“Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.
Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
and because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.
Then they will call upon me,
but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently,
but will not find me.
Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the LORD,
would have none of my counsel,
and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
and be sated with their own devices.
For waywardness kills the simple,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;
but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease,
without dread of disaster.’”
– Proverbs 1:20-33
The apostle James writes: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!
And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.” – James 3:1-12
The apostle Mark writes: “Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” – Mark 8:27-38
God’s word matters, and because human beings are made in the image of God, the words we speak matter.
All three of our readings for today talk about what different groups of people say, the words they speak. In the reading from Mark, Jesus asks the questions “who do people say that I am?” and “who do you say that I am?”
Jesus does not ask “what do people believe in?” or “what do you believe in?” or “what do you think?” but “what do you say?”
In this passage, Jesus separates people into two groups: those who speak truth about him, and those who don’t. And he does this throughout the gospels, pointing out (in particular) the difference between what the scribes and Pharisees know about him, and what they say about him. Because they know Jesus is the Messiah but they’ll never admit it, they’ll never speak it.
What is spoken… matters.
In the reading from James, James also separates people into two groups: those who are able to control their tongues, and those who aren’t. Controlling the tongue is a tough challenge for all of us, myself included. And control of the tongue involves not just refraining from harsh words, but also speaking good words when needed. It’s about the appropriate use of words.
The ability to speak the truth, and the ability to speak appropriately, calls for wisdom, which leads us to the reading from Proverbs, one of the wisdom books in the Old Testament.
The author of Proverbs also divides people into two groups: those who are wise, and those who are scoffers. The word scoffer is kind of an old-fashioned word, one we don’t use very often. To scoff is “to speak in a scornful or mocking way; to ridicule… belittle… to speak contemptuously.”
The opposite of scoff is praise. And I think that’s important – I’ll come back to it.
But for now let’s dig into what the writer of Proverbs has to say.
Our reading from Proverbs begins with the words:
“Wisdom cries out in the street, in the squares she raises her voice.”
When I read these words I have to stop and say, “Is this really true?” Because it seems to me like most of the words we hear every day, words we are bombarded with, are anything but words of wisdom. We hear words of advertisers, words of politicians, words of bosses, words of co-workers, words of preachers sometimes, but how often are those words actually words of wisdom?
People in our time are bombarded with more noise than any generation before us… and sometimes I think it acts on our psyches like itching powder, keeping us vaguely dissatisfied with life and feeling at odds with the world around us.
And yet at the same time Wisdom does cry out in the street. Her voice is heard. Sometimes wisdom comes to us in the words of people like Mother Teresa or more recently Pope Francis. Sometimes it comes to us in the words of a nation, like the people of Poland who said recently, “It only costs $3000 per person to save the life of a refugee. It’s a small price to pay for a human life. Let them come.” Sometimes it comes in the voice of a child, like one of the neighbor’s children the other day, who said to her mother, “Look Mom, this little kitten lost her family, can we give her a home?” (Compassion is one way wisdom expresses itself.)
On the other side of the coin, as the writer of Proverbs points out, there are people who deliberately reject wisdom. Proverbs says: “scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge.”
Nowhere is this more evident than on social media. Anytime anyone says anything on the Internet about God or faith they are sure to be met with scoffers. There are people who prowl the ‘net for hours looking for people of faith to belittle and insult.
Here’s an example I came across this past week. I was reading an article on the Huffington Post called This River Church Does Religion Right. It’s about a new kind of church down in North Carolina that is reaching out to people who are young and athletic and who feel close to God in nature, and tend to spend their Sundays boating on the river rather than going to church. This church has opened up a chapel on the beach of the river, so the boaters can pull over and join in the service and then keep on boating. It sounds like a cool idea.
In the comments section after the article there were a few people who said they liked the idea, but they were quickly silenced by comments like these:
- “Which of the thousands of gods do you feel closer to by observing the beauty of evolution?” –OR-
- “It is so amazing to me that anyone who has an IQ above that of a peanut still adheres to and professes myths and superstitions put forth by any and all religions.”
