Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Growing in Wisdom


A sermon for

Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation

The Online Gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

Sunday 3rd January 2021


Albrecht Dürer, Jesus among the Doctors 

Luke 2.41-52

When I was teaching Biblical Studies at Cardiff University,

            back in what feels like a lifetime ago,

there were a couple of memorable occasions

            when I concluded that there was a student in the class

            who knew more about the subject that I was teaching, than I did!


On both occasions, I’m pleased to say, the students in question

            went on to achieve doctorates in Old Testament studies;

and I’m left with that feeling all teachers get from time to time,

            of realising that one’s students have exceeded the ability of their teacher.


Well, I guess this is how the teachers in the temple must have felt

            as they disputed theology with the twelve-year-old Jesus.


Artistic depictions of this scene are often called ‘Christ among the Doctors’

            which of course takes the word ‘doctor’ back to its original meaning

                        of being one who is qualified to teach,

            rather than its more recent usage

                        of referring to medical practitioners.


Now I’m not going to get drawn into the debate

            that has been raging recently on Twitter,

as to whether holders of doctoral level degrees should use the title Doctor,

            or whether it should be reserved for those who know how to save a life;

except to say congratulations

            to Dr Jill Biden and her husband on their new roles.


But whilst we’re exploring the origins of words,

            I do note that not only does the title ‘Doctor’

                        have a historic meaning which underlies its current use,

            but so also does the academic award of PhD.


These days, you can get a PhD in almost any subject,

            from Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics,

            to English Literature, Modern History, and of course Theology.


But the origins of the PhD degree, the Doctorate in Philosophy,

            lie in the medieval church,

where it was an award granted to those

            who had demonstrated excellence in philosophy,

            the ‘love of wisdom’.


This word ‘philosophy’ is itself a joining together of two Greek words,

            phileo, meaning to love,

            and sophia, meaning wisdom.

So philosophy means, literally, the ‘love of wisdom’,

            and a doctor of philosophy

            is a teacher of the love of wisdom.


Interestingly, this combination word philosophy

            actually only occurs once in the New Testament,

            in Paul’s letter to the Colossians (2.8),

where it describes those who were so in love with the idea of wisdom,

            that they were falling out of love with Jesus.


But the words, phileo and sophia, love and wisdom, both occur many times,

            and are clearly presented as attributes

            to which followers of Jesus should aspire.


We are called to love, and we are called to wisdom.


But these are not neutral terms,

            we can love the wrong things,

            and we can be wise in the wrong kind of wisdom.


So to narrow it down a bit,

            the followers of Jesus are called to love God,

                        and to love our neighbour (see Mark 12.30-31 //s),

            and they are called to grow in the wisdom of God.


And our story for this morning from Luke’s gospel,

            of the young Jesus, among the doctors in the Temple,

            challenges us to think about wisdom, about sophia,

and how we can follow Christ’s example

            of growing in wisdom as the years go by.


Significantly, when Jesus enters the temple,

            he is still officially a child.

The age of maturity for Jewish men in that period

            was the age of 13,

and Luke specifically tells us that Jesus was only 12.


Partly, this may be because Luke really likes the number 12,

            it’s symbolic for him of God’s continuing and ongoing revelation,

so the 12 tribes of Israel are echoed in Luke by the 12 apostles,

            and his story of Jesus in the Temple at the age of 12

                        puts Jesus symbolically at the intersection

            between historic Judaism

                        and the new relationship with God that Jesus was bringing into being.


But there’s something important to notice here,

            which is that Jesus is not disputing with the doctors in the temple.

He’s learning from them.


This isn’t some know-all wunderkind

            coming in and showing the establishment the error of their ways.

There’s no hint here of replacement theology,

            with Jesus supplanting the wisdom of Israel.


Rather, Jesus listens, and asks:

            he is a student of his heritage,

            learning from those who are themselves lifelong students of wisdom.


Within the Jewish tradition,

            wisdom was more than a concept, more than an idea.


Wisdom is sometimes presented in the Hebrew Scriptures

            personified as a woman who people can relate to,

            who they can get to know (Prov. 8),

and those who live alongside Wisdom for many years

            can themselves become wise.


Famously, Solomon’s request to God

            was not for riches or power, but for Wisdom (1 Kings 3.1-15, 4.29-30),

as he realised that wisdom was a far greater gift,

            than any other earthly reward.


