Scripture Readings: Proverbs 1:20-33

Mark 8:31-38

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I read about a survey this week that claimed that men aged between 18 and 34 are so concerned about how they look, they spend two hours a week thinking about what they are going to wear[1]. Once, we gents used to complain that the ladies were keeping us late because they took so long to get ready. Perhaps now the roles are reversed!

I have no idea how accurate that survey is. But it reminds us that many of us have more choices than ever before. If you look at pictures of ordinary people until about the 1950s or 60s, it’s striking how similarly everyone is dressed. But go to Inverness High Street today and you will see a wide variety of colours, styles and fashions. We have so many choices available nowadays- not just fashion choices. Many of us have choices previous generations could never have dreamed of: choices of places to travel to, choices of food from across the world to eat, choices of various lifestyle, choices for entertainment, even choices of what to believe. If you I spend hours agonising over what I am going to wear- well that’s also my choice. But should I be spending my time more wisely?

Today’s reading from the Book of Proverbs gives us a striking image of Wisdom, who is shown like a woman who invites us to make a choice. Proverbs is a book of wisdom, part of a genre of ancient literature which offers us pithy saying and reflections to enable us to live wisely. Today’s passage reminds us that real wisdom isn’t a bunch of proverbs to learn, but a way of life. We get to choose whether to be wise, or foolish; to follow God’s wisdom, or a false wisdom which can only lead to destruction.

The figure of Lady Wisdom appears throughout the book of Proverbs. The song we have just sung refers to Proverbs chapter 9, in which Wisdom invites us to come to her house and dine with her:

Come, eat my food and drink the wine that I have mixed. Leave the company of ignorant people, and live. Follow the way of knowledge[2].

But the first appearance of Lady Wisdom in this book is the passage that is our reading for today. Wisdom, we are told, is out on the city streets, calling to people in the busiest places and wherever folk meet up: the streets and the marketplace and the city gate. Wisdom is portrayed as a seductive woman who tries to seduce us away from the false wisdom by which most people live. Lady ‘Wisdom has but one question: how long will you continue on your current path to destruction?’[3].

She asks us why we pour contempt on good advice. Why are we too easily enticed by bad ideas and daft theories? Why do we stick with opinions which are not of God? For our choices are not just which clothes to wear or cars to buy. The deeper question is: do we follow the wisdom of God, or the ways of the world which lead to destruction. Time is short, she says, for us to decide:

You have never had any use for knowledge and have always refused to obey the Lord. You have never wanted my advice or paid any attention when I corrected you. So then, you will get what you deserve, and your own actions will make you sick.

Today, many of us go into the streets and into the marketplace and live by ideas which are, indeed, destructive. The crowd tells us to put ourselves first, that it’s fine to not care about others, to ignore the poor, to pass by on the other side as people are belittled solely because of the race or nationality. And the crowd ignores or scorns the Wisdom of Christ, calling us to love our neighbour. In the crowd, we can choose to carry on consuming, using up the riches of the earth, continuing to pollute and destroy earth, sea and sky until the earth itself becomes sick.

Our challenge is to avoid the loud voices of the herd, and to allow ourselves to go with Lady Wisdom: to ‘trust in God, and do the right’[4] as a great Scottish hymn puts it. Will we, in the words of a more recent Scottish hymn by another Scot, allow God’s wisdom to

Hush our world’s seductive noises
tempting us to stand alone;
save us from the siren voices
calling us to trust our own.[5]?

It seems all too easy to ignore Wisdom’s call. We often find what we think is safety by just going with the crowd. But there is not real safety without trusting in God, says Lady Wisdom:

Stupid people are destroyed by their own lack of concern. But whoever listens to me will have security. He will be safe, with no reason to be afraid.

Are we willing let yourselves be seduced by God’s Wisdom?

For Christians, Christ is the wisdom of God[6]. And in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus offers us an image as striking as that of Lady Wisdom trying to seduce us in the marketplace. His disciples have been struggling to understand him. Simon Peter has argued with him, for he can’t believe that his teacher is saying that he will have suffer and die.

And so Jesus speaks about a choice. With Christ, the choice is whether to follow him, or not to follow him. And then, in stark terms, he lays out what it means to follow him. You want to follow me? Then you must forget your very self- your own, personal, selfish ambitions and wants. Think of a criminal, headed for that terrible Roman punishment, crucifixion. You’ve seen them, or heard of the sight. The Romans make the condemned man walk through the streets, carrying his cross. He has no freedom left. He can only walk in one direction, where his guards take him, to the place of execution. This is what it is like if you want to follow me:

“If any of you want to come with me,” he told them, “you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow me. For if you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for me and for the gospel, you will save it”.

For to follow Christ is always a kind of martyrdom. To truly be disciples, we will have to give up some things we are comfortable with. Because, says Christ, you might gain the whole world, but in doing so you will lose what is really important. What is the point of all the wealth, power, glory, popularity that the world can bring, when one day we will all die? But following Christ, living by his Gospel, letting ourselves be part of his Kingdom people- that, says Christ, is the way to life. Lose your life for the Gospel, and you will save it! A strange wisdom, but the wisdom of God.

