The Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbs 1:1-7, 3:1-8
August 9, 2015
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Are you familiar with the term “cyborg”? A cyborg is “a fictional or hypothetical person whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body.”

At least, that is the definition of cyborg according to Siri, “my built-in ‘intelligent assistant’ that enables me as a user of Apple iPhone to speak natural language voice commands in order to operate the mobile device and its apps.”

At least, that’s the definition of Siri according to Google which is “a search engine that enables one to search for something or someone on the internet.”

At least, that’s the definition of Google according to my dictionary that I accessed through my laptop.

Ok, so maybe my iPhone isn’t built into my body and Google isn’t implanted in my brain, but I think at this point in our society we are quibbling about a matter of degree. We are all one step short of being cyborgs. I, like most of our society, carry my phone nearly everywhere and so I have immediate access to literally a world of information. I don’t have to look out the window to figure out the weather — my phone will tell me the temperature, wind speed, dew point, humidity, and how many minutes I have until it rains. If I’m wondering how the Yankees did against the Blue Jays yesterday, I don’t have to wait to read the Sports page after church; I can check the scores during the offertory. And if I’m wondering when Easter is next year, Google can tell me and it can tell me where Sochi is, who invented the internet, how you kiss, and it can tell me that those were among the top most googled questions in 2014.

As my brother-in-law said, “In the 21st century, no question should go unanswered! Just google it!” We are all becoming Cyborgs with information oozing out of our silicon pores.

Which of course, begs the question: has this wealth of information made us any wiser?

In preparation for this sermon, I decided to see if being a near cyborg has made me a wiser person so I asked my phone, “Siri, what is the meaning of life?”

Siri replied, “the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.”

When I pressed Siri again asking, “But what is the meaning of life?” she finally admitted, “I don’t know, but I think there’s an app for that.”

Siri can give you information, but even Siri admits that the smartest phone in the world can’t give you wisdom. Knowledge is the acquisition of facts that answer the questions, “How, who, what, and where?” but wisdom is the acquisition of experience and reflection that answers the question, “Why?”

Knowledge asks, “Can I?” but wisdom asks, “Should I?”

Fernando Gomez, a Christian education consultant, said, “We need to recognize that still too many school teachers, Sunday school teachers, and university and seminary professors, are more concerned with the transfer and use of information then with the formation of people with life skills to live meaningful and useful lives in the information era….. We are wise to the degree,” he says, “to which we let the fear of God control all of our actions and thoughts, that we grow in wisdom as we undertake the endless task of discerning between evil and good, between error and truth, between injustice and justice, between forms of death and forms of life.”

Knowledge asks, “Can I?” but wisdom asks, “Should I?”
Wisdom asks, “What does it mean to live life well?”

The book of Proverbs is part of the Biblical wisdom tradition. The scholar Ellen Davis describes the biblical books of wisdom as the parts of the Bible that are “spiritual guides for ordinary people, on an ordinary day, when water does not pour forth from rocks and angels do not come to lunch.” The wisdom literature teaches us what it means to live the good life in our ordinary work-a-day world, not as our culture defines the good life with its emphasis on riches and success that fill our houses but not our souls, but on the good life that leaves us at the end of our time on earth satisfied that our days were filled with meaning and joy and that we had a positive impact on those we leave behind. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be preaching on what the Bible has to say about living the good life, and we start here in Proverbs which tells us that wisdom begins in the fear of the Lord.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart,” Proverb says, “and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge God, and God will make straight your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.”

Wisdom, Proverbs says, begins with ???????? (yi-rat) of the Lord. The Hebrew word yi-rat, which our Bibles translates as fear, means a respect for the holiness of God and an equal respect for our limitations as mere mortal human beings. The reason that translators use the word ‘fear’ rather than respect is because the Hebrew word yi-rat is more than just a polite respect like the kind you would show to your grandmother at Thanksgiving dinner. Yi’rat is a respect that arises from a recognition that the gap between the greatness of God and the smallness of yourself as a human being is so profound that when you stand before God you feel very vulnerable and inconsequential. You know that God is everything and you are potentially nothing. You recognize that God is a mystery beyond anything that your puny human brain could ever comprehend. You stand in awe of a divine love that is more vast and all encompassing than any pipsqueak little nice deed that you’ve managed to squeeze out of your tiny mortal heart. All of your grand schemes, your confident competence, profound thoughts, superior knowledge, and even your secret pride in the quality of your righteous acts are blown away like particles of dust before the magnificent holiness of your God. When you stand before God, you feel so vulnerable and inconsequential that you can no longer stand but must kneel in worship and humility.