So here, in Luke’s gospel, we meet Jesus,

            a child on the edge of adulthood,

listening and questioning, not lecturing or teaching,

            growing in wisdom as he grows in years.


And reading this passage today,

            it’s difficult not to think of the way

                        that the education of our current generation of children

                        has been affected by the pandemic.


From the cancelled exams of last summer,

            to debates over re-opening schools next week;

the tension between public health,

            and education of children, is one of the key issues we face.


And the problem is that education really matters, learning matters…

            even Jesus needed an education!


We need to hold teachers in our prayers,

            as they try to fulfil their vocation to teach,

            whether in-person or online.


But education and learning are not simply something for children,

            although the skills to do it well are clearly best learned in childhood.


Rather, we’re all called to a life of learning,

            or, to use another word for it, discipleship.


The very word disciple means student, follower, a committed learner.


And each of us who considers ourselves disciples of Jesus,

            are called to learn - from Jesus, and from one another.


Some of you have been joining me on Monday evenings over the last year

            for my lectures on the letters of the New Testament,

and you’re all invited to join me this coming year,

            as I’ll be teaching through the Gospels,

            at the rate of two Monday evenings a month.

If you’d like to know how to join this course,

            please drop me an email and I’ll send you the invitation.


Which brings me to the point of education:

            It isn’t simply the acquisition of knowledge.


This is where the philosophers in Colossae were going wrong,

            they were making it all about the things they could learn.


Learning isn’t wisdom, it’s merely the first step towards it,

            knowledge isn’t wisdom, it’s merely another step towards it.


The point of education is the ability to use knowledge well,

            it is the acquisition of wisdom.


We each of us have all the knowledge in the world

            available to us on our phones,

but this doesn’t make us wise.


We need wisdom to discern what is good from what is harmful,

            we need to acquire wisdom, to go with our knowledge.


Within the Christian tradition,

            the personified Wisdom of the book of Proverbs

became equated with Jesus himself,

            and whilst this opened the door for the heresy known as Gnosticism,

            it also pointed to wisdom as more than just the accumulation of knowledge.


Just as Jesus grew in wisdom through his encounter with the doctors in the temple,

            so we can grow in wisdom through our encounter with Jesus.


The Gospels give us Jesus’ words,

            and we can learn these by rote if we want to,

but the key question for Christian discipleship, it seems to me,

            is not ‘what do you know about Jesus?’,

            but ‘what do you learn from Jesus?’.


If our knowledge of Christ as not transformatory and relational,

            then it is merely information,

which has some value,

            but only as a step towards the true goal, which is wisdom.


The wisdom that comes from Christ

            is categorically different from the wisdom of the world.


Paul captures something of this in a wonderful passage

            in his letter to the Corinthians.

I’ll read it for you now:


1 Corinthians 1.21-25

 For since, in the wisdom of God,

            the world did not know God through wisdom,

God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation,

            to save those who believe.

 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,

 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified,

            a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,

 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks,

            Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

 25 For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom,

            and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.


In our reading today from Luke’s gospel,

            we heard how Jesus increased in wisdom as he aged,

and that this increased his standing

            both in the world, and in the eyes of God.


And this final coupling of the world and of God,

            points to something significant about the nature of wisdom:

its pursuit is a holy task,

            akin to prayer, or other spiritual disciplines.


Wisdom is learned, in part, through interaction with people,

            as Jesus discovered as he sat with the doctors in the temple,

but it is also acquired through spiritual discipline,

            as we learn to hear God speaking to us through Christ, by the Spirit.


So, as we start another year,

            my challenge to each of us,

is for 2021 to be a year

            where we seek to grow in wisdom.


For some of us this may involve more intentionally making use

            of the opportunities for increasing our knowledge,

such as enrolling in the Biblical Studies lectures on the gospels,

            revisiting some of the sermons from recent years through the church website,

or perhaps reading book about an area of faith

            where we would like to learn more…


For others of us, it may be that we need to make a commitment

            to deepen our relationship with other Christians,

            learning from them as we listen and ask;

so maybe consider joining a house group,

            and yes we are still running these online!


For others of us, it may be

            that we will choose to deepen our engagement

                        with the spiritual disciplines,

            engaging more intentionally with our inner world before God.


In all these, of course, balance is necessary:

            wisdom is found in the interweaving

            of knowledge, relationships, and spirituality.


And the goal is always integration,

            as we practice the path of wisdom,

            learning from others in the presence of God.


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