Jesus encouraged us to be as wise as snakes and as gentle as doves. Wisdom. It is a virtue that has gone out of our vocabulary. Wisdom, to acquire it, takes too much time, too many failures, too many hard knocks, too much listening, too much being still and watching. You cannot download wisdom from some third party vender, so we prefer to move and do without. But Paul warns that if we are careless we will miss opportunities. Every day we are bomb barded with choices and wisdom is required to make the most of them.
For example, some people have been having to decide whether to take the $4,500 offered by a government program to trade in their old car and buy a new one. A headline in the New York Times last Thursday tells the bad news: "Despite 'Cash for Clunkers,' Retail Sales Decline in July." In my opinion cars haven't changed enough in the last hundred years and that, in addition to the current recession, may have something to do with their slow sales. As in the early days, cars still need to be repaired.
In the early 1900's automaker Henry Ford asked electrical genius Charlie Steinmetz to build the generators for his factory. One day the generators ground to a halt, and repairmen couldn't find the problem. So Ford called Steinmetz, who tinkered with the machines for a few hours and then threw the switch. The generators whirred to life. Later that week Ford got a bill for $10,000 from Steinmetz. Flabbergasted, the rather tightfisted carmaker inquired why the bill was so high. Steinmetz's replied: For tinkering with the generators, $10. For knowing where to tinker, $9,990. Ford paid the bill.
Steinmetz had what the repairmen lacked-an understanding of how the machines were put together. They had knowledge; he had wisdom. They knew how to repair generators; he knew how to build them. It takes time, and failures, and disappointments to learn how to build something but there are always greater opportunities in being the author.
Instead of doing the hard work of acquiring wisdom, so often we want to take the easy way out. A man is walking down the beach and comes across an old bottle. He picks it up, pulls out the cork and out pops a genie.
The genie says, "Thank you for freeing me from the bottle. In return I will grant you three wishes."
The man says "Great! I always dreamed of this and I know exactly what I want. First, I want one billion dollars in a Swiss bank account." Poof! There is a flash of light and a piece of paper with account numbers appears in his hand. He continues, "Next, I want a brand new red Ferrari right here." Poof! There is a flash of light and a bright red brand-new Ferrari appears right next to him. He continues, "Finally, I want to be irresistible to women." Poof!
There is a flash of light and he turns into a box of chocolates.
The man who gets the wishes in this story is a fool according to Scripture because true wisdom seeks God first -- not cars, money or sexual gratification. Jesus says, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you." The Bible says Solomon was a wise king because he sought God first.
We are to be wise seeking the most of every opportunity. We are to be sober otherwise we will miss many opportunities. And wherever we are, whether making or missing those opportunities, we are to be thankful. As Paul says, whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, therein we should be content. It's like the story of the man who goes to his rabbi and complains, "Life is unbearable. There are nine of us living in one room. What can I do?"
The rabbi answers, "Take your goat into the room with you." The man is incredulous, but the rabbi insists. "Do as I say and come back in a week." A week later the man comes back looking more distraught than before. "We cannot stand it," he tells the rabbi. "The goat is filthy."
The rabbi then tells him, "Go home and let the goat out. And come back in a week." A radiant man returns to the rabbi a week later, exclaiming, "Life is beautiful. We enjoy every minute of it now that there's no goat -- only the nine of us."
It's all a matter of perspective isn't it? We can be grateful or we can be bitter. We can seek wisdom or we can live as fools. We can be sober learning what the Lord's will is or we can fill ourselves with wine. What are you looking for in life? Whatever it is I am sure you will find it.
There are two birds that fly over our nation's deserts: One is the hummingbird and the other is the vulture. The vultures find the rotting meat of the desert, because that is what they look for. They thrive on that diet. But hummingbirds ignore the smelly flesh of dead animals. Instead, they look for the colorful blossoms of desert plants. The vultures live on what was. They live on the past. They fill themselves with what is dead and gone. But hummingbirds live on what is. They seek new life. They fill themselves with freshness and life. Each bird finds what it is looking for. We all do.
That is the essence of Paul's teaching: In life, there are two birds. The one bird looks for foolishness and stupidity, the other looks for wisdom. The vultures seek to fill themselves with the rotting flesh of drunkenness and debauchery, the hummingbird sobriety, freshness, and the Spirit. In the desert of this world you have your scavengers who are angry and ungrateful, but you also have those who hum a grateful hymn of thanksgiving. The irony is that you find what you are looking for.
In our Epistle reading this morning from the fifth chapter of Ephesians Paul outlines proper behavior for good living. In our short passage he admonishes his readers to be careful how they live. He is brief and to the point. Three things we must do: Be wise, be sober, and be thankful. It's a short list but if we can orient our daily lives around these three-be wise, be sober, be thankful-we will transform not only our lives but also the lives of our family, friends, church, and neighbors. Before we start transforming others we must transform ourselves by seeking God. (From the sermon "Be Careful How You Live" by Brett Blair et al.)
The beginning of wisdom, the fist step in the wisdom journey, is seeking God. In the words of the Hindu Yogi, Paramanhansa Yogonanda:
Humanity--so variegated in its own eyes!--is seen by a master to be divided into only two classes: ignorant people who are not seeking God, and wise people who are. (Paramahansa Yogonanda, Autobiography of a Yogi, 154)
The wise person seeks God first.
The account of Solomon's experience makes clear that his wisdom was not something that he acquired through his own efforts. Nor was it an innate quality he was born with. Rather, wisdom was given by God upon Solomon's proper response to God's invitation.
The distinctive feature of Christianity is found in our insistence that Jesus Christ is the wisdom of God in a way that no other religious figure ever was or ever will be. As the Apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians:
"... Christ Jesus ... became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, 'Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.' (1 Cor. 1:30)
Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on August 16, 2009.