Words of Wisdom

The Lamp of Wisdom: sculpture at Waterperry Gardens. Image by Vanderbilt Divinity Library.  Retrieved from http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54977 on September 16, 2012.

Church is probably going to feel like an Indiana Jones movie this morning because I’m taking you on a hunt for lost treasure!  We’re going to explore some dangerous and exciting new territory.  There’s bound to be risks aplenty.  The treasure we’re looking for doesn’t belong on a dusty old shelf in some museum; we’re going to put it to good use in our lives, where it can yield a return on our investment.

(OK, that opening was a bit gimmicky, but give me a break, I’ve got to start the sermon somewhere!)

What I’m interested in doing today is exploring one of the lost treasures of the Bible itself.  It sounds weird to hear someone talk about “lost treasures in the Bible”, right?  I mean, isn’t the whole thing right there for us to open and read anytime we like?  Of course it is!  However, there are certain parts of the Bible that have been passed by or ignored over the years.  This usually happens because these passages just don’t fit very well with the big ideas of the people in charge, so they get minimized and pushed aside while other passages take center stage.  Once this has happened for several generations or even a few centuries in a row, most people forget those passages are even there.  But that’s just the thing about the Bible: if you actually read it, it has a way of challenging the status quo and opening you up to new ideas that the powers-that-be might even call “heresy”.

This is exactly what happened with our Protestant ancestors, Martin Luther and John Calvin.  Once they actually got their hands on the Bible itself, it led them to challenge a thousand years of church tradition and authority.  Both of them were eventually excommunicated for preaching this crazy idea that regular people, not just priests and monks, should be able to read the Bible for themselves, in their own native language.  It’s just like Desmond Tutu said in God Has A Dream, the book our congregation read together last summer:

Oppressive and unjust governments should stop people from praying to God, should stop them from reading and meditating on the Bible, for these activities will constrain them to work for the establishment of God’s kingdom of justice, of peace, of laughter, of joy, of caring, of sharing, of reconciliation, of compassion.

This morning, as we open the pages of this dangerously subversive and revolutionary manifesto that we call “the Bible”, we’re going to be searching for a particularly fascinating “lost treasure” that has been hidden in plain sight for thousands of years.  This treasure that I’m talking about is actually a biblical character, like Jesus and Moses.  Her name is Wisdom.

To the ears of us North Americans, talking about Wisdom as a person sounds weird.  We’re used to thinking of Wisdom as a virtue or a concept, like intelligence or compassion.  Wisdom (so we think) is not a person, but a character quality possessed by those of our elders who have lived long and lived well.  We all aspire to be holders of Wisdom in our old age.

But that’s not how the Bible portrays Wisdom.  The Bible sees Wisdom as a person, not a concept.  In this morning’s Old Testament reading, taken from the book of Proverbs, Wisdom is portrayed as a bold and brave woman:

Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.

There is so much to love about the scene that is being set here.  First of all, as I’ve already pointed out, Wisdom is portrayed as a person, a woman.  In Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, the word for Wisdom is Hochma.  In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word for Wisdom is Sophia.  That’s where we get words like philosophy from.  Philosophy literally means “the Love of Wisdom”.  Sophia also happens to be a very familiar name for women in our culture.  Sarah and I actually considered naming our daughter Sophia, but then we found out that it was the single most popular name for baby girls in 2008, so we decided to name her something more unique to her.  So, for the remainder of this sermon, in order to emphasize the personal and feminine nature of Wisdom, as she is portrayed in the Bible, I will be referring to her by that Greek name: Sophia.

What kind of woman is Sophia?  We learn right away from this passage in Proverbs that she is both unconventional and courageous.  Proverbs says that she “cries out in the streets” and “raises her voice” at “the busiest corner”.  Imagine, if you will, the gender-segregated world of ancient Palestine.  In that culture, a woman’s traditional sphere of influence was limited to the home.  Proper women, so they said at the time, didn’t make their presence known in public, which was the domain of men.  If a woman needed something to get done outside of the home, she had to get it done through a man, like her husband, brother, or father.  There were only two kinds of women who would raise their voices on a busy street corner: prostitutes and desperate women who had suffered such an injustice that they had no other choice but to take matters into their own hands.  Either way, whenever a woman raised her voice in public, people were apt to think the worst.

So, I think it’s extremely significant that when we first meet Sophia, here in the book of Proverbs, she is crying out in the streets.  The fact that she is doing so in that culture meant that something had gone very, very wrong indeed: either something was wrong with her or something had gone wrong with the world.  Her willingness to speak up makes her the kind of person who is able to think outside the box and color outside the lines of what is socially acceptable.  She is this strong, creative, and dynamic presence who raises her voice in order to change things for the better.  In that way, the figure Sophia reminds me of pioneering women like Eleanor Roosevelt or the famous primatologist Jane Goodall.  Both of these women, in the fields of politics and science, respectively, made a lasting difference by trespassing over the borders of what was expected of them from society.  If we were to make a movie about Sophia, I think I would cast someone like Whoopi Goldberg or Kathy Bates in the lead role.

