The First Sunday After the Epiphany
Isaiah 60:1-9, Psalm 72, Romans 12:1-5, Luke 2:41-52
I once met a wise man. I had to travel miles and miles to find him. I’m going to tell you about him. Truly wise men are in short supply.
n this Epiphany season, the wise men lead us into the consideration of wisdom. They are gentiles and they have traversed afar to encounter the Christ child. Have you ever stopped to think about what makes them wise?
Have you ever stopped to think about what makes wisdom wisdom? It is ascribed to a number of famous men throughout history. Socrates, Confucius, Gandhi, Mao. Each has a considerable following. He must be wise.
But not one of them was wise in the way of the wise men who made that long trek to Bethlehem. The Scriptures tell us near to naught about them before their arrival. It appears they didn’t invent geometry or break new ground in philosophy. What makes them wise?
I think it’s this: They sought wisdom not in ideas or theories or propositions but in a Person. The Person of Jesus Christ. They distinguished the wisdom of man from the wisdom of God.
But let me tell you about the wise man I met.
Some years ago, I was in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, when someone said to me, “When you get to Osh, be sure to look up Jim. You’ll be glad you did.”
Landing in the southern town of Osh after flying over the snowy tips of the Tien Shan Range, I kissed the ground. The motto of Air Kyrgyzstan, as I recall, is “Often, We Arrive.” It sounds more poetic in Kyrgyz. Then I went looking for Jim. I was glad I did.
He’s an Australian, and an impressive bloke indeed. He had served in his country’s special forces, and then gone on to seminary, and then on to Osh, where his training in warfare both carnal and spiritual no doubt served him well. In all of the old Soviet stans of Central Asia, the most radical Islamists lurk in the lawless valleys around Osh.
Missionaries bound for rural, primitive, sometimes hostile places receive training in seeking out the man of peace. He is the most honored graybeard in the village, the one who dispenses justice and maintains order by his Solomonic decisions. In the Muslim world, he is usually the imam, or local cleric.
Jim did just this, tramping about the hinterlands and asking around in each village until he located the man of peace. Jim then told him he had come to help, and would like to begin working with the people on some things that would improve their lives.
He sketched out what were for him simple, small-scale measures involving things like increasing the production of dairy cows and making their milk safer to drink. When the imam agreed, Jim went to work.
After months of dispensing his ornaments of grace and gaining trust, he would say to the imam, “Each Thursday when I come to your village I would like to stay after work in the evening and teach your people from the wisdom literature of my people, from a book in my Bible called Proverbs.”
The imam would say, “We are Muslim. Why do you not teach from the Quran?” And Jim would say, “You are Muslim. You teach from the Quran. I am Christian. I will teach from the Bible.”
This would make perfect sense to the imam because in the Muslim world religion is bound up with culture. It is fitting that a Kyrgyz be Muslim and an Australian be Christian. And so, not in every case but in most, the imam would agree. It was only, after all, proverbial sayings common to all peoples.
I can imagine Jim smiling secretly when he arrived at Proverbs 8, from which we have read today and which proclaims Wisdom to be a person.
After months of teaching the villagers wisdom from his holy book, after the people began to see that fewer children were getting sick and dying from the milk, Jim would say to the imam, “There is more in my book for the people to learn. I would like to teach them from the gospels.”
And not in every case but in most, the imam would agree. He was the man of peace who had allowed this foreigner into the village, and look at the good that had come to the people from their leader’s wise decision.
So Jim would turn to the gospels and begin to spin out the tales of poor people like them who made their living from the land, for whom the land was life. Before long, he would come to the story about the boy Jesus who at age 12 slipped away from his parents and disappeared.
This is the Jesus Muslims know from the many references to Him in their Quran.
In search of Him, Jesus’ parents came to Jerusalem and found him in the mosque, called a temple, confounding not just one but a group of imams, called rabbis, with His wisdom.
