Sunday, February 23, 2020

Wisdom's Call: Sermon on Proverbs 8-9

It was daybreak Daybreak not now, daybreak not last year, but daybreak one morning in the ninth century. In the populous, bustling city of Thessaloniki, a Byzantine melting pot, a loving couple was up to set the table for breakfast before Leo, the husband, had to go oversee his troops. Neither he nor his wife Maria expected any of their seven children to be up yet. But the youngest one surprised them. Little Constantine, age seven, came running through the house, calling out, “Mom! Dad! Mom! Dad!” Leo and Maria had known he was special – so special, they'd decided not to have any more children after him, not to risk it. But now what did he want?

“Mom, Dad, you'll never guess the dream I had last night!” And so Leo and Maria listened to little Constantine tell them about his dream. In his dream, Leo's boss – the military governor of the province – had given an order for all the girls in the entire city to gather together in the town square. And then the governor had knelt down next to Constantine and whispered, “It's time for you to choose who your wife will be. You can pick any of these girls, and she'll be your helper your entire life long. The choice is yours now, but you have to choose from the girls you see here.” Seven-year-old Constantine had hardly given a great deal of thought to marriage! But in his dream, he looked out over this dense crowd of girls, all the girls of Thessaloniki; he walked among them, looking for anyone who stood out. And suddenly, there she was. A girl he'd never seen before. And she was just so pretty and just so fancy – she looked like a little empress, with fine clothes and gold necklaces and pearls and a shining face. And even at seven years old, the dreaming Constantine felt butterflies in his tummy to look at her. He'd pointed her out to the governor, and asked for her name. And the great general knelt down and said to Constantine, “Her name, my boy, is Wisdom.” Constantine looked at her again, compared her to all the other girls, and said, without a shadow of a doubt, “I choose her! I choose Wisdom!” And then the dream began to dissipate into the night, as wedding bells chimed in the back of the boy's mind.

Maria embraced her son, and she exchanged an astonished glance with her husband Leo. They were Christians – and faithful ones, more than some of their neighbors. So they knew the scriptures, knew the tales of dreamers like Jacob, Joseph, Solomon. What could their little boy's dream mean, but a calling upon his life? So Leo sat Constantine down and reminded him of what the Book of Proverbs said. “My son, keep your father's commandment, and forsake not your mother's teaching” (Proverbs 6:20). Just as Leo and Maria had submitted to God's wisdom, so they would pass on their training in godliness to Constantine as long as they lived. “For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are a way of life” (Proverbs 6:23), a gift to guard against the bewitching lasses. “Say to Wisdom, 'You are my sister,' and call Insight your intimate friend” (Proverbs 7:4). For Wisdom, Leo explained, is a lady who outshines the sun, and if Constantine really would pursue her – if that was God's call upon his life, to be fully wedded to Wisdom, to be so closely joined to Wisdom that all she has becomes his – then he'd be saved a lot of trouble. A good life.

Well, Constantine started school not long after that, and proved to be the brightest in the class – a real prodigy. During the course of his life – which ended due to a sickness in his forties, after he'd changed his name from Constantine to Cyril – he became many things. A priest. A monk. A librarian. A teacher. A Bible translator. An imperial ambassador. A missionary and evangelist. But those who loved him most dearly, who hung on his every word, called him 'the Philosopher.' The lover of Wisdom. And Constantine – St. Cyril – had a dazzling and remarkable career, as did his older brother Michael who became St. Methodius. All because the lady Cyril loved, the woman he wedded, was Wisdom herself.

As a boy, he was invited in a dream. But the same invitation is held out to all of us in the Book of Proverbs. In the past few weeks, we've explored a few different dimensions to wisdom. But until now, we haven't had much inkling that wisdom was anything more than a character trait or an abstract ideas. Yet now Wisdom steps forward as a person, Lady Wisdom, who presents us with her autobiography. She steps forward to tell her story. “Yahweh begot me at the beginning of his way, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was established, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths, I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth, before he had made the earth with its fields or the first of the dust of the world” (Proverbs 8:22-26).

In Isaiah, God declares that he was alone when he created the universe: “I am Yahweh who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself, who frustrates the signs of liars and makes fools of diviners, who turns 'wise' men back and makes their knowledge foolish” (Isaiah 44:24-25). But Proverbs introduces us to someone who keeps God company when God is all alone, someone who has a hand in everything God does when God goes it alone. This someone is Wisdom, and she is on the inside of all God's alone time. Wisdom belongs eternally with God from the inside-out. She relates to him like a child to a father, because he begot her – not in time, but eternally, timelessly. In the far reaches of eternity before the world was ever made, Wisdom was there with her Father, was his constant companion, God's other self. No earth. No deeps. No hills or mountains or springs or fields. Not even the dust, nor even the stardust. Not a single solitary atom. No time. No space. No matter or energy. Only eternity. Only God. And when there was nothing but God alone... Wisdom was there, in God's mind, being timelessly born out of the “womb of [God's] heart.” And so when God commenced the sequence of time and stretched out the distances of space, Wisdom was there. When God separated the day from the night, Wisdom took note. And when God brought dry land out of the deeps and gave shape to the hills and valleys, the springs and rivers and fields, Wisdom watched.

