Sermon for May 26th, 2013
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
1Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
2 On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
3 beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
4 ‘To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.
22 The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
23 Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
26 when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
27 When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30 then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.
The Call of Wisdom
Today is Trinity Sunday, so I'd like to start with two stories about the Trinity...and then we'll all move on to something we can actually understand. The first story is from the NIV translation of the Bible. You may remember that when I say NIV translation, that has nothing to do with the New International Version. No, the NIV stands for "Neal's Improvised Version." And today it goes something like this:
Jesus had gathered his disciples to himself, and he asked them, Whom do men say that I am? His disciples answered and said, Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elijah, or another of the old prophets. Jesus answered and said, But whom do you say that I am? Peter the fisherman stood up, and with great confidence, he said: "Thou art the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple." And Jesus answering Peter, said, "What?"
The second story is about the early church father, Saint Augustin. Agustin was a great philosopher and theologian who wanted so much to understand the doctrine of the Trinity and to be able to explain it logically. One day as he was walking along the sea shore and reflecting on this, he saw a little child all alone on the beach. The child made a hole in the sand, ran to the sea with a little cup, filled her cup, came and poured it into the hole she had made in the sand. Back and forth she went to the sea, filled her cup and came and poured it into the hole. Augustin went up to her and said, "Little child, what are doing?" and she replied, "I am trying to empty the sea into this hole." "How do you think," Augustine asked her, "that you can empty this vast, immense sea into this tiny hole and with this tiny cup?" To which she replied, "And you, how do you suppose that with this your small head you can comprehend the vast immensity of God?" With that the child disappeared.
Today is Trinity Sunday, but thankfully, today's sermon is not about the Trinity. Today's scripture passage has been used by ancient and modern theologians as a justification of the Trinity, and perhaps it is, but I prefer to take it for what it is at face value: It is a poem on Wisdom, in the Book of Proverbs, which (along with the books of Job and Ecclesiastes) is one of the three great Wisdom texts in the Bible.
Wisdom. What is wisdom? When I was a teenager, I remember my father giving me the classic definition: Wisdom is knowledge rightly applied. I remember asking him, "So how do you learn to apply knowledge rightly? How do you learn wisdom?" To which my Dad replied, "Trial and error. You make a lot of mistakes, but never the same one twice." I think my father's understanding of wisdom, and how you get wisdom, is a pretty common one. According to his understanding, those who have lived the longest have had the opportunity to make the most mistakes, have had the most experience, and therefore are the wisest among us. In our culture, we often associate wisdom with gray hair and wrinkles. And there is certainly some truth to this. Most of the wisest people I know are among the oldest people I know.
But I think the wisdom we see reflected in the Bible sometimes (not always) cuts against this popular understanding. King Solomon prayed for, and received the gift of Wisdom as a young man, at the beginning of his reign. Joseph, the second youngest son of Jacob, while still a young man was declared by Pharaoh to be the wisest man in all Egypt. And Jesus, when surrounded by Pharisees with years of age and experience on their side, told them they must "become like little children" in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In today's scripture passage, Proverbs 8, we find a wisdom that is ancient...and yet also child-like, and that (rather than the Trinity) is the mystery, the paradox that I'd like to explore this morning.
Earlier, I asked the question "What is Wisdom?" But for Proverbs 8, the question is more appropriately, "Who is Wisdom?" Right from the beginning of the chapter, Wisdom is personified as a female voice: "Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out."
So Wisdom is a woman. Several commentaries refer to her as "Lady Wisdom." But I'm going to suggest that she's not just any kind of lady--she is actually "Young" Lady Wisdom, perhaps even "Young Girl" Wisdom. And the reason I believe this is because Proverbs was written as a collection of wisdom addressed to...a young man. A boy. In the NRSV translation, many of the chapters of Proverbs begin with the phrase, "my child." But this is a translation of the Hebrew word בְּ֭נִי (bn'i) which literally means Son of me, or my son. A lot of times, translating a word like that to be more inclusive is a good move, and I do think Proverbs has much to offer to people of all ages and genders. But the authors of the Old Testament scriptures were very careful in other places to include both בְּ֭נִי (bn'i) and בִּתִּ֗י (bt'i) when they want make sure both genders are covered.
