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The work of wisdom - Proverbs 8:22-36

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the morning service on 2nd July 2006.

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Have you ever wondered why woodpeckers never get brain damage when they practice their favourite hobby? Iím sure this amazing fact doesnít keep many of us awake at night but just think about it for a moment. Should we not be amazed that when a woodpecker and his friends decide to hang out at the local park on a Friday evening and start head-butting the trees none of them ends up visiting the local casualty department? Did you know that a woodpecker has a tiny sponge like pad between its bill and its head which prevents instant blackout every time it drills a hole? Now this design feature may not be important to us but I can tell you that for the woodpecker itís absolutely vital. Can you imagine life without it? They would have to spend their entire budget on Ibuprofen! Iím told that television cameras of a previous generation used to have at least 60,000 photo-electric elements which enabled them, in a very limited sense, Ďto seeí. But the human eye, which focuses automatically, sees in all weather conditions, and which normally functions unceasingly for 70 or more years, contains more than 137,000,000 elements. It is extremely complicated! And yet despite the complexity all the different parts work in harmony to allow the eye to do its job. The same is true with the human ear. A grand piano has 240 strings by which a gifted musician can produce beautiful sounds. But the tiny human ear, which enables us to listen to those sounds and appreciate their beauty, consists of 24,000 strings! Did you know that the earth is tilted at an angle of exactly 23 degrees and thatís why we have our different seasons? If the angle were even slightly different, vapours from the ocean would move north and south and the earth would gradually be encased by an icecap. The angle must be exactly 23 degrees.

So what is the best explanation for all this order and complexity? The two most common responses I come across are the apathetic shrug and the atheistic fantasy. Iím sure youíve encountered those people who simply shrug their shoulders and canít be bothered. They may be surrounded by beauty, order and regularity but they cannot be bothered to find out why.

Why is the world like this? Well, for these people it just is. They have no explanation. All they can offer is an apathetic shrug. By contrast there is the atheistic fantasy. According to this view, the world we inhabit is simply the result of blind chance. There is no designer to thank. There is no architect to praise. And there is definitely no craftsman who deliberately ordered the complexity to make sure it all worked together. Instead, we need to be honest and we need to be brave. We need to face the horrible truth that everything which now exists is merely the end result of a cosmic accident. The argument goes something like this. In a universe of gigantic proportions it is only to be expected that a vibrant planet like ours will come into existence. But when you stop and think about it this sort of belief is delusional. It should not be celebrated and presented to our children as the best explanation of our origins. It is an atheistic fantasy.

It is the equivalent of saying that if we had enough scrap yards and if enough tornados passed through them then eventually a Boeing 747 would emerge at the entrance and take off all by itself. Itís madness!

So what is the best explanation for the world in which we live? If our curiosity refuses to allow us to respond with an apathetic shrug and if our brain is determined to keep us from being committed to a local psychiatric hospital then where can we turn to find out what we need to know? Well, let me suggest Proverbs chapter 8, where we are told about the architectís design.

In the first 9 chapters of the book of Proverbs we are presented with two women. The first is called Lady Wisdom and the second is called Lady Folly. Now we need to understand that Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly do not actually exist. They never did and they never will. They are not real human beings rooted in history, like so much of the bible story, but are representative characters, poetic characters who were created to communicate some important ideas. The book of Proverbs is all about how we should live in the world. On page after page we are presented with a similar choice: Will we decide to live wisely or will we decide to live foolishly? Or to use the picture language of the book: Which of the two women will be our companion as we try and negotiate our way through the circumstances of life? Will it be Lady Wisdom or will it be Lady Folly?

At the beginning of Proverbs chapter 8, Lady Wisdom sets out her stall. She is a woman determined to get noticed. She knows Lady Folly is always on the lookout for people to walk her down the aisle. And on past performance alone she is very aware that Lady Folly is never short of company. So at the beginning of Proverbs chapter 8, Lady Wisdom begins her sales pitch. Verse 1. "Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice?" She is shouting because she wants to get our attention. And look where she stands. Verse 2. "On the heights along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand; beside the gates leading into the city, at the entrances, she cries aloud." She is like one of those billboards that get placed at key junctions. She wants everyone to notice her. In fact, she wants everyone to listen to her. Verse 4. "To you, O men, I call out; I raise my voice to all mankind. You who are simple, gain prudence; you who are foolish, gain understanding."

