23 July 2017
Wisdom 4:7-14, Matthew 7
May I speak this evening in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I do, sometimes, wonder how on earth the lectionary writers decide which bit and how much of scripture is to be read at each service. Sometimes the gospel passage chosen is only a few verses long and then sometimes, like this evening, we are given a whole chapter to try and digest. I don’t know if you have ever watched the Apprentice but this reminds me rather of those tasks when the apprentices spend half a day in the office not doing anything very much and then realise that they haven’t actually sold anything and spend the afternoon running around like headless chickens – perhaps the lectionary writers said: “Good grief, it’s the middle of July and we haven’t got very far through Matthew, better throw in a whole chapter this evening!”
Well, I am not going to try and preach on the whole chapter although I would pause to reflect that this evening’s reading contained some verses that I mentioned this morning, for those who were here. “Ask, and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
The promise for us is unequivocal – if we seek to draw closer to God there are no ifs, buts or maybes – God will draw closer to us.
But I’m not here to repeat this morning’s sermon. Instead I want to reflect a little on some words which we don’t here very often, indeed which you may not have heard before, from the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon, which was our first reading.
First I should emphasise that this reading from Wisdom was in the lectionary for this evening, and is not something I have simply chosen at random, so it is an official reading. But the reason you may not have heard those words before, and you may not even have heard of the book of the Wisdom of Solomon, is because this is one of the apocryphal or deuterocanonical books of the Bible.
Other such books include Tobit, Judith, Bel and the Dragon, Maccabees and Esdras. In my bible the apocryphal books are 4 pages longer than the New Testament so there is actually a lot of material there which we do not explore very much.
Now the history of why some books deemed to be part of the canon of scripture whilst others are not is fascinating and is further complicated by the fact that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches take different views and even have slightly different lists of books. But the official view of the Church of England on this substantial body of work is set out in the 39 Articles of Relgiion and states that these books may be used for instruction but not for the basis of doctrine. So they do contain important lessons for us to learn, and are therefore worthy of exploration, but our Christian faith is not to be based upon them.
Having said that I found these verses from Wisdom to be unexpectedly affecting. It is very easy for us, even as Christians, to find ourselves taking on the values of the world in which we live in many ways, and especially in relation to the way we think about death. It is all too easy for us to accept the view that death represents the ultimate failure, that all death is a tragedy but that the worst kind of tragedy is the death of a young person.
Now I appreciate that this is an emotive subject to even think about but lest you think that I am spouting ivory tower theology which is ungrounded in experience let me just share a couple of stories with you. When I was at primary school I had a friend called David White – I think we became friends partly because we shared a surname. At the end of primary school we went to different secondary schools but in the first year of secondary school David had an asthma attack and died. His grave is in the same cemetery as my grandparents and he had hardly started living before he died.
On a more personal note when Vivienne and I started creating our family we underwent two miscarriages which meant that those two babies had no life outside the womb at all before they died. Not long after Henry was born Vivienne and I visited a church and we lit four candles, one for each of our children, two of whom lived with us and two of whom were living with God.
Now each of those premature deaths is affecting and they cannot help but change the way you view the world, and perhaps even the way you view faith and God. But it would be a mistake and an entire misunderstanding of our faith to view death, especially premature death, as representing either a failure of faith or even a failure of God.
Without wishing to create doctrine today’s words from the Wisdom of Solomon says to me that sometimes God takes young souls to himself because they are already perfect and he does not wish them to be corrupted by the world in which we live:
“Being perfected in a short time, they fulfilled long years; for their souls were pleasing to the Lord, therefore he took them quickly from the midst of wickedness.”
Whilst the Bible often reveres old age and grey hair as a source and sign of great wisdom in these verses the author, who may or may not have been the eponymous Solomon, makes the point that Wisdom cannot be objectively measured either with a calendar or by the colour of our follicles but is measured only by our relationship with God, and that is something that only God can judge. In this morning’s sermon we thought about Psalm 139, how God knitted each of us together in our mother’s womb and knew the number of our days before we were born. For some of us that may be multiple decades, perhaps even a century. But some God calls them home early but, nonetheless, in his eyes they have had a full life not because of their number of years but because they have lived the life he knew they would and do not need to be exposed to the difficulties of this world any further.
If we believe that God is our loving heavenly Father and that the souls of the dear departed rest with him until the recreation of all things, then whilst we can and should mourn those who have left us behind we should not agree with the world that this is a tragedy or a failure – God is sovereign over all, God knows what he is doing with each and every one of us and God calls us home at the right time for us and our souls.
As I say, not doctrine, but one to ponder.