O Come Thou Wisdom - Isaiah 29:13-14; 1st Corinthians 1:18-25
Today we conclude our Advent journey through O Come, O Come, Emmanuel considering the various names of Jesus lifted up within this age-old and classic Advent/Christmas Hymn/Carol. We have considered the name “Emmanuel” where Jesus presence reminds us that God is with us…that God is not separated us in some far off galaxy, but here with us now. We considered how Jesus is both the “Root of Jesse’s Tree” and “Branch of Jesse;” that Jesus is the one who fulfills the promise made to David that there would be a descendant of David on the throne forever…Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Last week we, as the choir offered the cantata, we reflected on Jesus as “Dayspring” or “Sun of Righteousness” that Jesus is the one who comes into the darkness of our world and brings light and hope. This week we conclude by considering Jesus as the “Wisdom of God.”
We are used to hearing stories of foolish criminals, like the burglar who used Santa Claus as an inspiration for his method of breaking into homes. One afternoon in Atlanta, a man called 911 after hearing cries coming from his neighbor’s home. When the police arrived and searched they house, the found the source of those wails of anguish. A young man was stuck in the chimney and had been there since about three in the morning, when he apparently was trying to access the house with the intention of robbing the owners.[i] The article I read did not note whether or not there were any reindeer on the roof.
Like I said, many of us are used to these kinds of stories where a lack of wisdom causes a criminal who is, let’s say, intellectually challenged, to get caught and look foolish. However, what about the stories outside of the criminal world, where folks who are considered the brightest of the bright are made to look foolish, despite all their wisdom?
Sir William Henry Preece was one of those. Sir Preece was an electrical engineer who was employed by the British Post Office and also credited with developing improvements for the railroad signaling system that actually improved safety on the rails.[ii] However, Preece is also known for telling Alexander Graham Bell that England had no use for a telephone because they had plenty of school boys that could deliver messages. Preece also informed Thomas Edison that the idea of developing an incandescent electrical light was “a completely idiotic idea.”[iii]
Preece isn’t alone, though. One instance occurred in North Carolina 108 years ago yesterday. In October of 1903, Professor Simon Newcomb, a noted professor of mathematics and astronomy, wrote that "Quite likely the twentieth century is destined to see the natural forces which will enable us to fly from continent to continent with a speed far exceeding that of a bird. But when we inquire whether aerial flight is possible in the present state of our knowledge; whether, with such materials as we possess, a combination of steel, cloth, and wire can be made which, moved by the power of electricity or steam, shall form a successful flying machine, the outlook may be altogether different. Two months later however, on a historic day for North Carolina, December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, the Wight Brothers made Newcomb’s wisdom look foolish.
From the promise of Isaiah, “Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a command commandment learned by rote; so I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing. The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discernment shall be hidden…” to Paul's recognition of it in 1st Corinthians, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world…to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength…God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God…,” we gather today as we prepare within this week to celebrate the birth of the one who has made foolish the wisdom of the world.
In the time of Jesus and the early church, there were two accepted paths to salvation, that of strength and that of intellect. For those of the Hebrew culture, people looked to miraculous signs to signify the saving presence of God. That is what they were used to and that is what they expected. Their history was full of them…the plagues on Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, water coming from a rock, bread appearing on the wilderness floor, the sun standing still, the fire Elijah called down from Heaven, and every other miracle we come across in reading the Old Testament.
As the Hebrew people gathered around Jesus through His ministry, they flocked around him as they saw him performs signs of power…healings, casting out demons, feeding the multitudes, and so on…The problem with signs of power, is that folks demand to see more and more. Jesus addresses this when he tells the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The Rich Man, finding himself dead, begs Jesus that someone might be sent to his brothers to convince them that their salvation did not lie in their riches…and Jesus told the rich man, “They had Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets, and they did not listen to them…they won’t even be convinced that their ways is the path of destruction, even if they see someone rise from the dead.”[iv] The demands for a sign of power continued even up to the point of Jesus’ crucifixion, as the leaders and one of the criminals hanging beside him mocked him, challenging him to save himself if he truly was the Messiah.
