June 29, 2014 - Third Sunday after Pentecost
“White or wheat?”
That’s the question at Joel’s Sub Shop on West 11th. It’s even on
their T-shirts. No 7-grain or rye or honey oat or any of that other nonsense
there, just the simple either/or decision, white or wheat. Sometimes it’s
refreshing to have limited options like that. You can get worn out with the
endless choices we typically encounter at sandwich shops and coffee bars.
Ordering at Starbucks
is tiring. What size? Which coffee? Brewed, epresso, latte, cappuccino,
americano, macchiato, mocha? Caffeine or not? Flavoring? Cream? Sprinkles? It’s
complicated and confusing, like many other choices we make. Yet we Americans
tend to glory in it. It’s part of our freedom, the independence we’re
celebrating this Friday. We are free to choose, and the more options the
better. It’s in dictatorships where you find only one brand to buy, one
candidate for which to vote, one religion to believe.
Yet in between those
two extremes, an overwhelming multiplicity of choices on one hand and a
crushing limitation to a single choice on the other hand, lie the simple
either/or decisions which are at the center of our existence as human beings.
Despite our American tendency to want to multiply our choices without limit,
and against every totalitarian attempt to narrow our freedom to a single
option, God presents us with any number of simple either/or choices and asks us
Proverbs 10 to 15 is 180
either/or proverbs in the form, “this, but that,” usually specifying two
different courses a person may take and often the outcome of taking each of
those courses. Verse 1 repeats the beginning of the book, “The proverbs of
Solomon.” In the first nine chapters we’ve heard about the importance of
wisdom, why it’s crucial to pay attention to this teaching. Now the teaching,
the proverbs themselves, finally begin. And the first of Solomon’s proverbs are
these either/ors, two lines separated by the word “but.”
The rest of verse 1
tells us that a child who chooses the course of being wise results in a glad
father, but the child who chooses the course of foolishness leads to a grieving
mother. That of course is the big choice Proverbs has highlighted for nine
chapters now, wisdom versus foolishness. But these individual proverbs work out
that choice in various details and facets of life.
There are large
categories here. Wisdom versus foolishness shows up again and again. In verses
2 and 3 and 6 and 7 and 11 and 16, it’s a choice of righteousness or
wickedness. In verses 4 and 5 it’s between laziness and diligence. In verse 12
it’s hatred or love. Later on we will find pride or humility, truth or
falsehood, caution or restraint, and all sorts of other small but crucial
choices. We also constantly see the dichotomy between poverty and wealth and
discover that wisdom looks at it from a couple different angles. Wealth is
pretty much a good thing in Proverbs, but verse 2 right away teaches us that it
can have a dark side.
We can make a big
mistake at this point. With all this either/or kind of thinking in Proverbs you
could go one of two wrong directions. On one hand, you may be tempted to think
what you have here is a sort of rule book for life. If you just follow the
rules by making the right choice in every case, things will go well for you.
That’s the mistake some commentators try to prevent by telling you that
“proverbs are not promises.” They are just general rules about life, not
absolute guarantees. But if you can’t count on these proverbs, if they aren’t
trustworthy rules to live by, what good are they?
On the other hand, you
could see here in Proverbs the sort of “black and white” thinking that often
gets discredited in our culture. It’s never, we’re told, either this or that,
right or wrong, wise or foolish. You can have both sides. Have wheat on the
bottom and white bread on the top of your sub sandwich. Have a mix of
caffeinated and decaf in your latte. Have one truth in your mind and another
which contradicts it at the same time. And if you see Proverbs as demanding
“black or white” choices, you may be tempted to write it off as irrelevant in a
world that seems colored with shades of grey.
Yet the wisdom of
Proverbs is not some sort of owner’s manual like you get with your new cell
phone, teaching you how to choose each setting so it works the way you want.
Nor is it an outdated code of absolute morality that ignores the nuances of
real life in a way which makes it practically useless. No, put them all
together and these proverbs are not so much teaching you how to decide which
college or what person to marry or where to live, but what sort of person do
you want to be?
