The Paradox of Wisdom (Job 28:12-13, 20-28)
Tuesday night, it was cold, rainy and windy. Candy and I were on campus at the symphony. Walking across campus, bundled in coats, we saw many of the high quality students, students bright enough to be admitted into the celebrated University of North Carolina, and they were walking around in this nasty weather in tee shirts and shorts. We thought they were crazy.
We had a good laugh at the insanity of it. Later though, I thought back on the evening and I had to admit my own stupid, foolish acts. Sure, I was wise enough to wear a warm coat. But before leaving the house, I argued with my son, and I was as irrationally angry as he was. He was bull-headed and I matched him. Only I am 42 and supposedly mature – mature enough to know better. I was as a big a fool as anyone that night.
Humans are fools and our folly is most easily seen when it is time to elect a president.
Some fear that decadence and immorality are on the rise in our society. But, there was just as much decadence and hedonism in ancient Rome as today. I have heard doomsday scenarios regarding our economy. But, I have friends who have studied this in depth and they tell me not to fear the current recession. They say the economy has always been cyclical and successful times will always be followed by cycles of recession. People see the state of the world and fear we are in the “last days” and final judgment is upon us. Actually would that bad, if it means the return of Christ? Good or bad, Jesus said not to speculate or worry about such things.
None of this bothers me, but I am worried and unhappy about the polarizing condition of politics. I voted early. I tried to joke a bit with the partisans handing out voter guides. It’s been so vicious, this campaign, I thought some levity might help. They couldn’t laugh. They agreed if I critiqued the other party, but got defensive when I teased theirs. I was joking but they could not laugh. They could not see how in politics we refuse to look at our own views critically and we are totally illogical in how we demonize our rival’s views.
If I were to say a single good thing about either Romney or Obama, it would erase all else I could say this morning. Half would get mad at me for liking who you hate. Half of you would automatically be happy because you’d take the one nice thing I said as an endorsement of “your guy.” In politics there is no space for balanced, reasoned discussion.
I began voting for president in 1988, George Bush v. Michael Dukakis. This is my 7th opportunity to vote for president. Every single time, it is ugly. Every presidential election brings out the worst in us. I don’t see any improvement. It feels like it is getting worse.
Is this what God wants? Some of the ugliest political vitriol I have heard has come in church or from Christians. God cannot be happy. We need help. We need wisdom. And this need for wisdom is a major problem.
Job says, “Where shall wisdom be found, and where is the place of understanding? Human beings do not know the way to it” (28:12-13a). After suffering tremendously and then arguing with friends about the purpose of his suffering, Job concludes that wisdom is completely inaccessible. “It is,” he says, “hidden from the eyes of all the living” (28:21).
Someone running for office makes promises about all the things he is going to do if elected. He chides his opponent for failed policies and empty promises. He follows up with his own arrogant boasting about how he will bring strong leadership. Where is his wisdom? According to Job, wisdom is not “in the land of the living” (v. 13b). Wisdom cannot be bought; “silver cannot be weighed out as its price” (15b).
Wisdom also cannot be earned. In the book of Ecclesiastes we are told to be wary of any teaching or study beyond wise sayings. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is weariness of the flesh” (13:12). Wisdom, something we need as much as a need anything as this grinding political cycle comes finally to a conclusion – wisdom is impossibly elusive. Where is the hope that our narrative could differently, more peacefully, with less evil speech?
Can Democrats be good Democrats without demonizing Republicans? Can Republicans be who they are without belittling Democrats? Can Christ-followers rise above it all and participate in our country’s democracy and at the same time bring glory to God in our word and speech?
Gerald Janzen of Christian International Seminary notes where Job dismisses human efforts. In his talk about mining precious metals and then dealing in Ophir and onyx and sapphire, as well as silver and gold, Job observes that neither technology nor commerce can find or produce wisdom. Science and business both come up short. Yet in our time, we are so proud of the wealth produced in our capitalist society. We brag of the gains of our technological advancements. Where does it lead? Not to wisdom.
