Monday, October 10, 2005


As you may have noticed in the bulletin, the topic for the sermon this morning is “wisdom”. Can you imagine? They want someone to preach on wisdom, and they chose me. They choose a guy who makes a hobby out of foolishness. Who else do you know who juggles and rides a unicycle? And yet, somehow, here I am preaching on wisdom anyway. I expect that choice verses concerning wisdom are occurring to a number of you at this very moment. Please, nobody quote Job 13:5, for example. Or perhaps Luke 7:35, where Jesus says “wisdom is proved right by her children.” For those who have watched my son run around the church for the last ten years, one might not be inclined to consider his parents particularly wise. But give the boy a chance. He may surprise you.

And just so you know, I’m not here this morning to give you the wisdom of Doug Peters. There is precious little of that. Instead, I’d like to remind you of what the Bible says about wisdom.

You see, we are in the middle of series of sermons on “knowing God”. And one of the attributes of God is his wisdom. The more we know of God, the more we appreciate wisdom, and the wiser we get, the more we appreciate God. In fact, wisdom could be described at the process of aligning our thoughts with God’s. We could say that love is aligning your heart with God, and wisdom is aligning your mind with God. Imagine that every human being is like a car radio. It can be set to AM or FM. FM is for music – it is designed for your heart. But it isn’t too useful unless you tune the FM dial to a radio station. We need to tune our hearts to God, too. Only then can we receive the love that he has given us. AM is for the news – it is designed for your mind. But it isn’t too useful unless you tune it to a radio station. We need to tune our minds to God, too. Only then can we receive the wisdom that he has for us.

So the instrument ¬– the tool – that one exercises for wisdom is the human mind. And whenever you think about using a tool for any job, you ought to remember what your father told you. Did you ever get “the right tool for the right job” lecture? How about the “respect your tools” lecture? You see, whenever we use a tool, it is important to be aware of its strengths and weaknesses. You should not use a crowbar when you should use a chisel. And not use a chisel when you should use a crowbar. If you do, you’ll have a mess on the one hand and a broken chisel on the other. But the tool that we use to appreciate wisdom is the human mind. Let’s make sure we know how and where to use it. Let’s also be sure that we are aware of its limitations.

One could say that one of the aspects of my work is to study the human mind. Actually, my work is to study computers. But in so far as I am trying to make those computers copy what the human mind does, I’ve spent lots of time examining the very latest “cognitive science.” That is, what is the human mind? What exactly does it do? How does it work? Well, for starters, I can tell you that modern science isn’t very good at answering these questions. When someone writes a book called “How the Mind Works” it is an exercise in optimism. By the time the reader discovers that the book does not, in fact, explain how the mind works, it is too late: they have already bought the book. The fact is that the human mind is still very much a mystery. In fact, there are a set of reputable philosophers who claim, with considerable justification, that the mysteries of the human mind are beyond the scope of science. According to them, that try as we might, we will never be able to explain “how the mind works”. Of course, one of the uncomfortable implications of this would be that my entire career is an exercise in optimism: by the time me boss figures out that we can’t understand the human mind enough to make computers smart, it will be too late: I’ll be eating Kraft Dinner in my retirement.

But I’ll try not to bore you with more philosophy this morning. Instead, let me suggest that the human mind consists of three parts. We’ll keep the best one for last. The first part of the human mind is exactly like a computer. Computers store and manipulate information. But information is not wisdom. And although humans can also process and store information, human minds are much more than computers. It has been said that information is power, and those who prefer power to wisdom are inclined to give information exalted status. But let’s not make that mistake.

Some people mistakenly think that human minds are entirely like computers. These are the same people that claim that thermostats are conscious. Seriously, they do. And, believe it or not, people buy and read their books. But this is nonsense. Folks who think that human minds are no different from computers have fallen into Maslow’s trap: [since] “the only tool [they] have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail.” But human minds aren’t computers any more than they are nails. Those who disagree have either spent far too little time with computers or far too little time with children. Human minds are much, much more interesting than computers. But, part of the human mind is exactly like a computer. Of course, this is the uninteresting part. So we don’t need to spend any more time on it.

The second part of the human mind is exactly like an animal mind. Once again, there are those that claim that human minds are entirely like animal minds. Especially those like the “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals” who want humans to be just like animals so that they can claim that animals are just like humans. But they are not like us, you know. And we are not just like them. The Bible says that God teaches us more than the beasts of the earth and makes us wiser than the birds of the air. Of course, we can teach our dogs tricks, and we can convince our cats that they should put up with us…. But there are some things that dogs and cats just don’t understand, and they simply cannot understand. The cat that occupies our house (it would be wrong to say “our cat” as if this cat belonged to anyone) does not appreciate that you couldn’t let her in because you were on the phone or that you couldn’t feed her because you were out of cat food. And there is simply no way to explain the reality of the situation to the silly animal. You laugh. The observation is a good illustration: it is almost certain that there is no way to explain the reality of some situations to human beings. Human minds have their own limits. In that respect, we are very much like animals. But at very least we could say that animals have it one better than computers. Animals can have what we call knowledge. Knowledge is one step better than information. But knowledge is not wisdom.