While in Chicago two weeks ago we spent a couple days with our friends Jay and Jan. Jay has been
teaching at Wheaton College for 30 years. I wouldn’t have bet on that. He went
there chafing at all the rules, at the stuffiness of wearing a tie every day,
at all the silliness of evangelical spirituality in the 1980s. But he’s still
And Jay and Jan just
celebrated their 38th anniversary. I wouldn’t have bet on that. Jay
is a man of reason and order and he married a woman who is an emotional artist.
He knows exactly how the dishes and silverware should be arranged in the
dishwasher while she doesn’t really care if they go back in the same cupboard.
But they are still together.
You could point to
choices Jay and Jan made. They chose to get married and make vows to each
other. Jay chose to accept that position at Wheaton. Through the years they
each chose to be faithful and to overlook their differences. Jay chose to turn
down at least one job offer elsewhere. But ultimately those choices fade into
the background of a larger aim to be the kind of people they’ve become. Jay
wanted to be a good teacher, a person who shapes the minds and hearts of young
people. They both wanted to be loving spouses and good parents. And they didn’t
get there by following rules nor by ignoring rules. They got there by letting
God shape them through rules and circumstance into good people.
The real point of each
of these either/or proverbs is not ultimately a choice to be made, although that’s
important. It’s more about where your choices lead. Over and over, if you stop
and ponder a proverb, you will discover the question is more about what kind of
person you will be, rather than a specific choice at any particular moment.
So verse 1 talks about
wise and foolish children and glad or grieving parents. The question is not just
whether a child will make a wise choice about whom to marry or what occupation
to follow, but what kind of child does he or she want to be. Will she make her
father happy and proud, or will he bring pain and grief to his mother? That’s
not about a single decision, even a big one, but about who and what that child
becomes over time.
Go through these
verses that way. Pause and ponder these proverbs one or a few at a time and ask
yourself, “What does this teach me about the kind of person I am, or that I’m
becoming?” Verses 2 to 4 take up that big division between wealth and poverty.
If you listen to the wisdom of the world, more and more you may think there’s
only one choice, will you be rich or poor? If that’s your choice, then it will
dictate where you go to school and what you major in. It will dictate whether
you spend much time with your family and what friends you cultivate. And if you
want to be rich and you end up poor, as happens to billions of people in this
world, then you will see yourself as a failure.
But consider verse 2
when it says that “Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but
righteousness delivers from death.” Ponder that for awhile and ask yourself if
you want to be the person who got rich by deceit or by force or by ignoring
people in need. Ponder for awhile and think about coming to the end of that
kind of life versus coming to the end of a poorer but more honest and kind and
And then, as we noted,
verse 3 is not an absolute guarantee, “The Lord does not let the righteous go
hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked.” Good people are going hungry
all over the world and wicked people like the leadership of North Korea get
their cravings met, whether it’s for comfort or basketball. But ask what kind
of person you want to be, a person like Jesus talked about who hungers and
thirsts after righteousness and is filled in that way, or a person who craves
pleasure and power and is never satisfied?
Go to verse 4 and
treat it as a promise and you may be disappointed. Be diligent, work day and
night, and like folks I know who used to attend church here, you may still not
be rich, while some slacker lucks out and gets the promotion and salary you
should have earned. But which kind of person do you want to be, diligent or
slacking? That’s the deeper question, not rich or poor.
You can hear that
question about who and what we are asked very plainly in the proverbs that talk
about shame or honor, like verse 5, or about being remembered with blessing or
by having a name that rots, like verse 7. Do we want to be people that bring
honor and blessing to those who love us, or will be an embarrassment whose very
names smell putrid when they are said?
How then do you become
that good person you want to be and avoid being an evil person? Just make a
choice? Just keep the Ten Commandments? Just decide to follow Jesus? Just
choose the right path? Proverbs is written to help us understand that path is not
as simple as a single choice, even if it’s a truly good choice like trusting
Christ as Savior. Once you do that, there’s still a lot of life to live, a lot
of growing to do.
That’s what Paul is
trying to say in our lesson from Romans 6 today. He asks the question in verse
15, “What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace?”
O.K., we might think, we can’t save ourselves by doing what’s right, we can’t
get to heaven by obeying the rules. We have to trust in Jesus, accept His
grace. But then can we forget the rules? No way, says Paul. And that’s exactly
what we hear in Proverbs 10:8, “The wise of heart will heed commandments, but a
babbling fool will come to ruin.”
