Shall We Dance?

Every now and then I have a chance to preach at my church. Last Sunday, I spoke about Proverbs 8, and the Trinity. If you're a Christian, can you explain why the idea that our Lord exists as three Persons is the most important thing we Christians know, except for the cross and empty tomb? It's strange, but many of us can't. I wonder why we spend so little time thinking and talking about it . . .

I’m in awe of Proverbs 8. All of the scriptures are sacred, of course, but today we’re moving onto truly holy ground. Today we’re going to glimpse what it’s like to be the Creator of the universe. And along with awe, I feel an almost overwhelming sense of gratitude, because today’s passage proves my Heavenly Father wants me to know as much about Him as my little mind can understand. I think there’s only one reason why the Creator would bother to reveal Himself this way: He loves me—and all of you—very much, and like all lovers, He wants to be known. So let’s begin in Proverbs 8:

1 Does not wisdom call, does not understanding raise her voice? 2 On the heights beside the way, in the paths she takes her stand; 3 beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud: 4 "To you, O men, I call, and my cry is to the sons of men.”

Proverbs 7 shows us secrecy is the enemy of relationships. There, the wicked woman goes out into the street to find the wayward young man, but she wants him to come alone back to her house. She says, “It’s okay, my husband isn’t home. This will be our little secret.” But here in 8:4 we see wisdom is different. Wisdom calls to all humanity, all the sons of men. You can also see this in verses 15 & 16.

15 By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; 16 by me princes rule, and nobles govern the earth. 17 I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me.

So wisdom works at the most highly visible human level, among kings and rulers. Wickedness operates in secret, destroying relationships and community, but wisdom stands out in the open, calling to everyone, guiding entire nations. And if you look at the very end of chapter 7, you see wickedness comes at a high cost. In the end, it costs everything.

But now look at verse 17 in chapter 8. Wisdom says “Those who seek me find me.” And why is that? The answer is also right there in 17. God loves those who love him. Folly says come home with me, and I’ll show you a secret. You’ll find peace and joy through what you know. Wisdom also offers peace and joy, but out in the open. Wisdom says it’s not what you know, but who you know. God wants to be known. “I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me.” Jesus says the same thing in Matthew 7:7. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

So this is one way we can know we’re approaching the true Master of the Universe, and not a cheap little imitation: The one true God keeps no secrets.

On the contrary, again and again Jesus implores us to listen and believe. “Verily, verily I say unto you,” he says, over and over, begging us to hear the plain truth of his teaching. And why does he bother? Again, because God loves us very much, and like all lovers, God wants to be known.

Back in Matthew 7, right after promising that those who seek will find, Jesus also says, “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Notice how Jesus says ask and it will be given. Your Father in heaven will give good gifts. Wicked secrets have a cost, but God’s wisdom is free, at least for you and me.

Of course as Christians we know wisdom is free, but justice is not. Justice requires an eye for an eye, a life for a life. The vast wisdom of God’s love, and the forgiveness which proves God’s love, is openly available to everyone, a standing offer at no cost to us, because Jesus already paid the price for it on the cross.

On the night before his crucifixion, they took Jesus prisoner and asked him questions, hoping he would say something they could use against him. In John 18:21-22 He answered: "I have spoken openly to the world. I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.”

Jesus said nothing in secret. Wisdom calls out in the streets. True love keeps no secrets. God wants to be known. Over and over again, Jesus freely and openly explains the way to peace and joy in life. Over and over again he says simply, “believe.”

Jesus says, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent."

He says, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die."

And one of the most famous things Jesus ever said is in John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have everlasting life.”

To some of us, this just seems too easy. Here we are, wondering how to connect with the Creator of light and time and molecules and black holes, and Jesus says, “Just believe”? Some of us feel there must be more mystery than that. More to know.

Just believe? It can’t be that simple. And I agree. I do agree. On one level, I think that’s far too simple.

If we understood the slightest bit about what we’re really doing here today, talking and thinking about this vast Presence who not only fills the entire universe, but also exists somehow outside of time and space in a way we can’t begin to imagine, if we could fully know the smallest fact about God’s actual state of existence, then I think we’d have to agree that entering a loving relationship with Him is, at the very least, mysterious. And to solve a mystery, you must understand it. So why does Jesus say, “Just believe?”

To begin to understand this, I think we have to press closer to the sacred territory I mentioned at first, the holy ground that begins in Proverbs 8, verse 22.

