Sermon preached by the Provost on Christmas 1, 31st December 2017

When I moved to Edinburgh over 20 years ago, I was very grateful to be part of church communities that helped introduce and ground me in, for me at that point, a new city and home. Particularly talking to elderly members of the congregations I was part of gave me a sense of what this city was about, its history and its hopes; what had changed and what endured. Similarly I’ve always been grateful that my children have had, through church, people of all ages, as friends and companions. That ability to relate to people of different ages, for the barrier we sometimes impose between the old and young, for example, to be overcome, is vital.

I found myself contemplating that shared history and connection as I read our gospel for today, the wonderful story of Simeon and Anna. Now both old, after a lifetime of waiting and hoping, with the wisdom to be able to recognise and greet the Christ child as he is brought to the Temple by his parents. And as Simeon takes the child in his arms, he utters his famous prayer:

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’

Those words are wonderfully evocative of that lifetime of waiting and hoping, and the release that seeing the Christ child brings. Those words are of course often used at funerals to express that same sense of release after a lifetime of waiting and hoping, release into the arms of God. But that release is not death for Simeon, although you get the sense that he can now die: the release is seeing with his own eyes the fullness of God, in the midst of life. It is the meeting with the one who answers a lifetime of searching and restlessness, of yearning and questioning, which brings release. The wisdom of Simeon and Anna is in that combination of searching and the ability to see, to know when the searching is at an end, even if only for this moment.

Wisdom, as many cultures recognise, is often linked to age – and it clearly has something to do with experience, digested experience. Wisdom needs maturity, and maturing. Wisdom has a sense of the past, it knows its roots, where it has come from, and therefore how far we have journeyed. It doesn’t accept today’s way of doing things, the latest fad, as authoritative. And yet, as Simeon shows, wisdom doesn’t mean we are stuck in the past – Simeon  recognises the new thing that God is doing before his eyes.

Wisdom uses that accumulated and digested experience, that sense of place and identity, to gain understanding. One of the fallacies of our Internet age that knowledge is about quantity, not quality. Information overload with no discernment works against wisdom. It is tempting with the abundance of information at our fingertips to think that knowledge is simply about facts – that wisdom acts like a bank account into which more and more facts, like units of money, are deposited. But wisdom doesn’t keep what concerns it at arms length, out there, a series of disinterested facts. Wisdom is about participation: it is not about simply knowing more and more facts about the world but loving the world, and loving it is about establishing relationship, caring and becoming involved in what truly matters. That is why wisdom is finally a spiritual quality, because in as much as it is about love, it is about God. Like Simeon recognising Christ, wisdom sees God incarnate in our world, God’s presence among us, sees therefore what really matters, and pursues it, knowing that that matters above all. The wise people I have known have had that wonderful combination of still being in love with the world, but not sucked in by it, somehow above the flow – not looking down, because not superior, but simply in touch with what really matters.

For many of us it does take a lifetime of waiting and hoping, of restless searching and questioning to approach wisdom. It is certainly not something automatic, and nor is it cosy and warm. As Simeon, after recognising Christ, goes on to say to Mary: ‘This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your soul too.’ Wisdom is about truth-telling, even uncomfortable truth, as that quotation shows. But wisdom’s ability to speak truth is built on the fact that the wise person has allowed that uncomfortable truth to speak to them. Wisdom knows when to speak, but also when to listen. The link with faith is fundamental: wisdom comes when we allow our inner thoughts to be revealed, laid bare – when we allow God to judge and love that which we usually keep well hidden. The inner journey in prayer of allowing God in, and the outer journey of connection and relationship with the world are linked, and linked by wisdom: we see, because we know that we have been seen.

So this New Year, may we allow God in, so that God may grant us the gift of wisdom – rooted in where we are, seeing God’s purposes and possibilities for our world, never giving up hope, able to speak the truth in love. In our divided, fractious, childish world, we need God’s gift of wisdom more than ever. Amen.