wisdom and vice versa. There is no middle ground to be had here and that makes many of us who prefer to measure our colors in shades of gray rather than black and white uncomfortable.
In our lesson we are not told specifically what constitutes Wisdom, only that the beginning of wisdom is to choose to fear the Lord. To fear the Lord means we have a healthy and reverential respect for the all-knowing, all-powerful, and ever-present God who is incomparably greater than us. It does not mean cowering from an unpredictable bully. And while Lady Wisdom does not tell us what Wisdom looks like in our lesson, the psalmist does. He tells us that Wisdom consists in following God’s good will and purposes for us. Do this, say both the psalmist and Lady Wisdom, and you will prosper. Don’t do this, and disaster will surely strike. It’s not so much a matter of God rewarding us for good behavior or punishing us for bad behavior as it is reaping what we sow. There really are consequences that accompany our thoughts and behaviors! Be wise, says Lady Wisdom. Don’t play the fool!
All this ought to make sense to us at some level. If God really is our Creator, who knows better how to make us happy than God? And so God has given us his Laws to follow (think, e.g., the Ten Commandments) because acting in these ways will surely result in harmonious, peaceable living. If we are loving and treating others as we want them to love and treat us (part of the Great Commandment Jesus gave us), we reduce exponentially the chances of strife and conflict and all the other nastiness we experience as the result of our own folly. And behaving in these ways also helps prevent evil from working its poison in our lives.
To be sure, this doesn’t mean that wise people never suffer or that fools don’t prosper. They do at times, but this is an exception to the rule, not the rule itself, and in this life there are always exceptions to the rule. These exceptions, however, do not invalidate the rule! Choose to act wisely, Lady Wisdom exhorts us, and you will prosper. Choose to act foolishly (e.g., by acting selfishly or recklessly or by following the ways of the world that are opposed to God) and you will bring disaster on yourself. There is not a person in this room who has not experienced the truth Lady Wisdom teaches here. And to top it off, she tells us she will scoff at us when we have failed to follow her advice and wreaked havoc on ourselves by our folly. Pretty harsh, Lady Wisdom. Yes it is, she replies, but the stakes are high and I want you to enjoy life as you were meant to live it. Sometimes harsh talk is needed to wake you up out of your stupor. Learn to live as God created you to live and wants you to live, and you will find out what it means to be truly happy. Do you believe this? If you do not, you might want to look at the pride in you that causes you to think you know better than God and leads you to reject his good purposes for you.
So what does biblical Wisdom, the willingness and ability to follow God’s good will for us as his human creatures, look like? James has an answer for us in our epistle lesson. Consider our inability to control our tongue. How can we use our mouth to praise God in worship one minute and then use it to speak badly about others the next minute, he asks? This is sobering stuff because the evil that comes out of our mouth every time we use angry and abusive language or gossip about others has its very origins in hell itself. That’s why James calls the tongue a restless evil full of deadly poison. An uncontrolled tongue is responsible for spreading evil, James warns us. It stains the whole body. In other words it works to corrupt our entire being. How? Spread gossip and people won’t trust you. Insult people and use bitter sarcasm, and they will not follow you. Who wants to be around a mean, spiteful person (like Ebenezer Scrooge) who never has anything good to say about anything or anyone? So much for our desire to have real relationships with others!
But it gets worse. A wicked tongue not only corrupts us, it destroys the course of our life, precisely because we eventually become what we speak. Use vulgar and crude language and you will become a vulgar and crude person. Use hateful language and eventually you will begin to act hatefully toward others. Use cruel language and you will become a cruel person. Don’t believe James? Then consider this advertisement from 1964.
Anyone see sexual innuendo in it? Any of you blush or giggle or get embarrassed or uncomfortable as I read it? How could an advertising agency publish something like this? Well, 51 years ago, our culture was not nearly as sexualized as it is today. We didn’t hear crude jokes and a steady stream of sexual innuendo and explicit sexual language in the media like we do today. That’s why if you look at any of the old TV shows from the late 50s to mid 60s, they almost seem naive in their innocence, just like this ad. And because we have been bombarded with sexualized language at every turn, it changes us ever so gradually and insidiously until voila! We see sexual innuendo in places it was never intended. Likewise with the language we use and how it changes the course of our life, for better or worse. We are not so much what we eat but what we speak. In this utterly devastating denunciation of an uncontrolled tongue, James lays out a steady progression of evil, from self-corruption that extends to the whole course of our life, climaxing in exposing the tongue’s source of evil to hell itself.
