Wisdom of Solomon 1:16–2:1, 12-22
James 3:13–4:3, 7–8a
Wisdom. No matter our location in life, there is a good chance we’ve sought out wisdom, whether from a literary source, a trusted mentor, a venerable family member, or a beloved friend. She is a presence for which many of us will, without reservation, lay down a personal claim as the human endeavor to search her out bring us curious to each new day. Very few of us would deride or refuse wisdom were she offered to us; we know, somewhere, somehow, that wisdom is something good. But is all wisdom good?
One of the consequences of our collective human endeavor for wisdom is that we frequently load the term with our own freight—indeed it may even become a particular kind of freight just out of hand, beyond reach, something to achieve. And, like most human achievement, we invariably construct a market place of competing achievements, especially when wisdom is confined to the realm of intellectual speculation.
We find two very different kinds of wisdom at variance with one another in the readings before us today and each text asks us to notice the difference between these two wisdoms as they are compared and contrasted—the failure and consequences of one and the goodness and freedom of the other.
1 Corinthians 1:17-25; Matthew 25:1-13
Before Scripture is read in the context of the Eastern Orthodox liturgies, the deacon comes forward and announces loudly to the assembly, “Wisdom! Let us attend!” It is as if he is saying, “If your attention has wandered off, now is the time to bring it back. Get ready!” Though I’d be hard-pressed to define wisdom in the abstract, it has a refreshingly straightforward, tangible quality when I witness it in the life of an individual person. I hear an inner voice cry, “Wisdom, let us attend!” Wise people tend to be real people, people with “street cred.” There is a quiet authority that has no need to announce itself but is obvious to anyone whose wisdom-o-meter is in good order. A truly wise woman or man possesses presence like shade on a hot day. Their whole affect communicates a life lived well, deliberately, mindfully, wholeheartedly. On my first encounters with people like this – who are, truth be told, rare – my first impulse is to grow quiet, to listen more intently, to ask questions that are simple, questions that do not waste time demonstrating how much I think I know. I become aware that time is too precious for such drivel. I become aware that I am in need of oil. This person cannot give me that oil directly (if only it were that simple!) but can show me how to find some for myself.
Saint Philip and Saint James, Apostles
In the calendar of the church we remember today Saint Philip and Saint James, both of whom were chosen by Jesus for his original circle of twelve Apostles. But here I must make a disclaimer. We know almost nothing about them. This Apostle James is not James, son of Zebedee, who, with his brother, John, had lobbied Jesus to sit at his right hand and left hand when Jesus came into power in Jerusalem.[i] Nor is this the James, the brother of Jesus, the brother traditionally known as the author of the Epistle of James and the sometime-Bishop of Jerusalem.[ii] This is James #3, son of Alphaeus, whom we know nothing about.[iii] This James is often called “James the Less,” which is not exactly flattering, but helps avoid some confusion with James #1 and James #2, about whom we know more.
As for Philip, he came from the same town as two other Apostles – the brothers Andrew and Peter – and that was Bethsaida, alongside the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. In the Gospel according to John, we read that Jesus “found” Philip.[iv] Like with the other Apostles, Philip took a long time to understand Jesus. In the Gospel according to John, we read about the multitude of hungry people listening to Jesus teach. Jesus then asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” We are told Jesus already knows what he is going to do, and so this is a test for Philip. Philip essentially fails the test. He answers Jesus, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Jesus then feeds the multitude with a boy’s five barley loaves and two fish.[v] On another occasion Philip fails the test again. He says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus answers Philip in exasperation, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’”[vi]
…Create in me a contrite heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit…
The gradual psalm we prayed together moments ago, Psalm 51, is the same psalm we prayed aloud in the Ash Wednesday liturgy as we began the season of Lent: “Create in me a contrite heart, O God…”[i] The English word, “contrite,” comes from the Latin, contrītus, which means “thoroughly crushed.” The energy around the word “contrite” is not a prayer that our heart be broken. It’s already happened. Contrition is a state you realize: “I’m just crushed.” If you’ve ever said that or felt that – “I’m just crushed.” – because of something sad or bad that has happened in your life, you will understand the essence of contrition. It’s just that contrition is feeling crushed from the inside out. You are not just the victim; you are also the culprit. Contrition is the dawning of regret or remorse about something you know to be wrong in your life.
Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
In the Gospel according to Luke, there is a scene where Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”[i] Here is my hunch. All who heard Jesus were amazed at his knowledge: a precocious, 12-year old boy from Nazareth (which was a Podunk) and being so smart. There is a somewhat similar reaction after Jesus begins his public ministry. By this time, Jesus is about 30 years old, a relatively old man in first-century Palestine. Once more, people are astounded with him. Luke reports that people asked themselves aloud, “Where did this man get all this?” What are they talking about? Not just Jesus’ knowledge. Luke reports Jesus had grown, and become strong, and was now filled with wisdom.[ii] The crowds were amazed and asked, “What is this wisdom that has been given to him?[iii] Evidence of Jesus’ wisdom is what we hear in this Gospel lesson appointed for today: “[Jesus] taught as one having authority.”[iv]
In the scriptures, wisdom is the gift extolled above all others for how to make meaning and how to navigate life. Wisdom is a deep knowledge, much deeper than simply information. We have today an information glut. As you well know, it’s possible to browse through a virtually-infinite stream of data with simply a click: an endless array of “horizontal information.” It’s possible to browse life only at the surface, none of which automatically translates into wisdom. Information alone may make us competent, or make us look smart; information alone may breed arrogance; information alone may overwhelm us; information alone may make us conversant in multiple platforms.[v] Information alone is not wisdom. Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist, said that, “Wisdom is knowledge and the knowledge of its own limits.”[vi]
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The prayer with which we opened our liturgy today includes a rather loaded word: “conscience.” We prayed, “purify our conscience, Almighty God…” I’d like to speak about your conscience… which may make some of you inwardly roll your eyes or duck for cover. “Yikes: my conscience!” Our conscience typically gets rather bad press. Our conscience is about everything we do wrong… and we know it. We may hope it all stays a secret, and yet we also know, “He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sakes…”[i] Is that about Santa Claus or about God? Hmmm. Well it’s certainly about conscience, which comes from the Latin conscientia, which is a knowledge within oneself, an inner sense of what is right.”[ii] With our actions and our thoughts, there’s an inner knowing about our outer doing or saying, a kind of simultaneous overlay of direction and correction. That’s our conscience. In a few moments, we will be invited to make a confession of sin about things we know better about: where it is – don’t we know? – that things should have been different in what we’ve said or left unsaid, things we’ve done or left undone. And we know it. That awareness comes out of our “bad” conscience, i.e., our conscious awareness of being in the wrong.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:46-55; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
If you have been worshipping with us with any regularity this Advent you will notice a slight variation this morning in our liturgical colors. The traditional Sarum blue is normally flanked by earthy green and highlights of crimson, all colors that represent the mystery of the Incarnation; that is, God becoming flesh and blood, putting on our human vesture in the womb of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Just as future parents prepare themselves for the birth of a child, so this season of Advent is a time for prayer, recollection, and getting our lives in order in preparation for the birth of Jesus at Christmas. But today, the Sarum blue is complimented by swatches of velvety rose to signify the third Sunday of Advent which is known as ‘Gaudete’ Sunday. Gaudete, the Latin word for “Rejoice,” is the first word we hear in both the Introit[i] to today’s Mass from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice,” as well as the Epistle from his letter to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” Gaudete Sunday is a day of rejoicing!
At first glance, these words of Jesus seem contradictory. ‘Do not fear human beings who can only kill the body,’ he says, ‘but fear God whose power extends through and beyond death.’ But having warned us to fear God, Jesus then reassures us of God’s lovingkindness towards us. “Do not be afraid,” he says, “you are of more value (to God) than many sparrows.” So which is it? Are we to fear God, or not?
The Greek word that is translated “fear” in this passage is phobeó (fob-éh-o), which can mean “to fear” or “to dread,” but can also mean “to reverence” or “to hold in awe.” It is this latter sense of reverencing or holding in awe that is the psalmist’s meaning when he says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). It a state of being in which dread, veneration and wonder are mingled. To “fear God” is to have a profound and humble reverence for God, who is sacred and mysterious, and who is far beyond our human understanding.
Jane was a member of my congregation when I was a parish priest in England. She was a remarkable woman with great faith, but who had suffered so much over the past years as her husband struggled with cancer. She was brave, courageous, resilient, but it was clear the light had gone out of her life. But I remember, on one New Year’s Day, she came up to me in church and said, “Geoffrey, I’ve made a New Year’s Resolution – or rather a new year’s prayer.” I remember thinking, O good – maybe she’s going to travel or get a new job. “No, she said, not that. I’m going to ask God for JOY again in my life. I want the gift of JOY.”
I’d never heard anyone say that to me before – but I can honestly say that God did answer her prayer, and as the year went on, I saw her come alive again. God gave her the gift of joy. It was beautiful to see.