The theme of today's worship service is wisdom, and the scripture lesson is Psalm 1. All three hymns had something to do with wisdom, including the opening hymn, We Gather Together. In the Chalice Hymnal which we have in our pews, this song opens, "We gather together to ask for God's blessing, to turn to a wisdom surpassing our own." The middle hymn, to a rather famous Roman Catholic tune, is Holy Wisdom. And the closing hymn, Be Thou My Vision, includes the verse, "Be thou my wisdom and thou my true word..."
Here's the video of the complete service, followed by a transcription of the sermon in its entirety.
The Wisdom of God
They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.
As far back as my memory can go, I remember my mother saying she never had any tonsils. Sort of an odd claim to fame, I suppose, but I’d occasionally tell people that, as though it were an interesting fact about my family. As you can imagine, this sharing on my part was usually received with the indifference it warranted. A year or so ago, I happened to mention to her the fact that she never had any tonsils. I don’t remember the context. But I remember her rather earth-shattering response. “Well, you never did, either,” she said.
And I was like, “What!? All these years I thought you were the freak of nature, and now you tell me you passed on this trait to me!?” I thought back on all those times I’d told people my mother was born without tonsils and imagined how much more satisfying it would’ve been to tell them that I had been born without tonsils. Then it hit me that that information was not that impressive no matter who the subject was, and just let it go.
But I will say this: Nobody on either side of my family has ever had any wisdom teeth. Do with that information what you will, but you have to admit it’s an excellent segue into today’s topic—namely, wisdom.
We’ve all heard of wisdom, and maybe a lot of us remember (perhaps vaguely) that the Bible emphasizes wisdom… or at least the Hebrew Bible does. You might even know that there’s actually a whole section of the Bible that we refer to as Wisdom Literature. It consists of five books: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. Of these, I think just about all of us would have the least trouble identifying the Proverbs as being Wisdom Literature. After all, it’s basically a whole book of wise sayings.
To me, at least, the least wisdom-like of these five books are the two that are the most poetic: The Song of Solomon and the Psalms. I can certainly see why they’re included among the books of Wisdom Literature. But it’s just not always obvious.
Our scripture reading today was the First Psalm, so obviously it’s the psalms I want to home in on this morning. Though I know better, it’s easy for me to imagine that the 150 psalms in the Bible are included in the order they were written, or the order they were first sung. Since each psalm is independent of the others, this is most certainly not the case. For example, we’re almost sure that the Psalm No. 1 was a later psalm. When the Book of Psalms was edited and reached the form we see it in today, whoever that editor was took this particular psalm and placed it first. It’s a wisdom psalm, and it sets the tone for the entire book that follows. In fact, a lot of modern scholars speak of the first two psalms as though they’re a single unit. Another place we see this is in the 42nd and 43rd Psalms—there it’s even more clear that those two psalms actually belong together.
But getting back to Psalm 1, what do we mean when we call it a wisdom psalm? First let’s talk about what wisdom isn’t. Wisdom isn’t knowledge. Or at least it’s not just knowledge. A person can be very knowledgeable, but not at all wise. We see a lot of that these days, don’t we? People get a lot of information from Facebook or other online sources, but they do stupid things with it. We used to talk about the difference between being book smart and having common sense. I guess having common sense is to have wisdom. Even if you don’t have all that much knowledge, you know how to use it, to order it, to do the right thing with it.
And that word order is important to my understanding of wisdom. There are places in the psalms and proverbs extolling inhabited places. And by that, I think the Bible is talking about civilization—that is, places that have been put in livable order. You can interpret this in lots of ways, but that’s what God does: God orders the world. God doesn’t just create raw materials, but God orders all of it in an infinite number of ways—to create galaxies and stars and solar systems, to order our inhabited earth so that it has an atmosphere and soil and oceans with tides, to bring life forms into being—insects and fish and birds and animals and even humans. This is the wisdom of God: combining love and power and knowledge in such a way as to bring into existence this amazing universe—and to give us a place in it.
Did you know that there are places in the Bible where wisdom seems to be far more than an attribute of God? Proverbs 8, for example. It’s a beautiful chapter where wisdom speaks to us in the first person. “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it. Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right; for my mouth will utter truth” [vv 4-7a]. And then later in the chapter, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth; when he established the heavens, I was there” [vv 22, 25, 27a].
