This is a sermon for the epiphany of our Lord, given in the “church up the road.” The Scriptures it references are Ephesians 3:1-12 and Luke 7:31-35.
Regular readers of my blog will realise that as both this week’s and last week’s sermons were on the topic of wisdom, and as they were given in two different churches, I have re-used some of the material from last week’s sermon in this one. However, the main point is quite different!
“Wise men from the east” came to show their respect and reverence for the child Jesus.
Wisdom’s a funny thing. We tend to think of it as being a bit slippery; a bit difficult to pin down. A little bit mystical, maybe, or the preserve of people who are able to spend decades amongst musty books. (Just think of that great icon of wisdom in popular culture; I refer, of course, to Master Yoda).
This was the sort of wise men who came to visit Jesus. The word used to describe them, magos, referred to priests of a pagan Persian religion; educated in science, agriculture, maths, history, astronomy (which at that time was more what today we would call astrology), and the occult. They were also widely noted for their honesty and integrity. These men were powerful and influential within their own culture, and respected in the surrounding areas.
And I suspect that for most ordinary people, they kind of feel that wisdom is for people like these; that is, for other people. As long as there are great sages on mountaintops or mystics in monasteries, you and I don’t need to worry too much about acquiring wisdom.
But the problem with this, for us, is that the Bible makes a big deal about wisdom as being an important part of the life of faith, and so the idea that we can kind of hand over responsibility for wisdom to other people – even if those people are our leaders and teachers – is very risky. After all, we all have our weaknesses!
But it’s also the case that wisdom – in Biblical terms – is not the same thing as mysticism or esoteric scholarship. Put very simply, what the Biblical writings mean by “wisdom” is basically the ability to work out what God wants us to do, and to do it. And while that’s not always as straightforward as we would like, it’s also not beyond the reach of even the most ordinary people.
It is, however, a bit topic; too big for one sermon. So today I want to focus on just one aspect of wisdom, and what it means for us.
And I want to pick up on what Paul said in our reading from Ephesians, where he described the wisdom of God as having “rich variety.” I take this to mean that, if wisdom is doing what God wants us to do, and there is “rich variety” of wisdom, this means that God doesn’t want us to be all the same. I am me, and each of you is an individual person, and we are created to be different in our relationships with God.
I think Jesus brought this out very clearly when he reflected on the reaction that people had to the fact that he and John the Baptist did things differently, as if this meant that somehow one or the other (or perhaps both!) of them had to be wrong. But instead Jesus answered that wisdom is vindicated by all her children. It was okay for John the Baptist and Jesus to be different, because each was contributing to the kingdom of God in his own way.
And Paul says the same thing, when he says that through the church, the wisdom of God in its rich variety might be made known. This works on a number of levels. It means first that I can allow others to be different. It doesn’t make me wrong, it doesn’t make someone else wrong, if in genuine good conscience and sincere attempts to please God we end up doing different things. It means that the wisdom of God in its rich variety is being made known.
It also works on the level of team ministry. The great thing for me about working with the vicar here is that we are quite different people, with different gifts, passions, personalities and experiences. We approach things differently, we prioritise things differently; and we preach differently! And this is good for both of us, because instead of needing to be equally good at everything we can share the load and support one another. And it’s also good for you, because you can get the benefit of those differences; so that there’s more likely to be something for everyone in how we work together as a team.
As one example of how this works, in my last parish I found myself doing a lot of pastoral care to women around pregnancy and childbirth; the vicar there was a man who had never had children and probably didn’t want to hear about all the gory details, but it was helpful to those women to have someone they could talk with about those things. On the other hand, there were in that parish quite a number of doctoral students who really benefitted from the vicar’s support of and care for them, something I could never have offered them in the same way.
This is also important on a slightly bigger scale. This is the great gift of our partnership between these two neighbouring parishes; they are, historically, very different parishes with quite different traditions. They have offered worship in different styles and engagement with different aspects of Christian spirituality. And this is a good thing! As we seek to reach out to the broader community around us, the more we are able to offer the fullest possible range of the rich variety of the Anglican church, the more likely it is that different people are going to find something on offer appealing.
And, on an even bigger scale again, this is important ecumenically. The full breadth of the Church – from the Copts and the Orthodox on one extreme to the Salvation Army and the Society of Friends (Quakers) on the other; each contributes something to the rich variety of the wisdom of God. I might not want to be a Copt or a Quaker, I might even have areas in which I am critical of them, but if I think I have nothing to learn from their differences, I am limiting the wisdom of God. And that’s a very dangerous thing to do.
Recently I’ve been doing some reading on the close link between our worship and our lives. And the author I was reading posed some sharp questions. What does our worship do in us? If we find ourselves in communities of worship week after week, has it made a difference in our lives? Has it changed us? Has it made us see the world differently? Has all our worship had any lasting transformative effect, or does worship comfort us in ways that are misleading? Have we made worship safe and, therefore, empty?
The author I was reading was not, at that point, explicitly considering the question of diversity in the Christian life, but it seems to me that making room for expressing that diversity is one way to work towards ensuring that our worship is all that it should be.
So what do we do with that? We celebrate diversity in the Christian life. We give one another permission and encouragement to be each who God has created, gifted and called us to be, even when that’s very different for some of us than for others. We look to actively include diversity in our various ministries, and we work to preserve and learn from the distinctive insights, traditions and practices which have come down to us from generations past. That’s how we are going to get the most benefit from the rich variety of the wisdom of God, and be most well equipped to make it known to the world around us, inviting them, like the wise men of long ago, to meet with Jesus with respect and reverence.