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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Proverbs 6:1-11
June 1, 2014 - Ascension Sunday

         Football practice or Confirmation class? That’s the sort of choice several of our church youth and parents had to make a number of times. Confirmation was every week on Wednesday after school, but during certain sports seasons coaches announced mandatory practices on those afternoons. If you didn’t show up, you didn’t play in the game on the weekend. So over and over, parents and kids chose to miss the spiritual training in favor of the physical training. I’d like to think it was a hard choice. It was hard for me as a pastor to know how to respond to those families who wrestled with a deep commitment to athletics alongside their commitment to Christ and discipleship.

         The first few verses of Proverbs give some direction regarding a very specific and more mundane form of commitment. In verses 1 and 2, putting up “security for your neighbor” is pictured as a trap and a snare. We can’t say for sure exactly what financial practice Proverbs is talking about here, but it looks similar to co-signing for a loan. You give your personal guarantee and backing to another person’s financial commitment.

         My cousins and I rent out a small trailer on our property in Arizona. We have a good renter right now, but over the past few years we’ve had some that were not so good. One of our first was a woman employed by the little resort right near our place. Her boss, the owner of the resort, was so pleased with her as a new employee that he wanted her to live nearby, so he insisted that he would be happy to co-sign on her lease.

         You guessed it. That resort owner didn’t really know his employee that well and she turned out to be a flake, both as a tenant and as an employee. Her boss ended up having to pay us about three months rent. I think he learned the lesson Proverbs is teaching here. He hasn’t sent us anymore employees to be renters.

         That word “neighbor” at the end of verse 1 is literally one of the Hebrew words for “stranger.” We’re not talking about helping out a friend or someone you’ve known for awhile and found trustworthy. No this is more like what that man in Arizona did, shaking hands on a deal for someone with whom you’re barely acquainted. It’s risky.

         It was especially risky in the ancient world. Your own person might be the security on a debt. Those who didn’t pay could end up slaves, literally working off what they owed. If you stood security for someone else, you might end up slaving alongside him. That’s why verse 2 talks about being “trapped by what you said, ensnared by the words of your mouth.”

         A long time ago Beth’s youngest brother decided he wanted to do some fur trapping, beaver and muskrats. So on his Christmas list that year he put traps. I drove out to a shop that dealt in such things and read off the description Allan had written, a #1 spring trap with a long chain or something like that. The shopkeeper led me over to a row of ugly steel hardware hanging on the wall, took a couple down and I bought them.

         I laid them on the seat beside me and drove home. Every time I glanced over, those traps gave me the heebie jeebies. I could see my hand or foot caught in there, and those ugly steel teeth biting down on my skin. That’s how it is, says Proverbs, to risk your own livelihood, your own self, to financially back someone you don’t really know.

         So avoid such risk. But what if you’ve already done it? There’s advice for that here too. Get free as quickly as you can. Verses 3 and 4 are pretty literal. Give neither that stranger nor yourself no rest until you’ve undone this transaction. Refuse to let your life be collateral for someone else’s mistakes. Pull out, buy back your commitment, get free.

         Verse 5 gives us that animal imagery again. There’s a gazelle trying to shake loose from the hunter’s hand, a bird trying to wriggle its wings free from the snare wrapped around it. That should be you when you find yourself trapped in a risky business deal in which you stand to lose everything, even your own freedom.

         Maybe you saw “127 Hours,” the film about Aron Ralston who was hiking alone in Utah when his arm got caught under a boulder. He ended up cutting off his arm with a multi-tool so he could get loose and not die of thirst after five days in the wilderness. Proverbs wants us to have that kind of intense desire to be free of risky entanglements, struggling with all our might, going to every length to get loose.

         We get caught in financial traps. These wise words from Proverbs apply to other situations like credit card debt or student loans or an upside down mortgage or some bad investment. Some of us have felt the pain of one or more of those snares tangling us up in a situation from which we struggled to get free. Some of us are struggling now and we pray for each other to be free, to not lose everything. But as I suggested at the beginning, we can trap ourselves in other sorts of commitments which jeopardize more than our financial well-being.

         Ralston cut off his arm to save his life. In Matthew 5 verses 29 and 30, Jesus talked about cutting off a hand or plucking out an eye to free ourselves from sins that ruin our lives. In Mark 8:36 He also asked us to consider what profit there is in gaining all sorts of riches, even the whole world, but losing your soul. Again in Matthew 6, He told us we cannot serve both God and money. He said we can go running after food and clothes and commit ourselves to that pursuit, or we can “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

         Proverbs is practical wisdom. It’s practical on the level of everyday life and business, and it’s practical in regard to spiritual life. How many ways do we rush into and accept commitments which tangle us up in activities and obligations which take away our time to love and serve our Lord? What kind of eternal trap are we letting snap shut on us when our business or school or even family activities or our debts keep us from worship, from prayer, from service to others, from giving to God?

         That’s why Proverbs is so urgent about getting yourself free, about not letting yourself sleep until those tangling cords are cut or broken, so that your life, your soul is no longer at risk. Then, like many places in Hebrew writing, Proverbs moves on in a different direction but playing off that idea of tireless effort. So in verse 6 we get a new image from the world of nature, a verse my great aunt loved to quote to lazy children, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise!”

         Proverbs views the ant as a totally self-motivated and diligent worker. Verses 7 and 8 say that “It has no commander, no overseer or ruler,” yet ants store up food in the good weather, at the times when it is plentiful, in order to survive in the winter. You might think the science here is a little lame because we now know that ant colonies have a social order and each insect has a job to do. There are queens and workers and soldiers and drones. The drones are the males whose only job is mating with young queens to produce more eggs.