So Proverbs is advice to a young boy, a young man (I think maybe a teenager) on how to stay out of trouble, and how to be wise. Have any of you ever tried to give advice to a teenage boy? For most of the past decade, as both a high school teacher and a youth pastor, that was a big part of my job. Give advice to young boys, keep them out of trouble and help them learn how to be wise. What I learned, is sometimes it's hard to get through. And once you get through, it's hard to keep their attention. There are a very small number of things that will get and hold their attention, however. One is food. The other is girls. The book of Proverbs, in case you were wondering, is not very edible. But I think the author of Proverbs does use the second strategy--he talks to his young student about girls. You've already met one, "Young Lady Wisdom," but there's another one, too, in the chapter right before this one. Let me introduce you to "Young Lady Folly." In Proverbs 7, we read:
"For at the window of my house I looked out through my lattice, and I saw among the simple ones...a young man without sense, passing along the street near her corner, taking the road to her house in the twilight, in the evening, at the time of night and darkness. Then a woman comes towards him, decked out like a prostitute, wily of heart. She is loud and wayward; her feet do not stay at home; now in the street, now in the squares, and at every corner she lies in wait. She seizes him and kisses him, and with impudent face she says to him...let us delight ourselves with love. For my husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey. He took a bag of money with him; he will not come home until full moon.’ With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him. Right away he follows her, and goes like an ox to the slaughter."
Did that get your attention? I suspect that Young Lady Folly is not an actual prostitute, or even an actual Lady, any more than Lady Wisdom is. Lady Folly is the opposite of wisdom--she is the personification of acting foolishly, without thought or regard for consequences. But I guarantee you that in this description, our reader, our young man, is now listening very attentively. And so here is where Young Lady Wisdom makes her entrance.
Lady Folly lived in the shadows, in the dark and private places, but Lady Wisdom stands on the heights, beside the gates at the front of the town--in other words, proudly, for all the world to see.
Lady Folly welcomed both her lover and her husband into her house. But Lady Wisdom stands at the crossroads--in other words, she is telling our young man, "you have to make a choice. You have to choose your path. You can't have us both."
But the next contrast is the really important one--and the one where we need to remember that we're not just contrasting a good girl with a bad girl, but rather we are contrasting Wisdom and Foolishness. The next question raised is this: Where doe each of these Lady's come from? For Lady Folly, I'm really not sure. She's just kind of...everywhere: "now in the street, now in the squares, and at every corner she lies in wait." She comes from everywhere and nowhere at once. No one claims her.
But Lady Wisdom has a father: She tells us that "The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago." She goes on to describe the amazing wonders of creation, of which she was first. Look at verse 30, because there's a translation issue there. The NRSV reads "then I was beside him, like a master worker." But if you look at the little letter next to "master worker" and follow it down to the footnote, it will give you another possible translation, what I think is a better one: "then I was beside him, like a little child (or even as "one brought up by him"), and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race." The word used twice for rejoice is שָׂחַק (sachaq), which also means to laugh, to dance, to play. Wisdom is not solemn and serious. Wisdom is playful.
Five years ago, I could not have possibly understood this image of Wisdom, dancing and playing in the presence of God, but now...I have a five year old daughter. I take her to preschool in the morning, and after listening to her favorite song on the drive to church (Neil Diamond's forever in Blue Jeans), when we arrive here she literally bursts out of the car and into my office, throwing open my shutters to let the sunlight in. Then she runs around the corner to find Patty and tell her all about what she's wearing today, how her mother fixed her hair, or whether she's the snack leader for her class. She takes my hand and we walk down the hall, only she's skipping down the hall, and I find it really hard to resist the temptation to skip, too. All the while, she's singing "Forever in Blue Jeans." When we get to her classroom she runs in to greet Miss Bettina and all of her friends, and right when I think she's about to forget me she comes flying into my arms for a goodbye hug and kiss, and I can tell you right now, there is NO better way to start the day, than what I've just described.
It is simple and profound the joy that a little girl can bring into the world, into God's creation. And there, by the way, I think we can find most of our answers about Wisdom--although they are still no less mysterious and paradoxical. What is Wisdom? It is not somber and serious, prim and proper. Wisdom is a joyful, childlike delight in God that follows where he leads and calls out to us to do the same. Where does Wisdom come from? Not from accumulated mistakes or even a lifetime of experiences. Wisdom comes from God. It is a lifelong closeness with God that keeps folly and despair at bay. Wisdom is for the young and old, for men and women, boys and girls, everyone: "To you, O People I call, and my cry is to all that live." How do we get Wisdom? The answer is as profound and simple as the joy of a child: To get Wisdom, we must answer when she calls. "Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?"
Wisdom is calling you. God is calling you. Will you answer God's call today?