Sunday, July 24, 2016

Divine Wisdom—Human Wisdom

Our summer series focusses on some of the attributes of God and then asks how we show that quality in our own lives. According to Genesis 1, we image God. That is, we look like God, and we represent God in daily life in our world. This morning we look at God’s wisdom, and then seek God’s wisdom in our own lives. God’s Wisdom is a tricky subject to consider. We can imitate God’s love, and God’s commitment to justice and mercy. We can act like God as God’s representatives in this world in many ways. But God is the source of wisdom, and we cannot pretend to be like God in our wisdom. So how do we image the Wisdom of God?

We consider four separate passages of Scripture in an effort to move through the topic. The two OT passages state that God’s wisdom is beyond our understanding, but adds that we are to pursue wisdom anyway. The two NT passages show us what “wisdom” looked like in Paul’s ministry, which is the image of the cross. Given the constraints of time, I note only a small part of what each passage has to say, and then bring them together to ask what they say to us today.

Isaiah 40: 12-31
Isaiah 40 begins with the promise of restoration from exile. One can imagine people starting to ask questions. “Why did we have to go into exile?” “What was God doing all this time?” We also live in a world wracked by terrible tragedies that we cannot hope to understand. Perhaps like Job we wish we could call God to account for all the tragedies we see round us—from the truck driven into bystanders in Nice, France to personal losses and hurts that we have experienced.

Isaiah speaks to us: “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance? Who can fathom the Spirit of the LORD, or instruct the LORD as his counsellor? Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding?” Verse 28 puts it: “There is no searching of his understanding.”

Isaiah ridicules the worship of idols (verses 18-20). The way he begins this section is striking: “With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?” Our summer series reminds us that we are the images of God. The image of God tells us two things: We are made in God’s likeness; and we represent God. This fact—that we are God’s images—clashes with the clear statement that we cannot understand God or God’s purposes in this world. It raises a basic question: How can we show the wisdom of God in our lives when we cannot grasp God’s wisdom? To get at the answer, consider this gap between us and God.

God is the Creator. Like the writer of a book, God is the author of our story. For us to comprehend God is as impossible as for the character in a book to understand the author of the book. The only way that a character could know the author is if the author puts such knowledge into the heart and mind of that character. Similarly, we cannot know God in and of ourselves. We can only know God through God’s self-revelation (which happens in the person of Jesus Christ).

Isaiah reminds us that we cannot understand the mind and purpose of our Creator. The book of Job makes a similar point. Job calls God to account, and God’s reply (Job 38) is essentially: “Where were you when I created the moon and the stars and the earth and all that is in it?” Job recognizes his folly in trying to comprehend God and repents in dust and ashes (Job 42).

So we cannot comprehend God, or God’s purposes, or God’s wisdom. Nevertheless we are God’s images; we are those who are supposed to show God’s wisdom to people in a confused and chaotic world.

Proverbs 4: 1-9
The book of Proverbs is part of what we call “wisdom literature” in the Old Testament. The book as a whole collects Proverbs from various areas of life and gives a picture of what it means to live wisely. Many of the proverbs are closely tied to the cultural setting of the people and may not apply in our setting, but the whole building of wisdom is based on the first nine chapters, which celebrate God’s Wisdom.

I want to note two points. The first is statement repeated often in Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.” Here is the first step in dealing with the problem of how to be images of God’s wisdom: Fear the Lord. We do not need to be afraid of God, but we hold God in awe and reverence. We live with the awareness that all of life is in God’s hands. This idea is behind two verses people often give as their life verses (Proverbs 3: 5-6): “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your paths.” The second point is given in the verses we read from chapter 4: “The beginning of wisdom is this: get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” It may be true that we cannot comprehend God and that the wisdom of God is beyond our understanding, yet we are to pursue it. We are to give our lives to God’s Wisdom.
A side note: One commentator observes that this means we follow wisdom, the pattern or order of God’s creation. That idea makes sense to me, and leads (via 1 Corinthians 1) to the same conclusion as I come to below. My one hesitation about using this language is that it can lead to the way some have put it; “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” God does indeed have plans for our lives, but I resist the idea of a blue print so that each choice has one and only one right answer and wisdom consists of finding it.

