Wisdom

1 Kings 3:15-28
Ephesians 3:8-13

There was once a young prince whose distant uncle was king of a great empire. The prince was carefree and happy, neither very rich nor very poor. One day, a great disaster struck. The king, his uncle, was killed in an earthquake, and all the senior members of the royal family died with him. The prince was solemnly informed that he, now, was to be king. The prince remembered the stories he had heard of young kings in days gone by. He knew at once what he needed: wisdom.

Like King Solomon, David’s son and heir, he needed to know instinctively the best way of resolving a difficult situation. He needed to be able to see to the heart of the deepest and most subtle issues. The big picture and the little details; the well-pondered great questions, and the sharp, incisive practical judgment. That’s what wisdom was all about, and he determined to seek it and make it his own.

There’s a book called ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’, probably written about the time of Jesus. It’s in what called the ‘apocrypha’, that is Jewish books which were valued by Jews of the time, and by the early church, but not considered part of the Old Testament. One of the main themes of this book is a message to pagan rulers: what you need is wisdom! And the place to get this wisdom, according to the book, is in respecting the one true God and the people who honour him, in other words, Israel’s God, and the true Israelites. This can, of course, be turned around as a message to Israel itself. Your task, this message says, is to worship and honour the living God, whatever the pagan nations may do to you. Eventually they will realise that true wisdom consists in respecting and honouring this God, and you are to be the sign to them that this is so.

There are several passages in Paul’s writings where he seems to show knowledge of ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’, and this is one of them. The heart of today’s reading is verse 10, which is one of the New Testament’s most powerful statements of the reason for the church’s existence: the rulers and authorities must be confronted with God’s wisdom, in all its rich variety, and this is to happen through the church! Not, we should quickly add, through what the church says, though that is vital as well. Rather, through what the church is, namely, the community in which men, women, and children of every race, colour, social and cultural background come together in glad worship of the one true God. It is precisely this many-sided, many-coloured, many-splendoured identity of the church that makes the point.

God’s wisdom, Paul is saying, is like that too: like a many-faceted diamond which twinkles and sparkles with all the colours in the rainbow. The ‘rulers and authorities’, however – both the earthly authorities and their shadowy heavenly counterparts – always tend to create societies and social structures in their own flat, boring image, monochrome, uniform and one-dimensional. Worse: they tend to marginalise or kill people or groups who don’t fit their narrow band of acceptability. The church is to be, by the very fact of its existence, a warning to them that their time is up, and an announcement to the world that there is a different way to be human.

This, then, is what Paul means by ‘the riches of Christ’. He’s referring to the richness of this new life, the new way of being human that has now been unveiled in and through Jesus, together with the future hope that it contains. The phrase will sound strange to many, both Christian and non-Christian, who have forgotten, or perhaps never known, that what can appear from the outside as a tedious or humdrum religious existence – all that going to church, people say, all that saying of prayers and trying to be holy! – is in fact meant to be a delighted exploration of untold and inexhaustible riches. Being a Christian is meant to consist of going from room to room in the king’s palace, relishing the beauty and splendour of it all.

Part of Paul’s task is to help people see that they are called to share in this inheritance themselves. He was by now a past master at exploring the treasury of wisdom and insight, of spiritual joys and hopes, which are there in Christ. He regarded it as a major element in his own vocation that he should invite others to share it as well. The newly established churches around Asia Minor needed to find out for themselves what was rightfully theirs ‘in Christ’. If they did so, they would be well on the way to maturity, to being able to go forward – with or without an apostle to guide them.

Central among the treasures given in the Messiah is of course free and confident access to God himself. The Messiah’s faithfulness to God’s saving purpose has opened the door of the heavenly throne-room itself. That open door reveals not an angry or capricious god, one who might be favourable one day and scowling the next, the young Christians Paul is writing to knew plenty of gods like that already, but the loving father who welcomed them all as beloved children into his presence. Access to him is everything one could want.

All these rich benefits should mean that the church can look at Paul’s imprisonment without worrying, but why does Paul describe his sufferings as their ‘glory’? The answer is surely that he is suffering precisely because he is pioneering a way of life that challenges the sovereignty of the rulers and authorities. The fact that he is in prison is a sign that the Christian way is indeed posing a decisive threat to the rule of evil in the world. The questions this passage poses for us, then, are:
Are we learning to explore the riches of Christ? Or are we content to stay in the outer hallways of the great palace?
Have we imagined that the inner rooms are too boring to claim our attention?
And are our churches, in the sort of life they lead, posing the kind of challenge to the power of evil which provokes a reaction?