May 16, 2021 – “Intellectuals: Loving God with the Mind” by Rev. Cody Sandahl

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First Reading = Luke 2:41-52

41Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43When the festival was ended and they  started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his  parents did not know it. 44Assuming that he was in the group of  travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him  among their relatives and friends. 45When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48When his parents saw him they were  astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us  like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great  anxiety.” 49He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50But they did not understand what he said to them. 51Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

Introduction

We are still in our series looking at the nine spiritual pathways. These are the ways we are designed to walk toward and love God. You won’t resonate with all of them, but we’re trying to help you find your top 2-3 and give you the tools to love God in the ways he designed you!

Last week we talked about contemplatives who love God by seeking God’s presence and growing in love for God and others. They walk this pathway to God through heart-felt, deep, introspective prayer. I shared last week that the contemplative approach to God is very much not my forte. But we muddled through it together anyway. This week, we are firmly in my wheelhouse. The intellectual spiritual pathway is easily my top spiritual pathway personally. Intellectuals love God with the mind.

One common misconception here that we should get out of the way. You don’t have to be an academic to walk the intellectual spiritual pathway. You don’t have to learn Biblical Greek and Hebrew (although that’s fun if you’re good with languages)! This spiritual pathway thrives on learning new concepts, new insights, new ways to grow in wisdom. You don’t have to write a thesis to walk the intellectual spiritual pathway. If you get excited when you learn something new, this might be you. You could even call this spiritual pathway “conceptual” Christians. They like learning new concepts.

Our text today is from the Old Testament book of Proverbs. A huge portion of Proverbs deals with growing in knowledge, growing in wisdom, and applying that to your life. That’s basically a summary of the intellectual spiritual pathway, so let’s dive in!

Sermon Reading = Proverbs 2:1-15

  2My child, if you accept my words and treasure up my commandments within you, 2making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; 3if you indeed cry out for insight,and raise your voice for understanding; 4if you seek it like silver,and search for it as for hidden treasures— 5then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. 6For the Lord gives wisdom;from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; 7he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly, 8guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones. 9Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path; 10for wisdom will come into your heart,and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; 11prudence will watch over you;and understanding will guard you. 12It will save you from the way of evil,from those who speak perversely, 13who forsake the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness, 14who rejoice in doing evil and delight in the perverseness of evil; 15those whose paths are crooked,and who are devious in their ways.

Knowledge and Understanding

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—

Only this and nothing more.” That is the opening stanza of The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe.

About two weeks ago, my five-year-old son said something about a raven, and I started spouting some lines from the poem. He was curious, so I actually read the entire poem for him over lunch. He actually made a comment a couple of days ago about something and he said, “Nevermore! That’s what that raven said, right Dad?”

Now, that’s an interesting and engaging poem. The words aren’t easy for a five-year-old, but the imagery is accessible. But I had to stop after each stanza to highlight what was going on. By pausing to explain, he was able to form a picture of the scene of this sad, mourning man trying to infer meaning from a raven who only quoth, “Nevermore.”

There are a lot of layers to that poem, and I only scratched the surface, but by explaining the basics as we went he was able to stay engaged. And he asked me some great questions afterwards. He asked why the man was trying to talk to a raven. He asked why he got so mad at the raven. He asked why the man seemed so sad. He asked why the raven decided to stay sitting in the man’s house.

The key here is that my explanation increased his understanding. His increased understanding led him to seek more explanations so he could understand even more. That’s the feedback loop of the intellectual spiritual pathway – seeking to grow in knowledge so you can grow in understanding, which leads you deeper into another layer.

But let’s stick with The Raven for a second so we can see an important aspect of the intellectual spiritual pathway. The last stanza of the poem says this, “And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting; On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door.” Now, I could increase your knowledge by telling you that Pallas is another name for Athena from Greek mythology. Then you would know that the raven is sitting on a statue of the head and shoulders of Athena. Great! What an interesting tidbit!

But what does that mean?!? That’s the difference between knowledge and understanding. You have to keep digging and thinking and turning things around in your head to move from knowledge to understanding. In this case, Athena is the goddess of wisdom in Greek mythology. So a man who reveres wisdom enough to have a statue in his study is seeking wisdom through this interaction with the raven. There’s another reference in the poem to Pluto, the god of death in Greek mythology. So he’s seeking wisdom about death.

Elsewhere we find out he’s lamenting the death of his dearest Lenore. So if you connect all of these dots, the poem is about a man who is wondering if he will ever get out from his deep grief at the death of his dearest Lenore. And the raven sits there forever on the statue of wisdom, showing that his grief shall be lifted…nevermore!

