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The Way of Wisdom

The wisdom of God transcends the wisdom of the world.
This sermon is part of the sermon series "God Is Big Enough". See series.


As Christians, we say we want to love God, and we want to love people. We want to serve the world. This idea comes from the core of Jesus' teachings and is rooted in the Old Testament. I want to look at the wisdom of God—this big God that we serve, whose wisdom is bigger than our confusion—and try to unpack what it means to love God, to love people, and to serve the world.

In this series we've talked about how God is big—bigger than our challenges. We've talked about God being bigger than our suffering and pain. Those messages have been on the comforting side. This message is not initially comforting. It may insult our pride. It will strike at the core of our self-sufficiency and our arrogant ability to believe we could just think things out for ourselves.

The Shema: Love God

We are going to start by reading words given to the people of Israel in the Book of Deuteronomy. These were the holiest of all the holy words of Scripture:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

These words were called the Shema. This was the central text of all Israel. The Israelites believed that wisdom began here: Love God. Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength. The way that you express this love for God, according to this text, is by doing what God says. You do Torah—the teachings, the commandments, the law. You put the commandments on your heart. You teach them to your children. You strap them to your arms and your head. You write them on the wall, on the doorframes, on the post. As soon as a boy was able to speak, his father would teach him the Shema. In fact, Deuteronomy 6:4 would have been the first passage Jesus memorized as a very little boy.

When the Shema says to love God with all your soul, the rabbis understood this to mean that you should be willing to die rather than betray God. This is why, of all ancient peoples, Israel alone would choose to be executed rather than convert to another religion. Everybody else in the ancient world served regional gods, so if they moved to a new place, they just started to worship the god of that place. Israel would sooner die than worship another God. Jewish martyrs would recite the words of the Shema as they were being executed. Wisdom said, "God ought to be the first word you utter as a child and the last breath you exhale before you die."

Israel believed that this command, this Shema, said something wonderful about God. It said that God wants to be loved. It said he's a big God: "Hear … the Lord our God, the Lord is one." He is one God who made all things. Nobody else believed in a God like that. And this big and powerful God wants to be loved.

When I met Nancy, my wife, we dated a few times, and then she moved 2,000 miles away to go to graduate school. We didn't have much contact through that fall. She felt like I didn't write as faithfully as I should have. I saw her one time at Christmas break, and after Christmas break I was back in California, she was in the Midwest, and I found out she was dating another guy—an alarmingly attractive guy. So I called her up long distance, and kind of fumbled around for a while before I finally said, "Nancy, what I am trying to say is I like you." There was silence on the other end of the phone. Not a good sign. I was trying to tell her, "Thou shalt have no other guys before me. I want all of your heart. I know you have other relationships and things you love and people you love, and that's fine, but when it comes to a romantic relationship—that one relationship—I would like to have the exclusive rights to your heart. I would like for you to love me."

Guidelines for Shema

Every devout Jewish person, particularly the men, would recite the Shema twice a day. The Shema itself consisted of three different texts from the Old Testament:

  • Deuteronomy 6:4-9
  • Deuteronomy 11:13-21. This passage recites the rewards of obeying God's commands and lists the punishments that come with disobedience.
  • Numbers 15. This passage pertains to the wearing of a prayer shawl. Jewish men were to put on a prayer shawl in the morning. Then twice a day they were to recite the Shema. Verse 7 says to say these words "when you lie down and when you get up."

First thing in the morning, the Jewish man would put on a prayer shawl. Then he would place on his body the teffilin. Teffilin were boxes with commandments written in them, just as Shema requires. They would strap the teffilin to their arms (this is still done in some observant Jewish communities) and bind them to their foreheads as a way of saying, "God, may my hands do your work, not foolish things, and may my mind think your thoughts, not foolish thoughts." Then they would recite these words, "Hear O Israel: the Lord your God. The Lord is one."

Shema was so important to the people of Israel, that if you were on the road and you were saying Shema, and a friend walked past, you were not to interrupt the Shema by greeting that friend. Saying Shema was the expression of a child of God's ultimate devotion, and about the only thing that was allowed to get in the way of it was death. In the Mishnah, or recorded oral law, it says, "He whose dead relative lies before him is exempt from reciting Shema and from wearing the teffilin." We'll come back to that. Remember that saying. That's going to be very important in a little while.

The wisdom of the world

The obvious question is: Why did they love these words so much? What was the big deal about reciting a bunch of words? We don't do that kind of thing. Why did they get so carried away? Because they believed these words were an answer to the great questions of life: How shall I live my life? What shall I do with it? Is there any hope for significance and meaning in my life? How do I make wise choices? What is wisdom?

