GROWING IN WISDOM
A Sermon by Rev. Coleman S. Glenn
18 March 2012
Dawson Creek, BC
“And Jesus increased in wisdom and in age, and in grace with God and men.” Luke 2:52
Picture someone wise. Try to make it someone you know, someone who really exemplifies wisdom for you. If you’re not able to think of someone you know, then try to think of the kind of person who comes to mind when you think of wisdom. Now think about what it is that makes that person wise. Why did they come to mind and not someone else? Did you think of someone with a lot of education, a lot of knowledge? May so – that can be part of wisdom. But that’s probably not the only thing you thought of – there’s a good chance that the smartest person you know is not the wisest person you know. So, what other qualities make a person wise? What else made you think of the person you did? Maybe the person you thought of has a real humility – a quiet acknowledgment that they don’t know everything. If you told them they were wise, chances are they’d brush it aside and deny it. Chances are they’re not the loudest person you know, or the most argumentative, although they could be. When we think of someone wise, we often think of someone who speaks from their heart, with real warmth in their voice. We think of someone who speaks from life, not just from knowledge. We think of someone who speaks the truth from love.
How old was the person you thought of? Many of us probably thought of people older than us – parents or grandparents, elders who have seen a lot of life and speak from a lifetime of experience. There is wisdom in old age, as people become humbled by life, and start to gain true wisdom. But some of us might also have thought of children. Most teachers will tell you that they learn as much from their students as their students do from them. There is a special kind of wisdom that comes along with childhood – a sense of wonder about the world that a lot of us lose as we get older. In young children, we see some of that same humility we do in old age – a willingness to ask questions, to admit that they don’t know everything. There’s a wisdom of innocence in children – they aren’t afraid to say things as they see them, because they don’t even know that they are supposed to see things differently. It’s not yet the true innocence and true wisdom of old age, but it’s a picture of it. That innocent childhood wisdom is reflected in the words of a Psalm: “Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants, You have ordained strength” (Psalm 8:2). That childhood wisdom is the image of the true wisdom that comes with age.
But all wisdom comes from the Lord; and the wisdom of the wisest person we know pales in comparison with the Lord’s wisdom. When He was in the world, though, the Lord did not immediately come into wisdom. He had to gain wisdom gradually – He had to walk the same path that we do. That’s why we read. “And Jesus increased in wisdom and age, and in grace with God and men” (Luke 2:52).
But if Jesus is God, why does He need to increase in wisdom? The reason is that at the Lord’s birth, His soul was Divine, but His body and the lower levels of His mind were merely human. Throughout His life, He went through a process of opening up those lower levels of His mind to the Divinity within Himself, until He replaced everything that was merely human with His Divine Human. And because He went through that process, He can lead all of us through a similar process – not that we ever become Divine or have anything Divine that belongs to us, but that He opens up our minds and hearts to Him more and more to eternity.
So in the Lord’s childhood, He needed to progress just as we progress. The book True Christian Religion describes this: “In respect to His Human He was, for this reason, an infant like other infants, a boy like other boys, and so on; with the sole difference that this development was accomplished in Him more quickly, more fully, and more perfectly than in others” (TCR 89). We see that in the story we read today – He was still growing in wisdom, had not become omniscient on all levels of His mind – but even at twelve He had gained an astonishing amount of wisdom.
So, we return to our story with this in mind – that we can look to the Lord here in this story and ask how we can follow in His footsteps, what He is teaching us here, and specifically what He is showing us about growing in wisdom.
In the story, Mary and Joseph had gone to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, along with many of their relatives; and when they left, they assumed Jesus was with someone else in their company. A day later, discovering that He was missing, they rushed back to Jerusalem, and searched for him for three days. Finally they found Him – not lost somewhere in the streets, but sitting in the temple in the middle of the teachers of Israel.
It says that they saw Him there in the midst of the teachers, “both listening to them and asking them questions.” And here we find something that may be surprising – the Lord is described first, not as teaching these teachers, but as listening to them and questioning them. And again, remember, the Lord really did need to learn things. And this attitude that He expressed here shows us one of the most important things about wisdom – we can only grow in wisdom if we acknowledge that we do not know everything, that we have something to learn from others. This was the God of the universe in human form – and He needed to ask questions, to listen! If we think that we can figure everything out on our own, we have not even reached the foothills of wisdom. We just read a story that Emanuel Swedenborg related about the Temple of Wisdom that he saw in heaven. He spoke to angels about it, and they told him that the only people who could see this temple were those who acknowledged that they knew nothing from themselves, and that what they knew was nothing compared to what they didn’t know. That is the beginning of wisdom.
There’s humility on both sides of the conversation in this story. It took humility for the Lord to ask these great teachers questions; but think of the humility also that it would have taken for those teachers to listen to this twelve-year-old Boy, who hadn’t been trained in their schools, who to all appearances was only a carpenter’s son. Looking in at this story from their point of view, we realize something else – we may not always find wisdom where we expect it. We tend to put people into categories, to judge them as wise or foolish – and once we’ve judged someone as foolish or not worth listening to, we can dismiss the things that they say simply because we don’t like them. If we heard those same things from the mouth of someone we regard as wise, though, we realize the wisdom in them. We need to know that the Lord can talk to us through anyone.
