Learning from the Wisdom All Around Us – a Sermon from Proverbs 1.20-33

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Our reading is a part of one of three speeches in Proverbs attributed to women. The first word in our reading is חָכְמוֹת (khok-moth’) which is a form of חָכְמוֹת (khok-maw), and the most interesting thing about this Hebrew word is its meaning: wisdom. Therefore, our text presents an accurate translation. “Wisdom cries out in the street.” Cross-referencing the English and Hebrew gets thought-provoking when we explore the deeper meaning of the word. חָכְמוֹת (khok-moth’) also means “every wise woman.”

As we go through the text, it’s clear that wisdom surrounds us and we have the choice about whether or not we listen. Sometimes, listening to the divine wisdom (or God speaking) is hard because it goes against the culture. It means speaking up when the crowd is shouting wrong, hurtful, or damaging words.

Keep this image in mind from Proverbs 1. “Every wise woman” telling you the right thing to do. The question we have to answer is whether or not we are prepared to listen and act when we hear God’s voice. Doing what God tells you to do can be really hard. If you’ll indulge me a moment of personal testimony, I will tell you about a time when I was wrong and didn’t listen to the clear voice of a “very wise woman.” In this case, there was an actual woman who said publicly the right thing, and I joined the chorus of people who ignored her.

We’ll come back to that.

Cataclysmic Events

Each generation endures a cataclysmic event. Everyone remembers where they were when it happened. My grandparents remembered where they were when they heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. On the following day, President Roosevelt addressed Congress and a wounded nation with those unforgettable words, “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy…” Pearl Harbor changed history. Nothing was the same after.

Every generation has its own goal, its own justification, its own meaning

Nicolas Berdyaev, The Meaning of History, trans. George Reavey (London: Geoffrey Bles: The Centenary Press, 1936), 193.

Pearl Harbor marked a generation. The goal, justification, and meaning—everything focused on winning the War. For my parents’ generation, the JFK assassination marked the end of the innocence of the 1950s and everything changed. People who were alive in 1963 can remember where they were when they heard the President was dead.

Major events disrupt our lives. In the days of broadcast television, they would interrupt regular programming to cover the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan (1981) or the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger (1986). What do we do with that information? In many cases, we learn. NASA revised some of the safety protocols after the Challenger disaster. Life is full of choices. When we see warnings or signs or something happens, we can pay attention and learn. Or, we can ignore them. We have a choice.

Listening to Wisdom

Proverbs 1 celebrates Lady Wisdom. She cries out. She raises her voice, calls, and speaks. The invitation to listen in 1.20-23 suggests the notion of God’s wisdom surrounding us all the time. It’s in the street, in the squares, and at the busiest corners. In other words, wisdom is where we are, and we have a choice of whether to listen or not.

The majority of our reading is about the consequences of hubris. When we ignore the signs that surround us, we reap the whirlwind of calamity coming our way.

Lady Wisdom says, “They will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me, but will not find me.”

Why won’t God—the possessor of all true wisdom—answer? Why will God hide? Because we made a choice. The choice is not irreversible but it has consequences. Looking backward is always easier than looking forward. When we assess the past through the lens of the present, we bring the insights of every lesson we learned.

What could happen?

Until the Challenger exploded, most of us didn’t think that could happen. I’m sure there were some NASA scientists who thought it could happen. As soon disaster struck, everyone knew it could happen. We couldn’t ignore that possibility any longer and we wanted to figure out how to keep our astronauts safe.

The praise of wisdom in Proverbs 1 includes the bitter pill of ignoring warnings and signs. The passage points to one of the consequences of ignoring wisdom. “They shall eat the fruit of their way” (1.31).

The challenge continues to be looking ahead. We only get to make decisions in one direction—moving forward. Time always moves forward. Lady wisdom calling out tells us about this moment. We can act on her wisdom and have a more fruitful future, or we can ignore and eat the fruit of our folly.

9/11 – 20th Anniversary

Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. Like so many others, I remember exactly where I was when the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I was at work in Chicago, and we watched a few minutes later as another plane hit the South Tower.

Everything changed.

If you don’t remember 9/11 or weren’t born yet, the world was different before that sunny September morning. There was no such thing as the TSA and boarding flights was much, much easier. Better screening is a minor example of learning from what happened.

There are other changes too.

The Patriot Act gave the U.S. Federal Government broad surveillance privileges.

There’s been more anti-Muslim violence since 9/11.

It’s tragic.

When we look back, we should be honest. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda had been trying to pull off a terrorist attack. With the benefit of hindsight, various intelligence officials can see clearly where we missed signs. Rather than indicting ourselves or the U.S. counter-terrorist agencies, we can learn as we look forward.

Right after 9/11, our nation came together. The President’s approval rating reached 85%. We could have done anything.

War in Afghanistan

Instead, we declared war on Afghanistan. I remember struggling with declaring war on the country of Afghanistan because the country hadn’t attacked us. I worked in finance at the time and I had trouble reconciling the Bush tax cut with entering an actual war. Wars are incredibly expensive.

Our gospel lesson offers us a glimpse into one of the disciples truly seeing what seems (with the benefit of hindsight) to be so obvious. Jesus asked who people said he was, and his disciples answered. Then, he asked who they thought he was. Peter said, “You are the Messiah.”

There. That’s the moment when someone sounds like they get it in real time. Jesus told him not to tell anyone because the time was not right to reveal his glory. The point of understanding in real time touches Lady Wisdom’s voice when she cries out in the street or square, or, in 2001, in the U.S. Congress…

…which brings us to a time when I was wrong.

Following Jesus

As followers of Christ, we all (I hope) know Jesus’ teaching to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5.44). We know that Jesus undermines the Leviticus (24.17-22) teaching about an “eye for an eye, fracture for facture, and tooth for tooth.” Instead, Jesus says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer the other cheek” (Matthew 5.38-40).

We don’t use bits of the Sermon on the Mount as a prooftext for pacifism. Unconditional love is central to who Jesus is. Yet, after 9/11 in 2001, we the people who were trying to create a more perfect union wanted vengeance. We wanted blood.

Despite my misgivings about declaring war on Afghanistan, I was shocked when Rep. Barbara Lee stood up on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and outlined the reasons that we should not declare war on Afghanistan.

She was the only person to vote no on the war resolution.

In that moment, if I had been better attuned to what it means to be a Christ follower, I would have affirmed her vote. I don’t know how. Maybe I could have written her a letter or called my Representative and asked why they didn’t vote no.

“Every Wise Woman”

As I thought about the 20 years since 9/11 and Proverbs 1, and חָכְמוֹת (khok-moth’) or “every wise woman,” Barbara Lee’s courageous stand against war came to mind. None of us could have truly known the quagmire the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan would become.

Right now, we can’t go back. We can only go forward.

We can learn and we can make decisions for the future. We can remember that day in 2001 when everything changed.

We can look forward and think about what it means to be a Christ-follower today. The world needs us to listen to God’s wisdom and shine as the light of Christ in the world. 

God calls us to move. God calls us to love, act, and be the light of the world. Today, someone needs you to go against the chorus of negativity and polarization, and even human nature, and speak words of God’s love and encouragement.

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