Sermon: Wisdom and delight
Preached on 27th February 2011
by The Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown
Wisdom and delight are two wonderful themes to focus on after a few weeks of readings on more sobering subjects. So here’s a pre-Lenten spring.
Today we meet wisdom personified, in the figure of Lady Wisdom. The bible adopts personification occasionally – justice leads Israel out of Babylon and kindness and truth meet, justice and peace kiss, while wine is a mocker and a brawler. But wisdom is personified more than anything else and today we heard part of one of the passages in which this happens. Earlier in Proverbs, Lady Wisdom is portrayed like one of the Old Testament prophets, crying out to those who pass her in the street and later in Proverbs she will be contrasted with Dame Folly. We heard her giving an account of her relationship to God and creation. Six times she stresses that she existed before creation and says she was at the side of God. Scholars differ on what this means, so I’m not going to attempt to resolve it. Suffice to say that she is a personification of the wisdom with which God created the world, and therefore in that sense a divine attribute. The important thing to take from this is that when we talk about divine wisdom, we do not talk about an ‘It’ but about a person and we encounter wisdom not as an impersonal concept but a ‘Someone’ who encounters us personally.
Wisdom is inherent the creation of the world and the primeval stories in Genesis recognise this. When the serpent tempted Eve to doubt and disobey God, it played on their desire for wisdom and hinted that God was withholding that from them. But when they ate the forbidden fruit all the man and woman got was the knowledge that they were naked, and they were ashamed as a result. What a stunning disappointment. Eve was not wrong to want wisdom, but our ability to gain godly wisdom is contingent upon our relationship with God. Sever that, as the serpent persuaded her to do, and we sacrifice wisdom and end up with knowledge which we can bandy about unwisely, treating it as power – think of the Wikileaks episode where a lot of knowledge has been used to flaunt power rather than with wisdom.
The attempt to gain wisdom illicitly was all tragically unnecessary because, if we read on in the passage we heard from Proverbs, we discover that God’s wisdom is freely offered to us and there is nothing we need to grasp or steal. We heard how Lady Wisdom wants to lead us in the paths of wisdom and instruct us in how to gain it. She is described as holding out her bread and wine and inviting simple people to take and eat – a rather lovely foreshadowing of Jesus offering bread and wine to his disciples and to us every time we come to the Eucharist, with echoes of George Herbert’s wonderful lines,
You must sit down, says love, and taste my meat.
So I did sit and eat.
God offers us his own wisdom that exists before the foundation of the world, and it is offered through relationship. Unlike the temptation offered to Eve that she could have wisdom simply by taking the fruit, wisdom involves instruction so that we become wiser, and involves acting on what we learn, so that we become holier. In other words, wisdom is part of our discipleship.
Then there is delight. There are some wonderfully evocative words at the end of the first reading; Lady Wisdom is speaking about when God created the world,
‘When he assigned to the sea its limit, … when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker (another translation is ‘like a little child’) and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.’
The imagery here is superb. Either we have a little child enjoying the freedom and exuberance of a relationship with a doting adult, delighting in the wonderfully intriguing things that this adult shows her - from stars in the sky to ants marching along in formation. Or we have a very skilled worker sitting alongside the creator and marvelling to himself at the sheer complexity of what God is creating and the wonder of humans: think of Shakespeare’s words through Hamlet,
What a piece of work is a man! how Noble in
Reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving
how express and admirable! in Action, how like an Angel!
in apprehension, how like a God? the beauty of the
world, the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is
this quintessence of dust!
The more we discover about the intricacies of our minds and bodies, the more we wonder and delight. It must be literally marvellous to be a doctor or scientist or psychologist and exposed to this wonder daily. Delight is at the heart of God’s creation and we can look over God’s shoulder in incredulity at how amazing creation is.
Putting these two together, wisdom and delight, I suggest that the pursuit of wisdom, which God offers to us freely but which brings with it disciplined commitment to grow in that wisdom, will yield greater and greater delight. We are made in the image of a creative, wise God who delights in the human race. In the vivid Genesis stories, God said several times that creation was good, but once there was a man and a woman then God pronounced it not just good but very good. We can sense God’s delight and, like a little child full of wonder or a master craftsman using his or her skill, we can share it.
In less than an hour’s time in this cathedral we will be rejoicing and delighting in the inhabited world and in the human race in a special way. We will be hearing our choir sing the first performance of a new Mass setting, Missa Dunelmi, by James MacMillan which the Cathedral commissioned. This is the product of wisdom and delight – wisdom from those with the musical skill to compose, play and sing this work, and delight in the joy of making music for the glory of God, and of making new music in this building which has echoed with God’s praise in so many different musical styles over the centuries. We heard, in the second reading, of the worship in heaven which is not a quiet place: the scene is of a cacophony of sound, light, colour and movement as humans and living creatures worship God, taking us back to the wonder of creation as they sing ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things and by your will they existed and were created.’ That is the same song of delight that Lady Wisdom sings, that the psalmist sang in today’s psalm, that we are invited to sing as we rejoice before God.
So I do hope that you will stay and join the delight. And I hope that each one of us will accept the invitation to grow in God’s wisdom, to be wise enough to be open to receive instruction in wisdom, to accept the discipline of putting into practice what we learn, and to do so with delight in God who delights in us. That is what the musicians involved in the new Mass setting have done, that is the invitation open to each of us in our own particular and varied areas of knowledge and skill. I don’t need to remind you that Lent is coming soon and we will be running a Lent course again, details of which will follow soon. Our theme this year is ‘Welcome dear feast of Lent: exploring the spirituality of Lent’ and we hope to discover together more of what is involved in welcoming, delighting in, the opportunity this Lenten season offers us to grow in wisdom. If you can’t come to the Lent course, perhaps you could choose a book to study during Lent, the Cathedral Shop has several to choose from.
So, let us rejoice in God and his inhabited world, and delight in the human race. And let us make this coming Lent a feast.
Proverbs 8:1,22-31, Revelation 4, Psalm 148