In this sermon, preached at Caldecote Church on the second Sunday before Lent 2018, the Revd David Newton explores what it means to pursue wisdom.
Whenever I get down to pray, one of the first things that comes off my lips, almost as a plea of desperation, is a prayer for wisdom. It’s not a very holy prayer, just a guttural response, as I seek to live and lead wisely in this place.
The whole section of Proverbs 1-9 is a call to set our hearts and minds on the pursuit of wisdom. For each of us is in desperate need of wisdom, all the time. That’s not to say you’re a stupid lot (I promise). It is instead to realise that we all daily face decisions that require constant discernment.
Do I phone my sister tonight who I haven’t spoken to all month, or is it okay to slob in front of the TV ‘cause I’m shattered?
Should I buy this more expensive chicken because it is free range even though money is tight this month?
I wonder if so-and-so is okay, they seemed a bit down this morning; I could get in touch but don’t want to intrude, should I pop round or not?
We could go on and on, and endless list of small everyday decisions, each of which have to be made one way or another, and all of which require wisdom. No wonder the writer of Proverbs prized it more than silver or gold, or health or anything else in all creation.
As humans we have this wonderful ability to reflect, to reason, to ruminate, in a way that no other animal can… It’s hard to think of even a monkey or dolphin possessing wisdom. But we who are able to live self-critically, are burdened? Gifted? Privileged? With seeking wisdom – with learning to make good choices.
Of course we could spurn wisdom. And the Proverbs are full of stories of folk who do.
We are at liberty to live without self-criticism, without the hard work of letting ourselves be changed by others, without the joy of growing and learning and re-thinking again and again.
Such a life is an option, but it is dull, fickle and lifeless.
For as our passage makes clear Wisdom is tied up with Delight. The pursuit of wisdom is the path of Joy.
Pursuing wisdom is about learning to live the way we were made; it is about learning to tune ourselves into the music of the universe and dance along. The pursuit of wisdom is no kill-joy. It does not come along and make us dull, boring and overly sensible. Neither does it lead us to a self-righteous masochism that sacrifices ourselves and others on the altar of our own ego.
Instead, Wisdom, because it is embedded into creation itself (as Proverbs tells us) is where wholeness and Joy are found.
How then do we get our hands on such a pearl of great price?
Well, as you won’t be surprised to hear me say – it begins with Jesus! The OT personification of wisdom is taken up in the NT and applied to Christ. In John 1 we hear Jesus described as the Word – the logos (in Greek). In the thinking of the day the logos is Reason itself; the logic of all things. The echoes with Proverbs 8 are impossible to miss. This Wisdom, this Reason, this logos, has suddenly come down with flesh on for us to touch and listen to, and converse with.
We want to pursue wisdom – we look to Jesus.
And then we look to the Holy Spirit. The deposit of the Spirit of Jesus given to us, to lead us into all truth.
We want to pursue wisdom – we look to Jesus and we listen to his Spirit speaking to our spirit.
But just saying that is glib and banal. Such lofty ideas don’t really help us very much in that day to day mundane reality of small choices.
I still don’t know whether to phone my sister, buy that free range chicken, or visit that person I thought seemed down. I still don’t if I should be giving more money to charity, or should march on Westminster about carbon emissions, or chain myself to a tree to protest about HS2 (as one vicar from London did last week).
We come to Jesus as we find him in the scripture, we seek the Holy Spirit in the quiet of our heart – those are our foundations yes, but they have to somehow be applied and interpreted in a thousand different ways.
So what are we to do? I want to suggest one thing, and one thing alone…
Pursuing wisdom requires us to ‘open ourselves up’… to be open to seeing the world in new ways and discovering new possibilities; to be a lifelong learner that is happy to be changed and challenged; to be ready to receive wisdom from the most unexpected people and places.
Let me give you a couple of anecdotes…
This Christmas I received a book entitled ‘The Ethical Carnivore’. The title is an odd choice, but it the story of Louise Grey who decides to only eat meat or fish that she kills herself, and at the same time sets about investigating the UK meat industry. The book tells some hard truths and challenges the reader to think hard about animal welfare, sustainability and our relationship with nature. It got my cogs turning and has made a big impact on our shopping habits. She writes with no faith basis about an area the church has shockingly little to say. She is a prophet to the church perhaps? Here is wisdom in an unexpected place. And pursuing it, opening ourselves up to its voice, changing our shopping habits, has been – guess what – a Joy, a delight.
A second anecdote….
I remember being 14 ish and telling my youth leader how much I hated liturgy. How set words were dull lifeless stupid things that weren’t at all what relationship with Jesus was about. She probably gave me a great response as to why I was talking nonsense, but I definitely didn’t have ears to hear at that time. Years later, in a college chapel, I began to appreciate the routine of words said week in week out that I could cling on to through the ups and down of life. There was wisdom to be found when I was 14, but I was too stubborn to listen. I was ‘closed off’ and I was worse off because of it.
At heart, both of these stories are about an openness (or not) to be challenged and changed.
As Proverbs makes clear, we have a choice:
We can pursue folly. We can stick rigidly to what we’ve always thought, refusing ever to listen or be changed. And so miss Jesus as Wisdom itself walks on by.
Or we can pursue wisdom. We can open ourselves up to new possibilities and ways of seeing the world, to a life of learning and discovery, to having our mind changed again and again. Whilst all the time being grounded in the stories of Christ and the witness of the Spirit.
This is what it is to pursue wisdom. It is the narrow way Jesus calls us on, fully of tricky discernment, but it also the path of Joy and Delight.