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October 19th, 2015

Let Wisdom find you.

Proverbs 8:1-13

Who needs wisdom

Wisdom. It’s an important subject. It’s a big subject – too big even for eight sermons from the book of Proverbs. In the ancient world it was an international subject. People the world over sought wisdom the way we seek healthcare and longevity today.

Wisdom is also a practical subject. Just this week I’ve felt the need for wisdom in how to spend my time. I’ve had two Fridays in a row (my usual day off) with church-related responsibilities. What can I cut out of my usual routine to take some down time? This past week I also had some open time on my work schedule. Whom should I pursue? Church leaders? Visitors? Those who are sick? Families that are struggling?  

We all need wisdom all the time. We need wisdom for boundaries with unhealthy people. We need wisdom on whether to pursue friendships or romantic relationships. We need wisdom for raising children or relating to adult children. We need wisdom on when to tackle a problem ourselves and when to ask for help. We need wisdom for decisions to make about money and careers and education and cars and hobbies.

We tend to think of wisdom as the Holy Grail. Like Harrison Ford, we’re going to have to make an all-out commitment, renounce comfort, and risk danger on a lifelong quest for a great but elusive reward. While it’s true that in many places the Bible speaks of wisdom as something we must seek and ask God for, Curt Thompson reminded us last week that wisdom is not a what but a who. He said, “Wisdom is not about finding a thing, but finding a Person who is looking for me.” That was a perfect setup for Proverbs 8.

The benefit of the doubt

As I prepared for this sermon this week, I asked several Bible study groups to look at a list of occupations and tell me which ones get the benefit of the doubt. The most consistent no’s: politicians, salespersons, lawyers. Some had mixed results: doctors, civil servants, accountants. The most consistent yeses: clergy, teachers, nurses – who incidentally top the Gallup poll year after year for “most trusted profession.”

In my Thursday morning men’s Bible study, I honed my question a bit. We placed all those occupations in a column (along with some others) and first wrote “yes” or “no” to the question, “If this is all you know about a person, does that person have your trust?” Then we asked another question: “Does this person pursue you (or the other way around)?” Finally I added a third question: “Is this profession working for you (or do they only want you for their own gain)?”

The only profession with a Yes-Yes-Yes was Teacher. Although I suppose every profession includes bad apples, in general we think of teachers as those who are definitely not in it for financial gain or for anything else they can get out of it. Teachers teach not for themselves but for their students. They know their students, they pursue their students, they want their students to succeed, they give personal attention to the students based on what their background is, what their capabilities are, and what their goals are. Teachers don’t learn for you and they don’t put up with laziness or passivity, but they are for you and they pursue you. So you trust them.

Proverbs 8 asks what it would be like for you and me if at least for a little while we thought of wisdom not as a thing and not even as a generic person, but as a Teacher. What if we personified Wisdom as your favorite teacher from elementary school?

How wisdom acts

She’s pursuing you (1-5). I find this first parallel between Wisdom personified and a teacher so encouraging. In vv. 1 and 4, Wisdom is calling out, even raising her voice. (Not that any teacher would ever do that, right?) In vv. 2 and 3, she positions herself at a key intersection and at the city gate. In ancient cities, these were the parallels to advertising during the Super Bowl. The question is, “Where can I find a captive audience?”

A teacher has a captive audience, and she knows it. She thinks, “These students can’t avoid me; whether they like what I say or not, whether they like me or not, they will be with me 180 days this year. But I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t care what happens to them, if I didn’t want them to succeed.”

Verse 5 reads in the NIV, “You who are simple, gain prudence; you who are foolish, set your hearts on it.” Early in the week I liked The Message paraphrase of that verse: “Listen, you idiots – learn good sense! You blockheads – shape up.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized verse 5 is not about insulting the stupid; it’s about pursuing the vulnerable. Early in the year teachers know there are kids who don’t have an equal chance to succeed. Maybe their parents never read to them. Maybe they don’t have an iPad to Google stuff; maybe malnutrition or even abuse is part of what they go home to every night. This is where I love that Wisdom is a Lady. Her nurturing instinct steps in to give that child special grace and attention.

Don’t you love the image of wisdom seeing you that way? That relationship I’m not sure how to manage, that fork in the road I don’t know whether to take, that financial decision that looms in front of me… in my time of need I don’t need to add more pressure on myself to pursue wisdom. I need the security of knowing wisdom is pursuing me.

She wants you to pay attention (6-9). The fact that wisdom is pursuing me does not mean nothing is required of me. What teacher would say, “I want you to succeed, but you don’t have to do any homework and you can sleep in my class if you want”?

Wisdom instead says, “Listen, for I have trustworthy things to say” (6). Wisdom speaks what is “true” (6), just (8), and right (9), but listening requires attention.

At several points in this sermon, you will hear echoes of last week’s sermon and conference, as well as the writings of Curt Thompson. This idea of paying attention is another one. Curt’s first book, The Anatomy of the Soul, includes a whole chapter on the neuroscience of paying attention. He distinguishes between involuntary attention (“Squirrel!”) and voluntary attention, of which humans are uniquely capable.

Bright colors and rapid movements and loud noises grab our attention whether we want them to or not, but that kind of attention happens in the same part of your brain that you share with your dog. In the human part of your brain, you can focus your attention. More importantly, Curt says, you can pay attention to what you’re paying attention to.

