Sermon for Epiphany 4A – 29th January 2023

Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12 

For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.
’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

1 Corinthians 1:19-20

So what is the wisdom of the world that Paul is speaking of to the Corinthians? Perhaps something along the lines of:

Happy are the proud and self-sufficient who think the world revolves around them and haven’t ever felt the need to rely on anything or anyone beyond themselves, for nothing will hold them back, the world’s their oyster.

Happy are the content, who fail to notice the suffering of others and who haven’t had to come face-to-face with themselves through the loss of someone dear to them, for they’ll never know their ignorance.

Happy are the confident, proud or arrogant, for they’ll control the happiness or otherwise of those around them and not need to rely on being shown charity or love by others.

Happy are those who get everything they need for fulfilment through earthly pleasures and never feel that there’s anything missing in their lives, for they’ll be filled with feelings of superiority.

Happy are the bullies and the unforgiving, who regarding being merciful and compassionate as weaknesses, haven’t had to rely on the mercy or compassion of others, for they’re the strong ones who’re in control.

Happy are the selfish and those whose use of those around them has shielded them from the complications of seeing others as equals made in the image of God, for they’ll never have to succumb to the heartache of love and compassion or the crutch of religion.

Happy are those prepared to compete and fight for what they want rather than cooperate, for they’ll never need to discover who they really are or engage with the trail of destruction and pain they leave behind.

Happy are those who do wrong and don’t play by the rules and fail to get caught, for they’ll be considered heroes while those who do play by the rules will be seen as losers.

Happy are those who lie, gossip and make fun of others causing them harm or embarrassment and who don’t feel the need to speak out when they see injustice, for they’ll not need to face up to the fact that those they’ve put down, ostracised or persecuted have spoken a truth that’s too close for comfort.

Perhaps reflecting on these characteristics and those elements of them which make each of us squirm just a little, might be instructive in guiding us towards a life more in tune with God’s wisdom than hitherto. 

For Paul the wisdom of the world seems to arise out of Man’s rebellion against God, his refusal to bow the knee and his determination to shape God in his own image. There were many powerful orators in Corinth, not unlike politicians today, with catch-phrases such as: “the wise man is king” and “to the wise man all things belong”, but this was wisdom of the sort to which I have already alluded. Michael Caine could obviously see that there was something lacking in the wisdom of the world when he said:

For all my education, accomplishments, and so called ‘wisdom’… I can’t fathom my own heart.

Michael Caine playing Elliot in the 1986 Woody Allen film “Hannah and her Sisters”

And that’s what its about. Not to be confused with the wave of world leaders who are dismissive about experts, especially when they speak truth to power and when commentators suggest that we’re living in a post-truth world and do you remember a mainstream politician saying with a straight face:

Day after day, we’re fed scare stories about how eating too much will make you fat, and how smoking causes lung cancer. It’s pure scaremongering, and I think this type of negativity is turning patients off.

Michael Gove “Guide to Britain’s Greatest Enemy – the Experts” 2016

Though I do think that the Pandemic did stem the flow of that sort of thing for a while.

No God’s wisdom, the wisdom of the God’s Kingdom, is of a completely different sort:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

1 Corinthians 1:27-29

And that’s what lies behind Jesus’ description of a true disciple. The description that he lays out in the Sermon on the Mount, of which the Beatitudes that we heard in our Gospel this morning is but the first part. He lays out the qualities that He looks for in those who aspire to become members of the Kingdom of God. They may seem paradoxical, they may seem to be as much signs of weakness as of strength, but that is to judge them by the wisdom of the world. 

These characteristics of a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven are far removed from the world’s wisdom in such matters, and consequently immensely profound. The citizens of God’s Kingdom are described as putting God first in their motives and actions, in their business and their language, in the way that they treat others and in their thoughts and priorities. The Beatitudes are a bit of a shock for anyone who might think that being a Christian is simply a crutch for the weak, the inadequate, the unsuccessful, the sick and the old. The characteristics described require strength, courage and fortitude.

When it comes to reflecting on the contrast between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God, you can always rely on T. S. Eliot to get to the heart of the matter, so lets end with a few stanzas from “Choruses from The Rock”:

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust. 

T S Eliot “Choruses from the Rock”


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