One of the nice perks of being a pastor is receiving a goodly number of Christmas cards and even some holiday gifts from parishioners. One person gave me a book of anecdotes and illustrations by another minister. I'm not sure if this is a subtle hint about my sermons recently or if it was just intended to be reading I might enjoy. Knowing the person, I have to believe it was the latter; however, I'm going to begin my sermon today with a few examples I found in the book to show that I both appreciate and use what I receive.
Here's one. Did you know that they weren't able to have an outdoor nativity scene in Washington this year? Oh, it had nothing to do with church-state issues. It seems they weren't able to locate three wise men and a virgin in the nation's capital.
The author of the book is the Rev. James Atwood, and he's a Presbyterian. So, you can blame him for the joke.
Understand, I would not have been inclined to say anything like this except that one of you put me up to it. So, look around today and try to guess who it was.
Now this is Epiphany Sunday which recounts the journey of the Wise Men, so you see there is a connection with this illustration.
Here's another from the book that reveals wisdom isn't always found where you might expect it. This is a quote from former Vice-President Dan Quayle: "I was recently on a tour of Latin America and the only regret I have was that I didn't study Latin in school so that I could converse with those people."
Finally, and also from Washington, D.C., is this quote from Don Rumsfeld at a Department of Defense briefing in 2002: "As we know there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know."
Do you get it, get it? Sometimes we can be too smart to make sense.
There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom, though the two words are often used interchangeably. You can send your child to school to get knowledge, but there is no corresponding institution whereby you can be guaranteed to leave with wisdom.
Knowledge equips you with answers; wisdom gives you insight. One increases what you know; the other reduces the extraneous so that only the important remains. One can inflate your ego with pride in your personal capacity; the other reminds you how much you don't understand. Knowledge may bring you better jobs and prestige; wisdom brings you satisfaction and serenity.
If you haven't read Proverbs recently, you will be surprised just how much of that book lifts up wisdom as one of God's greatest gifts to us. It is something highly to be desired and treasured. Listen to this selection:
Happy are those who find wisdom,
And those who get understanding.,
For her income is better than silver,
And her revenue better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
And nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
In her left are riches and honor.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
And all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
Those who hold her fast are called happy.
It's interesting to note that much of the Biblical imagery is masculine, but when "wisdom" is referred to it almost always is conveyed by the feminine. You can draw your own conclusions from that.
Our Gospel today relates the story of Jesus at twelve when he is separated from his parents as the pilgrims return home from Passover. When they retrace their steps that lead back to the temple, they find him sitting among the rabbis. They are relieved to find him safe—what parent wouldn't be?—but they are taken by surprise by how easily he enters into discussion with the learned men around him. The passage ends with the familiar words, "And Jesus increased in wisdom and years, and in divine and human favor."
The purpose of the story is two-fold. First, it is a bridge from the infancy narratives to Jesus' baptism by John. More importantly for Luke, it shows the holy gifts growing in Jesus as befits the one who would later be recognized as the promised Messiah. Notice again how Luke concludes the story, "And Jesus increased in wisdom…." Not knowledge, but wisdom. This word is chosen intentionally for it conveys an attribute that someone so young would be unlikely to possess, unless he were someone very exceptional. The gospel, indeed, builds to that very conclusion in lifting up Jesus as Lord.
To aspire to Jesus' wisdom is surely beyond us. His gift was singular and unique as he, himself, would prove to be. What I think we can take and apply from today's text is to consider what it says about him and what is possible for us.
Ancient societies turned to their wise ones for guidance as a matter of course. Today, however, the bright and clever and well-marketed are more likely to be the ones who command attention. Often they are very entertaining, but shallow in what they can offer. Still, we turn to them because we seemingly don't know where else to go.
Are the wise men, wise women of today in politics? There are some, but when it comes to choosing between the vast majority of candidates it seems like we're often electing the one who is the less stupid, the least obnoxious, and has the more tolerable commercials.
Where are the wise to be found? In business? In sports? In universities?
Among poets and novelists? In the social sciences? At church?
Out of our wisdom we can best determine right from wrong, the best course to choose for our lives, the deeper meaning in events and experiences. This has less to do with absorbing new information, although that is still critical, than making use of what we already have.
Wise people are reflective souls, and they can be most anybody. In my first pastorate I had two elderly women—one a church member, one a neighbor—who would patiently listen to my predicaments and points of indecision, and help me work through them.
They weren't counselors or therapists or social workers, but they were good observers of life. They both saw the intrinsic interplay of everything in the world, whether it be for good or bad. They didn't wear wisdom like a garment, but they possessed it all the same. At the time I would have said of the women that we just talked frequently and on a wide range of topics; now I see that they were helping to groom me for my life and work, whether they realized it or not. I am much indebted to both of them and their names remain very much alive in my book of life.
Sometimes the places where we most expect to find wisdom, and to grow in wisdom, disappoint us. It is for me no more apparent than in the church. For the most part, the church—and here I mean the church as a whole—has not done well in this aspect of its charge. We're skilled at appealing to the emotions. We've often been good at increasing knowledge about faith, even to the point of establishing parochial schools. We are a place of charity for those in need. We can organize well for mission. We've evangelized and propagated. But we have been poor overall in helping the soul to grow, and I think this is what people are most searching for today.
If you haven't read Thomas Merton, I would recommend him to you. Merton joined the monastic community of Gethsemani in Kentucky after teaching in New York City. His journals and other writings are filled with such depth that, even if you don't completely understand what he is saying, you get the idea that the difficulty is more in your comprehension than in his expression. I find him incredibly astute and wise.
He wrote these brief words in his diary after a trip to the city in March of 1958:
Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were or could be totally alien to me….My vocation does not really make me different from the rest of men or put me in a special category except artificially…I am still a member of the human race, and what more glorious destiny is there for man, since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race.
I have the immense joy of being a man, a member of a race in which God himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we are. And if only everybody else could realize this!
I once had an opportunity to meet Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. We were in a worship service together and he robed with all the rest of us in preparing for the grand procession. He was neither aloof nor distant, but warm in greeting each of us individually beforehand. Within the service, itself, he brought the words of Christ alive in a way that firmly connected with our own lives. Truly, this is a wise person of deep and abiding faith. He is the kind of person we need to listen to and learn from.
The persons with eyes wide open are the ones who can recognize wisdom in other people and see it as a gift to be taken in to ourselves. Those who brought the presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were drawn to the wisdom nascent in the Christ Child, as the wise of today discover it in the life and words of the one who became our Savior. The growing soul finds fertile soil wherever the deeper understanding of life and faith is made possible.
So may 2007 be a year of spiritual advance and insight for you, and also for our church. And may we, like baby Kendall whom we baptized today, grow like Jesus "…in wisdom and years, and in divine and human favor."