‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’
When my daughter was small I remember taking her to a wonderful museum in the North of England called simply ‘Eureka’. It’s fantastically hands on and really exciting. Over the door there’s a life size model of Archimedes in his bath, with water splashing in it and from it. But poor Archimedes. I have often felt that he has rather unfairly become a figure of fun, little more than the subject of jokes and caricatures.
And I feel sorry for him because – those who pursue study and learning, those who are interested in wisdom, have a deep and guilty secret. Wisdom is wonderful. Learning is to be desired. And not just what we might think of religious knowledge or revelation. Archimedes’ moment of discovery was not a joke, but was profoundly exciting and really important too. We don’t talk about this enough. I remember the day when I had a kind of break-through moment in my own research. I was breathless, excited. This was so thrilling – I just wanted to tell someone. And sometimes those who study, teach or research have whispered to me that they too are not only earnest, hardworking and hard-pressed – but are also in love with their subject or thrilled by its possibilities. Wisdom is wonderful. Wisdom is to be desired. And God is to be praised not just in church, but whenever we meet the wonder of discovery.
The Bible knows this too – as the Bible knows everything. There are parts of the Bible, it’s true, where the writers seem to be saying that knowledge and wisdom are dangerous and not to be grasped at. So, right at the beginning, Eve desires to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. She thinks that the fruit would be good to eat, pleasing to the eye and desirable, for the knowledge it could give. But then she is punished for eating it – driven out of the place of beauty and love into the harsh and unyielding wilderness. Knowledge, in this story, seems to be a bad thing.
But in other parts of the Bible, like the book of Proverbs, we have a very different take. And this take is as biblical as the stories of Abraham or Moses. This one is also holy scripture. In recent years the kind of people who write lectionaries, who decide what readings we should hear on a Sunday, have recognised that there hasn’t been enough from the ‘wisdom literature’ from the parts of the Bible that really value wisdom and knowledge and learning. But here is some today. And maybe it’s all the more important for us to hear just because it’s so unusual.
The whole book of Proverbs begins with the voice of a man talking to his son. He is advising his son to ‘get wisdom’ as one would ‘get’ a bride – to love and cherish her. Wisdom is personified as female and the man is to find her. This writer says, very differently from the writers in the book of Genesis, that wisdom is to be desired – just as anyone might long for their spouse or their lover – and that this is not a desire to be quashed or diminished or punished, but to be fulfilled, consummated, celebrated. In this Bible school, knowledge is to be desired with passion and longing – and it is not dangerous or threatening, but simply a source of life. The writer of Proverbs says,
‘Cling to instruction and never let it go;
guard it well, for it is your life.’
The church, and other faith communities, and I think the world too, have often struggled with the idea that learning is a good thing – we have inherited rather a prejudice against ‘experts’– was it Michael Gove who rather unwisely said just before the pandemic that ‘We’ve had enough of experts’? Christian history is full of stories of those who feared that knowledge, education and wisdom were dangerous things – and the fruit of the tree of knowledge should not be eaten – and who tried to stop too many people getting it. We see it now still in the debates about science and religion – or in the anti- vaxxer churches in some parts of the world – as though faith is all we ever need and has to be protected from any kind of secular wisdom. But from the book of Proverbs we learn that wisdom and knowledge are good and holy – and always rooted in the praise of God (the fear of the Lord).
Think about a time when you learned something new – or made a new discovery – or were entranced by a specialist talking about what they do – or opened a book so spell binding you couldn’t put it down. Think about a time when you gave your body into the care of those who knew how to make it better. Think of a documentary you might have watched recently; about the planets or the creatures or how to make a vaccine…There is so much amazing knowledge and wisdom around in the world… and it should be celebrated and honoured, for it gives praise to God.
