“Wisdom and Prayer”

August 16, 2015

 

I Kings 3:3-9

Romans 8:26‑30

 

Today and next Sunday the scripture lessons speak to us of wisdom and prayer.

This is a good thing—we can probably use more of both.

Over the course of two and a half months we read through First and Second Samuel—the long story of the transition of ancient Israel from the time when the people were governed by a series of judges to the time of the monarchy. Through accounts of warfare and violence and treachery, we’ve traced the downfall of Saul, the first king, and the rise of David from a shepherd who slayed the giant, Goliath, through his reign as Israel’s best known monarch.

We have used these stories as a lens for looking at our own contemporary religious and political landscape as we live through times marked by calls for warfare, horrific violence, and various forms of deceit and treachery in our own national life.

Last Sunday we heard of God’s judgment on the actions of David—on what David himself acknowledged as his sin. Much of the rest of Second Samuel is an account of the playing out of that judgment. There is more warfare and violence and treachery. There are other acts of rape and murder beyond those committed by David.

While there might be more that we can learn by recounting and exploring those stories, I am worn out by them and it seems to me that we will benefit from a fresh perspective. So this morning I’ve skipped over a large section of Second Samuel. Read it on your own if you wish—but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

We come to First Kings, a book that the novelist Herbert Gold once called “harsh, hectic, and full of hope”—which sounds like a description of our own lives much of the time.

First Kings begins with yet another struggle—this time between Adonijah, David’s oldest living son, and Solomon, David’s son by Bathsheba.

We heard briefly of the death of David.

And finally after so much that is troubling—and before much to come that is also troubling—we hear that wonderful prayer of Solomon. “I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in,” he prays. In other words, “I don’t have a clue.”

There is a refreshing honesty in this prayer. In the face of an uncertain future, in the midst of all that disturbs—what do we pray for? What should we pray for?

Power?

Wealth?

Wisdom?

Paul puts it directly: “We don’t know how to pray as we ought.” These are words that I can understand. They speak to my experience. And I imagine that they speak for you as well—at least some of the time.

Prayer gives us a wonderful opportunity. We mortal creatures might speak with and listen for our eternal Creator. We imagine ourselves as the sisters and brothers of Jesus. We speak not to a distant god but to one who loves us as a mother who will not abandon her children, as a father who waits patiently for our return.

So why aren’t we praying more often?

Prayer is the heart of our corporate worship of God. Not speech about God, but speech to God is central to what we do as the gathered body of Christ. No renewal of a congregation can be expected until we seek to renew ourselves individually and corporately through prayer.

Why is it so hard to pray?

 “We do not know how to pray as we ought.”

I think we often make prayer more difficult than it needs to be—or at least I do. People worry about “getting it right”—using the right words, asking for the right things, sounding religious. It’s as though we try to pray from a position of strength.

What if we found the source of prayer someplace other than our strength?

What if we discovered prayer growing from our weakness?

Prayer is not a matter of having all the right words. In fact, it is not really about words at all. Beyond all our words the Spirit of God meets us in silence.

When all you can do is cry . . .

When you slump into a chair and sigh at the end of a long week of hard work…

            When all you can do is laugh from the sheer joy of living . . .

When you are left in silent awe in the face of beauty or love or the sheer vastness of nature. . .

You are praying.

And the Spirit of God is praying with you and for you.

If the words are to come at all, spoken prayer will grow out of silence:

silence as you sit alone for a few minutes before the busy day begins, perhaps even before the sun is up;

silence as you prepare for worship;

silence in the late night.

In our weakness, since we do not know how to pray as we ought, the Spirit of God meets us and sustains us.

Not knowing, Solomon continues: “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”

If you read through the end of II Samuel and the beginning chapters of I Kings, you might get a sense that Solomon needed to pray in this way. Some of his actions are much more evil than good. Those who wrote and compiled the histories found in the First and Second  Books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles did not flinch in recording the evil, the sin, of even their most revered leaders—including both David and Solomon.