To move from knowledge to understanding you have to examine the context, the historical situation, the author, the genre, and if it’s a translated work you might need to find out more about the difficult words or phrases. That’s what the intellectual spiritual pathway does in approaching the Bible. The goal isn’t to accumulate a bunch of trivia that will help you in Bible Jeopardy. The goal is to gain greater knowledge which can be applied to reach greater understanding.

That’s one of the key aspects of the intellectual spiritual pathway – growing in knowledge so that you can grow in understanding.

This is an easy tool, actually. If you’re trying to understand something in the Bible, look at the context. If there’s a curious or difficult verse, read the whole chapter. If that doesn’t help, look up an outline of the whole book of the Bible and see where it fits in. That additional perspective is often really helpful. Unless you’re in the book of Jeremiah, because that’s not written in chronological order. Good luck with that one!

Another useful tool for those who want to grow in knowledge so that they can grow in understanding is to ask the journalistic questions.

Who? Who is involved? Who are the key actors? Who benefited? Who suffered?

What? What is happening? What is the goal or task? What is the historical setting?

Where? Where is it happening? Where did it happen before? Where will it happen again?

When? When did this start? When will it end?

Why? Why is this important? Why did the writer frame it this way? Why did God want to say or do that?

How? How is this useful to my life today? How did everything turn out?

You can ask those kinds of questions without being a Biblical scholar.

By looking at the broader context and by asking the 5W’s and an H, anyone can seek greater knowledge to reach greater understanding. That’s the intellectual spiritual pathway. And when will you reach the end of that rabbit hole of knowledge and understanding? When will you know everything there is to know? When will understanding everything? Quoth the Raven – nevermore!

Wisdom = Application

So the goal of knowledge is understanding. But our text from Proverbs says that the goal of understanding is to embody wisdom. And the end result of wisdom is that, “It will save you from the way of evil,from those who speak perversely, who forsake the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness, who rejoice in doing evil and delight in the perverseness of evil; those whose paths are crooked,and who are devious in their ways.”

So I would summarize that by saying that wisdom is knowing how to apply your understanding in the particular circumstances of life.

As Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 3, “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest. A time to kill and a time to heal. A time to tear down and a time to build up. A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance.” He goes on from there.

Wisdom is knowing which season you’re in. Is it time – right now – to plant or time to harvest? Is it time – right now – to cry or time to laugh? Is it time – right now – to grieve or time to dance? You might know a lot about grief. You might know a lot about dancing. Wisdom is knowing which one is appropriate right now.

So another hallmark of the intellectual spiritual pathway is the desire to connect the dots between knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and arrive at application.

Let me give you an example from my life. I grew up with a lot of perfectionist tendencies. That led me to be anxious about new things and especially social situations. And I was kind of haunted by one particular Bible verse. In Matthew 5:48, Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Oh great. Not only do I have to be as perfect as the best human could be. I have to be as perfect as God?!? Come on, Jesus! I already have enough pressure on me!

I actually tried to be systematically sinless in high school. And I failed miserably! That left me completely confused. I tried so, so, so hard to be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect. And I couldn’t do it! I realized it was impossible. So how can Jesus tell me to be as perfect as God?

I sought greater understanding. So I started researching that word “perfect.” Turns out the Greek word there doesn’t mean completely flawless like the English word “perfect.” That Greek word actually means mature, well-rounded, integrated.

So in the context, I realized Jesus wasn’t saying be completely flawless like God. Instead, he was saying that we should strive to have our thoughts and actions line up. We should strive to be as loving to strangers as we are to our family and friends. We should strive to demonstrate as much grace toward others as we require ourselves. We should strive to love God instead of just going through the motions of religion. We should strive to have every corner of our lives reflect our walk with God.

This is a journey of a lifetime and beyond, not a destination we ever reach. So Jesus’ phrase means I should watch for gaps between what I say and what I think and what I do. I should watch for gaps between God’s standards and my lived reality. And I should try to shrink those gaps.

Learning about the Greek word instead of the English word “perfect” led me to conclude that continuous improvement is an acceptable substitute for perfection. Jesus laid out the path we should be walking. I can do that. I won’t do it all the time. But I can walk that path now that Jesus set the direction.

That knowledge led to understanding. That understanding led to wisdom for my life. And applying that wisdom – knowing when to give myself grace and when not to let myself off the hook too easily – that literally changed my life. I still have those same underlying perfectionist tendencies and anxieties, but they very rarely drive my life anymore. All thanks to some knowledge that led to understanding that resulted in wisdom that I could apply in my life.

