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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Wisdom and Humility (Proverbs 1.1-7)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - September 1, 2013
Text: Proverbs 1:1-7; Psalm 111:9-10; Matthew 7:24-29

:: Sermon Audio (LINK) - scroll down for written draft
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."

:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: learning "Come Ye Sinners" (Matthew Smith/Indelible Grace)

Hymn of Praise: "All Creatures of Our God and King" (LASST UNS ERFRUEN)
Song of Praise: "Come Ye Sinners" (Matthew Smith/Indelible Grace)

Offering of Music (Mike Slade): "Who Am I? (Casting Crowns)
Song of Sending: "Be Thou My Vision/Open My Eyes, Lord" (Austell/Youngblood)

Postlude: "All Creatures of Our God and King" (Hal Hopson)

:: Some Visuals Used
Prelude: Video* on Proverbs 1:7

Artwork by Alina Harrington

:: Sermon Manuscript
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon, not used in the service. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.
~Proverbs 1:7
Today we are in Proverbs, that book of the Bible that is chock-full of wise and pithy sayings like “Anxiety in a person’s heart weighs it down, but a good word makes it glad.” (12:25) And one of my favorites: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (15:1)

Proverbs is what is called “wisdom literature” and highlights the difference between wisdom and foolishness. Wisdom is the ability to make godly choices in life. Today we are looking at the introduction to Proverbs, which sets the tone and purpose for the whole collection, which is spelled out in verses 2-6. If you didn’t quite follow the syntax of the sentence, let me highlight it by reading the first verse a little differently, followed by vv. 2-6.

These proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel are hereby collected with these goals:

•    To know wisdom and instruction (v. 2a)
•    To discern the sayings of understanding (v. 2b)
•    To receive instruction in wise behavior, righteousness, justice and equity (v. 3)
•    To understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles (v. 6)

Then comes our memory verse (v. 7), which I will also save to the end as in the text.

Listen and Learn (vv. 4-5)

In the middle of the stated goals for collecting these proverbs, we get some insight into the breadth of audience, from the naïve and young to the older and wiser. Let me restate those verses in this way: these proverbs are collected…

•    For the naïve, to give prudence
•    For the youth to give knowledge and discretion
•    For the wise man (or woman), who will hear and increase in learning
•    For the man (or woman) of understanding, who will acquire wise counsel

Notice the change from verse 4 to 5. The proverbs give the naïve and young something they are lacking. It is given like food, in order to eat and grow. But the wise and understanding person knows what to do with the proverbs! Those persons will “hear and increase in learning… and acquire wise counsel.” Interesting!

If I had to choose one everyday, practical trait for becoming wise it would be LISTENING. We see that the young and immature need to be taught. We see that the more mature and wise know how to listen, from the “will hear” to seeking out wise counsel. And we see in the last part of v. 7 that the fool despises instruction, not wanting to listen or be taught.

For each goal of Proverbs and as illustrated with the intended audience, LISTENING is a critical skill. And it is more than a skill, it is an attitude. Hearing only requires ears that work, but listening requires a willingness to pay attention and accept instruction. That’s when LEARNING happens.

Learn and Act

It is also evident in this text and in the others we heard today that LEARNING is not the end of wisdom, but ACTION is. It is not enough to hear if we don’t learn; and it is not enough to learn if we don’t act.

Consider v. 3: wisdom, instruction, and understanding in v. 2 expands in v. 3 to “wise behavior, righteousness, justice, and equity.” Those are wisdom applied. Remember the original definition of wisdom (the ability to make godly choices)? These are examples of godly choices: righteousness, justice, and equity.

Our other texts for the day also connect wisdom to action. Psalm 111 equates wisdom and good understanding with “doing God’s commandments.” (Psalm 111:10) In Jesus’ parable in Matthew 7, the wise man (who built his house on the rock) is the one who “hears these words of mine and ACTS on them.” Or in the scenario of the parable, wisdom wouldn’t be just listening to the weather forecast of a storm or the builder’s instructions on the importance of building on rock vs. sand, but ACTUALLY BUILDING on rock to prepare for the storm. So, Jesus teaches, we must not only hear God’s Word (and Jesus’ teaching), but ACT on it!

This is a good point to draw some initial application. If we consider the scripture and sermon you hear in worship as one example of God’s Word to you, we may ask several critical questions in regards to your being wise or foolish.

1. Do you HEAR what God is saying through the scripture and the Word preached? (Unless you’ve fallen asleep or have headphones in or are VERY distracted, probably so!)

2. Are you LISTENING to what God is saying through the scripture and the Word preached? (This takes much more attention, intention, and involvement!)

3. What are you going to DO with what God is saying through the scripture and the Word preached? (And the rubber meets the road…!)

Holy Fear is the Beginning

All this is very practical and common sense: listen, learn, and act. Then we get to verse 7… to the beginning: the fear of the Lord.

Two questions immediately arise: 1) What in the world is “the fear of the Lord?” and 2) How does that related to knowledge and wisdom?

Let’s start with the first question. Interestingly enough, a pastor-friend was asking about the “fear of the Lord” earlier this week and I was able to say, “I’m preaching on that THIS Sunday!” Fear of the Lord is a complicated and elevated concept, related to our common use of fear, but so much more than that. We might round out our understanding of “fear of the Lord” with words like “holy reverence,” “awe,” “humble respect,” and “worship.” Mostly in this life we fear things or people that want to hurts us, but God is not evil, but good. Rather, it is that God is so pure and powerful and holy that we dare not approach or treat God lightly. I’ve heard “fear of the Lord” compared with the way one might approach a power transformer or a fire, with caution and respect for the fact that there is enough power there to kill you if you aren’t looking what you are doing. And that is going to be the point of connection to how “the fear of the Lord” relates to this passage in Proverbs: just as a wise person gives full attention to a power transformer or blazing fire, so a wise person gives full attention to the Lord, what God is saying and doing.

First, though, let me say a bit more about “fear of the Lord.” If I had to pick one passage to epitomize this attitude toward God, it would be the Isaiah 6, where Isaiah encounters God in all God’s glory and power. Isaiah is a believer, a prophet of God, but the encounter causes him to fall to the ground, “undone” in his language. God does not strike him or attack him or threaten him; it is simply what being in God’s presence does to him, convicting him to the very core of his being and all at once of his mortality and his unrighteousness.  I would call that a “holy fear.”

But, hold that in tension with the teaching in the book of Hebrews, that we may “have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus.” (Hebrews 10:19) The King James translated that verse that we have “boldness” to enter God’s presence. So, yes, there is a “holy fear” that is not only appropriate, but inevitable in God’s presence; but because of Christ there is a “holy confidence” or “holy boldness.” I think we probably have an inadequate concept of both ideas and tend to think of God either too casually or too timidly. But somewhere in the tension between the elevated concepts of “holy fear” and “holy boldness” there is our reality in Christ.

While we continue to wrestle with our own limited understanding of God in that tension, what we can be assured of in Proverbs 1 is that God warrants our FULL ATTENTION!  Whether because God is so powerful that looking away may mean the difference between life and death or because the grace we have to approach God through Christ is so generous and magnificent (and BOTH are true!); the wise man, the wise woman, the wise boy, the wise girl… listens, learns and obeys God. That is the point of Proverbs 1:7. Listen, learn, and obey as if your life depended on it! Listen, learn, and obey like you would if an emergency worker if you were trapped in a falling building. Listen, learn, and obey like you would if a doctor if you had a life-threatening illness. Listen, learn, and obey as if the one, all-powerful, all-wise, all-loving God of the universe were speaking and had your best interest at heart.

To really get at this, I would offer this adaptation of words you will know well.  You have heard it said that we are to LOVE the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength – basically, will all you’ve got! This passage teaches an application of that love of God – another good way to understand “fear of the Lord.” Hear it then this way: this is wisdom… to listen to, learn from, and obey the Lord your God with all you’ve got!

And there is a related teaching like it. You will see this echoed in verse 5 in the actions of the wise: listen to others! We might even say, “Listen to others as you would yourself.” Fools only listen to themselves; they despise wisdom and instruction (v. 7). But the wise ones, they listen, learn, and obey God and learn from their neighbor. Something to ponder, to be sure!  Amen.

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