Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Very First Thing That God Did

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Trinity Sunday
May 30, 2010
William G. Carter

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 that live…

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—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I 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.

Today is called Trinity Sunday. It comes every year on the week after Pentecost. It is the one day that the church sets aside to ask a really big question: what kind of God do we have? Other Sundays mark special events – the coming of a Savior, the raising of the dead, the visit of the Spirit. We hear curious teachings, dramatic stories, and controversies that Jesus creates and escapes.

So today we pause to think about God. What kind of God do we have?

Each of the scripture texts offers an answer in progress. The Psalm speaks of God the Creator. There isn’t much scientific offered, because God stands outside of the human sciences. We can turn to the sciences to learn how things work. There are mechanical rules and forces like gravity, but we did not design them. We can name each star and chart where we see it, but we cannot make our own stars. In the end, we can only be filled with awe.

And then to think that God even notices us! As the Psalmist sings, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4)

What kind of God do we have? There is no first-hand description, for no one has ever seen God. The best we have is Jesus, and then we have to figure out the best language to talk about him. He speaks of our ignorance in the Gospel of John, and how we cannot even bear to know everything he has to reveal to us. And that, he declares, is why the Holy Spirit has come: to keep teaching us, to keep guiding us, to keep leading us ever more deeply into the heart of God. God the Father sends God the Spirit to glorify God the Son.

And if that causes your head to spin, you are thinking rightly about the Trinity. We are too small to understand our God, but our God stays in perpetual motion: teaching, guiding, speaking, declaring. Once in a while, we understand a little bit more, because Jesus – through the Spirit – speaks about the Father. (John 16:12-15)

What kind of God do we have? Of the three provisional answers today, my favorite comes from the eighth chapter of Proverbs. The book of Proverbs gives us a poem. It’s an unusual poem. It is not the kind of poem that rhymes, which is a good thing since it’s in Hebrew. Rather, it’s the kind of poem that imagines.

On the very first day of the universe – before God created that first cup of coffee, even before God created “morning” - the very first thing God ever did was to create a playmate. God did not go it alone. God wanted some company. God dreamed up a conversation partner, somebody to bounce off some new ideas. So God created a lady and named her Wisdom. When the first fields were created on the very first planet, God and Wisdom joined hands and skipped through the fields. Daisies sprung up in each of the places they touched down.

When God started hurling the stars into the sky, Wisdom said, “You missed a spot – put one over there!” “In fact,” said Wisdom, “if it’s not too arrogant, how about if you group some of those stars like a metal cup? And over there, how about an archer with a belt?” God said, “What’s an archer?” And Wisdom said, “I guess you had better dream one up!”

This is how it was, when God created the heavens and the earth. God had a good friend to offer some help.

According to the poem, she is very Wise. Her primary ability is to speak. She is incapable of speaking a false word – every pearl on her lips is the absolute truth. One day, she noticed God down by the river bank, scooping up some mud, and shaping it into a Mud Person. God said, “Watch this!” and blew some Holy Breath into the figure’s nostrils. It came alive! Wisdom said, “Is that it? It’s kind of funny looking. Better give it some hair.” So God blinked – and the Mud Creature had hair. Wisdom said, “Oh, come on, be generous! Give it some more hair!” So God blinked again, and Wisdom giggled and said, “I wasn’t thinking you should put any hair on its back.”

Off she bounded, with God right behind. Together they fashioned palm trees, volcanoes, and dung beetles, mountains, oysters, and coyotes. Suddenly Lady Wisdom giggled again. God said, “What’s so funny?” She whispered something into the Creator’s ear, and God smiled. So God said, “Let there be dinosaurs!” and there were dinosaurs. Wisdom laughed, “That will teach those silly creationists.”

This is how it was, when God began to create the heavens and the earth. It was playful. It was fun. Together Wisdom and the Creator dreamed up the three-toe sloth. At first, most of the three-toed sloths of the world were in the French Alps – but they had nowhere to swim, so God flew them down to the rain forests and put them near the pools.

Another day, Wisdom returned from a morning jog. “Just got back from the Garden,” she said, “and I think we have a problem.” God looked up from the telescope he had just created and said, “What’s going on?”

