Sermons That Work

Wisdom Hath Builded…, Proper 15 (B) – 2006

August 20, 2006

“Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars.” The King James language would have been familiar to Lawrence of Arabia when he titled his long and idiosyncratic memoirs of the Middle East “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” In Proverbs 9, the reference to the seven pillars is probably an allusion to the idea of the earth conceived as a platform resting upon pillars. But what matters here is, of course, the personification and character of Wisdom as God’s “daily delight” as it says in Proverbs 8, and as master-craftswoman in the work of Creation itself. The first few generations of Christians, attempting to describe Jesus theologically, leaned heavily on this Wisdom tradition and attributed to him many of her characteristics.

The thematic connection between the reading from Proverbs and the continuing discourse in John’s Gospel, where we are now in about the third week of the “Bread of Life” speech from John 6, lies in the offer of God’s life-giving hospitality. The passage from Proverbs 9 shows Wisdom preparing a banquet: animals are slaughtered, the wine is mixed with spices to increase the flavor, and she sends out her servants to invite the “simple people” to her house for the festivities. The purpose of the banquet is to invite and encourage the “simple” to embrace the path of following wisdom, and begin by learning insight. Later in the same chapter a contrast is drawn with the lesser figure of “Folly,” who neither makes preparations nor sends out invitations, but expects passers-by to drop in casually for bread and water. This non-banquet invites and encourages nobody on the road through insight to wisdom; the path of Folly merely goes down to Sheol, the abode of the dead.

We understand, then, that Wisdom’s hospitality invites us to life, not death, and so we move into the “Bread of Life” discourse in John 6. Eating and drinking at Wisdom’s feast is to live and walk in the way of insight. Eating the bread that Jesus is offering is accepting to participate fully in his own flesh and blood. We have to understand both passages metaphorically, though it is always worth pausing to contemplate the horror of Jesus’ words if they are taken literally: eating flesh and drinking blood is the language of cannibalism. Wisdom’s banquet can be taken as a symbol of God’s invitation to enjoy the abundant richness and sustenance of his presence in our lives as we commit ourselves to seeking him by study, prayer, and action.

But when Jesus talks of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, he is saying that unless we come to live by his death we shall not find that abundant richness and sustenance. We find our true and eternal life with God only as we take Jesus’ self-offering in dying as characteristic for our own living as his disciples. When he goes on to say in John 6 that “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them,” Jesus is indicating that both life in this world, and life in what we call “the world to come” are intimately bound up with our relationship to his sacrificial death.

The “Bread of Life” discourse is, from end to end, resonant with overtones of both Passover and Eucharist. But the significance of the whole thing lies not only in the promised abundance of abiding, eternal life that God, through Jesus’ life and death, gives for us and to us, but also in the way we appropriate the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ life and death into our own ways of being and thus make our own lives available to others. That deeply inviting hospitality is seen in Lady Wisdom preparing her feast and setting her table. She will make herself available to those who seek insight into her ways and paths.

The picture awakens memories of Abraham’s hospitality, the feast laid out for his anonymous and angelic visitors in the desert “by the terebinths of Mamre,” when he and Sarah are promised the inheritance of life in the world to come of a son, Isaac.

Like John 6, the inviting and deeply hospitable banquet of Wisdom haunts us with its allusions to God’s gift of manna in the wilderness. The long journey through such inhospitable places is where the People of God came to terms with their departure from Egypt, their deliverance and the invitation to freedom; the inhospitable desert is where they learned new things about God’s hospitality, and looked forward to life in the world to come of the Promised Land.

May all our Eucharists show forth to ourselves and to others the hospitality of our God, and may our lives grow ever deeper into the self-offering of our Savior Jesus, so that we can offer ourselves and the fruits of our lives and labors to others in his name. Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema


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