Sunday, January 30, 2000

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
on Sunday, January 30, 2000
at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
TEXT: Proverbs 3:13-21

It was June of 1939 and the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was faced with the greatest challenge of his life. He had been offered a position to teach systematic theology at Union Seminary in New York City. And at that time the Union Seminary was the most avant garde, the most progressive and probably the best known of all the seminaries in the United States of America. And had Dietrich Bonhoeffer accepted that position, he probably would have gone on to a lifelong career as a theologian of eminence and of great note.

The dilemma was that he was being asked to return home to his native Germany. He was being asked to return home to a land that was going to be thrust into war. He was going home to a land that was persecuting the Jews, knowing that he had already stood up for them and knowing that his brother-in-law, Gerhard Liebholtz himself was a Jew, Bonhoeffer knew that there would be certain incarceration and possibly worse, and in a moment of great agony when he was making this decision, he wrote to his friend, Eberhart Betbge with these words, I quote, "Eberhart, I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the tribulations of this time with my people. Christians in Germany are faced with the fearful alternatives either of willing their country's defeat so that Christian civilization may survive or of willing its victory and destroying our civilization. I know which of the two alternatives I have to choose, but I cannot make the choice from a position of safety." The next day he boarded a boat and returned home to Germany, eventually to die.

And I have often wondered what is it that a man like Dietrich Bonhoeffer possesses that allowed him the fortitude in the face of difficulties, the guidance in the midst of uncertainties and the hope in the midst of fear to do such a thing. Well the Old Testament would answer with a word that is simply known as hokmah, wisdom. For if you read many passages within the Bible, particularly the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, of Proverbs and many of the Psalms, there is a body of literature within the Old Testament known as wisdom literature which shows that it is precisely this gift of God which is the thing that guides, sustains and nurtures the life of the faithful. Indeed many times in my life when I have been faced with dilemmas or with difficulties or with uncertainties, I have turned to the book of Proverbs or read the Psalms or wrestled with Job or read the wisdom of Ecclesiastes and in it I have found comfort and sustenance and guidance and the path for life.

Now the people of Israel of course were not alone in celebrating the cause of wisdom. Many of the peoples that were around them in the desert, such as the Bedouins in the Arab world also treasured this thing called wisdom. The people of the Edomites also had their teachers who taught people the gift of wisdom and later on in the 5th Century in the Greek world, the Sophists also had this love of wisdom and attached it to reason and to understanding and even today I would suggest there is a great desire within the world in which we live for this elusive thing called wisdom. People are seeking for it, they're searching for it, they need some guidance within their lives.

I am, shall we put it, a frequent attender or a regular at a certain coffee shop near our neighbourhood and I go in there on a regular basis and it seems that every time I go in, there is another gentleman who is also there present and he sits in the corner and every time I go in there's a different person with whom he's conversing and talking and being the curious type, over the last few weeks I have put my coffee and my table a little bit closer to him until just recently when I sat at an adjacent table and I realized this man is dispensing moral and spiritual advice to people. People are coming to him when they are in need, when their marriages are broken up, when they've got ill health, when they're having problems with relationships, and he writes down all manner of things and draws all kinds of things and dispenses the most eclectic types of information and guidance to these people.

I felt like saying if only I had a big sign which said, "clergy" on it, maybe they would come and listen to me rather than listen to him, but I fear that I'm not in there quite as frequently as he is, although I'm catching up! But there is within our society, you see, a desire to get from people, from various sources, wisdom and guidance to their lives. It is as if we are on shifting sands and would like something concrete.

