During our summer holiday this year, our family went camping for several days at Bon Echo Provincial Park in Ontario. We had a canoe-in site on Joe Perry Lake, one of several lakes in the park. And so we canoed in to our site and set up camp there for four days – we had our tent and our tarp and our camp stove and our food including, of course, a massive bag of marshmallows. But on one of our days at Bon Echo we canoed out and went over to the main area of the park, which is situated on Mazinaw Lake.
Mazinaw Lake is not a huge lake – average to small, I’d say. But the lake has a few remarkable, defining features. Its first remarkable feature is that it is the second-deepest lake in Southern Ontario, aside from the Great Lakes. It is an astonishingly deep lake for its relatively small size – 145 meters at its deepest point. It goes pretty much straight down on each side. A second defining feature of the lake is that along one kilometer of its shoreline there is a massive 100-meter cliff or escarpment – that part of the shoreline is known as Mazinaw Rock. Here’s a picture that gives a sense of the Rock – with Becky and the girls in the canoe.Now it’s true that if you have spent any time living in or near the Rocky Mountains of western Canada, this cliff may not strike you as impressive. But in the context of Ontario’s geography, it is a remarkable lake and Mazinaw Rock is a pretty amazing formation.
So we have the depth of Mazinaw Lake, and we have the massive stone outcropping of Mazinaw Lake. And the third defining feature of Mazinaw lake is the fact that there are many aboriginal drawings or pictographs to be found along that rock escarpment. The pictographs can’t be dated precisely – but it’s thought that they could date back anywhere from 300 years to 1000 years. Bon Echo park is the only aboriginal pictograph site in southern Ontario. So gere again is a photo showing one pictograph site on Mazinaw lake. There are apparently well over 200 such pictographs around this park area in Ontario – on account of them, the area has been designated a national historical site.
This summer when we got back from our holidays, I posted a few pictures on Facebook and mentioned where we had been. And it turned out that Yuka Fukushima had also been to Bon Echo Park – this year, I think. Yuka commented on one of the pictures and her comment was that canoeing on Mazinaw Lake and looking at these aboriginal pictographs was like travelling back in time. There is so much truth to that. You are away from town and city, away from the busy pace of work and family – you are just there floating on a lake under sunshine and open skies, looking at images drawn by those of another culture hundreds, possibly even a thousand, years ago. You sit drifting in a canoe in the presence of something old or ancient – the drawings – and in the presence of something even older and more ancient – the rocks themselves.
All of this came to my mind this week as I began looking at our passage today from the book of Proverbs. We are going to spend the next few weeks exploring the Proverbs, and this morning we are beginning in chapter 8 where we get a kind of portrait of wisdom. We are being introduced to wisdom this morning. In chapter 8, beginning at verse 22, Wisdom speaks, and here is what woman wisdom says:
“The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth…”
You sit on Mazinaw lake in a canoe looking at those centuries-old pictographs, and at those ancient rock formations, and wisdom whispers in your ear: I am more ancient than these pictographs. I was there when this rock formation came into being.
We read also in verses 30 and 31 of chapter 8: ‘When the Lord assigned the sea its limit, then I Wisdom was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”
This text in Proverbs chapter 8 uses a lovely and compelling literary device. The text has wisdom as a woman who speaks and laughs and rejoices alongside God. This personification of wisdom is a powerful way of reminding us that God has created us in a particular way. We were created in the wisdom of God. And we were created for the wisdom of God. This text is saying that to be truly human is to live in ways that were established by God at the very foundation of the world and of the human. To be truly human is to be alive in the goodness and beauty and truthfulness in which God has taken delight from of old. God’s creates and gives life in and delight and laughter – and when we live in the goodness and beauty and truthfulness for which God created us, then that ancient wisdom and laughter and delight echo in us.
You sit on Mazinaw lake in a canoe looking at those centuries-old pictographs, and those ancient rock formations, and wisdom laughs and whispers in your ear: I am more ancient than these pictographs, I was there when this rock formation came into being.
We should stop and point out here that when the earliest Christians wanted to explain and understand the Jesus they had encountered in their daily lives – the Jesus they had encountered also in resurrection life – they went back to their bible, to the Hebrew bible. They went back to such passages as this one from Proverbs. And so it is that we read in the opening verses of John’s gospel, words that echo the laughter and delight and message of Proverbs 8: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and that life was the light of all people.”
For the earliest Christians and for those who live today in the faith and hope of those earliest Christians, wisdom has taken on human flesh. And in the New Testament, this personification of wisdom is more than literary device – this living and breath – this living and dying and rising Jesus is wisdom among us from the most ancient recesses of time – wisdom in a person. For the early Christians, Jesus is the wisdom of God in which we were created and for which we were created. Wisdom defines us. The wisdom embodied in Jesus defines us.
