A Sermon preached by the Reverend Ivo Morshead on Sunday 16 August 2015
Proverbs 9 v 1-6, Ephesians 5 v 15-20. John 6 v 51-58
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making most of the time because the days are evil ; Words from today’s epistle.
Every day we are faced with choices, some trivial, some mundane, others that can alter our lives to the core. Choices range from whether or not we have coffee or tea for breakfast for the trivial, whether or not we take the car or walk for the mundane, and our choice of friendship and love for the core. Not every choice ranks among Paul’s ranking of unwise or wise as he warns the Ephesians but we are reminded of a fundamental one in the first lesson today from Proverbs chapter 9.
That chapter 9 in Proverbs is known by scholars as The Two Banquets. The reader is addressed as though two hostesses were issuing invitations to tempt the reader to choose to come to their house instead of the other. One such hostess is Wisdom, the other is Folly. We heard this morning only the first invitation where Lady Wisdom has not only prepared the food; Come eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed, she also sends out her servant girls to the highest part of the town to let people know that the animals have been slaughtered, the wine mixed and the tables set ready. Above all she has built her house in readiness and, I quote, has hewn her seven pillars.
It is such a familiar phrase as encapsulated in the title of T E Lawrence’s book ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, the account of his work in the First World War among the Arabs. Wisdom in Scripture is essentially practical in character. Psalm 104 v 24 O Lord, How manifold are your works! In Wisdom you have made them all, the earth is full of your creatures and so forth, again in Proverbs 3 v19 The Lord by wisdom founded the earth. Man may partake of this wisdom which, like righteousness and life itself , is primarily divine in origin. Indeed if Man is to make a success of his life, he must so do, but in terms of Scripture, only in terms of reverence and piety, as in Psalm 111 v 10; The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom’.
Wisdom in the bible has so many different practical meanings. It can be the ability that a good mariner has in navigation, the skill of a general to outwit his enemy. It is synonymous often with shrewdness or sagacity. Wisdom in Scripture also signifies the ability to distinguish between what is advantageous and what is harmful. In other words rightly to assess a situation and act in a way to bring intention to fulfilment. Among the books in the bible are those known as the Wisdom Literature among which are Proverbs, and Ecclesiasticus. In these books wisdom can become an ethical term, implicitly or explicitly related to the will of God. The description and value of these book can be summed up in words from the scholar A H Herbert in his commentary;..we have in Israel’s’ wisdom literature an example of a bold, even exclusive faith, able to assimilate the best of human reflection on life so long as it was recognised that the fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom. As part of this tradition we heard our first lesson from Proverbs 9 inviting us choose the path of wisdom rather than the path of folly. How often, I wonder, have we all made a wrong choice!
One such choice in my life goes back over 60 years ago when I was a young subaltern in the British Army in charge of a platoon of soldiers. My conscious is pricked by the bad choice that I made when I marched them up to the regimental medical centre to give blood and never gave any myself! There was no-one there to tell me so to do but I knew and know that I should have. In my advanced age now I am everlastingly grateful for those who are blood donors as I have to have regular transfusions myself. Such then was my wrong choice. Not for me the choice of the banquet of wisdom, rather the choice of the feast of folly.
The theme of choice linked to wisdom continues today in the epistle. There Paul writes to the Christians at Ephesus as in my opening text; Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise. My decision not to offer my blood was pretty heinous but I doubt that anyone noticed as in those days officers were much more remote from their men. All the same, especially now as a recipient, I much regret never having been a giver.
Regret is one thing but a feeling of guilt goes deeper and can be destructive as well as positive. Positive in creating a situation of a fresh resolve to choose the banquet of Wisdom, destructive in overwhelming guilt. It is for this reason that every Sunday we begin this service with the General Confession ; Almighty God our heavenly father, we have sinned against you through our own fault, in thought and word and deed, and what we have left undone. Such is the importance and seriousness of the absolution that in our Anglican Church it has to be a priest rather than a deacon to pronounce the words while making the sign of the Cross; pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness and keep you in life eternal, through Jesus Christ. For those who wish to make an oral confession and to receive counsel and do penance, there is always the confessional here in the Lady Chapel where a priest will act in the name of Jesus.
Jesus said to the Jews; Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. As we shall come to the altar rail today we will have heard the words consecrating the wine echoing those of Jesus at the Last Supper, Drink this all of you, this is my blood of the New covenant which is shed you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.
The old covenant sign for the Jews was the blood from the lambs slaughtered in preparation for the flight from Pharaoh’s Egypt. The mark of the blood as proof of the old covenant in the protection the family from the death of the first born, one of the threats that made Pharaoh relent and allow the people to leave their bondage of slavery. The Old Covenant was the contract between God and the people of Israel I will be your God if you will be my people. It was impossible for the people to keep strictly to the demands of the law. Now with the New Covenant marked by the blood of the Cross came the promise of forgiveness and the new everlasting life.
We have moved from the covenant of the Old Testament to the covenant of the New. The old was written on stone and promised to those obedient to the law and faithful to God a safe journey to the promised land. The New Covenant has been sealed with the blood of the Risen Christ and is the promise of forgiveness and our continuing hope and succour during our journey through life.
This promise of God’s we believe to be always here. As we are reminded in the Book of Proverbs we need to choose the way of Wisdom in the hope of the heavenly banquet among the communion of saints.
May we heed the words of St Paul ;
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making most of the time because the days are evil.