Something in this also speaks to our situation. If honest prayer grows out of our weakness, it also grows out of the shadow side in our own lives. Prayer rises from an understanding of the tendencies toward violence, treachery, unfaithfulness—the sin—that lurks in each of us.

In somewhat dire straits, Solomon prays for understanding, for the wisdom for which he was known.

We read with the Psalmist this morning that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.  Many balk at the idea.

Maybe you were raised in a way that emphasized the “fear of God” and such talk has done great damage to your spirit. Maybe through seeking and prayer and study and action you have been able to discover a God that does not cause fear.

Or maybe fearing God is unthinkable to you. The fear of God belongs in other churches, certainly not in such enlightened places as the Congregational United Church of Christ.

The “fear of God” which is the beginning of wisdom is not meant to keep us cowering in the corner, hiding from our Creator.

We do better to understand “fear” as a sense of awe and wonder in the presence of the Sovereign God, the One who relativizes all human wisdom and all human activity. This God is the mystery who keeps our whole being in God’s eternal care.

When we understand what it means to fear God, we come before God as we are, trusting in God’s goodness and mercy. Fearing God, we recognize that our ways are not God’s ways and we seek as much as is possible to live in God’s ways of love and mercy, of kindness and compassion. Wisdom begins when we recognize both who we are and who God is and no longer confuse the two.

Awe and wonder mark the fear that is the beginning of wisdom. If the God we fear is the One who keeps us—both body and soul—then we have true wisdom, the ability to use our knowledge toward good and life-giving ends.

And let me suggest that that while the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, it is only the beginning. As we grow in wisdom we grow in awareness that God is indeed the love that we had hoped God was.

As we grow in wisdom, we hear the good news spoken as early as those words of Moses: “What does God ask of you?  Only this: to fear the Lord your God, to conform to all God’s ways, to love God, and to serve God with all your heart and soul.”

God asks of you only what you are able to do. Live in wonder before God. Follow in God’s ways. Love. Serve God in all that you do with all that you are.

You can do that.

Solomon’s prayer was, remember, a “dream prayer.” Had Solomon been awake, he might have prayed differently, seeking power, seeking wealth. Instead, he started from his weakness. And that seems to have worked for Solomon, for in response to this dream prayer, God in this dream promises not only the wisdom for which Solomon is famous but also the riches and power which were attendant to his reign. Remember that Jesus, looking around for an example, mentioned not the wisdom of Solomon but his vast wealth, asking his followers: “Why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the over, will God not much more clothe you?”

In discussing Paul’s letter to the Romans, Karl Barth put it this way:

“We wait, but because we wait upon God, our waiting is not in vain.

We look out, but because we have first been observed [by God], we do not look out into the void.

We speak, but because there emerges in our speech that which cannot be uttered, we do not idly prattle.

And so also we pray, but because the Spirit intercedes for us our prayers and groanings are distinct from that groaning which is weakness and nothing else.[i]

No wonder, then, that Paul could write something as outrageous as: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God's purpose.”

Such a statement should either be greeted as absolute foolishness or profound faith.

If the Spirit of God lifts us up when we are weak,

if the Spirit leads us to hope even in the midst of suffering,

if the Spirit convinces us that we are the children of God, the sisters and brothers of Jesus

then it becomes possible to say “all things work together for good.”

It's not a matter of all things being good—for they certainly are not. The violence and brutality of ISIS, the violence and brutality in the streets of our own nation, the constant drumbeat of war—none of these can in any way be called good.

Still, a faith that looks toward the future that God is bringing about can be confident in the present.

And when confidence fades,

when we tire from praying for peace,

for some glimmer of hope in the midst of chaos,

for strength in the face of disaster,

when we give up in exhaustion—God is still there, holding us—and all creation—in arms of love.

We don’t know how to pray as we ought.

And so—always—we are invited to pray as we can, in our human weakness, trusting in the sustaining love of God.



[i] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, pg. 317.