The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, 16 September 2018

Proverbs 1:20-33
Psalm 19


Wisdom 7:26-8:1, or Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-8
James 3:1-12
St. Mark 8:27-38

Background: Messiah

There are so many roots to the notion of a messiah, and the role that the messiah would play in the world of politics and religion. Some of the ideas around the messiah stem from the Davidic kingship, actually kingship in general. Kings and priests were anointed and as such were mashiah, “anointed ones”. In the ancient near east the enterprise of kingship and priestly service were closely related, and thus come together in some of the original notions of messiah. 

The other roots of this term are found in the influence of Persian thought, and the reality of the geopolitik of the Persian Empire. Second Isaiah sees in Cyrus the Great a messiah, not only in terms of his anointing, but in his role over against Israel and the return to Israel, and the hope of a new Davidic kingship. This hope for a future restoration led to an eschatological aspect to the term, and this became more and more pronounced during the Seleucid and Roman periods. 

There is a mystical aspect to this term as well, especially noted in the book of Daniel where we see the “Son of Man” motif. These come together in the Christian ideas about Jesus as Messiah, the Anointed One or Christos, as the Greeks would have it. Separate discussion would need to be had on the development of this notion in Judaism in dispersion, and in further developments in Islam as well.

Track One:

First Reading: Proverbs 1:20-33

Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.
Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
and because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.
Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
would have none of my counsel,
and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
and be sated with their own devices.
For waywardness kills the simple,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;
but those who listen to me will be secure
and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

The image of “Lady Wisdom” becomes an important component in this first section of the Book of Proverbs. She is one of several female figures in the Hebrew Scriptures, such as the figure of Zion. She is placed in this pericope at the center of things, at the crossroads, in the public square. At the city gates where justice is usually meted out she cries out her message. It is a message that is ignored by those passing her by in the market, “fools have knowledge”? This is an interesting comment in light of the growing anti-intellectualism in our own culture. She contrasts the behavior of those who ignore her counsel, and those who do listen to her. 

Breaking open the Proverbs:
1.    In what ways are you wise?
2.    From where did you get your wisdom?
3.    What wisdom do you yet seek?

Psalm 19 Caeli enarrant

     The heavens declare the glory of God, *
and the firmament shows his handiwork.
     One day tells its tale to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.
     Although they have no words or language, *
and their voices are not heard,
     Their sound has gone out into all lands, *
and their message to the ends of the world.
     In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun; *
it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;
it rejoices like a champion to run its course.
     It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens
and runs about to the end of it again; *
nothing is hidden from its burning heat.
     The law of the Lord is perfect
and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the Lord is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.
     The statutes of the Lord are just
and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the Lord is clear
and gives light to the eyes.
     The fear of the Lord is clean
and endures for ever; *
the judgments of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
10    More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.
11    By them also is your servant enlightened, *
and in keeping them there is great reward.
12    Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.
13    Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me; *
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.
14    Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight, *
Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

The psalm serves as a follow-on to the thoughts from Proverbs. Here it is the Lord who is giving wisdom, and the whole of creation gives witness to God’s wisdom. “The heavens tell God’s glory…one day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another.”From sunrise to sundown there is a witness to God’s work and will. The third verse has a wonderful observation about the mystic nature of the witness of nature, “Although they have no words or language.” We who have seen the cosmos through the lens of the Hubble telescope know the power of these nonwords – for they are eloquent. The beauty of the poet’s language does not stop there, for images God in the guise of a pagan solar god, or as a bridegroom coming onto the scene.

The real import of the psalm is the focus on the teaching of God which is perfect. This is a sharp transition from the verses which precede verse seven. Perhaps two different psalms have been spliced together. The language is quite sensuous – gold and honey strike us with their luxury. Immediately there is a contrast with the one who has not met perfection, who has sinned. The final verses affect the attitude recommended to those who have strayed – that their words and ideas meet the perfection that God witnesses.

Breaking open Psalm 19:
1.       How does nature talk to you about God?
2.       How is the beauty of nature like God?
3.       In what ways have you not met the perfection that God exhibits?


Track Two:

First Reading: Wisdom 7:26–8:1

For wisdom is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness.

Although she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.

She is more beautiful than the sun,
and excels every constellation of the stars.
Compared with the light she is found to be superior,
for it is succeeded by the night,
but against wisdom evil does not prevail.

She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
and she orders all things well.

Here we have a reverie on “Nature and the Incomparable Dignity of Wisdom”. The idea that connects Wisdom to eternal light is similar to the initial part of Psalm 19 in Track One above, where God is seen as a solar deity, making the day itself an icon of God’s light. So wisdom is a reflection of that light, “a spotless mirror.” The connection of Wisdom and God’s light is seen the Christian Scriptures, especially Hebrews 1:3; and Colossians 1:15.

