September 16, 2018

Searching for Wisdom

Passage: James 3

Sept. 16 Proverbs 1:20-33 * Psalm 19 (UMH 750) * James 3:1-12 * Mark 8:27-38

For those of us who subscribe to Amazon Prime, we receive a rotating selection of movies to watch at no extra charge. One of the current selections is an old Bill Murray movie called “The Razor’s Edge,” which is one of my all-time favorites, but which I haven’t watched for several years. It came out when I was in high school, and I not only loved it immediately, but because of it I read several works by the author of the book it was based on, W. Summerset Maugham. It tells the story of a young man named Larry, who comes from a modest family, but goes to college in Chicago and makes connections with some well-to-do classmates. He is engaged to a woman from a wealthy family, and he has been promised a position as a broker in a prominent firm. A life of privilege is his for the taking. His college has raised funds to provide an ambulance for the war effort, what would become WWI although America was not yet involved, and Larry and a close friend volunteer to be drivers, not having any idea what was awaiting them in Europe. Larry comes back a changed man. He breaks off his engagement, turns down the job waiting for him, and decides to go to back to Europe in search of meaning, feeling like he has never really used his mind: everything has been provided to this point, and he has never had to work for anything. Instead of travelling in style, he works his way across the Atlantic on a freighter. He then works as a coal-miner, and travels to India in search of spiritual enlightenment, then goes to Paris, and works as a fish-packer. All along the way, he reads voraciously, searching for meaning, searching for himself, searching for wisdom.

I vaguely remember not being impressed by the acting of the movie, but was somewhat surprised to find that the movie was even better than I remembered, with a good cast and better acting than expected this time. We go from the horrors of war, on the ugly battlefields of Europe, to the dusty coal mines, to the crowded streets of India and then the glorious foothills of the Himalayas, to a humble monastery of vibrant colors and a simple life. We then come down the mountain and go to work in the dirty alleyways and crumbling tenements of Paris. Larry goes from a spoiled kid to a man of great learning, wisdom, and worldly experience, willing to give up what is meaningless in search of a life of wisdom and purpose.

As I watched this movie again, many years later, I released what a huge impact this story had on my life. Here was the major impetus for the direction my life would go, long forgotten. When I was in high school, getting ready for college, I chose the path of self-discovery, through the arts and literature, and spiritual adventure, rather than a path that would be more profitable financially and comfortable perhaps, but where my heart did not want to go. Somedays I wonder if this was a wise choice, as I look at new cars and all sorts of toys and things I can’t afford, but most days I am satisfied with where I am and enjoy the life of a theologian and life-long learner, reading books that most people are not interested in, nor have they even heard of. Certainly I have made some bad choices over the years, but I am content with who I am, and where God has taken me.

Our reading from Proverbs gives us this image of Divine Wisdom crying out in the street, telling those who might ignore her what their penalty will be. Discerning between wisdom and folly can be difficult to see, even when we are more experienced, but God has provided what we need, if we are patient and willing to work towards higher things. The message here is to follow God before adversity strikes, building a solid foundation of faith before the storms of life rattle us. We may not know where we are going or understand what is going on, but God gives us the wisdom and stability of heart and mind to endure the difficulties we all must face, of varied kinds.

Each of us, though created in God’s image, is unique in his eyes and given a specific path and purpose in life. Sometimes we may look back and wonder just how we got to where we are now, but it is all according to God’s plan. We pray that we will not have to wait to leave this world to fully understand that plan; sometimes we just have to have faith in God to get us where he wants us to go. We may never get to travel the world or own all of the toys we want, and we must never underestimate God’s ability to use us for great things that are beyond our imaginations.

I came across a passage this week that just blew me away. It comes from a book called “Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament: a Guide for the Church,” by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. Who’d of thought I would enjoy a book with that kind of title so much! He is discussing how the church today tends to neglect the Old Testament, as if God does not speak through the OT like he does in the NT, as many Christians seem to believe today, if not in word, then in practice. Kaiser notes that when you read the Bible in the original languages, you get a better sense of the individuality of each writer, but still there is only one voice of God shining through. Kaiser writes:

The point is this: the preparation of the authors was just as significant a work of God as was the revelation that came from God. Thus, each writer was given experiences, cultural settings, a range of vocabulary, and special idiosyncrasies so that they would express themselves in styles absolutely their own but with the end result being precisely what God wanted for each section of his revelation…God prepared both the writers, with all the uniqueness and particularity that each brings to the task of writing Scripture, and the revelation itself.

