For Such a Time as This

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We need to talk. These are strange times. These are confusing times. These are divisive times. We’re in the middle of a pestilence unlike anything we’ve seen for 100 years, when a pandemic took the life of a young boy that would have grown up to be my uncle. We’re in a recession with unemployment higher than it’s been since the Great Depression. There are people at my bank that are trying to figure out what to do if the interest rates go negative — where banks would have to charge corporate customers to park money at the bank. And we’ve seen racial injustice and worldwide protests and violence that I haven’t seen since I was a boy in 1967 as my family drove through Detroit, and we saw the smoke billow up over the rooftops.

People are arguing about all of this. They’re arguing about what’s true. They’re arguing about what’s next. They’re arguing about what’s just. They’re arguing online, in homes, at public protests, and in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, those arguments have come right here, right into the church. Consider that picture of President Trump holding up a Bible in front of a church near the White House a few weeks ago. Regardless of what you think of that event and all that led up to it, it shows that Christianity itself has been drawn into these political arguments in a very unusual way.

So, we followers of Christ face unique challenges today when we try to speak his words in these debates. For such a time as this, we need wisdom. And I want to talk to you about that today on why we need it and a little bit about how we can use it.

So, let’s take a look at those first seven verses of the book of Proverbs. Let’s read them one more time. These seven verses, by the way, they lay out the purpose for the book, though the first nine chapters of Proverbs are really introductory chapters. But these seven verses capture everything. If the book of Proverbs were printed out on its own, these seven verses would be the frontispiece right inside the cover.

“The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel: To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth — Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

The first reason we need wisdom today is that wisdom uncovers unseen connections. Wisdom really is all about connections. Look at these words: wisdom, instruction, understanding, insight, wise dealing, righteousness, justice, equity, prudence, knowledge, discretion, the ability to unravel a riddle. All of those are really different aspects of the same thing, different facets of the same jewel. But we tend to push things apart and put them each in their own category. We get that habit from the way the Greeks thought about things. Aristotle, for example, said that there were five ways to come to the truth, and he put each one in a separate box with very little overlap. There was knowledge, there was theoretical wisdom, there was practical wisdom. He had two different words for wisdom, two different concepts. Then there was art or craft or skill, and then intuition. He made them all separate. And we tend to do the same thing, but wisdom brings them all together and finds the connections between them.

For example, wisdom includes knowledge when you look in the Old Testament. In the book of Kings, where we find a description of Solomon’s wisdom, it lists things that we would call science. It says that he could describe all manner of animal and plant life from the cedar that grows in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall. We would call that plant and animal biology, botany, zoology. But for the Old Testament people, that was wisdom.

And it includes craft too, skill. In Exodus, when the book describes the building of the tabernacle, it says that craftswomen and craftsmen helped contribute their wisdom to the building of the tabernacle — their skill in working with fabric and metal and wood. Now, there are some scholars that say, “Well, okay, but see, wisdom in Hebrew started out as a practical thing because that’s early on there in the Bible. And then later on, it became more theoretical, more spiritual.” But no, it was spiritual and practical from the very start. The problem is, we tend to carve things up where wisdom brings them together.

Let me give you an example of this. Plato’s student, Aristotle, told a story about Thales. Thales is considered the first philosopher in Greece. And Aristotle said one night Thales was out walking, and he was looking up at the stars, and he fell right into a well. And there was a servant girl standing there, and she saw Thales, and she laughed at him. “You’re so busy looking at what’s up in the heavens you’re not paying attention to what’s at your feet.” And for Plato, that was a good thing. You see, because a philosopher may not be terribly practical, may be a little bit clumsy with people. He’s probably a bore at parties. But boy, when those big ideas were at stake, when he was talking about truth with a capital T, the philosopher breathes a different air. That’s the time when you need a guy like that. Those were two different things as far as Plato was concerned and often as far as we’re concerned.

But ask yourself, if a Hebrew wise man had been out walking that night, where would he have been looking? At the stars or at his feet? I kind of think he’d probably be looking at his feet. But here’s the key. That doesn’t mean he forgot about the stars, all the work of God in the stars. The  wise man can see the stars at his feet. Meaning, he can see the work of God in the smallest of things. Being practical doesn’t mean you’re not being spiritual, and being spiritual doesn’t mean you’re not being practical. Those two things go together.

So, what does that mean for us? Well, wisdom isn’t limited to being a bookish academic or a practical problem solver. Wisdom is both, and it’s for all of us. And everything you learn contributes to wisdom. You can gain wisdom through study, yes. And you can gain it through experience. And you can use material means. God will use material means to grant your request for wisdom. And also, as we live out the Word of God, we need to look for those connections that we may not have noticed. Those connections can be small, even trivial, like the pebbles at your feet. But that kind of nuance is at the heart of wisdom. There’s a connection — as we just learned in the series on work — there’s a connection between work and our spiritual lives, even though sometimes we want to put those in different boxes. There’s a connection between our religion and our politics, although sometimes that’s hard to discern. And there may be other connections that are really creating barriers that we don’t even recognize fully.

