What does it mean to be wise?
We have a short interruption in our readings from Mark today as we consider Proverbs 8 and the prologue from John’s gospel, famously read at the Advent Carol Service – ‘In the beginning was the Word.’
It’s always instructive to consider the pairing of Lectionary readings.
What is being proclaimed for us by this particular pairing?
There are immediate parallels.
Both are about beginnings – creation – the Wisdom of God was at the beginning of all things as was the Logos, the eternal Son of God.
In John 1 we read ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’: in Proverbs 8 we read ‘The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.’ (v.22)
The personification (‘The Lord created ME…’) makes for a rather joyful, playful sound to Wisdom as she describes the delight with which she accompanied the LORD as he created the heavens and the earth.
She is a wise woman but she is also a child: ‘Then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always (…) and delighting in the human race’ (vv. 30-31.)
So who is this Lady Wisdom who had such a close relationship with the LORD of creation?
We need to keep in mind the picture language and the poetry before we get uptight about the possible theological implications of God having another part to him which is different from the Incarnate Son of God whom we worship in the person of Jesus.
We believe that all things were created through the agency of the Son, and this ancient, poetic image of Wisdom paves the way for the fuller Incarnation we see in John’s gospel.
The beginning of Proverbs 8 asks ‘Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?’
The call of wisdom is the voice of God just as the eternal Word is one and the same substance as God.
So what does it mean to be wise?
One of the things I like best about living in St Mary’s House is all the book shelves in the study.
They cover the walls from floor to ceiling on both sides of the doorway and when we moved we decided to operate a ‘His n Hers’ system…. so mine are on the left; Chris’s on the right!
By the time we got married we had both completed degrees in English Lit. and post graduate teaching qualifications so we had almost identical book collections.
Streamlining soon became an issue because of space; unfortunately we couldn’t really keep hold of two copies of everything.
This caused some soul searching! Who would give up their own annotated copy of a much loved text?
Well it was difficult to say the least…
Suffice it to say that now, a couple of decades later we're still married and the two collections look a bit different…Chris’s side has all the classics of English literature - Chaucer, Shakespeare, English poetry etc. along with a fair bit of History, Christianity and a lot of railway books.
Mine is mainly contemporary fiction (I was in a book club for many years); of course theology, and latterly a bit of dabbling in popular psychology and philosophy.
In this last connection I have discovered Alain de Boton - an interesting thinker who recently wrote ‘Religion for Atheists’ in which he argues that people of no religion can nevertheless plunder religion for all the good bits, without having to take on board the ‘God bits.’
De Boton has set up the ‘School of Life’ in London where every week 100s sign up to go to into a building not unlike a church to hear a ‘sermon’ on anything from how to stay calm to how to have good relationships at work.
His own sermon http://vimeo.com/channels/theschooloflife
begins to the dying strains of an organ and choir singing of the Lamb of God from the hymn ‘Jerusalem’.
However his opening line is ‘Of course God doesn’t exist, we all know that.’
He goes on to suggest that people still have 'other worldly' experiences when they engage with religious places, texts or artifacts, and they should be encouraged to enjoy these without having to sign up for any set of actual beliefs.
Is this wisdom?
It appears to be a good idea to get a whole lot of people together to think about important issues and to get away from the battleground that has characterized the Dawkins vs. Religion debate for too long.
But it is wisdom that begins and ends in human experience, nothing more.
It is not the wisdom of the inspired Scriptures, where we learn ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ (Proverbs 9:10)
This Lord is the Eternal Word with whom we can know an ongoing friendship by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit…. 'And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…’
In Giles Fraser’s words: ‘Borrowing the wardrobe of faith to dress up atheism as religion is all very flattering but few people are really going to buy it.’
Lady Wisdom still calls – she delights in the LORD and in all his works.
She looks on the beauty of creation and is full of wonder.
‘When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep…’ - haunting imagery of the wonder of God’s creation.
And we too have been marveling as we survey our snowy Oxfordshire landscapes and consider the untamable power of nature.
To reflect on God’s handiwork brings wisdom.
All the books and bookcases in the world will not bring us wisdom; it is primarily to be found in being involved in the loving action of God.
May the God of Wisdom give us fresh delight in all his works and inspire us to seek out Lady Wisdom as we walk the way of faith in this place and in this time.