David Walker's Sermon - 16th September 2018
I was watching the test match on TV last week. If you watch the cricket you’ll be familiar with the commentators. David Lloyd, or Bumble, was asked what he’d been up to the night before and he described how he’d paid a visit to Victoria Station to indulge his passion for train spotting. Surprisingly enough I was never into train spotting but I remember when I was at school in Darlington how quite a lot of my classmates would run from school to Bank Top station (about a mile or so) to catch a sight of the Flying Scotsman on its way from Edinburgh to Kings Cross (or possibly Kings Cross to Edinburgh). (Train spotters tended to be magnificent athletes). They would take down and mark off the number of the engine in their Ian Allan book (the Ian Allan ABC of British Railways Locomotives to give it its full title); Ian Allan, of course was the inventor of train spotting and the writer of the book that listed every engine on British Railways. It was with reverence that David Lloyd referred to his Ian Allan book as the train spotters’ Bible.
I guess we can understand why. And it’s quite common to refer to this or that source of authority and knowledge as a ‘Bible’.
But what we’re actually talking about here is a manual, or set of rules or , in the case of Ian Allan, a repository of useful knowledge and information. So, if Ian Allan is the train spotters’ Bible what kind of the bible is The Bible?
Is that what the actual Bible is? I’m sure you’ve been told many times that it isn’t a manual, that it’s a collection of lots of different books, more like a library. And those books are books of history and prophecy and law; they contain dreams and visions, speeches, letters, poetry and songs; allegory, metaphor as well as eye witness accounts of events; they cover theology and philosophy and, well, so, so much more.
The period covered ranges from creation through to the early years of the church after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was transmitted orally and then written down two to three thousand years ago.
It is based in a relatively small area of the world, the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean but involves many different societies and groups of people, with different customs, social norms, economies, languages and behaviours.
The Bible is complex and difficult, multilayered and often contradictory. It’s not full of straightforward and simple solutions to the problems of this life.
And yet, we look to the Bible for guidance. And sometimes we look to the Bible to support our world view against someone else’s.
You just have to think back to last week’s headlines and the biblical quotes used against Justin Welby or the inane comparison of the prime minister’s leadership situation with Jesus and his disciples. There are always some people who will seek to weaponise scripture for their own ends.
When I was young I used to visit Darlington Library in Crown Street every week (and I’m very pleased that’s it’s now been announced that it’s to stay open).
I went there to learn, to help me to be prepared to live in the world. I went there for knowledge and I went there for wisdom. But even at that early age I knew that not all books were equal, that often the things I would read one week might be contradicted by what I might read the next, that the world view of (say) W.E. Johns (Biggles) was different to that of Richmal Crompton (Just William), and both probably are very different to the world view that prevails at this time – and they were only written in the last century.
This illustrates the problems we can have when reading the Bible. It can be contradictory, and confusing, and it can be dangerous if we try to read it too literally at all times. If the books of W.E Johns can date so quickly, written in our own language in relatively modern times and after only about sixty or seventy years, how much more so the ancient scriptures that have come to us in ancient languages and written two or three thousand years ago.
We look to the Bible for guidance, and knowledge and wisdom. But we must take care. Discernment and insight – the two things we must bring to our study of the Bible (unlike Ian Allan’s ABC of British Railways Locomotives)!)
This morning’s Old Testament reading gives us a chance to talk about wisdom. What is it and where do we find it?
Proverbs is one of the three wisdom books in the Old Testament, along with Job and Ecclesiastes. So, this is where we can start to look and today’s lectionary gives us a rare chance to do that. And that doesn’t happen very often. The lectionary doesn’t give us Proverbs very often in the main Sunday service - this week and next and that’s about it.
Proverbs is an unusual book, quite different to most of the rest of the Bible. There’s not much mention of God in it for a start. Its very inclusion in the canon has been controversial for that reason.
Is it an important guide to life or a silly collection of trite and obvious sayings?
How do we read this? Why is it even part of the Bible?
