10.05.2014 Preaching Text: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more.” (Philippians 3:4b)
We live in an age of “experts.” They will fix everything, we are told. Why just the other day I was reading through the latest issue of a collegemagazine and was struck by how the best and brightest from the College of Arts and Sciences are well on their way to leading our society and world into the sunny uplands of peace, prosperity, and all-around well-being.
Then I read Paul’s words from Philippians. There, as he does elsewhere, Paul challenges this kind of pretentious idealism, and not as an angry, envious malcontent, mind you, but as a well-established insider.
For you see, Paul was, as you know, among the elite class in Israel. He could check every box in terms of status, education, and expertise. His picture might well have appeared in his high school yearbook as the one most likely to succeed. And succeed he did – beyond measure.
For this reason alone we ought to take Paul’s critique seriously. After all, it comes from a man who had it all, who had reached the very pinnacle of success, yet who now looks upon his former life with a jaundiced eye. No longer does that life inspire; no longer does it, in fact, seem the least bit worthy.
What was missing from Paul’s vision, as he gazed out from the “commanding heights” of elite power, was what generally can’t be seen from any such elevated vantage point – humility. Rather, it is along the lowly path of honest self-regard and humble obedience that one sees what is otherwise hidden; hidden, that is to say, in plain sight.
Psalm 19 puts it this way: “The very heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.”
And yet “there is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”
God’s wisdom and truth, in other words, are everywhere, yet unheard.
Nonetheless, the psalmist declares, these “words” are “perfect.” They “revive the soul,” “rejoice the heart,” and “enlighten the eyes.” Indeed they herald God’s decrees, “making wise the simple.”
In an episode of the BBC television series, Father Brown, an adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s short stories of the same name, the title character, a Catholic priest whose avocation is solving murder mysteries is confronted by his arch nemesis, the town’s lead detective, who takes umbrage at the priest’s nosy-ing around after yet another tragic death in their small English village.
At one point, the Inspector turns to the pesky priest and says, angrily (and I paraphrase), “Back off and leave this to the professionals!”
Father Brown’s response is a classic: “You mean like the experts who built the Titanic?”
A few months back I explained the premise of Chesterton’s work – that it was written to counter Arthur Coyne Doyle’s wildly popular Sherlock Holmes novels. The idea was to showcase Father Brown’s use of intuition and the things of the spirit which are often able to discern what the scientific, deductive reasoning of Sherlock Holmes cannot. Mysticism over rationalism, in other words.
For Paul and the psalmist, as well as for Chesterton, the truth, God’s truth, can be known only through the quiet discernment born of the Spirit. Thus, much of the world’s “expertise,” by definition, misses the mark, left to investigate truth from the outside in, rather than from the inside out.
Which, again, is to say that true wisdom, the wisdom that comes from God, is hidden, precisely because we lack the desire or willingness to listen.
One of my favorite quotes, one I came across years ago, proposes that all of life’s problems are rooted in our inability to sit quietly in a room for 20 minutes!
Parenthetically, last Tuesday I was telling the Bible Study Group about a study that recently was conducted at Harvard University. The experiment consisted of people being asked to sit quietly in a room for 15 or 20 minutes (I forget the exact details).
Knowing how difficult this can be for us contemporaries, they gave the respondents the option of administering a mild shock to themselves (such as the kind you might receive from static electricity walking across a rug).
To the amazement of the scientists, a large percentage of these individuals chose to self-administer the mild shock rather than sit quietly for a short period of time!
This and other evidence suggests that we human beings rarely consent to sit still, much less to listen for God’s word. Perhaps due to restless fear, we try to protect ourselves by filling up the space around us, by controlling life around us and, in so doing, effectively building walls that promise to keep the world at bay. This, among other things, effectively blocks out the God who otherwise wishes to engage us.
Only it seems in moments of great adversity and/or loss does that wall ever crumble, leaving us, when it does, all but defenseless. From beyond our control we are exposed, made vulnerable to God’s powerful presence, a presence that’s all around us and at all times, as the psalmist knowingly proclaims.
Only then do we hear the hidden things of God, the things we normally shut out. And in our hearing, our lives are changed.
In reality, our world is infused with God’s spirit. Every moment of our lives reveals the mystery and power of God’s ineffable grace. Yet only in our unguarded moments, whether imposed or sought after, we discover that God is everywhere.
Amidst the loss of the things Paul once considered so important is revealed these erstwhile hidden truths, truths that place all else in stark relief.
And amidst these revealed truths, Paul discovers he is saved. Amen.