Sermon: Lady Wisdom (Proverbs 8)

Wow! Lady Wisdom! What a woman! I don’t know about you, but when I read Proverbs 8, I thought, Lady Wisdom, where have you been all of my life?  Or maybe you thought: Who is this Lady Wisdom, and why haven’t I heard of her before? There was no lesson on Wisdom when I was in Sunday school! I suspect you could probably go to church every Sunday your whole life long and never hear about Lady Wisdom; never learn that the ancient Israelites wrote of a personified female figure of wisdom, who was created by God before the foundations of the earth, first in the Lord’s creation, God’s special delight – his right hand lady. Lady Wisdom, where have you been all of our lives? Won’t you come in and teach us a thing or two?

But actually, that Lady Wisdom doesn’t show up in church too often makes sense: Proverbs tell us that Lady Wisdom doesn’t spend much time hanging around our so-called “holy” places. In fact if you go looking for her, don’t even bother searching in the temple, or in the royal schools, or where the scribes are sitting hunched over their scrolls memorizing things. No; she’s out where the people are… out there where the action is! Maybe today she’s on the Wies’n! J Wisdom is standing “beside the way,
at the crossroads … beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals.” We don’t have city gates any more, but we do have the Isartor – or Marienplatz. Can’t you just imagine a tall, proud figure, Lady Wisdom, standing in the center of Marienplatz on a really busy Saturday morning, just watching? … Watching the shoppers hurrying into shops, their arms full of bags; watching the selling and the buying and the bargaining; watching the people hurrying to and fro, back and forth, the constant stream of people, the endless parade of humanity, our busy human race.

Lady Wisdom is a watcher of humanity and a lover of people – she “delights in the human race.” She just likes us. She seems to think we humans are funny and likable and curious and… well apparently, not so bright, or in any case lacking in her special brand of wisdom. Which must be why she stands on the busy market square and cries out to all who pass by, whether they have ears to hear or not, day and night, without ceasing: “gain insight… acquire intelligence… seek knowledge and understanding… hear my instruction.”

An American pastor named Eugene Peterson has created a modern-language translation of the Bible that he calls The Message, and in his fresh, everyday translation Lady Wisdom cries out things like: “Listen, you idiots—learn good sense!” and “You blockheads—shape up!” (Proverbs 8:5 (The Message)). You may not like the tone of The Message, but in this case I think Peterson just offers a genius translation because he shocks us to attention and gets our ears open – exactly what Lady Wisdom is trying to do.

To each of us, Lady Wisdom is crying: “Learn from me and gain wisdom.” Most of us would say: Alight! Count us in! Sign us up! Lord knows we need more wisdom in our lives. Only… What is wisdom? Where is it to be found? Is Wisdom still among us now, and if so, what is she saying to us, and what does her instruction sound like now? Reading this text in my context, my life, so radically different from this ancient Israelite world, I can’t help but wonder: what is wisdom in my life? I mean, “wisdom” sounds so abstract and philosophical! Most of us aren’t even sure we know what wisdom looks like. Couldn’t we maybe get some clear, concrete instructions down here, God, so that we knew exactly what to do when we find ourselves in yet another mess?

I don’t know about you, but I do want to live a wisdom-filled life, but my word, sometimes I do the dumbest things. It’s not that we don’t want to be wise; it’s that in a time and place and culture with a thousand competing ideologies and truth claims, we don’t know any more what truth and wisdom look like.

Even the Bible doesn’t point to just one easy answer. I wish I could just tell you that the solution is on page 652 of your pew Bibles and sit down. (Don’t you wish it worked that way? …It doesn’t.) There is no easy answer because I don’t think the Bible has just one thing to say about wisdom, but many things. The Bible speaks with many voices about wisdom – in both the Old and New Testaments – and we will need a lifetime of listening to the voices of wisdom and the voice of the Spirit to work more wisdom into our lives.

