A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on July 11, 2010.
O God of all love, you know our hearts and you provide each of our needs. We confess today that we did not anticipate the test of this past week. We did not realize how many times our hearts could choose between graciousness towards others or bitterness or anger, even condescension. We did not know how many times we would be tempted to speak unkindly when we could have been silent or how many times we would have the opportunity to choose your way over our own. Forgive us for the number of times we chose wrongly. Forgive us for those times when we failed tests when instead we could have reflected the love and heart of your son, Jesus Christ. We pray today that you would leave us not despondent by these failures but use them to remind us once again how earnestly and how completely we must depend upon your care and your strength. Remind us how willing you are to place your spirit within us that we might stand and overcome the temptation. We pray that in the week ahead as we face new tests that we might choose the right. We would not pray for less but for additional challenges in the week ahead so that we would have the opportunity to live in a way that pleases you and brings you glory. Test us and find us true. In Christ’s name. Amen.
I bumped into an acquaintance from church recently browsing in the self-help section of the local Barnes & Noble bookstore. She was scanning book spines with titles I wish I’d thought of like Getting Over Getting Older, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, Pulling Your Own Strings, You’ll See It When You Believe It, and Manifest Your Destiny. She was holding a half-dozen copies of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: And It’s All Small Stuff. “I give this to everyone I know when they have milestones in their lives, graduations, birthdays, anniversaries,” she enthused.
“How about cancer?” I asked.
What about other events that are milestones, though not happy ones? What about the death of a child, a parent fading away from a debilitating disease, or the kidnapping and murder of a youth? They are not small stuff! What can we read to help us as we “sweat the big stuff?”
—Alyce McKenzie in Preaching Biblical Wisdom in a Self-Help Society
There is a word that is a favorite word of Christians. It is the first word that we read in the passage of scripture from Proverbs 3:13-26. It is the word blessed. We like to use the word blessed. If we have some good fortune and things are really going our way, one of our friends might say, “Boy, you sure have been lucky lately.”
We respond, “I have been blessed.”
There are a lot of ways that we use the word blessed. If someone moves to a new home and it is larger than their previous home or more nicely appointed and friends come over, they might say, “You’ve got some nice digs here.” The person says, “Yes, we are very blessed.
An 80-year-old man goes to the hospital and the nurse is doing intake. He is going to have knee replacement, and the nurse says, “Tell me about your surgical history.”
The man responds, “I had my tonsils out when I was six.”
And the nurse says, “What else?”
The man says, “That’s it.”
“You have not had any other surgery?”
“No, that is it.”
“You haven’t had any other surgery except when you were six?”
“No. That’s it.”
“Tell me about your medications.”
“I don’t take any.”
“You don’t take anything for blood pressure? You don’t take anything for cholesterol?”
“No, I don’t take anything. I don’t even take aspirin.”
“You are trying to tell me that you don’t take any medication and have not had any surgery since you were six years old?”
“That’s right. I have been very blessed with good health.”
We hear blessed in this way quite a bit. How do we expound upon it just a little bit to try to unpack? It is one of those words that we all know and understand how it is used, but if we try to explain it, it is hard without falling into the trap of using the word itself to explain it.
Sometimes there are some translations of the Bible that use the word happy instead of blessed. I think that tends to not quite do it justice. The Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.” There was a book many years ago by Robert Schuller that he called, “The Be (Happy) Attitudes.” I think that trivializes it, but I am not sure what else to do. It is a passive word. We recognize that it is something that is done for us. It is something that is done to us. When we use it, we use it out of the conviction that God is at work in the world, God is at work in our lives, and there are things that happen to us that are beyond our own doing. There is some other hand at work. We believe it is the divine hand of God, and in order to give credit instead of taking credit, we will say, “I am blessed.”
There are two things that happen when we read scripture about the word “blessed.” First of all, we revert back to the King James Version. We want to say “bless-ed.” We don’t say “bless-ed” a lot in everyday life, but if we are reading a passage of scripture, we almost always make it a very distinct two-syllable word.
The second thing is if we are paying attention and really looking at what scripture says, we are often surprised at the things that scripture tells us are part of God’s blessing in life. We do think of home, health, and wealth. We think of good relationships, whether it be among family or friends. We think of good fortune. We think of all these things, but if we look at scripture, there are a lot of other things that would not be on our list. If we were making a list of things that we wanted to pray for so that God would bless us or people that we care about, we would never think of the meek, the poor in spirit or the persecuted.
In the passage from Proverbs 3, we read, “Blessed are those who find wisdom.” To have wisdom is to find ourselves in a position of being extraordinarily blessed. Do we pray and ask God to bless our family and our friends and say, “And give them wisdom” when these are the things in Scripture that we are told really blesses a person’s life?
I hate to admit how forgetful I am, but I am forgetful at times. I have a hard time remembering where we went on vacation in 2002 and 2003 and the sequence of where we went. I just don’t know. I have trouble remembering the ages of my younger nieces unless I stop and concentrate real hard. There are a lot of things that I forget. But I will tell you some of the things that I remember in high-definition clarity. I remember as if they are an IMAX film that seems to swallow me up in the memory. Those are the bad decisions that I have made in my life. Do you remember some of the bad decisions that you have made? It is one thing to make a few here and there, but the cumulative effect of a lot of bad decisions can put our lives on a trajectory that is hard to come back from. How many of our bad decisions have led to things that we could never undo? We can remember them as clearly as if it were this morning how we decided to yield to some temptation, how we decided to be unkind, or how we decided to do something that was so contrary to what we know God wants us to do as Christians. How different our lives would have been if we had wisdom! How different would our lives have been if somehow we had enough wisdom in that moment to recognize the consequences, to realize what we were doing to our lives, to understand just how much this was going to impact our lives for the bad.
