“O Come Thou Wisdom From On High”
We pray that this talk given by Dr. Isbell during our Christmas Chapel blesses you this Christmas season.
By Dr. Barb Isbell
As you know, the theme for chapel this year is wisdom, and we have primarily been focused on the book of Proverbs. You will recall that the Lord appeared to Solomon, the author of Proverbs, in a dream and asked, “what would you like me to give you?” Solomon took great care with his answer. He told God that he knew Him, knew His great acts on behalf of His people, knew how He helped his father David rule well, and acknowledged that God Himself put him on the throne over Israel. Only then did Solomon reply, “so give me the wisdom I need to rule your people with justice and to know the difference between good and evil.” And God was pleased, and gave him great wisdom, “more wisdom and understanding than anyone has ever had before or will ever have again” (1 Kings 3:1-13).
Solomon received a gift of great wisdom, but did you know that he’s not the only person in history to receive wisdom from God? God gave wisdom yet again in the New Testament, and that gift of wisdom is even better! Paul tells us about it in 1 Corinthians 1:30 – “But God has brought you into union with Christ Jesus, and God has made Christ to be our wisdom.” Did you catch that? Jesus is our wisdom! God gave the gift of wisdom to all who accept Jesus, who come to faith in Him, grow in Him, and are transformed by Him.
So let’s look at the Christmas story through the eyes of wisdom. In it, I propose we will see two sets of contrasting figures, one who has the wisdom to believe and receive the Messiah, and one who ought to have that wisdom but fails to do so.
Let’s start with Zechariah in Luke 1. Zechariah was an old man, a priest, and he and his wife, Elizabeth, were childless. Scripture tells us that Zechariah lived a good life and obeyed the law fully – he knew the Scriptures. After all, he was a priest devoted to God’s service, responsible for counseling and overseeing the spiritual lives of the people and interpreting the Scriptures for the common man. He should have been a wise man; he had lived long enough to study and memorize a great deal of the Torah and prophetic books. He knew the Hebrew prophecies about the coming Messiah well! He knew that both Isaiah and Malachi prophesied about a messenger of God who would come in the manner of Elijah and prepare the way for the Messiah (Mal 3:1; Isa 40:3-5). Zechariah should have remembered this when the angel appeared to tell him “Your prayer has been answered, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son” who will go before the Messiah “in the spirit and power of Elijah…to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” But Zechariah responded not in faith, but with skepticism and doubt. For all of his knowledge of the scriptures, his life was not characterized or transformed by wisdom. Perhaps his heart was numb from so many years of praying for a child and waiting for the coming of the Messiah. Perhaps he no longer believed God was capable of accomplishing such a task. Regardless, he forgot all that he knew about what God had promised over 400 years earlier, he refused to believe what Gabriel was proclaiming, and he blurted out, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And as punishment for his disbelief, Zechariah was struck mute until the time that the child was born.
Luke immediately follows the story of Zechariah with the tale of the same angel appearing to Mary to announce her pregnancy, and I believe he does this intentionally. You see, there’s quite a contrast between how Zechariah responded to the angel, and how Mary reacts to what is an even less likely prophecy. You know Mary was a young woman, a virgin, betrothed to the carpenter Joseph. Did you realize that most scholars and historians believe she was between 12 and 14 years old when these events took place? Even if she was a bit older than that, she would certainly have still been in her teen years, as ancient Jewish customs had girls marrying at quite a young age. We also know that Mary “found favor with God” – He must have been pleased with her life up to that point to entrust her with the birth of the Messiah! And it goes without saying, but Mary was female. In other words, she likely was not trained in the scriptures; she did not have to memorize the Torah or know the prophecies of the Messiah. She was a girl, after all, and girls in those days did not receive the same education as their male counterparts. But just like with Zechariah, the angel appeared to Mary and announced, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:31-33). Did Mary hear in the angel’s words an echo of the Davidic covenant, the promise that the Messiah would come from David’s line and rule over Israel forever? Did she know that Isaiah prophesied, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son”? Maybe, maybe not, as she replies to Gabriel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” At first glance, this doesn’t seem too different from Zechariah’s “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” Yet the angel’s reaction to Mary’s question was quite different – instead of striking her mute, he explains the situation to her and tells her to go see Elizabeth for more evidence of God’s great power. The difference between Mary and Zechariah, as I see it, is the heart behind their question. Mary’s words, “how will this be” were full of innocence and curiosity – it’s almost like she’s saying “I believe you, but I’m eager to see how this is gonna work” – whereas Zechariah’s “how shall I know this” is full of distrust and uncertainty, as if he is saying “convince me that this is true, because I don’t see any reason to believe.” Unlike Zechariah, young Mary has the wisdom to believe Gabriel’s words, to accept them as true, and to welcome the news, responding, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Let’s look at another set of contrasting figures. We’ll start with the Jews, God’s chosen people, the ones to whom He gave a multitude of prophecies about the coming of the Messiah, the ones who had been waiting and longing for that Messiah for hundreds of years. John 1 tells us that the True Light, the Word of God, “which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world… He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:9-12). The Jews had been waiting for this moment for so long that the Messianic prophecies were second nature to them, part of every aspect of their religious life. And yet they missed the coming of the Messiah because it didn’t happen exactly like they were expecting! They took the prophecies, twisted them to fit their own sense of what was needed in order to restore Israel to its rightful place in the world, and were ignorant of the fact that God’s plan is higher than theirs, and His ways are greater.