Well, wisdom in the Bible is very practical but it is not something that we acquire, it is not something that we attain, it is not a process in which we take part, it is a gift and the reason why the Old Testament looked to Solomon, for example, as a source of so much of this wisdom was that he recognized that the source of all wisdom was not from within himself, no matter how wise he was, but was actually a gift from Yahweh, a gift from God, that the wisdom that Solomon possessed was really something that possessed him. It was nothing short of the power and the grace and the love and the guidance of God Almighty, the power of wisdom. And very often when Solomon was writing, or those who followed in Solomon's tradition, they would personify wisdom, they would talk about wisdom as she or her, for her beauty, for her inspiration, for her guidance and her loveliness. Sometimes they talked about wisdom as if it is an “it”, as if “it” is an objective thing and in both these cases, however, wisdom finds its root in God and in God alone and apart from that wisdom, there is no understanding, there is no truth.

So I want to look, therefore, this morning at this great gift of wisdom and I do so by turning to the book of Proverbs and the third chapter where the writer of Proverbs is dealing with trying to instruct young men as to how they might live as individuals under the guidance of God. If the prophet spoke to the nations, if many of the priests spoke to the elite, the wisdom writers spoke to the ordinary individuals. This is how you should live, this is wisdom. And so I want to look this morning then at both what wisdom is, how we get wisdom and why wisdom is important.


First of all then, the what of wisdom, and I really have to start by saying what it is not and contrasting it with a couple of things, the first of which is understanding.

Wisdom is not understanding. Wisdom is not just knowledge. It precedes both of these. Wisdom is a gift from God, it is the foundation on which you build your understanding and your knowledge. Wisdom is something you receive, knowledge is something that you continue to gain through the rest of your life. Seek then first wisdom is the word of Proverbs.

There is a wonderful story told by a man called Middleton Murray, who was a writer in England and for many years he lived in London amongst the literati and the intelligentsia who lived in London. He was well read and was a writer and was well known. And one of the things that Middleton realized after a while was that many of the discussions that he had were banal, that they didn't seem to have a foundation and that there was something lacking, so he decided to move away and go and live in the country amongst the farmers.

And when he went and he met with the farmers, he found something that he had not seen amongst the literati, that there was a wisdom, that there was a depth, there was an earthiness about them. There was an ability to be able to see things as they really are and to understand people for who they really are rather than just a superficial understanding that he felt that his friends in the pubs of the literati were, and so he enjoyed these people and he also found that they were very religious, very devout, that they supported one another in a communal way, whereas the literati were just individuals trying to do their own thing. He wrote about these farmers, he said that they write and “they speak in the middle of the note.” In other words, these common people had something that was rich and deep, it was something that had substance, it wasn't just something that was fleeting, that comes and goes and he concluded, did Middleton Murray, that what these people had was the wisdom of God.

You see wisdom, my friends, is not just then knowledge, it is not just the pursuit or the obtaining of things, it is something which is the gift of God, which is the first thing.

Wisdom is also secondly not simply a form of moral perfection. There are some people who think that with true wisdom, to be truly wise means that you must become somehow morally perfect, that you must do everything right and then once you have done everything right, you will attain wisdom. No, the Bible is the other way round, you have wisdom and then you have the moral foundation for your life.

There's a wonderful note by a man called Ernest Hubbard and he wrote, and please excuse me for this language, he said, "Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes a day. Wisdom consists in making sure that we have that as little as possible.” I think that that indeed is one of the things that often people feel. I often feel that I'm a damn fool except for five minutes in the day, but maybe your experience is different than mine. There is this sense in which the wisdom is the way of limiting sin, that wisdom is a way somehow of just constraining it. Look, Solomon realized he was a sinner. David realized he was a sinner. The writers of wisdom literature knew that they were sinners, they knew that simply by their own attempts at moral perfection they were not going to become wise, rather they understood the key element of the scriptures, that you become wise and then you become moral.


Which leads us then to what wisdom is. And wisdom is two things.

