Monday, November 29, 2010

Wisdom from on High / Lord of Might

O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
who orderest all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times once gave the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

We Christians, it seems to me, should be the most discontented members of the human family. No matter what our situation or station in life, regardless of our material wealth or the state of our health, we should never be satisfied. You see we Christians believe in the promise of our Lord that His kingdom will come and His will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Any pang of hunger, any act of hatred, any tear shed, any relationship marred by discord, any disease or death is a sign that the time we hope for is not yet here, that God’s promise has not yet been fulfilled. Unlike eastern religions, which direct adherents to disconnect from the ills of the world, our faith teaches us to wait patiently with all of creation for the coming of the Savior who will make all that is wrong in this life right.

The brief season of Advent is a specific time when we Christians embrace our discontentedness and deep yearning for a better world. Over the next four Sundays I want to offer reflections exploring what might just be best articulation of this hope that we have – the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. While its origin is unknown, we do know that its seven yearnings, rooted on Old Testament images, date back at least to the 8th century. And as you have already experienced this morning, our liturgy at the lighting of the Advent wreath revolves around this hymn and the scriptural passages from which it emerges. So this morning, we focus our thoughts on the longings for Wisdom from on high and for the Lord of might.

Both are spawned from interesting biblical texts and motifs. Wisdom from on high is associated with God’s creative activity. Through wisdom, as the hymn rightly points out, all things were made and brought into order. And the more we learn about creation, the more impressive this ordering appears to be.

The smallest things in existence are the strings that make up of the fabric of all reality - the so-called string theory. These strings are only 1 billionth of a measure called a yactometer. How small is that? Well, it is about 1 billionth the size of an atom. Starting with the mass of a typical human being and increasing or decreasing that by a factor of 10, we are closer in size to the theoretical limits of the universe than we are to one of these strings. As immense as the universe is, the tiny, tiny world is even more vast than that. Still, we Christians proclaim that God’s Wisdom has brought it all together and holds it in place. To this Wisdom we fix our yearning:

to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.

We are not craving book knowledge here. We long for a wisdom that Walt Whitman said is “of the soul.” It comes to us as gift from above – sometimes through prayer, sometimes through the witness of another. The writer and poet Philip Appleman penned one of the quirkiest, yet insightful prayers you may ever hear:

O Karma, Dharma, pudding and pie,
gimmie a break before I die:
grant me wisdom, will, & wit,
purity, probity, pluck, & grit.
Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind,
gimme great abs & a steel-trap mind,
and forgive, Ye Gods, some humble advice –
these little blessings would suffice
to beget an earthly paradise:
make the bad people good –
and the good people nice;
and before our world goes over the brink,
teach the believers how to think.

For us believers groping in the dark for how to think, the place to start is with God’s wise ordering of all that is. What, we should ask, is our place in that order? How does the God who created the world of the yactometer conceive our role in this life?

This question leads us to today’s second yearning, the desire for the Lord of might. It is a longing which conjures up a variety of images: perhaps the parting of the Red Sea, the defeat of Jericho, or the fire which consumed the prophets of Baal who contested with Elijah. We tend to connect this desire with God’s overwhelming, irresistible force. It says something very important that the text associated with the desire for the Lord of might is the giving of the Ten Commandments on ‘Sinai’s height.’ It tells us that this yearning is rooted not in power, but in moral authority.

We yearn for a voice, for a witness, for a prophet, for a Savior who will tell us, or show us, how to live in our complex world with its variety of beliefs and competing interests. It is a yearning not for military superiority and not for the purposes of a particular political party, but for the advent of a moral figure – a present day Martin Luther King or Gandhi – who will transform the world through the power of his or her vision of a better way to live.

The Christian Church struggles both for wisdom and for the power associated with moral authority. Two weeks ago I had dinner with my old college roommate who is now a Presbyterian minister. During our conversation he expressed frustration with the thousands and thousands of pronouncements that come out of his national church office and meetings. “We spend all this time working out these things, but why,” he said? “No one is listening to us.” Now I am sure that some of what the Presbyterians call for is a bit silly or trivial or misguided, just as are some of the things that come out of our Episcopal General Conventions. But for the most part, most of what our churches are saying is rooted in God’s wisdom. The problem is no one is listening and we don’t appear to have the moral might to draw attention to us.

As the early Christian Church lived out God’s wisdom through moral authority the world began to take notice. This notice led both to the growth of the church and to its persecution. I have been reading the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the first generation of Christian leadership to emerge after Peter, Paul, and the other initial followers of Jesus. Ignatius served as bishop of Antioch. All we know of him comes from seven brief letters he wrote to churches while he was being transported to Rome for execution. His words reveal him to be a person of both wisdom and moral might. Listen to some of what he has to say to the church in Ephesus:

Pray continually for the rest of mankind…, that they may find God, for there is in them hope for repentance. Therefore allow them to be instructed by you, at least by your deeds. [What does this suggest about the might of moral authority?] In response to their anger, be gentle; in response to their boasts, be humble; in response to their slander, offer prayers; in response to their errors, be “steadfast in the faith”; in response to their cruelty, be gentle; do not be eager to retaliate against them. Let us show ourselves their brothers by our forbearance, and let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord [What does this say about Wisdom from on high?]…

These are the last times. Therefore let us… love the grace which is present…, let us be found in Christ Jesus, which leads to true life. Let nothing appeal to you apart from Him, in whom I carry around these chains (my spiritual pearls!); by which I hope, through your prayers, to rise again.

I love in Ignatius’ words the idea that what we yearn for in Advent can, to some degree, be manifested in us. The kingdom we pray for begins in us, with us, and through us. There is in us already a portion of the Wisdom we hope one day will order all things and to the degree we live Christ-like lives we manifest a glimpse of the Moral Might we hope one day will be the authority to which the entire human family yields. Rejoice, Rejoice, all ye who yearn. Emmanuel will come to thee. Still, remarkably, both the Wisdom and the Might we yearn for exists within us in some measure even now.