Growing in Wisdom
Rev. Doug Floyd
In our second lesson today, Paul exhorts his listeners to “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise…” Wisdom plays a key role in our readings today. The Proverbs passage is a call to follow lady wisdom. The reading from Psalms gives us a grand vision of the wisdom of God in all creation. In the Gospel, Jesus reminds us that he is the true bread, He is the one who feeds us with his life and truth.
The Old Testament offers us a complex picture of wisdom that involves word games, parabolic stories, aphorisms, and even ideas that sometimes appear to be in conflict such as the teaching of Proverbs compared with Ecclesiastes or Job. Wisdom is normally associated with ruling, so the young leaders of the culture were trained in the wisdom arts. It also involved diplomatic skills as we see in the story of Daniel.
The books of 1 and 2 Kings offer us a practical view into the life of wisdom as we watch kings make decisions that will impact everyone in their kingdom. The rulers are often called upon to make decisions in ambiguous circumstances such as Solomon deciding between the two women who lay claim to the same child. The Kings also consult wise or unwise counselors as they make decisions.
And yet, wisdom is not simply about thinking. It involves moral dispositions and actions. Thus the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And it involves practical actions like managing a kingdom, becoming a craftsman, building a building.
Solomon’s wisdom is not only modeled in situations where he must serve as judge but also in his building projects. The supreme model of His wisdom is in the very practical building of a palace and a Temple. Thus wisdom involves a heart turned toward the Lord but it also involves the development of skills, which could involve language arts, mechanical skills, and even observation of the natural world.
If we think of wisdom in relation to building a house, it might help us see the practical aspects of growing in wisdom.
I had a friend name David Legg who was a part of our lives for many years. He had built his homes throughout his life and even helped complete my basement. One day, he showed me the place where he built his first house in the 1950s. He said that he didn’t know anything about building. He simply bought a lot. Then he would visit construction sites and ask questions. Sometimes he would be run off the site, but other times a seasoned builder would talk to him, teach him, and help him learn how to build. He learned every aspect of building that way from carpentry to plumbing to electricity. He listened, asked questions, tried things, came back and asked questions, and kept trying. Over time, he himself became a seasoned craftsman.
In a very practical sense, that is what the shaping of wisdom looks like. Whatever the skill or the field, we must listen, ask questions, try things, fail, try again, ask more questions, keep trying and eventually learn how to grow up into a skill, a way, a craft.
In our reading today from Proverbs, Lady Wisdom appears as a builder of a great house. Throughout the first nine chapters of Proverbs, the student is introduced to the wisdom way through a series of comparisons between two ways: one leading into the full light of day and the other leading into a dark and stumbling path. These two ways are often personified by two women: Lady Wisdom and the Adulteress or the Foolish Woman.
Lady Wisdom calls to the simple to come and learn. Today we read Proverbs 9, not as a prince of Israel but as the body of Christ, as the church. Wisdom in the New Testament does not abandon the varied aspects of wisdom in ancient Israel. But wisdom is distinctive because the fulfillment of wisdom is seen in Jesus Christ: his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. In First Corinthians 1:18, Paul says that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
This wisdom is both a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles. And yet, this is the true wisdom of love for ruling the entire universe.
In the opening words of Ephesians, Paul casts a vision of Christ reigning, but he also suggests that the church is reigning in some sense with Christ. The following translation from The Message captures the glory of this high calling:
All this energy issues from Christ: God raised him from death and set him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.[i]
Just as the young men were being trained to rule Israel, we are being trained as a royal priesthood, as a community that models the love of God in this world in the practical ways we live and serve.
We can read our Proverbs passage in light of this call. Listen again to the text:
Wisdom has built her house;
she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her beasts; she has mixed her wine;
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her young women to call
from the highest places in the town,
“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”
To him who lacks sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Leave your simple ways, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.” Pr 9:1–6.
We are invited into the dwelling place of the Lord and in the mystery of His grace. The church, the people of God are becoming a living Temple, a living house of praise. Just a Lady Wisdom sends her messengers out to the simple, we also come by way of invitation: the Spirit draws us and other people play a role. The way of faith is a way of turning, of repentance.
Over and over we come as the simple ones, longing to grow up into the wisdom of Christ, the wisdom of the cross. He sends His Spirit to teach us and guide us and lead us into all truth. Walking in the way of life and holiness often means making mistakes.
We are easily deceived by our own thoughts and desires. We easily develop what might be called micro-habits or tendencies of selfishness. Tendencies to grow frustrated with those who disagree with us. Tendencies to be short with people. Tendencies to look out for ourselves before others. Tendencies to savor hurts and remember and rehearse ways other people have hurt us. From coworkers to loved ones, we have a tendency at times to find reasons for offense or impatience. And worst of all, we have a tendency to be blind to our thoughts and actions that violate love toward God and love toward one another.
So again and again, we come to Scripture, to prayer, to the people of God. We ascend to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Heb 12:22–24).
We attend to his voice, feed at his table, to grow up into His life and love. In Ephesians 4:15, Paul writes, “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Like my friend David who learned to build by watching, asking questions, trying things and asking more questions, the life of wisdom is a life of learning, of apprenticing to Christ by His Spirit and in the midst of His people. By His Spirit we are being catechized in a mature way of love that moves as the wind of God.
We have different personalities, different gifts, different challenges, and even different ways that we offend one another. In the midst of this community, we are learning a way of humility, a way of honoring, a way of growing up together into Christ.
This wisdom of the cross, this wisdom of love is translated into the culture in what we do each week as people who live and participate in the local community. It is translated in the library, in the home, in the healthcare system, in the business world, and in all the places where we build, create, work, live and shape our world.
This does not often look like much to the world around us. But that’s okay because our hope is not in our great projects but in the faithfulness of God.
In the 1600s, Nicholas Ferrar, a businessman, and deacon in the Anglican church, moved to an abandoned village with his family and friends. They formed an informal little community committed themselves to a simple pattern of prayer and worship according to the Book of Common Prayer. There was always someone in the community in prayer while other members of the community served the needs of the local children. Their little model of a community seeking to grow up into the wisdom of God might be forgotten now, but TS Eliot immortalized them in his poem the Four Quartets. The name of the village was Little Gidding, and it continues to inspire Christians around the world in this simple way of prayer and faithfulness. Eliot describes the simple village lane, leading to the church, he writes,
If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone.
He suggests the visitor may not even realize why they’ve come,
And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfillment.
Eliot challenges the listeners by suggesting the purpose we may have figured in our lives, in our coming to the place of worship, will ultimately be fulfilled in ways that are far beyond anything we could think or imagine now.
Then he leads us to doxology to prayer to the timeless now.
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.[ii]
We come to the house of wisdom to feast, to behold, to kneel, to adore. Come Lord Jesus.
[i] Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005), Eph 1:20–23.
[ii] Excerpts from Little GIdding < http://www.columbia.edu/itc/history/winter/w3206/edit/tseliotlittlegidding.html>