Ancient Words for Post-Modern ThinkersSeptember 14, 2003, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
A word to the wise," so the axiom goes, is…? Sufficient." Yes, but what about those who are not yet wise? Is there a word sufficient for them? And what about those schooled in these days of extreme relativity producing, among other things, the latest philosophic fad called post-modernism? What word is there for these?
The common theme in today’s lessons is wisdom, more specifically still--God’s wisdom. Wisdom, says our first lesson, was the first thing God created. Proverbs personifies wisdom as a woman who goes forth into the busiest and most inhabited places of daily life, seeking, open handedly, to give the gift of herself to all who will receive her. She searches out those who most need it--the simple. But they do not listen. Rather than heed Lady Wisdom’s call, the simple refuse her outstretched hand and ignore her counsel. In doing so, they leave innocent ignorance behind for a more damning condition--intentional waywardness.
At staff Bible study this week, J.C. reminded us that southerners have a hierarchy of insults to describe this condition. It begins with simple, moves on to dumb, and from dumb to ignorant. To be called ignorant is a pretty serious insult, north or south. But there is one term more damning still--fool. The simple, dumb or ignorant, after all, can still pursue wisdom. Not so for the fool. Lady Wisdom sounds like a southerner for she says they have become fools--they hate knowledge.
It was this notion of hating knowledge which set me thinking about our post-modern world. Post-modernism is many things, but, the philosophy is driven by a conviction that there is no such thing as truth with a capital "T." Rather, all things are so relative that there are only truths--ideas to which we impart the notion of truth. Post-modern through actually hates the notion that there could be a universal wisdom and truth in this world. And so Lady Wisdom’s words seem very much on target. She reminds us that fools not only despise wisdom’s counsel, they have abandoned the fear of the Lord altogether, which, you will remember, Proverbs tells us is the beginning of wisdom.1
Now don’t misunderstand. There are many fools who are well educated, and more often that not, really quite bright, sometimes too much so for their own good. Now if you’ve ever known someone who was truly brilliant, as in off the I.Q. charts, you also know that very often they are their own worst enemy. They know a great deal, they simply do not know what to do with it. They not only lack wisdom, it remains to them forever illusive. Lady Wisdom explains why. She says that she has withdrawn, leaving those who have rejected her gift to their own ways. As she does, she issues this warning: when the calamity of their own ways comes upon them, as calamity inevitably does come to those who flauntingly mock the fear of the Lord, reject God’s wisdom and violate his laws, they are left to the product of their own ways. If virtue, wisdom and truth are their own reward, what are the consequences of rejecting them? Can we say evil is its own reward? Certainly in a good many cases Lady Wisdom’s words ring true--complacency does lead to destruction and waywardness to death. But, what about her promise that those who do listen to her "will be secure, and will live at ease, without dread of disaster"?2
As I was working on this text last Thursday, church bells were marking the hour the terrorists’ airplanes struck the world trade center two years ago. Turning on the television I saw the victim’s children standing at ground zero reading their names, and wondered what Lady Wisdom would say to the challenge of their circumstances. Surely not everyone who died on 9/11, or those left bereft by that tragedy, was a fool as wisdom describes it. In fact, many were anything but. Many were faithful, God-fearing people trying to live that way. Some even intentionally made the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives on behalf of others, an act of love so great, says our Lord, it cannot be exceeded in human life.3 So a word of qualification is needed here. Causes do have their effects, to be sure. But not all affects issue from the same cause. It is true that our actions do have their consequences. But it is also true that the actions of a fool bring consequences capable of snaring the wise, as the actions of a few on 9/11 two years ago, destroyed the many--foolish and wise alike. That said, wisdom does have something to say to those who heeded her words yet were caught in the maelstrom of other’s evil ways. Her promise to us as we seek to heed her counsel is less that disaster and difficulty will not come upon us, than that in the midst of difficulty and disaster we need not fear or be filled with dread. We have a rock that is sure, a fortress and stronghold, the One who made not only Lady Wisdom, but all things. This One is gracious and has given us the capacity to know what is wanted of and for us,4 and has revealed that to us in his wisdom. It begins with the fear of the Lord, which you will remember has nothing to do with anxiety, fright or dread, and everything to do with reverent awe and joyful wonder in God and God’s ways.
