Sermon: Calling God ‘She’

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
Trinity Sunday
May 21st, 2016

 Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Last week I commented on an article on the SBS Facebook page about the Catholic Church in which I incidentally referred to God as ‘She’. One of the responses to my comment was that Christians worship God the Father, and so the Christian God can only be called ‘He’. Of course, I couldn’t leave the discussion there, and my last comment in the exchange was: ‘I am an ordained minister in good standing; you are a non-Christian. Which of us do you think is more reliable on what Christians believe?’ The fruits of the Holy Spirit include patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. Sadly, I frequently fail to demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit on social media. That’s my confession to you. But that Facebook exchange is one of the reasons that today, Trinity Sunday, rather than talking about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I want to talk instead about Lady Wisdom, who speaks to us today from the Book of Proverbs. I want to talk about God as ‘She’.

The purpose of the Book of Proverbs is to teach its readers the right way to live. It’s attributed to King Solomon and begins: ‘For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young— let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles.’ It’s primarily aimed at young men, so it includes a lot of advice on how to choose a good wife and run a household. It’s also full of warning. The first nine chapters contrast the life that comes from following wisdom with the descent into ‘the chambers of death’ (Proverbs 7:27) that comes from spending time with a loose woman, the wife of another (Proverbs 6:24, 7:5). None of that is particularly surprising. In these chapters the loose, strange woman is contrasted with the reader’s wife, and to act with wisdom is to cling to one and avoid the other. But the strange woman isn’t just compared to the wife. She’s also compared to Lady Wisdom, and Lady Wisdom is a fascinating character.

Who is Lady Wisdom, who speaks to us from the book of Proverbs? And what’s the connection between Wisdom and the Triune God? Why do we hear from her on Trinity Sunday?

In today’s reading Lady Wisdom describes her relationship with God. She tells us that she was the firstborn of God, brought forth before creation, and then present with God as everything else was created. In the translation we read today Wisdom says: ‘The Lord created me at the beginning of his work’ but that could equally be read as ‘The Lord acquired me’ or ‘The Lord possessed me’. And so there has been much discussion among scholars about whether Wisdom existed as an equal with God before creation, or was simply God’s first creation. It’s a fascinating discussion. Is Wisdom herself a goddess, and co-creator with God? Some people have argued so.

The translation we read today also says that as God created, Wisdom ‘was beside him, like a master worker,’ but the Hebrew word translated ‘master worker’ could equally mean ‘little child’. Either Wisdom helped God create the world, or Wisdom grew up beside God, watching as the Creator created. Those of us who have watched children grow up can understand the relationship between ‘little child’ Wisdom and God that Wisdom describes: ‘I was daily his delight’. Just as God rejoiced in watching Wisdom grow and develop, so Wisdom rejoiced in watching the world and human beings grow; she was ‘rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race’. This might be one reason for Wisdom being pictured as female; she is rejoicing in the growth of humanity in the way that a mother rejoices in the growth of her children. For the writer of Proverbs, mothers were the first teachers of young children, and this is the relationship that Wisdom has with humanity. Whether as master worker or little child, Lady Wisdom shows us that the relationship between God and the creation is one of joy and delight, and that we are loved and cared for by God as a mother loves and cares for her small children.

Wisdom tells us other things about the nature of God. She calls out like a royal herald, raising her voice everywhere: on the heights; beside the way; at the crossroads where prostitutes would stand to have the maximum visibility and exposure; beside the gates in front of the town, where the town’s social, commercial and legal activity was centred. There is nowhere that Wisdom is not. Wisdom calls to humanity in the midst of our everyday lives. God seeks to reach us wherever we are. And because Wisdom is everywhere, we know that we Christians don’t need to separate ourselves from the world to find God.

All this is intriguing, or at least I think it is. But what does it have to do with Trinity Sunday, with the celebration of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? One answer is that the description of Wisdom was one of the resources that the early Christians turned to when trying to describe how Jesus could be both human and God; how there could be only One God and yet Jesus could be the Saviour. One of the ways early Christians identified Christ was as the Wisdom of God. Listen to the opening to the Gospel According to John: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.’ It sounds very much like what Wisdom says of herself. The theologian Tertullian wrote in the late second and early third centuries, as the church struggled with the doctrine of the Trinity: ‘For what can be better entitled to the name Wisdom than the Reason or Word of God! Listen to Wisdom herself, constituted in the character of a second person.’[1] Just as early Christians looked at the descriptions of the Suffering Servant in the Book of Isaiah and saw in them prophecies about Christ, so the early Christians looked at the book of Proverbs and saw in the description of Wisdom a description of Christ. Seeing Christ as Wisdom and Wisdom as a co-Creator with God was one step along the road to the understanding of God as Trinity.

That’s all pretty intense and theoretical. Today, Trinity Sunday, the church confesses, declares that we believe in, the doctrine of the Trinity. As I’ve said on this Sunday in previous years, we don’t need to try and understand the Trinity as though it is a mathematical proof. In the same way, the connection the early church made between Wisdom and Christ is interesting, but not necessarily something that you need to embrace.

There is, however, one element of today’s discussion that I do want you to remember. In Lady Wisdom the Bible gives us a female co-Creator or a feminine aspect of God. Because Jesus was male and because he referred to the first person of the Trinity as ‘Father’ it has been easy for Christians to fall into the trap of imagining that God is male, as my arguing partner on Facebook seemed to believe. This can be dangerous; when people believe that God is male, they frequently also believe that men are more important than women. Lady Wisdom reminds us that the God we describe most commonly as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is neither male nor female and has aspects that we define as feminine as well as masculine. So I invite you to refer to God as ‘She’ every so often, even if it does lead to heated arguments on Facebook.

 

[1] Against Praxeas, Chapter 6.

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