In Proverbs 1 to 9 Wisdom is personified as a woman who is in contrast with Folly. Wisdom in Jewish thinking came to be seen as a description of God. Some commentators suggest that this view of Wisdom is behind the way that John 1 speaks of the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” If this is correct—and I think it is—then “Get Wisdom” becomes “Follow Jesus!” John’s Gospel makes it clear that Jesus’ death and resurrection prepare the way for the Holy Spirit. I do not think we stretch the connection too far to render “Get Wisdom” as “Be filled with the Spirit.”
Another side note: This personification of Wisdom (Sophia) as a woman, who then becomes the lens through which we read about God the Word (Logos) is a useful corrective to our masculine imagery for God. God is fully personal (not of course, corporeal), but unbound by our gender limitations.

1 Corinthians 1: 18-2: 5
To build on these ideas we turn to 1 Corinthians. This is the first passage I thought of when I was assigned “the Wisdom of God.” God’s Wisdom is seen most clearly in the crucified Christ.
Note that Paul does not refer to the crucified and risen Christ, but simply to the cross. In 1 Corinthians 15 he expands on the resurrection, but here he begins with the cross alone.
The cross looks like weakness to the Jews and appears foolish to the Greeks, but, God’s weakness is stronger than human power, and God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. So, Paul says, his whole life and message can be summarized as “Jesus Christ and him crucified”. This summary echoes the words of Jesus, “Those who would be my disciples must take up their cross and follow me.” In Galatians 1 Paul says much the same thing, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, for Christ lives within me.” So then, to pursue wisdom means to lift up the cross and follow Jesus.

What does it mean to know the crucified Christ? What does it mean to take up our crosses and follow Jesus? Jesus went to his death on the cross for the salvation of the world. We are not able to save anyone; God’s saving work on the cross is Christ’s alone. Yet we still carry our cross and follow Christ. What can that mean? Jesus not only died to save the world, but he also received the violence of the world around him into himself, returning only love. I think that is what is going on in Paul’s words here:
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

Christ is God’s love in action, and we are to be “God’s love in action.” What does this look like? The Sermon on the Mount shows us what this active love looks like in our lives.  E. Stanley Jones wrote a book called The Christ on the Mount. In it, he writes this:
Jesus is not teaching passive resistance, but an active resistance on a higher level. The account does not say, “If a man smite you on one cheek, let him smite the other also,” but it does say, “Turn to him the other also.” It is this audacious offensive of love that forces the man to go further and thus to break down. He tries to break your head, and you, as a Christian, try to break his heart. In turning the other cheek you wrest the offensive from him and assume moral charge of the situation. You choose your own battleground, and your own weapons, you refuse his and compel him to stand on ground with which he is not familiar and to face weapons he does not know how to face. If a man compel you to go with him one mile, you are his slave; but if you voluntarily go with him two, then you rise from your slavery, confer a bounty on him and thus become his master. If he sues you at law and takes away your coat, you are his servant, but if you confer on him your cloak also, you assume the mastery by your own moral daring.

Allowing a man to smite you on one cheek, and letting him have the coat, and submitting to him when he compels you to go one mile does little or no good. The fact is that it does harm to the man who does it and to the man who submits to it. It is the other cheek, the cloak also and the second mile that do the trick. It is this plus that turns the scale. The one cheek, the coat and the one mile this is passive resistance; but turning the other cheek, giving the cloak also and going the second mile this is an active resistance on the plane of unquenchable good will. Passive resistance may reveal nothing but weakness; this active resistance of love reveals nothing but strength. (Abingdon Press, 1931: pp. 172-173)

You see the point. To embrace Christ’s crucifixion in our own lives means to live with Christ’s love flowing through us. If we take this love to mean that we do not resist evil, but passively accept whatever happens, we end up bitter and frustrated. Such negative silence in the presence of oppression leads to the kind of passive-aggressive actions we know all too well. Instead of such passivity, God calls us to respond to the evil around us with active non-violent love. This is hard to do consistently, and it appears foolish to the world around, which worships violence and human strength. But this is the wisdom and power of God.