I once went to a church where the pastor said that he wanted to be able to look out at the congregation and see the community. In other words, he wanted the racial and ethnic makeup of the congregation to reflect the community around it. And that is a good and noble and biblical goal. But that church had a dress code. Some of it was implicit, some of it actually was explicit — men were supposed to be in coats and ties, women in skirts and dresses. And I remember I ran into a guy one time who had visited that church for a special occasion. He was a Christian, but he didn’t normally go there. And he said, “Boy, I walked in. I didn’t have a coat and tie on. I felt really out of place. I mean, I didn’t get the memo.” And it occurred to me, the way everyone dressed was connected to a barrier for this guy, and he was a Christian, white, middle-class male. Imagine the kind of barriers that that could have been for a minority or for someone who doesn’t necessarily fit that description. Now, I honestly can’t think of any similar kind of barrier here at North Hills. But you know what, there may be some, and we ought to take some time and think about it. So, wisdom helps uncover unseen connections.

But then wisdom is also important for us because wisdom keeps us on the right path. Proverbs talks a lot about staying on the right path. It tells us choose the path of justice, the path of peace, the path of life, and not the crooked path, the path of the wicked or the path to the grave. Staying on the right path is obviously a picture for making the right choice. And when we’re lured astray off of the right path, that’s what happens when we get deceived. In fact, in both Hebrew and Greek, the word we translate “deceive” has tied to it this idea of being led astray. You can see this vividly in Proverbs 7 where Folly, cast as an adulterous woman, tries to persuade a young man to leave his path and come with her. And you can see a lot of details there about the pitch that she makes to this young man. It’s worth reading if you have some time. It’s all summed up in verse 27 of chapter 7.

“With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him. All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter.”

In chapter 8 of Proverbs, another woman calls out. This time it’s Wisdom, and she makes a different set of appeals. She speaks of noble things. From her lips come what is right. There is nothing twisted or crooked in them. And her wisdom is better than all our desires. So, this young man has to choose between Wisdom and Folly, and to make that right choice he needs wisdom to recognize those false appeals.

Today we’re in exactly the same place as that young man. We have all kinds of people making appeals to us. Our media-saturated culture means that we’re bombarded with appeals that our grandparents couldn’t imagine. In fact, there are entire industries built simply to get our attention. Some of the appeals are trivial — clicking on a “like” or watching a show on Netflix or trying a mattress free for one hundred days. Some are a lot more serious — how to spend your money, how to cast your vote, how to look at the world. Not all of these choices are major, but all of them are subtle brush strokes on the image of God that we paint with our lives.

Remember when we studied Revelation a few months ago. We said that we needed to follow the Lamb wherever he goes. But staying on the Lamb’s path is especially hard in these times when Satan himself is a deceiver of the whole world. Jesus told his disciples that in the last times,

“false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”

We, right here, can be deceived. Even us. And if we think that all we need to do to avoid the deceit is follow an obvious checklist. You know, “Don’t worship the great dragon.” Check. Got it. But if you think that’s all there is, you’re missing the point. No deceiver worth his salt is going to use appeals that are that obvious. The most dangerous deceit is more subtle. We can be led astray. That’s why in the New Testament, Paul and James and John over and over again tell us, “Don’t be deceived, my brothers and sisters. Don’t let yourself be fooled. Don’t be swindled.” The Scriptures and the order that God has created have a lot to say about how to spot these swindles. But right now, I want to leave you with the first thing you should remember, and it’s right here at the end of this passage. “The fear of the Lord,” in verse 7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Later on in chapter 9, Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” And Ecclesiastes and Job and the Psalms and other books make the same point. The beginning of wisdom means the first principle, lesson #1, the most important thing. And having fear as a launching pad for wisdom is important in many ways. When it comes to staying on the right path and recognizing these deceitful appeals, the fear of the Lord is important because it keeps us humble. It keeps us in the right relationship with a sovereign God. It reminds us that no matter how much we may know; we don’t know it all. No matter how skilled we may become, we can’t craft the perfect solution to every problem. And before we wander off down a path that we think is a sure thing, we need to remember that a limitless God has put limits on what you and I can see. Sometimes it’s better to pause, to consider, to look more closely. This is why one definition of wisdom says that wisdom is the knowledge of ignorance. Another author said, “All wisdom boils down to recognizing vanity.” This kind of humility can help us spot empty and deceitful appeals and stay on the right path.