Wisdom is the ability to negotiable through life well. No matter what the circumstances the wise person knows exactly what to say and knows exactly what to do. They understand the world. They understand why it is here, they know where it is going and they appreciate how it all fits together. And so, as a result, they are able to make decision which result in the best outcomes. So they are not like the Japanese burglar I read about this week who broke into a house in Osaka only to find himself confronted by 20 sumo wrestlers. Wise people have the skill of living. Wisdom is that practical knowledge that enables people either to avoid problems in the first place or to handle them rightly whenever they come up. It is a very valuable commodity. Or in the words of verse 11, "wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her." Or verse 19, "My fruit is better than fine gold; what I yield surpasses choice silver. I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice, bestowing wealth on those who love me and making their treasuries full." But not full of cash. Wisdom leads to something even better; a life that is lived in the best way possible.

But here is the big question we should have at the end of verse 21. How can we be sure these universal principles of life actually exist? There is much talk today about discovering whatever works for you. There is a growing dismissal of any principles of living that should be followed by everyone. Who am I to impose my views on you? Who are you to impose your views on me? Iím sure we all know the cultural climate by now. So why am I insisting on universal principles of living that should be practised by everyone? Because of what we are told in verses 22 to 31.

Verse 22. And remember this is Lady Wisdom speaking. "The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; 23 I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began. 24 When there were no oceans, I was given birth, when there were no springs abounding with water; 25 before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth, 26 before he made the earth or its fields or any of the dust of the world." Or in other words, God did not create the universe and then say to himself, "Oh I cannot believe I forgot to plan how all this should work out." Wisdom was there before the builders arrived. What we have just read is a very poetic way of saying something very profound: Godís wisdom came before Godís creation. He didnít just rush into it. He thought about it before he started to make it. God is not like some cowboy builder who turns up to build your new house without any blueprints in his possession. No, he is much more like a qualified architect who sat down and planned it all before the foundations were even dug. Godís wisdom came before Godís creation.

Secondly, Godís wisdom shaped Godís creation. Verse 27. "I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, 28 when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, 29 when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. 30 Then I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, 31 rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind." Now, of course, we need to remember this is poetry. We are not to imagine a literal woman dancing around excitedly as God made the English Channel.

But neither are we to miss the key idea. Not only did God plan the world using his wisdom but he also created the world using his wisdom. He didnít spend hours at his desk getting all the plans right before throwing them all away in the enthusiasm of the moment. Godís wisdom shaped Godís creation. Wisdom was the craftsman at his side. So building the universe for God was not like putting together a flat-pack wardrobe from MFI. You donít need a craftsman for that! But you do need a craftsman when the job takes great skill. And what job could require more skill than the creation of a new solar system teeming with life!

According to Proverbs 8, the universe we inhabit was not the result a chaotic accident, which has two massive implications for how we live.

First of all, it makes science possible. Even today people come out with the nonsense that Science and Christianity are incompatible. Iím sure youíve had people say it to you at some point in your life. "I cannot believe because I am a man or a woman of science." But letís ask a few questions of our own: Why are you a man or woman of science? Why do your spend your time trying to discover patterns in your respective field? And why do you think so many universal laws exist which explain the events we see?

Modern science was born in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in a Christian civilisation. It was pioneered by Christian people who were convinced a God of order had created the universe. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was the man responsible for laying the foundations of modern astronomy. And he did this by suggesting, on mathematical grounds, that the earth travelled round the sun. Nicolaus Copernicus also held office in the Polish Church as a canon of Frauenburg Cathedral and he described God as "the Best and most orderly Workman of all." The founder of modern optics was the brilliant early astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). He is best known for his discovery of the three principles of planetary motion. But he was also a devout Christian and he once described his job as "thinking Godís thoughts after him."

So letís clear away the nonsense once and for all. Science and Christianity are not incompatible. In fact, what we have discovered in Proverbs chapter 8 should encourage the scientific process to be carried out with great enthusiasm.

Secondly, it should also encourage us to seek universal guidelines for how to live. Itís not just the physical world that has been designed to work in a particular way; God has also made us to interact with each other according to certain principles. So have a look at the conclusion of Lady Wisdomís speech. Verse 32. "Now then, my sons, listen to me; blessed are those who keep my ways. 33 Listen to my instruction and be wise; do not ignore it. 34 Blessed is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway. 35 For whoever finds me finds life and receives favor from the LORD. 36 But whoever fails to find me harms himself; all who hate me love death."

Why is our society in such a mess? Why are we a generation with so much technology, so much wealth, so much education and yet with so much unhappiness and so many broken relationships? Is it not because we no longer apply what we believe about the physical world to the arena of human decision making? Yes, we are still quite happy to believe the physical world operates according to certain rules and when these are broken disaster awaits. But, unfortunately, in the 21st Century, many people no longer think this is true when it comes to human behaviour.

