Wisdom and Foolishness

Sermon delivered on Trinity 11B, Sunday, August 16, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: 1 Kings 2.10-12; 3.3-14; Psalm 111.1-10; Ephesians 5.15-20; John 6.51-58.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our lessons today tackle the biblical ideas of wisdom and foolishness, always a crowd pleaser. What does Scripture mean when it talks about wisdom and foolishness? What does that look like? Why should we give a fig about either? It is these questions I want us to look at briefly this morning.

Before we look at our lessons, it is helpful for us to have the Big Picture view in mind when it comes to the biblical notions of wisdom and foolishness. In general, as the psalmist proclaims (quoting Proverbs 1.7) the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. Those who have good understanding live by this. And as Proverbs adds, fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Scripture further distinguishes between godly wisdom and human wisdom. Godly wisdom produces a healthy fear of the Lord, not where we are terrified of God but where we realize God is God and we are not. Such wisdom produces a pattern of living that is consistent with living life fully in the manner God intends for us to live as his image-bearing creatures charged with caring for God’s good creation. Among others, it helps us discern evil from good and ultimately allows us to conduct our lives in the manner of Jesus. It is emphatically not about our ability to follow a set of arbitrary rules. Keep this in mind as we talk about what godly wisdom looks like on the ground, especially when we look at our epistle lesson.

Human wisdom, on the other hand, is based on our desire to play God. It is typically rooted in our pride and self-centeredness. We see it emerge in the garden of Eden when Adam and Eve listen to the tempter: “Did God really say…?”. And so our spiritual ancestors ate of the fruit from the tree of knowledge in a futile attempt to determine their own happiness. They weren’t content to follow God’s good and wise instructions and the ensuing freedom that always produce contentment, wholeness, peace, meaning, purpose, and happiness when followed. The folly of human wisdom is best seen in its failure to recognize our crucified and risen Lord, Jesus of Nazareth, the very embodiment of the living God, for who he is (cf. 1 Corinthians 1.20-25). Think how many today scoff at the notion that a meaningful and happy life, as well as salvation, can be found only in a real and living relationship with our risen Lord, vainly searching for all kinds of human-devised solutions that are bound to fail because they are not anchored in God, our only source of happiness and real life. It is enough to break the heart, especially when we consider the words of Jesus in our gospel lesson this morning: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

No, as the columnist Michael Cohen brilliantly argued in a recent piece, we in the west have spent the last 250 years or so trying to find happiness by tearing down all the old constraints and guidelines of religious morality in a misguided effort to become more “free” (a top priority of enlightened thinking), and we are utterly confounded when some of our youth reject their newly-won freedoms for the tyranny of ISIS.

But as Scripture reminds us, there is a problem with notions of freedom rooted in human wisdom. We are so inherently flawed that we really don’t know what is good for us. But being the wise fools we are, we don’t believe this and have rejected the godly wisdom of Paul, who correctly understood that only when we are free from our slavery to sin—something that is possible only in and through Jesus Christ, so that we are free to follow his pattern of living—will we ever be truly free and happy (cf. Galatians 5.1). And the result of our increasingly “free” society based on human wisdom? More alienation, more meaninglessness, more loneliness, more strife and enmity, more desperate searching for new meaning and purpose of living. We know in our bones (if we are honest with ourselves) there is more to life than the unfettered freedom to pursue our own fallen desires. And yet we continue to pursue those desires relentlessly.

With this in mind, we are now ready to see what light our lessons can shed on the twin notions of wisdom and foolishness. In our OT lesson, we see young King Solomon praying for God’s wisdom. Solomon’s ascent to the throne was anything but routine and peaceful (1 Kings 1.1-2-46). He emerged only after a deadly struggle with his own family, part of God’s curse on his father David’s sin of adultery and murder that we looked at a few weeks ago. Solomon had relied largely on his own wisdom to gain the throne, not God’s, but now apparently the young king is humble enough to know that he’s in over his head and needs the help, guidance, wisdom, and power of One greater than him if he is to rule God’s people wisely. In effect, Solomon asked God for the ability to live his life patterned after God’s own life so that God’s thoughts permeated Solomon’s thoughts, decision-making, and leadership. Is it any wonder God granted Solomon his request? Should we wonder any less that God would answer our own sincere requests to live wisely by being transformed in our minds and thinking (cf. Romans 12.2)? As Solomon demonstrated, once his mind was transformed by God, his behavior followed. But once Solomon decided to rely on his own wisdom, well, not so much. Apostasy and idolatry followed. Read the sad tale in 1 Kings 11.1-13.

From this story we see that if we are to pursue godly wisdom so that we live our lives in ways that are pleasing to God, you know, by practicing justice, loving mercy (i.e., loving others as ourselves), and walking humbly with our God (i.e., loving God with our whole being) (Micah 6.8), humility is the essential prerequisite. We have to be humble enough to recognize our own condition as being fatally flawed, and that we are not in the position to fix ourselves so that we reach out to the One who can fix and heal us. Life is complicated and we are mortal and finite. Despite what we might think, we are in it over our heads and need help from our Creator who really does know us and knows what is best for us. This realization comes only through humility.

Paul likewise urges us to practice godly wisdom in our epistle lesson. Be careful how you live, he says, because the times are evil. Live wisely and make the most of your time. The Greek he uses means literally to buy back your time. Here Paul is reminding us that life is not what God intended for us originally. It has been hijacked and snatched away from us by the dark powers and our own fallen nature, and he urges us to get the time we have back under our control. Why? So we can find real meaning, purpose of living, and contentment in our lives.