Next, we need wisdom because wisdom guides and girds the gospel. Wisdom is critical to the gospel ministry, but I’m afraid we often neglect it, we minimize it. I mean, we know we need wisdom. Everybody does. But it’s just kind of there in the ether, kind of a very general thing. We often think that when you when you’re talking about spreading the gospel, what you need most is a bold, prophetic proclamation. You need to be a voice crying in the wilderness, calling down fire and offering hope and salvation. Wisdom sounds a little too soft, too hesitant, too mild to really be a part of spreading the gospel that way. We think the gospel requires boldness, strength, and immediate forceful action. And there is certainly a place for that. We think, “Well, Jesus was a prophet, and we’re supposed to be like Jesus; so, the most important thing for us is to act like that bold prophet.”

Well, we are supposed to be like Jesus, but sometimes I think our picture of Jesus is too small. One way to see that, think about the offices of Christ. You’ve probably heard of them, maybe not put in exactly that way. We say that Christ was prophet, priest, and king. Now, the question is, where do you find that in Scripture? You can certainly find each one of those in Scripture, don’t get me wrong. But if you look for them all together like that — Jesus as prophet, priest, and king — you won’t find it, because that particular way of looking at things was put together by Eusebius in the 3rd century to help people understand what Jesus was. But I think he missed something when he put that together. A more recent author says, “To the traditional reckoning of prophet, priest, and king, we can justifiably add the office of wise man. Jesus is not only the revealer of the wisdom of God, he is also the truly wise man. As such he imparts wisdom and instructs us in the way we gain wisdom and learn to deal with life in this world.”

So, Jesus was prophet, priest, king, and wise man. The Lord, by wisdom, founded the earth. And the angels and saints praise him for his wisdom in the final visions of Revelation. If we want to be like Jesus, we must seek to be wise. In fact, God’s people have a special role in showing God’s wisdom. Paul said that “through the church” … That’s us. That’s you and me. “Through the church the manifold wisdom of God [will] be made known to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places.” That may sound lofty, like the stars in the heavens. But in Matthew 10 when Jesus sent his disciples out on a preaching tour, he brought those stars right down to our dusty feet. He told his disciples, Matthew 10:16,

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Here, Jesus plainly tells us that spreading the gospel requires wisdom. It’s more than just prophetic boldness. And the word he uses here for wisdom emphasizes the practical side of wisdom. Remember, we said Aristotle had two different words for wisdom. This is the practical one. This word comes down to us in English as prudence. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, this is the word that describes the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The serpent was more crafty or subtle or shrewd/cunning than any beast of the field.

Now, to get a picture of this kind of wisdom, think about the last time you helped a friend move. And as you can imagine, it’s always you that ends up getting stuck trying to move the couch through the door. So, you and this other guy stand there trying to figure out how to get this huge heavy couch through that little door. And it’s hot, and you’re tired, and you want to call it a day, but you’ve got to get the couch out. What are your options? A couple of choices, two or three that you have. You could grab an ax and chop off part of the couch. You’d get it outside that way. Or you can take that same ax and chop off part of the doorway and get it out that way. Now, those obviously aren’t the best choices. But you know what, you could also stop for a minute and take a look at the couch, take a look at the door. And you may realize that if you lift the couch a certain way and turn it just so, and the friend on the other side moves to the right place at the right time, you can get that couch out that door. That’s this kind of wisdom. That’s shrewdness. That’s subtlety.

One author defines wisdom as “the art of steering,” just like you steer that couch out the door. Another called it the “skillful care of what is fitting.” The gospel includes wisdom because Jesus was a wise man. And those of us who speak his words and do his work need wisdom. We need it especially in this time. We need subtlety, discretion, understanding, problem-solving. Without it our efforts may be ill-timed and ill-suited to the people who need them most. Without wisdom, we may end up swinging an ax where we really need a careful word. We need this art of steering, the skillful care of what is fitting, this knowledge of ignorance to guide and gird our gospel ministry.

And then finally, we need wisdom because wisdom connects the mundane to the majestic. This is a harsh and hopeless time that drags its ragged edge through the body of Christ itself. We need a balm — something beautiful, something glorious. But it’s not easy to see glory. First of all, a lot of us don’t even know what glory is. Here at North Hills, we like to use Ben Arnold’s definition of glory: something that makes you say, “Wow!” And that’s a good definition. But I tell you, I get stuck with that definition, because I don’t always really know what’s wow-worthy. I mean, there are a lot of things that God says are wow-worthy, that kind of just make me say, “Meh.” Things like a cup of water given in his name. Things like a still small voice. Things like your feet. Yeah, your feet. The feet of those that preach the gospel of peace. Things like mourning, meekness, being hungry and thirsty for righteousness. It’s hard for me sometimes to recognize what’s glorious. Maybe sometimes it’s hard for you, too. Maybe it’s hard because we’re “narrow and flat-souled,” as Alan Bloom said in a book a few years ago. He went on to say that his generation, his cousins, though they’re all MDs or PhDs, have little sense of real learning. He said,

“When they talk about heaven and earth, the relations between men and women, parents and children, the human condition, I hear nothing but cliches, superficialities, the material of satire. I am not saying anything so trite as that life is fuller when people have myths to live by. I mean rather that a life based on the Book [book with a capital B] is closer to the truth, that it provides the material for deeper research in and access to the real nature of things. Without the great revelations, epics and philosophies as part of our natural vision, there is nothing to see out there, and eventually little left inside.”

