Do you remember what it feels like to be at the threshold of something new in your life?
Imagine you are a student preparing to go off to college. It’s new and exciting and full of possibilities – (what courses shall I take? will I meet someone and fall in love? will I make lifelong friends? how will these years shape my future?) You’re excited, but it’s also a bit daunting because you can’t fully imagine the challenges ahead (will I get along with my roommate? will I experience heartbreak or disappointments? will I fail?)
Or imagine a young couple awaiting the birth of their first child. They’re thrilled, of course, but they’re also wondering, “What will it be like to be responsible for this tiny human being? Will we be good parents?” They anticipate the joys and possibilities of parenthood, but they also know it won’t be easy, and there is at least a possibility that it won’t as go well as they hope it will.
This morning Jesus speaks to us of a heavenly wisdom, personified in a group of (rather human sounding) women before a (rather human sounding) wedding. I admit I am always a little startled when Jesus uses wedding imagery to illustrate the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. Yet he does so with notable frequency. For his contemporaries, as for us, there is a familiarity here.
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’”
1 Samuel 17:31-50
In the story of David versus the Philistine giant, Goliath, we’re made sure to understand that David did not defeat his enemy with the normal implements of war. We’re told, for example, that David tried on Saul’s armor and sword, but it just wasn’t working for him. As Goliath approaches, David announces that the Lord does not save by sword and spear, and at the end of the battle we’re reminded again that there was no sword in David’s hand. No, unlike Goliath, armed to the teeth with sword, spear, and javelin, David had picked up five stones from a nearby stream to use with his humble sling.
Besides David’s notable lack of appropriate weaponry, what also caught my attention was the number of stones. It seems oddly specific to say David chose five stones. With a little research I found, as you could imagine, all sorts of theories on what the five stones represent. One of my favorites is that the number five symbolizes the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and in a more general sense the entire set of teachings and law considered the foundation of Jewish identity and culture.
This led me to consider the foundation Jesus gave us, his summation of Jewish law: love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as yourself. And, in light of today’s story about David and Goliath, we’ll add: love your enemy.
Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30
Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?’ [i]
There are some who listen and follow, who find her dwelling and hold her fast. But there are many in the broad places of the world who ignore her. The marketplace is for many things, but not for wisdom. They don’t bother to look up from their tiny screens. Nimble fingers text and tweet faster than hearts can pause and feel.
‘We played the flute for them, but they didn’t dance. We mourned, but they didn’t wail.’ [ii]
With each comment thread, the bitter bickering shrinks the circle. Wisdom has not played by the rules.
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.[iii]
Jerusalem, Jerusalem! he cries, ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under wings, and you were not willing.’ [iv]
When the words of Wisdom finally find their target, the reaction is visceral. As one body united for the first time and the last, they cry: ‘CRUCIFY HIM! CRUCIFY HIM!’[v]
Yet – Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.[vi]
Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. Or, in Luke’s version, Wisdom is vindicated by her children.[vii] In books such as Proverbs and Job, Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon, we encounter God’s Wisdom personified as a Woman of great gentleness and strength, offering food and drink, shelter and instruction, scorned by the masses but taking her stand nonetheless. In the book Sirach, the wise elder instructs a disciple: “Listen, my child, and take my advice, do not reject my counsel: put your feet into [Wisdom’s] fetters, and your neck into her collar; offer your shoulder to her burden, do not be impatient of her bonds… For in the end you will find rest in her and she will take the form of joy for you.”[viii] In the gospels of Matthew and John, we bear witness to a Spirit-led conversation between this multifaceted tradition of personified Wisdom and the early Christian experience of Jesus Christ. For us as for them, Wisdom is Jesus, the embodiment of all good things in Wisdom’s treasury and the incarnation of God, the source and ground of Wisdom. This Jesus is without doubt a Savior to be worshipped and an exemplar of how we are to act in the world. But he is also a Teacher of the heart, what today we are calling “inner work.”
1 Thessalonians 4:1-12
This reading is from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, an ancient city in northern Greece. The letter was written in the early 50s, less than 20 years following Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is probably Saint Paul’s earliest preserved letter, making it the oldest writing in the entire New Testament. There is not yet a Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. There is not yet the record of the Acts of the Apostles. There are no Creeds. There is no ordination process agreed upon. So there is some confusion how to practice the Christian faith, with rivalry among those who purported themselves to be leaders.[i] Lots of conflict, resentment, and inexperience.