What can we learn about Sophia from looking elsewhere in the Bible?

In Proverbs 8, we meet her again.  Just like before, she is crying out in the street in defiance of public opinion.  She says:

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…

…I have insight, I have strength.
By me kings reign,
and rulers decree what is just;
by me rulers rule,
and nobles, all who govern rightly.
I love those who love me,
and those who seek me diligently find me.

At this point in the poem, things start to get really interesting.  Up to now, we might still be able to dismiss Sophia as an impersonal concept, symbolically represented as a woman, but listen to what she says later in chapter 8:

Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth…

When [God] 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 worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.

This is most interesting.  Sophia, according to the ancient Hebrew sage who wrote this poem, holds a prominent place in cosmic scheme of things.  Somehow, God works through Sophia in creating and shaping the world.  The natural order we observe in the universe, according to this poem, is the direct result of God’s creative energy working with and through Sophia.  Earlier, she says, “By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just”.  This means that the ideals of goodness and justice, far from being arbitrary cultural norms, are actually woven into the very fabric of the universe by Sophia herself.  In this sense, she can be compared to that which Chinese philosophers have referred to as the Tao, the fundamental organizing principle of the cosmos.

We can learn even more about the development of the idea of Sophia by looking at the books of the Apocrypha.  While these books, written by Hellenistic Jews in the centuries after the last Jewish prophet and the birth of Christ, were not accepted as sacred Scripture by the Protestant reformers, they are nonetheless helpful for demonstrating the developing thought patterns of the Jewish people in the years leading up to Jesus’ lifetime.  This passage, a meditation on Sophia, comes from chapter 7 of a book called The Wisdom of Solomon:

because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.
For she is a breath of the power of God,
and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty;
therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her.
For she is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness.
Although she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.
She is more beautiful than the sun,
and excels every constellation of the stars.
Compared with the light she is found to be superior,
for it is succeeded by the night,
but against wisdom evil does not prevail.

What I find so fascinating about this passage is that the figure of Sophia is becoming more and more closely associated with God’s own self.  As we move into the New Testament, the apostle Paul refers to Christ as “the Wisdom of God” in his first letter to the Corinthians.  Decades later, someone writing in Paul’s name expanded on this association of Christ with Sophia in the epistle to the Colossians.  Listen for the similarity between this passage about Christ and the one we read earlier from Proverbs 8:

[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.

It seems that the early Christians saw Christ as the earthly embodiment of Sophia herself.  More than anyone else in history, Jesus lived a life in harmony with this fundamental organizing principle of the universe.

How can it be then, that such an important figure as Sophia has become one of the “lost treasures” of the Bible?  The answer, I think, comes from the various kinds of cultural momentum and inertia that can be found in people of every place and time.  Christianity itself has grown up in a patriarchal society.  The sad fact is that women’s voices have not counted as much as men’s voices.  When it comes to the metaphors we use to describe God, Christians have embraced images of masculinity and power (e.g. Almighty Father, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, etc.) to the exclusion of more feminine images (e.g. Sophia raising her voice in the marketplace).  Nevertheless, our sacred Scriptures remind us that men and women are both equally made “in the image of God”.  The Bible also gives us several feminine metaphors for God apart from Sophia the Wisdom Woman.  Deuteronomy 32 describes God as an eagle teaching her young to fly.  Isaiah 49 describes God as a mother who could never forget her baby.  Women served as metaphors for God in more than one of Jesus’ parables.  One of my favorite images comes from the Hebrew root of the term that gets translated as “tender mercies”, a character quality that is often applied to God.  In Hebrew, the word for “tender mercies” is rachamim, which comes from the word rechem, which literally means “womb”.  When the Bible tells us that we are the recipients of God’s “tender mercy”, it means to say that we are being nurtured and loved as we grow within the very womb of God.  I like to tie this right back in to the image of Sophia as a metaphor for God.  When I think of God, I have little use for the image of an angry, powerful man with a long white beard who sits on a throne above the clouds, hurling thunderbolts of judgment down to the earth.  That kind of Deity sounds more like Zeus than Jesus.  When I think of God, I prefer to think of Sophia: that brave and beautiful woman who raises her voice for justice in the city streets and carries the earth like a baby on her hip.  That’s the God to whom I have given my heart.

This week, as you go out into the streets where you live, work, and play, I pray that your ears would be open to Sophia’s voice, calling out to you.  Whether you are walking along an autumn trail, sitting in a meeting, milking a cow, or ringing up a cash register, may you become aware in those moments of that same sacred presence that shaped and renews the cosmos.  Like Jesus, may you feel her creative energy pulsing through your veins and granting you the insight you need in order to live a life in total harmony with the universe itself.

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