Like Lady Wisdom, calling us in the marketplace, so Christ, today, calls us in the market place of ideas, in a marketplace of almost infinite possibilities, to make a choice. Most people will hardly hear the voice of God’s wisdom across the cacophony of the marketplace.

If we are spending hours worrying about what we are going to wear, we may miss Jesus saying to us, Don’t worry about clothes. The wild flowers don’t worry about it, and they look better than Solomon in is finery- only pagans worry about such things[7]. This is wisdom to work out what is really valuable in life.

Those of us who worry about money more than anything else will be scornful of Jesus telling us that we cannot serve two masters- that we have to choose between Mammon and God[8]. This is the wisdom that the wealth of this world is nothing compared the riches which God.

Sometimes even religion leads us astray, because sometimes we religious people are tempted to compare ourselves to other people, and imagine that we are better than them. Then we have chosen not to hear Christ’s command not to judge others, and his threat that, if we do so, we place ourselves be under the judgement of God[9]. This is the wisdom that we should have insight into our own motives before we start trying to tell other people how to live.

Yet the Christian life does not mean, for most of us, that we shut ourselves up in monks’ cell and try to leave the world behind completely. We all still live in the marketplace, a place where there is a cacophony of voices, pulling us in different directions, claiming to have all the answers. But in that noisy place, do we hear the voice of Wisdom, enticing us to the adventure of living in God’s ways?

We still have places where we like to meet others- the café, the pub, the sports stadium, the workplace, and yes, still, the street. The Proverbs reminds us that the city gate was once a popular place for people to gather. And in Jesus’ day, sometimes, through the city gate, would walk a man dragging a cross, on his way out of city walls, to the place of execution. And that we fear to be that man- scorned, jostled, jeered. Yet that is what Christ offers us when he asks us to choose to follow him.

For he has just told Simon Peter that that is where he is going. Will you come to me to Jerusalem, he says, where shame, pain, scorn and execution await? But for Christ, that was the only way to life- that was the path that he had chosen. For from his death would come new life; his resurrection would open the way for humanity to be saved.

So if we do take up our crosses and follow him, we follow a well-worn path. It is the path Christ first took, his Via Dolorosa to Golgotha. It is the way Peter would one day take, for he, too, was eventually to die for the sake of the Gospel. Death was the price that Stephen and Paul were to pay for preaching the Gospel. It was a price paid by those first Christian martyrs who found themselves thrown to the lions by the Romans, and many more martyrs down through the centuries. In more recent tines, for Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Dr Martin Luther King Jr, being faithful to the Gospel meant literally giving up their lives for the truth.

So what do we choose to do? Do we chose the folly of this world, or the wisdom of God. Yes, being a disciple of Christ is dangerous, perhaps even foolhardy. St Paul called the Gospel ‘foolishness to the Greeks’[10]; for those who do not or will not understand, God’s wisdom seems a bit barmy, or even downright dangerous. Who could chose such a path?

A journalist told me this week that he thought he detected an interesting development in the political circles he moved in. He reckoned that people of faith were becoming more open about the religious impulses which were at the foundation of their values. It is as if, even in our increasingly secular world, the voice of Lady Wisdom, crying from the edge of the marketplace, had not yet been entirely silenced. Perhaps the marketplace is starting to realise that many of the non-religious or pseudo-religious ideas which people try to live by are not life giving after all.

Ten years after the financial crash, do we really think that uncontrolled capitalism is the answer to everything? In America, much of the church abandoned the crucified, suffering Christ, went in for a sort of religious nationalism, a so-called prosperity gospel, and voted for Donald Trump. Can that really the future of religious faith? And as more and more people try to live without God, why are living with a mental health epidemic, with increasing levels of loneliness, with young people getting unhealthily obsessed by what they wear and even what shape their bodies are?

The bruised, spat on, battered criminal staggers out of the city gate, headed to Golgotha. And the people at the gate watch and wonder about that if that head, sore wounded, with grief and shame bowed down, is perhaps a sacred head. Might this outcast actually be the one who holds the secret of life? And do his followers, following on the road, perhaps possess a wisdom which eludes so many? And if that wisdom is still calling across the marketplace, and on the streets, will we listen? Will we respond?

Jesus Christ is calling,
calling in the streets,
‘Who will join my journey?
I will guide their feet.’
Listen, Lord Jesus,
let my fears be few.
Walk one step before me;
I will follow you.[11]

Amen.

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2018 Peter W Nimmo

Notes

[1] https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/16859407.millennial-men-agonise-over-clothing-choices/

[2] Proverbs 9.5

[3] J.B. Blue in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice Year B, p395

[4] ‘Courage Brother’, Normal Macleod, CH4 513

[5] ‘For your generous providing’, Leith Fisher, CH4 655

[6] 1 Corinthians 1.24

[7] Matthew 6.28-31

[8] Matthew 6.24

[9] Matthew 7.1-2

[10] 1 Corinthians 1.23

[11] John L Bell and Graham Maule CH4 360