In this letter to the Thessalonian Christians, Saint Paul is rather tough. He tells them “to stop complaining.” He reminds them “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands… so that you may behave properly toward outsiders.” If we were to take Saint Paul’s words – from 2,000 years ago – and overlay them on our own Coronavirus circumstances, we find some good counsel for life together during our own conflicted time. Saint Paul’s words are not a perfect fit for today, but we can glean some help:
There is a scene in the Gospels where 12-year old Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and asking them questions.[i]And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” Here is my hunch. All who heard Jesus were amazed at his knowledge: a precocious boy from Nazareth (which was a long ways from nowhere), and Jesus’ being sosmart. He dazzled them with his knowledge.
Something happens in the ensuing nearly 20 years, the “hidden years,” before Jesus begins his public ministry. When he emerges from his seclusion, he does great deeds of power, healing, and provision; however something else “astounds” the people. Astounds. They ask themselves, “Where did this man get all this?” And what are they talking about? It’s not just about Jesus’ powerful ministry; it’s not just about his knowledge. Jesus is now filled with wisdom. So we hear in today’s Gospel lesson: the crowds were amazed and asked, “What is this wisdom that has been given to him?”
In the New Testament epistles, Jesus is named “the wisdom of God.”[ii] Jesus is the one “in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden.”[iii] “Wisdom and knowledge,” which are cousins. Wisdom and knowledge are related, but they not one-in-the-same. Jesus was not born wise.
Wisdom 8:1, 9:4, 9-10;
Psalm 78:1-6; 1
I presume there are a few of you in the congregation who like me had the experience of growing up an only child. I certainly can attest to the advantages of being an ‘only’ through my observances of family and friends who did not share my experience. For instance, unlike my cousin, I did not have a younger sister who liked to pull my hair or inform my parents of my every move. Unlike my best friend in elementary school, I did not have to wear the ‘hand-me-downs’ from an older sibling. And, contrary to the experience of a college friend, I did not have to live up to the standard set by more virtuous siblings who seemed to do no wrong. I definitely considered these advantages. Yet, even though I enjoyed being an ‘only,’ I did experience some jealousy of my friends with siblings. My mom liked to tell the story of the time when I was 7 or 8 years old when I came to my parents who were sharing a conversation in the kitchen and asked if I could have an older brother! My dad, probably a little amused but letting me down gently said, “I don’t think things work like that, son.” Being resourceful, I had a follow-up question prepared. “Could we adopt one?” Obviously, knowing now how things turned out, they did not work that way either. As I think back to that story from my youth, I wonder what was behind my desire for an older brother?
This evening’s reflection is the first in a three-part series entitled “Lord Jesus, Come Soon,” in which we explore the great ‘O Antiphons’ of the season of Advent. On the last seven days before Christmas, this group of antiphons book-end the Magnificat (The Song of Mary) which is sung every evening at Evensong. Each of them refer to Jesus using an attribute associated with this long awaited Messiah: Emmanuel, Rex gentium, Oriens, Clavis David, Radix Jesse, Adonai, and Sapentia; translated: Emmanuel (meaning “God with us”), King of the Nations, Morning Star, Key of David, Root of Jesse, Lord, and Wisdom. When arranged in a particular order they form a Latin acrostic: Ero cras, which translated means, “Tomorrow, I will come.” This evening we will explore Jesus as ‘Wisdom.’ The text of the antiphon is:
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.
Wisdom 7:7-14 & John 8:25-32
“All good things came to me along with her,
And in her hands uncounted wealth.
I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them;
But I did not know that she was their mother.”
We all have an intuitive relationship with goodness, beauty, and truth. We come across things in the world that seem to reach out and grab us by the heart – perhaps a piece of art or music, a holy place, a human relationship, a piece of philosophy or Scripture that brings joy and light into our life. These things are good because they are from God, and we rejoice in them even before we know that God is their mother. We rejoice in them because they are like signposts, pointing the way back to Wisdom and helping us to desire and understand her.
But the things that lead us to God are not, themselves, God. All the truth and beauty we know in this life will inevitably disappoint us from time to time. We find that something beautiful no longer moves us, or that something true no longer convinces or reassures us, and we are left in the dark without any signposts to remind us that eternal Wisdom is out there.