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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj