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.

           

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

The hope of new life

Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

25th December 2020

Christmas Day



Reading: Luke 2:1-20   

The virus that has dominated global affairs this year,

            reminds us of our physicality;

we are born, we live, and we die.

 

And there is a truth in this notion of physicality

            that we often miss or even deny.

We are not disembodied minds, nor are we trapped souls.

            We’re not ‘passing through’ this life

                        on our way from somewhere to somewhere else,

            and neither are we able to transcend the messiness of our mortality

                        by escaping to our higher minds.

 

We are embodied beings, and despite the fantasies of science fiction,

            there is no way to separate us into our component pieces

            of mind, soul, and body.

 

We are holistic beings.

 

The incarnation, the story of God becoming fully human

            in Bethlehem two thousand years ago,

speak to us of a God who enters into the experience

            of what it means to be human;

embracing the fullness of humanity, with nothing held back.

 

This, of course, is why the early explorations in theology

            that came to be labelled ‘heresy’,

            in the end, failed to convince.

 

This is not God pretending to be human, or a human aspiring to divinity;

            the baby-in-the-manger, God-made-flesh,

                        speaks to us of God’s utter, total, and complete commitment to humanity,

                        from birth to death, with all that this entails.

 

So, why does this matter?

            What’s it to you? Or to me?

 

I was talking with David Shapton this week,

            and those of you who remember David will know

            that he has the ability to go deep, and go there quickly.

This is still true, despite him now being 94 years old!

 

And he said to me that, for all the familiarity we have with the Nativity story,

            a lot of people miss an aspect of its significance that gives us hope in our lives,

            and this is the message that there is always new life coming into being.

 

There is always new life coming into being.

 

I’ve said before that my favourite carol is In The Bleak Midwinter,

            and I’m always surprised that some people struggle with it

            on the grounds that it isn’t historically realistic!

Which, of course, it isn’t… but then it’s not supposed to be.

 

I mean, yes, we all know that Jesus wasn’t actually born

            in the middle of a deep snowy winter in Palestine;

for starters it rarely snows in Bethlehem, and when it does, it melts in a few hours.

            Snow doesn’t fall snow on snow in Bethlehem.

 

But this isn’t the point of the Carol.

            Christina Rossetti was using the Victorian ideal

                        of a snowy wintry English December

            as a metaphor for the world into which the Christ-child was born,

                        offering a beautiful and hopeful image

            that even in the depths of winter-darkness,

                        when all life and light seems to have left the world,

            nonetheless God is still at work

                        bringing new life into being.

 

And this God-given gift of new life

            is still at work in our world, in our lives.

 

The second  verse of the carol captures something of this conviction

            that God still comes to our world:

 

‘Heaven cannot hold him’ - God comes to us today, and every day,

            bringing new life to birth in our lives and our world.

 

God may be the almighty,

            attended by angels and archangels,

            serenaded by cherubim and seraphim,

but God is also found in the cry of a tiny baby, in a stable in Bethlehem,

            fully embracing humanity in all its diversity of creed, colour, and status.

 

And, as the carol finishes,

            it asks each of us what our response will be?

 

Our reading gave us the story of the shepherds,

            and how they brought their gifts to the stable,

and it asks us to consider how we will respond

            to the good news of God coming to us,

            bringing the spark of hope and the promise of new life.

 

I’m sure that today isn’t what any of us

            would have planned and hoped for, for this year.

‘Life’ sometimes just gets in the way, doesn’t it?

 

And the image of a dark snowy winter

            may seem particularly appropriate for Christmas 2020,

as we find ourselves confined to our homes

            by our common biology and the forces of nature and evolution.

 

But it is to a world in lockdown that Christ comes,

            again and again and again,

bringing to each of us the hope, the promise, of new life.


Thursday, 17 December 2020

God's Midwives

  Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

20th December 2020

Luke 1.26-56 



Well, I guess maybe they’re like buses…

 

You don’t get any miraculous pregnancies for centuries,

            and then suddenly two come along at once!

