The Wisdom of God, 19 August 2018

The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

1 Kings 2: 10 – 12; 3: 3 – 14

Psalm 111

Ephesians 5: 11 – 21

John 6: 51 – 58

King Solomon needed every bit of wisdom he could possibly get to consolidate his power and hold the disparate gathering of the tribes of Israel together. Solomon’s predecessor, King David, may be regarded as the greatest of all the kings in the Bible, and is described as being faithful, righteous and upright, but he left a bunch of half-brothers to squabble over who would succeed him. At least from a political perspective Solomon was a wise ruler and managed to hold the throne over his long reign. He forged all kinds of politically significant liaisons with neighbouring countries, chiefly by taking for himself wives and concubines. Solomon was the one to build the Temple in Jerusalem. It was the Temple that would eventually become the focal point of the worship of God; a place where the faithful gathered, especially for the festivals, to offer sacrifice, say their prayers and listen to the teaching of the scribes.

As we gather in this ‘broken’ and somewhat chaotic space of our Cathedral, it is worth reminding ourselves of the careful attention to detail, and the use of only the very best building materials in the service of God, that we read about in 1 Kings in later chapters. I have found myself deeply moved when talking to the master craftsmen – roofers, masons, carpenters, and now organ builders – who have been, and continue to be, on site this year. Their love of their craft, their sheer joy and pride in their work and the privilege they feel at being able to work here, is matched only by the pride and excitement you and I feel at calling St Peter’s Cathedral ‘home’, and seeing long held dreams come true.

Solomon prays then for wisdom – for an understanding mind to govern God’s people, and the ability to discern between good and evil. It is a remarkable prayer. It stands in stark contrast to so many of today’s leaders where there seems to be an arrogance and determination to win and then stay in power at all costs. How different parliamentary debates might be were Solomon’s prayer actually prayed –across the political spectrum. I am not thinking here specifically of any one person or indeed country, and recognize that there are, and always have been, outstanding leaders who genuinely put the good of the people they are called to govern ahead of their own interests. A prayer entitled “Good Government” found in A Prayer Book for Australia includes these words: ‘grant to our governments and all who serve in public life, wisdom and skill, imagination and energy; protect them from corruption and the temptation of self-serving …’ (APBA pg 202)

In a moment I want to look at the way the author of Ephesians understood how the genuinely Christian life affected society as a whole, beginning with the closest of liaisons, that between husband and wife. But first, a word or two about today’s psalm which ends ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and of good understanding are those who keep God’s commandments.’ (Psalm 111: 10) The psalm is written as an acrostic poem – the first letter of each line corresponds to the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. We lose this of course in the translation but it does account for the very well ordered universe and reliable picture of God that is portrayed here. We can imagine the psalm bringing great comfort to the worshippers in the Temple. We enjoy something of that measured beauty found in Anglican Chant whenever our Cathedral Choir sings a psalm. There is a peacefulness about it all, God is in God’s heaven and all is well with the world.

We should also notice that Psalm 111 is paired with Psalm 112, also an acrostic psalm. Rather than speaking about God and the universe, Psalm 112 summons the faithful to live lives worthy of their calling to be God’s people. Which segues nicely into the next reading from Ephesians.

Ephesians Chapter 5 of begins with a little, and often overlooked, word. In Greek it is only three letters – omicron, upsilon, nu – ο υ ν. That three letter word translates into the much longer, but nonetheless significant, English word ‘therefore’. Therefore what? Listen to the last two verses of Ephesians 4

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore …. be imitators of God…

Everything that follows hangs on that single word ‘therefore’, and cannot be understood unless we take into account what comes before the ‘therefore’. And what comes before is four chapters in praise for what God has done in Jesus Christ, and the invitation to enter into a most extraordinary, and in many ways, counter-cultural, life of the Christian believer. The first 21 verses of Ephesians 5, of which today’s reading forms a part, contrast two very different styles of life. It is as if there is darkness and light – and we have to choose to be either in the darkness or in the light!

We find some of these opposites listed in today’s reading (Ephesians 5: 11 – 21):

  • There are those who are unwise, those who waste their time: and there are the wise, those who make the most of the time given to them
  • There are the foolish, without understanding: and the people of understanding
  • Those who get drunk on wine, which leads to loss of control and exhibitionism (the word given is debauchery): in contrast to those being filled with the Spirit of God

Today’s passage draws to a close with encouragement to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs – a life of praise and thanksgiving to God. That seems to bring us back to the Temple which Solomon built and the psalms, such as Psalm 111 and 112, that were sung in it.

And then, immediately before the next section of Chapter 5, which deals with wives being subject to their husbands, and husbands loving their wives as Christ loved the Church, giving Himself for her; and spells out the relationship expected between parents and children, masters and servants, we find these words:

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5: 21)

Everything that follows stands under that injunction – be subject to one another.

To my mind, at least, we are back with the two great commandments, each found separately in the Old Testament, and brought together by Jesus. “Love God: Love your neighbour.” The real wisdom that comes from God can be summed up in these two commands. “Love God: Love your neighbour.”

But how can we possibly do that? How can we sustain this loving both God and neighbour? To answer that question we go to today’s Gospel reading – a few more verses from John 6. The lectionary takes five weeks to cover this single chapter – all of it, in one way or another, revolving around bread and the different understandings of that word. In today’s passage Jesus invites us to eat of the living bread – himself, who came down from heaven and gave his life, his flesh, for the world. This little bit of biblical wisdom, that Christ gave his own flesh, his own body, to die on the cross was perceived as either an enormous obstacle to faith (a stumbling block, a scandal), or the greatest of all nonsenses (utter foolishness). But, says St Paul, writing to the Corinthians, ‘to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ (is) the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ (1 Cor 1: 24)

We cannot read today’s Gospel passage from John 6 without making connections with this service, known variously as the Eucharist (thanksgiving), Holy Communion (the sacred coming together of God’s people over a meal) or Mass (the final Latin word meaning to be sent out into the world). Christians are invited to share in Christ’s life, death and resurrection by sharing in a holy meal involving flesh and blood – the body and blood of Christ. Scandalous as that might appear to some, it is the bedrock of what keeps us together. I love, and occasionally use, a slightly different translation of the more usual “Do this in remembrance of me.” It can be read as “Do this to re-member (bring together those separated) me.”

Solomon and his prayer for wisdom to govern, Psalm 111 and its partner 112 with the beautifully crafted word order, the encouragement found in Ephesians to live in the light in praise and thanksgiving to God, and the invitation to partake of Christ himself, the living bread, feed into our understanding of the Christian life. It is a life that those to be baptized and confirmed next week, those who will be admitted to Holy Communion or received into the Anglican Church, in fact all of us who worship God week by week, are called to live fully. It is a life that Jesus himself, when he became flesh, incarnate, embraced. It is a life that makes a difference; that stands counter cultural to much of what the world calls wisdom; a life of being called, of being loved, of being sent. It is a life of loving God and loving neighbour. It is the life of the baptized.

May we embrace such life in all its fullness and with every scrap of wisdom given to us.[i]

[i] In preparing this sermon I have drawn on the wisdom of NT Wright and Charles Cousar