Romans 6:16 tells us we are either slaves of sin, “which leads to death, or of obedience which
leads to righteousness.” It’s the destination that matters, that makes all our
choices significant. The grace of Jesus Christ forgives us and frees us from
sin. At that point we are headed toward righteousness and life. Will we stay on
What sort of person
you will turn out to be? Where are you headed? What’s your destination? Verse 9
says “Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, whoever follow perverse ways
will be found out.” Then verse 16 and 17, “The wage of the righteous leads to
life, the gain of the wicked leads to sin.” And Romans 6:23 echoes that proverb
and takes it a step further, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of
God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Back to Proverbs 10 and our last verse for today, verse 17, and we get the flip side of that,
“Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but the one who rejects a
rebuke goes astray. That’s why we are in Proverbs. We need instruction to stay
on the path to life. We need instruction in the form of these words from
Scripture and we need instruction from the mouths and lives of fellow Christians.
That’s what Jesus is
talking about in that strange little Gospel reading this morning from Matthew 10:40-42. Receiving Jesus we receive the One who sent Him, we receive God. But
receiving those who come in the name of Jesus is also a way to receive Him. He
tells us those who receive a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward and those
who receive a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. In
other words, if you want to be a prophet or a righteous person, then receive and
learn from a prophet or a righteous person. And if you want to be like Jesus,
then receive and learn from, even with a simple cup of water to drink, those
who bear the name of Jesus.
So we receive and
learn from each other. Beth and I heard Friday that Cheryl, our old friend from
Nebraska, had died. She was an incredible woman, an incredible Christian.
Very young she was afflicted with a muscle-wasting disease and brittle
diabetes. But she was strong-willed and fiercely independent. She refused to
succumb to her limitations and for years she lived in her own home, held down a
full-time job as a programmer, volunteered at church, and walked everywhere she
needed on a single crutch.
Cheryl also got
extremely depressed. She would scare her friends and family and co-workers by
holing up in her house and not answering her phone. She was in and out of the
hospital so much that she thought she knew more than her nurses. Once I went to
her hospital room and found her arm puffed up about four times its normal thin
size. “What happened?” I asked. “Oh,” she said, “my IV fell out, so I just put
it back in myself.”
Cheryl had deep faith,
but she got frustrated with her life. She began more than one conversation with
me about suicide. If she couldn’t take care of herself, if she couldn’t live on
her own, why shouldn’t she just take an extra-large dose of insulin, lie down
and never wake up? She knew she would go to be with Jesus. Why wait, why suffer
so much, why cause other people so much trouble, she asked?
She was awesomely
stubborn, but Cheryl listened when I talked to her about life being a gift from
God, about the time of our death being something for Him to determine, not us.
She must have thought about it many times after I left, but she never took her
own life, not then, not ever. She listened to her friends, to her pastors, to
her Lord. After we came here we learned she had to give up her house, her car,
her job. Though it pained her deeply, she accepted the help and guidance of
friends and family. And she found she still had some living to do, that she
still had something to teach others as she had been taught.
Until just recently
Cheryl managed to travel every year with a church group to Mexico for a week of mission. She played with children, she swung a hammer, she brought
home stories of the needs and the ministry there which encouraged others to go.
She was in pain, she was frustrated, she could be grouchy, she got depressed,
but she was on the path to life and she stayed there. And we all are blessed by
Cheryl is one of the
people whose life and example I “receive” when staying on the path to life
seems hard. As verse 7 of our text says, her memory is a blessing. And she is
blessed now, blessed to be in the presence of Jesus and freed from her pain. One
of her friends guessed Cheryl might be playing the game she loved now, playing
baseball in heaven. I don’t know about that, but I do know wisdom leads in the
direction she lived, on the path to life. We learn how to walk that path from
our Lord, we learn it here in Scripture and we learn it from each other as we
accept what each one of us has to teach, to share.
God gives you a
choice, a choice about who and what sort of person you will become. You start
from wherever you are, with all your talents and all your sins, all your
weaknesses and all your blessings. Then He gives you grace in Jesus Christ to
accept and use it all to become a person on the path to life, showing others
that same path in the way you live. May you make that choice, take that path,
now and always.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj