Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Grant Us Wisdom for the Living of These Days

Grant Us Wisdom for the Living of These Days
A Sermon by Brent J. Eelman
First Presbyterian Church, Clarks Summit
September 17, 2017

I Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14
Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David. The time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned for seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David; and his kingdom was firmly established.

Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places. The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt-offerings on that altar. At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.’ And Solomon said, ‘You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart towards you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?’

It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, ‘Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.’ 

When I was in the seventh grade, the game show, “Let’s Make a Deal” first appeared on television.  The premise of the show was to play on people’s greed and their willingness to take a chance.  The host, Monty Hall, would give them something tangible (like a thirty-year supply of laundry detergent) and then say, “Would you be willing to trade that for what is behind door # 1.”   I am afraid that this show skewed my early Sunday School interpretations of the bible stories, particularly the gift of wisdom to Solomon.  

In my junior high imagination, I envisioned God as this almighty gameshow host.  He gave Solomon wisdom and then asked him, “Do you want to trade that wisdom for what is behind door # 2?”   Solomon hesitates for a moment and then there is the sweetening of the pot. The door opens just a bit and the bright and shiny gold and jewels are seen. 

“Are you sure?”  

Solomon resists the temptation, and tells God, “I will hang on to wisdom.”   

Then God, so impressed with Solomon’s decision says:  “Congratulations!  You also get what is behind door #2.”   Solomon smiles, keeps his wisdom and also gets rich.  

What was the lesson that I took from the story?  Stick with wisdom, because you might get both. 

This is truly an educator’s story.  Our youth and young adults go off to school to learn.  There they make choices.  Often those choices are for specific skills that might be useful in a career: Accounting, business courses, computer science, and other classes that will help them find gainful employment.  Or they might choose some of the more esoteric courses that cause one to think and ponder the meaning of life, the nature of creation, and the essence of good and evil.  These are courses in Philosophy, the Arts, Music, and Literature.  What is the right choice?  What gifts, skills, and abilities do we need to live, survive, and thrive in this fantastic, yet frightening, world? 

In our search for life-skills that will lead to a fulfilling and purposeful life, Solomon’s story can inform ours.  The writer of the first Book of Kings wanted to impress upon his readers that we make choices about how we govern our lives.  Those choices are between those things we value and those we regard as secondary and even trivial. This morning, I want to use this story of Solomon’s decision for wisdom to understand our contemporary context and the choices that we make.  Since this is an “educator’s story”,  3 R’s:  rejection, resources, and response.   1.  The rejection of wisdom. 2.  Resources for living.  3.  Responding to the challenge. 
The rejection of wisdom: The story of Solomon’s decision for wisdom is often pulled out of context, keeping us from an honest understanding of him.  There is a theological tension in the 3rd verse of our text.  “Solomon loved the Lord… only he pursued the idols of the high places.  

Solomon did not initially pursue wisdom, or for that matter governing in a manner that was faithful to God.  (Read the story.)  First, he consolidated his reign in a bloody manner that included deception, intrigue and fratricide. Then he cut a deal with Pharaoh and developed an alliance with Egypt so that he could marry Pharaoh’s daughter.  Then he decided to build a glorious house for himself and his new bride.  Yes, Solomon is credited with building the first Temple, but he took care of # 1 first. But the most obvious example of his initial rejection of God was that he also allowed and participated in the offering of sacrifices in the “high places.”  This is biblical shorthand for sacrifices to idols.  And it is where this narrative begins. 

Solomon went up to the “high places” to offer a sacrifice, (no mention of God).  Ironically, it was then that he was confronted by God in a dream and was asked, “what do you need from me?”
Dreams are powerful moments in our lives, because that is when our ego loses control.  We often confront our true selves when our defenses are asleep.  The medieval mystics called this “the dark night of the soul.”   These dark nights can be terrifying and upsetting.  But they also contain a promise or gift, because God is often in the midst of them, inviting us to confront our own shortcomings and weaknesses; our sin.  

What did Solomon, the great king of Israel declare?  “I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.”  (Not becoming of a powerful monarch, but honest!)  This was the moment when Solomon asked for wisdom; a moment when he was honest about himself.  He had been king for a while, things were settled and secure, but inside he was frightened and overwhelmed.  “Grant me wisdom, for the living of this day.”
Consider our contemporary world.  There is an arrogance that typifies our age.  We all believe that we are right and others are wrong.  We have replaced reality with image, and consequently we struggle to discern what is true, what is real, and what is important.   We seldom reflect on how we think, what we value, and how we make life choices.  

We don’t value wisdom.  

