Wisdom at the Foundations


January 3, 2021                         Second Sunday after Christmas

Sirach 24:1-12                          Wisdom 10:15-21                        John 1:1-18


And so we find ourselves at the beginning of a New Year. I cant remember a New Years in which people have invested so much emotional energy. We have seen out 2020 as though we wanted to drive a stake through its heart; and we look to 2021 with hope that the new year will make everything better. Well I hope energetically and optimistically that this will be the year things turn around, but there is nothing magical about January 1, and it will clearly be many months still before we are out of the woods.

This Sunday we are celebrating as the second Sunday of Christmas. We don’t often use the readings for this day, because most years we would observe Epiphany, the Feast of the Three Kings, which is on Wednesday. But personally I can use all the Christmas I can get this year, so I thought we could still celebrate Christmas this Sunday, the tenth day of Christmas.

And so we hear as our gospel reading that familiar and majestic passage from the beginning of John’s gospel, so familiar from many a Christmas Eve. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Because it’s so familiar, we maybe don’t always hear how radical these words are. It is perhaps the strongest statement of the divine nature of Christ we have in the New Testament. It has been just a few decades – maybe 60 or 70 years – since Jesus’s death, and already we have come such a long way from the simple rabbi from Nazareth to talking about this divine figure who has been there from before the beginning of creation and has brought all things into being. Depending on your point of view, you might think either John was amazingly inspired by the Holy Spirit, or he is making some crazy stuff up!

But today, away from the glorious and heartfelt intensity of Christmas Eve, we hear the passage in a different context. And the lectionary has done something really interesting here – it has paired the passage with a couple of other passages about Wisdom, from two relatively unknown books of the Bible, the Book of Sirach and the Book of Wisdom. These are less well known because they come from what we call the Apocrypha or intertestamental writings, books written later than the Hebrew bible (our Old Testament), but before the New Testament – books we don’t often read in church, and so are unfamiliar.

Hearing these passages next to the familiar words of St. John, we begin to see where John is getting all these ideas about Jesus being the Word at the beginning of Creation. He is neither making it up out of his own head, nor does he need a miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit (though I think the Spirit was involved). He is doing what Jewish writers have always done: he is making sense of what he has heard about Jesus by searching back in the Scriptures, and finding language and clues to help him understand what is going on.

In Sirach he read about Wisdom – more than an abstract concept, but a God-like figure, who went forth from God’s mouth in the beginning, who infuses all of creation, who came to dwell especially with God’s chosen people who aspired to live by God’s Law. In the book of Wisdom, the theme is continued: it is Wisdom who went with Moses, leading the people out of slavery into freedom. And so these Jewish thinkers developed the ancient idea of Wisdom to talk about God’s plan running through creation and history. Wisdom is the hidden meaning, the pattern, the blueprint that underlies everything that is and makes sense of it.

When John looked to Jesus, that is what he saw. In Jesus’s commitment to truth and justice and compassion, in his giving himself in love for others, John saw God’s own self-giving, and he saw in that the secret meaning that runs through all creation, that makes sense of it all. In the tradition of Wisdom writing he found a language and concepts to speak of what he saw in Jesus. He make one change: in place of the Jewish word Wisdom he used the Greek word Logos, or Word. The meaning is the same: the Logos is the logic that runs through all creation, the hidden clue that helps us make sense of the meaning of life. This is what John believes has taken flesh and come to dwell with us in Jesus, and it is a cause for great joy.

There is another side to this passage, a shadow and a sorrow that cuts right through the middle of it. Again, perhaps we miss the depth of this sorrow amidst the celebration of Christmas Eve:

He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him.

Amidst the greatest joy, this deep sorrow: the very meaning and plan of all creation has come among us, and so many people have failed to recognize it. Caught up in other interests, many have turned their backs on the truth, justice, and compassion that Jesus embodies. Many, in fact, enthusiastically embrace and celebrate the very opposite, and look to power and domination and falsehood as the key to their happiness.

And that brings us to 2021. Because it seems to me that in these fundamentals, we live in exactly the same world that John lived in 1900 years ago. The universe still stands on the same foundations it always has, foundations of wisdom and truth and the love of God. That light of truth shines in the world in many places. Some people seek it and try to serve it – imperfectly and with many a stumble and fall. And some people choose to turn their backs on it, and serve another truth, another logos, of selfishness and greed and anger.

Let me be clear: this isn’t about Christians and non-Christians, as though we have to convert everyone to think the way we do. That is the beauty of a word like wisdom, in that it is universal: there are people of all faiths, and many people who don’t consider themselves religious, who attempt to live with wisdom and truth and compassion. We do not possess all truth by ourselves. We have seen the rationale of all creation in Jesus, and we try to let it guide our lives. We can share what wisdom we may have, but should be willing to listen to and learn from the wisdom of others. We need all the help we can get.

Nor is this about good people vs bad people, as though we were better than anyone else. We all mess up, we are weak, we are sometimes selfish, and we don’t always see our way clearly, just like anyone else. Repentance and humility are important parts of the way of wisdom. It is not about us and them at all.

But for all that the battle is real. I believe that the battle against arrogance and cruelty and contempt and dishonesty is the most important challenge that we face in 2021. The battle against Covid is almost a sideshow, although it is all caught up together. What is the struggle to save our planet but a battle against greed and short-sightedness and a wilful lack of connection to our spiritual roots? What is the fight for economic and racial justice but a battle against arrogance and contempt for others? I don’t claim to see through every specific situation with infallible judgment, but the older I get, the clearer the broad contours of this struggle are. And it feels like the battle is only intensifying around us.

So be courageous. Be kind. Be truthful. Respect and care for the weak. Seek wisdom. Be humble, without forgetting your dignity as God’s beloved child. Live gently with creation, and honour the holiness of the creator that infuses the world. And do not ever be ashamed to claim your identity as a Christian in the great struggle of our times. It does not make you better than anyone else, it does not make you anyone’s enemy: it is simply our way of honouring and protecting and standing up for the Wisdom and truth and human decency that is the foundation on which our world has been built.