There are many traces in the New Testament, and particularly in John’s Gospel, that Jesus was understood simply as the embodiment of wisdom. He spoke wise words. But more than that he gave form to the creative and life giving power of God – which is the source of all knowledge. In the reading from Proverbs that we heard today, wisdom says ‘ Come, eat of my bread’ – and in the Gospel verse Jesus says, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven.’ He is the bread of wisdom, the one in whom we see most vividly the presence of the wisdom of God. But he is not the only place where we can see God’s gifts of wisdom at work.
I remember so vividly – and for me this was a eureka moment – when someone known to some of you here, David Cornick, told this story. He said;
‘Five years or so ago when my wife was seriously ill, I spent more time in oncology waiting rooms than I might have wished to. And after one session I went straight on to lead a session in a spirituality course. Gathered there were twenty or so Christians, mainly from my own tradition, all being intensely introspective about the work of the Spirit in their lives and the life of the church. My tolerance was severely stretched by a de-fault Christian exclusiveness which assumed that the Spirit was their own personal possession, their own precious toy. And I said to them ….
Do you not think that the Spirit has other things on her mind than the church? Do you not think that the Spirit is in the minds and hands of the medics two miles up the road in the local hospital who are in the forefront of the fight against disease? Do you not think that that the Spirit might be in the slow and painstaking work of one of my agnostic Cambridge colleagues whose work in chemical engineering is slowly unravelling the sticky plaques that are a probable cause of Alzheimer’s? Do you not think that the Spirit might be in the skills of those diplomats who, against all hope, still doggedly try to produce peace in Syria? Do you not think that the Spirit might be in the patience of the reception class teacher and the open mind of the little girl who has suddenly discovered she can read? When God so loved the world, why are you so obsessed with church? Mission is about being with God. There is so much of God in the world, so much wonder, so much beauty… ‘
And when he says ‘the Spirit’, I think the writer of Proverbs might have said ‘Wisdom’. There is this stream in the Bible that sees so clearly that the wisdom of the world; the great libraries of books, the laboratories and galleries, the psychotherapists and poets, the engineers and architects, the skilled athletes and the awesomely clever logistics people, the IT specialists, the climate scientists and all the experts of so many kinds – these, all these, are part of God’s wonderful creation. Wisdom belongs with them. And it belongs to us too – for we are all wise about something – as we are invited to treasure, praise, acquire, believe in and value, the deepest wisdoms and achievements of this world. Not so that some elite people can feel special, but so that we can truly value these real gifts of God. Knowledge and wisdom are God’s gifts. A most important line in the Psalm we read is, ‘The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.’ To fear God does not close the door on the world, it opens it up to reveal what it truly is – a world full of wonder, delight and … wisdom. And wisdom is what enables us all to find God and to give God praise.
If we drink deep of this wisdom stream from the Bible, if we read the book of Proverbs, the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes and John’s Gospel, we want to say to the world that God has made – Wow! How wonderful your wisdom is, and how great is God! Now, let’s use what God has given us, seen fully embodied in Jesus, for good in the world. Let’s reach out for knowledge because we are in awe of God.
This week we’ve seen something of the possibilities of education for our young people – as results have come in. We’ve seen something of the resilience and persistence of the young – and the skill and determination of their teachers. We know that the best education gives not only knowledge, but also wisdom, for living and for sharing in the life of the world. The writer of Proverbs invites us to ‘lay aside maturity and live, to walk in the way of insight’.
There are those who, seeing on the news this week that some churches in the US tell their people not to be vaccinated, will just add it to their list of reasons to think that religion is nonsense. That’s tragic. Because I truly believe that God’s wisdom can be found in all sorts of places outside the walls of churches and that within these walls we should be about celebrating that wisdom. For it can be found within us – and we have seen it embodied in Jesus – himself a teacher of wisdom, or even wisdom made flesh.
Of course there is great foolishness in this world – and in the church – and sin and stupidity and tragedy and pain. All the more reason then, to look for wisdom wherever she may be found and to give praise to God. For the praise of God is the beginning of wisdom. Amen.