That is the intellectual spiritual pathway. Seek knowledge to gain understanding. Seek understanding to gain wisdom. Seek wisdom to live a more Christ-like life.

Keeping a journal has actually helped me in this regard. I can go back and see how I have changed. I have a video and explanation of how I have journaled for many years on our church website. Fpcl.org/bible or just look under the “spiritual journey” tab of our website.

Pitfalls

As we have shared with all of the spiritual pathways, there are some pitfalls of the intellectual spiritual pathway. One of the most common is pride. When you’ve put in the time to study and ponder, it’s easy to think you’re absolutely right. The problem, of course, is that sometimes we’re wrong.

Rick Warren once said, “Just because you think it, doesn’t mean it’s true.” The scribes and Pharisees were the most-informed, most-studied, most religious people in Jesus’ day. They worked harder than anyone else. They studied harder than anyone else. They knew more than anyone else. Just one problem. They were wrong about Jesus and so many other things! They were so sure about what the Messiah would look like that they missed the actual Messiah in front of them!

Their core conceit was thinking they could completely understand God. But no one can! So I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am wrong about some of my concepts of Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit. I just don’t know which things. The scribes and Pharisees were shocked by the true nature of the Messiah. I’m sure I’ll be shocked about some things when I reach heaven, too.

Another common pitfall of the intellectual spiritual pathway is seeking information without transformation. Learning for its own sake instead of applying that knowledge to become understanding and wisdom and life application.

I still remember the first time I rewired a power outlet in my first house. I don’t like to make avoidable mistakes, so I read. I watched YouTube videos. I got the right tools. I approached the job with focus and caution. I was equipped with all the knowledge I needed!

And so I began to adjust the wiring with laser focus and precision. As I moved one wire out of the way, BBBZZZZTT! 110 volts of electricity arced through my body! For all that knowledge and preparation, I forgot to turn off the circuit breaker. My knowledge wasn’t applied, and I got a shocking experience as a result!

In a similar way, no amount of Bible trivia will change your life or impress God. Knowledge must be applied to your life.

Spiritual Practices

So to recap, the intellectual spiritual pathway loves God by seeking knowledge to gain understanding. That understanding leads to wisdom and a more Christ-like life. But those who walk the intellectual spiritual pathway are prone to pride and just collecting information without resulting in transformation.

As always, we have some ideas for how to practice this spiritual pathway on the back of your bulletin in addition to the discussion guide on the spiritual journey page of our website.

And I’ve already mentioned a few tools. You can read more of the context. You can ask the 5W’s and an H questions. You can keep a journal to track your progress in living a more Christ-like life.

Gary Thomas, who wrote the book Sacred Pathways upon which this sermon series is based, said this about the intellectual spiritual pathway: “What it comes down to is that I’ve never learned something about God that didn’t draw me closer to him. I’m confident this could be the testimony of every Christian who earnestly seeks God’s face by expanding his or her understanding.”

So you have an almost endless list of possible things to learn so that you can draw closer to God.

And we’re in the Information Age! What a time to be alive if you use your mind to love God!

So here are a few of my favorite technology tools for studying the Bible.

I use the OliveTree Bible app for reading and studying the Bible. It syncs between your desktop and phone or tablet, so you’re not locked into one device. And when I pull up a Bible verse, it then searches my whole digital library and displays the references for me. So I get a list of every commentary I have that talks about this verse. And it will pull up articles on any person mentioned in the verse. And it will collect related verses and relevant maps. All in a moment. I can read three times as much in half the time it takes me to look everything up in print. There’s a lot of free stuff, or you can pay to get really good reference materials. Again, that’s the OliveTree Bible app.

Another tool is on the website biblegateway.com. They have something similar to the OliveTree Bible app, but it’s all on their website. It’s like $4/month or something like that, but you get a similar cross-reference application with their library of materials. Same idea, just a different format and different payment model.

If you want devotionals or study guides to feed your mind and soul, we have links to a bunch of options on the “spiritual journey” page of our website.

And then there’s always Bible study groups. I know one of the men’s groups will keep going through the summer. And then all of our groups should be back up and running in the fall if you want to pursue the intellectual spiritual pathway with others.

Summary

Sisters and brothers, the intellectual spiritual pathway loves God by seeking knowledge to gain understanding. That understanding leads to wisdom and a more Christ-like life. The key to this spiritual pathway is to seek information that leads to transformation in the image of Christ.

So what could you learn this week? How will it affect your walk with God? And how will it affect your daily life? Amen.