“Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you.” Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this second Sunday after Christmas comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of the book of First Kings. Dear friends in Christ: we Americans are a very practical, pragmatic people. We do things because we can see the results, we can see the tangible outcomes, often measured in dollars and cents. Our education system is, in many ways, set up for the primary and all-encompassing purpose of equipping someone for a job. The old liberal arts model of higher education, where the goal was to shape the mind of young people so that they will be wise and informed citizens, has been largely replaced by specialized trade schools and university departments, which teach skills for one profession or another. Why? The answer is money—we Americans are, after all, practical, pragmatic people. Learning for the sake of learning isn’t really all that practical, because unless you are going to teach in a university for a living, wisdom and understanding aren’t going to put food on the table or (more importantly) pay taxes.
Solomon’s request is therefore impractical to the extreme. God Himself comes to the king in the night and gives him an extraordinary offer: “Ask what I shall give you.” Like King Ahaz, Solomon is given a blank check from God, the opportunity to ask for anything. And as a king, Solomon certainly had many practical needs. He had just removed the immediate threats to his throne, but he still had enemies—should he ask for victory in battle? David his father had given him a well-off kingdom, but can a person ever have enough—should he ask for great wealth? Or what about the most important thing in the eyes of most people, next to money, of course—should he ask for a long life?
But Solomon asks for none of these things. He is given the opportunity to ask for anything for himself, but he refuses to focus upon himself. What he asks is for a gift to serve others. “Your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” Solomon refuses to ask for wealth, for military victory, or for a long life. Instead, he asks for wisdom. Not for himself, because what can wisdom really give you that wealth, victory, or many years cannot? If you are thinking of bettering yourself, you’ll choose the others over wisdom any day of the week. But Solomon was thinking of serving others, he was in humility seeking the good of his neighbor, and so he sought wisdom and understanding. He sought the wisdom and understanding that comes only from God, for it characterizes God.
God is wisdom, He is understanding. His wisdom is an open ear, hearing the pleas and understanding the great needs of those whom He loves. And His understanding provides for those needs, perhaps not in the way that we wanted or expected, but in His wisdom God always gives what is best for those whom He loves. In wisdom, God heard the cries of humanity for salvation from sin and death, He heard your cries even before you uttered them. And in wisdom, God set forth a marvelous plan of salvation. Saint Paul teaches us in our Epistle lesson that God is “making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.” God in His infinite wisdom ordered all things in history toward your salvation, so that Paul can say, “He chose us in [Jesus] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will.”
God exercises His wisdom to serve you, fulfilling your greatest needs. In wisdom, God sent His Son into our creation in the fullness of time to bring forth the salvation long planned and prepared. His plan came to pass in a manger, for His wisdom is shown in the child Jesus, the fulfillment of all the promises. Jesus is God’s wisdom, as He demonstrates even as a youth, to the amazement of the teachers in the temple. When Solomon asks for wisdom, he is asking for what belongs to God Himself, what characterizes His interactions with sinful humanity, the wisdom that will lead to a little baby and a manger outside of Bethlehem. He is asking for the wisdom that serves.
True wisdom always serves, but not ourselves. Godly wisdom serves others. Godly wisdom won’t put more money in your account, it won’t lengthen your life, it won’t rid you of your enemies (in fact, it might give you more!), but it will help you serve your neighbor’s true needs. That’s why God praised it so highly when He heard Solomon’s request: “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, behold, I now do according to your word.”
True wisdom serves others, therefore we don’t want much to do with it. Deep down, we’re selfish, or we think that we can handle things on our own. We put a tremendous amount of energy into seeking after many things, most of which fall into the three categories that God gives: long life, riches, and triumph over our enemies, but we expend much less effort in seeking after godly wisdom. We Americans are practical, pragmatic people, and wisdom, especially godly wisdom, doesn’t pay the bills. In fact, godly wisdom doesn’t really benefit me at all! As a result, it is no secret that our churches have failed to teach the faith adequately for decades now, and blame lies on all sides. We clergy have botched our God-given task to teach all ages, to expect more from our students. And laity have played their part by not coming to bible classes and demanding less of themselves and their children. Now we have several generations of Christians that want little to do with wisdom, who don’t know their own faith, and therefore are swayed by every wind of false doctrine, who are ill-equipped to speak God’s Word in the world.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This sermon isn’t simply an advertisement for bible class and adult catechesis (held Mondays at 11am, 6pm and 7:15pm). True, godly wisdom doesn’t only come from being in a class, it’s more than studying Scripture, although the thirst for knowledge about God is vital. True wisdom isn’t just knowing facts. Godly wisdom is cultivated in the weekly Divine Service, it is taught through a devotional life of prayer and meditation upon God’s Word. You don’t have to be a pastor or a seminary professor to have godly wisdom, you don’t even need to have as much knowledge as the person sitting next to you today. Every Christian should cultivate godly wisdom as God has gifted them, not for our own benefit, but to serve others.
Solomon set the pattern. He asked God for an “understanding mind.” The Hebrew text says that Solomon asked for a “hearing soul.” True wisdom imitates God by listening to the needs of others. True wisdom is an open ear, seeking to understand our neighbor’s situation—spiritually and physically. Listening cannot be taught in a class, but only through prayer and meditation, by listening first to God Himself. Solomon also asked for the ability to “discern between good and evil.” This is where our study of the Scriptures comes in. If we want to help our neighbor, we must be able to distinguish between good and evil, truth and falsehood according to the Scriptures. We must be able to call a thing what it is, pointing out sin and falsehood and praising good and truth. And then, true, godly wisdom must discern how to help. If the need is physical, godly wisdom helps us to see how our vocations and the vocations of others can be used to serve the needs of his body. If the need is spiritual, godly wisdom applies God’s Word to our neighbor. Godly wisdom speaks the Law to condemn sin when a person is caught in unrepentance, and the Gospel to forgive sin when the neighbor is in desperate need of grace.
For God’s wisdom is ultimately shown in the Gospel. It is the plan of salvation set forth before time began, and when the fullness of time came, it bore fruit in seeming foolishness. True wisdom is found in Jesus; true wisdom is found in the foolishness of the manger, in the foolishness of the cross. Jesus demonstrated His wisdom when He befuddled the teachers in the temple; His wisdom would stump them again when He hung upon the cross. In the foolishness of the cross, God would show forth His wisdom, for in Christ’s humiliating suffering and death, all creation would be delivered from bondage. His wisdom forgives you for your foolish seeking after the things of this world: long life, riches, and triumph over others.
The one with godly wisdom is then the one who believes, who clings to the foolishness of the cross for forgiveness, life, and salvation. Godly wisdom is despairing of your own ability to save yourself, and therefore relying solely upon Christ. Godly wisdom is realizing your humility; like Solomon, you admit before your God that “I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in.” Godly wisdom confesses that you don’t know it all, that you can’t do it on your own, and so like Solomon you ask for the wisdom that only comes as a gift: “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” God answers this prayer, and more than that, He gives you everything. “I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days.” You have riches, the very treasure of heaven. You have a long life, life forever in heaven. And you have victory over your enemies: sin, death, and Satan are crushed by the foolishness of the cross—the world’s foolishness, God’s wisdom, your salvation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.