Why, you ask, do I think that this is amazing? First, each book of the Bible is a miracle. Not only is each written through the inspiration of the eternal Spirit of God, each had a lifetime of devotion and discipleship behind the book, lived by the author. Our task is not only to discern the messages and teachings God has for us, but to discern the human writer also, who lived a life in service to God, and wrote out of that experience. When we read a book of the Bible, we not only enter into a conversation with God, but with the human author as well. That life lived so long ago lives on in Scripture, anonymous now perhaps, but still witnessing to the grace of God at the time of writing, and still active today. The writing of the Biblical texts did not end when the author wrote the last word, the texts are rewritten and re-interpreted every time they are carefully read by us today, with new meanings found through new experiences, new cultures, new ideas, and new times. As we read Scripture, we note the different styles, the different imagery, the different people involved and the different places. We notice what is unique to each, and then the similarities between different texts. We not only want to appreciate each author and each book, but the overall purpose and plan of God from beginning to end. We seek to get as much wisdom out of it as possible, perhaps even more than was originally intended.

Second, the Biblical writers are not that different from us. God has directed our steps to get us to where we are today, also. He has provided the experiences, gifts, talents and education that empower us to be creative and faithful. Where we lack, the Spirit provides. The main difference between us and the Biblical writers is that we have been given a different ministry in a very different time, but we are working towards the same thing: the proclamation of God’s grace to all people. We too are seeking to advance the Kingdom of God, using the resources God has given us. As we read the Bible, notice how amazing each book is, for its content, style, and artistry. Look for the individual stamp of the author, and remember that God has given each of us gifts also to create and accomplish marvelous things for him, also.

As we read this week’s passage from James, note how masterfully it is written. It’s one of the better known images of the book, as James warns us about the harm our tongues are able to inflict. He could just say “watch your tongue” like we do with our kids, but instead he gives a lesson in creative figures of speech, especially metaphors. The tongue is a rudder, controlling a much larger ship, but capable of great evil. It is capable of setting the world ablaze, wreaking havoc, bragging, lying. James writes:

the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.

My, O my, none of us are like that, are we? Yes, this comes from the same mouth we kiss our mamas with, bringing forth both blessings and curses, wisdom and stupidity. James writes:

For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue--a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

James is just ripping us to shreds here, but it is done so elegantly and creatively, we cannot help but admire this fine example of tough love. We know it’s true, we’ve all done it; we stand justly condemned. But it does not end there. We read earlier the section of James 3 found in the Lectionary, but if you read the rest of the chapter, it brings us back to our reading from Proverbs, which makes me wonder why it was not added to the Lectionary, which generally tries to connect different Scriptures by common themes. James has stated the problem, our wicked tongues, and he suddenly shifts his writing style, giving us some of the causes of our wayward tongues, as well as giving us the answer: God’s divine wisdom. James writes:

If you are wise and understand God's ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don't cover up the truth with boasting and lying. For jealousy and selfishness are not God's kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness. (Jam 3:13-18 NLT)

Another passage that just blows me away, masterfully written and going deep into the issues at hand. The problems we have our based on earthly, unspiritual, demonic things: jealousy, selfish ambition, boasting and lying, disorder and every kind of evil. The answer is God’s wisdom, the wisdom from above. It is pure, peace-loving, gentle, and willing to yield to others, full of mercy and good deeds, impartial and always sincere. More than ever today, we need this kind of peacemaker, in a world of incivility and violence. Wisdom, with practice and discipline, tames the tongue.

We don’t need to travel the world to find this wisdom, it is in the Bible, in our hearts, in each other, and freely given through the Holy Spirit, our Guide and Comforter, who is always with us.

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