That is the yi-rat of God and that is the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom begins when we realize that as great as we think we are, we are still mere specks compared to the eternal infinite God. And maybe that is why wisdom feels like such a scarce commodity these days because as near cyborgs, we in the 21st century are more reluctant than ever to admit that we are mortal.

As many of you know, I have a little nine foot dinghy that I sail at my cottage. (This is my annual sailing metaphor.) Seven years ago, when I bought my boat, I also bought several sailing books that I read cover to cover before my first sail. I memorized their pages until I was certain that I knew my windward from my leeward, and my tack from my gybe. I understood what it means to beat into the wind and to sail on a beam reach. I understood the difference between apparent wind and true wind, and could recite the Beaufort scale, and convert miles per hour into knots per hour. I committed all of this knowledge to memory and I made sure I understood it all before I ever put the boat in the water. Finally, I decided I was ready and on a fine summer day, I set out on my maiden voyage. My log entry for that day reads, “There is nothing like getting out there on the water in the wind to drive everything you thought you knew right out of your head.”

I had book learning but no wisdom. I had read the facts but I hadn’t experienced the wind in the fullness of its power. I didn’t know yet that offshore wind is gusty and unpredictable, that around noon the wind sometimes dies down and I’d better carry paddles in the boat, or that if I was stupid enough to sail directly downwind, the wind might suddenly spin my boom around and threaten to throw me into the lake. I had a lot of failed sails those first summers because I hadn’t learned to respect the wind and recognize my limitations.

The beginning of wisdom, Proverbs says, is to fear the Lord and know our limitations; it is to remember that God is God, and that we are not God.

And isn’t that really the source of much of our sorrow, when we forget that truth? We spend our days trying to do good in the world but end up feeling broken and downhearted because injustice and evil persist. Our sorrow comes from the fact that although we have tried to live faithful lives, we have forgotten that we are not God. We are human beings, called to do good and be kind as much as is humanly possible, but it is God alone who will save the world, not us.

Or we try very hard to forgive those who have hurt us, and then beat ourselves up because the memory of that hurt keeps returning to us no matter how hard we have tried to let it go. We have forgotten that we are not God. Christ recognized our human limitations when he told us to forgive 7 times 70 times, not because we are so holy that we can forgive so much sin but because we are so human that it may take that many times to get our forgiveness of one person right.

We are not God. We are weak human beings who will never know as much as God, will never accomplish as much as God, will never love as deeply as God, will never forgive as completely as God, and will never be as profoundly good as God, and when we finally stop trying to be God and kneel instead in awe and respect for the most holy God who is far greater than we will ever be, then we will know the beginning of wisdom.

And what follows that beginning is the wonderful promise of God that when we get up off of our knees and adjust our sails to the wind of God’s Spirit, we will discover that we will be able to sail better and farther than we ever thought possible.

George Washington Carver, the scientist who developed hundreds of useful products from the peanut, said, “When I was young, I said to God, ‘God, tell me the mystery of the universe.’ But God answered, ‘That knowledge is reserved for me alone.’ So I said, ‘God, tell me the mystery of the peanut.’ Then God said, ‘Well, George, that’s more nearly your size.’ And he told me.”

When we admit our limitations and stop trying to be God, we can discover in God possibilities that we never knew existed and a strength far beyond our own. Maybe we can’t save the world and wipe out all injustice, because we are human and not God, but with God, we discover that we can save a little piece of the world. God gives us the ability to persevere even when we are discouraged, and the courage to be bold even when we are shaking in our boots. Our tiny human hearts may not be able to teach the whole world to live in harmony, but with God, we find we have the capacity to comfort a neighbor who is bowed down with grief or quiet our chatter long enough to listen to a friend in need. Maybe in the weakness of our human flesh, we will still make mistakes, and give in to temptations, and be impatient, or sad, or annoyingly stupid, but with God, we can find a way through this mortal swamp of imperfection and pain to embrace and create moments of beauty and joy.

God can heal our broken human hearts, and lift our drooping human hands, and with God we can become more than we ever thought possible.

In the words of T.S. Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

We are, and always will be, human and not God, but in faith, we will be human with God and God will make the limitations of our mortal existence bearable and even at times achingly beautiful.

This is the beginning of wisdom.

1. Interpretation, October 1998

2. Adapted from Rackham Holt, George Washington Carver.