Trinity Sunday, June 16, 2019
About five centuries before Jesus, a Jewish sage compiled a collection of his people's wisdom. He wanted to make other Jews proud of their heritage and eager to know its truths. Here he goes further, and exalts wisdom as a partner in God's acts of creation.
In prior chapters Saint Paul showed that we cannot earn God's favor, but enjoy it as a gift from God in Christ, that we receive in faith. This lets us boast of our hope for even more, the glory of God. Our afflictions are not punishments, but the consequence of struggling—on God's side—against evil.
Preparing his disciples for his leaving them, Jesus assures them of future guidance that is trustworthy, by the Spirit to be sent by Jesus and the Father.
The Historical Situation: Here's a thumbnail introduction to the Book of Proverbs. In the early fifth century B.C., a sage gathered a number of small books of Jewish wisdom and compiled them. As an introduction to the collection, the sage wrote what we know as chapters 1 through 9. Now wisdom is what you work on when the more nitty-gritty things in national life are more or less under control. You're not at war, society is somewhat orderly, most people are at least OK on the material level, you've probably figured out how to keep God on your side, and you have the leisure to think about life's deeper questions. Those are the issues tackled in the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures, of which Proverbs is typical.
The passage we proclaim today is from the introductory chapters, where the author tries to convince the reader to love wisdom, to want it and to commit to its pursuit. Here wisdom is personified, usually in the feminine. For example, read these verses from chapter 3:
Happy the one who finds wisdom, who gains understanding. For her [wisdom's] profit is better than profit in silver, and better than gold is her revenue. She is more precious than corals, and none of your choice possessions can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand, and in her left are riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and they are happy who hold her fast.
Our specific verses are more challenging. Here the author is trying to show us that wisdom is more than practical knowledge. Rather it is a spiritual being whom God created first and made his partner in the work of creating everything else. If the reader believes that, then the prospect of possessing wisdom will be most attractive.
Proclaiming It: The message is really quite simple, it's just stated over and over. The first paragraph could be boiled down to this:
God brought me forth before creating anything else.
And the second paragraph just says:
While God was designing and creating everything, I was his beloved partner.
To proclaim this, get control of how you pronounce the long sentences and series of repetitive phrases. Make sure the "punch lines" stand out, so that the listener hears the difference between the wisdom that came first, and everything else that came later.
The Theological Background: And here's a thumbnail sketch of what Saint Paul means by "since we have been justified by faith," the key to understanding the verses of today's second reading. To be justified means to be in a right relationship with God. People naturally try to achieve that by behaviors that they hope will please God, behaviors like keeping laws, saying prayers and performing rituals. Paul realized that wasn't working for him and hadn't worked for generations of observant Jews before him. He realized that the right relationship depended on God's grace, not on our behavior. That Jesus came and died for us while we were still sinners proves that God loves us as we are, not as we should be. Faith means admitting that I can't summon up enough good behavior to make myself pleasing to God, and trusting that God loves me anyway, because Jesus reconciled us to God when we couldn't do it ourselves.
All that backs up the hope that Paul mentions (verse 2). And it puts a different light on our afflictions (verse 3). They're no longer to be viewed as the tokens of our condemnation, but scars, if you will, from our struggles, not against God but on God's side against a common enemy.
How shall you proclaim this? By yourself, you can't give an exposé of Paul's sublime teaching about justification by faith. Chances are the preacher won't dare that either. What you can communicate by your tone of voice is Paul's confidence. He's no longer afraid of God, or of the consequences of his guilty past. He's relieved and happy to stand in grace and boast of hope in God. Meditate on your own reasons for spiritual confidence, then try to communicate that with your voice.
Alternately, state the sequence "affliction --> endurance --> character --> hope" in such a way that the afflicted in your congregation will have reason to expect something good to come out of it all. Remember what you needed to hear when you were there yourself.
An icon by the 15th-century Russian Andrei Rublev, depicting most literally the three angels who visited Abrahm and Sarah at Mamre, per Genesis, chapter 18. The picture also suggests the Trinity, inasmuch as that mystery can be captured in a work of art. All this is described in detail on Wikipedia.
Some observers suggest that the small rectangle between the shins of the foremost figures contained a mirror, inviting the viewer to imagine herself or himself at table with the three.
(This page of Lector's Notes earlier was decorated with a photo of a spectacular fresco (or maybe a mosaic) in the Vank Cathedral, a 17th century Armenian church in New Julfa, Isfahan, Iran. To see that picture again, consult the Wikipedia article about the church.)
This page updated May 11, 2019