Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on August 16 2009.
Proverbs 9:1-6; Ephesians 5:15-20
Everywhere you go, someone is more than willing to give you advice. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” “Keep it under the speed limit, son.” “That would be very foolish.” “Keep your head down.” “Buy low, sell high.”
Or how about this one? “You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run…”
A lady in our church in Nashville, Tennessee was the widow of a Baptist preacher. Her son was an editorial writer for the Nashville Banner, the afternoon newspaper, and when his mother turned eighty he wrote a piece about her, had it framed, and gave it to her as a gift. It was entitled, “Remember Who You Are.”
It seems that when he was a teenager, every time he left the house his mom would simply say to him quietly, but quite firmly, “Bill, remember who you are.” His testimony was that this was all it took for him to straighten up and fly right. It was the closest his mom ever came to giving advice. But it was close enough.
The Apostle Paul was not slow to advise the churches to which he wrote all those letters, nor was he hesitant to hold himself up as an example of how they ought to live. In fact, there were times when he admitted that what he was telling them was not a word he had received from the Lord; it was just his own take on things. But that didn’t keep him from laying it on the line with them, whether it was his own opinion or what he had heard directly from God. Paul was always dispensing advice, plenty of advice. And in the passage we read a few moments ago he does it again.
“Be careful…” he begins. “Be careful…” That’s always good advice, isn’t it? Be careful of what? “…of how you live.” Oh. But couldn’t that apply to just about anything? Yes, it could, if he had stopped there. But you know Paul. Paul rarely ever stopped there. He begins adding various elements to what he thinks of as a life well-lived, one of those being the discerning of God’s will.
In this context, discerning God’s will has to do with wisdom. “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise…”
We Arkansans are hardly in a position to laugh at folk from other southern states (or any other state for that matter), but there is a running joke about people who live on the other side of Mississippi that seems to fit today’s subject matter. It seems the National Transportation Board recently divulged that they had covertly funded a project with the U.S. auto makers and installed black boxes in pickup trucks. Like those boxes placed in airplanes that, in case of crashes help the authorities determine what happened and why, these boxes in pickups would reveal the last words spoken just before a fatal accident. In every other state in the Union, the last words were, “Oh nooo!” But in this particular afore-mentioned southern state the last words were, “Hey y’all, watch this!”
Makes you think those pickup drivers never read Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians. Otherwise, they would have heard him say, “Be careful…”
As he wrote his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul may have had the ghost of Solomon looking over his shoulder. You remember Solomon, don’t you? The son of King David, he had inherited the kingdom his father had rebuilt. David not only had managed to relocate the capital city to Jerusalem, but he also brought the once-divided Israel and Judah back together again under one flag. If it did nothing else, it made for a more powerful political state that could better withstand the onslaught of those enemies who always seemed to be lurking at the door. And trust me, these kinds of political alliances were always being sought by neighboring countries in that part of the world in that time.
But Solomon perceived, rightly so, that in assuming the throne of his father David he really had managed to grab a tiger by the tail. It’s kind of like the dog that chases the car and finally catches up to it. Now that he has it, what’s he going to do with it? What is Solomon going to do with his reunited kingdom?
He decides to have a conversation with God. His father had depended on God for guidance and understanding; perhaps he should do the same. He reminds the Lord of what he had done for his daddy, and then Solomon says, “Oh, and Lord, if you’ve forgotten who David’s son is, that would be me.”
Actually, Solomon didn’t initiate the conversation. It all started with a dream in which God appeared to him and offered Solomon a wish, and this is how Solomon responds… “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant, my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today” (1 Kings 3:6).
Pretty shrewd, huh? He reminds God that he, Solomon, is now king of Israel because that’s the way God had promised it would be… which is kind of strange considering that Solomon is the result of the adulterous relationship between David and Bathsheba. But we’re not talking about God’s wisdom, nor God’s intentions. We’re talking about Solomon and how he used his father’s relationship with God to get what he wanted. Everybody knew Solomon was smart, and he’s just proved it by basically painting the Almighty into a corner. The Lord didn’t seem to have any choice but to give Solomon his heart’s desire.
It is in this conversation that Solomon asks for wisdom. “An understanding mind to govern your people,” is the way it is worded. “An understanding mind.” And according to the way the story is told, God is pleased, not so much with Solomon’s knowing on which side his bread was buttered, but because he doesn’t ask for the world. After all, he did indeed have God in a pretty vulnerable position… if there is such a thing.