From our perspective it’s difficult to remember that time and space are no less creatures of God than are maple trees and raccoons. But it’s also important to remember that wisdom—the ordering of things that makes the universe and life possible—is also a creature of God… in fact it was the first of all creatures. The Greek word for wisdom is Sophia, and Sophia is always feminine. The great church of Constantinople was named in her honor: Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom.
Wisdom, then, is among the most important attributes that we can attach to God. And it’s probably also the one attribute that God shares with us—perhaps the reason we are said to be created in God’s image. We cannot create as God does. But we can use wisdom to order our world—not just order it for our own good, but to order it for the good of all. The creation story in the Bible speaks of subduing the earth. But our understanding has grown. If we have a responsibility to subdue, it’s not just to order our environment for the benefit of ourselves, but also to subdue our own desire for dominance. We’re now seeing what willful ignorance is doing to the air and the water and the climate. We’ve used our knowledge for profit and convenience. It’s time to start using wisdom to be stewards of what God has ordered for the good of all.
Which brings me to my final point—and back to Psalm 1. We need to view wisdom in the broad sense of being stewards of the earth. But it’s also about personal choice. Just as humans can use wisdom—instead of just knowledge—in a way that animals cannot, we can also choose between right and wrong. Well, it’s not that we can choose, we must choose. And that’s how the Book of Psalms opens.
“Happy are those who choose what’s right,” the first verse of the first psalm says. But it says it in a very interesting way. My usual go-to translation (the NRSV) was translated by somebody with zero imagination as far as this psalm goes, so I’m going to paraphrase the King James in modern English. Here’s what it says: “Blessed is the person that doesn’t walk according to the advice of the godless, that doesn’t stand on the path of sinners, and doesn’t sit with the scornful.”
Those three verbs tell us something: Walk, stand, sit. Wrong choices start with following others who make wrong choices. There’s movement, but the direction can still be changed. Then we move on to standing around with those who glory in their wrong-headedness. The person who’s choosing is settling into destructive ways—they’re becoming comfortable with the wrong crowd. And then finally, we find them seated among the scornful, not just making wrong choices, but actively mocking those who make right choices.
Over-against all this is the person who has the ways of God as a priority. When I read about meditating on God’s law day and night, I remember what Jesus said were the two greatest commandments: Love God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself. All the other commandments depend on these two. Therefore the wrong crowd referred to in verse one are those who not only reject love, but make life difficult for those who choose love.
And then there’s that very vivid image in the middle of the psalm—the one that was so strong that I had to make a bulletin cover out of it: “They’re like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.” In the first verse we had to think about the person that was ensconced with the scoffers. They used their fixed position to destroy the confidence of those who’d chosen God’s love, or to mock their peacefulness, probably calling them stupid do-gooders. Here in the third verse we’re led to think of a tree that’s firmly planted by a flowing stream, receiving the gifts of God’s goodness and producing fruit that gives life to all around it—maybe not apples or peaches, but certainly fresh air and beauty.
While the loving are like those trees planted by the river, the mockers are compared to chaff, blown by the wind, getting in people’s eyes, clogging their nasal passages, making them cough and keeping them from seeing clearly. Those who choose the wisdom of love will always have a place in God’s world… those who reject it and mock it will eventually pass away. That’s the final message of the 1st Psalm.
And I don’t want to make it seem here that I’m preaching a sermon about making simple choices between right and wrong. Because I don’t believe our choices are always that clear-cut, nor are they usually all that simple. We often lack the knowledge we need to make the best choice. We see that in the way the world is ordered. Society often rewards the scoffers and makes them seem wise, while making the wise seem foolish. We’re not always equipped to know the difference. But we are equipped to use the wisdom by which Jesus lived his life: the wisdom of love.
What I’m talking about can be found in the Bible, of course, especially right there in the gospels— practically any chapter you open to in the life of Christ. It’s also very present in literature— just about any poem by Wendell Berry, for example. Here’s the beginning of one called Amish Economy (A Timbered Choir, 1998):
We live my mercy if we live.
To that we have no fit reply
But working well and giving thanks,
Loving God, loving one another,
To keep Creation’s neighborhood.
Let us seek the wisdom of love, for it is love that will keep us no matter where we walk, stand, or sit. And it is love that will bear the fruit of God’s kindom.
—©2021 Sam Greening, Pilgrim Christian Church