We believe that it was probably Solomon who collected most of the Proverbs. It is no wonder that elsewhere in Proverbs he says, “Get wisdom.” It is just a clear and pointed statement. “Whatever you do, get wisdom.” Get wisdom so that you can have a life that is blessed.
Did you notice all the good things that the chapter says? Wisdom is personified as a woman in much of the Book of Proverbs. “For her income is better than silver and her revenue better than gold. She is more precious than jewels and nothing to be desired can compare to her. Long life is in her right hand, and in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are the ways of pleasantness and her paths are the way of peace.” It just goes on describing a life that would be nothing if it were not blessed.
We need to be honest and say that having wisdom is no guarantee that nothing will ever go wrong. There are things that happen. There are people who are diagnosed with cancer that is a mystery. There are diseases that people contract and doctors wonder how on earth that came about. One of my best friends in seminary died of lung cancer and he never smoked a day in his life. We know there are things that happen that we cannot avoid. There are people who are killed by drunk drivers who come through an intersection and it was no fault of their own.
Wisdom at least puts us on a track where, hopefully, we can avoid most of the self-inflicted wounds that damage our lives. Have you thought about how many of the things that we try to recover from in our lives were self-inflicted? We could have avoided much damage to our lives if we had had enough wisdom to see what was right and to know what was good.
It is one thing to say, “Get wisdom, wisdom is great, and wisdom will bless you,” but how do we get wisdom? In a later chapter of Proverbs, there is a statement that I think everybody knows by heart. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” We don’t like that. Some of us grew up under some pretty harsh preaching as kids. We heard enough hell fire and brimstone and harshness about God to last us for the rest of our lives. So the idea of saying, “fear God” is something that we really do not want to perpetrate on a younger generation. We try to avoid using that word. We say, “That really means be reverent.” But when we say, “Be reverent,” we have pretty much reduced that concept to taking your hat off when you come into church or being quiet when the worship service starts. That is usually what we mean by being reverent. It is much, much deeper than that. To fear the Lord is to recognize that God is in control and to worship God means to obey, to follow, and to recognize that God is the one that is over us.
As American Christians, we are so prone to want to pick and choose what we believe. “I like that, but I really don’t like that about my faith. I will obey that, but you can just forget that one right there. I am not going to do that. God is my buddy and he will understand. Everything will be OK.” We forget sometimes that God is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and our relationship to God is to honestly and genuinely, in humility, worship God.
This is something we miss a great deal, but in scripture, more times than a person is described as a Jew, Hebrew or Christian, people are described as fearing God, particularly in the Old Testament. To fear God is to believe in God and all of those things that go with it in that deepest sense of reverence and obedience.
Think about how many times in Proverbs, Psalms, and in the prophets we hear the admonition, “Fear the Lord.” What that really means is worship God, believe in God, have faith in God. It includes that sense of recognizing that we are in a position of humility and God is in the position of being in control. It is this kind of fearing God where we begin to come to the place where we can acquire God’s wisdom.
Have you ever known anybody who was so absolutely sure that they knew everything there was to know about everything that they never learned another thing in their life? Have you ever dealt with somebody like that? You try to have a conversation and you end up getting corrected all the time, and you think, “I guess I don’t anything. They know it all.” We can make fun of people that we think of like that, but sometimes we are like that when we don’t even know it. How do we ever open our hearts in humility to the teachings of God so that we might gain wisdom unless we admit that maybe there is something that God knows that we don’t know?
To fear God is to worship in submission. To fear God is to have a deeper reverence than taking your hat off in the sanctuary. It is to acknowledge that God is king and God knows best.
I do believe sometimes that American Christians are reality challenged. We think we know better than God. We think that if somehow we could be put in charge of the world that we would do it better, we would be kinder, things would turn out better than what God does.
If you have read the meditation text today about the woman who was talking about giving a particular book to people under circumstances, it is so indicative of how glib we are about the things in life that are serious.
Instead of trying to argue about whether or not what God teaches us is relevant to our lives, we actually need to make our lives relevant to what God teaches us. We need to recognize that God’s ways are the ways that lead to blessedness.
I read a story this week about a young girl from a small town back when 1600 was a perfect score on a SAT test. The girl made 1600 so the local newspaper came to interview her because it was such a rare thing in their community that someone would score 1600. She was brilliant. As the interview went along, the reporter said, “For somebody with your intelligence, what would you say is the meaning of life?” She did not understand the question.
It is not a matter of simply having enough information. It is not a matter of being so confident in our own beliefs that we are not willing to open our hearts to what God would teach us, but it is the genuine and earnest fear of the Lord. It means not to be afraid of God but to revere him so deeply that we fear nothing else, to love him so deeply that we love nothing else too much. When we do that, and in humility bow before him, we find ourselves on the path to wisdom. That, my dear friends, is a blessed life.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.