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

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Proverbs 12:13-28
“Good Talk”
July 13, 2014 - Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

         Would animals be any better off if they knew how to talk? The new “Planet of the Apes” movie says it’s questionable. Genetically modified monkeys receive the gift of speech, but they are just as conflicted in how they make use of that gifts as humans are. From reviews I’ve read it sounds like the intelligent, talking apes are divided between their main leader Caesar who wants to peacefully co-exist with humans and a rebel ape named Koba who just wants revenge on people who mistreated him in a laboratory. Just being able to talk doesn’t make a creature better, it’s what is said and done that matters.

         The second half of Proverbs 12 is chock full of messages about how we human beings use God’s gift of language and verbal communication. Like the apes in the movie, what we say can lead to good or to evil. Fictional humans and apes can’t seem to find a way to talk through their differences, but neither can real human beings. Talks between Israel and Palestinians broke down in April. Few words have been exchanged between Hamas and Israel this past week, but lots of rockets have been fired. When they do talk, Hamas just calls Israel the “Zionist enemy,” while Israel refers to Hamas as terrorists. Yes, Israel is being constantly bombarded, but the result has been ten Israeli injuries, while over a hundred people have died in Gaza, including more than twenty children. There are over 500 wounded. Yet no one knows how to talk peace.

         Verses 13 to 20 are a relatively long section with the single topic of our use of words, but it’s a theme which occurs earlier in verse 6 and throughout the whole book. We can talk in ways that bring about good for ourselves and others, and we can also speak words that are destructive of ourselves and others. Verse 13 kicks it off by first noting that evil people are often caught in a trap set by their own words.

         Someone asked me about the Apocrypha this week, those books which lie in between the Old Testament and the New Testament in Catholic Bibles and others. So when I thought about those who get tangled up in their own words I remembered “Susanna and the Elders.” It tells the story of a young Jewish woman growing up during the exile in Babylon and a couple of Jewish “elders,” who are appointed judges, but turn out wicked. They found Susanna alone in her garden one afternoon and demanded that she have sex with them or else they would cry out and tell the community they found her having illicit sex with a young man under a tree in the garden.

         Susanna held onto her honor and refused the elders, so they went ahead and raised the alarm and told their lie about her. The other elders and judges believed them and because she had dishonored her family, they condemned her to death. But along came the young Daniel we know from the Old Testament. Guided by God he questioned that death sentence and then questioned the elders. With a cleverness that would do any television cop proud, he separated the two accusing elders and asked them each what kind of tree under which they supposedly saw Susanna and this young man. One answered that it was a mastic tree, while the other said it was an oak. So the elders are exposed as the liars they are, and they get put to death instead of innocent Susanna.

         Sir Walter Scott’s famous line, “Oh! what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive,” is the same spirit as verse 13. Evil speech and lies will trap those who speak them. It was in local news last week. The university police made and constantly talked about a despicable list with a vulgar name about people they hate. Now they’ve been found out. Now we hope the second half of the verse can be true, that an officer who was offended by it all and blew the whistle escapes from trouble after being fired.

         Verse 14 tells us good talk is rewarded in the same way as good manual labor. Speak truth and kindness and you will be filled with good things in the same way a good laborer takes home a paycheck. It’s part of an overall theme of Proverbs found stated once again in verse 21, “No harm happens to the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble.” And once again we might be inclined to wonder if it’s really true. It seems like those who are righteous, those whose talk is good and truthful and encouraging, can get into all sorts of trouble, while wicked liars and slanderers can slip safely through their tangled webs. It’s pretty easy to imagine those elders getting away with their lies about Susanna or the university cops escaping any real consequences for their hateful talk.

         What I’ve just been doing here is one of the key reasons for talking, for language. Take these proverbs, take each proverb and put names and faces to it. Let it tell a story. Take verse 15 about fools who think their own way is right and wise people who listen to advice and tell a little story a guy who drives around in circles without asking for directions until his wife finally convinces him to stop and ask  someone how to get where they’re going. Or make verse 16 into the tale of a secretary named Eva who was always quick to lash out at any perceived insult regarding her work or her appearance or her lifestyle, while Jason just greeted comments like that with a quiet smile and turned away. Tell the stories and ask yourself who comes out better, who would you rather be?

