Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Words. Of our mouths and others’; of friends and family members; of the peddlers of products and political propaganda.
Words. Greetings and gossip; Christmas cards and New Year’s resolutions; television specials and tawdry advertisements.
We are, this season—as every year in recent memory—bombarded by words, by sounds, by noise. And now, finally, some reprieve; things are beginning to quieten down again, now that the festivities are just about over.
We have, thankfully, a moment to step back, to look back and consider the weeks just past. And now, after hearing from Luke’s Gospel and Matthew’s Gospel these past few weeks, about the busy particularities of that first busy Christmas season, we are told: In the beginning was the Word.
The Word. In stark contrast to our incessant chatter, God utters one Word, and thereby calls the world into being, breathing into it life and shining unto it light. God utters one Word, and in this one Word become flesh, calls and draws the world into his bosom as his children.
On this second week after Christmas day, we gather to hear the eternal Word who is, simultaneously and paradoxically flesh: body that can be and is broken, blood that can be and is poured, all for our sake. What can we say about such a Word as this, from whom comes words of eternal life? Faced with the Word, our words are but as straw, as Thomas Aquinas realized. Words strain, writes T. S. Eliot (1943), Crack and sometimes break,
Under the burden, under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
This situation, you can imagine, puts the preacher in a difficult position.
Faced with the aptness of silence in this quiet season, we are nevertheless tasked to speak. But perhaps this is appropriate after all. Faced with the unspeakable mystery of the God who utters into being all things, human beings find ourselves to be—as Nicholas Lash puts it—“the speaking part of things”. We are not unfamiliar with paradox. What then, can we say? If we cannot predicate things of God per se; if we cannot talk of God literally, as it were; we can, perhaps, allude and associate, even—with Thomas Aquinas again—analogize. This certainly seem to be John’s strategy, pointing us now to Genesis 1, now to the rich Wisdom theology of the Hebrew Bible and other pre-Christian Jewish texts, and now to the contemporaneous intellectual milieu reflected in Aramaic writings of his day.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word shared in God’s divinity. It was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through it, and without it not one thing came into being. John opens with a re-telling of Genesis. And then, just a few moments later, comes the twist: and the Word became flesh and lived among us. The penny drops, and we hear again the words, but this time differently: all things come through him, and without him not one thing came into being. God speaks, and for this reason, the world is. This Jesus—the son of Joseph, of Nazareth (from which no good ought to be expected, as Nathaniel blurts)—is the reason and logic of creation. There is, at the heart of all things, not cold indifference leading to entropic decay, but the loving utterance of fatherhood and sonship. Herein is life and light that shines in the darkness.
The light that shines in darkness; the light to our paths and to our feet, as the psalmist says. Similarly, later on in the twenty-fourth chapter of Sirach, which our reading today introduces, the Jewish Wisdom tradition comes face to face with Torah. Not only is Wisdom she who covered the earth like a mist and takes root in an honoured people, but also the book of the covenant, the law that Moses commanded as an inheritance for God’s people. To say the least, John has a complicated relationship with the law. It is easy to read John too negatively, but that tendency must surely tempered by his claim—at the end of this first chapter—that the law of Moses presages the coming of Jesus, through whom comes grace and truth. He finds Jesus, as it were, in the law of Moses; however, as the narrative progresses, we quickly discover that the law is in him, and the new commandment is love. So it is that John’s allusion to Law amounts to much the same thing as his allusion to the creative Word: it is, once again, the affirmation that love lies at centre of all things.
As we have heard, none of this is really foreign to early Judaism, as expressed in her Wisdom tradition. Wisdom is, while being Law, is not therefore an agent of oppression, but emphatically the agent of deliverance and redemption. Indeed, the tenth chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon, of which we heard the ending today, narrates the redemptive history of Israel and Wisdom’s chief role in it. From Adam to Noah to Abraham to Lot to Jacob to Joseph, and finally, to Moses, Wisdom saves; she delivers a holy people, leading them through deep waters and guiding them along a marvellous way. So it is in John’s gospel, that this Jesus is he who takes away the sin of the world, and therefore rightly commands us to follow him, that we may be blameless and holy before God in love.
The inadequacy of words is no less obvious now than it was before, and it seems that our flustered verbosity is as much evidence of our limitations as of the uncontainable mystery of God.
It is the second Sunday after Christmas, and we are now—one hopes—in a better position to reflect upon the season, to tune out the jingles and carols, the crinkling and crunching of wrapping paper, followed by peals of childish joy (or, alas, the false gratitude of adult disappointment). We shall soon miss our families and friends who have come to visit and gone; we shall soon (but perhaps not soon enough) shed the weight we inevitably put on this time every year. Tomorrow—Epiphany—we shall (most of us) take down our trees, and box up our baubles and tinsel for next time around. The time for noise, for busyness, for many words is over for now. It is, I think, a good time to consider—in whatever way we are able—what it might mean that at the foundation of all things is God’s single utterance of the love that calls us.