 

Our reading for this morning skipped over the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah,

            of how they had got to old age without having children,

and then suddenly the Angel Gabriel appeared

            to say that God had heard their prayers,

and that Elizabeth was pregnant with the child

            who would grow up to be John the Baptist.

 

Instead, we picked up the very similar story of Elizabeth’s cousin Mary

            and her visit from the Angel Gabriel,

            giving her news of her own miraculous pregnancy.

 

These two stories,

            of women unexpectedly ‘with child’, as they say,

are part of a long tradition within the Hebrew Bible,

            of God giving miraculous children

            to women who shouldn’t by rights be pregnant.

 

And in each of these stories, the point is fairly consistently the same,

            which is that God can do what is impossible for humans.

 

So Sarah, wife to Abraham,

            laughed when she was told that she was going to bear a child,

            because she knew that age was against her.

But, nonetheless, Isaac was born (Genesis 21).

 

A generation later, Rebekah, wife to Isaac, wasn’t too old,

            she just didn’t seem to be able to conceive,

until Isaac prayed to God,

            and then she became pregnant,

and in due time, Jacob and Esau the twins were born (Genesis 25).

 

And then a generation further down the line,

            Jacob’s wives, the sisters Rachel and Leah, competed for his love,

and whilst Leah bore him children,

            he loved Rachel more - but she remained childless;

until, after a massive row

            which led to Jacob having children by both his wives’ slaves,

God remembered Rachel

            and she became pregnant with Joseph (Genesis 30).

 

And then, some while later in the Old Testament story,

            we get to Hannah, one of two wives of Elkanah

            who, like Rachel, was the preferred but barren wife.

After promising God that, if she became pregnant with a son,

            she would dedicate the child back to God,

sure enough she gave birth to Samuel, who became the prophet

            who anointed both King Saul and King David (1 Sam 1)

 

And then there’s Samson’s mother, unnamed,

            and childless until she was visited by an angel,

            who told her she would conceive and bear a child (Judges 13).

 

And then there’s that other unnamed childless wife,

            known only as the Shunammite Woman,

offering hospitality to the prophet Elisha,

            who, in return, prophesied that she would become pregnant,

            which, of course, she did. (2 Kings 4)

 

Now, forgive me, but today I’m going to note, but not explore in depth,

            the deeply problematic attitudes in these stories towards women,

            and the value that society placed, and often still places, on childbearing.

 

But I will say, and say very clearly,

            that the stigma of childlessness, often perpetuated in Christian circles,

            is something that we need to challenge.

A woman’s value is not found in her reproductive ability,

            and neither is marriage predicated on procreation.

 

After all, the emphasis in Luke’s gospel is not on Mary’s virginity per-se,

            with all the ‘body is bad’ connotations

                        that have preoccupied so many

                        who have wrestled with this passage down the centuries.

 

Rather, it is on the power of God to bring life

            where life has no right to be found.

 

So whilst I firmly believe that children are a blessing to be celebrated,

            a lack of children does not equate to a lack of God’s love or favour,

and those who long for children but are unable to conceive

            are not in some way being punished by God.

 

So whilst we should certainly bring our hurts and concerns to God in prayer,

            the solution to infertility, in our world of modern medicine, is not in prayer alone.

 

And neither am I going to delve into the murky waters

            of whether these stories are historically accurate.

If you want to hear me waxing lyrical

            about the scientific improbability of a virgin birth,

            check out my sermon from last year,

                        which is on our Bloomsbury sermon webpage

                        and the Christmas.org.uk website

 

Instead, I want to focus today on where God sits in these stories,

            to see if we can hear something from them

to help us explore for ourselves the significance of Luke’s story

            of the miraculous pregnancies of Mary and Elizabeth.

 

And, as I said a moment ago,

            the key point seems to be, fairly consistently,

            that God is able to do what humans cannot do.

 

So I want to suggest that we take a step away from the literal,

            and instead engage these stories

            at the level of their literary meaning.

