Trinity Sunday – 6-16–2019 – St. Paul’s
Over 40 years of pastoral ministry, I’ve met broadly two kinds of Christians. One kind know God, no question about it, and tend to be rather wary that other people might complicate, misunderstand, or deny the God they confidently know. Their God is close, real, direct and intimate. The other kind want to know God. They look rather wistfully and occasionally mistrustfully on those who seem to have straightforward knowledge. For them God seems far away, swathed in mystery, perhaps not even there at all. Such an understanding gives them not so much confidence as longing, not so much faith as hope, not so much answers as questions.
If you recognize yourself in one of these portraits, you’ll know their respective pitfalls. The danger of the first, intimate, kind of belief is that it can make God too much like ourselves, too much a creature of our own desires, needs, and prejudices. The danger of the second, distant, kind of belief is that it can be so ethereal it makes no practical difference and never touches the ground.
I want today to trace through the eighth chapter of the book of Proverbs to see how the Christian faith emerged from the wisdom of the sages of ancient Israel. The people of God in the Old Testament had the same kind of polarity in belief that I’ve just described. Several places in the Old Testament assume a tribal God. Such a God loves Israel as a parent loves a child; but there’s an assumption that other peoples have their own gods, and that Yahweh’s only concerned with Israel. That makes it easy to account for what’s wrong with the world – you just put it down to the malign influence of other gods. But as things start to go wrong for Israel, believers had to make a choice: either they asked for their money back from their tribal God since things hadn’t worked out as planned; or it began to dawn on them that God had bigger plans than just their flourishing. This was a transformed perspective, but it did make God seem more distant and aloof.
It’s into this context that Proverbs chapter 8 is written. Proverbs 8 recognizes that both views of God – as intimate and tribal or as distant and universal – are inadequate on their own. And it inserts between them a female character, known as wisdom. Wisdom is the inner logic of things, both cosmic and earthly, both noble and practical. Proverbs 8 comes in four sections. The first is an invitation to the heart of all things – insight that’s more valuable than wealth or possessions, truth that’s the essence of life. The second is a confident statement that wisdom orders the world, and that if you’re in right relation to wisdom, you’ll be rewarded with justice, good government, riches, honor, wealth and prosperity.
The best-known section is the third part, which sees wisdom as the mediating principle in creation – as that which brings the ethereal, distant God into tangible relationship with the world. Wisdom brings understanding, skill and delight, turning the technical work of creation into an act of rejoicing. Finally in the fourth part, it becomes clear that wisdom, in addition to being valuable, well-ordered, and the logic of creation, is also the secret of happiness.
If all of this seems like the obscure poetry of a bygone era, pause and think about walking into a major bookshop today. You’ll see a tiny tucked-away religion section, and nearby you’ll see a rather larger section called spirituality or self-help or popular psychology. This section is full of books that are along the lines of Proverbs 8: that’s to say they talk about learning the secrets of life and finding your place in the world of nature and human relationships, and what they offer is prosperity and happiness. Confucius liked to say, there are three routes to wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.
Bestsellers are a mixture of all three. You could say that the secret of the American megachurch is to combine the religion and the self-help sections of the bookshop, and so to deliver wisdom in digestible helpings, a wisdom that offers comfort for body and spirit, a harmony of personal and professional success, with the whiff of divine favor.
The beginning of the third section of Proverbs 8 was the most controversial verse in the Bible in the fourth century. Because Proverbs sees wisdom as a mediating principle, and because Christianity sees Jesus in that role, many early Christians saw wisdom as referring to Jesus. But Proverbs 8 says The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. The great argument of the fourth century was whether Jesus was the first of God’s creatures to be created, or was part of God even before creation. The idea that Jesus was created became the heresy known as Arianism, after a writer called Arius, who said of Jesus, There was, when he was not. And so Christians have always read Proverbs 8 with caution, because it talks of a mediating principle but that principle clearly isn’t identical with Jesus.
But the differences between Proverbial wisdom and what we call Jesus don’t end there. And this brings us to the crucial part. It’s fine to seek the order that lies at the heart of all things. It’s not wrong to aspire to order, prosperity, and happiness. It’s a worthy aspiration to align yourself with the true dynamics of creation. None of these are contrary to being a child of God. But they’re not the same as being a Christian.
If you look at the New Testament the word wisdom appears again. But its central expression is in Philippians 2, where we’re told that the wisdom of God in Christ involves being poured out, setting aside privileges and advantages, and becoming obedient to the point of death on a cross. See how this changes our whole notion of wisdom. No longer is wisdom a detached perception of what rhymes with creation, makes for human flourishing, and leads to wealth and happiness. Now wisdom is a fully-engaged, utterly selfless willingness to make one’s life a blessing to others. See how many layers of difference there is between these two notions of wisdom.
