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Sermon: Wisdom and the love of God

Sunday 19th October 2014
Proverbs 4:1-18
1 John 3:16-4:6
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But even the president of the United States

sometimes must have to stand naked.

Perhaps the most memorable lines taken from Bob Dylan's It's alright, Ma; the line he not busy being born is busy dying was referenced by the journalist Christopher Hitchens shortly before his own death; Al Gore named it as a favourite quote during his presidential campaign in 2000.  The line Money doesn't talk, it swears makes it into The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

It doesn't feel right to turn Dylan's lyrics into soundbites. A song that is both poetic and prophetic has to be inhabited in its entirety; allowing the allusion and challenge to expand our political and social horizons; being prepared for the rhyme and rhythm to captivate us and to refresh our vision for flourishing humanity.  His songs contain echoes of the scriptural tradition.

Some of his images are deeply apocalyptic in envisaging a cosmic disruption that reflects human contradictions:

Darkness at the break of noon

Shadows even the silver spoon

The handmade blade the child's balloon

Eclipses both the sun and moon...


His anger at commercialism, moral hypocrisy and violence is evident: 

Disillusioned words like bullets bark

As human gods aim for their mark.

... Advertising signs they con

You into thinking you're the one

Authority obeyed, but not respected; outsiders who are criticised; phoney propaganda; pride, insecurity and loneliness.  All these things crush the human spirit; yet there's a longing for wisdom and dignity which resonates with this evening's texts.  Life goes on, in search of the sacred; a trembling distant voice startles us and we are no longer alone.


Dylan's language also echoes the concerns expressed within biblical wisdom literature.  While preachers preach and teachers teach, he is concerned for where goodness lies; if, in worldly terms, the masters make the rules for the wise men and the fools, it is perhaps unsurprising that Dylan says I got nothing, Ma, to live up to.

The social and political culture of 1960s America wasn't giving Dylan anything to live up to; or to live for.  Our generation faces its own challenges.  The women on The Apprentice name their team 'Decadence' without any sense of what it meant; Lord Sugar had to point out the implications of self-indulgence and moral decline.  Last week saw a debate about whether every potential employ is 'worth' the minimum wage; yesterday thousands protested about low pay. Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs Income has written about the divisive and destabilising effects of income inequality.  The longing for equity and integrity; the naming of false gods; all this is of concern to Dylan and to the writer of Proverbs.

The biblical tradition expresses wisdom as a gift to be passed on, just as a child learns from his or her parents.  Yet, this is more than an appeal to seniority of age; for the writer is not reliant on his own authority or experience; he isn't offering his own philosophy. Rather he is offering a trans-generational perspective; an expression over time of God's loving purposes. The wisdom of God has a breadth and depth that surpasses human knowledge and opinion.  Wisdom demands our attention, says the writer of Proverbs; it takes time; it means living out of the love of God, source of all being and life.

Wisdom brings comfort at a time of transition or in crisis.  It is expressed in the commandments to love God with all that we are, body, mind and spirit; and to love the other as ourself.  It is a way to walk in - a path to follow.  Wisdom is compelling - to be prized and embraced; wisdom transforms us bestowing an authenticity or beauty that does not fade.  Wickedness - self-indulgence, decadence, exploitation and pride - hampers our path; causing us to stumble; preventing others from flourishing. We aren't given a list of practical examples of wisdom; but we are told what to avoid and what to hold onto.  Attending to the wise instruction of God, sheds light like the dawn.  It shines brighter and brighter, illumining the world. It is to radiate from us - compelling, attractive and self-giving.

Wisdom is found in paying attention to the love of God: it demands discernment.  The challenge of living that out in community is something that the writer of this evening's epistle knows all too well.  Wisdom and love are of God; in expounding on that, John focuses on Jesus Christ. He is the embodiment of God's love and grace, glory, wisdom and light.  His life, death and resurrection shows us the meaning of love.  It is in dying for us that he makes manifest the breadth and depth of that love. He is God with us in the upheavals of human life.

Yesterday, a group of us were grappling with the themes of Mark's Gospel.  The simplicity and brevity of that text belies the profundity of the challenge of responding to God's love; to be called into a relationship of trust.  We reflected on the words of the centurion 'This is God's Son'; we were silenced by the empty tomb; in fear and joy we pondered the ‘what next’? What did abiding in love demand of us? 

As Rowan Williams puts it:  Mark is challenging us not simply to read but to expose ourselves to a new and transforming relationship with the figure at the heart of his story ... a reality beyond human expectation and human capacity.... we should be changed bit by bit into the sort of person who can actually understand what is asked from us and what has been made possible for us in the life and death and rising of Jesus.


That is the reality that John's community is grappling with.  They are confronted with the demands of loving - giving their lives for each other.  At moments of crisis, that remains the demand of the centrality of the cross. The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew that is his life and death. He wrote: When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.  It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him... But it is the same death every time - death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.  For him, it meant laying down his life in a concentration camp; saying as he did so This is the end - for me the beginning of life.

But how do we reveal that love in truth and action in the midst of daily living? For John, the call to generosity is an interpretation of the cost of self-giving love.  He calls the people of God to give day by day of the gifts entrusted to them.  This is a long way from decadence; it is a long way from money that talks or swears.  It is the taking up of the cross day by day; giving all that we are to the other.  It is not lip service; but the cultivation of virtue rooted in God's love. It is practical and relational wisdom.

Dwelling in the love of God, made manifest in Jesus Christ, means living in the power of the Spirit.  It means not living according to 'I want' nor by way of self-expression; rather it means mutual love. Taking the risk of pursuing consensus; listening to each other and in such listening discerning the spirit of truth.  It means abandoning in Dylan's words the false gods... pettiness which plays so rough and instead believing in Jesus Christ, obeying his commandments; being in-dwelt by his love and Spirit.

The writer of Proverbs doesn't give detailed advice; John doesn't set out to solve particular ethical problems.  Both texts make us work hard at living in wisdom and love.  Both of them contrast the way of wickedness and false prophets with the living in the light of God.  The challenge is whether we speak according to the world's prompting - the language of human gods and phoney propaganda - or by the Spirit's prompting.  Do we bring the light of God into our homes and work places? Does our abiding in love contribute to the flourishing of humanity, to reconciled communities?

The love and wisdom of God is both longed for and resisted in our world; we walk that path not in our own strength, but in the power of the Spirit who enables our speech, inspires our action and cries out in our prayers. Be strong, fear not! This is wisdom. Wisdom manifested in our Archbishop's priorities: praying, reconciling, witnessing  in & to love. In the poetic protest of Dylan - it's alright, Ma, it's life and life only.  In the prophetic challenge of John, God's love is greater than the vagaries of the human heart; in his love, we embrace self-giving saying, this for me is the beginning of life.