Little left inside. Remember what Peter said just a few weeks ago and when he was starting the series on work. He said that we treat people like they’re donuts, nothing in the middle. And often our culture leaves people with little left inside. Os Guinness another author, put it a slightly different way. He said that our world has become a “world without windows” to the spiritual realm, whose overwhelmingly secular perspective pushes faith to the margins and shuts out any reality we can’t perceive with our five senses. So, how can we show someone the glory of God when they’re shut up behind their screens, angered by injustice, and made hopeless by a senseless world of the senses? Richard Weaver, a philosopher that I have some quibbles with on some things, did offer a clue.

“The first step [he said] will be to give the common man a [view of the world that is] completely different from that which he has [gained] out of his random knowledge of science.”

And who can do that?

“The task falls upon poets, artists, intellectuals, upon workers in the timeless. We must again hearken to these unacknowledged legislators of mankind. They alone can impress us with some splendid image of man in a morally designed world, ennobled by the conception of the transcendent.”

Workers in the timeless. In such a time as this, we need to act as workers in the timeless. Go back to the idea of wisdom as craft, wisdom as skill, wisdom as art. We need wisdom in such a time as this because we need to craft vibrant and varied visions of God’s glory and grace. And I’m afraid that we’re not making the most of this wisdom. Often the best that we can muster instead of remembering the blessedness of poverty and persecution is little more than a slogan on a t-shirt. We offer what Bloom heard from his cousins, “cliches, superficialities, the material of satire” that at once lull us to sleep and amuse the world. But we can do more. In this world, without windows, we can throw open the shutters to the beams of hope and glory.

There are many examples that I can give you of the way wisdom works. In the Scriptures, we find them all over the place. Those craftsmen and craftswomen who helped build the tabernacle. Or the Hebrew midwives who by wisdom kept the firstborn — not just the firstborn, excuse me — by wisdom kept the male children alive despite Pharoah’s order. Or Joseph, who instituted a resource management plan for Egypt and saved not only Egypt and the lands around them, but his own people. Or Daniel, who interpreted the king’s dreams and also helped administer the city of Babylon. Or Esther, who used wisdom and didn’t come barging into the king’s throne room, but who used careful measures to save her people. She was called into the kingdom “for such a time as this,” Mordecai told her. And of course, Jesus, who came at the fullness of time, sacrificed himself, taught us what wisdom is really like.

But I want to spend a little bit of time with one more example of a friend of mine named Dan. Dan is a guy I met in college. He finished up undergrad, went to grad school, went to work for a bank, and he rose very high up in the bank. And they finally laid him off several months ago. He had been trying to figure out what he’s going to do next. And so he told me not long ago that, “I think I found it.” He told me the story of how when he was in college, he worked one summer as a counselor at a Christian camp and someone put a piece of paper in his mailbox at camp that had just three scripture references on it. Nothing else — no name, no purpose. And one of those scripture references captured Dan’s imagination. It was Isaiah 58. Peter preached on this last Easter. There’s a lot there in that text. And Dan told me, “Have you read Isaiah 58 lately?” He said, “Go back and read it because what I want to do, it’s all right there in Isaiah 58.” I thought, “Well, okay, I’ll take a look.” When I read through it, I saw what got Dan’s attention. Verse 3, the people say to God,

“Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it? [And the Lord responds.] Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. You oppress all of your workers.”

That’s what got Dan’s attention. And so, what he’s doing is he’s developing a comprehensive framework that will help businesses be more efficient and effective. And when you read through it, you don’t see Isaiah 58 plainly mentioned everywhere. But really what he’s doing is he’s taking these big ideas of justice and equity, and he’s connecting them right down to our feet in things like HR plans and comp policies. And I have to believe that this is the kind of thing that Dan’s biblical namesake, Daniel, would have done in Babylon or Joseph would have done in Egypt.

So, how about you? In these strange, confusing and divisive times, what glorious connections can you uncover? What choices do you have? What stars will you find at your feet?

“Wisdom is the principal thing. Therefore, get wisdom. And with all your getting, get understanding.”

Let’s pray. Lord, we are a feeble people. We are so easily pulled off course. Strengthen us. Give us wisdom. Help us to make careful choices. Help us to show hope to a hopeless world. Use us, Lord. Show your glory here. In Jesus’ name, amen.

 

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