Tag: New Creation

Holy Wisdom – A lectionary reflection for Trinity Sunday (Proverbs 8)

Wisdom, Prudence, and Knowledge

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

 
8 Does not wisdom call,
    and does not understanding raise her voice?
2 On the heights, beside the way,
    at the crossroads she takes her stand;
3 beside the gates in front of the town,
    at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
4 “To you, O people, I call,
    and my cry is to all that live.
 
22 The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
    the first of his acts of long ago.
23 Ages ago I was set up,
    at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped,
    before the hills, I was brought forth—
26 when he had not yet made earth and fields,
    or the world’s first bits of soil.
27 When he established the heavens, I was there,
    when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above,
    when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 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,
30     then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
    rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
    and delighting in the human race.
 
 
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                Pentecost Sunday, which celebrates the sending of the Spirit, is followed by Trinity Sunday. Now that we have the Spirit on board, we can attend to the question of the Trinity as a whole. That is, how do we fit all the pieces together as one God in three persons, blessed Trinity? As a Trinitarian, who understands the challenges presented by the doctrine, I’ve wrestled with the question. I even have a book due out any minute that explores the idea in conversation with my own denominational tradition that is by intention non-creedal. That fact—being non-creedal—always makes for an interesting Trinity Sunday.
 
The lectionary invites preachers to consider a variety of biblical texts for any given Sunday, including readings from the Hebrew Bible. The question for us this week is whether we can find allusions to the Trinity in the Hebrew Bible. We must do this while recognizing that Judaism, like Islam, is a strictly monotheistic tradition. The ancient church, using such devices as the allegorical method, found those allusions, but I’m not sure a Jewish reader would always agree. Nevertheless, Proverbs 8, which celebrates Holy Wisdom, is the chosen first reading for Trinity Sunday in year C. So, what should we make of this witness? What direction might we go with the passage on Trinity Sunday?
 
                As we consider the question, I confess to being a Trinitarian who believes that a faithful reading of Scripture reveals a Trinitarian vision of God’s nature. Nevertheless, we must be careful with how we handle texts like this. While Proverbs 8 speaks of Wisdom in elevated terms, using female descriptors, which lends itself to broadening our conception of God’s nature (moving beyond the traditional masculine vision), this particular text poses a distinct challenge. That is because, while it speaks of Wisdom calling us to pay attention to its witness, it also speaks of Wisdom as the first act of God’s creation not as being divine in any recognizable way (vs. 22). The doctrine of the Trinity, on the other hand, insists that the three persons of the Godhead (three hypostases in one substance) are eternal and uncreated. That goes for the Logos as well as Wisdom (Sophia), but the witness here is that Wisdom is the first act of creation. So, we should be wary about using this passage to inform our Trinitarian visions, even if this passage does lend itself to considering the female dimension within God’s nature. Indeed, as Liza Anderson notes, Arius used Proverbs 8:22 in reference to the Logos to affirm his premise that Christ is a created being.  She writes: 
 

Given that subsequent ecumenical councils commit us to a belief that the Spirit is likewise uncreated, a simple identification of the biblical figure of Wisdom with any of the three Trinitarian Persons seems impossible to sustain. There are still all kinds of interesting things to do with that feminine personification of Wisdom; the Russian tradition of sophiology as expressed by Bulgakov and others offers examples. But there is no easy way to conflate it with the Holy Spirit that doesn’t simply result in subordinating the Spirit to the Father and the Son.  [Liza Anderson, “Translating the Trinity,” Covenant (March 28, 2019).]

 
While the passage is suggestive, and the idea of the divine nature of Wisdom is present at points in canonical Scripture and in non-canonical texts, with this warning from a historian of the early church, it might be best if we don’t delve too deeply into conversations that take more space than I have in this essay. So, perhaps we should consider other ways of reading this passage that might prove spiritually beneficial.
 
The reading begins with a depiction of Woman Wisdom as a street preacher, calling out to all who will listen, to follow her lead. This picture of Wisdom standing at the gates calling out to any who will listen comes after the author of this part of the book of Proverbs (chapters 1-9) describes both the allure and the dangers offered by the strange or loose woman (Proverbs 7). This opening section of Proverbs (chapters 1-9) depicts a father sharing wisdom with his son (a perfect Father’s Day allusion?). The key to this bit of wisdom is the contrast between the loose woman who represents folly and the righteous creation of God who offers the boy Wisdom.   
 