Abraham Heschel wrote: 
“We prepare the pupil for employment, for holding a job. We do not teach him how to be a person, how to resist conformity, how to grow inwardly, how to say no to his own self.  We teach him how to adjust to the public; we do not teach him how to cultivate privacy.  We tell the pupil many things, but what has our instruction to do with his inner problems, with the way he is going to behave or think outside the classroom?  In our classroom, we shy away from fundamental issues.  How should one deal with evil?  What shall one do with envy?  What is the meaning of honesty?  How should one face the problem of loneliness? What has religion to say about war and violence?  About indifference and evil?”  (The Wisdom of Heschel, pp 96 & 97).  

The problem of our age is poverty and it is rampant.  It is not only an economic poverty, it is a poverty of wisdom.  We go to the “high places” and make our sacrifices to the gods of economy, power, security, pleasure, and things. But we ignore the need for the wisdom to understand our world, the purpose of life and God’s claim upon us.  Perhaps our current cultural crisis, (our rejection of wisdom) is our “dark night of the soul”. 
Resources for living:  Solomon was overwhelmed with his situation and was struggling with resources for ruling Israel. In the midst of this struggle, in the dark night of his soul, surrounded by idols, incense, and sacrifices, Solomon came face to face with himself and with God.  The first thing that he needed as a leader, a king, a human being was wisdom: the first thing.  Everything else would follow. 
Our age cries out for wisdom.  We have amazing technology, yet we are overwhelmed by it.  Technology is not neutral.  The great theologian of culture, Jacque Ellul, pointed this out in his many books on the subject.  We are seduced by technology, believing that we control it, until we realize, (often too late), that it is controlling us:
·       controlling how we think, how we respond,
·       how we live.  (smart phones.. making us stupid…) 
·       We know how to create smartphones and IPads, but we don’t struggle with what it means to be a human being in a world of tablets and information. 
·       We live in “the information age” where we produce information by the ton, truth by the ounce and wisdom by the gram.
·       We are so busy pecking away on our phones and tablets, that lack the wisdom to understand what it means to be creature of God, made in God’s image, and thus capable of creating. 

We are inundated with information, but we lack the wisdom to discern truth and are tossed around by rumor, half-truths, and illusions.   

The gift that God offers us is wisdom.  But wisdom is acquired not through a textbook, not through a workshop, not in a class, nor by watching a video.  Wisdom is cultivated within the soul.  It is nurtured in the struggles of the heart: the struggles for dignity, purpose and meaning.  Wisdom is contained in our stories, our legends, and our myths.   It is in our music and our art.  It is in our poetry and the things of beauty.  Wisdom is in our tears and our laughter. It is nurtured in soil of the soul’s struggle.   

The New Testament text from Mark that I read follows Jesus temptations in the wilderness.  He taught in his hometown and people marveled, “What is the wisdom that has been given to him?”  That wisdom was given by God during his time in the wilderness where he struggled with doubt, temptation, and privation. It was nurtured in the struggles of the soul.  

Our technocratic worldview protests that all this wisdom talk is “blah blah blah….” useless babble for people who don’t live in the real world.”  Wisdom seems so impractical and useless. 

We want it in a plan, or technique.  A mission statement. A 7-step outline for happy living.  A practical bible if you will. “Tell me what to do… don’t ask me to think.”  

One of the special joys of pastoral ministry is teaching the confirmation class.  It was a most amazing experience for me because I discovered smart and curious young adults who were eager to find themselves in the world…but they were hungry. Hungry for wisdom to understand who they were, why they were created, and what they were supposed to do with their lives.  They wanted all the things that our world could give, but when I listened to them, they wanted more.  They hungered for something that would enable them to make sense of life.  They wanted to understand the nature of temptation and how to resist.  They wanted to know about the meaning of life, but also the reality of death.  They wanted to know about the nature of evil and how to combat it. In short, they hungered for the wisdom that God offers, and I believe it is primary.  

It is first.

We need to give our children more, and we need more.  I truly believe that we have chased the false gods of the “high places” and are now in the dark night of our collective soul.  But there is good news.  Like the story of Solomon in the high places, our forgiving and loving God confronts us in our darkness and asks, “What do you need?”
Response:  We need wisdom.  And we need to make it first in our lives.  The good news of the Bible is that Solomon ultimately chose wisdom … and everything followed. 
How can we choose wisdom?  
·       Allow yourself to struggle with the hard choices of life. 
·       Spend time thinking about how you think. 
·       Listen to the words and the rhythms of the great poets.
·       Spend time with the music of the masters.
·       Read the prayers of the saints, the holy women and men from history.  Meditate on their prayers and pray with them.
·       Reflect on your own life, both the good and less than good.  When have you experienced grace?  Who have been your guides and your mentors in life and in faith. 
·       Spend time with your doubts. Wrestle with them, for they to are a gift. 
·       Marvel at creation.    

Our contemporary challenge is also a choice.  What do we choose first?  Will we continue to give lip service and a nodding ascent to wisdom while we pursue the folly of our own wishes and wants?   Or will our prayer be: “Grant us wisdom for the facing of these days.”   Amen. 

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