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Jesus and Woman Wisdom: a sermon on Psalm 34:9-14, Prov 9:1-6, Eph 5:15-20, and Jn 6:51-58

August 23rd, 2006 by isaac · No Comments

Here’s a sermon from this past Sunday. For a careful display of the way the New Testament writers identified Jesus with Woman Wisdom, check out Ben Witherington’s book Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom.
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Title: Jesus as Woman Wisdom. Date: 8/20/06. Lectionary Texts: Psalm 34:9-14; Proverbs 9:1-6; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58.

The passages from Scripture given to us this evening can make for a pretty terrible and terrifying sermon. Just think about “the fear of the Lord” from the Psalm read alongside Paul’s talk of “drunkenness.” Maybe some of you are shifting in your seats—“is he gonna talk about drunkenness?” Maybe some of you have heard that sermon already—those who get drunk face the wrath of God so ya’ll better sober up and fear the Lord.

I won’t give you that sermon this evening. But I will focus on both those same themes: the fear of the Lord and drunkenness.

If you have your Bibles, open up to the passage we heard from Psalm 34. Verse 9: “Fear the Lord, you saints, for those who fear God lack nothing.” The Fear of the Lord. I think this phrase can cause some pretty awful thoughts about God if we’re not careful. I can think of things I’ve hear about the wrath of God. I’ve heard and read people talk about a God who looks something like an explosively abusive father who can’t wait for you or me to do something wrong so he can satisfy his wrathful impulse.

Or there’s another vision that tries to make the wrathful God out to be a little more sensitive. This sort of God doesn’t want to be mean or wrathful, but sometimes he has to in order to keep the world in order. So, God’s hands, as it turns out, are tied by the laws of justice that play God like a puppet. That means that God doesn’t want to exercise his wrath, but he has to in the name of some cosmic principle called justice. And when the puppeteer named justice pulls those strings that bind God’s hands, and we feel the hand of punishment come down on us, we see a remorseful face of God, a sad face, with tears streaming down God’s cheek. The sad face of a God who isn’t really that sovereign in the end. A God who is controlled by some abstract principle. A God who isn’t in fact Godlike—God, in the end, has to submit his will to something else.
But that’s not what this “fear of the Lord” is all about. We shouldn’t have those images of a wrathful God in our head when we hear about the fear of the Lord. Our Psalm is talking about something very different. The problem is that our ears and eyes that hear and read our Scriptures have been distorted by modern sensibilities. When we hear about fearing the Lord we can’t help but think of a wrathful God.

Gerhard von Rad, an important Old Testament scholar, has this to say about how we distort what Scripture means by “the fear of the Lord.” He writes, “The modern reader must eliminate in the case of the word ‘fear’ the idea of something emotional or some form of psychological experience of God.” What von Rad points to is the way we need to let the text itself show us what it means, instead of imposing other emotionally driven theological sensibilities.

So, let’s listen to verses 9 and 10 again, and let the Psalm itself show us what it means by the fear of the Lord: “Fear the Lord, you saints, for those who fear God lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” In the first sentence the Psalmist tells us about the fear the Lord, and then in the second sentence the Psalmist re-describes, or further develops what he means—this literary technique is called a parallelism where the second line isn’t simply a repetition of the first, but rather extends it. And he says that fearing the Lord is about seeking after the Lord: “those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” It’s about seeking, pursuing, searching, following. It’s about a path. And the promise is that those who seek after God, those who look for God—those people will not lack any good thing. 

Let’s continue through the passage: “Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” There’s an invitation to listen and learn the fear of the Lord—and the invitation is offered to those who love life, those who want to see many good days.

Fearing the Lord is not about some emotional state of mind. Not at all. The Psalmist is too practical for that. Fearing the Lord is about telling the truth, turning away from evil, and seeking peace: “seek peace and pursue it.” Fearing the Lord is about walking the walk. It’s about following along the path of peace. Fearing the Lord is something we do with our bodies—our hands and feet.

Now, there’s something else quite curious going on in the passage from Psalm 34. The Psalmist gives voice to a personality, someone who offers an invitation to wisdom in the first person—listen to verse 11: “Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” Listen to me. Who is this me?

Our passage from Proverbs 9 develops this person, this personality, a bit further. Here, God’s wisdom is personified as a woman. Verse 1: “Wisdom has built her house.” Then skip down to verse 3: “She has sent out her maids, and she calls from the highest point of the city. ‘Let all who are simple come in!’ she says to those who lack judgment. ‘Come, eat my food and drink the wine… Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of understanding.”

In this passage, wisdom is a woman—God’s wisdom is a feminine personality. And this woman wisdom calls from her house and offers hospitality to all who listen. This is the context for that curious verse in Psalm 34:11—“Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” Woman wisdom in Proverbs 9 invites all those who wander by to come and learn the fear of the Lord.

This woman wisdom is Jesus. I know that sounds funny—woman wisdom, and Jewish man Jesus. They don’t seem to fit, at least not at first glance. If this connection seems tenuous to you, then don’t believe me, how about we take Jesus at his word. I’m going to venture away from the assigned lectionary readings for a moment because I feel like I need to prove to you this link between Jesus and woman wisdom. If you have a Bible turn to Matthew 11:18 and 19.

Ok, at the beginning of chapter 11, John the Baptist sends some disciples to ask Jesus if Jesus was indeed the promised one, the Messiah of Israel, the redeemer everyone is waiting for. And at the end of his long response to John’s disciples, Jesus has this to say about those who doubt his divine identity: “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). The last statement is important for us: wisdom is proved right by her actions, or deeds (as it reads in other translations). For those who find reasons to doubt Jesus, Jesus says that he will be vindicated by his works, by his deeds. But the interesting thing here is that Jesus identifies himself with “wisdom” and refers to this wisdom, God’s wisdom, with a feminine pronoun: her actions. Jesus identifies himself with woman wisdom, the personality we hear about in our passages from Psalms and Proverbs.

