Proverbs 1:1-9, 20-33
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Proverbs, chapter 1. We’re starting a new series today through the book of Proverbs which I’m planning to take us all the way through the Easter season and through ordinary time, to advent, in the same way we studied Isaiah last year.
I’m excited for this series. Proverbs is like the OG Twitter; but, unlike Twitter, it’s worthwhile. The book is filled with little brief couplets and lines, each one of them worth a lifetime of consideration and remembrance. I would think of Proverbs as a mother and father writing a letter to their children, with everything they thought their children should know about how to live, and why, and what life is for.
I wanted to do this series for a number of reasons—first and foremost because in this book we find wisdom, like daily bread, able to nourish us and spiritually form us in daily ways, in the small, work-a-day moments which the Spirit of God inhabits just as fully as he inhabits this hour each week on Sunday morning.
But also for this reason: we need wisdom today. To quote Isaiah, “Truth has stumbled in the public squares.” We’ve replaced wisdom with information, and we’ve replaced it with something, borrowing from Chris Armstrong, something I’ll call “immediatism,” And it’s ok if you aren’t familiar with that concept, I’m going to explain. But I’m going to argue, both are poor replacements for wisdom. We need wisdom today.
The best and most hilarious example of what I mean can be found in the book, or movie, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” by Douglas Adams. In it, humanity spend hundreds of years, massive planetary resources, building a computer to answer the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything—and they succeed. There’s this hilarious moment where they finally succeed in building this computer to give them the answer to the ultimate question, thousands gather in pilgrimage to hear it, and the answer is: 42. And slowly you see it dawn in the expressions of those gathered, this understanding, to their horror, after all of that time and effort: they don’t know the question.
Or, more simply, to quote Jon Foreman, “we’ve got information in the information age, but do we know what life is?” The internet, university systems, social media, political movements, and artistic expression are our public squares, and in them, we’ve found almost more answers than we can bear as a society. Answers are everywhere. The internet is like the giant machine we’ve all spent our lifetimes building, hours upon hours creating pages and videos. Every internet search bears thousands of results within seconds, more than anyone would be able to read or watch in a lifetime. We’ve got answers by the millions, but do we know what the questions are?
We have information, but do we have wisdom? We need wisdom today, because there’s an important difference between information and wisdom. Information is knowing the difference between who and whom, lay and lie; wisdom is knowing your wife doesn’t care. Information is knowing all the words to Justin Bieber’s new album; wisdom is not listening to it. Information is knowing the route from here to Dayton Beach; wisdom is going to the mountains instead.
But more seriously, information is knowing you’re on a wrong path in life; wisdom is knowing which step to take next to walk back in the right direction. Information is knowing, better than anyone, the ins and outs of your work; wisdom is putting the work down and going home to family or spending time building friendships. Information is knowing how to make money; wisdom is knowing what in life is actually valuable. Information is knowing the Bible inside and out; wisdom is living life in the way God intended. Information is knowing the truth of the gospel; wisdom is teaching it to your neighbors and children.
What are the questions, my friends, the ones we should actually be asking, the ones that are worth our lifetimes? We have as many answers as we can bear. This wonderful book of Proverbs is going to help us find the questions. So go with me, Proverbs, chapter 1, and we’re going to read 1-9 and 20-33. […] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
Wisdom has a source. Wisdom has a source. I’m going to say something now which is wildly countercultural. We, humanity, are not the source of wisdom or knowledge in our world. God is. And I know, it doesn’t sound like it’s that different, or that wild of an idea, that wisdom and knowledge are sourced in God—but it is. It doesn’t sound very different only because like a language, when an idea is all around us, when we were raised with it, when everyone with whom we’ve ever interacted agrees with a particular idea, we cease to recognize the idea or the expression of it in our lives and thought. The idea we’ve always believed becomes not an object we observe, but a lens through which we observe everything else. So let me first attempt to express what it is we all believe, and then I can explain why I say what the author of proverbs is saying is wildly countercultural in our place and time.