22 The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. 23 Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. 24 When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. 25 Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth; 26 before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. 27 When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, 28 when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, 29 when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, 30 then I was beside him, like a master workman; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, 31 rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men.

If you know the Bible, you’ll feel you’ve heard something very much like these words before, and of course you have. Here are the first few words of the Gospel of John:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

The apostle Paul also enters this mystery in Colossians 1:15-17, where he says:

15 He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Solomon writes of “creation” and “the beginning” and “kings and rulers” and “wisdom.” John and Paul write of exactly the same things, except instead of “wisdom” John speaks of “the Word,” and Paul comes right out and speaks of “Jesus.” The apostles’ words are so similar to Solomon’s, I really think they must have had this particular Proverb in mind.

But what about that language in verse 8:22, where depending on the translation we read phrases like: “The Lord created me,” or “the Lord brought me forth as the firstborn,” or “as the first of His works.” If Solomon is really talking about the second person of the Trinity, as John and Paul seem to think, then this language is a problem, isn’t it? Because as Christians we know Jesus is not the first thing made by the Lord, not a creature created by the Lord; Jesus is the Lord, as Paul wrote in a couple of places.

Some think this means Proverbs 8 is only poetic symbolism. They think it’s strictly about wisdom. But the problem isn’t only here in Proverbs. Remember the Colossians quote I mentioned? Paul calls Jesus “firstborn over all creation.” So we can’t avoid this simply by calling Proverbs 8 a symbolic poem.

This mystery is too deep for that, and like all mysteries in the Bible, I believe the thing to do is not to turn away from it, or deny it, but rather to press into it, and by doing that, learn more about the Lord. Let’s press in.

In Libya today there are mass demonstrations and a cruel government crackdown which some people think may lead to more terrorism. Early in the fourth century another big problem came out of Libya, when a popular teacher named Arius decided this Proverb and Paul’s “firstborn” language means there must have been a time when Christ didn’t exist. Arius also thought it meant Christ and the Father were fundamentally different. This is called the Arian heresy. Even today, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons still teach these mistakes, but they directly contradict what Jesus said about himself. For example, in Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” And he said, “Before Abraham was born, I AM.” Notice that especially: Jesus didn’t say “I was,” but he very specifically said, “I AM,” exactly as God said to Moses from the burning bush.

The church fathers three hundred years later responded to the Arian heresy with the Nicene Creed, which says:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father . . .”

You could almost call this section of the Nicene Creed a commentary on Proverbs 8. The connection comes in the words, “begotten, not made.” Notice the church fathers are drawing a distinction there. “Begotten, not made.” It’s vital to remember the difference. Birds make nests. Humans make houses. God made the universe. But birds beget birds. Humans beget humans. And God begot God.

God made the universe, but God begot God. You see?

To be made, or created, is very different from being firstborn, or begotten. Something made is fundamentally different from the maker, but something begotten is the same substance as the begetter.

So if that word “created” in some translations of Proverbs 8:22 causes all this confusion, why use it? Well, the original Hebrew word is found 85 times in the Old Testament, and in all but three of those places it’s translated as “buy,” or “get,” or “possess.” In fact, this same word is used eleven times where Proverbs says, “Get wisdom.” But in those three remaining places, there is indeed a sense of being born. So a perfect translation would have to use an English word that means get, buy, possess, and born. But there isn’t such a word, is there? So the translators had to make the best of it. Sometimes we say things like, “Alexander Graham Bell is the father of the telephone,” as if an inventor could give birth to an invention. So the translators used “created” because at least that English word more or less sits between the ideas of “being possessed” and “being born.”

Personally, I think the New American Bible gives the best translation of verse 22. It reads, “The Lord begot me, the firstborn of His ways.” I think they rendered it that way because it’s closer to the “firstborn” language Paul used, and because it’s closer to Jesus’ own attempt to explain what he is, as God’s “only begotten son.”

Now we’ve seen how God begot God, and we’ve seen how important it is to remember that meanings don’t always translate directly from Hebrew into English, but there’s still a mystery, because the Hebrew word in verse 22 does carry both the idea of being born, or “firstborn” as Paul puts it. And of course if something is born, then that is the beginning of it, right? But the Lord has no beginning, and “Jesus is Lord,” as Paul said. So it seems there’s still more to learn by pressing even more deeply into this mystery.