         Proverbs invites us to tell stories, to talk to each other about how each thought here is and can be true. And there are larger stories, like the big idea here that good talk is wise and evil talk is foolish. Good talk will be rewarded and evil talk will be punished. Verse 17 tells us there’s a difference between honest testimony and false witness. Then verse 18 talks directly about consequences, warning that rash words are like a weapon, wounding those who hear them, while “the tongue of the wise brings healing.” There’s an amazing promise in verse 19, “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.” And verse 20 suggests that people who plan evil are full of falsehood, while those advising peace will have joy. Hamas and Israel need to hear that last verse, work it into their story.

         Yet if all these proverbs and all the stories we can read out of them are going to be genuinely helpful, if we want to believe them and live by them, then we need something else. We need a larger story. What makes it all true? What makes it truly wise and prudent to seek advice and bite your tongue when you are insulted? What is going to ensure that kind words really do heal and that the truth really does last forever? The book of Proverbs regularly points us to the answer, to big story in which every other story is told.

         That’s why when we read in verse 21 that “No harm happens to the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble,” we need to go on and read verse 22 where we get a hint of why it might happen that way, “Lying lips are an abomination the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight.” I told you about gentle Jason and angry Eva who work in an office together. Jason is only going to do better than Eva if they have an office manager who likes gentle quietness better than angry outbursts. In the bigger story of human life, the righteous are only going to do well while the evil have trouble if there is a God who likes good talk better than evil talk.

         I said last week that there is no direct conflict between the story science tells about the age of our universe together with the process of evolution and the story the Bible tells about God’s creation of the world. But I need to add that the story of evolution cannot possibly stand on its own when it comes to what is good and what is bad. Evolution is a story about how physical, chemical, and biological processes work. It may teach us a lot, but it cannot teach us how to live a good life, how to find joy and peace. That’s why God tells us His story. That’s why we need to listen to it.

         That’s what our Gospel lesson tells us Jesus came to do, to tell us the true story of who we are and how we fit into this world. We are not just biological machines working out a competition for survival between different strands of DNA. The very fact that we can think and talk about DNA should be a clue that our lives are more than pretty rides for genes cruising through the biosphere. God who began this world and gave us life by speaking His Word gives us the gift to speak and talk about this world and ourselves.

         Part of the story we learn from God, from His Word, is just what Proverbs points to over and over. We constantly go the wrong way. We tell lies. We hurt people with our words. We don’t listen. We make evil plans. And as verse 22 suggests, God hates that, hates the awful things we say and do to each other, hates the evil words and rockets flying in the Mideast and hates the evil words that can fly between us at home, at work, and even, God help us, at church. That’s the bad news.

         The good news is the good seed in the parable Jesus told in Matthew 13. It’s the story that God brought into the world when Jesus came and which God is still flinging out all over the place for anyone who will listen to it. It’s the good news we heard in Romans 8:1 today, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” That’s the story which truly shapes the world in which we live. It’s not a story of competition that ends in death. It’s a story of grace that ends in life.

         That parable of the sower connects with some of the last proverbs in this chapter. Jesus explained the different sorts of ground upon which the seed falls represent the different ways people hear the good news He brings, the message that there is no condemnation in Him. Let’s relate that to these verses here in Proverbs.

         Verse 24 brings back a theme we looked at earlier in Proverbs 6, the contrast between the lazy and the diligent. We can see them in the parable, people responding to the word of the kingdom. The first sort of ground is the hard packed path, where seed lies exposed to birds who come and snatch it away. That’s the person too lazy to even listen, to hear what God has to say, to hear the message of joy and hope and life for anyone willing to receive it.

         Verse 27 also looks to be about laziness and diligence, about a person who goes out hunting but then doesn’t even bother to clean and roast what he’s killed. Put that with the rest of the chapter and you can see someone who is all show, all flash, all talk, but no real, lasting substance. That suggests the rocky ground in Jesus’ story. That’s the soil where seeds sink just deep enough to sprout and spring up quickly, but they don’t grow any real roots, so they just dry up and blow away.