Contrast that with the magi, wise men from the East who were learned in astrology, astronomy, science, and yes, magic. They were trained in interpreting signs, particularly signs in the heavens, and they were known to search out ancient texts for prophecies concerning such signs. So even though they were not Jews, the magi would certainly have been aware of Numbers 24:17, which connects the coming of a king with a special star. Notice what the magi say to Herod in Matthew 2 – “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose.” Remember, these magi were Gentiles. They weren’t Jews, yet they recognized the sign of the star in the sky, connected the dots to Hebrew prophecies regarding the coming of a king, and set out to worship him; Matthew tells us that when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. These Gentile wise men had wisdom beyond what mere learning, knowledge, and education could provide them. They did not grow up with the Hebrew scriptures as part of their daily world, but they studied them and clearly held their message to be sacred. The Jews had the knowledge and education, and should have had the wisdom to receive and the faith to believe, but their eyes were blinded by their own sense of self-worth as God’s chosen people. Rather than seeking, rejoicing, and worshipping Him as the magi did, the Jews rejected and ultimately crucified Him.
So what should we take away from these comparisons? Well first, let me assert to you that knowledge is not the same thing as wisdom. Anybody can gain knowledge – just read a book or memorize the multiplication tables. Even Wikipedia thinks it provides knowledge. But knowledge is simply facts and information unless you allow it to change your life. If you know the stories of Jesus in your head but don’t allow them to transform you, if you have heard the Good News so many times you could quote it but you don’t allow the love of Christ to penetrate your heart, then what good is it? You’re no better than the ancient Jews, who failed to recognize the Messiah when He appeared to them because their knowledge of the prophecies did not produce the wisdom to believe. It’s like the old saying, “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.”
James is famous for saying “Faith without works is dead”. But in the next chapter, James makes a similar statement about wisdom. He writes, “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13). In other words, “You think you’re wise? Prove it,” just as he says, “I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). And just as Paul tells us that a life of faith is proven by the active presence of the fruit of the Spirit, James tells us that wisdom is shown in one’s life by being “pure, peacable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17).
What is my point? Don’t take the knowledge that you receive here at Cambridge for granted; don’t fail to allow the excellent education you have been gifted to change your life. Don’t be like Zechariah, a doubting skeptic who is punished for his lack of belief. Don’t be like the Jews who foolishly missed their long-awaited Messiah. Instead, look to the magi, who studied things that were foreign to them and yet took them to heart, allowing them to produce wisdom. Be wise like Mary, who received an extraordinarily unbelievable prophecy, believed it, and welcomed its impact in her life. Accept the gift of wisdom that God has given to you in Jesus Christ, and welcome His intrusion into your world, because His ways are much higher than your own. Allow His wisdom to work itself out in your life, to change you and transform you. Allow the song of your heart to be, as the hymnwriter penned,
“O come, thou Wisdom from on high, and order all thing far and nigh.
To us the path of knowledge show and cause us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
Pray with me…
Heavenly Father, thank you for the gift of wisdom in the form of your son, Jesus. Thank you for choosing to bless us with His presence on earth. Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to be given such a precious gift. Lord, we receive His wisdom, we welcome His work in our lives, we accept his transforming power as we attempt to live lives characterized by wisdom. Thank you for the Christmas story, for the examples of Mary and the magi, of how to respond to difficult and unexpected situations. May we also have the wisdom to say to you “Let it be to me according to your word” and rejoice exceedingly at every encounter with you. We pray all this in the name of Christ, whose advent we celebrate. Amen.