08/19/18 – Living Wisely in a Foolish World

LIVING WISELY IN A FOOLISH WORLD

August 19, 2018
13th Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14 / Psalm 111 / Ephesians 5:15-20 / John 6:51-58
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

In our Old Testament reading for today, we enter the story of Israel’s era of kings at the point where King David has just died and his son, Solomon, is poised to take the throne. Solomon wasn’t the first in line. One could say that the first three sons died as a result of their own foolishness.

Amnon lusted after his half-sister, Tamar; and instead of going through the proper protocol of marrying her, he raped her. Out of revenge, another son, Absalom, killed Amnon. Absalom was the first in line to succeed his father, but he was too impatient. He gathered up an army to defeat his own father. Absalom was killed in battle and there went heir to the throne number two. Although Adonijah, number three son, had access to any number of concubines, he insisted on taking for himself, the concubine that had been brought to comfort the dying King David. Solomon felt honor-bound to protect his father’s possession, which incidentally, would then come to him if he succeeded his father on his throne. Solomon killed Adonijah, and there he was, at the tender age of twenty, the new king of Israel.

The history of Israel’s monarchs, chronicled in the Old Testament, makes a great morality tale for the wisdom of following God’s laws and spiritual guidance; and, the folly of acting on one’s own selfish desires. When he began his reign, Solomon did have the good sense to be daunted by kingship. He realized he wasn’t mature or wise enough to lead Israel in the capable manner of his father. In today’s Old Testament reading, the great responsibility of his position was obviously weighing heavily on his mind because he had what is called an anxiety dream. That is when the worries of your waking hours pop up in your sleep and force you to work on them through the night.

In his dream, God promised to grant Solomon one wish- that Solomon choose wisdom as a testament to his good sense and judgment. Ancient Israel believed that wisdom was the Spirit of God at work in people’s lives and that sacred wisdom was present when the world was created. There is a whole section of the Bible known as “wisdom literature.” Wisdom was with God from the very beginning and “Lady Wisdom” was viewed as the feminine side of God. The Christian Church adopted similar language. Consider this stanza to the familiar Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel:”

            O come, Thou Wisdom, from on high,
            And order all things far and nigh;
            To us the path of knowledge show,
            And teach us her ways to go.

With the idealism of youth, Solomon started out his reign wanting to be a good king, a servant king to his people. He started out wanting to be faithful to God and to do God’s will for the benefit of Israel and her people. When God offers to grant Solomon any wish, he demonstrates wisdom even before he answers God. He gives thanks to God for God’s faithfulness to him and his father David, and all the people of Israel for keeping the covenant made to his ancestors. The path to wisdom begins with thanksgiving and humility. Then, Solomon confesses his fear. Admitting the need for guidance in matters beyond one’s expertise or experience is a far wiser move for a leader than falling into the foolish trap of hiding fear and arrogance, playing power games and casting blame on others for failure.

In our translation, Solomon asked for “an understanding mind;” but, in the original Hebrew it also had the meaning of a “listening heart.” In the ancient world, the heart was the center of both intelligence and emotions. Wisdom was not cold, calculating logic, wisdom meant using mental acuity, sensitivity, and compassion. God judged Israel by how well the Israelites and their leaders took care of the least of those in society, the most vulnerable- the widows, the orphans, the poor, the diseased, the foreigners among them. Jesus told his disciples in his farewell address that they would be judged by the same standard. And, so will we and our nation be judged.

God gave Solomon the same assurance as he did to his father, David. God advised the young Solomon: “Walk with me, follow my laws and listen to my words and you will be able to make wise decisions and even more.”

Like the promise to Abraham, God encouraged Solomon: “If you are a blessing to your people, you will also be blessed.” So, the story proceeded just as God promised. Sadly, Solomon later learned that hard lesson that pride goes before the fall. The famous American journalist, H.L. Mencken, said: “The older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom. This was certainly the case with Solomon.” After God enabled Solomon to build a grand temple in which the Israelites could worship, Solomon forgot about thanking God and claimed all credit for himself. He looked at the palatial temple and thought to himself: “I’m amazing! This is the tallest, grandest building in Israel. This will really impress other kings and nations.” Solomon ruled and was ruled by his own ego. He insisted on more and more grand building projects. Eventually, his people were enslaved, both mentally and economically, to build and pay for with their taxes, monuments to Solomon’s greatness.