         Verses 25 talks about anxiety weighing down the human heart and verse 26 says that wicked people will lead you astray. That sounds to me like the seed which lands in the thorns and gets choked out by those weeds, as Jesus says, by “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth.”

         In Jesus’ story there is also good ground where seeds root deep and grow tall and then produce a great harvest. That’s people who hear the good news of Jesus Christ and take time to understand it. The flip sides of those proverbs I just compared to the bad ground are about a diligent person rewarded with leadership, a good word that cheers up our hearts, good advice that is shared with friends, and the blessing of precious wealth. That’s Proverbs inviting us to receive the good news, good talk, and then to share it with others.

         I suggested this text is mostly about talking, but we’ve just seen there is something needed before we can talk well. Several of these verses are not so much about talking as they are about listening. Verse 15 told us to listen to advice. Verse 16 suggested that instead of responding to an insult we ignore it. And verse 23 gives us the odd sounding suggestion that “One who is clever conceals knowledge, but the mind of a fool broadcasts folly.”

         A story helps here too. G. K. Chesterton tells how when Thomas Aquinas went to university he was so big and so quiet that his fellow students called him the “The Dumb Ox,” meaning he didn’t speak. But they also thought he was dumb in the modern sense, that he was stupid. One student even took it upon himself to tutor Thomas in logic, but as he blathered along in the lesson the “tutor” got mixed up and got a problem wrong. He was the one dumbfounded then when Thomas quietly and gently pointed out the correct answer. It wasn’t long after that everyone knew the “Dumb Ox” was brilliant and wise. But Thomas started out his career by being quiet and listening.

         That’s how God asks us all to start out a good life, a new life in His grace, to listen to His Word, let it sink deep into our minds and hearts, and then watch as it sprouts forth in good fruit. Talk can be good, but too much talk and too little listening is foolishness. And the best listening we do is to what God has to say.

         In a new biography of C. S. Lewis we learn how he wanted to be a poet in his college years, wanted to be great war poet like Rubert Brooke in the first World War. He thought he had something to say, so he wrote and published a little collection of poems called Spirits in Bondage, expressing the sorrows of war, expressing his conviction that there was no God who cared about what was happening to young men in the trenches in France. But hardly anyone reads those poems now.

         For C. S. Lewis to have something to say that people actually wanted to hear, he had first to learn to listen, to hear the voice of God speaking to him the truth about himself and about the grace of Jesus Christ. Lewis never became a poet, but he became one of the great prose writers of the twentieth century. Countless people now read what he had to say once he first reluctantly and then wholeheartedly started listening to God’s Word.

         Good talk comes when we first hear the good news that there is a God who loves us and gave His Son Jesus to die for us and then raised Him from the dead. That’s the story that’s at the center of the world. A few years ago Beth and I watched the fantasy film, “Pan’s Labyrinth.” As the film ended we saw a young girl who wanted to be a princess give up her life for her brother and then be raised again. I turned to Beth and said, “There’s really only one story, isn’t there?” We twist it and conceal it and get it wrong, but the story we always end up telling, the story we always want to hear is the good news that God loved us and gave Himself for us so that He could raise us into life with Him.

         That’s why this chapter ends with verse 28, not a “but” statement, not a contrast like so many of these proverbs, but a double affirmation, “In the path of righteousness there is life, in walking its path there is no death.” That’s the story God sowed into the world when He let His Son’s body be planted in the earth. That’s the story which is always worth hearing and always worth telling. Paul tells it again in Romans 8:11, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies…”

         Let His Spirit dwell in you by letting His story dwell in you. Listen to it and tell it often. That’s good talk. That’s how the hymns we’re singing on either side of this sermon invite us to talk to each other. Before I started we sang “Tell Me the Old, Old Story,” asking us to listen to that good talk. Now we’ll sing about good talk to each other and to our world that so much needs to hear it, singing, “I Love to Tell the Story.” May this Story be your Story, may you never get tired of hearing it and never get tired of talking about it.


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

Last updated July 13, 2014