sermon

Wisdom beyond the Age

 Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.

August 19, 2018

Text: Ephesians 5:15, O.T.: Psalm 111, N.T.: Ephesians 5:15-20

In 1987, Chrysler bought American Motors Corporation with its Jeep brand. It developed a market between automobiles and trucks that eventually became known in 2008 as crossover vehicles. Today, crossovers blur the boundaries between passenger vehicles and sports utility vehicles. They are just one example of the wisdom of the age.

Throughout American culture, former boundaries of earlier generations’ wisdom are being altered to create new products, new technology, and ultimately new cultural values.   This Information Age is deconstructing boundaries in public and private life that once stood the test of time.

In the area of economics, we were dramatically affected by the 1999 repeal of the 1933 Federal Banking Act. The Act limited commercial bank securities activities by separating banking from investing. The unmonitored growth in derivatives trading that was unleashed by the Federal Banking Act’s repeal was a major contributor to our most recent recession.

In our own state, the former boundary has fallen between health care providers and health care insurers. The conflict between UPMC and Highmark is partially about whether the fall of this boundary has generated monopolistic practices that don’t serve the public’s welfare.

Whether we’re discussing the role of cyber schools or charter schools in public education, or the funding of private schools with public funds, former boundaries that were considered sacrosanct are falling in the wisdom of the age.

If we can imagine a new solution to problems we face, human ingenuity thinks outside the box of established behaviors, patterns, and assumptions in the pursuit of “progress.”

Religious faith is equally susceptible to the wisdom of the age. Throughout history, religion’s story is one of boundaries falling and new beliefs emerging about God. Religious boundaries fell when Abraham led his family out of the polytheism of the ancient Middle East into the Promised Land. Moses re-asserted God’s covenant limits with Abraham’s descendants after their slavery in Egypt. Religious boundaries fell when the apostle Paul explained the God of the Jews was the God of the Gentiles in the Areopagus of Athens. They fell when Martin Luther nailed 95 Thesis to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, Germany. The story of God’s activity is one of boundaries falling from new knowledge about God in the wisdom of the age.

Today, the wisdom of this age is old religious boundaries are falling. Some commentators believe religion is undergoing fundamental change that hasn’t been seen since the Protestant Reformation.

We know people no longer choose churches based on denominational brand. Presbyterians freely become Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, and Baptists. Today’s church isn’t about what it means to be a Presbyterian, Catholic, or non-denominational evangelical.

Religious boundaries are falling even further than denominational brands. People mix and match religious beliefs to form personal religious brands. Protestants are praying ancient practices of Catholic monastic orders in the Divine Office. Catholics are bursting the boundaries of prayers from liturgical books – praying spontaneously in homes and church. Prayer partners have changed. Protestants pray with Catholics, Jews, and Muslims, Buddhists with Unitarians.

Beyond the loss of brand loyalty among Christian denominations, there’s a general loss of the boundaries that once distinguished various religions. It’s not uncommon to find Christians believing in reincarnation, Jews observing Christmas, or Hindus acknowledging Jesus.

The wisdom of this age re-imagines God in the freedom of religion. Robert Bellah wrote about this in his 1985 book, Habits of the Heart. He interviewed a nurse by the name of Sheila Larson who had left church. She named her personal religion after herself.   She called it, “’Sheilism.’ I follow my inner voice.”  A growing number of Americans and people around the world listen to their inner voice. They don’t recognize the voice of the great Shepherd.

It would be easy for us to say the fall of religious boundaries signals the end of organized religion. Christianity has passed into being an anachronism.

Just the opposite is true, my friends! This is the time of great opportunity! In the middle of immense cultural change, now is the time for Christians to declare what we know about Jesus Christ. With so many people discovering ways to create a new religious identity, this is God’s time to offer Jesus Christ’s wisdom as the answer for the spiritual yearnings of this age.

This is not the first time Christianity has faced a redefinition of religious boundaries. The apostle Paul lived during an equally radical time of change during the Roman Empire. As he walked through Athens, Ephesus, and Rome he was surrounded by religious pluralism.

Believers in Zeus, Aphrodite, Athena, Mithras, Ahura Mazda, Isis, Thor, Valkyries, Ostara, and Odin competed with believers in Yahweh, ancestor worship, astrology, mystery religions, and fears of supernatural specters.

Paul wasn’t discouraged by what he saw around him. Nor did Christianity’s minority position alarm him. This was the great missionary moment for which Jesus Christ commissioned him. Paul didn’t act irrationally. Nor did he retreat into solitude to escape the world. He used reason as God’s instrument to convince audiences that Jesus Christ is the only true God. Jesus Christ’s wisdom transcends the worldly wisdom of the age. Jesus Christ’s wisdom rises above the religious freedom of people creating their own religion.