And as Jim guided them though the gospels the villagers would see this Jesus, a fount of wisdom that flowed faster and deeper than that of the elders, grown up into a man, full of grace and truth. From the holy book of this kind foreigner who had scattered blessings over them they learned that Jesus poured out mercy on the poor and the sick, taught them and healed them.
They would see this man riding into the city as people like them thronged the roadway and shouted, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” In their mind’s eye they would watch Jesus as He endured the agony of the cross, perhaps wondering, “Would I have been one of those who shouted, “Crucify!”?
Still more, the final gospel calls this Jesus the Word of God and in the beginning – before God made the world – this Jesus was with God and . . . He was God.
The Word of God, like the Wisdom of God in Proverbs, is a Person. This Person is a gentle soul who cares for the weak, wounded and without in all the dusty villages. This kind, loving soul is God. Surely there is much to ponder here.
In the hands of one like Jim, wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove, wisdom works wonders. It throws light deep into the valleys of the mountains surrounding Osh, one of the darkest corners of this earth. The Light of God’s wisdom will shine from sea to sea. He will have dominion over all that He has made.
But we cannot leave the matter there. The Prayer Book will not abide it. We must contend with another missionary, one named Paul.
The Bible gives us wisdom in strata, like the rock formation of an ancient riverbed. We find simple gospel stories to enlighten Kyrgyz rustics and propositional truths so tightly interwoven that they challenge the brightest theologians as they try to unravel them – the sort of truths we encounter in St. Paul’s epistles.
The natural man, on the other hand, believes he grasps the apostle’s musings all too well. He finds Paul’s thought as appealing as wormwood.
One such was George Bernard Shaw. The brilliant Irish playwright was a devout socialist who bore a passion for the plight of the poor. He regarded Jesus as a kindred spirit, an altogether decent sort who wanted only to do good for the downtrodden.
Paul was a different case entirely, a meddler who larded up Jesus’ good works with a lot of religious mumbo-jumbo about dying to take away sins and cleansing His people with His blood. “There has really never been a more monstrous imposition perpetrated,” Shaw declared, “than the imposition of the limitations of Paul’s soul upon the soul of Jesus.”
Because of Jesus, Shaw said, the religion he calls “Paulism” somehow still retains for plain folk in benighted places “its power of bringing to simple people a message of hope and consolation that no other religion offers.” Yet that power, derived from the “personal charm of Jesus,” could work only on those with “untrained minds.”
For the cognoscenti, in Shaw’s view, Paul and a few others had poisoned this simple faith, turned it into “the most infernal of fatalisms” with the result that while the offspring of the heathen “are rejoicing in its legends,” “civilized children are blighted by its logic.”
I think he has a point – if not quite the one he intended. By God’s design, the gospels distill impenetrable abstractions into a story so pure that a wise soul can teach them to untutored villagers. And by God’s design, Paul’s letters offer so rich a vein of theological gold that the most learned could not mine it all in a thousand lifetimes.
Intellect, however, is not the main thing needed for making some piece of God’s wisdom our own. If it were, George Bernard Shaw would have been a patriarch, at least. The illumination the Holy Spirit gives us allows us to peer into the depths of God’s word and to take away something that edifies.
So let us train our sanctified understanding on our lesson from Romans 12 and see what we can glean.
The apostle Paul is a Jew trained in the Hebrew Scriptures, including the Proverbs. He is a Christian well-versed in the gospel story. More than that, he is one who has encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and then repaired to the Arabian desert for years of meditation on all that God had revealed to him.
In this letter before us, he has used 11 chapters to pound his theology into us, to teach the staggering truth of salvation by grace through faith. All have joined in Adam’s rebellion, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, all have come under condemnation. Jew and Gentile alike are dead in our trespasses and sins.
From Rome in Italy to Osh in Kyrgyzstan to Tulsa in Oklahoma, all deserve to remain eternally in the grip of death, which is separation from God. Yet by God’s grace, all may be restored to life – because of what God has done in Christ. Through His teaching, His healing and – like it or not – His saving death on the cross, salvation comes to those who believe.