Those ways are recognizable in the glory of the world around us, both night and day, says today’s psalm. Night is not a time when the nefarious powers of chaos and cataclysm reign. God’s wisdom is as visible in the night sky as the blazing day--as those of us who were in this city in the recent blackout were so quickly reminded. In the darkness we could see what is almost always occluded by the reflection of the artificial light of this city which never sleeps. More than one of you told me that when night came, you and others in your building took your flash-lights and refreshments to the roof and enjoyed being able to see the stars in all their celestial glory.
The heavens are telling the glory of God’s presence, the firmament reveals God’s handiwork. Through the created order God’s wisdom is being poured into life. Though you and I cannot hear the music behind the celestial glory, its wisdom envelops and suffuses reality for any who will look with open eyes and listening ears. It is the rush of being on a mountain-top after a long climb. It is the splendor of surveying the cliffs and wildlife of Wales on its coastal path some five-hundred feet above the sea, as Questa and I were privileged to do this summer. Or later, sitting with John and Joyce Evans on the steps of their wee cottage on the hillside in central Wales, looking over a lush and verdant valley so green it almost re-defines the color, with the tapestry of luxuriant pasture and trees dotted by the white figures of bleating ewes and lambs. Lady Wisdom is correct, only a fool could deny God’s presence and intention for us in such a setting. The earth radiates God’s presence, wisdom and ways.
For some years, scholars studying Psalm 19 have focused on what seemed to them an abrupt shift at verse eight, when the psalm’s praise of God as creator suddenly turns to extolling God’s law. Some have gone so far as to suggest that this was originally two very different psalms that later got sewn together by an editor, or had a second section added by another author who, taken back by the bold and almost pagan language used to rejoice in God’s revelation through nature, wanted the corrective of God’s Torah to center the psalm.5 Reading through the lens of such scholarship it is easy to think of this as two psalms unrelated to one another. But as I thought about it more, especially in light of our first lesson, it occurred to me that there is a deeper unity to this psalm than perhaps the form critics have been able to perceive. What I mean is this: the wisdom of God that is mutely revealed and praised in the created order of nature is made specific in the articulated praise of God’s Torah, God’s instruction for living, God’s wisdom. Written in stone less we miss it, and passed down, generation after generation to the realm of our own lives, it is God’s wisdom given to those for whom a word is sufficient. This is why the psalmist moves from extolling the beauty of God’s wisdom in creation to its eloquence and life-giving vitality as expressed in Torah. God’s wisdom is perfect, right, clear, pure, and sure. It makes the simple wise. It was that phrase--"making the simple wise"--that made the connection for me. The psalm is an open celebration of God’s wisdom, revealed not only in the muteness of the world around us, but openhandedly given to us in the instructions for life we Christians call God’s Law and our Jewish sisters and brothers call Torah. Who said life does not come with a set of instructions? They revive the soul, giving us life and sustaining us. They give us wisdom to direct our footsteps when our own powers of perception succumb to other motives and forces around us. They give us perspective from which to see the world and understand our own place within it. And they bring joy to hearts that would otherwise be too soon weighed down with the weight of the world being run by fools.
God’s wisdom continues to be mediated to us in the inner reaches of our being as we meditate on its meaning for us. This is what the psalm promises, and with it the word that beyond the warnings and rewards, there is a mercy mediated to keep life human. We are not left to the commandments alone, but to the will and work of the One who gave them, and a holy desire is to restore and renew, seeing our failures not as a measure of our worth, but an opportunity to begin anew. This is why the psalmist prays for the active work of God in life to restore us to innocence in thoughts and words, not to mention deeds.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer."6 To often this prayer is only voiced by preachers upon entering pulpits, which, by the way, seems to me to be a bit too late. We preachers should be praying this as we begin our work on the sermon. It seems a bit disingenuous to wait until we get into the pulpit to call God in and ask divine intervention to correct our errors! Don’t give this prayer up to preachers as liturgical or sermonic window dressing. Claim it as your own. Let this last verse of psalm 19 become a daily prayer for you, just before the Lord’s Prayer. For when the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts are bridled by the gracious gift of God’s wisdom and Word, we are not only acceptable in God’s sight, we become servants who can rightfully pray, "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven," and expect that reign and will to be present in and through our own lives and therefore the lives of those around us.
The Word of the Lord, thanks be to God!
- Proverbs 1:7
- Proverbs 1:33
- John 15:13
- James D. Newsome, Texts for Preaching – Year B, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), p. 506.
- See footnote 19:7-14, The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 688 OT.
- Psalm 19:14
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