With the reading prefaced by the picture of Woman Wisdom standing at the gates of the city beckoning all who will hear to follow her, we come to verse 22. We might start by affirming the premise of verse 22, that Wisdom is the first act of God’s creation.  The writer of this poem lifts up Wisdom’s role in the creative process. She was there from the beginning, before anything took form, from the sea to the sky to the land. But what was the role she played?
 
Cameron Howard suggests that “Wisdom was God’s joyful companion,” a vision revealed in the fine two verses of the passage we have before us. Joy is the operative word here regarding Wisdom, so we might consider that, as Howard suggests, “to walk in the straight and righteous paths of Wisdom, then, is to connect with this same primal joy” [Connections, pg. 3-4]. This idea that Wisdom is God’s companion as God engages in the work of creation emerges from an alternative reading of verse 30. The NRSV speaks of Wisdom being the “master worker.” However, it is also possible to read this as “child.” If we read it as “master worker” or architect, then how should we understand the reference to God taking daily delight in Wisdom? Is it in terms of the work being done or something else? If we go with “child,” then Wisdom is that companion with whom God shares the joy of creation? Whatever the case, God takes delight in what is created, as does Wisdom. Indeed, Wisdom rejoices in the inhabited world and in the human race itself. All of this goes back to the pronouncement in Genesis 1 that the creation is good.
 
                So the message of the day is really one of joy. Let’s rejoice in the beauty of creation, including human life. It is good and blessed. Such joy should lead us to a commitment to care for creation. As Leanne Van Dyke suggests, “A Christian vision that looks out onto our world with the eyes of Wisdom constantly sees opportunities for participating in God’s own intentions and plans. God is not a Creator gone missing. God is intimately related to each and every creature” [Connections, p 5]. Such a vision, one that motivates us to social engagement, brings with it a sense of joy. Again, Van Dyke writes: The church certainly better fulfill its mission to communicate the gospel to a jaded world with winsome cheer and joyful delight rather than judgment and blame” [Connections, p. 6]. It is true that prophets are known to talk turkey about things in the world, and that is sometimes needed, but a constant harangue doesn’t get us far. Joy, on the other hand, it has more to offer.
 
                Trinity Sunday highlights God in God’s fullness, however we have come to understand that fullness. In celebrating God’s fullness, we acknowledge God’s role as Creator. Knowing that God takes delight in the creation, of which Holy Wisdom is both the first act and the partner, we can sing boldly: “All creatures of our God and king, lift up your voice and with us sing; Alleluia, Alleluia!”

Image attributionMaster of the Cité des Dames, active 1400-1415. Wisdom, Prudence, and Knowledge, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56953 [retrieved June 10, 2019]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Othea%27s_Epistle_(Queen%27s_Manuscript)_02.jpg.

 

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Easter and the New Creation – Lectionary Reflection for Easter Sunday (Isaiah 65)

The Peaceable Kingdom (Edward Hicks)
 