Therefore, we learn beginning in chapter 12, we who believe must live the life of the redeemed.
“I beseech you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” The last phrase sums up all that has preceded it. This Jewish Christian is using temple imagery to drive home his point. The Old Testament Jew offered an animal as payment for his sins. The New Testament Christian must offer himself as a living sacrifice to God.
Did God create and provide for all of you and redeem all of you from the curse of eternal damnation? Then offer all of you to Him in thanksgiving. That is your reasonable service.
The apostle continues, “And do not be conformed to this world . . .” And here shines the genius of St. Paul that George Bernard Shaw and all others who glorify the wisdom of man can never grasp absent God’s illumination.
Paul has marshaled the language of temple sacrifice to reach back into chapter 5 and to transport us back in time to an earlier temple called the garden of Eden.
For it was Adam who conformed himself to this world when he sought to know this world in a way God had not permitted him.
It was Adam who scoffed at God’s protection from a terrible knowledge he could not control and consumed that knowledge of good and evil.
It was Adam who cast off righteousness and chose sin when he obeyed the ruler of this world.
It was Adam who refused to offer his body – flesh, mind and spirit – to God in gratitude for his very being and for his provision and for the role God had given him in ruling over the creation.
It was Adam who failed in his role as priest to secure the garden and protect his wife
It was Adam who withheld the obedient offering of himself to God as was his reasonable service and created the need for animal sacrifice.
It was Adam who corrupted the image of God within us.
It was Adam who earned eviction from the garden and cut mankind off from the tree of life, bringing upon us all the curse of death.
But now . . . the Second Adam has come. The first Adam refused to offer the living sacrifice. The Second Adam offered the sacrifice of His life for you.
Therefore, you who are in Christ, putting away the sin of the first Adam, receiving freedom from bondage to it, make yourself a slave of Christ our righteousness.
For it was Jesus, the boy who sat at the feet of the teachers of Israel, who is the Teacher of Israel.
It was Jesus whom His parents found in the repository of the law who fulfilled the law.
It was Jesus who remained behind in the temple of God who is the Temple of God.
It was Jesus who said, “Why do you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” who discharged that terrible business without cavil or murmur.
It was Jesus who offered a life of perfect obedience to God so that He could offer His life as a perfect sacrifice to God.
It was Jesus who accepted the role of Priest the first Adam rejected and restored the order of innocence to the garden.
It was Jesus who reversed the curse of death the first Adam brought upon the world.
It was Jesus who washed the stain from God’s image in man that Adam had polluted.
It was Jesus who hung upon a tree and said, “Feed on Me.”
It was Jesus who made Himself our tree of life.
And it was Jesus who owed no reasonable service to God because He is God.
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind . . .” As long as we reside in this sinful flesh we must renew our minds in the Word so that we may continue to make a daily offering of ourselves that is living, holy and acceptable to God. We must feed on Him.
Verse 5: “So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.” St. Augustine said that, receiving Christ worthily in Holy Communion, “what you receive you become.”
Taking His body, the bread, into us, we become His body, the church. If we are transformed by the renewing of our minds we can offer all of ourselves in daily sacrifice to God and bind ourselves to one another as His body, the most powerful engine for righteousness this world will ever know.
If we do not like the look of this world, we must look to this body and finally to its members. Is the foot stumbling because I, the eye, am not providing vision to the body? Is the eye’s vision going for naught because I, the foot, balk at taking a step?
Beloved, God has given us His Wisdom, plain enough to enlighten the simple folk of the faraway mountains, elegant enough to show up for fools those who make the wisdom of man their Eucharist.
Wisdom is Jesus Christ, the King of creation now made manifest to the gentiles, who offered all of Himself as the sacrifice we should by rights have paid. Therefore, let us present all of ourselves to God, as is our reasonable service. Amen.