Let’s begin with Leo Tolstoy. That famous novelist once said, "One may say with one's lips: 'I believe that God is one, and also three' - but no one can believe it, because the words have no sense." And I think we have to admit it’s true: those words have no sense.

Speaking of nonsense, I always think it’s adorable when a child is just learning to speak and he’s still lapsing into gaa-gaa-goo-goo sometimes, and his mom or dad says, “Use your words, dear.” We get more words as we grow up, but when it comes to some things, aren’t we all still at that gaa-gaa-goo-goo stage?

We don’t really have the words to fully explain the taste of water or the smell of air, do we? And when your heart swells with love or soars with a sunset, aren’t you sometimes almost painfully aware of how impossible it is to describe the most important things? Of course you are. We all know this is true. We’ve all lived it. So, getting back to trying to explain how the second person of the Trinity could be firstborn or begotten, let’s not make the foolish mistake of thinking words can be applied to Jesus in the same way they apply to us.

God begot God, and God has no beginning or end, therefore God’s only Son is begotten, and he has no beginning and no end.

This can no more be explained in words than that feeling you get at sunsets, or the way you feel when you watch a loved one sleep, but it’s every bit as true as every sunset, and every bit as true as everyone you love.

Still, something God put inside us wants to try to understand the Trinity. So, being very careful to remember analogies for God are only made of words, let’s think a moment about fire.

When fire appears, it produces flames and light and heat, correct? We have flames, and light, and heat, all three, all in the one thing, fire. But it’s not correct to say the flame was first and the light or heat came second. If there is one fire, there are also always flame and light and heat. Three are produced (or born or created, if you like) out of one, yet all exist at all times. And so it is with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sort of.

We can learn more from the “the Son of God” analogy Jesus himself chose to describe his life with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Think about the fact that it’s impossible to be a child without having had a parent. It’s also impossible to be a parent without a having had a child. This is so important: unless a parent and a child both exist, it isn’t possible for either to exist. I myself have no children, therefore I am not a father. A Son implies a Father. But a Father also implies a Son. You could say they define each other. In a way, you could even say they create each other. So there’s that word “create” again, except it applies in a totally different way to the Godhead.

This means if there ever were a time before the Son of God, then there would also have to be a time before the Heavenly Father. Yet God by definition is eternal and never changes. So if God was ever a Father, God was always a Father, and if Jesus was ever God’s only begotten Son, Jesus was always God’s Son, from before his creative works began, exactly as it says in Proverbs 8:22.

I think Jesus had a second reason for choosing the Father/Son analogy, and I think from our point of view, it’s much more important. I think he used the Father/Son analogy for the same reason he inspired Solomon to use the lyrical language of Proverbs 8. I think Jesus wants us to think of the Godhead in terms of love.

Look at 30 and 31 again: “I was beside him, like a master workman; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men.”

What a beautiful image! The Father and Son at work together in the fields of the Lord, the Father showing the Son new and wondrous things, and the Son building on His ideas and laughing aloud with delight, and the Son’s delight an absolute delight to the Father, and the two of them, delighting in their mutual delight, and all the universe a profound labor of love because the Son and Father are so joyously in love with each other. It’s, “Look, Father! Look what I just made!” And “Oh, excellent, Son! Do it again!” . . . and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made . . . and the Word became flesh, and dwelled among us. (John 1:1-3 & 14)

And just here is where I’m sorely tempted to fall to the ground with awe, because I read Solomon’s words with an overwhelming sense that the curtain outside the Most Holy Place has been lifted just a little, and what I’m peeking through to see is what the physicists like to call the Big Bang, but what really seems to be much more than only that, more like the very source, the center, the cosmic beginning or entry point of all the love that ever was or ever will exist throughout the universe.

The history of humanity is one long theology lesson, God revealing facts about Himself as fast as we can absorb them. He used Jews to explain his oneness to the world. He used Christians to reveal his three-in-oneness. Even in the Hebrew Scriptures we see it. Not just here in chapter 8, but also in Proverbs 30:4, where a thousand years before the time of Jesus it asks, “Who has gone up to heaven and come down? Who has gathered up the wind in the hollow of his hands? Who has wrapped up the waters in his cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and the name of his son? Tell me if you know!”

So why don’t Christians spend more time thinking and talking about the Trinity? We really should. It’s the most important thing we know, except for the cross and empty tomb.