In a word, the idea everyone believes is progress. Progress. Our society has believed in progress now for about 400 years—so a relatively new idea, but one we pretty much all at this point believe. The idea started in what we called “the age of discovery,” and our evidences of progress are mainly in our technological achievement. We crossed seas and “discovered” new lands, conquering the peoples in them, whom we called uncivilized.
We went to the moon and built weapons able to destroy nations. Our cars carry us farther than they used to, certainly farther than horses could, or donkeys. We’re able to communicate now all over the world all at once, whereas before we had to speak face to face. Through industrialization, we are able to build enormous quantities of items quickly. Peoples who do not have these things, or who choose to embrace lifestyles or ideas from before this progress was made, we call backwards. There is a backwards in our minds because we who are progressive are living at the forefront of the forwards.
We imagine humanity to be on some kind of upward social trajectory, like evolution, and we modern people are the ones standing fully upright intellectually after enduring centuries of stooping, crawling, and mucking about in the ancient, classical, and middle ages. Knowledge is viewed as an ever-mounting compendium, a growing body of knowledge, we are “standing on the shoulders of giants” able to see farther than they ever could. And here our conception comes close to something true, though we miss the irony. We are standing at the top of something we’ve built, but it’s not alive—living things are born, not built—what we’ve built in our society is mechanical, more like a tower or a factory than a body, and we have yet to realize the mountaintop, there from ancient days, is much higher and wilder, and more lasting than anything we have built.
I would encourage you to think about our time and place as an historical “period.” As Lewis writes, “our own age is also a ‘period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack, or feels it necessary to defend them.” One of those lurking ideas in our day and age is progress. By gaining technological advancements, for example, we’ve certainly moved, I just believe we’ve moved largely away from and not toward our purpose as human beings. In that case, what looks like progress is actually loss, and those who are backwards, and walking in the opposite direction, are actually further along the road then we are.
Now, I want to be clear. I’m not talking about the 1950s and advocating a return to the good old days. There is not a single time since the fall to which I would desire to return. I’m talking about reorienting our mindset so that we view ancient wisdom, like this book of Proverbs, as more valuable in our lives than the most popular, best researched thinking today. I’m talking about respecting the ancients, and those throughout the great tradition of the Church, as much as we respect ourselves and the great people of this age. I’m talking about children listening to the instructions of their mothers and fathers, all of them, through the ages, because life is brief, and they are not so ancient, not so different, as we believe. Solomon depicts Wisdom as a mother, born in the ancient past, speaking truth to us in the streets and markets, at the gates. She’s ever instructing us, but do we listen?
So you see, the idea Proverbs is resting upon, that “the fear [the awe] of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” or stated elsewhere, “the beginning of wisdom.” Is wildly countercultural. It goes against one of our lenses, our worldview, one of our axioms, our base assumptions. The source of knowledge, of wisdom, is in the heavens, and not among those on earth. More in the past than in the present or future. This idea of knowledge and wisdom is something we need today, something we should recover. To do so, we have to start asking the right questions.
Ask yourself: Do I believe knowledge is derived from progress, so that our society today has more answers than humanity has ever held in the past, or rather is knowledge derived from a God who has been speaking in his word, in sacrament, and in creation since the beginning? The world had a childhood, friends, and an infancy. Information is to know the experience of adulthood; wisdom is to learn and seek the innocence of childhood.
Ask yourself: Have the things I’ve believed in life brought me closer, or further, from God? Do the things I do in my daily life attune me to hear from God, or to hear from society? Let me ask you: Have you ever known the awe of the Lord? And do you know where to find this fear, this awe of God which is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom? Those are good questions.
Wisdom has a source, and wisdom also has a purpose. Wisdom has a purpose. Verse 3, “to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth.”
I was talking just now about ideas which have become so ingrained in our society, we don’t even realize all of the places we find them, and it’s extremely difficult to avoid them. I was reminded of a time a few years ago, I decided to really cut back on my sugar intake. In my mind, this was going to be a small thing—a slight change to improve my health. I’m not really a dessert person, and I’m not a soda person.
