This sermon was preached at Saint Oswald’s Parkside by the Revd Canon Bill Goodes on Sunday, 12 Septmber, 2021. (Pentecost 16B)
Proverbs 31:10 – 31
James 1:20b – 25
Mark 8:27 – 38
Click here to view the readings in full at the Vanderbilt Common Lectionary
“You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” – Mark 8:33
A couple of weeks ago, we had the reading where God asked Solomon what he wanted as he began to reign as king. He asked God for “wisdom to govern this your great people.” God commended him for having asked wisely, and promised him not only great wisdom, but also the long life, prosperity and peace that he might have been expected to ask for. Associated with that request are two stories which attest to “the wisdom of Solomon” — one about the two mothers who both claimed ownership of the one child, which Solomon solved by threatening to cut the child in half, and then entrusting the child to the mother who didn’t want the child to be bisected. The other was the visit of the Queen of Sheba who “came to test Solomon with hard questions”, and marvelled at his being able to answer all she asked.
The book from which our first reading came is called “The Wisdom of Solomon”, and is one of the apocryphal writings found in the Greek versions of the Jewish scriptures, but not in the Hebrew. This book represents some of the deepest reflections on the nature of wisdom that are found in the biblical writings — and in today’s reading Wisdom, personified in female form, is seen to be pervading all creation: “She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well.
[It is this understanding of Holy Wisdom that is expressed in a very graphic way in the Psalm, which begins with the praise of God which is heard, through the wordless sounds of sun, day and night, and it then moves to the way God relates to us through the terms of God’s agreement with his people: an agreement which convinces the psalmist of his need for forgiveness and the guidance that wisdom can provide.]
This unseen Wisdom of God was seen to be at work in creation and in the hearts and minds of people, and in later times informed that concept of “the Word of God” that is so much part of the hymn at the beginning of John’s gospel. Remember that John, along with other Christian thinkers, came to see this Word as being “made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth”.
I guess that Simon Peter thought that this Holy Wisdom was well at work in him as he blurted out his answer to Jesus, “You are the Messiah”. At this crucial point in the Gospel story as Mark tells it, Jesus asks “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter gives the right answer. In Matthew’s account of the story, Jesus specifically commends Peter and says that this answer could only have come from the wisdom of God. But Peter’s fragile grasp on wisdom was too soon to be replaced by him feeling a fool and suffering the rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan!” The idea that the Messiah should be such a fool as to suffer and die just didn’t compute for Peter, but this was the foolishness that Jesus told them was what was required.
Wisdom or foolishness? Which do we show?
Saint Paul, writing to the Corinthian Church, makes an important distinction between human wisdom — “the wisdom of the world”, and the Wisdom of God. For the thinkers of the day who valued this human wisdom above so much else, the Christian proclamation of a crucified and risen Messiah appeared to be rank foolishness. They reflected Peter’s incredulous response to Jesus, as he “took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him”. The Messiah was longed for, was expected to overthrow the Roman overlordship, to usher in a reign of independent peace for the People of God. It was absolute folly to suggest that such a one should achieve this through suffering and death.
But, Paul asserts, the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, God’s weakness is stronger than human strength, and human wholeness is to be achieved only through this “foolishness”.
There is no doubt — you only have to read the Letters to the Editor in the daily press to realise — that Christians are considered by many in our society to be fools. And as we suffer that judgement from those around us, we can be tempted to try to appear also to be wise — wise with the wisdom of the world — but to do so to retreat from the essence of our faith and from the proclamation of Christ crucified and risen as the key to fulness of life. We are tempted over and again to “set our minds not on divine things but on human things”.
Remember how the Psalmist in Psalm 19 places living the life of the People of God in the context of “the heavens declare the glory of God”. One part of our proclamation is in regard to Creation. Our faith — our “folly” in many people’s eyes — is that everything that exists is there because God has willed it into being: that it remains in existence because God sustains it. The creation stories in the Bible place human life not at the centre but almost on the edge of the totality of the cosmos. One story has human life created, along with the animals, on day 6 of the process — we don’t even have a day of our own! The other main story has the garden planted by the Creator, the animals, made from the same earth as the human, all able to be brought to the newly-created man to name, the rivers running freely to define boundaries.
The theologian Elizabeth Johnson asks her readers to imagine looking at the earth from the moon and picturing “that under its shielding atmosphere there exists a network of living creatures…all interacting with the land, water and air of their different ecosystems. In scientific terms this enveloping skein of life is called the biosphere. In faith terms it is called the community of creation. Picture yourself as an indigenous member of this community”. Perhaps you’d like to give her imaginative exercise a try!
So much of our language, our attitude places human life at the centre of things. We talk of “the environment” as though everything around us exists only to be in relationship with us: we talk of “nature”, in contrast to real life. If we were to speak rather of “creation” we might find it easier to place ourselves as part of the whole, and so speak not of human things, but as God sees things.
The Wisdom of God “reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well”. May we live this godly foolishness, honour our proclamation, and so know the “divine weakness that is stronger than human strength”.