Creator Wisdom

Second Sunday of Creation Cycle,   September 20, 2015

Wisdom 7:22-30  /   Colossians 1:15-20   /  John 1:1-14

Our theme this morning is light: the light that was God’s first work of creation, the pure energy that flashed across the nothingness in that first fraction of a second of creation, out of which all else would then arise.  But Scripture leads us where it will, and it seems that the texts that presented themselves that talked about the role of light in creation (and there are many I could have chosen from), also brought us face to face with another figure, the figure of holy wisdom, the figure of the Word of God, who was there at the beginning creating alongside God. It is this figure that claims our attention this morning, our second Sunday of Creation time.

Our first reading, from the book of Wisdom, is a hymn reflecting on the role of Wisdom in creation.  The words are put in the mouth of Solomon, but they come from almost a thousand years after Solomon’s time.  The book of Wisdom, which we count as part of the Apocrypha, is probably the last of the books of the Old Testament, written possibly just a generation or two before Jesus’s birth.  It picks up a theme common in Jewish wisdom literature, the figure of Holy Wisdom, God’s wisdom personified:

For she is a breath of the power of God,
and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty.
For she is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness.

These are powerful words, this beautiful image of wisdom as light flowing forth from the being of God. What makes these words so powerful is that they are really trinitarian – that is, they speak of wisdom not as the first of the works of God, created as something separate from God, but as flowing forth from God’s very being.

The theology of the Eastern Orthodox church has an idea that is helpful here: they speak of the Uncreated light.  The idea is that God’s essence is a pure energy that is a kind of light.  At least that is how God’s being expresses itself in this world: the light of Tabor, they sometimes call it, because they claim that this was the blinding light the disciples saw at the Transfiguration of Jesus; or we could think of the burning bush which Moses saw.  The point is that this light is not the same as the light that God created at the beginning; that light is a purely physical phenomenon, the same light that we see today, the product of purely physical process, the fusion of atoms in the sun and stars.  Whereas the uncreated light of God is something eternal and supernatural, the being of God always distinct from his creation, and yet always bound to it in love. If God is light, it is no coincidence that the first of the works of creation was light, a created light that of all created things is closest to the pure energy that is God.

There is another key passage that talks about the figure of wisdom, from our book of Proverbs:

When he 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.

Here again we meet Wisdom, a figure separate from God, yet who somehow is also the Creator, working with God when the foundations of the earth are laid, “beside him, like a master builder”.  In that image of the master builder there is an important clue to who or what this creative wisdom of God is: to me the image calls us the idea of the one holding the blueprints of all creation. The foundation of the deep, the circle drawn that will contain this planet, the laws that govern the structure and behaviour of the atom, the complex alchemy by which life is built out of DNA, indeed, the very shape of space-time itself, the laws that give it order and make it possible that there is something rather than nothing at all: all these things are rooted in the wisdom of God. The wisdom of God is woven into the structure of the universe. And this is, according to Proverbs, a matter of delight and wonder and joy:

    I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.

This is the delight that any scientist knows, the joy at the sheer order of the universe, the incredible and wonderful complexity by which atom are constructed out of pure energy, harnessed by the laws of physics, and these atoms combined in mind-boggling complexity to build the wonders of life.

So we have these wonderful Old Testament passages that speak of the wisdom of God, passages that seem to look ahead so far beyond themselves. They look ahead to the whole project of modern science, in which the wonders of the universe are decoded with awe and delight. But they look forward to something else as well: because they are some of those Old Testament passages that contain what we might call a trace of the Trinity, a sense that God is not alone in abstract oneness, but in already in his inmost being, before all creation, a relationship of delight and joy.

And here we come to our New Testament passages, two ancient hymns of the church, from the letter to the Colossians, and from the first chapter of John. Both of them speak of the nature of Jesus Christ – not his human identity, as a first century Galilean rabbi, but his divine nature: that aspect of God’s being which, we believe, walked among us as that Galilean rabbi.

What does Colossians say:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 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. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

And from John’s gospel, that familiar passage we associate with Christmas Eve:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

Again this powerful language of the one who was with God, who was God, bringing all things into being. But this language is not new to the New Testament.  It has its origin in the Old Testament, in the figure of Holy Wisdom.

And I am glad of this connection between the language the New Testament uses to speak of Christ, and the language the Old Testament uses to speak of wisdom. Because we so often keep them separate. The religion we have inherited from our 19th century ancestors separated far too much the gift of creation from our redemption in Christ.  Sure, there was an appreciation of creation: we could sing “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and praise God the Father, who made all things well. But at the same time, the real centre of our faith was Jesus Christ who redeemed us from our sins. And the two often didn’t seem to have much to do with each other.  These passages call us into a deeper sense of the interconnectedness of the Trinity in creative love and delight: the same Christ who took flesh for our redemption is also the Word and Wisdom that is written into the web of the universe.

I am reminded of the famous speech of Chief Seattle to the white settlers who had come to take his people’s land. We don’t really know what Chief Seattle said: it is lost in so many layers of translation and editing and rewriting, not least for inspirational posters.  But at the core of his wise and bitter message there seems to be a theological statement:

Your God seems to us to be partial. He came to the white man. We never saw Him; never even heard His voice. He gave the white man laws, but He had no word for His red children whose teeming millions filled this vast continent as the stars fill the firmament. No, we are two distinct races and must ever remain so. There is little in common between us.

Your religion was written on tablets of stone by the iron finger of an angry God, lest you might forget it. The red man could never remember nor comprehend it. Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors, the dreams of our old men, given them by the great Spirit, and the visions of our sachems, and is written in the hearts of our people. Your dead cease to love you and the homes of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb. They wander far off beyond the stars, are soon forgotten, and never return. Our dead never forget the beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its winding rivers, its great mountains and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely-hearted living and often return to visit and comfort them.

I fear he was right.  If we had to choose between his religious vision, and the creation-denying flavour of much traditional Christianity – well, one could have considerable sympathy for his choice.

Fortunately, we do not have to choose.  In the richness of our trinitarian tradition, God is so much bigger than we have made him.  There is much for us to learn from the spirituality of aboriginal peoples, and it fits beautifully with what the Old Testament tells us about creation.  What there is for us to learn is wisdom: the wisdom to live in harmony with creation, to respect its laws, its balance, and our place in that balance.  We can learn that the wisdom of God that breathes through creation is not just the laws we learn in the lab and by looking to the skies.  It is also the wisdom of people who have learned to live with the land, because they have come to love it.  That is a wisdom our faith – and our country – desperately need to learn.