 

Which leads me to ask the question of myself, and each of us:

            What is it, in your life, in our community, or in this world,

                        that seems impossible for humans to achieve?

 

Where do we see or experience a stubborn unwillingness

            for new life, and new hope, to blossom and come into being?

 

Sometimes it can seem as if God’s promises have failed,

            and that some other, more malign, force

            is writing the narrative of our lives and our world.

 

Certainly this was the experience of Israel of old.

 

If you remember our journey with Israel over the last few weeks,

            we’ve been hearing from the prophets of the exilic period,

and we’ve seen how their hope for a king who would restore David’s throne

            had dissolved into the tragedies of war and exile.

And then we’ve seen how their bright hopes for a return from Babylon,

            became a disappointment of infighting and continued oppression.

 

So, as we come to Luke’s account of Elizabeth and Mary,

            written some six centuries after the return from exile,

we find that he is still wrestling with this issue

            of whether God’s promises had failed.

 

This means that when Luke says that Joseph, Mary’s husband-to-be,

            is ‘of the house of David’ (v.27),

and that Mary’s son will be called ‘the Son of the Most High’,

            and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David (v.32),

            and that his kingdom will have no end (v.32),

Luke is telling his readers

            that God’s promises have not failed;

            rather they are coming to fulfilment, fully and finally, in the person of Jesus.

 

And Luke’s story of Mary and Elizabeth

            can help interpret these promises for us too,

as we, with Luke’s first readers,

            are invited to grapple with the significance

                        of God’s unexpected, life-giving, life-affirming,

                        intervention in human history.

 

And do you know what? Mary gets it!

            She understands that the God who is faithful

                        is still working in unexpected ways

            to bring about the fulfilment of ancient promises

                        and the dawn of a new, hopeful, peaceful way of being human.

 

She sings of it, in the passage now often called the Magnificat,

            which includes the following lines

            speaking of a world turned upside down by the intervention of God

 

52 [The Mighty One] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

 

This is the new life that God is bringing to birth in the world,

            it is the kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven,

            coming into being through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

 

It is the new life of justice for the oppressed,

            of food for the hungry,

of a new world being made

            and brought to birth in the lives of those

            who have already had it born in them.

 

So, for us this morning,

            I return to my question:

 

What new thing is God bringing to birth in your life,

            in our church, in our community,

and how can we play our part,

            in the coming of God’s kingdom

            on earth, as it is in heaven.

 

Many of us have a tendency to see ourselves

            as those who are active in the service of God,

and Bloomsbury has been blessed over the years

            with a talented, hardworking, motivated congregation,

            who gladly give their time and resources.

 

However, this can generate a context,

            where we also see ourselves

            as those who are, how can I put this? ‘God’s fixers’.

 

We see a problem, an injustice, a need,

            and we move quickly to a solution

            which inevitably comes from our own position of strength.

 

And I wonder if Luke’s story of Mary and Elizabeth

            can challenge this way of understanding our role

            as those who participate in the coming of God’s kingdom.

 

You see, the significance of God bringing life where it has no right to be,

            is that God does this, not us.

 

And so I wonder if there is an invitation here for us

            to re-think the way we see ourselves.

 

What if we aren’t ‘God’s fixers’ after all, but ‘God’s midwives’.

 

If a new life is coming into being,

            you want a good midwife on hand to make sure it all happens safely.

 

There is a place here, for competence, and skill, and training,

            but it’s always God who gives the gift of life.

 

So as we consider our lives, our community, and our world,

            and as we look for those places where life and hope have no right to be,

            we will, I am sure, see God at work bringing new life and hope into being.

 

This is the message of the Nativity,

            it is the good news of Jesus coming to our world.

 

And our role, maybe, is to be those,

            whose calling is to ensure that new life doesn’t die prematurely,

                        that it is safely brought to the world,

                        and carefully nurtured to maturity.

 

It’s not all down to us,

            in fact it’s never really down to us at all.

It always begins with God,

            through whom the impossible becomes possible.