August 3, 2014 - Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
“Annual income twenty
pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness.
Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six,
result misery.” That’s the so-called “Micawber Principle,” propounded by one of
Charles Dickens’ most loveable characters, the irrepressible, verbose, and
constantly in debt Wilkins Micawber. In short, he tells us that if you spend
less than you make, you will be happy. Spend more than you take in and you will
Mr. Micawber totally
fails to live by his own principle. Throughout the novel David Copperfield,
Micawber lives beyond his means. At one point he and his family land in
debtor’s prison. Yet he is almost never miserable. He is nearly always happy.
Despite his famous principle, this amusing man has a depth, a resource of
happiness that extends well beyond his meager income.
And that fits very
well with the words which begin our reading from Proverbs today, chapter 15,
verse 13, “A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance.” It’s not your spending
habit, it’s not a positive balance in your checkbook which produces happiness,
which brings a smile to your face. It’s a “glad heart.” Cheerfulness arises out
of what is inside us.
The contrast in the
second half of verse 13 is that “by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken.” It’s
not red ink which produces misery. It’s something in your heart, in your soul,
in your mind which makes you unhappy. And the next verse gives us a clue to
what that is.
Verse 14 tells us,
“The mind of the one who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of
fools feed on folly.” The contrast is between the person who seeks out truth
and lives on it, as opposed to the person who accepts foolishness and tries to
live on it. We can connect the two verses and conclude that when you seek and
hold onto the truth about yourself and the world, you will have a deep inner
happiness. But if you accept and believe all the foolish lies we often tell
ourselves, you will end up broken in spirit.
We see Mr. Micawber
again in verse 15, the verse on the front of your bulletin. “All the days of
the poor are hard, but a cheerful heart has a continual feast.” Again, there’s
that good cheer which sits deeper inside us than our financial circumstances,
deeper than all that’s going on around us. We can be in the worst of situations
and still be filled good cheer. Mr. Micawber’s wife has to sell possessions
just to buy food, but he is always ready to mix a bowl of punch and celebrate
Please hang on. This
is deep wisdom. Proverbs is telling us something more than what one commentator
finds here. Somehow he took Solomon to be telling us, “Life may be hard, but
try to adopt a cheery attitude.” That’s his words. Sure, life is hard—you are
poor, you’ve been abused, you have cancer, your child has died, your house is
being bombed—but just try to be cheerful anyway. No! That’s not what
Proverbs is trying to tell us.
The good cheer of
Proverbs, which we will see again in chapter 17 is not just whistling in the
dark. It’s not just trying to put a good face on bad situations, not just
trying to look for the silver lining when the clouds gather. Mr. Micawber can
sound like that. Whenever he is in dire straits, whenever the creditors come
calling, he always says the same thing, “Something will turn up!” That’s his
creed, his faith. “Something will turn up.” And that can sound as silly as that
Bible scholar made verse 15, “Life may be hard, but try to adopt a cheery
attitude.” But that’s not what Proverbs means and it’s not what Micawber means.
You see, the writer of
Proverbs and the writer of David Copperfield live in the same universe.
And we see that universe in the next verse. The meat of that continual feast
which the cheerful heart enjoys is the food which God provides. So we read in
verse 16, “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord, than great treasure
and trouble with it.” We focused last week on that overarching theme of Proverbs.
The fear of God is the foundation of a good and wise life. So even a tiny meal
in a home where the Lord is revered is better than great treasure in a house troubled
by sin. Dickens was a Christian and believed that too.
These cheerful heart
verses in Proverbs and the optimism of Mr. Micawber only sound silly if you
don’t read enough of the Bible or enough of Dickens. But do what verse 14 says
and seek understanding and you see that a world where God rules is in fact a
world where something will turn up, a world where you can be cheerful even in
poverty and hardship.
With God there, a
little really is better than much. So in the next verse, a dish of humble
vegetables is more of a feast where God’s love is than a roasted ox where there
is hatred and strife. Even if you don’t know where your next meal is coming
from, something will turn up, and that something is Someone. God will turn up.
We see it happen
literally and visibly in our Gospel lesson today. People come out to hear Jesus
preach and be healed by Him. They seek understanding and knowledge, but now
they are hungry. And all there is to feed a crowd of thousands is five little
loaves of bread and two fish. No fatted ox, not even any vegetables. But
“better is a little with the fear of the Lord,” and “something will turn up.”
And there in Jesus God turns up. In compassion and love He provides a feast
where no one goes hungry and there are even leftovers.
This is the kind of
world in which the Bible and Dickens tell us we live. This is not the cold,
empty, uncaring universe atheists try to foist on us. This is a world where a
God of love is always there above and around always near us. It’s not stupid to
be cheerful when things are hard, or to look for something good to turn up,
because we fear and trust in a Lord who can make that happen, who has and will
turn up when we need Him most.
