“Words of Wisdom”
When Christians gather for worship Sunday-by-Sunday, we come expecting many different things. Whether in-person or online, we anticipate music and prayers. We know that we will read from the Bible, God’s Word to us. We will consider what God is saying to us in our time, and we will respond in a variety of ways to what we have heard.
Presbyterians and Christians that belong to the Reformed family of churches may not expect the services always to include sacraments like the Communion we shared last Sunday, but you do expect a significant sermon. That may be one of the reasons why many of you have hung on during times of online services only. Because even if we can’t see each other, or hug one another, or share food together, at least you can still hear the sermon. And you hope that the minister will say something worth your time and attention in listening.
I gave this morning’s sermon the title “Words of Wisdom” – not because I was over-confident that I would have some words of wisdom for you today, but because our first reading is from Proverbs chapter one, one of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures that is part of the official “wisdom books” in the Bible.
The words of wisdom today come from authors many centuries ago who were reflecting on life, God, and everything, and gathering together their advice and teaching to assist their community in living “in a good way,” as our Indigenous elders would say.
The first nine chapters of Proverbs are dated to the post-exilic period, after the Israelites had returned from Babylon and were settling once again in Judah and Jerusalem. In their original context, they were probably written by a teacher to a young male neophyte addressed as “my son,” on the need to obtain wisdom, who is imagined as a worthy woman. Wisdom is contrasted to Folly, who at points is imagined as a strange, foreign, seductress bent on adultery.
Although the stereotypes of the good pious woman versus the dangerous tempting woman are not particularly helpful for us today, still, the Book of Proverbs may yet contain some wisdom from God for us to consider as individuals and as a community.
In our passage today, Woman Wisdom (and you may want to think of her as a personification of God)… Woman Wisdom “cries out in the street, and 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?”
It seems to me that God is frustrated with the people. They’ve been ignoring her teaching and her wisdom. They’ve been acting foolishly, selfishly, and no matter how many times she reaches out to them, calls to them, and invites them to heed her wise and beneficial commandments, they continue to turn away.
I can’t help but wonder what God is thinking about human behaviour in our time. Certainly, I know that God must sigh at the silly things we do, at the repetitiveness of our sins and errors, at our self-centeredness and the ways we waste our time and energy on unimportant things, and neglect to do the things that are right and good to enact God’s love in the world.
But in the midst of the global pandemic, God must be wringing her hands in frustration at the folly that we are all seeing around us!
Protesters objecting to masks and stay-at-home orders. Anti-vaxxers refusing to follow well-founded health directives that would keep themselves and all of us safe. Governments choosing to stubbornly prioritize personal freedom at the expense of the common good, the risk of our health care system being overwhelmed, and the serious harm to those who have to wait longer to receive medical tests, emergency services, or procedures for other major health issues.
In our passage today, it seems that Woman Wisdom is already losing patience with the foolish people who refuse to listen to her voice, and we can relate. She has already poured out her thoughts to them and made her words known to them. She has called to them, but they have refused. She has stretched out her hand, but no one heeded. And so she tells them that she is about to give up on them, to laugh at their calamity and mock when panic strikes them.
Certainly, those who stubbornly refuse to listen to the advice of doctors and scientists and experts in viruses and vaccines cannot claim that they didn’t know how to avoid getting Covid and spreading it to their loved ones, neighbours, and strangers in their community. Through the gifts of scientific research, publicly-funded health care, amazing communication systems, and dedicated health and public service professionals, God has given us everything we need to choose wisdom in this country, and to work together to end the Covid-19 Pandemic.
But here we are in a 4th Wave in Saskatchewan – a pandemic of the unvaccinated with people getting sick at alarming rates because we didn’t all listen, and we didn’t keep public health measures in force long enough to avoid another wave.
Now, I have to say that there’s something troubling about how Wisdom and Folly are depicted in the Book of Proverbs. “According to Proverbs, if you are wise and pious, good things will happen; if you are the opposite (unwise and impious) then bad things, such as hardships and suffering, will follow. In such a fair and ordered universe, the ethical and religious actions of the individual are depicted as wholly determinant of the outcome.
“Understandably, as a result, Wisdom is portrayed as rather unsympathetic to those who suffer hardship. If hardships are the inevitable result of the sufferer who chose to be unwise, then it was entirely the sufferer’s fault and, hence, there is little need for sympathy or understanding.”
It’s that kind of thinking that could lead some of us to laugh at or even to abandon those who refuse vaccinations and then get seriously ill. Well, they got the results of their folly when they attended that huge gathering with no masks, no vaccination passports, and no distancing either!
But we know, when we think about it carefully, that it often doesn’t work that way. Sometimes the foolish ones get sick, and sometimes the careful people do too, despite their best efforts. Maybe we do feel tempted to mock the healthy 40-year-old who makes poor choices and ends up in ICU, but there are also the medically-vulnerable people, and the kids, and the health care workers who risk their own well-being to care for others.
It seems to me that the Book of Proverbs does have it right. But it’s not so much a formula for an individual – like, “Act foolishly and suffer the consequences” – but I think it’s an accurate proverb for whole communities and societies and even for the world.
When we work together and seek and follow wisdom, that’s when our human communities flourish. When we support scientific research and listen to the advice of experts, and make public policy that puts the best wisdom we have into action for the common good, that’s when our societies will become more healthy and harmonious and peaceful and joyful for all of us together.
If we want to get through the Pandemic together, we need to heed Wisdom together. We are in this together, and none of us will get through it unless all of us get through it.
But there’s something else about this passage from Proverbs that I think is important to note, and that is that it’s not the end of the story. You probably remember that throughout the history of human people in relationship with God, we’ve struggled and often stubbornly refused to heed God’s wisdom and live in God’s way.
We often recount how even as we continued to turn away, God continued to call out to us, to reach out to us through prophets and leaders who called us back, both to obedience and to relationship with the God who made us and who loves us.
And then, after centuries of God’s faithfulness and human fickleness, God sent a Son. God sent Jesus into the world to be God’s Word made flesh, to be God’s Wisdom in human form, to come to us in person to make absolutely sure that we would get the message.
John’s Gospel describes him as the true light, which enlightens everyone, who was coming into the world. And then it goes on: “And he came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”
God, in Christ, responded to a world full of fools who turned away and ignored God. And though God had once threatened, in frustration, to laugh at our calamity and leave us to our self-destruction, God’s loving, forgiving nature prevailed.
And Jesus came, and Jesus taught, and Jesus brought wisdom in word and deed. Jesus loved us in our current state, just as we were, and then he gave his whole life to show us God’s love and wisdom.
Yes, the logical consequence of our collective foolishness is disaster. But by God’s grace, we are given another chance to open our ears, and our hearts, and our lives to wisdom.
God, guide us today and in the days ahead by your wisdom, for the sake of the world you so love.