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Sermon: The Revolutionary CV Of Lady Wisdom

Proverbs 8:1-36

For the most part, classical music is a realm of closed-off mystery to me. I cannot understand it or appreciate it. A Local Preacher in my first circuit tried to educate me with the beauties of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, and while I did indeed think it was beautiful and even bought a CD of it, Wolfgang Amadeus didn’t open the doors of heaven for me.

Nor did a girlfriend who loved classical music. When I tried to show an interest and started to like some baroque music, she scorned that style because it wasn’t as demanding as her beloved Sibelius. I tried him too, but beyond Finlandia it all washed over me.

Yet there are other areas of life which I enjoy but which remain a strange land to others. Cricket, for example. To me it is the sport of heaven, especially in the glory of its full five-day Test Match version. Innovations like Twenty Twenty are to me a dumbing down into crash bang wallop territory that lose the subtlety of the game in its fullest expression.

What is the difference? When it comes to classical music, I have never truly learned an instrument or had a mentor. But with cricket, I had a mentor and I used to play. As a child, I watched my father play every time his club team had a home fixture in the summer. I picked up the bug from him. When I started to play, he would take me over the park and place a ten pence piece on the ground to show the exact place where I as a bowler should pitch the ball. When I was slightly older, he took me with him to winter nets practice with his club. Only as an adult did he tell me that the batsmen couldn’t read my Chinaman. If only I’d known that as a teenager, I would have developed as a spinner, not a seamer.

And yes, I realise that the last couple of sentences are gobbledygook to some of you.

What about wisdom, though? What if wisdom is – as I said in the all-age service a fortnight ago – the ability to live well for God? Is that not something we all desire? Yet do we not struggle with it? Is the competence to live for God’s glory a mystery to some of us? Could we not do with a mentor to help us play?

Step forward Lady Wisdom herself. In Proverbs chapter eight she presents her CV for guiding people in the way of wisdom[1]. Is she someone you would take on? Let’s compare the way things are with what she can offer. Of course, this being an ancient document her CV won’t tally exactly with how we write them today, but we do see how she presents herself as qualified for the position.

Firstly, Lady Wisdom offers her skills to everyone. Imagine the dilemma like this. Could it be that the average person is short on wisdom, lacking in the ways to live a life that pleases God? Could it be that many a typical Christian earnestly longs to please God but struggles to do so? And might it also be that the same typical Christian thinks, “I can’t be wise, because I don’t have the theological education or the special gifts that others do”? If so, we face a situation where those who would love to be wise in the biblical sense feel unable to meet their good and godly aspirations.

I wonder whether that is how you feel at times. Do you long to please Christ, yet regard yourself as some kind of second-class Christian?

If you do, Lady Wisdom has something on her CV for you. She is everywhere, and therefore available to everyone. She calls out at the meeting of the paths and at the entrance to the city (verses 2-3). She calls out to ‘all humanity’ (verse 4), including the ‘simple’ and the ‘foolish’ (verse 5). Lady Wisdom’s special attributes are not for the élite but for all. Why? Because they are not about cleverness, talent or charisma. Lady Wisdom empowers all and sundry to live for God’s pleasure. She doesn’t require you to gain alphabet soup after your name, she only requires a heart of obedience and a willingness to depend on God’s Spirit.

Secondly, consider some of the reasons we as Christians feel uncomfortable with the values and priorities of our society. An emphasis on wealth and possessions. An undue attachment to celebrity. Lies, deception and spin. Do we not get frustrated and disheartened by the shallow and tawdry things that capture the imagination of our world?

Lady Wisdom says, I bring qualities of true value. If you want something truly precious, she says, I have it, and I can give it to you. Her words are ‘trustworthy’ (verse 6), ‘true’ (verse 7), ‘just’ (verse 8), ‘right’ (verse 9) and more valuable than silver, gold or rubies (verses 10-11).

She says we can have a choice between a culture that is tone deaf to goodness[2] and one that rejoices in her pure and beautiful teaching. Which do we want?

Thirdly, Lady Wisdom invites us to think about the civil and social order and imagine what it could be like. Christians are not immune to the popular perception of politicians as only being in their profession for the amount of gravy they find on the train. We are used to viewing them as having their fingers in the trough and their ducks in the moat.

And of course in the wider public culture we have the corruption of journalism. We await Lord Leveson’s report into the role of the press and the police in the phone-hacking scandals.

However much we also know that in truth there are many decent politicians, journalists and police officers, it’s hard to evade the conclusion that smell of rotting vegetables in our public life.