In the Canadian Mennonite (May 9, 2016, p. 23) there is a story about Tulio Pedraza, who lived in Colombia. When Mennonite missionaries went to Colombia in 1949, Tulio and his wife, Sofia, were among their first converts. Tulio was a coffin-maker in the small town of Anolaima. Because of political and religious unrest in the country, the local Catholic priest mounted a campaign to drive Tulio out of business. He brought in a coffin-maker from another town to replace him. After some time, Tulio lost his business and had to survive with whatever small work he could get. Tulio’s response was to share his knowledge with the new coffin-maker and to sell him his own tools so that his business could succeed. Tulio refused to respond in bitterness to the continuing persecution, which targeted his children and threatened his life, but responded only in love. The article ends with these words:
He died peacefully in 1964. The rival carpenter who had been brought in to destroy the Pedraza business donated a coffin for his burial. Even though the funeral was a Mennonite service, the coffin maker attended, risking his own reputation in the community to honour a man who had shown him such unusual love, born from a deep faith.

This is the wisdom and power of God, to respond in humility and active love when others attack us. Human wisdom seeks to defend itself. Divine wisdom (which looks foolish) acts in love.

Philippians 2: 1-11
Earlier I suggested that “Get Wisdom” may mean “Be filled with the Spirit”. Philippians 2 makes explicit the link between the cross and the Spirit, which supports the connection between God’s Wisdom and being filled with the Holy Spirit. Paul begins the chapter with an appeal to the Philippians’ previous experience of the Holy Spirit, which produced encouragement, love, tenderness, and compassion. On the basis of this experience Paul urges them to greater unity, shown especially in the way that they care for each other: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Here is the key to imaging the wisdom of God. Human wisdom says, “Look out for number one.” Human wisdom says, “Take care of yourself first.” When the airlines give us their instructions as we get ready to fly, they say,
In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. … If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your own mask first, and then assist the other person.
This is good advice in an airplane: Take care of yourself first. But God’s wisdom points in another direction: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Again we have the question: What does this actually look like? In the August edition of a magazine called First Things Matthew Schmitz wrote about “Donald Trump: Man of Faith”. (Note that I am talking now only about Trump’s theology. Who one should vote for if one is an American is another question.) Trump is a Presbyterian who grew up under the preaching of Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking. Here is what Schmitz says:
Peale promised his readers ‘constant energy’ if they thought positively. Optimistic thoughts opened one up to a vital force coming directly from God. Negative thoughts, especially a tendency to dwell on one’s faults, could interfere with the divine charge. He warned those with active consciences that ‘the quantity of vital force required to give the personality relief from either guilt or fear’ was so great that it left ‘only a fraction of energy’ for going about one’s tasks. … For Peale, ‘attitudes are more important than facts.’ The man who displays ‘a confident and optimistic thought pattern can modify or overcome the fact altogether.’

You can see many of these ideas in the way that Trump has campaigned, but Schmitz makes a more important point:
At a campaign event in Iowa, Trump shocked the audience by saying that he had never asked God for forgiveness. All his other disturbing statements—his attacks on every vulnerable group—are made intelligible by this one. The self-sufficient faith Trump absorbed from Peale has no place for human weakness. Human frailty, dependency, and sinfulness cannot be acknowledged; they must be overcome. This opens up the possibility of great cruelty toward those who cannot wish themselves into being winners. A man who need not ask forgiveness need never forgive others. He does not realize his own weakness, and so he mocks and reviles every sign of weakness in his fellow men.
(I must add that Trump is only exceptional in the clarity with which he lives this theology. It is in fact the way that many politicians on both sides of the political spectrum think and act.)

Paul tells us that reliance on human strength makes us unable to receive God’s strength, and reliance on human wisdom makes us unable to receive God’s wisdom. The centre of human wisdom is to place yourself at the centre of your life. The centre of God’s wisdom is to place God at the centre of your life, which means in practical terms taking care of each other’s interests before our own.

I like ending sermons with an illustration or application that makes the whole sermon clear. I can’t do that this morning—I do not have enough wisdom. Instead, I ask each one of us here this morning to work out how we can show God’s wisdom—loving God, following Christ, caring for each other. We are experiencing challenging times as a country, as a community, as a congregation. We need God’s wisdom to respond to all around us with the kind of love that draws each one closer to God. The conclusion of this sermon is for all of us to write as we talk around our tables and move into the future that God has for us together.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
24 July 2016

Isaiah 40: 12-31
Proverbs 4: 1-9
1 Corinthians 1: 18-2: 5
Philippians 2: 1-11

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