WISDOM AND WONDER – PAUL DAKIN

WISDOM AND WONDER

A sermon on Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

First Baptist Church of Lynchburg

June 16, 2019

By Paul Dakin

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

 

This morning, we begin with a rather obscure song from one of Bob Dylan’s lesser known albums. The song is “Three Angels,” a track from Bob’s 1970 album New Morning. “Three Angels” is a good bit different than most of Dylan’s music. It is not so much a song, as it is a poem that Bob reads. (For those who are not particularly enamored of Bob’s singing voice, that may be a plus…I don’t know…) The poem is read over some musical accompaniment and a chorus of female background singers. The poem goes like this:

Three angels up above the street

Each one playing a horn

Dressed in green robes with wings that stick out

They’ve been there since Christmas morn

The wildest cat from Montana passes by in a flash

Then a lady in a bright orange dress

One U-Haul trailer, a truck with no wheels

The Tenth Avenue bus going west

The dogs and pigeons fly up and they flutter around

A man with a badge skips by

Three fellas crawlin’ on their way back to work

Nobody stops to ask why

The bakery truck stops outside of that fence

Where the angels stand high on their poles

The driver peeks out, trying to find one face

In this concrete world full of souls

The angels play on their horns all day

The whole earth in progression seems to pass by

But does anyone hear the music they play

Does anyone even try?[1]

 

Bob imagines that three cardboard angels—leftover decorations from Christmas—continue to announce the message of Christ’s birth and of “peace on earth, goodwill to men”—to passersby on the street below. But the folks on the sidewalk and the people in the street all ignore them as they continue to go on about their daily activities. They do not pay any attention to the angels. The life-giving message of Christmas and of the angels’ pleas go unheeded by people too busy to be bothered.

 

It seems to me that the opening part of today’s passage from Proverbs 8 pictures something similar to the scene that Dylan paints for us in the song “Three Angels.” In these verses, Wisdom is personified as a woman. The writer of this section of Proverbs, King Solomon, imagines Lady Wisdom going out into the streets and marketplace, calling out to people. Hear these poetic words from the opening verses of Proverbs 8:

 

Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gate in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.”

 

When I was younger, I used to read these verses from Proverbs about wisdom calling out to people in a skeptical light. (This is only one of several passages in Proverbs that uses this image.) And I used to think to myself that such language was idealistic—maybe even ridiculous. If Wisdom was truly calling out in the marketplace, then not many folks were listening.

 

But I do not think that is the point. The point is not to describe Wisdom’s futility in trying to get people to listen. I think that the point that the poet is making is that true wisdom is available to everyone—that is, anyone who is interested. Wisdom is not just for those who have gained knowledge. Wisdom is not just for those who have earned multiple degrees from universities or seminaries. It is available to everyone. It is available to those who have lots of money—and to those who have only a little. It is available to the social elite—and also to those on the bottom rungs of society’s ladder. It is available to the strong—and also to the weak—to the healthy—and to the infirm. It is available to conservatives and liberals. It is available to Republicans and to Democrats. It is available to the old—and to the young. Wisdom is available to anyone who truly seeks it.

 

And yet, all the evidence that I can observe points to the fact that people are mostly ignoring the calls of Lady Wisdom in our day and age. Wouldn’t you agree? The search for wisdom has been pushed aside in favor of careless speech and indifference for the well-being of others. Lives are lived in the name of an absolute freedom that assumes that we can do what we want, and have what we want. The only limits that we have are the limits of our money, power and influence—and all this without any check or restraint. It is believing the lie that we are autonomous…that we truly are the masters of our own fates…that we are indeed the captains of our own souls.

 

These are the guiding principles for the world in which we live. This disease of conceit infects every level of our society and can infect even the disciples of Jesus in insidious ways. But such thinking is not wisdom. It is foolishness, plain and simple—and foolishness is the antithesis of wisdom. In fact, such an attitude is not only foolishness, but in reality it is a practical atheism. It acts as if God does not exist because God is not a part of the picture. This arrogance believes that God through wisdom has little of value to teach us about life. But such is not the way of wisdom…

 

Thomas Aquinas was a 13th Century theologian and philosopher who is widely regarded as one of the greatest thinkers in the history of the Christian Church. In his Commentary of Metaphysics, Aquinas reaches back to the teachings of the ancients like Socrates and builds on them to consider the nature of true wisdom. And at one point, Aquinas teaches that it is wonder that is the beginning of wisdom.

 

Wonder involves knowing that you don’t know. Wonder means that you do not have all the answers. Wonder means that there are things in this world that defy comprehension—things that are simply not explainable by the workings of our minds and intellect. Wonder—which is the starting place for wisdom— is being humbled by something bigger than you are.

 

We see this very clearly in the passage from Psalm 8, the scripture that served as the Call to Worship earlier in the service. Who among us has not had the experience suggested in that psalm—the experience of looking up into the nighttime sky on a cloudless night…of gazing at the stars and coming face to face with the reality that we are but a small and insignificant part of a much larger created order? Hear these words again from the Psalm: “When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? For you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.”

 

The most brilliant scientific minds of our generation—and of generations in the past—have had the very same experience. And while they may have done their best to understand it all, they were hampered by their partial scientific knowledge and by the limitations of logic and reason. No one has been able to make much sense of our universe apart from the understanding of a Creator who fashioned it out of nothing…a God whose hands shaped the universe as he desired…In contemplating the world around us and the majesty of nature, it is wonder that is the beginning of wisdom. And it needs to be said: A lack of wonder in our life corresponds to a lack of wisdom…

 

I find it interesting that throughout the book of Proverbs—including this passage—wisdom is portrayed as a woman. In the language and images of a poet, Proverbs tells us that Lady Wisdom was right there at the beginning of creation. In fact, verse 22 says that Wisdom was the first thing that God created, predating anything else. Proverbs 8 says that Lady Wisdom was already there when God made the heavens and the earth. According to Proverbs, it was wisdom that guided God’s actions in Genesis 1 and 2…

 

Why is it that wisdom is portrayed as a woman? I am not sure, but I’ve got a hunch. Maybe it is because wisdom is not only a matter of the head, but that wisdom is also a matter of the heart. Albert Einstein, whom I imagine most of us would regard as a pretty smart guy, once remarked, “Any fool can know. The point is to understand…”

 

Knowledge itself does not make for wisdom. Acquiring and mastering facts does not make for wisdom. Information does not make for wisdom. Knowledge, facts and information are important—maybe no less important in our day and age than they have ever been. But the possession of knowledge, facts and information by themselves do not produce wisdom—in individuals or in societies. To really become wisdom, the use of knowledge, facts and information need to be transformed by love.

 

In 1 Corinthians 3:18-19, the Apostle Paul writes these words concerning the wisdom of God. He wrote, “Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a fool so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.”

 

And why should that be? Because Christ is the wisdom and power of God. In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul explains, “God chose the foolish things of the world and the despised things—the things that are not—to nullify the things that are…It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us the wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.”

 

Christ is the ultimate expression of God’s wisdom. And Christ is also the ultimate expression of God’s love. So in Jesus is gathered up all of who God is—power, knowledge, wisdom…and most of all love. That is how Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s wisdom. You want to know what true wisdom looks like? Then look at Jesus. He is the model. He is the pattern. He is the one who showed us the true nature of our lives and the true nature of the world in which we live. Jesus is the wisdom of God who shows us what the world is truly like…and how the world truly works. For in him, all of who God is was put on display for all of us to see…and to experience…and to emulate… For Jesus is the true wisdom of God…

*******

                More than one commentator has described the closing hymn this morning as one of the finest hymns ever written in the English language. The hymn is “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” and is found at #52 in the hymnbook. The words of this hymn are a close paraphrase of the first six verses of Psalm 90. Said to have been written by Moses, it is one of the oldest of all the psalms. Psalm 90 is a prayer and a meditation on the fleeting nature of life. Both the psalm and the hymn address some of life’s most important questions. Questions such as “Who is God and what is God like?” And “Who are we and what is our relationship to that God?”

 

Verse 12 of the psalm especially speaks eloquently to the subject of wisdom with a word for each one of us. The verse reads, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Jim Limburg, professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, gives us his paraphrase of verse 12. It seems to me that his paraphrase gets to the most important point of the psalm. It goes, “Lord, teach us to make each day count, to reflect on the fact that we must die, and so become wise.”[2]

 

“Lord, teach us to make each day count, to reflect on the fact that we must die, and so become wise.” This is the true heart of wisdom—wisdom that informs our lives within the knowledge of God’s love and grace…and that in the light of that knowledge, we resolve to not squander our limited amount of time on things that are not important.

 

“Lord, teach us to make each day count, to reflect on the fact that we must die, and so become wise.” May this be our prayer…may this be the rule by which we live…now and until we reach our eternal home.

 

To God alone be the glory! Amen.

[1] © 1970 by Big Sky Music; renewed 1998 by Big Sky Music. www.bobdylan.com/songs/three-angels (Accessed June 12, 2019)

[2] Quoted in www.workingpreacher.org/preachingaspx?commentary_id1393 (Accessed June 12, 2019)

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