Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Wise Choice

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Proverbs 9:1-6
There's a story* about a man who had developed a test to compare how smart the children in his small town were. Each day he would offer different children a choice between a nickel and a dime. He thought that a "simple" child would take the nickel because a nickel is bigger than a dime. A wise child, he thought, would know that a dime is worth more.

When the man gave his test, every kid in town chose the dime, except one, a little boy. The man saw this child as foolish. So each day, whenever he saw that boy, he would offer him the same choice, and each day the boy chose the nickel. Soon, everyone in town was in on the joke and, knowing about the foolish little boy, they would offer him the same deal. And sure enough, the boy always chose the nickel.

One day the boy’s older cousin visited him from out of town. A man walked up to the two boys and offered them both a choice between a dime and a nickel. The cousin took a dime and the younger boy took a nickel. After the man had walked away, snickering, the cousin asked, “Don’t you know that a dime is worth more than a nickel?” The young boy looked at his older cousin and said, “Sure, I know that a dime is worth more than a nickel. But if I’d take the dime just once, people would stop offering me the choice. Most of the kids in town have gotten a dollar or two in dimes. I’ve made over $200 in nickels!”

There are two paths that we can take in this life—two paths, in fact, through eternity: the wise or the foolish.

Do we know the difference? Some people think they know. But the Bible says that we may not. “Sometimes,” Proverbs 16:25 says, “there is a way that seems to be right, but in the end it is the way to death.”

The choice between a wise life and a foolish one is no nickel and dime game. It’s a matter of life and death.

It’s too bad that our first lesson ends where it does. That’s because by reading just a few verses further on, we see that Proverbs 9, from which the lesson comes, presents us with these two alternative ways of life. And sandwiched in between Proverbs’ portraits of the two contrasting choices which you and I make every single day, is one verse that underscores which choice makes sense for us for today and all our tomorrows through eternity.

Just a little background: Proverbs is a book attributed to King Solomon, Israel’s third king. On becoming king, the Bible tells us elsewhere, Solomon asked God for the wisdom he needed to govern. It’s long been believed that the book of Proverbs, a book of practical wisdom, was written by Solomon near the beginning of his reign in 970 BC. The usual pattern of this book is to present one wisdom saying after another, each succeeding one having little or no reference to the one before it.

But our lesson, Proverbs 9:1-6, does something different. It presents a kind of story. As is often true in the Old Testament, Wisdom is personified, made into a character. Usually, I should point out, Wisdom--in fact, I know of no exceptions--is portrayed as a woman. (Men, this should give us pause the next time we feel the impulse to get into an argument with a wife, sister, girlfriend, or mom; we could be wrong!)

Be that as it may, here too, Wisdom is portrayed as a woman. And we’re told that she has built her house on seven pillars. This may be significant in several ways. One is that for God’s Old Testament people, seven was the number of completion or perfection. Secondly, in the everyday ancient world, archeology has shown us, the homes of the wealthiest and most careful people were constructed on foundations of seven pillars. Wisdom then, as portrayed in our lesson, is a careful builder.

Our lesson goes on to say that Wisdom has prepared meat and bread and wine, the meal of wealthy people in ancient times, and she has set her table. But she hasn’t set it for the rich, powerful, or influential. That’s clear from what happens next.

Wisdom perches herself on a high place where people can see and hear her so that everyone can get the invitation to her table. To make doubly sure that everyone knows, she sends out servant girls with the same invitation: “Come, those who are simple, eat of my table, and lay aside your immaturity. Let me feed you on wisdom so that you can grow up and have the insight you need to live life.”

Now, just a few verses beyond our lesson, in Proverbs 9:13-18, you can read about another woman, with another invitation. She’s foolish, ignorant. She offers water she claims to be sweet because it’s stolen and bread she says is pleasant because it’s shared in secret. The guests who go to her table don’t realize that death is there. She offers quick and easy pleasures that don't last.

Wisdom is the way of following the God we know in Jesus Christ. Foolishness is following all those other voices that prompt us to look out for ourselves and get what we want when we can. There are lots of times when foolishness can seem like the wisest course.

