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
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
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
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
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
Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj