Sermon at United Ministry of Aurora, NY – Sept. 13, 2015


The Book of Proverbs opens with Wisdom herself crying out to us, full voice, right on our own street. She cries, “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? I called and you refused, you’ve ignored all my counsel”  Whoa! Here we are in Church listening to the Bible and Wisdom calls us simple-minded and says we ignore her? What’s going on here? This morning, we’ll discuss an ancient way of reading the Bible. It may help us understand why Wisdom is dissing us.

Wisdom goes on, “… you’ve ignored all my counsel…so I will laugh at your calamity and mock when panic strikes you like a storm….Then you will call upon me, but I will not answer, you will look for me but not find me. Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, would have none of my counsel and despised all my reproof, therefore they shall eat of the fruit of their way…For the simple are killed by their turning away, and the complacency of fools destroys them; But those who listen to me will be secure, at ease, without anxiety.”

Secure, at ease, without anxiety. We spend a lot of money on prescription drugs, therapists and yoga looking for relief of stress and anxiety, and maybe even more on diversions to distract us from feelings of dread. The Bible doesn’t mince words; because - therefore. Don’t listen to wisdom - live a life of anxiety and dread.

God doesn’t want us stressed out and anxious. He really wants us to be happy, contented – but not complacent. So God sends us the Living Word, the Written Word, and Wisdom herself in the form of the Paraclete. The Spirit. The Book of Proverbs is a stern and loving warning to get wisdom. How? The Bible.

But, let’s be honest. Most people hardly ever read it. Some never even crack it open – except maybe at random in times of grief or big trouble. For many of us, Sunday mornings, weddings, funerals and Christmas are the only times we even hear it read. And nobody, me included, ever spends as much time with the Bible as we know we should. It’s hard to be comfortable with it. The Bible seems like a jumble of contradictions, archaic phrases, agricultural parables and war stories. But, as Proverbs hints, the Bible is much more than we think. Yes, it’s history, stories, parables, morals and ethics. Yes it is full of rules and commandments and dire warnings. But, the Bible is also the Word of God; and was written for us. With a purpose. God himself compares it to the rainfall, “ . . . so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”  God has a purpose in talking to us.

Let’s admit it. The Bible is tough to read. It was written in a different language. It was written by people in different times, different countries, different cultures from ours. It doesn’t just come right out and explain things simply. It is full of riddles, apparent paradox and indirect teaching. Yes, yes and yes. Even those who’ve wrestled with the Bible over the millennia know this. But, there’s a reason for the complexity. The Universe is not simple. Elegant yes, but not simple. The Universe is full of mystery and suffering. The Bible is a teaching book to help us wrestle, struggle with those mysteries, overcome problems, deal with suffering and live a happy and rich life. In a word, acquire Wisdom.

Okay, so how do we read this teaching book, the Bible? How do we unwrap some of the complexity? Here’s some ancient teaching: the old Jewish rabbis said the Bible speaks to us at four different levels; it instructs in five. They also said, Woe to the person who reads only at the simple level. Let’s take a brief look at what those layers are. Then, we’ll unpeel today’s scriptures with that approach. Okay?

The first level tells the story. This is the literal level. What happened; this was said by whom. This is mainly what we teach children in Sunday School. This is Information.

The second is teaching from the story.
 Lessons are drawn. The moral of the story. What does the story point to? This second level, teaching, holds the moral lessons and the teachings of the faith. Sermons are usually drawn from this second level. This is Knowledge.

The third level has different names,
but I like what the old Rabbis call it – Remez, or “Hints”.  At this third level we look for the connections and glimpses, awakenings that stretch our minds to where scripture wants to lead us. These little hints take us beyond the "moral of the story" to deeper connections and the beginning of insights. Academics might call this “isomorphic” thinking; making connections between the relationships in one place to relationships somewhere else: seeing connections between other parts of scripture and other parts of life lets hints of deeper truths emerge. This is Understanding.

Wisdom emerges during and after putting our personal struggles in daily life in the context of what we understand from Scripture.

There’s nothing new here. This is how the human mind works. First we take in data which our brain organizes into information. Then our minds process the information into knowledge. If we are lucky and diligent, we can go from knowledge to understanding. But, only after both understanding and personal struggle with life, does wisdom begin to emerge. 

Some, very few people can go from information to wisdom in a flash. But, I think this is only true for grandmothers. Wisdom, by the way, is always referred to as feminine. Pay attention, guys.

The old rabbis also said there is a fifth level. They called it Mystery. Mystery is not accessible to our conscious minds, not meant to be understood by reason. It is meant for our spirit to feed on. This is a level of deep satisfaction to our soul; it is direct communication from the Creator God himself to the divine spark he places inside each human being. The mystery level surrounds the Bible. The mystery wraps around us whenever we hear or read the Bible, from the time we hear our first Bible story in Sunday School until the last Psalm is read at our funeral.

In sum, (1) is the story,
(2) the teaching derived from the story,
(3) awakenings, glimpses and hints about the kingdom of heaven,
(4) deeper understanding from these hints of the kingdom of heaven.
(5) is the feeding of our souls. 
Pretty good reasons for Bible study, don’t you think?

With that in mind, let’s look at our Epistle lesson today, from James. The story: Ships are huge, but they are guided by a very small rudder. So also, the tongue is small, but it talks big. James compares the work of the tongue to a huge forest set ablaze by a small fire. Animals can be tamed by humans, but no one can tame the tongue of its restless evil. With the same tongue we bless the Lord and Father; and curse people made in the image and likeness of God. From the same mouth come both curse and blessing, and this is a terrible wrong. James goes on; does a spring pour out both fresh water and salt? Can a fig tree yield olives?

The lesson: We have to choose our direction. After all, we go wherever we look. And the tongue is our rudder. The hint: Remember Jesus said it’s what comes out of us that defiles us. It also defines what we are at heart. James hints at our divided natures contrasted with the single-minded nature of other animals. The animals can all be tamed. Why? Because their natures are clear, single minded. We are animals, but capable of self-reflection, of abstraction. Only humans speak. Talking animals. But our natures are divided.

The understanding: Admitting this internal division is the first step. The words that come out of us define us but also determine our future direction. But we have the gift of repentance. The word “Repent” simply means “re-face.” Turn your face in another direction. We have a deeper hint and glimpse when we connect this with the blessing Aaron, the high priest was instructed to make on Israel. “…May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you, May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you – and grant you Peace.” If God is lifting up his face to us, we are compelled to look in His direction. And we always go where we look.

The Wisdom: The Bible teaches us we have to choose whether we remain divided, half-animal, half-divine, or whether we will take up the tough job of throwing off our animal person. Proverbs teaches that to make no choice is to make the choice to stay divided. Wisdom teaches us the divided life is a life of anxiety and dread. We have a strong incentive to kill our old divided self and become transformed into sons and daughters of God.

Big words. Transformed into children of God. Exactly what does that mean? If I could tell you plainly and clearly exactly what it means to be children of God, I would, and so would the Bible.  Part of the mystery is there are no words, no language that can communicate what we are to become. But, we get glimpses and hints. Paul in 2 Corinthians said, “I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” We are also told, "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the heart or imagination of man, what God has prepared for those who love him." 

Mark’s Gospel gives hints. Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  The disciples say, “John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the prophets”. Then Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, having been with Jesus all this time, having seen Jesus feed the crowds, walk on water, heal the sick, give sight to the blind, Peter is able to blurt out at last, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus then orders his disciples not to tell anyone about him.

Why not? Why shouldn’t Jesus want the disciples to announce the Messiah has come? What hints, what connection do we draw? Because he had not yet been crucified and risen? Maybe if they had announced who Jesus claimed to be, that would have sped things up. But no, Jesus goes on to tell the disciples what will happen to him, his suffering and rejection, his death and resurrection. Peter, who now knows for sure Jesus is both Man and the Son of God, Peter grabs Jesus and says! “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”

Jesus sharply replies, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.”

Even grasping who Jesus was, Peter didn’t get it; didn’t deeply understand until much later. It’s wasn’t simple for the disciples and it’s not simple for us today. We want to stay the divided, half-animal, half-divine creatures we are. We cling to the familiar. We don’t want to repent, to turn our faces in another direction.

We are like Peter, even with knowledge of the truth, we have to struggle with life before coming to a full understanding of who Jesus really is and what this means for us. To understand who Jesus is, is also to know what we are called to become. There are no words to describe this transformation. But the Bible is a guide, a pointer.

Let me sum up. Transformation of self cannot be taught by a human teacher. We can teach about Jesus. But, to know Jesus and understand Jesus, we have to let go of our old self, the self not on the side of God, but of men. It’s a struggle, isn’t it? But we have help; the living Word of God and the Holy Spirit.

Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would teach us all things. Wisdom is to make ourselves accessible to the Holy Spirit, and one of the good ways to do this is to open the Bible with a full sense of its Wisdom, mystery and power. Then believing that God wants to and is able to transform us by the power of his Word, listen - at all levels - with the ear of our heart. Wisdom is crying out to us.

May God add his Blessing to these words.