Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 8/16

          Think for a moment if you can, of the smartest person you know or know of.  OK.  Now think of the wisest person you know.  They aren’t necessarily the same person are they?  They might be, but not necessarily, because one can be very smart, but not particularly wise and it’s not that hard to recognize the difference.  With information being more accessible than it ever has been you might even say that it’s easier than ever to be smart, or at least to know a lot about something, but it doesn’t seem to be any easier to be wise, in fact it may be harder than ever.  Some would even suggest that we’re in a crisis of wisdom.

          Which brings us to the book of Proverbs; it’s part of what’s known as the Wisdom literature of the Bible but it’s a book that is neglected by the lectionary; I’m not sure how many readings there are from Proverbs in the three year cycle but it’s not many I know that.  Being neglected by the lectionary also makes Proverbs a book that is neglected by most preachers, including me, but you won’t find too many of us clamoring for more texts from Proverbs.  Until today I don’t think I’ve ever preached a sermon with Proverbs as a text.  Truth be told, if someone suggested Proverbs for a Bible study I wouldn’t be too excited about it either.  I’m not crazy about the book of Proverbs because after all, it’s mostly just a bunch of sayings, one liners.  There’s no story, no flow, nothing particularly sacred about it.

          Much of the book of Proverbs though, is about wisdom.  The first nine chapters in particular offer the contrasting ways of wisdom and folly.  So if we’re concerned about a crisis of wisdom, a shortage of people who are wise, maybe we should be paying more attention to Proverbs.  Is it just a bunch of quaint but antiquated sayings or does it have something to say to us?  Just what is this wisdom that Proverbs speaks of?

          In a number of places in Proverbs, but also in the Psalms is the statement, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  The fear of the Lord; we know that fear in this case doesn’t mean that we should be afraid, that’s not what this is about; we know that fear has more to do with respect and honor, things like that.  But I think there is an even better way to think about this fear of the Lord, especially in light of some of the books that have been written by those who call themselves atheists and think themselves to be wise, those who think God and religion are silly and that those of us who have anything to do with God and religion are even sillier. 

I found a quote though, that kind of addresses the difference between intelligence and wisdom.  It’s from Paul Tillich a well known 20th century theologian who can be pretty hard to make sense of sometimes, but not so much in this quote.  He says, “There cannot be wisdom without an encounter with the holy, with that which creates awe, and shakes the ordinary way of life and thought.  Without the experience of awe in the face of the mystery of life, there is no wisdom.”  Awe in the face of the mystery of life could be understood as fear of the Lord, without which, there is no wisdom. 

Tillich goes on to say, “Most removed from wisdom are those brilliant minds who have never encountered the holy, who are without awe and know nothing sacred, but who are able to conceal their ultimate emptiness by the brilliant performance of their intellect.”  In other words, there are people who are really smart, but who aren’t smart enough to allow themselves to entertain the possibility of that which can’t be engaged by intellect and reason, the possibility of that which can’t be “figured out.” 

          So perhaps the beginning of wisdom is awe of the Lord, awe of the holy other, awe of the possibilities that are a part of relationship with the Lord.  But the world, or never mind the world, most of our families are full of people who shut themselves off from the awe, the relationship, the possibilities and ultimately the wisdom that is available.  As I’ve said before, this doesn’t make them bad people, but something is missing in their lives; something important.

          It’s true that the book of Proverbs has no story line, it is mostly a bunch of one verse sayings, but there are some characters and some images that are developed more fully.  Most notable among the characters are Woman Wisdom and Woman Folly.  The writer uses these characters to illustrate the choices that are available to us in life, the different paths that are set before us.  It’s actually a little bit like Goofus and Gallant in Highlights magazine for children.  Anyone else remember…??

          Anyway, in Proverbs wisdom and folly are personified in these women and various images involving them are created.  In today’s verses the wise woman has a well kept house, built with a divine support structure. “Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars.”  Her servants work faithfully to do what she asks.  She is well known in the city and prepares a great feast for all who come to her home. “She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has set her table.  “Come eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed,” is the invitation she extends. 

          This image of wisdom is contrasted a few verses later with the foolish woman who is loud, who is ignorant, who knows nothing.  Her advice is, “stolen water is sweet and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”  But the image of wisdom is interesting in that it has nothing to do with being smart. 

It’s more like a visit to Grandma’s house, a grandma who welcomes her grandchildren with unconditional love and acceptance, who prepares food that is familiar and comforting, a grandma who knows just the right thing to say to make you think that you are the most important person in the world to her.  Dare I say it’s a grandma who has experienced awe in the face of the mystery of life?  She knows the path that leads to life and she walks in the way of insight.

          In John’s gospel this contrast between wisdom and folly gets played out differently.  We’re in the fourth week of the bread of life discourse and there’s still one week to go but in a couple of places there is confusion for some about all the eat my flesh, drink my blood talk from Jesus, confusion which of course is understandable.  Today we get the question, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat.” 

          Here and in other places in John we encounter characters who can’t get past a literal interpretation of what Jesus says.  From a literal perspective, eating flesh and drinking blood doesn’t make sense.  Being born again doesn’t make sense.  Water that you can drink and never be thirsty again doesn’t make sense.  Bread that you can eat so that you’ll never die doesn’t make sense.  It all seems like folly…unless you have experienced awe in the face of the mystery of life, unless you know the holy that creates awe and shakes the ordinary way of life and thought.  Basking in the awe of the holy, many things become possible.

          Today as part of the baptismal liturgy we will pray that  will receive, among other things, the spirit of wisdom and understanding and the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.  There’s a lot in that prayer as we think about the fear of the Lord being the beginning of wisdom and in many ways the prayer captures what baptism is all about as it is a call to live in the world but not to be limited by the world, not to be limited by that which is only ordinary. 

In Baptism, by the power of the Holy Spirit, ordinary water does extraordinary things.  In Christ, washed in that water we are called to be in awe of the mystery of life, to be in awe of the holy.  We are called to experience the awe, because that is the source, the beginning of real wisdom.
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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