You see, the Lord had not put any conditions on his generosity. Solomon could have really taken advantage of the situation. Maybe that is one reason why Solomon holds so much promise. His father David was hardly perfect, but consider what an improvement David was over his predecessor Saul. And despite his occasional failings, David was a wise leader. Now, it appears that Solomon is a chip off the old block, and God is pleased with the possibilities he brings to the throne… so pleased he is willing to give Solomon anything he asks, knowing instinctively that Solomon will not abuse the privilege. If he plays his cards right, Solomon might even turn out to be a stronger ruler than was his father David, a man after God’s own heart.
And that is exactly what Solomon does. He plays his cards just right. He could have asked for the whole world, but instead he asks for one thing and one thing only: “an understanding mind.” Or – and I like this translation even better – “a hearing heart.” Either way, it’s just another way of saying wisdom.
In the Book of Proverbs, not to mention the very popular if not somewhat controversial Christian novel The Shack, wisdom is portrayed as a woman. In fact the Greek word for wisdom is sophia, which is definitely a feminine name, is it not? I see the smirks on your faces, ladies. I see you. It’s okay, I guess. We guys get our due, so we really can’t complain.
“The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,” says Lady Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs (8:22), which means that wisdom has been with us from the very beginning of time. She was there when God created the heavens and the earth, the land and seas and everything that inhabits them.
Frederick Buechner says it was as if God “needed a woman’s imagination to help him make the elements of the world (them), a woman’s eye to tell him if he’d made them right, a woman’s spirit to measure them by. ‘I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always,’ she says (in the Book of Proverbs, 8:30), as if it was her joy in what he was creating that made creation bearable, and that’s why God (he) created her first.”1
Paul couldn’t have said it better himself. In fact, he didn’t even try. He just said that if you are careful you are wise, and that if you are wise you know how to “redeem (or make the most of) the time.”
What do you think Paul means by the word careful?
I think this idea of a “hearing heart” – that’s what Solomon asked for, remember? – may just be at the center of it, because it’s pretty hard to hear if at first you do not listen. That tells me that wisdom is an attitude, not an achievement. Better yet, perhaps wisdom, like grace, is a gift from God.
The ability to listen is a pretty good thing to have these days because the world in which we live is really not that much different, at least in some respects, from Paul’s world. It’s a loud and raucous world, constantly craving our attention and luring us down certain paths that lead to nothingness.
In fact, there is much in our world that does not reflect our values, and sometimes we feel overwhelmed by it all. It is good to have wisdom as a base from which to operate, is it not?
The folks in the church at Ephesus lived in a hostile and godless society. To a certain degree that is what you and I are forced to live with. That is why Paul admonished the Ephesians to make the most of the time, or as I prefer it from the King James Version, to “redeem the time.”
Paul literally borrowed the expression from the marketplace. The Greek word for it is agora. You garage-sale/junk-store shoppers will love this one… It means snapping up all the chances at any bargains you can find. And you folks in the Young At Heart, when Jim Munns takes you on those mystery trips and you always wind up at a flea market, you just thought it was because that’s his favorite thing to do. He’s trying to be biblical!
The proper stewardship of time recognizes that wisdom is a priceless commodity. So when you find it, like Jesus’ pearl of great price, you will do anything to have it. We are to invest our energies in that which is eternally worthwhile because we recognize, more than anything else, that “the days are evil.”
There is never a bad time to stop and quietly reflect upon your life… where you’re going, how you’re getting there, and if it’s the destination you really and truly want to pursue. But now, as the summer activities, if not the warm weather, are starting to give way to the renewal of school and a new season, isn’t now – right now – the perfect time to do it? When was the last time you thought about to what extent you are redeeming the time in which you live? How are you using the time you have been apportioned, especially the time you have left on this mortal earth?
Buechner says something else that I think is worth noting. He says that “Wisdom is a matter not only of the mind but of the intuition and heart, like a woman’s wisdom. It is born out of suffering as a woman bears a child. It shows a way through the darkness the way a woman stands at the window holding a lamp.”2
Perhaps that’s an image we can take with us, of a woman standing at the door of our lives, holding out for us a lamp by which we can see where our journey is taking us. We do indeed live in a time in which we need to be careful. Thanks for the reminder, Paul! Appreciate it! Good advice! But how do we do it? Why don’t we, like Solomon, ask God for something? We may not command a kingdom, as he did, but we’ve got our own issues with which to deal. The most redemptive way to do it just may be by asking God for a hearing heart.
I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that God may be waiting for us to ask. And when it comes right down to it, that’s all we have to do, isn’t it? Just ask.
Lord, give us hearing hearts by which we might redeem the times in which we live. And may we do it faithfully in your name, through Christ our Lord, Amen.