Proverbs 1:20-33. Last week I spoke of my dream of preaching a series on Proverbs. As people navigate what they perceive as boundaries between sacred and secular, it’s intriguing that Proverbs appears to teach about secular things, while the sacred was covered by priests, temple, sacrifice. Wisdom understands that nothing is merely secular; everything is sacred. God made and cares about everything. What we do with our pots and pans, whether you step on a worm, the next check you write, or a tree in your backyard: all are part of God’s world, all require some patient attention from the spiritually attuned. John Wesley’s great gift to Christendom is what he called “practical divinity.”
Our text is the key in the 9 chapter overture to the book, which sets the pithy sayings in rich context, originating with God, intimately interwoven into the life of faith. Alternating voices, parent with child, then the Wise Woman in the street, back home, then to a more wily, dangerous Woman in the street, back to the family, before the Wise Woman has her final say. Wisdom is all over family life, ants crawling in the yard, and also the street, the workplace, shopping, friendship, strangers, politics, and real dangers to body and soul.
Street dangers? Ask a parent of an adolescent, any anybody with a pulse. Out there we encounter real danger, delusion, the very real, possibility that poor choices will be made, that wisdom will be frittered away or flat-out rejected. This is the drama of the inner life. Real, daily life with God is a thousand little choices in hundreds of reenacted scenes. Are you going on to perfection? Or just sliding by, hoping God isn’t interested in business, romance, or friendship, or that all will be forgiven—so why risk becoming fastidious?
“Wisdom shouts.” Wisdom isn’t inaudible. She’s like a street preacher or a peddler, but with holy wares. If Proverbs fretted over the competing racket in the world, how much harder is it for us today to hear Wisdom’s voice above the din? Some inner quiet, and an attentive ear are required.
Wisdom asks “How long?” Usually this question, frequently occurring in the Psalms, is voiced toward God by those puzzled by God’s seeming absence. How often is our sense of God’s absence a predictable outcome of a life that has “paid no attention” to Wisdom? Tone of voice is hard to determine in Scripture. “They didn’t want my advice”: is Wisdom annoyed, or disgusted? Or is there a plaintive pain in her voice?
Her shouts in the public square remind us of the origins of Methodism, where the Wesleys took the Gospel out of the churches and into the streets and factories. We also recall that Jesus—“the foolishness of God . . . wiser than human wisdom”—was executed on a wide street for all to see; his voice still calls to us, “How long will . . . mockers hold their mocking dear? . . . I invited you, but you rejected me.”
Psalm 19 is pretty inviting for a sermon. I preached on it during our Psalm series in the Spring. We begin with Creation, big creation, like from 15 billion years ago, inviting us to be in awe, not because it’s photogenic, but because it reveals God’s mind and heart. There’s music in the air… Ancient people believed the stars left music in their wake as they streamed across the sky. Science says No, but then we miss the awe, the joy. Paired quite naturally with this is the Psalm’s pleasure, sheer delight in the Law. Not a burden, not to make us chafe, but the marvelous gift of the God who created so we then can be created, re-created as beautiful people in sync with God’s lovely, sweet ways in the world.
James 3:1-12 is a scary text for the clergy. We’re judged against some higher standard? We might push back against laity who think so. They have a biblical point – although they might veer into irrelevancies. We are called to lead, not just by droning on up front in worship, but in living a life that is interesting, and at least veering toward the holy. James’s word “perfect” in verse 2 is teleios in Greek, meaning mature, complete, not squeaky clean, mistake-free, unbroken. We Methodist clergy promise at our ordination that we will be going on to perfection. Not a flawless but a purposeful life and ministry direction. A wise old preaching once said “If you’re not going on to perfection, then where exactly are you headed?”
The image of the bit in the horse’s mouth illustrates – as Plato envisioned the controlling of the passions in the opening sentences of The Phaedrus. It’s not tamping down our passions, but directing them. If you’ve ridden horses, or driven a motorboat (the rudder image here also!), talk about that, how it’s not afflicting the horse or the boat, but the only way peacefully to move forward in a beautiful way to some attractive destination.
The genuinely scary small thing is, of course, the tongue. We’ll face an uphill battle persuading our people that how we talk, what we post to Facebook, our chatter at a diner or by the watercooler, matters to God, and is our witness. It’s not mouthing sugary sweet things, but asking if our words build up, are constructive, and in some way mirror the Fruit of the Spirit. In my book, Worshipful, I look closely at how we talk in worship, so the creed, the prayers, etc., and how then we are learning how to talk out there. Not a testimony of how I came to Christ, but some wisdom perhaps?
Richard Bauckham, commenting on this passage way back in 1998, was remarkably prescient about the sad, rancorous place we’ve found ourselves when it comes to that perilously fiery small thing, the tongue: “The best instance in which a contemporary concern approaches James’s moral interest in the tongue is that of the mass media, whose power to distort the truth and to do considerable harm to private persons, as well as exerting considerable influence on political events, for good or ill, has become more and more evident.”
Mark 8:27-38 is the axis on which the entire story of Jesus turns. If you’ve not preached well on this, you should… although I may go with Proverbs and James as I’ve covered this text quite a few times. I’ll point you to my previous blog – although I would add these spot-on insightful renderings from Sarah Ruden’s new translation of The Gospels: instead of “He spoke openly,” she has “He was giving this discourse with confident freedom.” Peter spoke “sternly” to him. Jesus then “castigated” Peter. And then her championship line: “If someone wants to follow behind me, let him renounce all claim to himself, pick up the stake he’ll be hung on, and follow me.” Boom. All spiritual sentimentality swept aside in a moment.