When a six-year-old confuses knowledge for wisdom, it is kind of cute. But when an adult makes the same mistake, it is more like pathetic. Knowledge is more than information and wisdom is more than knowledge. T. S. Eliot once asked: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?” and “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Of course, human minds can process and acquire knowledge, but human minds are much more than animal minds.

There is a third part of the human mind, and this is the interesting one. This part isn’t just a computer. This part isn’t just an animal. This is the part that is made in the image of God. This is the part that let’s us laugh and cry. It let’s us think and talk and pray and hope. This part of the human mind is the seat of reason, and art, and love, and wisdom. Yes, we are wired to appreciate the wisdom of God, and we would be wise to tune our radios to his frequency. But it is valuable to be aware that we have this treasure in jars of clay. That is, tied up with the “image of God” part are the “computer” part and the “animal” part. And these parts are really good at distorting our view of things.

Two weeks ago, about fifteen people from the church were out at Terra Cotta playing football. We were playing on the outfield of the baseball field, and we used our jackets to indicate the sidelines and the end-zones. To be fair, the field that we created was not exactly square or even, but whenever the ball went out of bounds, it was remarkable to watch us all try to mark the ball in the middle of the field. The marks from the two teams were typically two meters apart. Now these aren’t people who were trying to cheat, necessarily. The simple fact is that our assessment of just about everything is distorted by our own self-interest, whether we are aware of it or not.

We need to appreciate our weakness. Proverbs say that with humility comes wisdom. We need to recognize that our ability to understand and exercise any wisdom at all is limited. It has been said that the biggest difference between happiness and wisdom is just this: the man who believes that he is among the happiest is likely correct while the man who believes that he is among the wisest is almost certainly in error. It appears that a good dose of humility is a necessary for wisdom. And with that in mind, let’s turn to the scriptures to discover what they have to say about wisdom.

If you were to consult the scriptures concerning wisdom, where would you look first? In the Old Testament? That’s right: Proverbs – the book of proverbs is a gold mine of wisdom. But where is the next book that you would you turn to for wisdom in the Old Testament? Ecclesiates. Good. That is a good answer. You see, the book of Proverbs is really very efficient. You can open it up almost anywhere, read three or four verses, and God can deliver some wisdom through the experience. And for practical wisdom it is really hard to beat the book of Proverbs.
Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, isn’t nearly so efficient, but it is philosophical, and we’ve been told that Solomon wrote it, so we are certain that it must be very wise.

The Bible tells us that Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived. You remember the story: God comes to Solomon in a dream and says, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” And Solomon asks for wisdom. So God says, “Since you didn’t ask for wealth, or long life, or the death of your enemies, I will give you the wisdom that you requested, and I’m going to give you all those other things, too!”

The Bible says that men of all nations came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom. And the Bible includes an example of that wisdom for our instruction. 1 Kings chapter 3, verse 16:
16 Now two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17 One of them said, "My lord, this woman and I live in the same house. I had a baby while she was there with me. 18 The third day after my child was born, this woman also had a baby. We were alone; there was no one in the house but the two of us.
19 "During the night this woman's son died because she lay on him. 20 So she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I your servant was asleep. She put him by her breast and put her dead son by my breast. 21 The next morning, I got up to nurse my son—and he was dead! But when I looked at him closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn't the son I had borne."
22 The other woman said, "No! The living one is my son; the dead one is yours."
But the first one insisted, "No! The dead one is yours; the living one is mine." And so they argued before the king.
23 The king said, "This one says, 'My son is alive and your son is dead,' while that one says, 'No! Your son is dead and mine is alive.' "
24 Then the king said, "Bring me a sword." So they brought a sword for the king. 25 He then gave an order: "Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other."
26 The woman whose son was alive was filled with compassion for her son and said to the king, "Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don't kill him!"
But the other said, "Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!"
27 Then the king gave his ruling: "Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother."

Now I’d like you this morning to pay particular attention to this story from the Bible. It represents the pinnacle, the height of wisdom. This is the story that the Spirit of God chose to demonstrate for posterity what wisdom is like. Note that wisdom is not about science. Solomon did not solve a puzzle or prove a theorem. Wisdom is not about theology. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts,” says the Lord. Or, as Brian McLaren put it: “we should never underestimate our power to be wrong when talking about God.” So what is the character of this example of wisdom? Here, we see Solomon reunite a prostitute to her child. We see justice being granted to one who might expect no hearing at all; we see the strong and powerful and rich and wise taking the time to deliver fairness and kindness to the weak, and powerless, and poor and foolish. This is the essence of wisdom. This is a picture of God’s wisdom for us.

But did you know that there is a third book in the Old Testament that has almost as much to say about wisdom as the book of Ecclesiastes? Who can tell me which book that is. That’s right: the book of Job. The book of Job contains remarkable wisdom, and I’d like us to consider it this morning. Unfortunately, we’re not going to read the book of Job – after all, it is only forty-two chapters. But I’m betting that we all know the story, more or less.

