Our texts this morning are drawn from two sources: one I imagine is familiar to you all: the Gospel of Matthew. The other, however, is a little less known – The Book of Wisdom, or Wisdom of Solomon, which is from the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha is comprised of biblical texts that are included in the original catholic canon but have not always been used by Protestants. I, however, think the Book of Wisdom can richly inform our faith and as it was suggested in the lectionary for this week thought to share it with all of you.
The Book of Wisdom, along with other Apocryphal literature, tells us that Wisdom has been with God since the very beginning of time. The Book of Wisdom itself retells many stories of the Old Testament explaining how it was She, Wisdom, who moved with famous patriarchs to fulfill God’s will. Our text today comes from the retelling of the Exodus, explaining how it was She, Wisdom, who dwelt in Moses’ heart as much as She split the Red Sea.
Contemporary scholars often interpret Wisdom as the Holy Spirit moving throughout time with God, as one part of the unbroken Trinity.
Some of you may have noticed I referred to God as “She” in my prayer. You also may have noticed that our reading from the Book of Wisdom talks about Wisdom like she is, well, a she. Though we have abundant imagery of God as a Father in the Gospels, this is only one metaphor used to discuss the vastness of God. In the Old Testament, God is more often referred to as a rock. The variety of metaphors we have to talk about God begin to show us our own limited language, and how limitless God is.
And God is not confined to one gender, no matter how many times you may have heard Her referred to as “He.” Wisdom, who is personified as feminine, is the Biblical example that expands our language about God. Wisdom, our Mother, challenges our often sexist notions that God is a white man in the sky – rather, God has always moved in ways bigger than our human understanding can grasp.
This might feel a little challenging, or strange, to think about – especially if you find the image of a fatherly God a comforting one. It might even be frightening to think that there are chapters of Scripture that refer to God as She. Frightening, because it means we have to grapple with an understanding of God that is more complicated than we once thought.
But expanding our understanding of what we know to include other truths doesn’t mean what we knew was inherently wrong, or bad. God can be both father and mother, but in learning to expand our language we see how our attempts to limit God can actually limit other people. For while fatherly imagery can be comforting, it can also be harmful for people who were abused by their fathers, or it can legitimate the idea that masculine = strong and feminine = weak. Thinking of God as a feminine, as a mother, both challenges our oppressive ideas about gender roles and it concurrently expands our understanding of who God can be.
If womyn too are made in God’s image, does it not make sense that God can be conceived of as a woman?
As Saint Augustine once said, “if you think you understand God, than what you understand is not God.”
Our Gospel lesson today contains one particular character who thought he understood God. We’ve all heard of evil old Herod, the man who was so afraid of the baby Jesus he condemned thousands of babies to death. It’s easy to try and distance ourselves from that kind of evil, writing the Herod’s of the world off as “bad people” or “mentally unstable.” But it is precisely Herod’s humanity that we must grapple with in today’s story, because Herod encountered the same emotion we all face: fear.
It’s a familiar chapter in the Christmas narrative: Magi from the East arrive to worship the new “king of the Jews.” Right away, however, Matthew is giving us a clue that this tale will not go as it should. Matthew only ever refers to Jesus as “the king of the Jews” here, at Epiphany, and during the crucifixion. Literarily speaking, we the audience are tipped off that even at the birth of Jesus there are state authorities who are threatened by his very existence.
The Magi go directly to the royal court, presumably because they thought the new king would be born, well, to a king. Instead, they find Herod, a king known for his brutal treatment of his family and subjects, who has not even heard of this “new king.”
The news that the Magi deliver terrifies Herod because it reveals the fundamental truth that undergirds all rulers who dominate by oppressing others: they are not as in control as they would like to think. Herod is supposedly the “king of the Jews,” yet here are these magi claiming they have seen a heavenly sign indicating that he is not, in fact, the true king. His authority, built on exploitation and fear, is fundamentally challenged by a baby.
Reading further along in this Matthew chapter, we learn that after the Magi leave Herod ordered the murder of all male infants in his territory, because he feared one might supplant his rule.
Herod had reason to be afraid, but no more reason than Mary did when the angel Gabriel told her she was to bear a child of God.
Honestly, I think it was far more terrifying for Mary. A young, unwed girl to be told she will not only carry a child – which would put her life on the line– but even more so, this kid is the son of God. That’s a lot of responsibility for a new mom.
The difference between Mary and Herod is how they react to their fear.
When it comes to fear, we always have a choice. Whether the fear is monumental, like the fear of a crumbling empire, or the fear is the small hesitation that maybe what we have always known isn’t all there is to know – we always have a choice. We can allow our fear dictate our reaction. Or we can use our fear to empower us to dig deeper, reach wider, understand more.
Herod let his actions be dictated by fear, using the words of the Magi to legitimize the slaughter of all male infants in his territory.
Mary, however, let her fear be transformed into trust. Mary chose to listen to Mother Wisdom. Though the Wisdom passage we read today is about Moses, I think the same story could be told of Mary: “She, Wisdom, entered the servant of the Lord and withstood dread kings with wonders and signs.” Wonders, like the star in the heavens that drew the Magi to Jesus. Dread kings, like Herod, who would seek to kill Mary’s infant son.
Mary trusted that “nothing is impossible with God.”
Nothing is impossible with God. A star in the heavens telling people of a different faith, a different culture, that something miraculous was happening. An unwed, impoverished teen mother bearing the savior of the world. This savior of the world extending love to people of all races and nations and beliefs.
Nothing is impossible with God. And realizing this truth – that nothing is impossible with God – realizing this truth is a terrifying thing. It means we have to open ourselves up to the idea that God is bigger, and more complicated, than we sometimes want to see. But knowing that nothing is impossible with God also means that we can choose to not be dictated by our fear. We do not need to be afraid of God as our mother. We do not need to be afraid of challenging old truths to make way for even deeper epiphanies.
For if with God all things are possible, what truly do we have to be afraid of?
This sermon was delivered as a guest preacher at Evergreen United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, January 2015.
For more nuanced/theoretical approaches to feminist theology, check out the amazing Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual for both parish and individual resources. Local Durhamites can find resources at the Resource Center for Women & Ministry in the South.
You can buy a book i contributed to, Talking Taboo, here!