Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Information, Knowledge, Wisdom

A sermon preached during the summer Lay School, July 2010
by the Rev. Dr. Kristin Johnston Largen
Text: Matthew 12:38-42 [Wisdom]

We live in an unprecedented age of information. Everything you want to know about anything at all is at your fingertips—no further away than a cell phone or a keyboard, and an internet connection. If you give me a woman’s name—any name—in 30 seconds or less, I can tell you everything you need to know about her. If you give me a date—any date in history—in 30 seconds or less, I can tell you everything you need to know about what happened then. If you give me a sentence—a fragment of a sentence—in 30 seconds or less, I can, most likely, pull up the book or article from which you got it [plagiarizers, beware!]. In 30 seconds or less, I can find a list of every state capital, give you the definition and spelling of any word in the English language, or pull up a picture of any picture by your favorite artist. Today, everything you want to know about anything is at your fingertips. Information is everywhere.

However, unless you are preparing for a stint on Jeopardy, these kinds of bald facts are not necessarily all that valuable. What good is it, for example, if I know that it was Matthew’s Gospel in which the wise men visited the baby Jesus; and Luke’s Gospel in which it was the shepherds—if that is all I know?

What good is that information if I don’t understand that, for Luke, the shepherds are another example of the gospel proclamation of the salvation of the last and the least, and the radical reversals in human society that Christ’s coming entails? I would argue that it is this bigger picture that makes any bit of information worth something; it is this larger context in which we can interpret information that makes it useable, that makes it useful, that makes it mean something in our lives. In other words, it is this larger context that separates information from knowledge.

Now, knowledge, of course, is a good thing. Knowledge goes far beyond the simple collection of facts to a synthesis, interpretation, and application of that data to real-life situations, in order to make the world a better place. Knowledge, then, consists of the use of our God-given gifts of intelligence, creativity, and memory to create new technologies, develop new medications, find alternative fuel sources, and to deepen connections between individuals, cities, and countries. Knowledge is information in context, information at work for the sake of the world.

However, knowledge, like information, is, ultimately, a human convention —it comes from our necessity, it is shaped by our convictions, and it is judged by our standards; and what that means, is that, like all things human, it is tainted by sin and evil. And therefore, we deceive ourselves terribly if we choose to ignore the fact that knowledge also consists of the use of our God-given gifts of intelligence, creativity, and memory to create land mines, to develop new ways of trafficking drugs and people, to find alternative ways to torture people more slowly and more painfully, and to deepen the divide between the rich and the poor. Human knowledge in action reveals both the best of who we are, and the very worst.

Now, in saying all this about information and knowledge, I have attempted to set the stage for what is, for Christians, a central paradox, a key faith proclamation, and a particularly rich bit of gospel all rolled up into one outlandish claim: that is, the very best of human knowledge is folly—stupidity, to quote Rick Carlson—when compared to the wisdom of God, embodied and enfleshed first and foremost in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Over and over again in Scripture, we see that God’s wisdom is surprising, and runs quite counter to knowledgeable human anticipations, assessments, and assumptions. I’m sorry, God, but I’ve run the specs and a little runt like David has less than a 1% chance of winning a fight against a giant like Goliath—you really should choose someone bigger and more powerful. Listen God, I hate to disappoint you but I’ve seen with my own eyes that you can never trust someone who was once your sworn enemy—Paul is going to turn on you at the first opportunity—you really can’t count on him. Excuse me God, but I’ve done some research and no one is going to believe a woman if she tells them that she has seen something as miraculous as a resurrection—you really should send someone else.

God’s wisdom really does look like foolishness, when you think about it. Only God could see that choosing a young boy, an agitator, and a woman to do God’s work in the world would bear such extraordinary fruit—our eyes are blind to such wisdom.

And that’s not all: when we turn from Scripture to today, over and over again in our own lives, we see that that God’s wisdom is surprising, and runs quite counter to knowledgeable human anticipations, assessments, and assumptions.

When we’re sure we should go left, God takes us right. When we’re sure we should marry someone like “X,” God brings “Y” into our lives, and turns everything upside down. When we’re sure we’re going to be a lawyer or a teacher, God calls us into public ministry. God’s wisdom really does look like foolishness, when you think about it. But that's only from a human perspective. When viewed through the lens of God's wisdom, we can look back on our lives and see that God never leads us astray. When we put our faith and trust in God and God’s wisdom, we will surely be surprised, but we will never be disappointed.

That’s why I love every single one of these Scripture readings we heard today. Even though Solomon turned his heart away from God toward the end of his life, I will always love him for answering God in such humility and honesty, and choosing wisdom over everything else, when God offered him the whole world on a platter. And as we heard this morning, Solomon went on to use that wisdom for the sake of God’s people, and for the sake of God's kingdom.

In First Corinthians, Paul shocks us anew every time we read this passage, as he calls us away from our typical way of ordering the world—our logic, our hierarchies, and our convictions about what's right and wrong—and back to what really matters, the wisdom of God manifest on the cross of Christ and revealed in weakness, realized in our own lives as we are joined to Christ in our baptism.

This is a lesson we, like the Corinthians, have to learn over and over again, because we continually fight against God, sure that our way is the best way—sure that our human knowledge is equal to divine wisdom. Luther's call for us to return to our baptism daily surely includes the day-to-day practice of conforming our minds to the mind of Christ, and allowing God's wisdom to be the ordering principle of our lives.

Finally, in our Gospel lesson for this morning, we hear the radical proclamation that Christ himself is the very incarnation of God's wisdom—divine wisdom walking, talking and at work in the world. In Jesus Christ, we have more than simply a sign of God’s intentions, we have God in the flesh, living and breathing right in the midst of creation. In Jesus Christ, we have more than just the inspired speech of a human channel for God’s wisdom, we have that wisdom in a flesh and blood human being, not only speaking God’s will, but actually embodying it for all to see and follow and emulate.

What this means for us, then, is that when we want to access this divine wisdom, when we want to see what God desires for God's people, we merely look to Christ. In Jesus’ life, in his ministry, in his healing the sick, in welcoming the outcast, chastising the religious leaders, and proclaiming a kingdom of God that bears little resemblance to any society constructed according to human knowledge, we see a vision of what God intends for the world. And in this vision, against all knowledgeable human predictions of how things should logically turn out, might does not make right, the rich do not keep getting richer, and the status quo is not maintained. Instead, in the kingdom of God, there are no rich and poor, no haves and have-nots, no outsiders; and no one is rejected, no one is abandoned, no one is unloved.

Today, the church as a whole, and we as individual Christians are called to be witnesses to this vision, and live as though this promised reality were already here; seeing and believing with the eyes of divine wisdom that Christ truly lives in each brother and sister, that every corner of creation has infinite value, and that the promised victory over sin, death, and the devil has been won—salvation is not in doubt, no matter how dark things may appear. In God, all things are possible; and with Christ at work in us, amazing things are possible for us, too—not because we have so much information, not because we have so much knowledge, but because in Jesus Christ, divine wisdom has come into the world and changed it forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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