There is an audience of angels in the courts of God, and Satan appears among them.
“Where have you been?” God asks.
“I’ve been down on Earth,” replies Satan.
“Well then,” responds God, “did you see my servant Job down there? He’s one of the good guys.”
“Oh come on,” rejoins Satan, “He’s only one of the good guys because you’ve spoiled him. If you didn’t look after him so well, he’d be no different from anyone else.”
And so God says to Satan, “ok, let’s try that experiment,” and not long afterwards, Job loses his cattle and his donkeys and his camels and his children and his health. For some reason, Satan does not take Job’s wife. It is not clear whether that is an oversight or not.

Of course, Job wasn’t privy to all that happened in the courts of heaven, so he is completely bewildered at the turn of events. He starts off strong. And then his three friends arrive. The Bible says that they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

Seeing the sympathy of his friends, Job took the opportunity to vent. Sometimes we need to vent, and it is nice to have friends who are willing to put up with our venting. So Job complains – he is in pain, after all. But Job’s friends were good religious types, and they all decide to take offense at Job’s venting, picturing it to be altogether too honest, I mean bitter, for someone who has until recently been in their lofty company. And through the next twenty three chapters, we find them adding insult to Job’s injury, and we see Job finding it more and more difficult to tolerate his situation.

By the twenty-seventh chapter you will likely have got the message of the first part of the book of Job. Here are three smart, caring guys. These friends of Job are really and truly there to help. They have waited seven days in silence with a very sick man, and now, they are giving him the full riches of their joint wisdom in an effort to help. But guess what? Job isn’t very impressed by it. In fact, Job finds it all really quite irritating. For many, perhaps most of us, God has put a hedge around us and protects us from all kinds of disasters that we cannot even imagine. When we are blessed with God’s protection, we want to share our wisdom with others. But for those of us who have had to endure God’s abandonment, human wisdom can feel remarkably empty.

Every Christmas for many years I’d go watch my kids perform in their school Christmas concert. And while all the parents come to see their own children, the best entertainment always comes from the Kindergarteners. There is always at least one that gets up on the stage in a state of near-terror. And all of a sudden their deer-in-the-headlights look breaks into a sunny smile. What happened? The child on the stage caught the eye of the parent in the audience. That connection is made, and the child receives the support they need to say their lines or sing their song. It is the same with us. When we feel God’s support, we dare hold forth with the wisdom that he’s given us. When we feel abandoned by God, there isn’t wisdom enough in all the books on the face of the planet to comfort us. And it doesn’t matter how wise we are, as Shakespeare put it, “There was never yet philosopher/that could endure the toothache patiently.”

So what works for Job? And what works for us when our world is collapsing? In chapter twenty-nine, Job reminisces about the good times. But all of this is wiped out in chapter thirty, when Job writes about how he feels now.
19: God has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes.
20: I cry out to you and you don’t answer me; I stand, and you don’t seem to notice.
21: You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me.
Basically, Job is whimpering: “where are you God? Where are you? I need you.” I don’t know if any of you have ever felt that way. If you haven’t, you really should take the time to thank God for looking after you so well. Remember to thank him tomorrow, too. And the next day. But if you have felt like that, or perhaps if you are feeling like that, you are in good company: the company of Job, one of the good guys.

All of a sudden, a whirlwind blows up, and God is there. And God responds to Job. It would wrong to say that God answers Job. God seldom, if ever, feels the need to answer our questions, and he doesn’t answer Job, either. In fact, he gives Job another seventy questions to think about. Literally.
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” God asks Job.
“Who marked off its dimensions? Who laid its cornerstone?”
One question after the other. Needless to say, if the presence of God wasn’t enough to shake Job up, poor Job gets to experience my worst nightmare: taking a quiz without ever having taken the course.
“Do you know the laws of the heavens?” God asks.
“Who endowed the heart with wisdom and gave understanding to the mind?”
And so, the story of Job leaves us with more questions than it answers. But that’s part of the message of the book, isn’t it: wisdom is not about answers. Rather, wisdom is the ability to manage questions gracefully. Wisdom is not knowledge. Wisdom is not information. Wisdom brings us to the place where information and knowledge are just not enough. What is enough? What was enough for Job? Nothing less than meeting with God himself.

“My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you,” says Job. “Therefore I repent.” When we meet with God, we suddenly come to the realization that all those personal issues that we’ve had with the way that God runs the show are really quite pathetic. When we experience the presence of God, our troubles really do seem insignificant. And the good news this morning is that we don’t need to meet God in the whirlwind. Instead, we can come and meet him at the cross. That’s where the Powerful and Wise came down to deliver kindness and mercy to the weak and the wicked. At the cross, the wisdom of the all-wise is sacrificed, not for the righteous, but for the sinners. By his sacrifice, Jesus, the Son of God demonstrates a wisdom that defies human understanding, a wisdom that turns the world upside down.

1 Corinthians 1 “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.…the world through its wisdom did not know him, but God was pleased through this foolishness … to save those who believe. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.”

Perhaps the sermon this morning has left you with more questions than answers. Well, that might be a good thing. But if you get one message this morning, you should know that a meeting with Jesus, while it won’t answer your questions will be so full of wisdom, that you might wonder why you asked those questions in the first place.

Romans 11:33 “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out.