Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 12 July 2015
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Ecclesiasticus 4.12 Whoever loves wisdom, loves life.
From today until 9 August, the Old Testament lesson at Sunday Evensong is from Ecclesiasticus, known as the Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach. You haven’t come here for a Bible study, and I’m not going to give you one. I’ll spare you the deep complexities of this long and strange book, just as I’ve spared myself. But I do want to pique your curiosity about Ecclesiasticus so that we don’t switch off every Sunday for the next month. You might even end up putting Ecclesiasticus on your reading list at home.
First things first. This is Ecclesiasticus, not Ecclesiastes, and it’s not easy to find because it is in the Apocrypha, that collection of also-rans in the middle of some Bibles, the books which didn’t get into the Hebrew Bible. Which is most unfair because Ecclesiasticus was written in Hebrew and we lost most of it until recently, and know it therefore in a Greek translation. Anyway some people just took against it. Life can be tough when you’re a book.
The verses of Ecclesiasticus are class notes: the teacher’s crib. Written about two centuries before Christ, this is as near as we amateurs can get to what young boys like Jesus would have listened to when they went to the Temple. That’s quite important for Christians, because Jesus’s mindset, his way of looking at the world, was formed by listening to books like this. So Ecclesiasticus becomes part of our tradition too, worth pondering, well worth a look. Here is the evidence for Jesus growing up in a structured and disciplined community, for whom the pursuit of wisdom is a priority. It’s not about obeying the laws, it’s about wisdom as a discipline. It’s a conservative view, in that Ecclesiasticus instructs the young to revere tradition and to respect those wise teachers who are also on Wisdom’s path. The book seems a muddle to us, and a lot of it is traditional advice on how to live which just isn’t useful to us, but we’re to pick and choose. I find many things of value to me, and I’d like to tell you what these are.
First, God is overwhelming. God’s everywhere. I can’t get away from Him. My search for God and for wisdom turn out to be God’s relentless search for me. And although that search has many uncomfortable and despairing moments, I know that ultimately all is well, that Christian hope is justified. Ben Sirach writes, “Thanks to the Lord, all ends well, and all things hold together by means of his word.” Here in Ecclesiasticus is an all-powerful God identified with the nature and the created universe: “… there are strange and wonderful works, animals of every kind and huge sea creatures.” This is our theology of creation, which emerges in the Pope’s recent encyclical. God’s involved in the greatest and the least of his creatures. We can’t take theology out of ecology.
First, God and nature. Second, you and me. God has given us a free choice. This is our life Ben Sirach is talking about. “God made man in the beginning, and then left him free to make his own decisions. If you wish, you can keep the commandments, to behave faithfully is within your power.” That’s what Jesus heard, and that’s what we hear too. Don’t blame God if you go astray. It’s up to you.
Thirdly, Ben Sirach tells us, Be yourself. For his community this is about remembering Israel and the Scriptures which have formed the way you think and behave. For us, this means being true to what Wisdom has revealed to you. There is no need to follow the crowd, because the crowd could be wrong or is being led in the wrong direction, away from Wisdom’s path. Such wisdom as has come our way helps each of us to discern what’s right and what’s wrong. The kingdom of God is within you. We are allowed to step back and think for ourselves. The vast amount of information that overwhelms us today, the fundamentalist threats, the subtle and not so subtle thought control, the persecution of those who step out of line, all this just shows the need we have for a wisdom we can call our own, a wisdom which remains a deep mystery in which we can find rest, and which also shows us how to live, happily, in harmony with God, oneself, all others, and the created order.
Our world and our minds are riddled with conflict. But Wisdom, you see, is neither confrontational nor impatient. There’s no need for a fight when we are hand in hand with Wisdom. Wisdom, as the Wisdom of Solomon puts it, “knows and understands all things, and she will guide me wisely in my action and guard me with her glory.” [Wis. 9.11]
That brings me to a final revelation about this extraordinary book, Ecclesiasticus. Wisdom is often a person, sometimes female, sometimes just ‘the Lord’. This is what we find in today’s first lesson, which is about the rewards of Wisdom. “Wisdom brings up her own sons, and cares for those who seek her. Whoever loves her, loves life, those who wait on her early will be filled with happiness.” Here is our life’s journey, our religious quest, the point of everything. We spend our lives searching for Wisdom, while all the time Wisdom is ready to walk with us, to accompany us whatever happens, and that, like any human love, this relationship, whatever the ups and downs, brings happiness. This is why Christians came to see Jesus himself as this Wisdom figure, the one who walks with us. This isn’t top down religion, surrendering to a God who strikes us down. The word is near you, in your mouth, and in your heart [St Paul, after Deuteronomy]. We trust that inner authority, as we would trust a friend. This is a way of life for body and soul. It’s a call to patience, and it’s a call to a middle way, acknowledging that we lack so much, yet we’re not useless, we have so much to give. Or as Ben Sirach advises us in the closing verse of tonight’s lesson. “Do not let your hands be outstretched to receive, yet closed when the time comes to give back.”