The book is quite long and presents as two distinct. The first, from which our reading is taken, is an explanation of the importance of wisdom and of living a life based upon wisdom.
The second, and much longer, part is a series of sayings that often can seem obvious and trite and sometimes contradictory. But they are sayings that have been accumulated over a long period of time, and they are based on observation and experience, tradition and probably most important of all, on learning from mistakes. They are intended to provide a guide to living in this world and to living a good life.
To give examples, at random
‘If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard’
‘The clever see danger and hide, but the simple go on, and suffer for it’
‘Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise’
So far so good. But then, again almost at random, we hear
‘The gossip goes around telling secrets, but those who are trustworthy can keep a confidence’
‘Rumours are dainty morsels that sink deep into one’s heart’
Not quite the same message!
And there are many such contradictions. About being rich or poor, about women, about choices, about giving advice to others, about when to speak and when not to speak.
But, of course, we are used to our own proverbs – ‘look before you leap’ and ‘he who hesitates is lost’, and their equally conflicting messages.
We are back to discernment and insight.
The application of wisdom is knowing the right time and the right circumstance to apply the right principle to the right person. Proverbs are situation sensitive. Their use comes in not just reading the text but reading people and reading the situation. And, of course, in a nutshell is what using the whole Bible should be about.
This is the difference between the law of Leviticus and the wisdom of the Proverbs. One is fixed and immutable and applicable to a certain people at a certain point in history. The other is contingent, universal only in the sense its overall appeal. The other difference between this book and the law is that these proverbs are given as advice; they are not based upon sanctions but on encouragement to do right.
God is not referred to often in this book. And that is a problem for some, a reason to ignore or neglect it. But the lack of explicit references to God is because God is at the very heart of the book. God pervades the book and is at the heart of human wisdom, and has been from the beginning of creation.
The significance of Proverbs lies in the detail, the detail that might appear sometimes to be boring and trite and not worth saying. There are no kings, or judges or prophets or apostles in this book. This about the day to day, and it is about how to live a good life from day to day, a life pleasing to God. It’s about getting the small things right, because these things are also important to God. God is not just concerned with the big things. And study of Proverbs has brought comfort and peace to many countless thousands or millions of people over the ages. It has been described as ‘a book of virtues, written for the benefit of the young, which confirms the importance of moral and communal values such as righteousness, justice and equity
And that leads to another important point. That it is not in the individual details, the sayings taken by themselves, that we should judge the importance of this book.
Jose Mourinho – I mentioned him at the beginning. Probably quoting him slightly out of context, he said at a recent press conference ‘Hegel says the truth is in the whole, it is always in the whole that you find the truth.’ Well, he was also quoting out of context, but what he said is significant. You have to look at the whole of this book, despite its mass of everyday detail. It is the totality, the whole which describes the character of the virtuous and wise.
If you want wisdom you need to make an effort to find exactly what you’re looking for.
We are Christians. We have the benefit of knowing Jesus Christ. The society in which we live is much different from that from which this book emerged.. We have to read the book in relation to our own experience and cultural context, our own history of learning by mistakes.
As for wisdom itself, we have that in the personification of Jesus. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that ‘Christ Jesus became for us the wisdom from God’ and in Colossians that in Christ is ‘hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’. And, of course, there’s the prologue to St John’s gospel.
All wisdom comes from God, and we look to God’s help in navigating through life, making our own decisions, using our own judgement.
Proverbs is a guide, but not the answer. To work out our answers we must listen to God, who speaks to us in many ways, and from whom all true wisdom, knowledge and insight comes. And we must discern our own course.
So, back to the beginning...
‘Wisdom cries out in the street;
In the squares she raises her voice’.
Which begs two sets of questions...
First. What is wisdom and where does it come from? (I’ve tried to answer that).
Second, and something to ponder – if wisdom is crying out in the streets...
Do you not think that at the moment she should be trying a little harder?
Or, perhaps it’s us that should be listening a little more carefully?