As we heed the siren calls of advertisers, Solomon listened to the voices that lied: “Go ahead, indulge yourself, you deserve it.” In fact, he was so convinced of his entitlement, he took seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. How could he even remember the women’s names, much less have a “quality” relationship with even a fraction of them? The real insult to God and country was that Solomon married foreign wives who worshipped other gods. Solomon, foolishly, began to hedge his bets and worship false gods that might bring him even more “good luck,” just in case God’s grace and blessings didn’t’ keep up with his desires. Solomon neither heeded God’s commandment not to covet his neighbor’s possessions nor the lessons of history. He allowed money and power to corrupt the noble intention he had when he asked God for wisdom. God offered wisdom, but Solomon ceased to take it. There are none so foolish as those who refuse to learn.

An important part of wisdom is knowing to which voice, among the many that compete for our attention, one should listen. The Bible states over and over, that God is the voice of true wisdom. The history of Israel is the history of a people whose well-being rose and fell with their faithfulness to God. When they followed God’s laws and listened to God’s voice there was peace and enough resources for the whole community. Remember, God’s famous prophets only appeared when Israel strayed from God. Hundreds of years passed between prophets. Prophets rose up in Israel when there was a great disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Prophets challenged Israel when the widows, orphans, the poor and the foreigners were oppressed and afflicted by those with the power to hoard the nation’s riches. Prophets were called when all people did not receive equal justice and mercy as God required. These were the times when God spoke through the prophets delivering ultimatums and demanding repentance.

Wealth and power may be achieved by cunning, but often these are not accompanied by wisdom- not wisdom by the ancient Hebrew definition, nor that of the author of Ephesians. The author of the letter to The Ephesian congregation describes Christian wisdom to include maturity, thoughtful discernment, selflessness, and thankfulness. This epistle writer was concerned with what it means to live a Christian life. Wisdom, here, is the ability to discern and act on the will of God.

The test of true wisdom is being able to live wisely in a foolish world. Wisdom begins, as with Solomon, with thanksgiving for what God has done and continues to grow in the practice of faith. There are many ways to learn the wisdom that scripture supports. Wisdom is learned in the everyday. Wisdom finds meaning, substance, and purpose in habits that might normally be considered routine. Wisdom is learned through distinguishing the significant from the trivial (think time management and discernment) and to find the sacred in the ordinary. The hardest won struggle for wisdom is obtained by our journey through the painful places of life. Wisdom is looking around at your life, no matter the circumstances, and saying, “there is a blessing here.”

However, of all the ways to grow in wisdom, the Bible focuses particularly on wisdom as learning how to have relationships, particularly with those who are difficult for you and how to nurture relationships. The Bible gives most of its attention to wisdom as learned by giving oneself to a community. The Apostle Paul and the author of Ephesians lift up the church as a place where wisdom can be found. When the author of Ephesians speaks of wisdom, he or she (it is wise to be careful without making assumptions) is referring to an act of faith. As an example, this author says to people learning to be wise together should sing together. The author says if you want wisdom, “sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs amongst yourselves, making a melody to the Lord in your hearts.”

Wisdom is learned through worship. For many of us our early and often lasting conception of God, self, and church, our theology if you will, is shaped by the hymns we sing. Singing together is a school for learning about God, learning to give praise to God, learning to love one another, and live holy lives.

The Bible is not a book that merely lists a set of do’s and don’ts. The Bible gives us stories that resonate with our own experiences. Most effectively, the Bible informs us of times and places when God’s people have not been wise. The life and reign of Solomon are but one example. Like us, Solomon wanted to be faithful to God and follow God’s guidance, but little by little he strayed until he found himself worshipping other gods and being ruled by his own ego.

Likewise, the church throughout history has been tragically foolish. Just this week, with the news of a massive cover-up of priest’s sexual abuse of children in the Roman Catholic Church, an image of the church at its best, a place where people in all stages of life gather to sing together, to serve together and to learn from one another.

The Bible tells us that the world was created through God’s wisdom and love, which at a particular place and time, came as a person in the flesh of Jesus Christ- born in a manger, died on a cross, wisdom offered with his body as the bread of life that the world’s hunger would be satisfied. This is the foolishness of the cross that Paul tells us about in the first chapter of First Corinthians: “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (v.25)

May God bless us all with wisdom and may we accept this gift with humility and thanksgiving.

Amen.

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church
1420 W. Moss Avenue – Peoria Illinois 61606
WestminsterPeoria.org   l   309.673.8501