         Yet as any simple explanation of ant life will tell you, the queen doesn’t really “rule” the ant colony. She doesn’t give orders. And that ancient Hebrew wisdom had it right when Proverbs, like the King James Version literally translates, called the ant “her.” All those female workers and soldiers simply do what they are need to do, gathering food and storing it or fighting off enemies, all by instinct, without any direction. And they are tireless.

         Those of you who have worked in our kitchen even just a little may know that our building appears to be built on a giant ant colony. Whenever the season arrives, those ants crawl out of our walls and go searching for food, climbing along our counters, into our cupboards, down in our trash cans. In just a short time they can form one of those long lines creeping back to their nest from forgotten cookie crumbs or a cup with a few drops of juice left in it. God bless Bob, he’s been waging war with them for a few years now. But they never give up. They always come back. Proverbs tells us that’s how you and I should be.

         Verses 9 brings the focus directly to the lazy person himself, addressing him, calling to him, asking him how long he will lie asleep. Verse 10 gives us the lazy reply, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest…” Just imagine someone, maybe yourself, waking up, knowing there is work to do, but then turning over and pulling the covers closer around you, or hitting the snooze button on the alarm. Just a few more winks, a little more slumber. Then you hit the button again and lie back, hands folded across your stomach, eyes closed, dozing back off trying to recover some dream. Meanwhile you are late for work, for school, for getting your taxes done, for getting the trash out to be picked up, for whatever needs to be done to keep your life together.

         If those ants didn’t crawl out and search for food, they would soon starve and be gone. The same is true of human beings. Verse 11 tells us the result of laziness, of sleeping in too long and too often, is poverty and scarcity. Our translations compare those to thieves or armed men robbing us, but the Hebrew is difficult and the characters of poverty and scarcity might better be seen as a vagrant and a beggar. They cling to you like they do in poor countries, taking everything you have to give.

         So the result of sloth, of laziness, of being a sluggard who lies in bed all the time, is again financial disaster. You won’t be able to pay your bills. Your car will get repossessed. Creditors will be sending nasty letters and calling you on the phone. Your utilities will get shut off. The word for poverty here means something like “destitution,” total ruin.

         We need to say something else about that word for poverty. It’s rare in the Bible. It’s only here in Proverbs. It’s not the word used when God tells us to be kind to the poor, to leave something in the field for them to gather, to share our bread and our clothes with a poor person. It’s not the word in Deuteronomy 15:11 which Jesus quotes when He tells us that there will always be poor among us.

         The point I’m trying to make is the Proverbs tells us that laziness will make us poor, but it’s not telling us that the poor are all lazy. That’s just a classic mistake in logic, like thinking that because cats are animals and Fido is an animal, then Fido must be a cat. No, personal laziness is only one cause of poverty. There are many others, from mental illness to plain bad luck to governmental corruption and injustice. The people who sleep here when it’s cold are not all lazy bums.

         So rather than use these verses to cast judgment on people who are financially poor or even ourselves if we are struggling to make ends meet, it would be good to hear the same sort of spiritual lesson we heard in the first verses. Our laziness about the things which matter to God is what will lead to the worst disaster, to true and lasting destitution.

         Remembering Jesus’ Ascension into heaven today, we heard Him give His disciples their marching orders, their work to do. Part of it was to wait for the power He would send them, the Holy Spirit. But the other part was to be witnesses for Him. As He explains in more detail at the end of Matthew’s Gospel and the beginning of Acts, He sent His followers out to share the good news of God’s kingdom with the whole world, to tirelessly go everywhere they can to search out those who need hope and help and the message of salvation in Jesus Christ… just like ants tirelessly searching for food.

         Friday I talked with a couple in our congregation who were here at church serving in a couple different ways, helping in the office, getting things ready for the children on Sunday. They told me that when they first moved here a few years ago they said to each other, “At our next church, let’s not get so involved, let’s take a rest.” They looked at me and laughed and said, “But here we are!” And they were happy about it. They felt spiritually richer for not just lying back and only coming on Sunday morning.

         We do need rest. And a person can get burnt out working constantly seven days a week, whether at your job or serving the Lord. That’s why God created the Sabbath, ordained a day of rest, and gave us the night for sleeping. We absolutely need times to relax and recover our energy, both physical and spiritual. Yet spiritual life, like the rest of life, is not only about relaxing and taking it easy and looking after ourselves. God gives us the privilege and joy of being part of the work of His kingdom.

         In our lesson from Ephesians 1 today the apostle Paul thought about Jesus seated at the right hand of God after He had ascended and he rejoiced in that power which Jesus promised to the disciples before He went up. He prayed for us to have a spirit of wisdom and revelation, that same sort of wisdom we find here in Proverbs, so that we can see “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” That’s why God doesn’t want us to be lazy. He wants us to be able to see and understand the incredibly great things He is doing for us, and for our world, and to be part of it all. But we can’t experience that if we are tangled up in other commitments or closing our eyes for a little more rest when God’s power is at work.

         May God give you the sense of purpose and energy and strength of the ant, by His power working in you to carry more than you ever imagined. May God set you free to run like a gazelle or a fly like a bird sprung from all the traps this world has for us. May our Lord send down the power of His Holy Spirit to energize your heart and soul and lift you up to live with Him in His tireless and glorious life forever.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated June 1, 2014