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  • Writer's pictureNorthminster Church

"Whatever Happened to Wisdom?" by Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy

Proverbs 1:20-22a, 7:4; Ephesians 5:15-20

A dire dearth of wisdom is creating a burgeoning crisis. Spin-doctors parlay failures into accomplishments and twist lies to sound like authoritative truths. We can build sophisticated weaponry but cannot develop effective strategies for waging peace. We can develop campaigns to sell pet-rocks though we cannot sell the nation on the absolute necessity of healthy public schools. Technology and money lift travelers into outer space while we seem incapable of filling potholes in our streets.

Way too often, I feel surrounded by stupid people—people both without knowledge and wisdom who do not care enough about that condition to drop whatever they are doing and seek wisdom. Scripture writers gave me the question I feel so often: How long, O simple ones, do you love being simple?

I know the ache that accompanies that question. In the early days of my life, at least six times a week I spent multiple hours in religious experiences in a church and a culture that boasted about its members’ lack of education. I heard prayers of praise for ignorance. While I was excitingly preparing to begin my seminary education, a designated group of ministers in our community paid a visit to my parents in an effort to try to persuade them to forbid me from attending a seminary. “A seminary education can ruin Welton, the concerned clerics”—the orthodox police—told my parents. “Those people will teach him ways to think and educate him in progressive thoughts that can cause him to change and no longer believe as we believe,” they pleaded. Thank God, my mother and father, though troubled by what these long-time friends of theirs—fear-engendering clergy—had told them, were unwilling to say “no” to a dream they had seen birthed in me that was moving toward fulfillment. Numerous times in a service in my home church I heard how simple faith is and how even non-educated individuals can understand the Bible perfectly and preach as well as teach its scriptures on the basis of their hunches and intuitions which they claimed God gave them.

I remember the thrill that rocked my soul one day when reading a historian of first century Christianity pointed out that the success of early Christianity was attributable to the fact that Christians did better thinking than the rest of the world. T. S. Glover wrote: Christians “read the best books, assimilated them, and lived the freest intellectual life the world had . . . There is no place for an ignorant Christian . . . Who did the best thinking in that ancient world? Again and again it was the Christian(s) . . . who out-thought the world.”

The apostle Paul understood that truth and the tent-maker actually chided members of the church in Corinth, telling them that he wanted and needed to speak to them as mature Christians, smart Christians, but their lack of study, learning, and wisdom required that he speak to them only as children. “I fed you with milk, not solid food,” Paul said, “for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready.” The Great Commandment tells us to love God with our minds as well as with our hearts, souls, and strength. Listen to the author of Hebrews, “There is much we have to say . . . but it is hard to explain to you, because you are so slow to understand.” (The word slow meant mentally dull or unwilling to think.) The writer of Proverbs still resounds in my mind and heart:

The fear of God is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Wisdom enables us to use our knowledge though we must distinguish between being smart and being wise. Scores of smart people cannot compensate for the scarcity of wise people. Analytical expertise and a mastery of scientific methods do not necessarily indicate the presence of wisdom.

Intellectual sophistication allows a person to quote authorities; wisdom enables a person to know the value of the quotes. Being smart provides people with the ability to make explosives, wisdom helps people understand whether or not explosives should be made. National leaders who excel in partisan politics are not wise enough to sacrifice the good of the nation for the goals of a political party and seek to convince the public of their exemplary moral responsibility.

The sermon for today is not about politics, technology, marketing, cosmetology, and the like. One of the Christian scriptures in the lectionary readings for today begins, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise people as wise . . . do not be foolish but understand what the will of the Lord is.”

“Where shall wisdom be found?” the Hebrew writer named Job asked, “And where is the place of understanding?” Job answered his own questions: “God understands the way to (wisdom) and . . . knows it’s place.”

I want to talk about wisdom and wise people because I think right now words from Proverbs best describe our world. “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice.” Wisdom was and is crying.

So, what is wisdom?

Most any dictionary will define wisdom as the ability to discern what is right and what is wrong, good judgment, accumulated knowledge, to know how to think and best utilize knowledge. Most dictionaries of the Bible associate the word wisdom with people who think and conduct themselves in a socially sensitive and morally right way. As I have said, often the word wisdom was used as a synonym for the word God. More often, though, wisdom was considered a gift from God that, if embraced and followed, would result in a life of integrity characterized by social sensitivity, moral correctness, and devotion to God. Both the ancient Jews and the early Christians collected and cherished wisdom literature (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, the Wisdom of Solomon, wisdom psalms, Song of Songs, James, and the teachings of Jesus collected in the gospels).

Wisdom is holy, God-like, reverence, guidance, devotion, truth, and mystery. A great hymn, the first hymn in our hymnbook, sings the truth of Wisdom and God.

Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light in accessible hid from our eyes, Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days, almighty, victorious, your great name we praise.

Given the severity of the truth in this sermon, I thought it might be helpful to simply speak of some of the gifts of wisdom provided by the God with whom we are walking now, the God we are seeking to serve in the days ahead, the God to whom we have given our hearts and dedicated our lives.