The popular mantra is very different: Find out what works for you not what works for all. And yet listen again to the words of Lady Wisdom. "Blessed are those who keep my waysÖBlessed is the man who listens to meÖWhoever finds me finds lifeÖBut whoever fails to find me harms himself." Now is this not what we see happening all around us? Instead of drinking from the fountain of Godís wisdom the vast majority of our friends and family and work colleagues are drinking a dangerous poison, which is ruining their lives?

So what is the answer? Well, quite simply, we must discover the wise principles of living, which God has designed us to follow. And I want to finish this morning by suggesting two ways that will enable us to find this treasured wisdom.

  • We need to read Godís word

    There is no short cut to wisdom. We must read Godís word as often as we can. And let me show you this from Proverbs 9:10. Itís just across the page. Proverbs 9:10: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding." It all begins with a right appreciation of who God is. He is our creator and so therefore he knows what is best for us. And the person who wants to discover how life is supposed to work gets this clear straight away. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.

    But how does the process continue? How can we keep on growing in wisdom throughout the rest of our lives? Well, itís the second half of Proverbs 9:10: "Öknowledge of the Holy One is understanding." Itís very simple isnít it? The more we know about our designer the more successful life will be. And thatís why reading Godís word is so vital. It is the only certain way of discovering anything about God.

    So let me ask you: How is your devotion to Godís word? The average young person spends 1500 hours a year watching television, and in case your mathematics is slow, thatís a staggering 30 hours a week! I wonder how long our Christian youngsters spend reading their Bibles? And what about us? How many hours do we spend clued to the box in comparison to the time we spend in the Word of God? No one at the end of life ever says, "You know, I wish I had spent more time in front of the TV. I wish I could have rescheduled my diary so that I could have watched more episodes of Eastenders." But I wonder, how many Christians do regret how little time they spent getting to know their creator by reading his life-giving word?

    Now please donít misunderstand me. Iím not saying that you cannot be a Christian unless you regularly read the Bible. But unless this is our practice we will remain spiritually immature and we will position ourselves far away from Godís wisdom. So let me suggest two practical ways to spend more disciplined time in the Word of God. First of all, have you every considered reading one chapter of Proverbs a day? There are 31 chapters in total and so by reading one chapter a day we can read through the book 12 times every year. And listen to why the book was written. Proverbs 1:1: "The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight; for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair, for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young." Now can we ask for anything better? A whole book of the Bible written with the express purpose of giving us the knowledge and the skills to navigate through life successful. So I want to encourage us this morning to read one chapter of Proverbs a day.

    Secondly, I also want to challenge us to put discipline back into our devotional life. Some people plan their TV viewing with military precision. They scan through the TV schedules with eager anticipation and then settle down with their own personal timetable. But for many Christians such a discipline when it comes to reading the bible is largely unheard of. So I want to encourage us this morning to get into the habit of regular and systematic bible reading. Letís abandon the pot luck approach and letís get ourselves a useful aid that will help us to read through the entire word of God on a regular basis. I use a system that takes me through the Bible twice a year but if you want to find out all the different options available to you then all you have to do is go across to the bookstall at the end of the service and ask Lynn Brocklesby, who will tell you everything you need to know. There is no short cut to wisdom. We need to read Godís word.

  • We need to know Godís Son

    And to make this point I need you to turn to Colossians 1:15-17, which you can find on page 1182 of the church bibles. Colossians 1:15 and this is what we told about Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God. "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation (that is, the one who is destined to inherit it all). 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." Now do you see the implications of this? Without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ life does not work. In fact, life cannot work without him because the whole universe contains his DNA. All things were created by him and in him all things hold together. And so when we reject him is it any surprise that we run into problems? Of course not. If we want to lead a successful life we need to know Godís Son.

    And, in particular, we need to listen to his instructions about life. You see, if the New Testament is right then Jesus is Wisdom Incarnate. He was the craftsman at God the Fatherís side at the very beginning. He was responsible for shaping the universe we inhabit. And so therefore he knows exactly how everything should work. At the end of Proverbs chapter 8, on the basis of her involvement in creation, Lady Wisdom offers her challenge to the human race. This is what she says: "Now then, my sons, listen to me; blessed are those who keep my ways. 33 Listen to my instruction and be wise; do not ignore it. 34 Blessed is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway. 35 For whoever finds me finds life and receives favor from the LORD. 36 But whoever fails to find me harms himself; all who hate me love death."

    Now listen to these words from Jesus, which he said at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, and see if you can work out the connection between Jesus and Wisdom. Matthew 7:24. Jesus says, "Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash."

    Do you see the connection? These are not the words of just another human teacher, they are the life-giving instructions of Wisdom Incarnate. And so therefore if we want to navigate through life well we will put into practice everything he tells us to do. Let us pray.

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