First of all it is the foundation of our whole lives, the foundation of our whole lives. The writer of Proverbs so beautifully expresses it, he said, "Wisdom was the foundation on which the world was made." Wisdom is the foundation on which the world was made. It was the first thing. Before the world was ever created, wisdom existed. Wisdom is of God. It is the first thing, it is the nature of God and it is what God wants the creation to have. It is what God wished for you and I to have, but because of our sin we turned our back on the very wisdom that God desired. The very guidance, the very peace, the very life that we crave and we desire therefore is found first of all in our recognition of God. It is the first thing. It is the foundation.

The other thing about this great gift is that it is of immense value. The writer of Proverbs said it is greater than gold and silver, it is greater than all the jewellery in the world. This is a priceless thing. Jesus would say it is the pearl of great price. But so often my friends we are running around looking for the superficial things that we forget the things that really matter. We're looking at things on the surface and we don't have the depth of understanding that comes from the wisdom of God, the wisdom of the first things.

I was reading about a man and a boy who decided to go to church one Sunday and as they sat through the service, as they were on their way out, the father was giving the son his opinion on what the service was like and he says, "The choir was absolutely dreadful, my son, they were just terrible." Clearly they didn't come to Timothy Eaton! He said, "Oh, the Minister was banal and empty and vacuous" - maybe they did come to Timothy Eaton! He said the floor was dirty, he said the building was a mess and the people were scruffy and the young boy leaned over to his father and said, "Daddy, what do you expect to get for a dime." Now I know all of you at least give quarters, so I'm not going to judge any of you, but here was a man who at a superficial level was looking for things on the outside but not for the real depth and meaning and the purpose of being there and so much of our lives is like that, so much of what we do is so shallow. Wisdom, the wisdom of God gives us the depth of character, gives us the depth of understanding, of insight to see the first things, the things that are the most important.

The other thing that wisdom is, is the source of all knowledge and understanding. You see the wisdom of God comes first. That is why I have never believed that there should be a conflict between faith and science, there shouldn't be a conflict between faith and reason, because indeed if we believe that wisdom is the foundation of all knowing, if it is the foundation of all understanding, then we have nothing to fear from the truth, we have nothing to fear from the information that we are given because we ultimately believe that wisdom is the foundation of all things and if wisdom is the foundation of all things, if this is the will of God, then it is more valuable than all our attempts to know and understand. That is what wisdom is.

But the question is how do we get it? The writer of Proverbs gives the answer. It is the motto of the whole of the book. It says the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Once I received an objection to this idea. There was a lady who was in a Bible study when I was teaching on the book of Proverbs and she came up to me afterwards. She said, "Dr. Stirling, I've got enough fears in my life without adding one more." She said, "I have the fear of ill health. I have the fear of death. I'm a widow and I have the fear of economic destruction." She said, "I have fear for the welfare of the world. I have fear for my family, I don't need you to add one more fear to the equation."

James S. Stewart, one of the greatest preachers of all time in his books The Gates of New Life talks about this. He says indeed there are many fears that people suffer from. Some of the fears come from outside ourselves over which we have no control, a sense of powerlessness that the world is revolving quickly around us and we cannot control it. Sometimes the fears come from within our own psyche, in our own depression, in our own inability to handle the difficulties of life, but he says in his great book The Gates of New Life that in the middle of this, God gives His peace, God gives His peace. How do we then reconcile the fear of God and the peace of God? Well the two in fact are interrelated.

Yesterday, Marial and I went for a long walk. It was a beautiful sunny day, a day I think to celebrate the season of Epiphany and so we decided to walk through Mount Pleasant Cemetery. It's a wonderful place to go for a walk. The sun was shining, the warmth was on our back, there was a cool chill coming off the ice and the snow and it was a moment of great instruction as we looked at all the headstones that were there and some of the memorials to some of the greats and some of the unknowns. It's a great place to visit. And as we walked down one hollow, we finally came to the Eaton mausoleum, something that I'd always wanted to see and as I walked down the hill there were the two lions who are on the corner stones and we walked over the snow filled path and up the snow covered stairs and there was a chill in the air and the sun had gone behind a cloud and we peered into a dark and a cold mausoleum. And just as we were about to leave and depart, all of a sudden the sun came out again and when the sun came out it revealed at the very end a stained glass window, very similar to the ones in here, a stained glass window of Jesus and you could see the light streaming through this window onto all the places where the members of the families were buried and you could not help but think that even in the midst of cold and darkness and even death, there was the reminder of the light and the grace and the love of God.