That is where Lady Wisdom offers her gifts again. Verses 12 to 16 centre on the place of wisdom in public life. Wisdom brings prudence, knowledge and discretion to the public square (verse 12) and evicts evil, pride, arrogance and perverse speech (verse 13). Instead, she says,

Counsel and sound judgment are mine;
I have insight, I have power.
By me kings reign
and rulers issue decrees that are just;
by me princes govern,
and nobles – all who rule on earth. (Verses 14-16)

It’s a common thread from the ancient world, applied here in terms of Israel’s God:

In the ancient Near East, kings ruled, judged, waged war, protected the weak, and gave laws by means of the authority and gifts of the gods. They mediated divine blessings to the people and ensured peace and prosperity.[3]

I’m not simply saying we should always vote for Christian politicians, but I am saying this: Lady Wisdom invites us to dream of a different social and political order from the one we have.

Fourthly, and related to this, do we not also dream of a society where righteousness and justice are rewarded? Goodness is sometimes rewarded in our culture, but we also witness the way the unrighteous gather power for their own benefit and use it against others. If the allegations about the late Jimmy Savile are true – and the Met Police seem to be talking as if there is clear evidence – then we have a case of someone who garnered fame and fortune and then used his power base and his connections with those in authority to carry out and cover up great wickedness.

It is Lady Wisdom who says that a society which rewards goodness is possible. When wisdom is exalted, truth, righteousness and justice receive their reward. It is not celebrities and entertainers who flourish; rather, it is the wise, who walk in the ways of God, are recognised. Verses 17 to 21 describe a place where wisdom receives riches and honour. Surely we long for a world like that.

Fifthly, let me suggest that we long for a world that needs more than science as an explanation. Science cannot tell us whether anything has a purpose. It can only analyse cause and effect. The trouble is, we have people so committed to science as the answer to everything that they speak about a world that is only explained by cause and effect. They rule out any sense of purpose. The logical end product of this is the claim of Richard Dawkins that the universe displays what he calls ‘pitiless indifference’. It is a cold, purposeless, pointless place.

I am not denigrating science. I am saying it cannot explain everything. It is one important discipline among many. And although the ancients did not conceive of science in the way we do, in our passage Lady Wisdom alerts us to the fact that there is purpose in the universe. We see this from the extended description of Wisdom as having been present before all things in verses 22 to 31 (‘given birth’ in the NIV may be misleading). Not only that, wisdom was involved in creation itself. It is a rich passage that I cannot examine in detail this morning. But if the wisdom of God was present before all things and involved in creation, then we have a guarantee that God baked purpose into the universe.

So – is this what you want? Do you reject a world where only the élite are candidates for wisdom and long instead for a world where wisdom is open to all who wish to live well for God? Do you despair of a culture that values vacuous celebrity and long instead for one where wisdom is prized? Are you sick of the corruption of the powerful and pray for a society where wisdom rules with justice? Are you fed up with a world where the influential use power for themselves and earnestly desire instead a place where goodness is rewarded? And do you say ‘no’ to those who insist on describing life as meaningless, mocking those who disagree as stupid, because you know deep down there is purpose ingrained into life?

And if this is what you want, then what to do? The concluding five verses of this chapter urge us to get familiar with wisdom, the wisdom of God. Ultimately in New Testament terms that means Jesus Christ. What we need to do is embrace the teaching of Jesus with the help of the Holy Spirit. It is Jesus, God’s true wisdom, who turns the values of our world around. His is what one author called ‘The Upside-Down Kingdom.’ He reverses the priorities of this world. He is ‘making all things new.’

To follow God’s wisdom in Jesus will likely never win a majority at the ballot box. It will not be widely popular, except in versions so diluted they lose their power. We are likely to be a minority, operating at the margins of society rather than in the corridors of power.

How, then, can this change the world? It’s a curious thing, but often the most powerful social movements are those who which are minorities operating on the margins. Jesus certainly works this way.

Does anybody want to start a revolution?

[1] Raymond van Leeuwen describes verses 6-21 as ‘Wisdom’s self-presentation. Self-praise seems strange to Westerners today, for whom it seems immodest and naïve. But the function of such speech is like a modern résumé, in which people present their qualifications for such a position.’ (New Interpreter’s Bible Volume V, p90.)

[2] op. cit., p91.

[3] op. cit., p92.

