Sermon: Relying on Holy Wisdom

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Trinity Sunday, 12th of June 2022

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8

‘When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?’

Today is Trinity Sunday, the one Sunday in the church’s year when we focus explicitly on what is implicit in our worship on the other fifty-one or -two Sundays of the year; that the God Christians worship is a God in relationship, a God whose nature is community. On Trinity Sunday we give thanks that God’s very self is a community of love, a community of equality, in which Three exist so intimately with, for and in one another that they become One. As the theologian Leonard Boff says, ‘God is the lover, the beloved, and the love between them’.

The doctrine of the Trinity developed as a way of understanding who Jesus was and is. The early Christian community knew that God had been definitively revealed in Jesus. Jesus was human, the son of Mary. But Jesus was also God. The God that Christians experienced in Jesus was still present with them in Spirit even after Jesus himself had left them. Through the Spirit, they continued to have a relationship with Jesus after his death, resurrection, and ascension. Over several centuries the Christian community worked to find a way of describing this, and their answer was that God is one God in three ‘persons’. Doctrine follows faith. The doctrine of the Trinity is a summary statement of the Christian faith. As I said last week, by saying that we worship the Triune God, Christians are declaring that the God who became incarnate in Jesus and who accompanies us as the Spirit is the one true living God. This is what we mean whenever we use the formula ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’.

As I also said last week, through the incarnation, by the Son of God becoming one with humanity, we have been invited to join this community, to become one with the Father, Son and Spirit as they are One. Eastern theology describes this as ‘deification’, being made like Christ, sharing in the divine nature. The Trinity shows us that the divine life we are invited to share in is a life of love and communion with others. We are invited to live in the community of Christ created by the Spirit. What are human beings that God is mindful of us, mortals that God cares for us? The answer is that human beings are those invited to become part of the community that is God.

The first reading we are given on this Trinity Sunday does not specifically mention Father, Son, or Spirit. Instead, it introduces us to Lady Wisdom, a character in the Book of Proverbs. This book is 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 is a collection of sayings primarily aimed at young men, so it includes advice on how to choose a good wife and run a household. It is 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) In those chapters, the loose, strange woman is contrasted with the reader’s wife; and to act with wisdom is to cling to one’s wife and avoid the strange woman. But the strange woman is not just compared to the wife. She is also compared to Lady Wisdom, Holy Wisdom, Sophia in Greek.

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 is a fascinating discussion, or at least I think so. Is Wisdom herself a Goddess, and co-Creator with God?

We read about Lady Wisdom on Trinity Sunday because she was one of the resources to which early Christians turned 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. As the introduction to the Gospel according to John puts it: ‘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 in today’s reading. Just as the early Christians looked at the descriptions of the Suffering Servant in the Book of Isaiah and saw in them prophecies about Jesus, so the early Christians looked at the Book of Proverbs and saw in the description of Wisdom a description of Christ.

The translation we read today 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 can understand the relationship between ‘little child’ Wisdom and God: ‘I was daily his delight’. And 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 that Wisdom is pictured as female; she is rejoicing in the growth of humanity in the way that a Hebrew mother would rejoice 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. You will undoubtedly because I have quoted her so often, remember what Julian of Norwich said about Christ being our mother, which means there is another correspondence between the Wisdom and Word of God. Both are motherly in their love and teaching of us.

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 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. We may encounter God’s wisdom anywhere, in our homes, our workplaces, on the streets, among friends. We do not need to climb lofty mountains and sit in silence on their peaks to acquire wisdom. Lady Wisdom seeks us out.

Sophia

In English, we distinguish between knowledge and wisdom, intelligence and wisdom. ‘Intelligence’ tends to be something with which we are born; ‘knowledge’ something we acquire through experience or instruction. Wisdom is more. My Shorter Oxford Dictionary tells me that wisdom involves combining experience and knowledge ‘with the ability to apply them judiciously’. We all know of people who are brilliant or knowledgeable, but who are unable to apply their brilliance or knowledge judiciously and so who lack wisdom. We also know people who are not brilliant or knowledgeable, but who are wise. If Lady Wisdom is an attribute of God or a gift of God, then we can be wise regardless of our intellect, age, experience, or knowledge. To access the wisdom that comes from God all we need to do is be open to God’s prompting in our lives, keep our ears accessible to Lady Wisdom who calls out to ‘all who live’.

I know that this is true, that God can give us wisdom as a gift, because I became a minister in my early thirties, and even now, fifteen years later, I am still much younger than most of this congregation. Yet every week I stand up and preach to people who in some cases have exactly twice as much life experience as I have. I can only dare to do that because I believe that God wants to speak to you, and I am offering myself to God as a tool for God to use to do that.

I first became aware of being used by God in this way at the very first funeral I was involved in as a theological student. Three students at Janet Clarke Hall, where I was a residential tutor and pastoral carer, were killed one Easter in a road traffic accident, and I had to give the Reflection at the memorial service the college held for them. There was absolutely no way that I by myself had the strength and skill to say something helpful to my grieving community. Providently, I did not have to try to do anything by myself. I had never before had such a strong sense of being held upright by God as I did at that service, and I have never forgotten the lesson I learned then: that God will give me what I need to enable me to help others. I still have moments, as I did sitting by Maurice’s bedside, when I feel utterly unqualified to walk with someone to the threshold between life and death, and to pray them over it. But my qualifications or lack thereof for that role do not matter when God is walking with me and the person who is dying.

Lady Wisdom talks about God’s work of creation, the shaping of the mountains, the establishment of the heavens and the fountains of the deep, the limiting of the sea and the marking out of the earth’s foundations. In today’s psalm, the psalmist also describes the utter awe of the heavens, the moon and the stars, all the work of God’s fingers. The greatness of God’s creation is almost incomprehensible. Our Milky Way Galaxy alone is 100,000 light years across and contains anywhere between one and four hundred billion stars. Yet Wisdom also describes herself as ‘delighting in the human race’ and the psalmist notes that God has crowned humanity with glory and honour. We may feel that we are not important enough to be wise, that we are too insignificant to help God with God’s work. On Trinity Sunday we recognise that the God who created the entire cosmos does not feel that way. God believes that humanity is so significant that in Jesus God’s Wisdom and Word came to dwell among us, and through the Spirit God is still present within and among us. Just as Lady Wisdom was daily God’s delight, so God delights in us when we work together with God so that the inhabited world can be God’s good Creation. We have a part in God’s ongoing work in the world, and the Wisdom that was present at the very dawn of creation enables us to play it.

‘Does not Wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?’ Yes, she does, and if we listen to her and let her guide us, even when we feel unqualified or unworthy, then God will continue to delight in the human race. Amen.

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