This is modern-day scoffing.
If it makes us feel any better, this kind of scoffing is not new… it’s just found a new venue. Back in the 1700s, British preacher Charles Simeon wrote that believers were often told their faith was “the effervescence of a heated imagination” or “the offspring of a weak, enthusiastic mind.” Things haven’t changed much in 300 years!
As I was thinking about scoffing this week and what it means to scoff, I turned the TV on – I was flipping channels – and I flipped to America’s Got Talent and got an earful of one of America’s most famous professional scoffers: Howard Stern. I don’t know the man personally, but I’ve heard stories about him, that he is a totally different person in real life, and that when his kids were growing up he wouldn’t let them to listen to his own radio show. I always thought, if this was true, it was a bit hypocritical to make a fortune feeding verbal garbage to our children that he wouldn’t feed to his own children. But I thought I’d better check my facts before I said anything, so I went out and asked Google a few pointed questions and this is what I found:
A few years ago, when Howard Stern’s daughter Emily was in her mid-20s, she gave an interview in which she said that, growing up, she was not explicitly forbidden from tuning in to her father’s program, “but there was the sense of ‘You wouldn’t want to listen; it’s not your father.’”
When she finally did listen her initial reaction was: ““I remember being like, ‘That isn’t my dad. Who is this?’ Then once I reached the age when it was maybe acceptable to listen … it really just wasn’t what I was interested in, in seeing my dad that way, and also the content.”
Asked by the interviewer about whether she saw her parents’ divorce coming, [she] responded, “Living this character on the radio, there’s only so much you can say, ‘It’s not me’ before you embody it – I think that’s a bit of what happened.”
It’s a sad story and I share it, not to tear the man down, but as an example. Jesus warned all of us when he said, “what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?”
BTW there is a ray of hope in the article: Stern’s daughter is now a practicing Orthodox Jew and is in the process of sharing her faith with her father. I pray God’s blessing on those conversations.
In our reading from Proverbs for today, Wisdom speaks and says to the scoffers: “when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind… Then [you] will call upon me, but I will not answer; [you] will seek me diligently, but will not find me.” (Prov 1:27-28)
Wisdom is not being vindictive; wisdom is telling it like it is, because wisdom can’t be gained overnight. When the day of trouble comes, either we’ve done our homework or we haven’t. Now is the time to search for wisdom, before the hard times come, before we’re so set in our ways that we can’t change.
Scripture has a great deal to say about wisdom, and the value of wisdom, and how to get wisdom. Here are just a few of the highlights:
- Psalm 111:10: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.” Notice the tie-in between wisdom and praise again. And when scripture speaks of the ‘fear of the Lord’ this does not mean we’re ‘scared of God’ but more like ‘in awe of God’. Seeing God as awesome is the beginning of wisdom.
- Proverbs 2:6-13: “For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding… he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly, guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones…” Wisdom includes knowledge but just knowledge; it also includes God’s protection, God’s justice, and God’s preservation.
- Proverbs 8:10-11: “Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.”
- Proverbs 19:8: “To get wisdom is to love oneself; to keep understanding is to prosper.”
- 1 Corinthians 1:20-24: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
- James 1:5: “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.”
From these verses we can see that wisdom is connected to understanding; praise; protection; enlightened self-interest and self-care; humility; prosperity; and faith.
So what can we take away from this? First, as scripture says, “God is not willing that any should perish”. Even those who have scoffed in the past are welcome to turn away from their scoffing and learn wisdom. God’s wisdom is found in God’s word: God’s written word in the scriptures, and God’s living word in the life of of Jesus, the Word of God.
Secondly, if any of us feels that we lack wisdom, or need more wisdom, we should ask God for it, knowing that this is a request God has never said ‘no’ to, when asked with a whole heart.
And third, if the awe of God is the beginning of wisdom, then praise is the result of wisdom. We need to take the opportunity to praise God whenever we can, by whatever means we can: in prayer, in song, in the words that we share with each other.
So this week, as we walk with God, let us seek after wisdom… pray for wisdom… and praise God. AMEN.
Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 9/13/15