SERMON PREACHED AT BRISTOL CATHEDRAL FOR THE EVE OF THE ANNUNCIATION, 2016
Readings: Psalm 85; Wisdom 9:1-12; Galatians 4:1-5
The Book of Wisdom is a curious text with a curious history. It has shifted around the Bible over the centuries, being classified as part of the NT in the 2nd century AD, rejected as non-canonical by Origen and Jerome in the 3rd, before being forcefully included in the OT by Augustine in the 4th.
But if your Bible translation of choice is the King James then you are unlikely to have read it, unless you have the separate volume of the books of the Apocrypha and if you read the NIV then you will never find it as the NIV has never included it.
Even within the context of the OT it is a bit of an oddity as it written in Greek, not Hebrew. It is also most likely that it was composed sometime between 30BC and 40AD, so it is a text that may have been created during the life of Christ, although it’s birthplace was most probably not in Israel, but several hundred miles away at Alexandria in Egypt.
To keep things confusing, it has been referred to as both the Book of Wisdom and the Wisdom of Solomon. That second title is derived from the middle section of the book, where the unnamed speaker is immediately recognised as Solomon, the king who preferred the wisdom of God to fame and riches.
As a book of Scripture it is exquisitely constructed, combining an easy and elegant, free style of Greek prose with profoundly poetic structures. There is a strong emphasis on paradoxical and forceful images rather than logic, but the whole book is coherently formed, dividing into three main strands. It opens with an exhortation to all who have power on earth to love justice, then moves on to a central passage concerned with the gift of wisdom. Wisdom is described in something close to angelic terms as a Divine helper who makes it possible for us to live justly and receive friendship with God. This leads into a long final section dealing with the key nation-making events of the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt, events which testify to God’s wisdom and sense of justice.
So why have our lectionary compilers chosen to give us a passage from the Book of Wisdom to read as part of our preparation to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation? We’ve just heard the first two thirds of chapter 9, an eloquent prayer for wisdom that forms the climax of the whole book. In it the un-named speaker mentions two key characteristics that immediately identify him with King Solomon – Solomon’s request to God for wisdom not riches and his determination to: ‘build a temple on your holy mountain, and an altar in the city of your habitation,a copy of the holy tent that you prepared from the beginning.’
Here, straightaway, might be clues as to why we hear this passage at this time, clues which are highlighted by an odd conjunction this year when the real date of the Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March, fell on Good Friday. Obviously nothing gets in the way of Good Friday so for 2016 the Annunciation has been shifted to 4 April. Due to this clash of dates we should have heard this reading on the evening of Maundy Thursday. Instead, of course, we remembered Christ showing us what true kingship means as he stripped off his outer garments, got down on his hands and knees and washed the feet of his friends.
Solomon rejected riches, power over his enemies and long life in favour of wisdom to serve his people well. Jesus rejected the possibility of a long life and the use of both earthly and divine power to force his will upon us, in favour of a leadership of service even unto death.
Solomon used his gifts to build a permanent tabernacle where God is to be found dwelling on earth. Jesus is God pitching his tabernacle on earth and dwelling in the midst of us.
So already we can discern intimations of the type of king the angel announces that Mary is to bear. But there is more to this reading than that, much more, for throughout it is infused with the character of Wisdom. Wisdom who is personified in feminine terms, Wisdom who was with God from the beginning and was an integral instrument of creation. Wisdom who’s closeness to God allows her to be a bridge between the Divine and the human. She lives with God and is revealed and given to humans by God. Wisdom is the manner in which God has created the world and fashioned the human heart. Wisdom is the manner in which God continuously intervenes in history, both to save the just and to thwart the designs of injustice. Wisdom is present among all generations.
Which, I think, takes us to the Magnificat.
We know the Magnificat as one of Mary’s early responses to the earth-shattering news that she was to be the bearer of God’s Son. It is a text that defines her and it is a key text of the Christian faith, which we say every day during Evening Prayer or hear sung at Evensong in one of the many sonorous and beautiful settings by church composers down the centuries.
Now, I must confess that I’ve always struggled with settings of the Magnificat. When I read the words of the Magnificat I don’t hear Bach or Pergolesi, Stanford or Rutter. When I read those words I hear Billie Holiday singing ‘Strange Fruit’, Bob Marley singing ‘Redemption Song’, Billy Bragg singing about the Diggers in ‘World turned upside down’, Maya Angelou reciting ‘Still I Rise’, Martin Luther King telling the assembly that ‘I have a dream…’.
I hear a song that contains praise but is much more than praise, a song that contains hope but is about much more than a hope for the future, it is filled with the belief that God is acting now. It is a song that trenchantly declares that God’s past, present and future actions are not about preserving the status quo where injustice is embedded in the rule of the mighty. It is a song that believes that God consistently has, God consistently is and God consistently will turn the world upside down – scattering the proud in their conceit, casting the mighty from their thrones, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and favouring them over the rich. It is a song that contains within it all the main themes of the Book of Wisdom.
For Solomon, the unnamed speaker in this Book of Wisdom, declares himself to be a lowly servant of God – ‘For I am your servant, the son of your servant-girl, a man who is weak and short-lived’ just as Mary does. Solomon speaks at length about God’s justice in contrast to human injustice, just as Mary does. Solomon concludes by describing how and why God comes to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his promise made to their ancestors, made to Abraham and his children forever, and God delivers his people from out of the hands of their enemies. And, again, Mary describes God holding firm on his promises of deliverance.
But more than that, Solomon prays to God that he be filled with this feminine personification of Wisdom: ‘she who knows your works and was present when you made the world; she understands what is pleasing in your sight and what is right according to your commandments.’ And in Mary we have an example of that Wisdom made flesh, co-creator with God of the Saviour of the World, who in the words of her Song shows her understanding of what is pleasing in God’s sight and what is right according to God’s commandments. Mary does the job attributed to Wisdom, in her role as the God-bearer she acts as a bridge between humanity and God, or perhaps as the foundations of the bridge that is her son, Jesus, Son of God. As her body becomes the entry point for God to dwell among us, so her words lay out the agenda for the work of Jesus, who is God among us. Words which he reaffirms in his home town of Nazareth when he opens the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and declares that he has come to bring good news to the hungry and to the lowly, that he has come to let the oppressed go free.
The writer of the Book of Wisdom used the honourable character of King Solomon, the wise servant king, to provide encouragement to his fellow Jews struggling under Roman oppression in Alexandria. At almost the same time the Song of Mary was providing encouragement to God’s faithful people struggling under the oppression of the Roman rulers in Palestine.
As I read the Magnificat through the lens of the Book of Wisdom then I begin to remember that the Magnificat is not just a call for radical social change, it is also a song of praise to a God who not just will affect such change, but has already and is doing so now, at this very moment. Then the soaring and glorious settings of Bach and Pergolesi, Byrd and Sumison, begin to make sense for they are reflecting Mary’s understanding that through the birth of Christ and the lives we lead following him, the glory, wonder and wisdom of heaven have already begun to make their home in our world.