But if you’ve ever tried to cut sugar from your diet, you know where this story is going. It’s in everything. Cereal, granola bars, even the healthy kinds, yogurt. Pickles, deli meats, salsa, several types of milk. Preserves, jellies, almost all drinks, all forms of takeout. I decided one time to make meatloaf—meat, cheese, sauce, a safe bet—and I was going from store to store looking for marinara without loads of sugar.
These foolish societal ideas, like humanity’s progress, are the same way. They get into everything—movies, shows, education, politics, art, performance—and, just like too much sugar does our bodies, these ideas begin to misshape us, spiritually, and we lose track of our purpose as humanity. The list in verse 3 is wonderful. Imagine a world, or even a church, characterized by an awe of God, by “wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; giving prudence to the simple and discretion to the youth.” I want to be a part of that purpose, walk that direction. That’s what I’d rather be made of. That’s what I would rather imbibe.
“Take every thought captive,” Paul writes elsewhere, describing what a life lived in Christ requires. As with food, you have to be ruthless and intentional if you want to cut foolishness out of your life, examining your base assumptions, reading the ingredients labels, so to speak, on the ideas you imbibe—until you’re able to stand in awe of God, and imbibe his wisdom, learn to feed it to your children so they can be shaped by it, too, and walk in the right direction. “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching.” You have to be purposeful, but it’s worth it in order to find the purpose of this life.
Wisdom has a source, it has a purpose, and thirdly, this: wisdom is generous. Verse 20, “wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks.” These are daily places, everyday scenes, the places people would gather. A modern teacher might say, “wisdom cries aloud in the grocery store, and on the bus. She comes on the radio and the TV; at the airport and train station she speaks.”
In other words, God is not hiding himself. He’s generous in the sense my friend Martha is generous. If you go to her house, she’s asking you to try this food and that, until you have to tell her, “I can’t eat any more,” at which point she starts making to-go plates for you to take home. God is not sitting idly in the heavens asking us to strive and dance to earn his time and attention. He’s more like a good father, eager to play with, feed, and teach his children.
You don’t have to pay money to buy good religious teaching, or burn books, or become a level thirteen grand mage. Wisdom is on the street corners, and passing out blankets in Jackson Square, Phil. Wisdom is in the Bibles in every hotel drawer, so that the moment we wish to hear wisdom, it is there.
And the deepest truths of God are simple enough to teach to children: Jesus loves me, this I know. Christ is risen; he lives today, and you can know him. He’s calling out to us everywhere we go, in the rising of the sun and the growing, green things, in the Bible and in the church. Even in the French Quarter you can learn his songs and read his word and hear his truths. God is generous, he’s just not pushy. He’s not forceful, so if we turn away he doesn’t pin us down or buttonhole us. If we walk away, he doesn’t bar the door.
He calls out. He waits and watches on the road home. “Wisdom cries aloud in the streets,” as people smirk and push past and assume they already know everything necessary. So my invitation today is to listen. Really listen to what the Lord is teaching you. In his word, in creation, in our gathering together as a church, in small group, in the words of your parents and friends, in prayer, what is wisdom saying to you today?
But with my invitation today comes a warning: wisdom is not going to be immediate. I said earlier, we’ve traded wisdom in our day and time with information and with immediatism, immediateness, this idea that we may, with a single moment’s will, become sanctified and wise in Christ, freed of sin and struggle. But that’s a lie. There is not a shorter way. The pursuit of wisdom is lifelong. It is a “long obedience in the same direction,” to quote Peterson. Our series through the book of Proverbs is about 30 weeks long, and I would encourage you to read the book of Proverbs along with us, but after this series is done, read it again. Speak them to yourself when you sleep and when you wake, these words of wisdom, and in so doing, learn to hear the voice of one who speaks the words of eternal life. Pray with me now.