Jun 14th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Proverbs 1:1-7
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We begin our summer series of sermons today. We will spend the entire summer in the book of Proverbs. Proverbs is part of the Hebrew Bible known as the kethuvim - the writings - and, in particular, Proverbs stands as the central book in the “wisdom tradition” of scripture.
And here is where we need to spend an introductory moment. As always, translation matters. How we move from one language to another is critically important if we are to fully understand the original intent of the passage.
Wisdom is such a word. The word we translate as wisdom, can also be translated as learning and knowledge. Wisdom, in this context, means an attitude or a means by which to live well - to live fully - to live as God intended. Wisdom has a tone of “common sense” to it. It is practical, not theoretical. It is observable to the common eye, not reserved for those with special insight. There is no special revelation involved here - no burning bushes, no smoke on the mountain, no earthquakes, wind, or fire. Wisdom is grounded in experience and observation. Wisdom is informed advice on daily living. Wisdom bears witness to godly virtues and morals that are attainable to human wisdom and understanding.
And where does this wisdom begin? We read the words we have heard before: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (or wisdom).” “The fear of the Lord.” There’s another challenge.
Too many read the words with an undeserved literalism. Fear means terror, dread, fright, distress, trepidation; at least in the way we commonly use the word. We hear the word fear and replace it with afraid. “Being afraid of God is the beginning of knowledge (or wisdom).” That doesn’t really work, does it? Being afraid of God does not really feel like the beginning of a good relationship. It feels a little stilted, a little artificial, a little manipulative.
But, what if we begin thinking of it in a different way? What if “the fear of the Lord” meant that we need a proper perspective - that God is God and we are not. What if “the fear of the Lord” was translated into “a devotion to, or a renewed appreciation for” God and all that God has done, is doing, and promises to do? What if “the fear of the Lord” meant that God takes the central place in all of our life - in our ideas, our opinions, our practices, and our actions?
Suddenly the meaning begins to come clear. When we are attuned to God and God’s way, life begins to make sense. When God is at the heart of our lives, everything else finds its good and proper place. When God is our central guide to life, we have a moral core, a values system, and foundation on which to build a life that is life. When God is the hub of our life, we realize in new ways, almost every day, that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and God’s ways are not our ways. (Isaiah 55:8) We realize that “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so God’s ways higher than our ways and God’s thoughts than our thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9)
If you are seeking a new way of life, a new understanding, a new meaning and purpose, begin with a new perspective. Put God at the center of life and reorder the rest of life around God. That’s what the wisdom-writer of Proverbs tells us from the start.
So, what will this new-found knowledge - wisdom - understanding - do for us? The author tells us that through this understanding, we will
gain instruction in wise dealing,
Wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity all speak to a life of integrity. Justice, righteousness, and equity (or honesty) all share the same root word in Hebrew. That word means a conformity to an ethical standard. The implication is that a life grounded in wisdom - which begins by being grounded in God is an authentic life.
One Sunday a pastor preached a sermon on honesty. Monday morning she took the bus took get to her office. She paid the fare, and the bus driver gave her back too much change. During the rest of the journey, the pastor was rationalizing how God had provided her with some extra money she needed for the week. But she just could not live with herself, so before she got off the bus, she proceeded to give back the extra money and said to the driver, “You have made a mistake. You’ve given me too much change.” The driver smiled and said, “There was no mistake. I was at your church yesterday and heard you preach on honesty. So I decided to put you to a test this morning.” We call that integrity. Integrity is the hallmark of an authentic life.
And when this new-found knowledge - wisdom - understanding is absent - there is chaos and turmoil. When God is not at the center of a life it is clearly and nearly immediately obvious.
The story is told of the salesman waiting to see the purchasing agent of a company so he could submit his firm’s bid. While he was waiting, he couldn’t help but notice that his competitor’s bid was sitting on the Purchasing Agent’s desk. Unfortunately, the actual figure for the competitor’s bid was covered by a Coke can. He got to thinking: What could it hurt if he took just a quick look? No one would ever need to know. So he reached over and lifted the Coke can. But his heart sank as he watched thousands of BB’s pour out from the bottomless can and scatter across the desktop. It was a test set up by the purchasing agent … and needless to say, the salesman didn’t get that company’s business.
When a life is not grounded in God, there is a malformed sense of right and wrong. When life is not centered on God and God’s way of integrity, justice, and equity, power can shift to a few who all too often misuse that power for their own benefit and advantage. When life is not focused on living as God created us to live, it becomes possible to ignore the image of God in another and deny them their God-given rights and blessings. When a life abandons God - or never encounters God - it becomes distorted and finds other ways of living that are beyond what God intended for us. When a life is untouched by God, it promotes lies as truth, exploits neighbor and nature, and threatens death to the planet entrusted to our care. When a life is indifferent to God it will produce division instead of unity, personal advancement instead of common good, and brokenness where there could be peace.
If you would live wisely, if you would live with integrity, if you would live as God created you to live - then you must go to wisdom’s beginning. And what is that beginning? Where is it found?
Living with the proper perspective - allowing God to be God - focusing life on God’s intention - this is the beginning of wisdom - of new-understanding - of authentic living. Incorporating God into every aspect of life unlocks life’s mystery and hidden purpose. Embracing God allows us to embrace our neighbor - to care for the forgotten - to work for justice for all people - to listen to the voices that have been long silenced - to feed the hungry - to clothe the naked - to heal the broken - to advocate for the poor - and to work for that day when we know for ourselves how good and pleasant it is when sisters and brothers dwell together in unity.
This is life as God intended it to be.
And there are implications to that life. That’s what we’ll track down the rest of the summer.
But, for today, return to wisdom’s beginnings - come back to God - center your life on God - and live. For now and evermore. Amen.