Not only that, but Wisdom had her hands in it up to the elbows! She explains further, “When he established the heavens – I was there! When he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, 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 – then I was beside him, like a master craftsman” (Proverbs 8:27-30a). Not just a passive observer. A master craftsman or workman. An architect, an artist, a builder, a designer. None of the Lord's work was done without Lady Wisdom's involvement: “Yahweh by Wisdom founded the earth” and “established the heavens” (Proverbs 3:19). “O Yahweh, how manifold are your works – in Wisdom you have made them all” (Psalm 104:24). Wisdom had her hand on everything, from within God's own mind and heart; and not for a moment did she waver from his side. Not for a moment did this Lady Wisdom take a leave of absence, take her eyes off the ball. No, she was there. She has stories to tell that are older than time. She has scenes to paint that make galaxies look small.

And then Wisdom tells us something else. She says, “And I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always” (Proverbs 8:30b). Wisdom delighted in her Father, and he delighted in her, like a proud papa watching his baby coo, like a laughing dad clapping as his little girl dances through the meadows, basking in the light of the sun. Such it was with God and his Wisdom. She danced for him every day, basking and celebrating in all he had made. And with every step Wisdom took through the fields and over the hills, across the waters and down to the fountains of the deeps, and as her dance raced across the skies fastened firmly overhead, her Father laughed and shouted, “Then I see it is good!”

And then came what Genesis calls that sixth day. Wisdom remembers. She remembers Adam and Eve and all they ever stood for. They were the playmates of her age-old youth. For as Wisdom tells us now in Proverbs, summing up her achievements of long ago, not only was she daily God's delight and rejoicing before him each day, but she was “rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man” (Proverbs 8:31). Like a little girl running around with her friends, Wisdom celebrated that the world wasn't made to be empty. This world of ours was made to be filled, filled with God's works, filled with God's creatures, and the crowning creatures, the finishing touches in this masterpiece, were us. And Wisdom delighted in us! Wisdom was happy every time she looked at us! All Wisdom ever wanted was to dance with us, and play the games of life with us, and run through everlasting fields with us! And although we left those garden fields behind, still Wisdom is determined to come find us, to seek and save her lost friends at last.

And by now, maybe you can guess what the early generations of Christians saw when they read this chapter. For they believed that, on the other side of Easter and Pentecost, a light shone backward that lit up the entire Old Testament, revealing in vivid color those things that had been murky before, and so now they could finally see in daylight what had been waiting there all along, the hidden meaning, the treasure buried in scripture's field – and when the light of the gospel hit this chapter, they saw who this Wisdom is. And a few of them, squinting, thought they recognized Wisdom as the Holy Spirit. But all the rest, with one voice, cried out, “Where Wisdom stood, there stands our Jesus!” For who else is begotten of the Father in the timeless halls of eternity? And who else stood by the Father and was the master craftsman of all creation? That's Jesus!

Which means that Jesus is eternal. Jesus is the divine craftsman. And Jesus, before ever he took flesh, was the daily delight in his Father's eyes, and the one who only ever wanted to dance with us through a world at peace. For Jesus is the Wisdom of God – “Christ, the Power of God and the Wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). He is the one whom the teacher in Proverbs see as Lady Wisdom. He is the One whose threads are woven so deep into creation's fabric. And even when we left those garden fields behind, still he was determined to come seek and save the lost friends he knew in a younger world. And when the Father declares that “Yahweh gives Wisdom” (Proverbs 2:6), we see that the Father gives Jesus; when we hear that “Wisdom will come into your heart” (Proverbs 2:10), we see that Jesus will enter our hearts. So “blessed is the one who finds [Jesus]” (Proverbs 3:13)! “[Jesus] is better than jewels: all you desire can't compare with [Jesus]” (Proverbs 8:11)!

The next chapter presents us with two women, vying for our attention, yearning to be our host. One is Wisdom. The other is Folly. “The woman Folly is loud – she's seductive and knows nothing. She sits at the door of her house, she takes a seat in the heights of the town, calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way, 'Whoever's simple, let him turn in here!' And to one who lacks sense, she says, 'Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant'” (Proverbs 9:13-17).

But then, on the other hand, there stands Wisdom. She said she'd come find us. And here she is. Wisdom has undertaken a long preparation for this. “Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars” (Proverbs 9:1). And her house sits at the pinnacle of the heights of the city – in other words, her house is where the temple goes. And her house is a magnificent mansion. What does she do there? “She has slaughtered her beasts, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her young women to call from the tops of the heights of the town” (Proverbs 9:2-3). The call she makes, whether by messengers or in person, is very public. We hear elsewhere, “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out, at the entrance of the city gate she speaks” (Proverbs 1:20-21). “Does not Wisdom call? Doesn't 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 aloud” (Proverbs 8:1-3). To hear from Wisdom isn't a private affair. She's out in public. She's going to find people where they already are. The street, the market, the crossroads, the gates where city life meets countryside.