That is exactly what the psalmist is talking about. He said if first of all you recognize God and fear God, then all the other fears disappear. Because the fear of God is actually not anxiety, it is reverence and awe. It is the recognization that we are in fact creatures. It is the recognition of the praise of Adonai, of the Lord. It is the recognition that the highest of thoughts to which we can go are in the service of God and in the glory of God, that from that reverence and awe comes the first thing which is wisdom, which is the foundation for the whole of our lives. Seek that, seek that, it is more precious than gold, it is life and peace and grace.

But why should you have it? Why should you have reverence and awe for God? Why should you seek this illusive thing called wisdom? Well the first is because you need, as I need, a foundation in your life. Jesus, in the parable that he told of the person who built their house on two different things, makes it abundantly clear. For the one who built their life on sand, when the wind came and the storms and the difficulties of life, they were blown away into oblivion, but for those who built on the rock, on the solid foundation, when the winds came and the rains came, there was a solid foundation that was able to withstand the difficulties of life.

My friends you and I and many people, indeed all people in their lives need to build their lives on that solid foundation and that solid foundation is the first thing, it is wisdom, it is the gift of God and when Jesus spoke he said, "Anyone who listens to my words, builds on that foundation." It is the foundation of the very wisdom of God that was at the beginning of the world. Why would you want to build on anything else? Build it on wisdom.

It is also the source of our ethics, our morals and our values. Remember I said the wisdom is not an attainment of those things, but wisdom comes first and then those things are given and so often, my friends, our lives are like building on sand, we lose our perspective, we lose our depth, we lose the wisdom of God and we're building on things that are passing and fallible and ignoble rather than on the things that are the substance of God.

As many of you will know, this is Super Bowl Sunday, and I heard a story recently of a young man who received a ticket to go and see the Super Bowl and so off he went to the Super Bowl game and he realized that the seat that he was given was in the very highest bleachers, so high was it that he could not see the game and so realizing that he had to do something, the young man, after a few minutes, decided to walk amongst the crowd to see if he could find an empty seat and the only one that he could find was on the front row on the half-way line. And so the young man realized that there was an elderly man sitting in the adjacent seat, so he said to the elderly man, "Excuse me, sir, is this seat empty, and the older man said, "Yes, it is." And the young man was astonished. He says, "But this is the most wonderful seat in the whole place, are you sure nobody has this seat?" And he said, "Yes, that seat was for my wife and we have come and watched the Super Bowl together ever since Super Bowls began but unfortunately she has passed away." And so the young man says, "Oh, I'm so sorry. But couldn't you find a family member or a friend to come and join you and sit in that?" "No," said the old man, "I'm afraid they're all at her funeral."

You will understand now why I have written about the idolatry of sport in the new Newsletter. Some people just completely lose their perspective. They lose all anchors in their lives. They build it on understanding and knowledge but not on wisdom. The ethics, the morals that we desire in our society will always be constituted on the foundation of the wisdom of God. Take that away and you are left with banality.

Which brings up the third reason why you should have wisdom. In the inscription of my Bible, on the day on which I was ordained, my father wrote one biblical text and it is from the book of Proverbs, Chapter 3 that Paul read so beautifully for us a few moments ago. The King James version was the way my father quoted it and it goes as follows: "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths." You see my friends, at the heart of wisdom is trust, trust that it is God who ultimately guides. Have that first thing and all other things are added unto you. Forget that first thing and you build on a foundation of sand. May you have the rock, the first thing of God's wisdom in your life. Amen.