In our day, conventional wisdom says that when it comes to values, when it comes to what matters, when it comes to meaning and goodness, you've got to think for yourself. This is conventional wisdom in our society, amongst even really smart people. William Willimon gave a great presentation on this recently. He noted that last year, the President of Yale welcomed the incoming freshmen with these words. (Think about the contrast from Israel: "Teach your children.") The President of Yale said to these freshmen: "We cannot supply you with a philosophy of education any more than we can supply you with a philosophy of life. This has got to come from you, from your own active learning, your own choices, your own decisions. Think for yourself. Now when it comes to history, if you say Columbus discovered America in 1805, we'll impose our beliefs on you, because we believe there's knowledge about that. When it comes to physics, if you say E=MC3, we will impose our beliefs on you, because we believe there is knowledge there. When it comes to values, wisdom, goodness, what is right … good luck. Think for yourself."

In other words, William Willimon says, "The university has absolutely no clue what you are supposed to be doing here. We have a smorgasbord of courses; we have a great buffet line of faculty. Whether that adds up to something called 'wisdom' by the time you graduate, we have no idea." Think for yourself.

Willement notes a research study called When America Told the Truth that indicates 91% of us say we lie routinely. Thirty-one percent of those of us who are married acknowledge having an affair that has lasted more than a year. Seventy-five percent of us acknowledge that we lie routinely to a best friend. Pick up the paper this week and read about corruption in the city. Read about corruption in local and national government, about corporations around the world behaving in ways that are just appalling. We're thinking for ourselves. Wars, injustice, oppression, preventable deaths by the tens of thousands every day—this is what happens when we think for ourselves. The people of Israel could not have had a more countercultural message. They said, "There is a mine for silver and a place where gold is refined, but where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell?" They didn't say, "Think for yourself."

Pointing the way to true wisdom

God understands the way to wisdom. He alone knows where wisdom dwells, for he views the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens. He is a very big God, and in him is wisdom. His wisdom is way bigger and deeper than simply, "How do I satisfy my little agenda?" Therefore this great text, the Shema, starts with the word Hear. "Hear O Israel." Shema O Israel. It does not say, "O Israel, think for yourselves. O Israel, go with your gut. O Israel, follow your happiness. O Israel, maximize your bliss. You are the autonomous center of the universe." It says, "Hear O Israel." Listen. Be still. Be quiet. Receive. This is Torah. This is law. This is wisdom. To them, the commands of God were not an oppressive set of legalistic rules. They represented the way to life or death.

My friend, Jimmy, and his son, Davey, were playing in the ocean down in Mexico. His family—his wife, daughters, parents, and cousin—were on the beach, and a rogue riptide swept Davey out to the sea. In a flash, Jimmy was out there, trying to help Davey get back to the shore, but he couldn't make it and was swept away in the tide. Literally, in a couple of minutes, they would go down. He tried to scream, but his family couldn't hear him.

Jimmy's a strong guy—an Olympic Decathlete—but he could not navigate this. In his mind he was thinking, "My wife and my daughters are going to have to have a double funeral, and they don't even know." His cousin, who understood something about the ocean, walked out into the water where he knew there was a sandbar. He knew that if you tried to fight a riptide you'd die, so he went in and stood as close as he could get to Jimmy and Davey on the sandbar, and then he just lifted his hand up and said, "You come to me. You come to me."

If you try to go the way your gut tells you to go—the shortest distance into shore—you will die. If you think for yourself, you will die. God says, "If you come to me, you will live." That's it—death or life. To Israel that was Torah. It was the finger pointing to the way of life, the way of salvation.

Wisdom in full

A Rabbi named Jesus came along, and Shema started to become really interesting. Somebody approached him one day and said, "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied, "Love the Lord your God [recognize these words?] with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment." See, that's Shema. "And the second is like it. Love your neighbor as your self. All the law and the prophets [the Torah] hang on these two commandments."

Jesus was a good Jewish rabbi. He started by affirming Shema. But then he did something staggering. He assumed for himself the authority to add to it. It's hard to communicate the shear audacity of what Jesus did here. Imagine that we were to recite the Apostle's Creed together. A lot of you know that the Apostle's Creed goes back many, many centuries in the history of the church. Imagine that we get all the way to the end of the Apostle's Creed, and then I have us add one more line: "And I believe all Christians should vote Republican." Do you think I would get in trouble with the Elders if I did that? Yes, I would. I don't have the right to amend the Apostle's Creed. It's not my Creed. I cannot amend it.