No god but God

The first gift of God’s wisdom leads us into the presence of the One True God, steering us away from our little gods of personal opinions and social preferences, preventing us from embracing a false deity that has hijacked God’s identity and our loyalty and wisdom.

“Let’s be really clear about the God we worship and seek to serve. A mistake about divine identity can ruin a life.

We do well to examine our beliefs and feelings under the illumination of the wisdom commended to us by Solomon.

A variety of respected pollsters have documented that though a high percentage of the American people claim to believe in God, strikingly few of those theistic believers can describe the kind of god in which they believe. There seem to be more little gods than the only God.

“To what God are we devoted; make it clear--the One God who gave us life or a god we created and made authoritative?”

The ancient Hebrew’s imperative evokes within me a deep-seated longing for as much certainty as is possible that I am serving the God who created me, loves me, and calls me into divine service, not some imposter deity born of a particular culture and shaped by a provincial dream. Like my Muslim friend Reza Aslan who, concerned about the distortion of God in much of Islam, authored a terrific book entitled no god, but God, I want to be as sure as I can be that I am serving “no god, but God.”

That sense of certainty requires wisdom.

Healthy spirituality

Then there is the gift of healthy spirituality. One reason that so many Christians--individuals and churches--fall so short of the expectations of Jesus and his teachings is because they do not know the scriptures, they have not explored the meaning of Christianity in this century, and they have allowed the rest of the world to exceed them in knowledge and wisdom. No group can be a church if the people involved do not know what a church is. Wisdom is essential to healthy spirituality, solid faith, intelligent witness, and awareness of how best to intersect with our world.

Wise people understand the importance of humility. So many people have fallen so in love with themselves that they cannot lean from others, not even if one of the others is God.

Lady Wisdom’s Gift is as Practical

as it is Spiritual

Much of the Bible’s wisdom literature relates to nations and governments. Here are two examples:

The first is the divine notice in Proverbs 14:34 which says, “righteousness exalts a nation.” The true strength of any government is not to be found in its stockpile of weapons or the skills of its military, not in the size of its Gross National Product or interest rates established by boards of financial institutions. Any question about the greatness of a nation requires inquiries related to righteousness--how a nation treats its children, how it welcomes immigrants, how it assures justice, how it provides for the weakest among its citizens, how it opens its arms to strangers in need of care.

The second was highlighted on June 16, 1858, in Springfield, Illinois, at the meeting of the Republican State Convention, when Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech inspired by Jesus who, in all three of the synoptic gospels is quoted as saying, “A house divided against its self cannot stand.” The message is unquestioned as documentable truth, forcing me to ask, “How long, how long, O God, will we continue to ignore the wisdom of scripture and statehood?” Our nation is seriously, dangerously divided. I appreciate diversity, but I have no respect for intractable division in the life of our nation. Lady Wisdom tells us that division is the road to destruction--no exceptions.

Of course, the wisdom literature of the Bible also relates to our personal lives. Here are two examples of that truth:

We Need to Know all We Can Learn

Lady Wisdom is really put out with people who are proud of their ignorance. Wisdom said that since no one had listened to or reached out to embrace her counsel, she would laugh at the calamity that would result from people’s pride in ignorance. In the scriptures, a disgusted wisdom says, “When panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you, (you) will call me and I will not answer.”

We Also Need to Know

What We Don’t Know

In the gospel of Matthew Jesus told a parable about ten maidens, five of whom were foolish and five were wise, waiting for a bridegroom who was running late. Questions about time became urgent. Jesus identified himself with people who did not know the time. After a reference to the end of time recorded in the gospel of Mark, Jesus outright declared, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”—only! I admire Jesus for his self-awareness on the one hand and his stark honesty to others on the other hand. All of the people you have heard telling you when the end time will occur claim to be smarter than Jesus.

Here is a terrific and important insight into the nature of religion. Faith is not about facts, data, and dates. Faith is about confidence, trust, and belief. Faith is a product of wisdom. Science is a product of knowledge. Faith is a citizen in the realm of mystery. Science is a discipline that dabbles in tangibility, test-tubes, documentable theories, and formulas for establishing certainty.

I am sure I don’t have to tell you that tragic consequences ensue when people treat religion as science and science as religion. The two should be held with mutual respect and devoid of any sense of competition. Science should be taught in classrooms as a matter of the head, a component in being smart. Faith should be taught in houses of worship and homes as a matter of the heart, a component in being wise.

As you can see, the principle involved here is applicable beyond spiritual matters. No one can invest in life at one level and expect to derive benefits from life at a completely different level. In other words, the quality of life we experience will be determined by the quality of life we pursue. Be careful!

God’s wisdom is for now, not for another time, not to employ in a world to come. An inability to recognize that reality is proof in itself of a lack of wisdom. If you embrace what you consider a higher wisdom than God’s that is better for the present moment, take a good look around and see just how well your kind of wisdom is working in our world!

We have heard again the urgency of wisdom and looked briefly at how wisdom can impact our nation and our lives for good. I make those observations sharing with you an invitation offered in the book of James. Listen, these are the best and most promising words in this sermon. This is scripture: If any of you lacks wisdom . . . ask God . . . who gives to all . . . generously and without reproaching . . . and it (wisdom) will be given.


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