This was true for those teachers, and it was true for the Lord as a twelve-year-old. Many of those teachers in the temple were corrupt – as an adult the Lord often criticized the teachers of Israel. And yet they did know the Old Testament well – the Lord could learn important things from them about it. He could listen for the wisdom in what they were saying, for God’s voice speaking even through imperfect vessels. Again, God can speak even through imperfect vessels, and we need to be open to hearing His voice from anyone.
So far we’ve been focusing mostly on the humility it takes to advance in wisdom, the acknowledgment that we don’t know everything and that we need to listen to others. But sometimes people can take this too far, and to think that they are wise because they question everything, because they never come to any conclusions on anything. This is not the case. The Lord was in the temple listening and asking questions – but the people were astonished at His understanding and His answers. True wisdom means that we do have a sight of the truth. We never think that we know all there is to know, but at the same time, we do not become nihilistic and say that we can never know anything.
There’s a great story that Emanuel Swedenborg relates about a group of spirits he saw in the world of spirits. He heard voices saying, “O how learned,” and came down to find a group of people stamping on the ground, not moving at all. When Swedenborg asked an angel why they were doing it, the angel replied that it was because these people never came to any conclusion about anything, but only discussed and questioned whether something existed, and so they never progressed in wisdom at all. When Swedenborg asked, “What must the religion be that saves a person?” they spent hours discussing whether religion even existed, or whether salvation even existed, and came to no conclusion at all. When he asked whether they would answer the question within a year, they answered that they couldn’t answer it within a hundred years. Swedenborg replied, “And meanwhile you are without religion!” He said to them, “You are anything but learned, for you are only able to think whether a thing is, and to turn it this way and that. Who can become learned unless he knows something for certain, and goes forward in that as a man advances from step to step, and so on successively into wisdom. Otherwise you do not so much as touch truths with the finger-nail, but put them more and more out of sight.” (True Christian Religion 333). To grow in wisdom, we do have to reach conclusions; acknowledging that we know nothing compared to the Lord’s infinite wisdom does not mean that we deny our ability to know anything at all.
And so the Lord as a twelve year old did not only ask questions, he also answered them, and demonstrated His wisdom – already a wisdom superior to that of the most learned people in Israel. This is what He was doing when Mary and Joseph found Him, after searching for Him throughout the city. When they asked why he had done this, causing them such anxiety, He replied, “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be in what is my Father’s?” The Lord knew even then, as a twelve-year-old, that His soul was Divine, that His role in the world was to exemplify wisdom, as well as to teach it. And so it was the Father’s will – that is, the will of the Divine Love within Himself – that He learn truth and teach it, to advance more in wisdom, to show people how to live in goodness toward their neighbour.
We might expect the Lord’s ministry to begin then and there – but this is not what happens. The Lord still had years ahead of Him to grow to the point where He could teach Divine Truth, where He could be an embodiment of it. And there’s encouragement here. Learning how to live in this world is supposed to be a process. We are not supposed to know everything right away. When God Himself came into the world in human form, even He needed decades to reach His full potential of wisdom. How could we possibly expect it to be any different for us? The fact that we feel like progress is slow does not mean that we’re failing. And it’s a process that continues for ever. We’ll never reach a point where we say, “I’ve arrived – I know everything I need to know.” If we do reach that point, we’re in serious danger, because it’s at that point that we fall in love with our own wisdom, and stop seeking to become more wise – and loving our own wisdom is the height of foolishness.
So the Lord does go back home with Mary and Joseph – and He was subject to them, that is, He was obedient to them. And here’s the final piece of wisdom. In childhood, we learn obedience by obeying our parents – and that prepares us to obey the Lord’s Word. Because it is in living by the wisdom we’ve gained that that wisdom truly becomes part of us. It’s by trying to obey the Lord’s Word that we start to understand it. The Lord said that those who hear His Word and do not do it are like people building their house on the sand. They’re still doing something, building some kind of understanding – but if they don’t do it, that all falls to the ground when struggles and temptations come. But those who do His Word, who act in obedience to it, are like those who build their house on the rock. It does not fall down in times of struggle – it stands strong, because it is built on a rock.
True wisdom comes from building on the rock – that is, on hearing the Lord’s Word and doing it. And we are given the ability to do that because the Lord Himself walked that path for us. He is with us as we learn truth, as we see His wisdom in His word, as we learn also from the people around us. He is with us in that attitude of humility, the attitude that of ourselves we know nothing. He is with us in that willingness to listen for His voice even in unexpected places. He is with us in that childlike innocence, that excitement to learn, the willingness to ask even stupid questions over and over again, from a love of becoming truly wise. And that true wisdom is not about knowing more than someone else – that true wisdom is a wisdom of life, a wisdom of loving our neighbour, and loving the Lord above all else.
The final and most important step is acknowledging that none of our wisdom comes from ourselves. The Lord is the source of all wisdom – and in the world, He became Divine love and Divine wisdom in Human form. He is the Truth itself, that is, Wisdom itself; He is the way Itself, that is, the path that leads to wisdom; and He is life itself, that is, the life that comes from living in love and wisdom. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). Amen.