So, why is any of this important? Interesting, yes. But important for our Christian faith? That’s debatable. Here’s the point, Jesus is that woman in Proverbs 9 who invites us into her house and offers us the bread of life, a heavenly banquet—God’s joyful life made available on earth. Listen again to woman wisdom’s invitation in Proverbs 9: “Come, eat my food and drink the wine.” And verse 11: “For through me your days will be many, and years will be added to your life.” This is the same invitation we hear from Jesus in our passage from John 6—look at verse 51: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, they will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

In John 6 Jesus offers his very being, his own body, his flesh and blood, as the wisdom of God for us. Just like woman wisdom in the Psalm and in Proverbs, Jesus invites us into a banquet where we learn the fear of the Lord. And it’s not about learning how to be afraid of God. That’s not it at all. It’s about learning the will of God for us. It’s about learning what the good life looks like. It’s about faithful living. It’s about learning the things that make for enjoying life to the fullest. It’s about learning the joy of God’s life, the good life God offers us. It’s about wise living.

To follow the call of woman wisdom is to abide in Christ, to live in Jesus, to walk along the path of obedience revealed to us in the life and death of Jesus. The call of woman wisdom is to step into her house, to step into her way of wisdom. Jesus is this wisdom, the wisdom of God, and we step into it as we step into Jesus’ shoes, as we put our feet where Jesus did. We enter into Jesus as Jesus enters into us.

Let me summarize: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom—that’s what we hear in Psalm 34. Fearing the Lord is not about being afraid of God’s wrath. It’s about living faithfully; it’s about learning and practicing the wisdom of God. And this wisdom is a woman—that’s what we get in Proverbs 9. Woman wisdom invites us into her presence and offers to teach us how to enjoy the good life God created us for. And this woman wisdom is Jesus—that’s what we get in John 6. Jesus invites us to abide in the wisdom of God as we step into his body, as we abide in Christ.

But where do we go from here? I mean, if fearing the Lord is about living in wisdom, which is Jesus, then shouldn’t we be talking about practical things? It’s not necessarily about talking about wisdom. It’s about the way we live; it’s about faithfulness; it’s about morality; it’s about our obedience to the will of God.

And that’s why I left our passage from Ephesians for the end of the sermon. Ephesians 5:15—“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise people but as wise.” It’s about living wisely, living according to the will of the Lord, as it says in verse 17. And the metaphor for wise living is drunkenness. Verse 18: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.”

You know how they say people are more honest when their drunk? Maybe you’ve talked to someone who has had too much to drink and heard a little more then you expected. Or maybe you’ve drank too much and said some things, probably true things, that you wish you didn’t say. If you read the “faces in the news” section of the paper, like I do, then I’m sure you’ve heard the trouble Mel Gibson got himself into when he said some things while drunk. Here’s the point I want to make, and that I think Paul’s making in our passage from Ephesians: drunkenness is a loss of control that let’s the self loose. But it’s not the sort of vulnerability to be encouraged. Rather, it’s selfish. It’s an inward turn. It’s the moment when all that matters is the self—your-self, my-self, their-self. Drunkenness tunes out everything else in the world and proclaims or reveals the self. It’s an inward focus.

But life in the Spirit of God, a life that feasts at the table of wisdom, a life that drinks Jesus’ wine—that life is also one of drunkenness, but it moves the self in the opposite direction. Instead of living in the glory of the self, instead of making the world hazy so we can focus on our self—instead of this drunken selfishness, drinking of the Spirit’s wine opens our eyes to the world around us.

It’s about attentiveness to everything around us. It’s about wise living. As it says in Ephesians 5:16, it’s about “making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” It’s about paying attention, careful attention, to the times in which we live. It’s about being aware of the life around us. Drinking from this wine is about looking more carefully than we ever have before at the things around us. As one New Testament scholar put it, being filled with the Spirit is about “sober inebriation.”

Woman wisdom invites us to learn how to see the world differently. And the way we train our eyes, the way we develop careful vision is to abide in Jesus, to enter into Jesus as Jesus enters into us. That’s the gospel: we enter into Jesus as Jesus enters into us. And as we follow in the ways of wisdom, the way of Jesus, we are led into the mysteries of God. The path of Jesus leads to God. The path Jesus shows us leads into the eternal life of God.

And as we walk along this path we come to see that the world around us is more wonderful than we’ve ever imagined. We come to see that God created everything with wisdom. And God’s good creation still bears those marks.

That’s why our passage from Ephesians about living wisely ends with the exhortation to give thanks. Verse 20: “Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Giving thanks is how we learn the wisdom of God. Thankfulness is our sober inebriation. It’s how we get drunk on the Holy Spirit, the breath of God that enlivens all creation. We learn to see the mysteries of God as we learn how to be thankful for all that God has given us.

And that’s why we set aside time in our service to share with one another our thankfulness—to give thanks to God for all that we’ve been given this week. But this call for sober inebriation on God’s gifts of creation is also a call to work for peace, to pray for peace, to remind ourselves of all that falls short of God’s goodness. That’s why the sober inebriation in the Spirit we read about in Ephesians also calls us to “make the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”

Our thankfulness is also about looking into the wonders of God’s mysteries all around us, and finding those places where we may be a reason for others to be thankful. Thankfulness is something we work at. We learn it by doing it; and we share it by giving someone else a reason to be thankful for God’s good creation.

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