The Beginning of Wisdom
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 19, 2018
13th Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14; John 6:51-58
As we continue reading from the Gospel of John, bread and wine are on the menu once more—but this time the telling leaves little to the imagination. In fact, Jesus proclaims to believers and unbelievers alike: Eat my flesh; drink my blood. Now folks, if that won’t put a damper on a party, I don’t know what will. Is Jesus inviting cannibalism? Is he prompting the people to go against the Levitical teaching to never consume blood? It all leaves us scratching our heads and wondering why Jesus is being so graphic—so “in your face.” And why, oh why, in the Gospel of John, does Jesus go on an on about being the Bread of Life. We get it!
Or do we? More likely, the truth is we can never comprehend what it means that Jesus, the Eternal Wisdom and Word of God, Jesus, the Living Bread of heaven, left the halls of glory to enter our human story. How could we possibly understand why the Son of God, would give up his flesh and blood—for the life of the world—for the life of you and me? With our limited understanding, how can we fathom that this meal is the gateway through which Jesus promises not only full life now, but eternal life to come: “The one who eats this bread will live forever.”[i] Without a doubt, to even nibble along the edge of this amazing grace requires the gift of God-given wisdom.
Wisdom! What a topic for our time when our world seems totally lacking in wisdom. Oh, knowledge, facts, information—we have plenty of those. But wisdom—that’s another matter! When I think about wisdom in Scripture, my mind immediately goes to Solomon, the King of Israel. From our Old Testament reading we learn that David has died and has been buried in the City of David. Now his son, Solomon, sits on his firmly established throne. (Regarding the details that follow, I am indebted to Tremper Longman III, whose commentary I found most valuable.[ii]) Solomon’s name relates to the Hebrew word, shalom, which means peace, wholeness, well-being. It’s a good word for how Solomon’s reign begins. Shalom is, of course, a far cry from the warring days of David who had to defeat the Philistines before claiming the land. Things will be different for Solomon, however, who ascends the throne as a peaceful, discerning, and spiritually sensitive ruler.
Solomon’s promising future is evident right away through his love for Yahweh. Surely that is a most important first step. Out of this love, Solomon goes to Gibeon to offer numerous sacrifices. It’s important to remember that this is before the Temple of the Lord is built—when worship at high places is still permissible. Solomon’s demonstration of love for God results in an extraordinary response. One night, in a dream, God says to Solomon: “Ask what I should give you.”
Now imagine, you’re king for a day and God comes to you like a genie in a bottle and asks to fulfill your heart’s desire. For what would you ask? Come on! Be honest! I daresay not a one of us would have uttered the words that came out of Solomon’s mouth:
You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness…And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant, therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil…”
Of all the things young Solomon could ask for, he chooses wisdom. Although wisdom isn’t talked much about these days, that doesn’t make it any less valuable. What is wisdom, anyway? Wisdom is not merely intelligence that can be measured with an IQ test. Wisdom is more practical. It involves knowledge, yes, but it also involves good judgment in how, when, and in what fashion to best utilize knowledge.
The book of Proverbs is a prime example of wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible. Traditionally, its been attributed to Solomon—although that is probably more of an honorary attribution. Overall, the wisdom taught in Proverbs seeks to build moral character while always, always remaining anchored to God. Reasoning, healthy relationships, facing difficult issues—these are given ample consideration. But if we want to know the key teaching of Proverbs, we need look no further than verse 7 of chapter 1, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Fear meaning awe, wonder, and amazement and yes, even a healthy dose of fear, as we understand it.)
Solomon demonstrates his fear of the Lord by approaching God with humility and wonder and awe. God is pleased—so much so that Solomon’s request is granted plus so much more. He is given a wise and discerning mind as well as riches, honor, and the promise of a long life on the condition that he remains faithful. During Solomon’s reign, huge building projects are completed—the palace, the Temple and the Jerusalem wall, and people from near and far come to seek his wise judgment.
After a time, though, Solomon goes astray because of his love for foreign women and his proclivity for worshiping their idols. It leaves us wondering how someone so wise could do something so foolish. (Yet, one more great mystery of the Bible.) Regardless of the reason, we can still safely say that having an appetite for wisdom and discernment pleases God. And surely God still grants wisdom to those who ask for it.
In Colossians 2:2-3, Paul yearns for believers to possess Christ himself, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” If there is to be any wisdom, any true understanding for a Christian, it will come through the treasure of Jesus Christ—which brings us back to the Gospel of John.
If Jesus repeats himself, over and over again, about being the bread of life, surely, it is because of the difficulty of truly understanding what’s being communicated—that the Word has been made flesh and that Jesus, incarnate, has gone against everything we thought was true. He has taken on flesh and bone and skin and he has moved in with us and things will never be the same. And as we consume all of Jesus—body and blood, so Jesus will consume us—should consume us—for Jesus wants all of our being—body, mind and soul. Jesus wants no less than to burrow deep within us, flow through our veins, and nourish every nook and crevice and cranny. This kind of relationship cannot happen by calmly considering Jesus from a safe distance. Incarnation means we’ll have to hold out empty hands, chew bread, and gulp that which pours from the cup.[iii] It’s scandalous, but it’s the gospel.
One scholar notes that if the shocking words of Jesus—those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life—“mean anything in the life of the church, then at least they mean that when we eat and drink at the holy Table, eternity has broken into time in a unique, unrepeatable way. Eternity keeps on dipping into our time.”[iv] For John, the gospel is a matter of life and death and apart from the Lord’s Supper, apart from this banquet table, we have no life in us.
William Willimon tells a story about his friend who teaches theology at Oxford:
He says that his toughest task is to ask and answer the question, ‘What is theology about?’ His students tend to respond that theology is about spiritual matters, or about religion, or deeper meaning in life, et cetera. No, he instructs them, theology (at least Christian, incarnational theology, theology in the mode of the sixth chapter of the Fourth Gospel) is about everything. Jesus has come down from heaven with the intention of taking it all back. He wants all of us, and he wants us to have all of him.[v]
How wise we will be if we approach God, each and every day, and humbly request a hearty appetite for the true bread and the true drink that brings heaven down on this old earth. Oh, how blessed we will be when Christ has all of us and we have all of Christ.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Feasting on the Word, O. Benjamin Sparks.
[ii] Tremper Longman III, The Lectionary Commentary: The First Readings, The Old Testament and Acts, ed. Roger E. Van Harn, 222-224.
[iii] Feasting on the Word, William H. Willimon, 360-361.
[iv] Feasting on the Word, Sparks, 360.
[v] Ibid, 361.
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