And she'll take anybody, she wants to teach anybody. There are no prerequisites for her class. “To you, O men, I call, and my cry is to the children of man,” any offspring of Adam (Proverbs 8:4). She welcomes those who already have some experience: “Give to a wise man, and he'll be even wiser; teach a righteous man, and he'll increase in learning” (Proverbs 9:9). But she hasn't come for just the already righteous, the already wise. She isn't here to select out the 'gifted,' she isn't looking for geniuses or the elite only, not those who can somehow prove their worth. She wants the naive to come to her, wants the uneducated to gather around: “O simple ones, learn prudence!” (Proverbs 8:5a). “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?” (Proverbs 1:22a). She wants them to come to her and be changed, come to her and learn what they need. She even wants fools, mockers, and scoffers in her class. “O fools, learn sense!” (Proverbs 8:5b). “How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?” (Proverbs 1:22b). Scoffers and sinners can be transformed, if they'll “turn at [her] reproof” – because if they will, then she promises, “Behold, I will pour out my Spirit to you; I will make my words known to you!” (Proverbs 1:23). And that's an offer she makes to any humans, who come from any background, any education level, any sex or race or nation or age. It's an offer she makes to you.

Because you are who Wisdom has been looking for. You were on her mind when she sent out her messengers. Because she's extending an invite, just like that devilish rival Folly. Folly wants to seduce you into her flimsy den of flimflam, wants to feed you with stolen water and secret bread. But Wisdom has slaughtered the fatted calf for you and mixed spices and honey into her heady wine for you. Wisdom wants to offer you a much richer meal. And she says, “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here! … Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Proverbs 9:4-6). Wisdom has set a table for you; and, gathered 'round this table of banquet delights, she'll teach you what it means to really live. And she says to you, “Blessed is whoever listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from Yahweh; but whoever fails to find me injures himself – all who hate me love death” (Proverbs 8:34-36). Wisdom is serious – joyfully, joyfully serious. To find her is to find life and stand in God's smile. To run away from her, to throw her invitation in the trash, is to go home and cuddle up with the Grim Reaper. And Wisdom doesn't want that for any of us! Wisdom wants to show us delicacies beyond our palate, wants to nourish us in the light and make us new people. Wisdom is inviting me and inviting you. And as one third-century Christian said about it, “Wisdom's divine heavenly beauty invites the one who contemplates it to love.”

When early generations of Christians like that looked back on this chapter in Proverbs, they heard of Wisdom building a house and thought about the birth of Jesus – how his very own divine power knitted together a body of flesh and blood for himself in Mary's womb, a body he would later proclaim to be the temple, which would be torn down and raised in three days. And not only did he raise that body in three days, but he extended his body, including us in it. For now earth does have the Body of Christ, the Temple of God – and it's the Church. And just like Revelation uses seven local churches to represent the whole, so Proverbs uses seven pillars to hold up the temple, Wisdom's House. Blessed is whoever listens to Jesus, watching daily at his gates through the everyday spiritual disciplines and waiting beside his doors to enter this house of his. For whoever fails to find Jesus is hurting no one but him- or herself, and rejecting Jesus is choosing to love Death. But whoever finds Jesus, whoever learns from Jesus and receives his Spirit, has found life and stands in the favor of a smiling God and Father! For the meal Jesus offers, the table Wisdom spreads, is far more delightful than any quick pleasures Folly can muster. And even a scoffer and fool can come through this door to meet Jesus, the Wisdom of God.

Proverbs expresses these things under the image of two women, each inviting a man passing by to come into her house and have a meal. Of course, in Israelite culture, an invitation into a woman's house for a meal was often suggestive of intimacy. It hinted at courting, at seduction. Folly wants to seduce you. But Wisdom wants to be your lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold. Make Wisdom your most intimate friend! For Wisdom comes to us with a marriage proposal. She says that, if you'll marry her, marry Wisdom, she'll bless you with true life and true riches and true delights. And she's right. She wants to pick up where we all left off – dancing in the fields of all creation, singing in the heights of the heavens, feasting and playing and delighting and rejoicing in each other, intimately, for eternity ahead. That's Wisdom's wish. And this Wisdom is none other than Jesus, who laid down his life to spread a full table, and who rose again out of sheer joy for life.

Where Proverbs leaves us now is faced with two invitations: Folly's house or Wisdom's palace, the world's ways or Jesus' light, the stolen water of worldly pleasures or the sweet-and-spicy wine of Jesus' love. Whom do we want? Whom do we love? Will we fall for Jesus, gather 'round the table where he teaches, hang on his every word? Or will we pass right by, take another road from the crossroads, go about our business in the market, let the noise of the streets of the day-to-day drown out his call? If we want Wisdom, if we want Jesus, then the whole rest of Proverbs is filled with his touch and the echo of his voice. The beauty of a little boy's heaven-sent dream from long ago, the dream of Constantine who became St. Cyril, is a dream open to us as well. Wisdom stands before us, surrounded by the throng. Let us point to Wisdom and marvel at her majesty and shout out, “I choose her!” Let us see Jesus Christ on the cross, and marvel at his grace, and shout all the louder, “I choose him!” And may we hear him and love him and dance with him all the days eternity has to offer. Amen.

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