For the Greeks of the time it was all about knowledge and wisdom. Salvation came from knowledge. If you know enough, if you know the right thing, you will find salvation. We see this even in the Gospels, as Greeks traveling through the area at the time of Jesus stopped by to hear him teach. Greek philosophers and teachers were held in high esteem as they were consider to be the ones closer to salvation, because they were obtaining knowledge. Paul not only casts a negative light on that here, but later in 1st Corinthians 13, Paul points out that all that we even know right now is just a dim reflection of true reality…we will not truly possess full knowledge until we are face to face with our Creator. In this sense, Paul is telling us it can never be about what we know, but in who we know, and more importantly in who knows us.
In both these ways, Jesus takes the ways of the world and stands them on their head. In fact, Jesus’ whole life was lived that way, from His birth, through His teaching, through His death, and finally through His Resurrection.
A king is born…not in a palace…but in a barn.
Turn the other cheek…love your enemy…sell or give away all your possessions…leave your family behind…
Surrendering to arrest rather than putting up a fight…being crucified rather than calling down a legion of angels…
And an empty tomb…no one had ever been resurrected before…resuscitated by Elijah and Jesus maybe, but no one of their own power, had walked out of the grave.
It is interesting that even though there were witnesses to the Wright Brother’s flight in Kitty Hawk, it was not until some five years later, that through a test ordered by President Theodore Roosevelt at Fort Meyers, that the Wright Brothers proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had accomplished that which Newcomb said was impossible. It is through the resurrection God validates every word and action that were offered by the one who was laid in a manger, hung on a cross, and placed in the tomb. In all these ways, God through Jesus makes foolish the wisdom of the wise…and lifts Jesus before the world as the Wisdom of God.
My brothers and sisters, as we gather in the coming week to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, as we celebrate the very presence of the Wisdom of God coming into the world, we have to stop and ask ourselves are we truly prepared for that celebration. Do we truly celebrate God’s Wisdom in the world, or are we just glad for an occasion to throw a party and exchange presents?
Why do I ask this? Because worldly wisdom still teaches us to seek our salvation and happiness in places other than Christ.
How many advertisements have we seen over the past month that tell us if we just will purchase their particular product we will make ourselves or someone else truly happy this Christmas? How much of our time have we spent trying to find just the right toy, just the right tool, just the right outfit, just the right pocketbook, just the right item to give someone else, feeling like if we got the right thing, then we would make them happy. Yet we know that toys and tools will break…outfits and pocketbooks will go out of style or wear out…and that those things are temporary…so much for the wisdom of the world.
How often do we hear the arguments that the best defense is a good offense? How often are we told that having the best or most firepower, whether as a nation or as an individual with the concealed .45 under our coat or in our pocketbook will keep us safe from all that would harm us?
What about the money we want to accumulate…making sure we have enough for a rainy day…making sure there is enough to pass on to the kids and grandkids…making sure that we have enough to ensure that we can purchase whatever we want…if we can just get a little bit more, we can feel secure and safe.
We hear in the world arguments to give into whatever cravings and desires we may have or that may tempt us. If it feels good, do it! If it feels good, it can’t be wrong. If you want it, you must have been created to do it or have it. Find happiness by doing whatever you want.
Stuff, power, wealth, feeling good, all the ways the world’s wisdom says to find happiness, find security, find salvation…
Jesus, though, says, give it away, make yourself vulnerable, deny yourself…and find salvation!
The argument has been cast before, “I know what Jesus said, Preacher, but we live in the real world. I can’t live that way and God doesn’t expect me to…I have to look out for me.”
Actually my brothers and sisters, we are not living in the real world, we want to live according the wisdom of the world which calls out to us and tempts us and deceives us and tricks us into depending on ourselves for salvation…and when we give in, we find that we have been foolish because the Wisdom of God has come into the world, it weakness, in a tiny baby, vulnerable even to sudden infant death syndrome…the wisdom of God walked away from a life as a carpenter where as a craftsman, finances would have been secure and became the One who had no place to lay his head…the wisdom of God told Peter to put away the sword…the wisdom of God told Pilot that he came to testify to the truth…the wisdom of God, with all the power of creation at His lips, said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
God chose what is low and despised…a feeding trough…a hideous execution tool…to reduce to nothing the things that are…power, wealth, pleasure, prestige…so that no one might boast in the presence of God…so that no one might claim that through their own efforts they saved themselves…He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us, who showed us, who lived out for us, the very wisdom from God…
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…Amen.