How can this be, asks James? How can we Christians (notice James includes himself) who were bought at the price of Jesus’ blood and who have the very Spirit of the living God living in us, use our tongue to speak evilly? If we have been made clean by Jesus and given his Spirit to dwell in us, we should bear commensurate fruit (cf. Matthew 12.33-37). But we don’t bear good fruit consistently because we cannot control our mouth. When we speak abusively to others and/or gossip about them, we are heaping contempt on God’s own greatness because human beings, even our enemies, are made in his image. Speak evilly about someone and we in effect speak evilly about the One who created that person. Given the great and terrible cost the Father endured to rescue us through Jesus, how can we as Christians even consider using impure and unchecked language? Where is the biblical sense of shock and outrage about this? After all, the implication is that a true Christian will not make a practice of using unchristian speech and anyone who does, gives evidence that (s)he is not a Christian and therefore in danger of hell. And yet here we are, speaking badly about those who anger us or with whom we disagree, friends included! James is warning each of us that we had better be practicing self-discipline to purify our speech or we expose our faith as a sham and us as imposters, therefore making us liable to judgment after all. We might be able to fool some of the people some of the time by how we act, but God is not mocked. He knows our heart and hears our uncharitable speech. I bought you with my own dear Son’s blood, he tells us. I didn’t rescue you from your sin so you could continue to be the fallen person you were before I touched your life. I rescued you so that my image could be fully restored in you so that you would start acting in ways that are truly human. Start speaking and acting the part before it’s too late!
These are sobering words and more than a bit worrisome because our language can land us in hell. Yet how many of us tend to discount these kinds of warnings or try to rationalize them away? James does not warn us about these things because he is some overbearing prude who is trying to get all judgmental on us. No, like Lady Wisdom, he warns us because he loves us and wants the best for us. How can a loving person want to see someone cast into hell? And James wants us to remember Whose we are and what it has cost God to redeem us from sin and death so that we will learn to have a thankful heart, and speak and act accordingly. That’s his point about the quality of water. We’ve been healed and we need to start acting and speaking like we have. This is the function of biblical Wisdom and sometimes it is hard for us to hear.
But hard things don’t stop us from protesting about all this. Not fair, we cry! If we can’t control our tongue as James argues, how can God punish us for something beyond our control? God really must be an angry bully after all! Not so, James replies. That is your hard heart speaking! Sure, controlling our tongue is very difficult and none of us is able to do it completely. After all, I’ve just told you that anyone who can control his/her tongue completely is perfect. Yet none of us is perfect! But don’t you know you have God’s very Spirit living in you, making Jesus’ healing love available to you? Don’t you know that God the Father has an egregiously generous heart and loves to lavish his children (you know, those who follow Jesus) with good gifts (James 1.5, 17)? But you don’t ask for good gifts or don’t believe God will grant them to you and so you don’t receive them (James 1.6-8). So if you really want to obey the Father’s commands and align yourself with his good and wholesome wisdom, ask him to help you control your tongue so that you can begin the hard work of repentance and self-discipline that forming new speech patterns requires. Remember we are talking patterns of speech and those patterns should reflect the healing love of Christ that is working on us as well as the Spirit who lives in us. So don’t lose heart or hope over what I’ve said or my warnings to you about the danger of unchecked speech because you have been rescued from your slavery to sin and death and freed to live your new life in Christ wisely, a life whose patterns of speech and behavior reflect the One who died for you on a cross to save you. Remember we still live in a fallen world where the glory of God is only partially revealed. Likewise with our transformation. While it has begun, our transformation will not be completed until Jesus returns again to usher in the new creation. But return he will and when he does, our speech and praise of him will be pure and unending. In the interim, let us resolve to work diligently to rid ourselves of all unchristian and unhealthy language with the Spirit’s help. Let us do so, confident that God’s healing love will continue to transform our speech patterns so that they will conform to the glory and wisdom of God while simultaneously giving witness to the world that we do this because we really do believe we have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.