“Well, it’s that hairy Mud Creature of yours. He was trying to catch a squirrel and give it a kiss. It was ugly.”

God sighed and said, “Why can’t he be more like me? The idiot needs a brain.” Lady Wisdom said, “Go one better – make a woman. Consider him as your rough draft.” And it was so.

This is how the Jews imagine God: as playful, as creative, accompanied by the very first work of creation, Lady Wisdom. Listen to what she says: “I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always.” It sounds a bit like the first words of that hymn we like to sing: “I danced in the morning when the world was begun, and I danced in the moon and stars and the sun.” The hymn, as we have it, sings specifically of Jesus – at Bethlehem he had his birth, he danced on a Friday when the sky turned back – that’s Jesus. But hundreds of years before Jesus appeared, the Jews knew God to be a playful presence in the world, taking delight in all creatures, and speaking the life-giving truth.

So when Jesus appeared, people who believed in him already had a language for speaking of him. Jesus is the Wisdom of God – the difference being that there is One God, with Wisdom as a Holy Personality. And just as, in the Jewish imagination, Lady Wisdom danced with the Creator on that first morning, the Triune God – Father, Son, and Spirit – danced in complete community and creativity. This is how Christians imagine our God.

The question today: what kind of God do we have? The poem in Proverbs 8 imagines a God who delights in everything that is made, a God who enjoys the beauty and the intricacy of everything that springs from the Divine Imagination. Elie Wiesel says God made us because God likes good stories – and you and I are full of them.

It’s interesting to me that, over the centuries, Christian doctrine has imagined God in different ways. Often the ways that people depict God say more about the people who are doing the imagining, and the times they are living in, than it does about God. When King James tried to unify the British Empire, he authorized a new translation of the Bible so that everybody in the Empire would be reading one text. He also required an oath of allegiance that declared the Pope had no authority of him, and thought of a dozen ways to give the Puritans a hard time. As far as I can tell, this also seems to be about the time when British Christians started declaring that “God is in control of all things.” Not merely sovereign, but “in control.”

That kind of language, that “controlling” language, is very different than the playful language of our poem in Proverbs. To speak of God as “controlling” is to presume a consistency that the Jewish scripture does not maintain. The God of Israel is elusive, unpredictable, just out of sight – yet very much the force behind all life. God can be experienced as the foundation that will not be shaken, yet equally known as the wind that disrupts and topples. “The Voice of Glory thunders,” says the Psalmist, while at least one prophet met God in “the sound of sheer silence,” otherwise translated “a still small voice.” God is so great as to come anywhere, to speak in thunderclaps and silences, and to say anything. That unpredictability is part of God’s playfulness, and it evokes awe.

But there is also God’s great delight. Not only is God powerful enough to save us, God chooses to do so – because God enjoys what God has made. Listen to the words of Lady Wisdom: “I was God’s daily delight, rejoicing with God always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” That tells us more about God and the source of our greatest human hopes.

Yesterday morning was a beautiful morning. For no apparent reason, my wife and I got up early. Pulling on our housecoats, we took mugs of hot coffee to the front porch. A number of you know where I live – it’s a housing development. We chatted quietly, waved to the occasional dog-walker, and commented on how hard they were working. The lawn mowers had not yet started. It was a sleepy morning or so we thought. As we sat there, we began to pay attention.

A Downy woodpecker climbed up a tree, while another peeped around the trunk and said, Boo! Two chipmunks scampered after one another. Jamie said, “Look at that!” and pointed to the plume of a baby squirrel’s tail as it moved through the grass. An indiscriminate bumblebee moved from one flower to another, humming as he went. The roses winked at the day lilies. Antiphonal choirs of birds sang separate symphonies to one another. The coffee grew cold as we took in this spectacle – everything was so completely alive, so completely joyful. We were part of this amazing frolic as the world began to wake up.

It was then that I heard Lady Wisdom say, "When God made the earth, I was God's daily delight, rejoicing always in the inhabited world, and delighting in the human race."

And I can believe it.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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