The Mysterious Call of Wisdom
A sermon on Proverbs 8:1, 22-31, and 1 Cor. 1: 18-25
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash]
I’d like to play a little game of “would you rather.” The way it works is I give you a series of choices between two options, and you pick which of the options you would “rather” have within each pair. You don’t have to raise your hands or tell me your answers, just ponder for yourself.
Here are the choices:
Would you rather have a life full of certainty, or a life full of mystery?
Would you rather have definitive answers, or engaging questions?
Would you rather have a clear set of directions, or an experience of wandering and learning?
Finally, would you rather have a store of precise knowledge, or indefinable wisdom?
In reflecting on these questions, I don’t know that I could answer them consistently one way or another. A lot depends on context.
When I visited Venice, Italy with my sister, we intentionally let ourselves get lost, just for the experience of wandering back streets not clogged with tourists and discovering delightful little courtyard gardens and unnoticed beauty.
On the other hand, if I am driving to a new doctor’s office for an important consultation, I would much rather have a clear set of directions, thank you very much!
I deeply value mystery in life’s big questions whose answers will always be too small if I can fully comprehend them, but you better believe I want certainty about my kids’ whereabouts at 10pm.
The point of playing “would you rather” is NOT that there is a right or wrong answer, but that your answers are revelatory. They offer a glimpse of what matters most to you.
And in the context of today’s worship, where we are contemplating what it means to call out for Jesus as “Wisdom from on high”, these questions invite us to contemplate our desire for wisdom, rather than answers or certainty.
One book that has profoundly shaped my thinking about the meaning of wisdom in my life is How the Bible Actually Works, by biblical scholar Peter Enns.
As the title suggests, this book does not ask us questions about what we would “rather” have. Instead, it proposes to explain what we “actually” have when it comes to scripture.
Enns’s argument is that, contrary to what many of us were taught in Sunday School, the word BIBLE is not actually an anagram for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” In fact, it’s not an instruction book at all. Rather, it’s an invitation into the way of wisdom and a travelling companion on that journey.
In explaining what the Bible itself reveals about God’s plan for the role scripture in shaping human faith, Enns writes:
“Wisdom isn’t about flipping to a topical index so we can see what we are to do or think – as if the Bible were a teacher’s edition textbook with the answers supplied at the back. Wisdom is about the lifelong process of being formed into mature disciples, who wander well along the unscripted pilgrimage of faith in-tune with the all-surrounding, thick presence of the Spirit of God in us and in the creation around us.”
When I read those words for the first time, I knew that I had found a description of the life of faith for which I long.
I want my life to continually be forming me into a mature disciple until the day I die.
I hope to “wander well” on this lifelong pilgrimage of faith.
And most of all, I long to feel the “all-surrounding, thick presence of the Spirit of God,” each day, each moment of my life.
And so, I bring that vision of scripture’s purpose to today’s texts. Texts that both – in very different ways – speak to us about how God, as Wisdom, calls to us.
The reading from Proverbs personifies wisdom as God’s companion in creation.
It’s a beautiful, evocative description… but it is also rather remote.
Wisdom as a being created before the universe, who witnessed the beginnings and was beside God in the work of creation emphasizes the distance travelled before any of us ever existed.
How do we draw close to such a being? How does she form, or guide, or surround us?
I think the last two verses from our reading give us a clue:
“I was beside God…; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”
Wisdom is BOTH God’s delight, and also Wisdom – somehow –delights in us.
The first part I can understand. Of course, God delights in wisdom. God is the source of all truth and wisdom.
But the second part… I will be honest, I don’t often delight in the human race. Individual humans? Absolutely! But not humanity as a whole.
It is far too easy to see the way we hurt each other and the world around us. Even without meaning to. Often when we are trying not to!
So how can wisdom delight in the demonstrably unwise human race?
That seems not like wisdom but… foolishness…
Which brings us to the reading from 1 Corinthians
In which Paul declares that, in God’s wisdom, God chose foolishness as the path to wisdom, because “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor. 1:25)
At first glance, this doesn’t seem very helpful, but, then again, wisdom is not an answer key at the back of the book.
It requires the willingness to lean into mystery, and to wander into unfamiliar territory where we must face all that we do not know.
And isn’t such wandering exactly what the Apostle Paul describes in God’s decision to “destroy the wisdom of the wise”?
By reasoning from what Paul next describes as foolishness, we can conclude that this human wisdom is the opposite of what God has done in Christ.
Strength, rather than weakness; Control, rather than vulnerability; Power, rather than submission to the power of others.
Strength, control, and power is the goal and focus of human wisdom… but the cross destroys such wisdom.
And thus, in the cross we lose our certainty, our confidence in our own ability to understand.
Could it be that our human drive for self-determination and control over our own fates is the so-called wisdom that blocks us from responding to God’s wisdom?
A wisdom that was there in the design of creation and placed us inside that creation, not above it?
Could it be that what we call foolishness – God’s willingness to be humbled and weakened, to submit to the point of death – is the only way for God to teach us the wisdom of releasing our death grip on our belief in our own supremacy?
Perhaps such “foolishness” really is the only way to call us into the way of wisdom…
a wisdom that seeks not the control of having all the answers, but rather the mystery and delight of the journey…
a wisdom that draws us toward a God who would submit to all our foolishness just to release us from it…
a wisdom that illuminates how much better it is to trust in God than in ourselves.
The quote I shared at the beginning of this sermon continues on with a list of contrasts between what we seek from a “rulebook” understanding of God’s Word, versus what we get from the way of wisdom. It concludes with these three claims:
“Rulebook answers are designed to end the journey, but wisdom shapes us so we journey with courage and peace.
Rulebook answers are limited to specific moments, but wisdom works in all times and places.
Rulebook answers keep us small, but wisdom gives us the space we need to grow.”
When wisdom calls to us in Proverbs 8, she is not offering us a rulebook, but rather a relationship.
It is a relationship that requires us to delight a little less in our own understanding, because such false wisdom shuts us off from God;
But when we can let go of our need for certainty, and clear answers, and control… we discover that we do not need those things. Because the God of the universe delights in us, and such a God will lead us on a journey worth wandering well.
Thanks be to God.
 Peter Enns, How The Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather than Answers – and Why That’s Great News, Harper One, New York, 2019.  Ibid, p. 11-12  Ibid, p. 12.