Now all of these theological ideas – all of this discussion of wisdom being from the most ancient of times – all of it can seem pretty removed from the reality of daily life. You sit in a canoe on Mazinaw Lake – you take in the ancient glory of creation – you take in the ancient creativity of aboriginal drawings – and all of it can feel pretty far removed the actions and decisions of daily life. It’s like being camping for a few days on an island and you feel so distant from the work and relationships and responsibilities of daily existence. But life has to get real – you can’t stay on holiday forever – you can’t remain with seemingly ancient abstraction forever. You’ve got to come back to the real world – to actions and decisions and relationships and work.
Last week we talked about that future, impossible day of resurrection when Christ and his way will become decisive for us and for our world. But that future day can seem so far removed from our present reality. And in the same way, the ancient birth and delight of wisdom can seem at a great remove from our life in the here and now. But we will very quickly discover of the next weeks that will discover, in fact, that the Proverbs offer very concrete, practical, and everyday words to us. The Proverbs meet us where we are in daily life.
But the fact is that Proverbs chapter 8 doesn’t simply leave us in the ancient recesses of time, disconnected from the reality of everyday life. Yes, wisdom is from of old – given and established by God – and yet present to guide and lead us now.
We began with the last part of Proverbs 8 – where the ancient credentials of wisdom are given. But Proverbs 8 begins like this: “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all who live.”
Let me try and paraphrase this for our time and place: “Wisdom is calling out, trying to get our attention – wanting us to understand what is the good and right and careful way to live. When we stand on the escalator, going down into Villa Maria metro station, Wisdom’s voice echoes against the walls as she calls to out us. When we walk down Sherbrooke street wisdom is in the wind, whispering in our ears. As we drive up Decarie Boulevard, wisdom has taken out a billboard announcing the path we should follow. God’s wisdom laughs with us and delights with us – and has a message for every one of us. No one is left out.”
Proverbs 8 has wisdom calling out to us and meeting us and teaching us and leading us in every moment of our day.
We are on our way to work, down into the metro, and wisdom has some thoughts about what we should focus on and how we should prepare ourselves for the day that lies ahead. Are we listening for wisdom’s voice?
We are on our way to meet a friend, walking down Sherbrooke street, and wisdom whispers in our ear about how we should speak with that friend, what subjects we should perhaps avoid, what advice we should be seeking from her. Are we listening for wisdom’s voice?
We are driving up Decarie boulevard on our way shopping, and wisdom is shouting out at the top of her lungs what should be our priority, and what we can safely ignore. Are we listening for wisdom’s voice?
It is in some ways tempting to go directly to the particular words of wisdom offered in the proverbs. Here is a sampling:
“A gossip goes about telling secrets, but one who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a confidence.”
Or: “Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
Or: “By insolence the heedless make strife, but wisdom is with those who take advice.”
We will come to these very practical situations in our own lives – we will come back to these very specific words of wisdom – we will get down to the nitty gritty of daily life – because in important ways, that’s what wisdom is about. But this morning we stay for a moment with the bigger picture, and do so by turning finally to Proverbs chapter 9, verse 10. In that verse we read these words: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
The book of Proverbs is saying that if you want to become wise – if you want to live fulfilled life – if you want to live in the truly human way – you must know the one who formed you – you must worship the one who created the world – you must delight in the one who delights in us.
At some level this will make sense in the context of our faith, but in another sense it may not be a straightforward thing for us to hear. We might respond by pointing out that we know people who have been very wise and thoughtful and understanding, who have not lived in the fear of the Lord. They were not people of faith – not particularly religious.
Just a couple of responses as we come to a conclusion this morning. Perhaps the first thing to notice is that we will always need some means of measuring wisdom – of answering the question “What is wisdom?” So without being negative, the question is on what basis we judge this person to be wise, or that person to have understanding? This is particularly important in a world of fluctuating values and a world of dramatically changed perceptions of what it means to be human – in our day one person’s wisdom is another person’s folly. In our day, wisdom seems to have a new face every other day. And so we will need some deep measure of wisdom – and the writers of Proverbs remind us that to dwell in covenant with God – in worship and thanksgiving and delight – is basic to a measure of wisdom.
But there will nevertheless be moments when those who are not people of faith in the covenant God of Israel – who do not have faith in the God of Jesus Christ – who give evidence of real wisdom. And here we go back to where we began. Back to the wisdom through which God created the world, the wisdom that was alongside God taking delight in our creation, the wisdom that calls out to us in our daily life. The wisdom of God, there from the beginning, is in some sense there, available in our world and our being today. Those who have ears to hear will discover the wisdom of God for life.