The Father of all Sermon Challenges!

I was pointing out to friends that this week, that instead of the usual challenge of preaching about the Trinity – one of the great mind-blowing doctrines of the Church – I was going to go one better. I was going to wrestle with one of the most contested passages in the Old Testament books of Proverbs, about Woman Wisdom, on Father’s Day on Trinity Sunday. I do like a preaching challenge. Someone then kindly pointed out, that in addition, I had to try to live up to our curate’s excellent Pentecost sermon last week. We loved her props didn’t we? So, when I saw this the other day, I had to buy it. Jo had chattering teeth. I have a dancing person. Not just any dancing person – a Dad-dancing person! Tenuous link to Father’s Day – tick! But we will come back to our dancer in a while.

But let’s turn for a moment to the Book of Proverbs.  This book sits amongst the wisdom writings of the Old Testament.  You will find it after the book of Psalms and before Ecclesiastes.  It is responsible for such pithy pieces of advice as:

“Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish.” – Proverbs 31:6 

“It is better to live alone in the desert than with a crabby, complaining wife.” – Proverbs 21:19

“If a man loudly blesses his neighbour early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse.” – Proverbs 27:14

But aside from these amusing one-liners, what is the Book of Proverbs about?

Scholars believe that this book of the Bible was written between the tenth and eight centuries before Christ.  The book is attributed to Solomon, but he clearly didn’t write it all.  He may well have started the process of gathering these wise sayings, but others continued it, and then, later on, compiled the book in the form we have today.  There are a number of sections to the book, and our reading comes at the end of the first section which goes from chapter 1 to chapter 9.

This first section is written as a father giving advice to a son about to embark on adulthood.  Today, as we think of Father’s Day, I wonder what is the best piece of advice your Father, or another Father-figure in your life, gave you?  What sayings – wise or otherwise – would they trot out at predictable times?  Often when I take funerals, families will tell me: “Dad was always saying…”  Or put yourself in the place of the father in the Book of Proverbs – if you were to give advice to a young person about to leave home, what would you say?  What do you wish someone had maybe said to you?

So, this father gives his advice to the son.  While some of the exact instructions might seem a little bizarre to our ears three thousand years later – the world has changed much – the themes he addresses don’t, because people are still the same. Stay away from bad company! Learn right from wrong!  Have good values!  Value good relationships!  For this Dad, in a world of good and evil, wisdom is learning to choose the good.

To illustrate this choice between good and evil, the father describes two women – Wisdom and Folly.  Both speak to the young man in the street.  Both appeal to him and offer him something.  Both undoubtedly have their attractions for the young man, but only one offers him something good.  Folly offers selfishness and unfaithfulness and short-term pleasures.  Wisdom offers life.

And, surely we can relate to this in the modern day too. We have so many voices trying to influence and guide our choices. Adverts, politicians, celebrities, friends, experts, teachers, social media memes – all giving information to us, all asking us to believe them. It can be so tempting to get overwhelmed. To give up our responsibility to make choices. To throw up our hands when confronted with an issue and say “Oh, they are all as bad as each other!” But, actually, they are not. Not all opinions are equally helpful. Not all statements are equally true. They are not all the same, and it does matter what we choose. As people who follow the Jesus who calls himself the Truth, we have a responsibility to discern what is good and true in the world around us and work for it.

Oh, that sounds too hard!  Of course it is, but there is hope if we think just a little more about Wisdom.

What is wisdom not? Wisdom is not being brainy! Talking about things Dads used to say, my Dad used to talk about people in general, and me in particular, as being all brains and no common sense! Do you know someone like that? You can read the Bible in the original Greek. You can split the atom. You can recite Pi to the thousandth place. You can understand quarks. You can remember who won the FA Cup for the last 50 years. You can fill out a tax self-assessment form. You are not necessarily wise, because wisdom is not knowledge or skill.

Wisdom is simply about making the right choices in the context of our everyday relationships.  The Book of Proverbs in its entirety is about the nature of wisdom itself, and the questions it asks are:

  • What makes for a good wise life?
  • What makes for strong family life?
  • What makes for just and fair communities?
  • What does a good neighbour, partner or friend look like?

Wisdom is making the choices that nurture loving living relationships in families and communities and the wider world.  Wisdom is all about relationship!

And so, three quarters of the way through my sermon, I finally get to the reading for today: Proverbs 8. Wisdom was the first creation of God. As I mentioned at the start, this is one of the most contested passages in Proverbs – what does it mean? Some wonder if Wisdom – Sophia – is a feminine imagining of the Word (cf John 1). Some debate whether Wisdom is based on a Canaanite fertility goddess, despite there being no evidence of this goddess. You get the picture! But actually, I think it is quite simple. If wisdom is about always making the living, loving choice in relationship, of course wisdom would be the first fruit of a God who is relationship – one God, in an interweaving dynamic relationship of love between Father, Son and Spirit. So before anything else is loved into being, the very nature of God as Trinity means that Wisdom has begun.

But it gets even more interesting as we get towards the end of our reading:

30     I was the architect at his side.
I was his constant delight,
    rejoicing always in his presence.
31 And how happy I was with the world he created;
    how I rejoiced with the human family!

The word translated as architect, is a difficult one to translate.  If we take the meaning chosen in this Bible version, a better way of putting it would be “craft master”.  But the Hebrew word could also mean faithful one or little child, and the words that follow, I think lend themselves more to that idea – one who is God’s delight and who rejoices in God’s presence.  I am minded of a little child capering around the adult they love. Dancing like my little person at the start, careless of how she or he looks, dancing like no one is watching as a more recent bit of wisdom puts it.

Wisdom is not solemnity and sourpuss-ness.  Wisdom – as right relationship with God, humanity and all creation – is joy. Pure joy!

And lastly wisdom is found close to God.  It is God who makes us wise, who teaches us to value what God values, who helps us, by God’s Holy Spirit, to choose what is good and right.  So this Father’s Day, let us draw near to our Heavenly Father, in trust and delight like his child, Wisdom, and ask God to help us choose what makes for life – for us and for others. Amen

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