But I would like to offer you one short reflection on wisdom this morning to at least get us started on thinking about how to become people of wisdom. As I read & re-read the Scriptures for today, I started to see a common thread: WISDOM and LIFE. Listen to these Scripture passages again. “Whoever finds me, finds life,” says Wisdom at the end of her speech in Proverbs 8. Psalm 1 likewise compares the wise man to a tree planted by streams of water, whose leaves do not wither, and who bears much fruit in its proper season: the tree of life. And James 3 instructs us: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” and calls us to lead a life that is “pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits.”  That’s the life I want!!

I see two words that pop up in all of our readings this morning: wisdom and life. The way of wisdom leads to real life, to real life: to the vital, life-giving, Spirit-filled lives we all long for.

I particularly love this image of the tree of life, the tree of wisdom, that popped up in our readings this morning, because it reflects the intimate connection between wisdom and life. We heard about strong trees, deep roots, healthy growth, good fruits, and abundant harvests of righteousness: and we learned that it is wisdom that nourishes this deep growth, wisdom the nourishing sap that runs through the veins of all living things, God’s trees and his people alike.

Wisdom and Life nourish one another. And I would like to suggest that when we make wisdom-rooted decisions, then our actions are life-giving to all around us. In wisdom, we support and nourish the spirit-filled life… first in our selves, and then the community, and then the world.

Because Wisdom has to begin with our own growth. Wisdom is in the decisions that nourish my life – that is, my real life, my Spirit and soul life, the livingness of God bubbling up in me. Wisdom calls us to make decisions that nourish my spirit life and bring health to my soul, and to make our own spiritual growth a priority.

Then in wisdom we begin supporting other lives, interacting with brothers & sisters in a way that helps them flourish and thrive: that nourishes the divine life in them. When we make decisions in community, we have to ask one another: brother, sister, do my decisions and my actions help your spirit thrive? James says, too, that wisdom is marked by its gentleness and its peace, never by violence or aggression. Wisdom spreads life throughout our community, subtly rooting out hostility and planting a harvest of righteousness in its stead.

Finally, wisdom touches, in widening circles, our neighborhood and city streets, daring to see God’s face in neighbor and stranger and nurturing it, cherishing it, helping it thrive.

In her widest reaches Wisdom invites us to delight with her in creation – and to care for the life of that God has made. Wisdom is so intimately connected with the earth that her wise people cannot help but nourish and care for our environment. Wisdom invites us to live our lives with great care for creation. We could even apply James’ principle of “gentleness and peace” to our interaction with all of creation, including the earth and plants and animals and even thecreepy crawling things you’d rather just step on than care for.

Wisdom is life-giving. Wisdom shares the gift of life in ever-widening circles, the way a tree sends out roots, expanding with time – from self, to others, to community.

To conclude, we might say that wisdom is the practice of life. It is the daily and hourly practice of giving, honoring, and respecting life in all its forms.

—–

The writers of Proverbs 8 were on to something wonderful when they depicted Wisdom in such a vivid and lively way – not as an abstract philosophical concept or idea, but as a real live, flesh and blood, living person, and when they imagined her standing on our streetcorners, at our borders, at our city gates, calling to us from all of the highways and byways of life.

Because wisdom and life are inseparable. This messy human life, this pilgrimage, this adventure of eating and praying, sleeping and bathing, breaking bread and passing the cup: this is where Wisdom comes to find us. Wisdom calls us not out of our lives, but deeper into them: deeper into our very souls, deeper into our relationships, deeper into our communities and neighborhoods, deeper into the mysteries of creation itself.

To each of us, Wisdom is calling. She says: Come, weary people of God, taste and see! Come in and drink of the living water until it dribbles down your chin. Come and enter into your Spirit-filled lives. Come in and live lives rich in meaning. Come in and sink your roots way down deep into the richness of the soil of the living God. Come in, one and all, and find your life: for the One has come so that you may have life, and have it to the full.

Amen.

Let us pray:

Holy and Living God, in all of creation your life shines forth. Give us hearts that respond to the cries of wisdom to enter in and find our lives. Loving God, grant that we may find ourselves in you: nourished, enriched, full of life, and ready to serve. Amen.

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