Wisdom is looking for us, but we have to pay attention. Who around me will offer wise counsel? What has already been written on this subject? Where is the answer already plain in Scripture? What are the signs that God is moving in a certain direction?

She’s worth what you have to give up (10-11). In verses 10-11, Wisdom says to her students, “Think about what you think is most valuable in life – making money, having a nice house, pursuing stuff. What I have is so much better.”

In a world of so many choices of what to do with our time, today’s teachers have to remind their students that reading is better than watching TV, studying holds more value than video games, serving others will make a difference for them and for you long after those snap chats disappear from your phone.

Wisdom is saying the same thing to you and me as grownups. “Choose my instruction instead of silver….” You think that making more money and gaining more power and having more pleasure is what will make your life meaningful. It isn’t. What will matter is knowing and being known by the God who is looking for you, by your spouse, by your children, by those intimate relationships that will endure.

She never promised “simple” or “easy” (12-13). Verse 12 includes a couple of words that are common in Proverbs – wisdom and knowledge, and a couple that are a bit different – prudence and discretion. Knowledge is the basic building block – it’s the accumulation of truth and facts. Wisdom applies that knowledge to life – it’s skill in relationships and situations.

Prudence and discretion are both words that in other contexts can be positive or negative. They both have an element of scheming or mischief or trickery, which we all know can be used for good intent or evil. “I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence” (12).

Verse 13 also gets a little tricky for some people. “To fear the Lord is to hate evil,” which includes pride, arrogance, evil behavior, and perverse speech.

Wait! What’s all this about fear and hate in a passage on Wisdom as my nurturing and kind elementary school teacher? Actually, “the fear of the Lord,” a phrase often misunderstood, is perfectly illustrated by that third grade teacher. She pursues you, she wants the best for you, she will work tirelessly to help you succeed, but precisely because of all that, she commands the right kind of fear if you’re not paying attention or if you show disrespect.

As for the “hate” part, the point here is not to hate evil people; Jesus said to love your enemies. But do hate evil and arrogance and sin. It will destroy you. So the pursuit of wisdom is about holiness as well. Don’t pretend you’re seeking God’s kind of wisdom if at the same time you’re engaged in all sorts of things you know he despises.

I kept thinking this week of a teacher who has that one anxious kid in her class who struggles with hyperactivity and attention deficit, who is constantly shamed by his parents who don’t understand, and who never tests well. She can almost literally feel his churning stomach in her soul the closer they get to End of Grade tests. What’s her message to him? “Go get on the Internet and learn everything you can about everything… don’t rest for a moment… if you don’t get this right your whole life is going to be ruined… and I will look bad… don’t blow this for either one of us”?

No, not at all.[1] Instead she tells him, “You can do this. I know you can. I’m for you. Just pay attention to what we’ve said in class. When your mind wanders, bring it back. Never forget that I’m for you. Nobody wants you to succeed more than I do. And whatever happens, I’ll never stop believing in you.” What if we saw Wisdom that way?

In summary, then, in those times of your life when you most need wisdom and you’re searching for it, let go of the heavy load of having to drum up enough courage and perseverance to get it all right yourself with greater personal effort. Let Wisdom find you.

Preview of the gospel

Is it just me, or this the essence of the Gospel? Replace the word “Wisdom” with “Christ” in this chapter. Hear him saying, “Stop trying so hard to be perfect or look perfect. Stop trying to be good enough. Let me be your goodness. I died for your sin, and when you trust in me, my goodness is more than enough for you. Just trust in me. I will never abandon you. I’m for you, and I’ve come into the world to look for you.”

Since the earliest Christian centuries, Christians have seen Jesus all over Proverbs 8. Toward the end of the chapter, Wisdom is presented as being with God in the beginning and being his co-Creator of the world. That sounds a lot like various phrases in the New Testament that refer directly to Jesus – “In the beginning was the Word… The Word was with God in the beginning…. Without him nothing was made that has been made.”[2] “Christ Jesus… has become for us wisdom from God.”[3]

There has often been debate about whether this chapter is an Old Testament prediction of Christ – a Messianic text. I will simply say that I believe it’s a preview of Christ, not a prediction. Proverbs 8 is simply a beautiful, extended metaphor – a personification of wisdom so that we can feel this relief because instead of a something we have to find, it’s a someone who’s finding us.

But wisdom in the end is still a thing. Beyond the metaphor wisdom has no personality, no will, no ability to find us. Jesus Christ, however, is a Person – a real Someone who is coequal and coeternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit but has come to share our humanity so that we can see what God looks like, what God says, how God acts toward miserable creatures like us trapped in the immediate with our problems.

What does God in Jesus Christ do? He shows up. He suffers for us and with us. He pursues us – not out of resentment or for punishment, but so that he can love us to himself. He was there in the beginning. He showed off his power and wisdom in the creation which we still enjoy. And he will never stop pursuing us. Ever. Amen.

 

[1] In my live sermons, I interviewed two elementary school teachers without advance warning. When I asked Darlene Brown at 8:30 what she would say to an anxious student the day before EOGs, she said, “Whatever happens, this test does not define who you are.” At 11:00 Traditional service, Lisa Corneliussen answered, “We have reviewed everything you need to know.” In both cases, their instinctive, on-the-spot answers offered the kind of reassurance Wisdom speaks in Proverbs 8.

[2] John 1:1-3, also Colossians 1:15-16 and Hebrews 1:2-3.

[3] 1 Corinthians 1:30, also 1:24.

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