Breaking open Wisdom:
1.       How is wisdom like light?
2.       In what ways has your religion enlightened you?
3.       How does our society need to be enlightened?


First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens--
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?

It is the prophet’s duty to instruct with a teacher’s tongue, a disciple’s tongue. What Isaiah understands here is that if we are to follow and to be led then we must not only follow but listen as well. It is not only the prophet who must follow and listen, but the people as well, and it is a task that comes with its own complications. “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard.” What we understand is that the message deemed to be from God is not always well received. We know that in our own time as we attempt to hear God’s message to us in the here and now, and find it rebuked by those who cannot hear God in what we preach, or who are offended and threatened by what we have listened to and followed. Isaiah is clear that it is God who helps him.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.       Who is a teacher that you really admired?
2.       Why”
3.       What are you prepared for to teach others?

Psalm 116:1-8 Dilexi, quoniam

     I love the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, *
because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him.
     The cords of death entangled me;
the grip of the grave took hold of me; *
I came to grief and sorrow.
     Then I called upon the Name of the Lord: *
"O Lord, I pray you, save my life."
     Gracious is the Lord and righteous; *
our God is full of compassion.
     The Lord watches over the innocent; *
I was brought very low, and he helped me.
     Turn again to your rest, O my soul, *
for the Lord has treated you well.
     For you have rescued my life from death, *
my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.
     I will walk in the presence of the Lord *
in the land of the living.

Who is listening in the psalm that accompanies the Isaiah reading? It is God who listens and who hears. It is the supplication of the poet that has God’s ear. These verses match the despair that we heard in the First Reading, Isaiah’s despair over those who would not listen to his message. The psalmist sees the situation in dire terms, “The cords of death entangled me.” It is the very fear and threat of death with which he wrestles. He reaches for inner resources as well, “Turn again to your rest, O my soul.” The knowledge that is implied to the soul is that it recognizes God’s rescue and presence.

Breaking open Psalm 116:
1.       To whom do you listen?
2.       Does God listen to you?
3.       How do you know that?

Second Reading: James 3:1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue-- a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

This is from the section of James that is devoted to “Slow Speaking.” If we follow Isaiah’s direction to become teachers (First Reading – Track Two), then it would do us well to follow James’ instruction on the tongue and wise speaking. It is not only what we do that describes our life as Christians (see last Sunday’s Second Reading) but it is marked as well by what we say. It is about knowing our words and the words necessary to our message and witness. James uses the rudder of a ship or the bridle of a horse to describe the desired control of the tongue. Of importance here is not necessarily the evil of words, but the importance of the message and witness.

Breaking open James:
1.       How do you control your tongue?
2.       What is your biggest temptation with gossip?
3.       What does it mean when James advises us to “speak slowly”?

The Gospel: St. Mark 8:27-38

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

This pericope is immediately preceded by a healing story, “The Blind Man is Healed at Bethsaida” (8:22-26). It leads us thematically in to our pericope for this morning. Any blindness that has been exhibited by the disciples is close to being dissipated. The comments by Isaiah and James on the power of words serve as a good check point for us here. I am reminded of a story told by one of my theology professors in college.

“And Jesus said unto them, ‘Who do men say that I am?’ The disciples replied, ‘Some say that you are the Ground of All Being, the Ultimate Concern, the Omega Point.’ And Jesus said unto them, ‘Huh!?’”

This is not to disparage theological attempts to discuss God and Christology, but to realize the difficulties that we have when using words to describe our relationship with God. What is our blindness in seeing or understanding God? Peter soon learns the difficulty, “Get behind me, Satan!” There are more than just words, there is the taking up of the cross. There is the pride that we must have in the words of Christ – words that are not always understood by “this adulterous generation.” We should not be ashamed to explore the Christ with our words, but we certainly must follow him in our living.

Breaking open the Gospel: 
1.       How do you talk about Jesus?
2.       What have others said that agrees with you?
3.       What have others said that you find difficult?

Central Idea:               Words and Wisdom as tools in Evangelism

Idea One:                     What is the Wisdom that enlightens the world? (First Reading Track One, and Track Two)
Idea Two:                    What are the words of a Teacher that will make our message clear? (First Reading alternate, Track Two)
Idea Three:                  What are the dangers of Christian preaching? (Second Lesson)
Idea Four:                    Who is Christ to us, how might we describe him? (Gospel)

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday: 

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O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2018, Michael T. Hiller


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