SERMON: Of Wisdom and Fire

SERMON: Of Wisdom and Fire


Yesterday, 29 August, the Church of England Calendar invited us to recall the Beheading of John the Baptist; today, 30 August, we are invited to recall John Bunyan.

John the Baptist appears in the pages of the Gospels as a prophet, a forerunner, preparing the way for Christ. He is outspoken, unconventional and uncompromising, condemning his generation as a “brood of vipers” and falling foul of Herod whom he confronted for taking his brother’s wife as his own. She got her own back when her daughter beguiled Herod with her dancing and then asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. There’s no suggestion that this actually happened on 29 August, and I don’t know why the Church of England Calendar recalls this event yesterday, but it powerfully reminds us of the prophetic calling and its costly nature.

John Bunyan of course does not appear in the pages of the Bible since he is an English Spiritual Writer. I changed our first hymn this morning because it was written by him; it began “Who would true valour see” and each verse ended with the line “to be a pilgrim”. Bunyan was largely self-educated, read very few books except the Bible, yet he produced “Pilgrim’s Progress” whose theme is reflected in the hymn. The book tells the story of the person, Christian, on their journey through life to God. John Bunyan did die today, in 1688; and his great gift to us is the book that he wrote. It’s a wonderful example of wisdom literature, exploring the character of a Christian, extolling the virtues of the Christian life, and charting the soul’s pilgrimage on its way through life.

These two Johns, John the Baptist and John Bunyan, embody two key strands in our spiritual tradition – the prophetic and wisdom.

The Old Testament prophets are of course the embodiment of the prophetic. They are scathing in their condemnation of corruption, judges taking bribes, the rich trampling on the poor, priests feathering their own cap, weights and measures being fiddled. With such behaviour God has no time for rituals and religion: “Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.” God says in the Book of Isaiah the prophet. “When you stretch our your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” (1.14-15)

Moral requirements are paramount in the eyes of the prophets, ritual requirements secondary if present at all; and this emphasis is reflected thoughout the scriptures.

Psalm 15 which we have just sung is part of an Entrance Liturgy as worshippers approach Mount Zion and enter the temple for worship. So it begins by asking: “Lord who may dwell in your tabernacle? Who may rest upon your holy hill?” (v.1)

And the answer that comes back does not detail any purity requirements, ritual washing, fasting or particular clothing that needs to be worn. Instead it describes the person who leads an uncorrupt life and does the thing that is right – they are the ones who shall never fall, according to the Psalmist.

John the Baptist stands in this prophetic stream of thought and so is a worthy forerunner to Jesus, who is also clearly a prophet. This morning we heard Jesus citing the prophet Isaiah in his dispute with the Pharisees and scribes about the ritual washing of hands – its not about being hygienic before meals, that’s not what the argument is about, but its about the importance or not of being ritually pure. The dispute here may reflect more the situation of the early church as it worked these things out; indeed if Jesus had in fact been as clear as he is here reported to be then its odd that the early church had to argue it out in the way that it did! But taken as Mark gives it to us, Jesus is firmly within the prophetic stream when he says: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” (v.15 & 21a)

The other key strand alongside the prophetic, and which I suggest is present in this morning’s readings, is wisdom. Wisdom and discernment were referred to twice in our Old Testament reading from the Book of Deuteronomy: “But take care and watch yourselves closely” (4.9)

we were warned.

The wisdom literature in the Old Testament is embodied in the Book of Proverbs. It does exactly what it says on the tin – though it is much more than simply a book of proverbs! It is followed in the Bible by the Book of Ecclesiastes, another good example of this stream of thought; perhaps most famous is the passage that begins chapter 3 of the Book of Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted”

and which concludes, “a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.” (3.1-2 & 8)

This stream of wisdom in the scriptures is homespun, often concerned with everyday matters that rarely set the pulse racing! Yet what it does is validate the ordinariness of much of our lives, inviting us not to neglect the daily tasks.

Our epistle this morning from the letter of James, was famously condemned by Luther as “an epistle of straw”. Luther was no doubt appalled by its characterisation of good religion as caring for orphans and widows in their distress, and keeping oneself unstained by the world. Virtually absent are all those great themes in St Paul about the mighty acts of God in Christ and instead we hear about being quick to listen and slow to speak; about being doers of the word, not merely hearers; about the importance of perseverance and bridling your tongue.

Its prosaic; but its vital!

A contemporary spiritual writer, Ruth Burrows, has a sharp edge to much of her writing, yet here she is sounding very much like this wisdom tradition: “Let us remind ourselves over and over again that holiness has to do with very ordinary things: truthfulness, courtesy, kindness, gentleness, consideration for others, contentment with our lot, honesty and courage in the face of life, reliability, dutifulness. Intent, as we think, on the higher reaches of spirituality, we can overlook the warp and woof of holiness.”

John the Baptist and John Bunyan, the two Johns, embody two key strands in our spiritual tradition – one full of fire, the other more pedestrian.

As we’ve seen, what unites the two is their call to us, in small matters as well as large, to live lives of integrity before God.

The prophet Micah summed this up memorably: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6.8)