The Trinity explains why God isn’t an impersonal force that made everything and then withdrew.

The Trinity explains why God is personally involved, all the time, in everything.

The Trinity explains love.

The philosopher Martin Buber wrote a little book called I and Thou. It says we can only exist in one of two ways. Those two ways are “I-It”, or “I-You”. Buber said there is no third way of existing. We are sensory creatures. We are emotional creatures. We are relational creatures. We can’t survive without something or someone to relate to, any more than we could survive without air or water.

Most of us don’t understand this. Most of us think we can be just “I”, independent of “You”, or even of “It”. But when we try to do that, what we really enter is the “I-It” way of being. We become our own “it”.

This is what happens when we think of ourselves as something to be dulled with alcohol or drugs, or as something to be distracted with sex or work, or something to be gratified with possessions. To try to live only as an “I” is to think of ourselves as something about which something must be done. When we do that, we become subhuman. We become “I-It”.

But there is also “I-You”. When we are “I-You”, we are outward focused, on the Other. We are truly engaged in the world, unwilling to dull or distract or gratify ourselves because the Other, the You, is too wonderful to miss. It’s frightening sometimes, but “I-You” lives life as life truly is, far out there beyond just I, independent of just I. “I-You” gives itself away, and wonder of wonders, in giving, we receive.

But we don’t care about receiving. We are in “I-You”. The focus is not “It” and certainly not “I”. The focus is the Other, the You. In other words, (if you haven’t already figured this out), we are in love.

True love requires a “You”. True love must have an Other, in order to exist. You cannot even imagine true love in a vacuum. Remember! True love requires a “You".

So again, these are our only choices: “I-It”, or “I-You”, because relationship is as essential for survival as air or water. A single “I” is impossible. When we try to live that way, we turn ourselves into “I-It”, or else we go mad, which may be the same thing.

God, of course, is different. Unlike any created thing, God requires nothing for his existence. God and God alone exists simply as “I”. This is what God means when Moses asks him, “What should we call you?” and God replies, “I AM.” God is only “I”, or “I AM”. But the Apostle John also said, “God is love,” and remember, true love requires a “You”. It’s impossible to love in a vacuum. But before “the beginning” what Other existed? Before creation, there was only the Creator.

So because love requires a “You”, and because God is love, and because there was a time when only God existed, God must, somehow, be both an “I” and a “You”.

Of course, Christians know this is true. There is one God, but somehow God exists as three persons. We don’t pretend to know how this is possible. How could we, when we have only “goo-goo-gaa-gaa” to describe the eternal, the all-powerful, the ever present, the never changing? But we know this is true, because wisdom calls out in the streets. There are no secrets. God wants to be known. We see it in our Bibles.

We see the Three together in chapter one of Mark, at the Jordon River when the Holy Spirit comes down on Jesus like a dove, and the Father speaks from heaven saying, “You are my Son, whom I love.” We see them in this morning’s passage: Wisdom with the Father, two Persons delighting in each other, delighting in the thing they’re creating together, and the delight created with their love becoming so complete within itself it must also be thought of as a Person, the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Because there are really three parts to Martin Buber’s word of love. There is the “I”. There is the “You”. And there is the dash between, the hyphen that holds I and You together, and is held in place by them.

I was reading C.S. Lewis on the Trinity, and I found this:

“In Christianity God is not a static thing...but a dynamic pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance. The union between the Father and the Son is such a live concrete thing that this union itself is also a Person.” (“Good Infection”. Mere Christianity, Book IV, “Beyond Personality”)

God is a dance. What an amazing idea. But I think of how I feel when I’m closest to the Lord, and I know exactly what it means. And look at verses 23 and 24 again. See where it says, “I was established,” or “I was brought forth”? That same Hebrew word can mean “I danced.” And in verses 31 and 32, where some translations see wisdom “rejoicing” in God’s presence, the Hebrew can also be understood to mean wisdom was “at play.”

The idea that the Holy Spirit emanates from that dance, that play between the Father and the Son, made me remember a strange thing Jesus says in John 16:7: “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” Why did Jesus have to go away before the Holy Spirit would come down? If Lewis is correct, I think we have part of the answer.

After accepting the humiliation of life on a fallen earth and betrayal and torture on the cross for you and me, the only begotten Son returned to the heavenly Father in triumph, and only then did the infinite delight of their reunion inspire the Holy Spirit to call out to all creatures great and small, “Come and join the dance!”