From Proverbs 8: “Does not wisdom call? On the heights at the crossroads, she takes her stand” (Proverbs 8:1a, 2). There, wisdom speaks. “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts long ago.” Turning to the New Testament, we look to James 1:5. “If any is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given to you.” And again from Job, “Truly the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom” (28:28).
Janzen cites this truth as the centerpiece of Job – it all comes back to the fear of the Lord. Job’s friends talk about God in time-worn clichés the way politicians talk about their platforms and lampoon their opponents. Voters mimic the sound bites of their candidate of choice. Job, too shaken to wax theological, resorts to prayer; it comes in rather abrupt laments that are uncomfortably honest and rash. But Job does not spend time theologizing or spouting clichés or sound bites. Job prays. Janzen sees in this his fear of the Lord. In declaring the impossibility of wisdom, Job shows the way to wisdom.
Wisdom cannot be found, cannot be bought, and cannot be earned or figured out. Only God discovers wisdom; wisdom itself is God’s first creative act. God is the giver of wisdom, something he happily doles out in generous amounts. And the simplest definition of wisdom is fear of the Lord. Another way of saying it is wisdom is found when we worship God, revere God’s holy name, and acknowledge God, revealed in Jesus, as Lord and master of our lives.
The essence of truth in Job is ridiculously simple. And this may be the very essence of truth throughout scripture. Fear the Lord and turn from evil, for as Job says in the second phrase of verse 28, “to depart from evil is understanding.” Every good thing that comes from human hands, human speech, and human minds begins in our worship of God and our rejection of evil.
Building on this we add more from James, chapter 3, beginning in verse 13:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
Wisdom is found when we revere the Lord. A sign of those who have found it is that their works are done with gentleness. Most who have wisdom don’t know they have it. They aren’t trying to be the smartest person in the room; they strive for purity and peace. They are gentle and full of mercy.
How many candidates in local, state, or national races are gentle and full of mercy? I have heard it over and over: you can’t run for office and be honest or nice. You’ve got to be a little dirty because your opponent with surely be underhanded. But God’s Holy word says wisdom from above, which I believe is far superior to any wisdom humans can concoct, is seen in acting rightly, gently, and mercifully.
If that is heavenly wisdom and all candidates have to be nasty, given to deceptive exaggeration, and aggressive – all things the opposite of what we read wisdom to be in James chapter 3 – then does it mean all our elected officials are fools? No. It means our system has gotten to a point where it rewards foolish behavior and ignores the wisdom of God. We are ruled by Job’s friends, the only ones our system allows to have power – at least the power of elected office.
What then do we do as God’s church? We can’t find wisdom and give it to our president and senators and governor. Wisdom can’t be found. We can fear the Lord, which means we revere and worship Him. We can seek him because, as James says, he gives generously and ungrudgingly. We have something more powerful than our one vote. We have prayer.
The paradox of wisdom is that it is ours when we stop looking for it and begin seeking God. We possess unlimited power when we empty ourselves, die to self, and silence our own voices, speaking only to God and speaking in tones only God hears.
What can we do? Every one of us should vote. Between now and Tuesday, we pray. On Tuesday, we pray. And after Tuesday, we pray. We might appear as fools to the world, but fear of the Lord, which leads us into prayer, is wisdom. So we go before the Lord, who through His only Son Jesus invites us as his sons and daughters. In prayer, we go to him, and we carry in our hearts those who are victims of the foolishness of America. We pray by name in earnest for Mitt Romney and Barak Obama, for Walter Dalton and Pat McCrory. We do it because at the end of the book of Job, the salvation of Job’s friends came when Job prayed for them. Job’s friends rule us now, and they need God’s wisdom. They’ll only get it if God gives it and they receive it. We cannot control their responses. We can only control what we do. The wise thing is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before the Lord, and to pray. This is a time of prayer.
After the sermon, we will have a time of response where the church is invited to pray for the nation.