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St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church
Creation Series 3
January 29, 2012
Prov. 8:22-31; Ps. 111; 1 Cor. 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
Proverbs: The Invitation to the Cosmic Dance
This is our third in our Creation series, and we move into new terrain. The past two Sundays we talked about Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, which have both been heavily interpreted over the centuries and are the focus of controversy of one sort or another – -be it our relation to the natural world; or the place of LGBT community in God’s vision; or Darwin and evolutionary science; or the proper roles of men and women … the list goes on. So much of our task with those two passages was to unpack them, to off-load some of the interpretive frameworks that have weighed them down, and to see what we might see when we view them fresh as creation stories.
Today we venture into the book of Proverbs, and I’ll bet this is far less well known. Proverbs, along with Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, belongs to a collection in scripture known as the “Poetical and Wisdom Books.” These five books do not form a coherent unit or sequence, like, say the historical books, but were written at different times and consist of different literary types, and were probably included in the canon for different reasons. The content is quite different. Wisdom literature does not focus on the nation of Israel or its history, or the covenant or even its central theology. Wisdom literature reflects on universal human concerns, especially how humans are to live in right relationship to each other and to God. The overarching theme of Proverbs could be understood by a phrase that appears in today’s Psalm 111 as well as in Proverbs 9: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” “Fear” is not an emotional state as we would understand it, fear that if we don’t behave ourselves we’ll get into trouble. Fear of God is more closely translated “reverence”: “to [revere] the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” “Reverence” here has less to do with participating in worship or “right belief.” We show reverence to God by the way we live.
To do this, Proverbs doesn’t talk about covenant and barely mentions temple worship or sacrifice. Instead, it looks at pattern and repetition in nature, and draws parallels to life in society.(i) Proverbs was written in an urban setting, and it shows us how we learn about God explicitly through the study of creation. And at the beginning of creation was wisdom.
How are we to understand Wisdom? This can bog us down because we think of wisdom as a characteristic, an attribute, something a human might possess more or less of. But that’s not quite what is going on here. Wisdom in Proverbs is personified. We need to think of her as an entity, a force unto herself with a consciousness. Wisdom is personified as female throughout the book of Proverbs, and in fact in many places in Scripture. In Matthew 11, Jesus is quoted as saying “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her actions” (Matt. 11:18-19). Jesus here refers to this wisdom, God’s wisdom, with a feminine pronoun. AND, he identifies himself with Wisdom. Jesus identifies himself with woman wisdom. More on that in a moment.
So it is the figure of Woman Wisdom that reaches out to the world of humans, an exalted female figure in a strongly male-centered society. And there are other women in Proverbs too, the antitypes we might say – Woman Folly, Woman Stranger, Woman adulteress (adultery, you recall, refers to unfaithfulness to the God of the Hebrews, for example through idol worship.) Woman wisdom and her antitypes – what does all this mean? Scholars have had some fun with this over the centuries! Is Woman Wisdom an extension of God’s attributes, or is she modeled after the real roles of teacher, counselor, householder, nurturer? Scholars debate …
But let’s look more closely at this particular passage for today, our creation story in Proverbs 8, so different from the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2. Remember how Genesis 1 is heavily structured, with the verses corresponding in an ordered pattern. And Genesis 2 is linear, driven by God’s work at each stage, seeing a deficiency and moving to correct it. We don’t see that kind of order here, it’s more poetic in style, and there isn’t a chronological sequence except in one all-important way: Wisdom is first, that is clear. Wisdom is there at the beginning.
Similarly to the Genesis 2 account, God is active here. Listen to the verbs that punctuate the verses: God created, set up, brought forth, shaped, established, drew, made firm, assigned, marked out. God is hands-on, actively at work. And through all this, Wisdom was there, “like a master worker,” rejoicing and delighting. William Brown observes the dynamic between two forces at work here. There is the creation of the mountains, the soil, the heavens, the foundations of the earth, setting the limits of sea and sky. It is a picture of cosmic stability and security. And through all of this, Wisdom moves and flows, Wisdom dances and delights. So you have this paradox – the stable, and the dynamic. Brown finds a fascinating parallel to contemporary science. There is an order to the universe, mathematical laws and predictability. And there is the wild and quirky world of quantum physics; to scientists they are two different realms. And the universe engages in a cosmic dance between these two realms, the orderly and the lively. Did the ancient poet intuit this?
Brown also points out that despite how things might appear to us, nothing stays still in the universe. Everything in the universe pulls on something else. “Gravity,” he says, “is the choreographer of the universe.”(ii) Stability and movement. And relationality. The movement and the stability are all relational, and everything connects to everything else.
I said that Jesus identified himself with Woman Wisdom. Recall that the Gospel of John begins “in the beginning was the Word.” Another way to translate this passage is “in the beginning was Wisdom, and Wisdom was with God, and Wisdom was God.” This association of Jesus with Wisdom is ancient, and we’ve talked about it before. It brings us back to Jesus as a teacher of inner transformation, as today’s Gospel makes clear. He changes people from the inside out. And the essence of that teaching, that transformation is our deep understanding that there is nothing separating us from the rest of life.
This is the wisdom of the Cosmic Dance, to which we are all invited. Wisdom begins with understanding the natural world and our place in it. Proverbs suggests that this involves learning, our brains. But it also involves our hearts, our joy. To recognize that rejoicing in the beauty and wonder of creation helps us to experience our oneness with it. It might look something like this. We’re going about our day, caught up in our cares and concerns, and then suddenly something captures us. We are struck by a gorgeous red sunset, or the full moon rise, or the snap in the air of a still winter’s night, our attention is caught and “reframes the whole moment in an instant. It is a touch of eternity in time, [and we become aware] of the beauty and awesome grandeur of our life here and now.”
Reverence for God in those moments is the beginning of wisdom. Something breaks through our consciousness and we see the largeness of the world and our place in it. We have a moment of seeing everything as part of the one great whole, all infused with the grandeur of God.
“ ‘Fear of the Lord’ ” is a way of life, a posture in the world that acknowledges God’s sovereignty and the place of humanity (our capabilities and limitations) before God and creation.”(iii) The wisdom for us, here, today, in this time and place, is to understand, again, our interconnectedness with all of life, to care passionately about life and to share it with others joyfully, delightedly, however and wherever we can.
Like this –
O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists that roll and rise!
Thy woods this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!
Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart, — Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me, — let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.(iv) Amen.
i Mark Z. Brettler, “Introduction to the Poetical and Wisdom Books,” The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 721.
ii William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation, (Oxford University Press, 2010), 171.
iii Christine Roy Yoder, Feasting, 301.
iv “God’s World,” Edna St. Vincent Millay. Accessed on-line.