Christ’s wisdom successfully competes in the intellectual world of life. Christ’s wisdom addresses the difficulties of injustice in a world of suffering. Christ’s wisdom reaches the yearnings of people trying to find meaning. Christ provides the most hopeful way for understanding life by setting boundaries in our worship of God.

Boundaries recognize a higher, intentional purpose transcends temporary satisfaction. God revealed Himself in a series of laws that gave structure to human life.  Moses carried them from Mount Sinai to God’s people. God’s laws are boundaries for personal and social behavior. They enable people to recover the blessings God gave them of an abundant life.

God revealed Himself by liberating people from slavery to people who don’t believe God’s purpose is for us to live an abundant life. Moses led God’s people from Egypt back to the Promised Land. Life with God frees us to be people who aren’t slaves to passions and purposes that deny life. Worldly passions and purposes condemn us to slavery. God’s boundaries protect us from slavery.

Jesus’ wisdom fulfills both purposes. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said he came to fulfill God’s boundaries. “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt. 5:17)   This can be seen in the story of the woman at the well.

A Samaritan woman met Jesus at Jacob’s well, in John 4. She learned the boundaries contained in Jesus’ wisdom. The Samaritans were remnants of the Ten Tribes of Israel who accepted other deities in their worship on Mount Gezerim. Their boundaries of worshipping God fell when their kingdom fell. They believed in a coming Messiah. They generally knew that Israel’s God had brought them to the Promised Land. But they didn’t believe worshipping at the Temple in Jerusalem was necessary. They were loose with God’s laws and accepted religious beliefs of surrounding peoples.

They were like a lot of American Christians today. The world of the origin of their country had changed dramatically. They were trying to make sense of life by incorporating into the faith of their ancestors new ways of imagining God that came from their experience with the religions of others.

Jesus says to the Samaritan woman, “You worship what you do not know.” He explains to the Samaritan woman that her worship is a hybrid form of worship that doesn’t know the identity of God. He then described the secure foundation for faith in God. “We worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” He provides God’s boundary for worship. Salvation can’t be found through worshipping other deities while acknowledging God.

But Jesus also states to the Samaritan woman, “The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” He is stating the forms of religion that exist are changing.

He is warning her not to seek God in the creation of your religious imagination on Mount Gezerim. God isn’t your inner voice. Nor will God be found in Jerusalem, where the Temple of Judaism stands.

The Giver of Life is found in a world of falling religious boundaries by worshipping God in Truth and Spirit. This may seem ambiguous in Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman. But later Jesus states He is Truth and Spirit. Jesus Christ is the boundary to worshipping God.

In John 14:6, Jesus humbly offers His wisdom in contrast to the wisdom of the age.   “I am the Way the Truth and the Life.   Anyone who comes to the Father comes through me.”   In John 14:15 ff., Jesus continues offering His wisdom. “If you love me, you will keep my commandment. I will pray to the Father and He will give you another Counselor to be with you forever: the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. You know Him for He dwells with you and will be in you.”

Jesus literally describes the coming changes to religion as the Samaritan woman knew it. The Temple of Jerusalem will fall where worship is preserved through ritually obeying God’s laws. But God’s Truth that embodies His laws is available through Jesus Christ. Efforts to create alternative ways to worship God will arise among people facing the collapse of the familiar forms of worship. But God’s Spirit that gives life is available through Jesus Christ.

Jesus was teaching the Samaritan woman to be careful where she walked in her worship of God. The way to find God isn’t through the wisdom of the age. The wisdom of the age will bring changes to the forms and structures of religion. But resist mistaking those forms and structures for God’s salvation. God’s salvation transcends the wisdom of the age. It lasts for eternity.

The story of the Samaritan woman in John 4 is an example of Jesus’ agreement with the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 5. The world lacks boundaries around beliefs and rituals that are not of God. But God has boundaries and expectations that ought to be observed to be in the right relationship with God.

We must not succumb to the infiltration of worldly freedoms into our Christian faith. Christian wisdom does not come from the culture or the laws of the land in which we live. The laws reflecting changing worldly view points that are trying to escape the boundaries of God’s purpose for our lives.

Relying on secular wisdom and secular learning to guide how we live is depending on the wisdom of the age, not the wisdom of God. Trusting that human progress is better than God’s wisdom is a deceitful path that will not lead to the abundant life Jesus came to give us.

Christians have a further responsibility, beyond what is legally acceptable in religious beliefs, and culturally permissible by a people who live without boundaries. We are responsible to God to live like He expects if we want to enjoy the benefits of eternal life.

God’s expectations aren’t dependent on federal or state courts. God’s expectations aren’t codified in laws drafted by representatives who give the people what they want.

Wisdom beyond the world transcends American culture. Human progress has not reached God’s expectations for the world’s salvation by a long shot.

God’s presence in a changing world, is only through Jesus Christ. Be filled with Christ’s Spirit. “Sing songs to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.”

Amen.

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