All of this returns me to that question I asked earlier: Why is it almost every time Jesus talks about the way to enter a relationship with God, he says simply, “Believe?” How could such a simple thing make such a massive difference? The answer, of course, is that it is far from simple.

C.S. Lewis went on to put this better than I could. He said:

“The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way round) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made . . . If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry. Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? Once a man is separate from God, what can he do but wither and die?” (Lewis, ibid)

Even Christians sometimes forget that the beginning of wisdom is this: get wisdom. She calls in the streets. She has no secrets. God wants to be known. But Jesus doesn’t want us to miss the obvious: We must believe her, not just one time long ago, but all day every day. James put this in a different way: “Faith without works is dead.”

Look at how you live your life. Do you really believe wisdom? Then do what she says.

If you’re not a Christian, you might think believing means turning your back on questions and answers. But Jesus has no secrets. Believe wisdom, and you step closer to the truth, not further from it. You step into the fountain from whom all the answers flow. You join the Divine dance Solomon describes. You are united with the Heavenly Father, Begotten Son, and Holy Spirit, and you will have eternity for answers.

We are all made in the image and the likeness of a God who exists in true love, in “I the Father”, in “You the Son”, in the Spirit who holds I and You together and is held in place by them. Whether we never knew it before, or whether we knew it and forgot it, we are made in that rejoicing image of community. We are made in that dancing likeness of relationship.

We can try to deny the obvious, and end up sulking all alone on the little island of “I-It”. Or we can believe the wisdom calling in the streets, and live like we believe it, and be at play in the fields of the Lord forever, in the joyous universe of “I-You”. Those are our only choices. Folly hides the ugly truth about herself, and in the end she will cost everything we have, but wisdom keeps no secrets, and the heavy price of what she offers is already paid. Wisdom calls to all of us, and the most important question is . . . shall we dance?

Posted byAthol Dickson at 7:18 AM  


Penny Stastny said... March 1, 2011 at 2:36 PM  

Dear Athol,
It is such a honor and pleasure to listen to the way Our Lord talks to you and speaks through you!!
This message will take me several times of reading (and then some) to absorb the depth and the enormity of what God expresses through you. Thank you for being such a humble and annointed servant of Our Lord Jesus Christ!!
Always in wait of your next teaching!! Love in Christ, Penny

Steve Taylor said... March 6, 2011 at 10:53 AM  

Awesome post! Rarely do I ever forward things through email but I had to send this one out.

I guess the only thing I could add would be "what did Jesus mean by 'just believe'"? We know Satan believes but is obvious not redeemed. Could we as humans also 'believe' yet spend eternity sepertae from God?

Maybe Jesus meant more then the modern version of the word. I say He did.


On another note. I work with a Christian who has never read a novel written by a Christian. I thought about what would be the best book in my library to start him off and I picked "River Rising". He loved it! Talked about it every day. His wife belongs to a book club and they are going to do the book next. I think you've made a fan.

Athol said... March 6, 2011 at 6:44 PM  

Great question, Steve. It seems to me Solomon left us with another pearl that offers guidance on what Jesus meant by, "Believe." Consider the Revised Standard Version's take on Proverbs 4:7: "The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom . . ." Almost sounds like a joke at first, doesn't it? But we often need reminding of the simple truth in this crazy, hectic world. Solomon is simply saying the surest way to obtain a thing is to set out to obtain it. Jesus says something much the same.

No sane person would set out to obtain a thing they didn't believe existed, a lie, or an obvious fantasy, so Jesus says again and again, "Believe." An obvious first step, but in fact it is step one; that's all. After belief comes press in; move deeper; ACT on what you know.

To genuinely believe in Jesus is to become like Jesus, and that is anything but simple. Belief expands the universe before our very eyes, not in heaven when we die, but right here, right now. The Kingdom starts to come on earth, as it is in heaven. Tables are set before us in the presence of our enemies. We feast on loving kindness, peace and joy in the midst of the battlefield of this fallen world. Our cup overflows. Life becomes a dance in every moment, an emulation of the three-in-oneness of the Godhead, rejoicing in the Lord, and in the inhabited world, the sons of men. To get all this, we must simply make up our minds to get it, and that begins by believing it is really there. Just "Believe," but it is anything but simple.

I’m delighted your friend enjoyed RIVER RISING. Thanks for letting me know.

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