The Proverbial approach appreciates that life is breathtaking and beautiful; but the Philippian perspective sees something more – that all is not as it should be, and wisdom is in some way about aligning oneself with God’s way of putting that right. The Proverbial approach recognises that God wants all to flourish; but the Philippian perspective suggests that we flourish most fully when we’re looking out for the well-being of one another. The Proverbial approach sees us having some kind of a connection with the inner workings of the world; but the Philippian perspective assumes that such a relationship requires us to vulnerable, to make ourselves subject to forces and outcomes and potential to be hurt and let down in ways beyond our control. The Proverbial approach sees creation as the principal window onto the purposes of God; the Philippian perspective sees two things even more fundamental than creation, and those things are Christ’s incarnation as one among us and his resurrection that prefigures the renewal of all things.
Only when you’ve appreciated these differences can you look again at that controversial verse that says wisdom was the first thing to be created. For now we can see that Proverbial wisdom and the Philippian Jesus are both ways of articulating how God relates to us, but they’re saying significantly different things. For Proverbial wisdom, relating to us is an afterthought for God. Creation is essential; relationship is secondary. By contrast from the Philippian perspective, relating is the essence of God; God is relationship; creation only happens because of a prior decision to relate to it as a way of deepening the relationship within God.
The best example of the Proverbial approach I’ve come across wasn’t a Jew or a Christian but a Muslim. Imam W. Deen Mohammed, leader of the Black Muslims in America. Shortly before his death in 2008, he participated in an evening of debate, disagreement, discussion and dialogue, he put his hands together and said, Everything is given by God for two things: knowledge and mercy. I’ve never heard someone sum up his life’s purpose so compellingly. It’s a beautiful interpretation of Proverbs 8.
But yet it isn’t quite Christianity. Because today on Trinity Sunday we realize that there’s something deeper than wisdom. Proverbial wisdom is the ability to read the ways of God and the world and one another and put them to good use. But Christianity goes beyond that. Christianity says we often find the world bewildering, but we do see the cross of Jesus, so we know God loves us to the very core. Christianity says we often find the world isolating and lonely, but we do see the incarnate Jesus, and so we know behind him is the Father, whose eternal purpose is to be in relationship with us, at any price. Christianity says we often feel weak and conscious of our mortal limitations, but we do see Jesus, and so we know that behind him is the Holy Spirit, empowering us for the work we’re called to do and making us holy to be with God forever.
The Trinity isn’t the best estimate of Proverbial wisdom; it’s the revelation of the God who, in Christ, turns upside down our quest for knowledge, comfort, and security, and instead calls us to pour out our lives in gratitude, grace, and imitation. The God that Christians worship looks less like the pithy epigrams of Proverbial wisdom, and more like the passionate dialogue and deep companionship out of which such wisdom arises. God isn’t an answer: God is a conversation. Believing isn’t having access to a solution – it’s being drawn into a conversation that you want never to an end. Jesus is the language in which God speaks to us, and we speak to God.
So if you’re the kind of person for whom God is close and intimate, then you must be pretty resilient, because in entering the conversation of God you’re constantly being told things at odds with the world’s wisdom, things you may find it uncomfortable to hear. And if you’re the sort of person for whom God is elusive and distant, watch out: because you may be ignoring the possibility that the conversation you’re already having – the one that’s absorbing and infuriating and demanding and revealing – is actually a conversation with God.
I close with a story of Wisdom written by Jeff Paschal:
I was out shopping yesterday, and whom did I run into? Wisdom. Yeah, there she was. She called me over and we began talking. Wisdom and I. Then, I went down to the courthouse, and there she was again, make a plea for justice in some dingy courtroom where somebody had been unjustly accused. After that, I dropped by the school, and she had gotten there ahead of me, calling for students and teachers alike to seek truth. Then I went for a walk in the words, moving along the trail in quiet meditation. Wisdom snuck up on me and said, “Now that we are alone, I have something I want to share with you, a present I you to enjoy. You know, I have been around a long time, really before the beginning of time. I have been whirling and dancing with God all along. I am God’s delight, laughing and playing. I want you to know the lightness of spirit and gladness that come when you welcome me. Will you set aside those thoughts, words, deeds that make life heavy and sad for you and others? Will you come and laugh and play with me? Will you come and dance with me? Will you?
To you, O people, Wisdom calls.
She calls out to each of us, beckoning us:
to experience peace in Christ,
to discover the truth of life,
to know true love as it is poured into our hearts.
As we gather this day,
let us answer her call
as we celebrate faith
in the One who leads us into life.
CALL FOR THE OFFERING
Through holy wisdom,
the Lord has made the world as a rich dwelling place,
giving us dominion over the created order.
As God is mindful of us and of our needs,
let us now be mindful
of our obligation to be good stewards,
through our generosity and responsibility for God’s gifts.
God, who created you in the divine image,
Calls us to
to reflect the presence of our Creator
to everyone we meet.
Jesus, who has redeemed us,
has established the reign of God in our midst:
And calls us
to bring healing to the broken of the world.
The Holy Spirit, who calls you to be God’s people,
goes with you to many places:
And calls us
to tear down the walls that divide us,
and to build lives of hope for all of God’s children.
And now, may the peace of the rolling waves,
the peace of the silent mountains,
the peace of the singing stars,
and the deep, deep peace of the Prince of Peace,
be with us through the Blessing of God Almighty…..