So how do we take back our time so that we find meaning, purpose, and joy? As we have seen the past two weeks, Paul has already told us how: cultivate the Spirit’s presence in you and let him heal and transform you so that you can live as God’s people. In today’s lesson, Paul expands on this, adding another dimension to his teaching. He tells us to embrace God’s wisdom. The Greek Paul uses here indicates that he sees this as an ongoing process, not a one-time event. Before we look specifically at what Paul says, we need a word of caution. I know that when I was a young man, I would read passages like this and roll my eyes. Don’t get drunk, don’t be sexually immoral, don’t party as the pagans do. In other words, I read passages like these with the understanding that Paul definitely didn’t want me to have a good time! All these dos and dont’s. All these rules to follow. But I knew better. Oh wait…! My point is this. If we read passages like today’s and see them as nothing more than rules to be followed, and not very fun ones at that, we are applying human wisdom and completely miss what Paul is telling us.

Paul and the other NT writers want Jesus’ body parts, you and me, to learn to take back the time that’s been hijacked from us so that we can learn to live in ways that are not only pleasing to God but pleasing to us. To do that, we must learn to live wisely, by God’s wisdom, not ours. And so here Paul tells us not to get drunk but to be filled by the Spirit. The Greek Paul uses indicates that while this is a command he wants us to follow, it isn’t something we can do in our own power. As we have seen, we do not have access to the Spirit until the Spirit chooses to live in us, and that is always God’s initiative. So here Paul is telling us that once we have been blessed with the Spirit, we are to do the things we need to do to allow the Spirit to do his healing and transforming work in us. In other words, what Paul is telling us to do is to cooperate with God so that God can do his thing in and for us. Paul understands that the spiritual world, like the physical world, abhors a vacuum. We must be filled with something, either good or bad (cf. Luke 11.24-26). Paul has nothing against wine or drinking. Neither does the Bible. What Paul (and Scripture in general) is adamantly against is drunkenness. Why? Because alcohol controls us, and usually not in good ways when we are drunk. It controls us indirectly by lowering our inhibitions so that we might say and do things we would never dream of saying or doing when sober. I know in my own experience, some of the things I have done about which I am most ashamed, I’ve done while being under the influence of alcohol: fighting, sexual immorality, evil speaking about others, boasting, selfish acts, and the like (cf. Galatians 5.19-21). By contrast, I’ve never done anything under the influence of the Holy Spirit about which I have been ashamed. Or consider the two daughters of Lot, who by using worldly wisdom, decided they needed to ensure their family line’s continuity after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and so devised a plan to get their father Lot drunk so that they achieved their goal by committing incest with him. Do you think Lot in his sober mind would have entertained such a scheme? If so, why the need to get him drunk? The writer of Genesis reports this, but certainly does not approve of this behavior (Genesis 19.30-36)! So Paul is warning us that if we want to be under the Spirit’s influence so that we can live wisely and take back our time, living in ways pleasing to God and building godly contentment in us, we must do things to cultivate the Spirit’s presence. This is a far cry from counseling us to follow the rules!

What are some of those things that can cultivate the Spirit’s presence? Prayer, as our OT lesson teaches. Reading and appropriating Scripture, as Paul teaches. Worship, praise and singing, along with partaking in the eucharistic feast each week, as our epistle and gospel lessons teach. Doing these things help the Spirit to do his transforming work in us so that we can build each other up instead of engaging in thinking and behaviors that tear each other down.

To summarize, the world, full of, um, its human wisdom, tells us to seek happiness by following our own desires and giving us the requisite freedom to do so. And so we seek to find happiness in booze, sex, greed, ambition and the rest. The result? We fail to develop meaningful relationships with God and others. Our drunken euphoria is replaced by a raging hangover in the morning. Our satiated libidos are counteracted by the loneliness and isolation we feel as the result of affairs or watching porn or one night stands. We seek to satisfy our desire for the perfect spouse by marrying, divorcing, and remarrying in an endless cycle instead of finding the joy and fulfillment that comes from a husband and wife working through married life for 30 years, like the Collins’s have, and overcoming all kinds of obstacles, things which while difficult and unpleasant at times, help us develop the kind of true and meaningful relationships we crave.

By contrast, godly wisdom recognizes that God created us to be his wise stewards and reflectors of his image and glory out into creation. It sees the massive importance of relationships, both with God and others, and understands that this takes hard work, humility, discipline, and commitment. The world’s wisdom will scoff at all this. In fact, they will hate it and us. They will call us fools and worse, and that is why we must be prepared to suffer for the Name. But who knows better about what it takes to make us happy than our good, wise, and all-knowing Creator? Augustine recognized this when he made his famous statement that, “Our hearts are restless, O God, until they find rest in you” (Confessions 1.1).

The choice is ours. Living our lives consistently after Jesus (notice I did not say in a mistake-free manner) will produce godly contentment and purpose of living that will surely satisfy us forever. We do that whenever we embody God’s love for all people, pursue justice, work for peace, resolve to be a servant to others rather than try to lord ourselves over them, and whenever we are kind, tenderhearted, generous, forgiving, and the rest (cf. Galatians 5.22-25). Learning to live our lives after God’s own life in which God’s wisdom leads, guides, and counsels us, so that we become Christ’s beacons of light to a world darkened by sin and confusion is surely the hardest thing we will ever do. But nothing worthwhile ever comes easily. Following Jesus is the only way we will ever learn to know real meaning and purpose for living.

As a parish, then, let us resolve afresh today to live as God’s wise image-bearing stewards, faithfully imitating our Lord Jesus Christ and relying confidently on his power to form us into the fully human beings he created us to be. And as Jesus does his healing and transformative work in and through us in the power of the Spirit, let us confidently, boldly, and joyfully proclaim to the world and each other, that we are wise enough to know we really do 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.