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The Rev. Maxwell Grant The Rev. Maxwell Grant
The Rev. Maxwell Grant is the senior minister of Second Congregational United Church of Christ in Greenwich, CT.

Member of:

United Church of Christ

Representative of:

Second Congregational Church UCC, Greenwich, CT


Maxwell Grant: "Precarious Wisdom"

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

13th Sunday after Pentecost - Year B

August 19, 2018

 

Let me begin by admitting that it's a little bit of a tall order for a preacher to try saying something new about "wisdom."

There's a certain school of thought that says, if it's new, well then by definition, it can't be wisdom. Wisdom is timeless - the very opposite of new. It isn't simply that wisdom "offers perspective," wisdom is perspective. It's an animating power in its own right. It's not a particular set of facts - if you just learn this or that, well then there you go: you've got wisdom. Wisdom is more like a way of knowing.

I remember when my dad taught me to drive stick in the empty Sunday afternoon parking lot in front of our local competitor to Woolworth's, which was called the Ben Franklin 5 and 10. Do you remember learning to drive stick? It's all about the feet, right? Learning that strange two-step with the clutch and the gas. I remember my father explaining that move from zero to first gear, with his hands looking like they were playing invisible bongo drums, left...right...left...right.

There are facts about how to drive stick. Of course there are. But until you can actually drive stick, it's as if the facts make no sense, isn't it? You have to know them in some deeper way before you can understand them. You need to have the peculiar wisdom of driving before any of the facts make sense. It's like it says in the Book of Proverbs: "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting, get understanding" (Proverbs 4:7).

Today's Scripture, which talks about David's son and heir, King Solomon, is a fair illustration of that same idea. the story seems to be saying that Solomon himself understood the urgency of getting wisdom. He needed it. He was perhaps as young as sixteen when he came to the throne, and his father, David, was by any measure a hard act to follow. Even then, even already, it was clear that they were cut from different cloth.

David was a charismatic warrior; Solomon was cooler...more of a thinker. If David was a self-made tycoon, Solomon was a straight-A student who went on to law school. Solomon was a man who would come to enjoy a little sherry after dinner.

And so, Solomon was right to ask for wisdom. He may have been more comfortable riding in the back of Lincoln Town Car with somebody else driving; even so, even at his young age, Solomon understood that being king meant that people needed to see him behind the wheel of his father's old Shelby, at least now and again.

In order to do the monumental work that lay before him, Solomon needed the animating power of perspective. He needed wisdom. That's what he asks God for, when God comes to him in a dream. "Ask what I should give you," God says. Solomon replies, "Give your servant therefore an understanding mind...able to discern between good and evil..." (1 Kings 3:9). It's a good answer. A humble answer. An answer that says there is more to this kid than your typical sixteen year old. God sees that, too.

In an interesting twist, God seems just as pleased by what Solomon doesn't ask for - God delights that Solomon doesn't ask for wealth; he doesn't ask for long life; he doesn't ask for his enemies to be taken out in one big zap. God is so please, in fact, that God grants him those things, anyway, as a bonus to the understanding mind that God is so very delighted to grant.

As it said in that proverb we hear a moment ago, "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting, get understanding." Solomon gets it all.

Now, for a lot of people, this should be where the story ends. It's easy to understand why, because the moral is so appealing. If you're smart enough to seek wisdom, the animating power of perspective, then you will be showered with every other blessing under heaven. God will open the divine checkbook.

Except this teenager's story doesn't end on prom night, as indeed most of them don't, and its larger point about wisdom is a lot more subtle than this brief section can do justice. Because the story goes on to say that Solomon becomes a great king in his own right, a worthy successor to his father, David. He is famed for his wisdom. He builds the Temple. He tries to consolidate the nation beyond the world of tribes his father had known and worked so very well.

Solomon becomes a great king. But sadly, it turns out that he isn't entirely a good person. He develops a decided taste for the finer things. And he demands a lot of his people to keep himself well-supplied with that sherry.

Solomon lose focus on God's way, and while he lives his own life unscathed, he nevertheless sets the stage for a catastrophic unraveling of all he and his father had built. A few short years after Solomon's death, much of what had been achieved was gone for good. And so today, we should be reminded not only of the beauty of wisdom, and the power of wisdom, but of the precariousness of our own hold on wisdom. Wisdom is not a once-and-for-all kind of thing. The story of Solomon is a decidedly cautionary tale.

Now many years later, the Gospel writers seem to have understood this. Writing in the light of the resurrection, the Gospel writers, and especially Luke, would tell their own story about Jesus at the very beginning of his ministry, earnestly seeking the wisdom of God.

As it must have been for Solomon long before, so once again, this time for Jesus, this moment of beginning is one of tremendous personal struggle...a time of wrestling with how it is he will carry the yoke that has been placed upon him.

We have another story of a young man being asked what it is he might be given. Except this time, the way the Gospel writers tell it, it's a story of temptation. It's a story about how precarious wisdom is...how precarious the animating power of perspective is. It's like walking a candle down a long hallway and realizing that there's a breeze you didn't even feel before, but it's been there all along, and now that breeze is trying to blow out that candle.

Somehow along the way, Solomon had come to believe that he could make a hallway that wouldn't have any breeze in it. That surely wisdom would teach him how.

Jesus doesn't think that. Jesus thinks that walking the candle...bringing the light into the world...learning as you go...developing a way of knowing...that's the wisdom. Wisdom isn't the candle. It's the power that moves the candle out into the world, committed to keeping the flame alive.

That's what wisdom is.

What was it Proverbs said? "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore, get wisdom, and with all thy getting, get understanding." Solomon got so hung up with his getting that he no longer got understanding.

Jesus offers us a very different kind of life - a life that did not seek to insulate itself in comfort and safety, but that gave itself away in total openness to the world.

How would he teach us to get understanding for ourselves? He calls us to learn from our own commitment to openness. "Through all life throws at us," he says, "get understanding." "With all the ways we throw ourselves into life...get understanding." "In all our opportunities to practice patience and perspective, forbearance and fortitude, kindness and Christ-likeness...get understanding."

It's less a command than a promise...a promise that as we take on the work of the kingdom, we will know what it is to be in the presence of the King.

It is the work of the kingdom that moves the candle, and bears the light that all might see, at last.

Let us pray.

Lord, grant us your wisdom, not as a single message to be absorbed, but as a relationship that transforms us time and time again and gives us courage to manifest your kingdom through the work of our own lives.

Amen.

 


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