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Mar 10, 2019

Wisdom: an Introduction

Passage: Romans 11:33-36

Speaker: Michael E. Karunas

Series: Lent Sermon Series

Category: Sermon Series


(Read Romans 11:33-36)  Our theme for the next 6 weeks is “Wisdom,” and I thought it would be good to try to give some kind of definition to that word “wisdom.”  To that I end I posted a question this week: Who is the wisest person you’ve ever met and what made them wise?  Many people responded and their responses seemed to fit a pattern.  The majority of wise people shared with me: 1) were mostly a parent or grandparent – definitely someone older who was not born with wisdom but rather it came with experience. 2) they had a broad world-view and were well read, good listeners, and could see different perspectives; 3) because of this they were considered to be fair in their judgment; and 4) because of this, they give good advice.  How does that resonate with the “wise” people you know? 

As I was collecting these responses, I also googled “wisdom” and came across an article entitled: “How to Get Wisdom?  Follow these Easy Steps.”  That’s certainly not how I think of “getting wisdom,” as though it were one more thing to check off on a to-do list for the day.  Okay let’s see what did I accomplish today?  Go to work, attend that meeting, pick the kids up from practice, get wisdom… check, check, check and check.  That seems too trivial and transactional.  And yet, the article mentioned these three steps – 1) Be open minded (that sounds like well read and a good listener); 2) be willing to try new thing and make mistakes (sounds like obtaining experience); and 3) know yourself. 

That last one sounds like the classical definitions of wisdom.  Socrates said that wisdom begins with knowing that you know nothing.  That is, knowing yourself.  If we think we know it all already, we will not be motivated to listen, to read, or to consider any other perspective than our own.  But wisdom has to be about more than just knowing things.  Albert Einstein said that “any fool can know things.  The point is to understand.”  So wisdom is linked more with understanding than knowledge.  And that reminded me of the Roman philosopher Cicero who said that there are 3 levels of intelligence.  First there are facts or data.  For example, the Civil War began in 1861 and ended in 1865.  That’s a fact.  Next, there is knowledge – putting facts together.  The Civil War was fought between the north and south due to different interpretations of states’ ability to make their own decisions about matters deeply connected to the economics of slavery and racial oppression.  But then there’s the deepest level of intelligence – understanding or wisdom - For example, recognizing the influence of the Civil War on the way we talk about and act on issues of class, race, economics and politics today.

Of course, wisdom is not just concerned with the past, but rather about how we live in the present and the future.  That’s why we seek out wise people for their advice.  We want help in figuring out who to be and how to live as me forward.  Which is why my favorite definition of wisdom is “Understanding the right thing to do at the right time.”  I like this because it brings God into the equation.  And for us as people of faith, God has to be at the heart of how we think of wisdom.  Scripture says that God is wisdom; that to have God is to have wisdom; and that the way to access wisdom is through faith.  Prov 1:7 says “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  Fear, here, is meant to be understood as faith, awe, deep reverence for.  For me, doing the right thing is doing the thing that pleases God; the godly thing; the thing that fits in with God’s greater plans for my life, even if that may be different than what I had planned for a particular moment or a particular day.  It’s a way of confessing, “Lord, not my will be done, but thy will.”

True wisdom is not just seeing things from a different perspective, it is seeing things from God’s perspective.  It is not just having experience, it is having experience of living with God.  It is not just being a good listener, it is listening for the voice of God.  That’s what wisdom is.  But how to attain it??? 

Our reading from Romans 11 makes it sound like it’s impossible to understand God.  Paul says that “God’s wisdom is deep… his ways are unsearchable.”  It seems to suggest that God’s wisdom is “unfathomably deep,” too deep to explore, too big to comprehend.  As I was reflecting on that verse this week I thought of the oceans on our planet.  Did you know that while oceans cover 70% of our planet, scientists have only explored 5% of them?  That we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about what’s under the water of our oceans?  That in the just 5% of the oceans we have explored, there are over 240,000 known species that live?  Or that the largest mountain chain on the planet, stretching over 40,000 miles lies underwater?  Or that the ocean, at its deepest point is 66 times as deep as Lake Michigan is at its deepest point???  Imagine what is under the water that we don’t know about?  When scripture says “God’s wisdom is deep” we can start to grasp how monumental a task it is to attain God’s wisdom.

And that’s Paul’s point, I believe.  When we consider God’s wisdom and God’s ways, and we recognize how vast all of that must be, we have two choices.  We can give up and say, It’s too big.  We’ll never figure anything out.”  Or we can respond with faith and trust.  We can believe that even though the task is great, God is there waiting and desiring for us to explore; that God doesn’t want to remain hidden from us.  We can believe that God gives us a tool to help us in that exploration – scripture.  For Paul, Scripture is like a lens (a pair of glasses we put on) that helps us see God’s wisdom and God’s ways more clearly.  Like Nicholas Cage, in the movie “National Treasure,” putting on a pair of glasses left behind by Benjamin Franklin to read a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence that would remain hidden and invisible to us were it not for those glasses, the Word of God helps us see the Ways of God more clearly.

And we can trust that Proverbs 4 says “The wisdom of God comes like the dawn.”  I think that is a wonderful image.  Because while there is a precise time that the sun rises and dawn appears, when you’re outside as daybreaks it happens gradually.  It slowly gets lighter and lighter until you stand in total daylight but looking back, you don’t recognize a moment when it was night but then became day.  It’s that way with God’s wisdom too.  The more we look at the world through the lens of scripture and seek to look at the world through God’s eyes, the more wisdom will come to us, gradually and slowly, but it will come.  In the same way that experience comes to us, not all at once but gradually over time. 

When we lived in Baton Rouge our neighbor was an old, retired oil worker from OK.  He told me that when he was a young man in the depression, he went looking for a job in the oil fields.  They asked him if he had experience and he lied and said yes.  He lasted a day until they found out he had no experience and they fired him.  So he went to another oil field, lied about having experience, and lasted 2-3 days.  He told me, Michael, I kept doing this over and over again, until pretty soon, I had experience and they couldn’t fire me!  So it is with God’s wisdom.  The more we seek it, the more it comes to us.

Which is the goal of our sermon series that we begin today: Seeking Wisdom.  Each week we will focus on a verse from Proverbs 4, which encourages us to seek God’s Wisdom.  And we are handing out journal books today that we invite you to use during this sermon series.  For each week of the series, there is one verse from Proverbs 4 and one question or assignment.  You are then invited to reflect on that verse and question/assignment throughout the week and write down whatever thoughts come to your mind.  Today’s verse is Prov 4:5 – “Do not turn away from the Word of God.”  And the assignment is: Ask God to grant you wisdom; to open your mind; to see things from a different perspective; to seek to be fair in your judgments.  Wisdom may not come to you all at once this week – or even at the end of our 6 weeks.  But it will come.  The more we give ourselves to the exploration of God’s Word and God’s ways, it will come.  That is our prayer, but it is also our assurance that we have through faith.