The Shema is much higher than the Apostle's Creed. These are the holiest words in the holy Hebrew Scriptures. God gave Israel the Shema. Only God has the right to amend it. Who did Jesus think he was? Now you see what's going on in this text. Jesus' wisdom is the whole law, the whole teaching. All of wisdom dangles from these two threads: Love God with all you've got—all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, all your mind, all your passion—from the moment you wake up in the morning until you lay your head on the pillow at night. Love God. The second is like it. It's of a piece with it, but people get confused sometimes. They think they can love God without loving people, and Jesus said, "No you can't." The second is like it. He added, "Love your neighbor as yourself." He took this also from Torah—from Leviticus—but he puts it into Shema. Love God, love people. That's the whole deal.

Love your neighbor

Love for people does not mean that I always say what other people want me to say, or that I try to make people feel good. Jesus' love for people is an unconditional regard for others. It's the kind of love that prompts me to try to help someone else become the person God intends him or her to be. Neighborly loves means that I love the people in my house, I love my spouse, I love my parents, my children, and my siblings. It means I love the people at my school. I love my boss. I love the people who serve under me. I love the people in the next cubicle at my workplace. I love the guy on the corner at the stoplight who asks me for money. I pause to look at the kid who works behind the counter at McDonalds. I look him in the eye. I remember that he's the object of the love of God. I love him. I love and pray for the President of the United States. If we follow Jesus, that's what we do.

Jesus says this is wisdom: From the moment you wake up in the morning until you go to bed at night, love the Lord. You've got to follow him with your heart, soul, mind, and strength. People count. Don't build your life around climbing ladders and collecting trophies. Life is about loving people.

In the desk in my office, I have a knife. It was given to me by someone who became my best friend when we were 15 years old. I was kind of lonely—those middle school years were, in ways I didn't even know as fully at the time, lonely times. I didn't really know what it meant to have a real friend. Then when I was a sophomore in high school, Chuck Bergstrom became my best friend. Friendship is such a gift from God. We have gone through life together. We went through high school together, and we went through college together. We were in each other's weddings. He was just out visiting this weekend; we laughed together, prayed together, sang together.

When I turned 50, Chuck sent me this knife. It's engraved with these words: "To John from Chuck … to 35 years of friendship." Then Proverbs 27:17: "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." I keep this on my desk, and when I feel alone, and I'm not sure what to do, or when I have a difficult staff person in my office, I think, "I have a friend. I have somebody who loves me like he loves himself." Rabbi Jesus amended the Shema. He said wisdom is arranging your life around only these two things: Loving God with everything you've got, and loving your neighbor as yourself.

Love God, follow Jesus

Jesus did something else that was staggering. This is from Matthew 8: Another disciple said to him, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus told him, "Follow me and let the dead bury the dead." At first glance this looks a bit harsh, but there's something much deeper going on here. Burial generally was a two-stage process in that day: the day that someone died, the body would be put in a tomb, and family would stay there while the body decomposed. In about a year, the bones would be collected and put in something called an "ossuary." So this disciple was talking about maybe a year's time passing before he would follow Jesus. According to the Mishnah, what was the one time that a man was exempt from having to say Shema? It was when he had a dead relative waiting for burial. This man was asking Jesus whether he should follow Torah as he understood Torah, which is what you did if you loved God. Should he follow Torah, or should he follow Jesus? Jesus said: Come follow me. Right now.

There was a time when the primary way you expressed love for God was doing Torah. Jesus redefined loving God. To love God means to follow Jesus, listen to Jesus, study what Jesus taught, be preoccupied by Jesus, choose to be with Jesus, learn from Jesus how to live like Jesus, let Jesus be your Forgiver and your Guide and your Leader and your Lord and your Friend. That's what it means to love God, and you can do that right now. And he will make you a servant of the world, because Jesus has opened up loving God and loving people, not just to the people of Israel, but to the whole world. This is not an abstract thing.


This is wisdom: to live your one and only life in such a way that when it comes to an end, and it will, God looks at it and says, "Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done." This is wisdom. From the moment you wake up in the morning until you go to bed at night, you love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and then you walk through the day and love the people that you see. Love them like you love yourself. Then become a servant of the world. That's wisdom. That's wisdom from a big God.

John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.

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Sermon Outline:


I. The Shema: Love God

II. Guidelines for Shema

III. The wisdom of the world

IV. Pointing the way to true wisdom

V. Wisdom in full

VI. Love your neighbor

VII. Love God, follow Jesus