Sermon: The Holy Spirit And Mission

Acts 2:14-41

You may remember the 1984 film Amadeus, about the life of Mozart and his rival Salieri. There is a famous scene where Mozart receives a backhanded compliment. The Emperor Joseph II says to him,

My dear young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.

To which Mozart replies,

Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?

A sermon topic like today’s runs that risk – too many notes. When we think about the Holy Spirit and mission, there is so much to say. Hence if I don’t cover your favourite theme within this strand today, I’m sorry. But don’t worry, I’m sure it will pop up elsewhere, either in this sermon series or at other times.

So if you wanted to hear about the way the Holy Spirit goes ahead of us and prepares the way in mission – fear not, you’ll hear me talk about that on various occasions. If you wanted me to cover the use of spiritual gifts – well, they get their own billing later in the series.

Excuse me, then, if I limit myself to the big themes here in Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. They will give us an outline, and on other occasions we can fill in some detail. After all, you wouldn’t want a preacher with ‘too many notes’, would you?
Here’s the first strand. At college, one of my friends had a well-worn T-shirt which reflected another 1980s film with a musical theme: The Blues Brothers. Ian’s T-shirt had the slogan from the film: ‘We’re on a mission from God.’ These days, Ian is respectable in the church, with a PhD and a job as a theological college principal!

But the story of the film is of a man being released from prison, only to find that the Catholic home where he and his brother were raised by nuns is under threat of closure if it cannot pay a tax bill. They reform their old band and seek to raise the funds. Hence, ‘We’re on a mission from God.’

And the first part of Peter’s sermon shows that we all are on a mission from God when the Spirit comes. This is about the universal nature of the Spirit’s work in mission. The Spirit makes mission from all to all – from all in the church, to all in the world.

All that talk about blood and fire, billows of smoke, the sun going dark and the moon like blood (verses 19-20)? It’s not a weather forecast! It’s dramatic language, underpinning the basic point that this work of the Spirit to use all God’s people to reach all people with God’s love in Christ is an earth-shattering, game-changing moment. This is a great ‘day of the Lord’ (verse 20) when ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (verse 21), because God has poured out his Spirit on all people (verse 17), to the extent male and female, young and old, slaves as well as free will dream, have visions and prophesy (verses 17-18).

Yes, all of God’s people are equipped to prophesy, to speak God’s message boldly. Well did one preacher say that the Bible doesn’t just teach the famous Reformation slogan of the priesthood of all believers, it teaches the prophethood of al believers. When you say that only certain ranks of people in the church are ‘good enough’ for certain tasks, you forget that God has poured out the Spirit on all his people for his mission. Granted, we each have distinct gifts, but the Spirit comes on all who profess faith in Christ, and one reason for that is we are all ordained. God ordains all of us into the work of his mission.

Or, put it this way: we are not all evangelists, but we are all witnesses. We may not be able to explain and answer everything, but like a witness in a court case, we can all say what we have seen and what has happened to us. We can all talk about what Jesus has done for us. The Holy Spirit has come into our lives, and equipped us to do that.

This is not a threat or a demand, it is a promise. It fulfils the promise Jesus made about the coming of the Spirit before his Ascension: ‘You will be my witnesses.’ That isn’t an order, it’s a promise. When the Spirit comes, we are all ordained into the universal mission of God’s saving love: from all, to all.

The second strand in the Holy Spirit’s mission work here is this: it’s all about Jesus. For the rest of Peter’s sermon, he goes on and on about Jesus (verses 22-36). This is who he is. This is what he has done. This is how you have reacted to him so far. This is what you need to do about him. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

This amplifies what I’ve just said about us all being witnesses. Some of you may be familiar with a Christian website called Ship of Fools, a site which includes humorous sections such as Gadgets for God, featuring the latest in tacky Christian memorabilia, a Caption Competition, Signs and Blunders, through Mystery Worshipper reports on church service around the world, to serious discussion of pressing issues.

Ship of Fools started life as a print magazine in the early 1980s. I know, because I was one of the subscribers. In one of those issues, they carried a cartoon strip article called ‘Born Again Testimonies’. ‘You may be – but has your testimony been born again?’ the article asked. It depicted Christians who were discouraged that the story of their spiritual experience was not as dramatic and exciting as that commonly portrayed in Christian testimony books. It offered a rewriting of your story by Hollywood scriptwriters, plastic surgery, dental and gymnastic care, all to make you ready for the platform of an evangelist at a crusade.