The businessman who cuts corners, using inferior materials in order to make the lowest bid thinks he’s being wise.

The atheist who thinks that by denying the transformed lives seen in those who genuinely follow Jesus Christ, he’s asserting control over his own destiny and being wise.

The young person who ignores God’s will that sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage between a man and a woman thinks that he or she is beating the system and being wise.

The girl who copies from the test of the smart kid at the next desk thinks she’s being wise.

And it’s possible that many, even most, of the people who heed the invitation of foolishness instead of wisdom will get away with their choices. The businessman may become wealthy. The atheist may have a long life in which he achieves all his aspirations. The young person may avoid pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, or the obligations that go with bringing a child into the world. The girl who swipes the test answers may get her cheat-cheapened diploma.

But that doesn’t alter the fact that foolishness, for all its short-term gains, is the way of death. Foolishness pays no dividends beyond the grave.

The way of wisdom, of following Jesus Christ, isn’t easy. Let’s be clear about that. "When Christ calls a man," the martyred Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, "he bids him come and die." The world sees that as foolishness. In 1 Corinthians in the New Testament, the first-century preacher Paul writes, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” It’s hard to follow a Savior Who wants to crucify our old selves, with all their arrogance and self-service, so that our new selves can rise and live with God forever. Wisdom entails admitting our selfishness, admitting our need of a Savior, admitting our need of help.

But over the long haul, in a life of God-given peace and in life forever with God, wisdom has it all over foolishness. When we choose the wise path in life, the path of following Christ, we don’t have to have long memories. We don’t have to remember what lies we told to whom. We need to create no cover-ups for following the course of wisdom.

One great thing about the wisdom that comes from God is that we never get too old or hardened by sin to hear or heed it. I once met an elderly man who had done one rotten thing after another in his life. He had no use for God. Fortunately for him, he came into contact with a young man who was on fire for Jesus Christ. Little more than a year before that elderly man died, he made a public confession of his faith in a Lutheran congregation. He’d realized how foolish he had been. His life was changed forever.

Another great thing about God’s wisdom is that we’re never too young to need it or to benefit from it. A young man was brought to my former parish in Cincinnati by his wife. She thought it was time that they get with a church. He was a nice fellow, but he wasn’t that interested in Christ or the Church. But, as is often the case, something happened within the fellowship of the congregation. He became intrigued by Christ, interested in the ways in which he saw Christ affecting people’s lives. He got involved with a Bible study. He became a leader of the church. I was sad when I learned that he had gotten a job in another city. We both choked up the day he said goodbye. But today, that young man is both a successful businessperson and a deeply committed follower of Christ, involved with his new church. What if he had waited to get serious about Christ? He would have, at the least, gone through years without the wisdom, grace, and goodness of God guiding him and sustaining him through his life.

Remember earlier, when I said that in between the stories of Wisdom and Foolishness in Proverbs 9, there is a verse that underscores the wise choice for us to make for ourselves? It's Proverbs 9:10, which says, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight."

Back when I was in seminary, an eighty-something year old man used to come and give guest lectures. He had been a professor of systematic theology and years before, while he served an interim pastorate in Springfield, Ohio, had baptized my father. T.A. Kantonen was an eminent theologian who, by the time I met him, had spent his life following Christ. But I was struck by how he often answered questions, "I think this is what God is teaching me..." "This is what I believe right now..." He realized that even for all his years, he was only beginning to understand God, only starting to be steeped in the wisdom of God. "The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom..."

And how about you and me? How can we begin to be steeped in the wise way of life God offers to us? There is only one way and that's to draw close to God in the flesh, Jesus Christ!

If we really want to live wisely, we need to draw close to Christ every day: through prayer, study of Scripture, fellowship with other believers, and service in Jesus' Name. We need to soak up God's Word and receive the body and blood of our Lord every time they're offered.

God has invited us to feast on His wisdom. Heed that call! Follow Christ today. Eat at His table and walk each day with Him.

That’s the wise choice for all eternity. Amen

*This story was told in a sermon by Pastor Leslie Judge of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Pagosa Springs, Colorado.

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