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Sermon – September 13, 2009: Wisdom Cries Out

Sermon for Sunday, September 13, 2009 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Wisdom Cries Out

Proverbs 1: 20-33; James 3: 1-12; Mark 8: 27-38

I spent a few minutes Tuesday reading the speech the President gave to America’s

students. There was a discernible bias to it– he identified seeking alternative energy

solutions and protecting the environment as worthy goals, assumed that poverty and

homelessness were problems which needed to be addressed, and he said that one of the

valuable achievements of the last fifty years was progress in civil rights. He said a lot of

other things, too, but these are the bits of the address which someone might find

objectionable, I think. The main drift was that this is a nation dependent on the effort and

engagement of its people for its success, and that taking one’s education seriously was a

necessary step toward making a better future.

You know there was a big flap over this. My point is how it illustrates the power of

language. It shows that language is powerful because a single speech can be regarded as

dangerous to children, and it shows the power of language in that generating a public outcry

can shape events.

I’m a little afraid that by opening with that example that I’ve lost some of you already,

that you’re thinking about my politics rather than open to considering the weight of words

and the responsibility to speak conscientiously. Everybody’s right about something in the

example–the President to think that his speaking to students may make some of them try

harder, those who dislike the President to think that his talk may influence some hearers to

have more regard for him, or for what he thinks, than they would wish–and I’m right to think

that beginning a sermon with a public controversy may overwhelm, rather than illuminate,

what I want to say about the Bible’s understanding of words.

So here’s some other examples of the power of language. There is strong

language, words either to give vent to powerful pains or passions, and there is profanity,

usage which risks encroaching on the respect appropriate for religious language, which

means that religious language is credited with a certain power, and there have been and are

religions which preserve an otherwise discarded language for ritual reasons. The idea of

magic says that power resides in “spells,” which word itself is a giveaway that it has to do

with language. The word “authority” has “author” in it, alluding to establishing by language.

Words have power. Words have changed your life. Someone has said “thank

you,” or failed to say “thank you.” Someone has said “I love you” or failed to say “I love

you.” When something big has happened, happy or sad, someone has sent a card,

maybe counting just on that preprinted sentiment, plus a signature, and that has meant

something.

When something has occurred which has been so unexpected that it robs you of a

way to respond, we say it leaves you speechless, that you are “dumbfounded.” That’s

because being able to find a way to talk about something is an approach to doing

something. Problems that can’t be solved, facts that can’t be changed, somehow seem

better if we get a chance to put what we feel into words. A listener is a great help, but just

journaling, just writing things down, itself is therapeutic. Words have power even when

there’s nothing to be done.

None of this is foreign to the Bible. God, after all, brings everything into being by

pronouncement. Naming is a power throughout the Old Testament, and renaming has

religious significance. The conspirators of Babel are confounded by being robbed of a

common language. In the New Testament the gospel of John gives us a Jesus who is the

eternal Word made flesh.

Part way between God creating by saying “Let there be…” and Jesus being

identified with the creative Word of God, we find, in the book of Proverbs, a bridging

embodiment of God’s creative declaration in “Wisdom,” with a capital “W.” The qualities

which John the evangelist uses to identify the Word of God are the same as those that

Wisdom claims in Proverbs 9: 22 following: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his

works…when he established the heavens, I was there…when he made firm the skies

above…when he assigned the sea its limit…when he marked out the foundations of the

earth, there I was beside him, like a master worker…”

So the book of Proverbs conceives itself as more than common sense and good

advice. It says that the sense, the order, the harmony which God has built into the world is

what it has to offer people. Life can be sensible, well-ordered, harmonious–the “good” that

God instills in creation–by accepting Wisdom’s call to us.

Refusing Wisdom’s appeal messes everything up, and this morning’s reading from

Proverbs is the big “Î told you so” message from Wisdom. Wisdom says, “I’ve been

everywhere, in your face at every corner, doing my best to give you good guidance, and

you’ve preferred folly, so you’ve had your chance, I’m going to let you stew in your juice.”

The big thing I notice here, besides the frustrated big person language of “go ahead

and try it your own way and don’t say I didn’t tell you”, is how available wisdom has been.

Wisdom is portrayed as seeking us out and meeting us wherever we go.

It’s as though the right way to live is no secret. It’s as though the best response to

opportunity and the best response to adversity are not mysteries. There is a way which

leads to life, as the New Testament would affirm, and what makes that way narrow is not the

narrowness of God, but the restlessness and waywardness of all who walk. Human beings

just seem to get themselves into all kinds of trouble, and often, despite knowing better.

We do know better because we see other people’s mistakes right away. Wisdom

is that close to them, that if they’d only asked us about painting their trim that color or letting

their children call them that or dealing with their in-laws in that fashion, we would have set

them straight. We could have applied that ruler for them with which God laid out the

universe, we could have given them the right angle on what they were doing.

But when it’s us, something interferes with us seeng right. Pride, desire, delusion,

weaknness, fear–those are the things which make us abandon honesty as the best policy.

Those are the things which make us forget to treat others the way we’d like to be treated.

That’s when we employ the power of language to make up excuses, to find justifications, to

argue in our favor.

Somebody’s been using language in a bad way in the church from which the author

of the Book of James writes. The author is really worked up about the bad possibilities of

what people say. The tongue is a restless evil, it’s attached somehow to Hell. That’s strong

stuff. You just know that people were saying things they shouldn’t say in that crowd.

People were judging others, people were stirring up trouble, people were discouraging

good efforts and praising unworthy things. People were gossiping, maybe even lying. So

James writes this big rant and rave about it and finally says “from the same mouth come

blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”

This isn’t just because the community of which James was a part lacked harmony and

unity and joy and hope because of the negative language employed within it. James has a

concern that people don’t understand the power of language. They don’t understand the

power of language and the effect language has on reality, and therefore they aren’t

adequately thoughtful, they don’t take seriously how much good or how much evil their

having a tongue in their heads gives them the power to make.

The gospel lesson shows us just those extremes in what Peter says. In the gospel

lesson Jesus asks who men say he is, and this leads to Peter declaring that Jesus is Christ.

What more important thing can a person say? What better insight into what God wants of

us than to recognize that Jesus’ healing and feeding and encouraging the downcast, and

challenging the presumptuous, should be the model for our lives? Jesus tells Peter that

what he’s said is so important it must have been inspired.

Minutes later, because Jesus has been trying to prepare the disciples for the world’s

hostility to his approach, and his willingness to accept the cross as a consequence of his

faithfulness to God’s claim on him, Peter says something so wrong that Jesus calls him

“Satan.” Peter says that what Jesus is foretelling must not be allowed to happen, and

when Jesus calls him “Satan,” what Jesus is saying is that Peter is being a Tempter, that

he’s trying to lure Jesus away from his resolve to do what must be done.

At the beginning of the story Peter speaks in a way which shows he’s right in tune

with what God is doing, and a little later Peter says something which shows he’s all out of

step with where God is going. That’s the power and importance of speech.

Everyday there will be opportunities for you to stick up for, by what you say or

choose to leave unsaid, what God has shown you is Christ’s way. Every day there will be

chances to go wrong. Pray that God help you govern your tongue, that it be no reproach to

you or to the discipleship you intend to achieve.