Proverbs 8:22-36 | John 10:1-10
“The curious fact about the most fundamental question of life, is that everyone answers it, but very few people ask it.”
“‘What is a good life?’ Your life at every moment is your answer to that question; but if you haven’t answered it for yourself, then someone else is answering it for you. You are either guided by values that you chose for yourself, or by values, desires, wishes and so forth given to you by the culture and media that surrounds you.”
Words (adapted slightly) of the philosopher Frank Martella.
There is a sense in which every serious movement of human history – whether political, philosophical or religious – is an attempt to answer this most basic of questions:
What does it mean, to live life well?
For people of faith – at least, those within the great monotheistic tradition of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – this question translates fairly immediately into another: how would God have us live?
This was the question that faced the people of Israel as they fled from Egypt in the Exodus. There’s a lovely description in the Godly Play telling of that story: “The people of God had been slaves in Egypt; they lived as they were told, where they were told. Now they were free to do as they wished. But where would they go? And how would they live?”
And of course the next key moment in that great story is Mount Sinai, the giving of the law.
But the limitations of law, of course, are all too well known. Law can rule out, forbid, much which is wrong, but it cannot inspire that which is most right. When law tries to compel the right, rather than just constrain the wrong, the path is very short to totalitarianism; and, whether it be fascist, communist, or religious totalitarianism, I think we can agree that that does not end well.
Law can only take us so far. Law can protect the powerless; work justice for the dispossessed, prevent the abuse of power by those who hold it. At least in theory. That’s what it’s for. But it cannot guide us far in living well. Paul says as much when writing of the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace and the rest – “for such things there is no law”. This is not a criticism of law; it is a recognition that it is just the beginning of the answer to that fundamental question: “how should I live”.
The Hebrew concept of right living, the Torah, was much more than law. In particular, the Torah relied upon wisdom to go beyond the constraints of law.
Wisdom was so important to the Hebrew people, it had its own section in the scriptures – beside the law and prophets stood ‘the writings’, the books we call Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. And within these works, and most especially within the book of Proverbs, wisdom was personified as ‘Sofia’; sometimes perceived as the feminine side of the divine, but more often, as in our reading today, portrayed as the very first act of creation.
The point of this description of Sofia, present when God established the heavens, when God marked the foundations of the earth, is this: Sofia, wisdom, understands how the world is. Knows how it works. The wisdom of God speaks from a place of knowledge.
In our gospel reading, we hear Jesus speaking, indirectly, to the same question. His sheep, he says, his people, hear his voice when he calls to them. They recognise his voice, and they follow him, because they trust in him.
And all of this is all very well, but it just leaves the question: how?
How do we hear and recognise the voice of the shepherd?
How do we keep the ways of wisdom?
How do we know what God would have us do?
And if you think that I’ve got a final answer to those questions, then either you’re new around here, or really haven’t been paying attention.
But there are some pretty useful hints in the passages we’ve heard today.
Sofia, wisdom, in the prophets, offers this advice:
Happy is the one who listens to me,
watching daily at my gates,
waiting beside my doors.
The one who listens, watching, daily, waiting.
Hard advice for us to hear, especially those of a younger generation, used to instant answers to any question. Whenever I’m writing a sermon, I have a web browser open on my screen, so I can instantly hunt out the details I need, the quotes, the texts I want to use. Not for me, the discipline of daily waiting and watching, listening. The answers are supposed to be there, at my fingertips, on the screen of my phone, on demand.
Sofia says instead: “listen, watching daily, waiting”. And once again, it may just be me, but that’s a challenge I find it hard live up to. To take time every day to listen and wait and watch; to still ourselves long enough to give the voice of wisdom a chance to speak into our very selves.
It’s something I just don’t seem able to do.
Except – when Maya was in Kindergarten, in her very first days of school, there was a big colourful sign on the wall which read “I don’t say ‘I can’t’ – I say ‘I will try’”.
Is it really so unimaginably hard to make space each day to listen and wait; to, as a good put it, think at – and with – God about the affairs of the day, the things ahead of you, the challenges you face, the relationships you value, the decisions you must make.
I’m not going to promise you that you will hear God speak.
But I think I can, in good faith, promise, that you will make wiser decisions if you take time each day to simply think your day with God.
And our gospel reading really seems to echo that promise; and to add to it.
Jesus’ sheep will hear his voice, and will follow.
Again, it’s one of those really encouraging lines – not “if you hear my voice and follow then you will be my sheep”, but the other way around – “you will hear, you will know, you will follow”.
And you know the thing about sheep in the Bible? The word is almost never used in the singular. Sheep, as a rule, don’t act in the singular. According to the Illinois livestock trail website (you remember what I was saying before about always having a web browser open when I was writing a sermon?), sheep are gregarious; they move together, not because they like each other, but because it is safer that way. They follow the call of a shepherd, or move away from the sheep dog, as a group.
I strongly believe that when Jesus said that his sheep hear his voice, he wasn’t advancing some sort of radical theological individualism – “each one of you will hear me and follow” but actually to the combined wisdom of the gregarious flock. The sheep, together, will hear me. The flock, by its communal wisdom and discernment, will follow.
How does the individual sheep learn to hear and follow? From the flock. And how does the flock recognise the voice of the shepherd? From the combined wisdom of the individuals.
I don’t want to push the analogy too far (I got in trouble with a few of you who know far more about sheep than me in the past, when I suggested – wrongly, it turns out – that they were fairly stupid animals). But it seems to me to complement the wisdom of Sofia beautifully: that we each, individually, learn the wisdom of God as we listen and wait and watch daily: and then together, as a flock, we hear the direction, the call, the leadership, of God.
Now I’m occasionally accused of being too subtle in my preaching, so let me bring this in, as it were, to land. Quite apart from the universal need for the people of God to seek wisdom in their individual lives and guidance in their life together; St. John’s is moving into a time in which that need is especially acute. Over the next few months, this community will need to discern the call of God for the future: what God is calling St. John’s to be, to do, to live. How the kingdom of God is going to be made more real in Wahroonga by the people of God gathered here.
So I am inviting you – everyone here – to rise to that challenge. To spend time, in the coming weeks (Lent, perhaps, provides a great opportunity) waiting and listening, as individuals; praying; thinking your day with God. We’re going to do that, again, as we did last week, in a moment.
And then, as a community; as you talk together both formally and informally, take time to listen for God’s voice.
Because God’s flock do hear God’s voice, and follow.
And that is the life worth living.