I suspect it touched a raw nerve, because it hit on a feeling I’ve noticed among regular churchgoers. “I don’t have a Damascus Road experience to talk about, so my testimony will count for nothing.” If you haven’t been a drug dealer, a bank robber or a celebrity, no-one will be interested in your story.
However, as the great John Stott once put it, ‘Testimony is not autobiography.’ In other words, testimony is not my story, it’s not ‘me, me, me’, it’s the story of what Jesus has done in my life. Now again, you may think that unless what Jesus has done in your life is the religious equivalent of a fireworks spectacular, it may not be worth talking about.

But we would be wrong. All that Peter describes about Jesus in this sermon – his ministry, his death, his resurrection, his Ascension and his sending of the Holy Spirit – all these things impact us. So what if in our lives it doesn’t come all-singing and all-dancing, complete with a laser light show? What matters is that we know Jesus has changed us – and is changing us. The majority of people live ordinary, unflashy lives, and so an ordinary, unflashy story of what Jesus means to us is every bit as likely, if not more so, to have an effect upon them.

So – why not give it some thought? What has Jesus done for you? Reflect on it. There will be material from your life that you can share about the work of Jesus. that’s where the Holy Spirit wants to focus: on Jesus. We can co-operate with the Spirit by being willing to talk about Jesus and his work in our lives.

The third and final strand of the Spirit’s work in mission that I want to draw out here has to do with the effect upon the listeners.

What happens at the end of the sermon?

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Verse 37)

What has the Holy Spirit done here? It’s what Jesus (as recorded in John’s Gospel) called ‘conviction of sin’. Conviction of sin is the third element in this passage of the Holy Spirit’s work in mission.

Conviction of sin is when the Holy Spirit shows people how they are in the wrong before God – either generally or specifically – and calls them to change. In that respect, it’s different from that work of the enemy we call ‘condemnation’, which just says, “You’re a terrible person, you’re useless.” Condemnation leaves someone without hope. Conviction of sin is different, because it is specific, and there is a remedy that draws us to God, namely repentance.

So we see in the story today that when the crowd asks Peter and the apostles what they should do, he gives a specific reply:

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Verse 38)

We know that coming to faith involves repentance in some form. Faith in Jesus Christ and following him entails changing our way of life. In all sorts of areas, we shall need to perform the spiritual version of a U-turn, to go Christ’s way. The Holy Spirit shows us what we need to change and renounce.

By way of an aside, of course this is not something that happens just once at the beginning of the Christian life: it happens throughout, as the Holy Spirit patiently works to make us more Christlike.

But let us note that it truly is the Holy Spirit who does the convicting. Peter has described the situation, and yes he has told the people that they and others were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus (verses 23, 36), but it’s still the Spirit who cuts them to the heart. We have to be careful not to do the Holy Spirit’s work ourselves, but faithfully to share God’s love and truth and leave the Spirit to do the convicting.

I once had the privilege of registering a wedding  for someone who had begun worshipping at another church in the area, but one which did
not own its own building. She had come to faith through an Alpha Course that church had run, and wanted to be baptised. However, she was living with her partner without being married to him. The church had not harangued her for this, even though they believed (and I do, too) that living together falls short of God’s vision for relationships. However, she felt it was not right for her to be baptised until her relationship was regularised. So I registered the wedding, and her pastor conducted the service. I believe it was the Holy Spirit who convicted her, and who led her to marriage before baptism. In fact, the wedding was at 11 o’clock, and she then went to another church building to be baptised at 12 o’clock!
And we also might remember that the Spirit’s timetable and agenda for sorting out people’s lives might not be quite the same as ours. I once heard the preacher Clive Calver tell a story at Spring Harvest about how he kept praying, “Lord, please take away my pride.”

When it didn’t happen, he continued to pray, asking, “Lord, why aren’t you taking away my pride?”

“Because then there would be nothing left,” was what he believed God replied.

We don’t always know why the Spirit highlights certain issues in a person’s life but delays attending to others. What we do know is that coming to Christ involves the Spirit showing us where we need to change our ways in repentance, and that that begins a process that lasts the whole of our lives.

In conclusion, then, the Holy Spirit enlists us for God’s mission in Jesus. The mission is for all people, and needs all God’s people, empowered by the Spirit, for it to flourish. That mission will focus not on us, but on Jesus. Our rôle is to tell the story of Jesus’ activity in our lives. And the Spirit draws people to follow Jesus through conviction of sin.

All in all, then, the mission of God will not function without the primary work of the Holy Spirit. Never mind our plans, our campaigns, our techniques or what the latest book or conference speaker says. No Holy Spirit, no mission worthy of the name.

Come, Holy Spirit.