17 For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
 
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                “Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my savior, waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!” When “up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes, he arose a victor from the dark domain, and he lives forever with his saints to reign.” [Chalice Hymnal, 224]. Yes, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and with his resurrection is born the new creation. The old is past and needs to be forgotten. The past no longer holds sway over our lives. The journey to the cross and then to the tomb has led to this point when something new is born, for out of death comes life, like an acorn that falls from the tree and is reborn as another oak tree.
                The reading from Isaiah speaks not of resurrection but new creation. At first glance it doesn’t read as an Easter text, and yet it serves to deepen our understanding of resurrection. It speaks to the implications of the resurrection, but not directly.
It’s likely that few will preach from this text on Easter morning (I am of those who will place it at the center of my sermon), and yet it might have something important to say to us, even as it spoke to the original recipients. Authorship is attributed to the post-exilic prophet whose words of encouragement and guidance are found in the book called Isaiah. The author is often designated as Third Isaiah, and he speaks to a people living with shattered dreams. Once a nation that at least thought of itself as being independent, the nation of Judah was scattered and sent into exile. The Temple was destroyed, along with the city of Jerusalem. The people of Judah had heard words of promise from the one we call Second Isaiah while still in Babylon. Now, with the exile ended, and the people (a new generation that was born in Babylon) having returned to Judah, they still aren’t complete free. They live not in the form of a nation, but as a province of the Persian Empire. They may have come home with high hopes of seeing their nation restored, but things aren’t turning out as expected. This new generation has heard stories of what once was, and what became of their people, as well as prophetic visions of a new beginning, but it still doesn’t feel right. The hoped-for transformation of their lives is not happening, at least not in the way they expected. That new beginning has yet to emerge. So, the prophet tells them to forget the former things. Forget the past. Instead take hold of a new vision. Consider the promise of a new creation. This new vision takes us back to the beginning of creation, to the garden, where all of creation lived in harmony. This is the vision of the new creation that will come upon the people. It is a vision that deepens our understanding of the resurrection.
                To get to the new creation, we need to return to the first day of the week, when in Luke’s account, women came to the tomb to finish preparing the body that was hastily laid in the tomb. Resurrection is a sign of new creation, but they’re not yet ready to experience it. When the women reach the tomb, they find the stone rolled away and the body missing. It does appear they expected to find Jesus still lying in the grave. Instead, they encounter two men in dazzling clothes (angels?) who tell the women Jesus has been raised from the dead and will speak to the community soon. When they arrive back at the place where the church is gathered, their report is received with disbelief. Jesus may have spoken of resurrection, but this message hadn’t sunk in yet. But Jesus had risen from the dead (Lk 24:1-12). The old had passed away, and the new had emerged in the resurrected Jesus. In his resurrection he embodies the vision of a new creation.  
 
                The Gospel accounts in Luke and John give us the story of Jesus’ resurrection. They remind us that death could hold him. Death had staked its claim, but God proved too powerful, and Jesus, whom the world discarded, was vindicated. Resurrection wasn’t and isn’t a singular event. It’s not just about overcoming death and moving on to the heavenly realm. Resurrection is about new creation, a new vision for the people of God. The word we hear in Isaiah is that God is about to create new heavens and a new earth. There will be a new Jerusalem where joy will be abundant. Weeping will be absent. People won’t labor in vain. The “wolf and lion shall feed together, while the lion shall eat straw like an ox.” It’s a vision that strikes us as one of peace. Now, I understand the biology of wolves and lions. They’re carnivores, not herbivores. Nevertheless, the image is striking enough to get our attention. It is the vision of a return to the Garden, where life is lived in harmony. 
 
                For those who gather on Easter morning, this vision offers comfort and perhaps a balm for the soul. It might offer a word of encouragement and empowerment. These are words that seem in short supply these days. For a moment the Easter gathering offers us an opportunity to dwell in the new creation. Our realities might change in an instant. We still must go out on Monday morning to face what is often an unfriendly world, but we go forth with this vision of a new creation as a light to the pathway we take.
                When we gather on Easter Morning, having traveled a path that led through Golgotha, we will have acknowledged that Jesus suffered, died, and was buried. Now that it is the third day, we gather to celebrate the news that Jesus is risen from the dead. With his resurrection, the old has passed and the new has emerged from the tomb. This news has cosmic implications. As Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi writes: “Jesus’ resurrection is not only a witness to the promise of life after death. It is also a testament to the promise of resurrection grounded in a life given to others against all manifestations of evil.” In this new cosmic order that is initiated by Jesus’ resurrection, “relationships embody the joy of God’s creative power” [Feasting on the Word, p. 358]. These relationships are the ones represented by the Wolf and the Lamb, both are God’s creatures, and in the new creation that live together in harmony. Perhaps the word we hear as we gather to celebrate Easter is that in Christ, God is transforming our relationships with one another and with creation itself into something new.
                Too often Easter becomes little more than an opportunity to show off new clothes and share an Easter basket. There’s nothing wrong with such things, but they are not at the heart of Easter. What is at the heart of Easter, it is the triumph of “the steadfast love of the Lord,” which “endures forever” and evidenced by the new creation in Christ’s resurrection. We may not see it fully revealed at this moment, but as Paul reminds us, the resurrection of Jesus is the first fruits of that new realm of God (1 Cor. 15:23).   

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain, wheat that in dark earthy many days has lain; Love lives again, that with the dead has been; Love is come again like wheat arising green. [John M. C. Crum, Chalice Hymnal, 230].