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Wisdom and the Apocrypha

Sermon on the Wisdom and the Apocrypha

The Reverend Dr Sam Cappleman

Wisdom for the wise

Our first reading comes from the Apocrypha. In Latin its Apocrypha scripta which translates as ‘hidden readings’.

The books of the Apocrypha are a sort of appendix to the Old Testament. Even now the is some disagreement as to exactly which books should be included but our reading comes today from the Wisdom of Solomon, one of the books which is one of the more generally accepted ones.

During the Reformation there was significant disagreement as to whether they should be included in the overall body of scripture, but for many they form part of the overall story of God’s dealing with His creation and people.

Generally the Apocryphal books date from around the 1st and 2nd century BCE.

Long before this Israel had been under Persian rule. In general the Persians didn’t interfere with the Jews and their culture and the Jews were able to continue living much as normal with their worship centred on the Temple.

All this changes with Alexander the Great around 331 BCE under whose influence the Hellenising of the region started. It would continue to a greater or lesser degree until the Romans came to take control after various Jewish revolts restored the Jewish Priesthood and influence over the region, some of which is recorded in the Apocryphal books of Maccabees.

So at the time the Apocryphal books were written, the Jews were still profoundly affected by not only their own culture but also that of the Greeks, so much so that Greek was the language that was spoken in the region.

It’s also a time when the different varieties of Judaism began to appear, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes and other branches.

These branches all had common core; belief in one God, the fact that this God had chosen His people, and God’s instructions for life were to be found in the Torah. There was much that they shared and Josephus, a historian around the time notes how much all the Jews held in common.

But for all the Jews, whatever esoteric differences they might have had, whatever they had in common, it appears that religion had become a religion of the book. The prophetic inspiration by God’s Spirit seemed to be no longer possible or present.

To compound this, the book we know as the Wisdom of Solomon was probably written in Egypt for a Jewish readership who were living in an intellectual and scientific centre where pagan religions and secular philosophies abounded. There was encroachment of other belief systems on Judaism, which was itself beginning to splinter.

In short, it was a time of crisis for faith as it was known.

All this can sound a bit familiar for our world, where many would say the Christian faith is old fashioned, outdated, split by factions, and seems to be dying. And it is easy to wonder what’s happening in our world.

Easy to feel that other belief systems and secular values are chipping away at what we believe, replacing the established religion and church going with other seemingly more attractive and modern philosophies and activities.

Activities, belief systems and philosophies often centred on our natural world, care for the environment and individualistic self-realisation, none of which are wrong in themselves, but as the Jews and others down the ages would find, they are not the ultimate answer.

Nor are they the answer people yearn for in order to fill the spiritual void we all have until we find Christ.

So as we reflect on our world, with all its parallels with the ancient world of the Apocrypa, we do well to take a look at the message from the Wisdom of Solomon.

The Apocrypha, and particularly our reading from the Wisdom of Solomon, speaks of God’s absolute sovereignty, even at times of significant change and cultural seismic shifts. It speaks of His completeness of power, even though sometimes we can’t seem to see it. It speaks of a God who will judge, fairly and equitably, and a God who does intervene in our world and acts in accordance with His eternal will.

The book of Wisdom, which itself shows significant signs of Greek influence through its echoes of Platonist and Stoic philosophy, also gives us insights and pointers as to how we should live in a changing and turbulent world in the light of this all powerful and all knowing God.

It encourages us to engage with our faith and explore how we might deepen our own spiritual life. To be prepared to give what we believe to be God’s perspective on our world and all that is happening. To be equipped to have a word to speak, rather than wonder what to say, when our faith or God’s role in the world is challenged by those around us who do not share our faith and values. To trust in a God who is fair, equitable, in complete control and sovereign over all.

Our faith is not an intellectual exercise, but our faith should not be without intellectual exercise.

We are called not just to read and hear words about scripture and our faith, but to reflect on them so that we might grow and act on them so that we too don’t just become a people of the book and no more. It’s an invitation to go deeper so that our lives and those of others can be transformed as our own faith grows.

To move beyond the book and to step out in practical faith, inspired and empowered by God’s Spirit. How to engage with the change but not subsumed by it or consumed by it.

Paul understood this as he addresses the Romans. Some year earlier Claudius had expelled between 40,000 – 50,000 Jews from Rome. When he died in 54 CE the Jews returned, only to find the church they had left had changed and was now mainly Gentile. Whilst this situation clearly caused tension, Paul urges the Romans to look forward and not back. To live by the Spirit and become a movement of the Spirit of God, as the early church saw itself. Not to be just be a people of the flesh and the book, governed by the old way of doing things as laid out in the law, but to be a people of the Spirit.

Yes they might get frustrated by what is happening, but then all creation is subject to frustration until it is finally liberated by God. Indeed Paul points this out in our reading today, which has the creation story itself as its very underpinning.

It might seem like the world is a world of futility and decay, messed up, fractured, and disjointed, full of frustration, (and different world views from our own) but one day God will set it free. It’s a message of hope to the world in the face of often significant challenges and difficulties as well as times of fulfilment and celebration.

It’s a message which is picked up in the gospel reading too. Matthew tells us that there will be wheat and weeds. Good things and frustrations. Good things that have evolved and developed and others which seek to work against and undermine them.

We look around and sometimes it seems all we can see are the weeds messing up our lives and the world. Things are not the way we would want them to be, or the way we believes God wants them to be. We’d like to change things to ‘make them better’. Get rid of the weeds.

Sometimes it seems that things are changing under our very noses and we’re powerless to do anything. We turn our back for a few minutes and it seems everything changes. As Paul points out, it can all be very frustrating.

Jesus says we are to leave the weeds to God. We are to engage with those things which we can impact and where we can make a difference by growing in and living out our faith, sure in the knowledge that God is in control, as the Wisdom of Solomon makes plain. To move beyond being a people purely of the book, deepening our faith day by day as we engage with all that God has in store for us, and wants to reveal to us in our ever changing world.