A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

1 Kings 10:1-13

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

She arrived with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones; and she arrived with a mind full of questions. The Queen of Sheba had heard of the wisdom of this Israelite king, King Solomon, and she came to find out about that, to test him out.

As we ponder this reading from the thirteenth chapter of First Book of Kings, I thought we would think about Wisdom in the scriptures and we would wonder about the questions we might bring to this wisdom and I thought we would wonder a little too about what treasures we might bring.

Wisdom in the scriptures is portrayed as a woman, Sophia. We learn about this Wisdom in five books of the bible: Job, Psalms, Proverbs. Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, together with two books from the Apocrypha, the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach. In chapters 8 and 9 of the Book of Proverbs we hear Wisdom speak.

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:
‘To you, O people, I call,
   and my cry is to all that live.
O simple ones, learn prudence;
   acquire intelligence, you who lack it.
Hear, for I will speak noble things,
   and from my lips will come what is right;
for my mouth will utter truth;
   wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
All the words of my mouth are righteous;
   there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.
They are all straight to one who understands
   and right to those who find knowledge.
Take my instruction instead of silver,
   and knowledge rather than choice gold;
for wisdom is better than jewels,
   and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.
(Proverbs 8:1-11)

In Proverbs, Wisdom is a personification of an aspect of God, the first born of God’s creative work. Wisdom is God’s breath, image, power and spirit, a source of life; an instructor who comes to earth to give wisdom and understanding.[1] Wisdom in the Jewish tradition has three aspects, described by the scholar Richard Harries in this way: “First the divine law given to Moses, laying out the basic principles by which the community is to be guided. Second is the prophetic critique of the people for their failure to live by these rules … Third is the divine wisdom – the wisdom both rational and practical, that is reflected in the ordering of the world and from which we can learn by use of our minds and consciences.”[2]

Wisdom is found for humankind, in other words, in the law, the laws of ethics grounded in the Ten Commandments, in the urging of the prophets whose poetic voices urge us to abide by that law, and in the beautiful laws of science woven into the universe, human understanding of which is ever evolving. Notice from the passage I read from Proverbs 8 where Wisdom, Sophia, resides:

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

Wisdom lives on the heights, the place of pondering, the place where people go to sit with God, … beside the way, as we journey through life, … at the crossroads where decisions of deep significance are made, …beside the gates in front of the town , in the thick of things, the political world, the world of business, the bustle of things.

And so, as the Queen of Sheba did, we bring to Wisdom our questions. In the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, for example, we bring questions, questions of healing, management and meaning. The scientists work with the questions of healing for us. Devoting their lives to an engagement with the wisdom woven into the laws that govern the universe, scientists like Oxford scientist, Dame Sarah Gilbert who worked to discover the Astrazenica vaccine, ask questions that lead to vaccines and treatments. Our gratitude for this work done so speedily on our behalf is profound. Did you hear the story of Wimbledon’s Royal Box and an enthusiastic centre court crowd at the Wimbledon Championships giving Dame Sarah Gilbert a spontaneous standing ovation in a heartwarming start to the championship?

And, then, there are the questions of management. Standing beside the gate in front of the town Wisdom, Sophia, guides politicians, health professionals, police, media, as they seek to chart the safest way for communities to control the virus and yet still to live in some sort of freedom. Working with a virus which we are only beginning to understand, and which is evolving as we do so, the prophets, those who speak Sophia’s voice, might well urge us to look graciously on those who devote their lives to such a struggle. We have only to look at the worn faces of the politicians who speak to us day by day, to know that their struggle with Wisdom born on behalf of those they serve is torrid.

The toughest questions are questions of meaning. We read of a mother in Sydney just after she had given birth to her child, dying of Covid. I read to you on Easter Day the words of an ICU nurse in New York City overwhelmed by the grief of the parents of a patient in his twenties who lost his fight with Covid. We see images of long rows of graves in Brazil where Covid is out of control. We can barely articulate our questions in the face of such suffering. Sometimes our questions to Sophia, Wisdom, God, are more like images, images we have seen in the news, images etched on our minds …sometimes our questions seem only to find their home in silence. Silence as we sit and wonder.

In the New Testament, Jesus is portrayed as Wisdom. The prologue to John’s gospel calls Jesus the Word of God. We might also say the Wisdom of God.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5) Words about Jesus the Word and Wisdom of God.

And when we wonder about the questions we bring in times of awful suffering, it may be that it is to Jesus and his struggle we turn. For there are times when questions do not have answers. There are times I think when questions are to be sat with. Perhaps the most poignant question ever uttered is that of Jesus on his cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Reflecting Jesus dying on the cross, former Dean of Westminster Abbey, Michael Mayne, wrote, “What Good Friday does is invite us once again to open ourselves to the God who doesn’t answer our Job-like questions about the “Why?” of evil and pain and suffering: instead he enters into the heart of the questions himself. The crucified Jesus is the only accurate picture of God the world has ever seen.”[3] Jesus, Wisdom, strangely enters into the heart of the questions. Sometimes, yes, we can only sit with questions, knowing that Wisdom is our companion.

The writer of the Book of Proverbs wrote in the verses I read a little while ago, Take my instruction instead of silver,
   and knowledge rather than choice gold;
for wisdom is better than jewels,
   and all that you may desire cannot compare with her

The Queen of Sheba must have sensed this. She sought King Solomon out with camels bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones. What shall we bring? As we come to God, Jesus, Wisdom, with our questions, whatever they might be this night. What shall we bring? It might be that we bring gifts of money, time, prayer. It might be that what God treasures most, sees most as precious, is our coming at all. Our trusting God with our questions. Our giving of ourselves to Wisdom’s presence. Our faith in the One who sometimes does not answer our questions at all, but helps us know that with the questions that in our time and place seem to have no answer, we are not alone.

[1] See Kate Bruce and Liz Shercliff Out of the Shadows: Preaching the Women of the Bible p4.

[2] Richard Harries Seeing God in Art p39.

[3] Michael Mayne Dust that Dreams of Glory p60.