That’s why we need to
keep behaving like people who live in God’s world, instead of people who live
in a hopeless universe without God. You can see all these proverbs here getting
at that. Verse 18 tells us not to stir up strife with hot tempers, but to be
slow to anger. Verse 19 reminds us not to be lazy, but to keep doing what is
right. Verse 20 calls for being good children who make our parents happy. And
verse 21 points out that “folly” will make some people happy, but a person of
real understanding “walks straight ahead.”
As a talk by Gary
Habermas suggests, Proverbs and Dickens are calling us to keep telling
ourselves the truth about our world and about God. Yes, life is hard. Horrible
things can happen. We can be filled with doubt and fear, and wonder if God is
even really there or if He really loves us, really cares about us. Feelings of
despair can take over hearts and drive out good feelings of His love and grace.
That’s when we need to hang onto the wisdom Proverbs teaches, hang onto what we
know and let it rule over what we feel.
Habermas connects the
cognitive behavior therapy of Albert Ellis with C. S. Lewis’s call to be
obstinate in our belief, in our faith in God, even when we don’t feel like it. Keep
telling ourselves the truth about God and His love for us in Jesus, even when
we are full of sadness and doubt. And verse 23 here says, “To make an apt
answer is a joy to anyone, and a word in season, how good it is!”
Mr. Micawber keeps
telling himself, “something will turn up,” and as Christians we keep telling
ourselves that Christ Jesus our Lord will turn up. We will say it to each other
as we prepare for Communion today, “he will come to judge the quick and the
dead,” and “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.” He will turn up. Repeating those truths is our Christian cognitive therapy. It
makes us optimistic when all seems lost. It gives us cheerful hearts which can
enjoy a feast even when we’re going hungry.
The good cheer to
which Proverbs, to which the Gospel calls us, is not just trying to have a
cheerful attitude. It’s reality therapy. It’s a solid return to the reality
that God is the Lord of your world, even though it may not feel like it at the
All the ethical
admonitions we find in Proverbs, like the ones here in verses 25 to 29, warning
us against pride and evil plans and unjust gain and evil speech, are part of
that same picture of reality. God will turn up. Christ will come again to judge
the living and the dead. Evil actions will be punished and good will be
rewarded. That’s the kind of universe we live in, not an empty cosmos which
does not care how we treat each other.
Proverbs tells us to
be cheered up in the truth, in the knowledge and understanding that is fear and
belief and love of God. Injustice will be judged. Our Lord will come to save
and reward those Christians driven from their homes in Iraq, those Christian girls captured by Boko Haram, those Chinese Christians whose churches
are being torn down. God’s judgment on all that is the final reality, not the
pain and the suffering.
True good cheer is
meant to make us truly good people, people who live in and by the truth. That’s
how things changed for Mr. Micawber. It seemed something had finally turned up
when he was employed by a man named Uriah Heep. But he found he could not be
cheerful, he could not look the other way when he discovered his employer was
cheating people. He kept the truth from his friends and family, even from his
wife for awhile, but she knew something was wrong. And he knew he lived in a
universe where verse 27 is true, that “those who are greedy for unjust gain
make trouble for their households.”
Overcome by his
conscience Micawber arranged a confrontation and exposed Heep to all who had
been affected. He admitted his part in it all. He knew he would lose his job
and he feared he would lose his family. Yet his wife immediately forgave him
and welcomed him into her arms. And so he shouts, “Welcome misery, welcome
houselessness, welcome hunger, rags, tempest and beggar! Mutual confidence will
sustain us to the end!” And then he tried to get them all to go out in the
street and sing a chorus together.
But in Dickens’ world,
which is a world with God in it, the second part of verse 27 is also true,
“those who hate bribes will live.” A benefactor sends Micawber and his family
off to Australia in the fresh hope that something would turn up there. And it
did. Micawber did well in that new continent, paid off all his old debts, and
became a respected magistrate.
But of course you will
say, that’s just fiction. Things don’t always turn out well in the real world.
Boko Haram is not going to release those girls. The ISIS Muslims will never
give the Christians of Mosul back their homes and land. Someone you love may
not get well, and all of us have troubles. But Wilkins Micawber expressed
Charles Dickens’ faith that life does end well for those who trust in
God and do what is right. There is a God and He will turn up and bring justice
to this earth.
We aren’t cheerful
because everything always goes right. We are cheerful because when we do what
is right, then we can count on God to uphold us and defend us. We can be
cheerful because the reality behind all reality is God who loves us, God who
comes to us in Jesus, who cares for us, who will take care of us in the end.
That’s why verse 30
says, “The light of the eyes rejoices the heart, and good news refreshes the
body.” When we open our eyes to the reality of God’s light shining into our
world in Jesus, when we listen to the good news of His grace, that is joy and
refreshment for body and soul. That good news is truly good cheer.
It’s enough to cheer
up tens of thousands of Christians in South Sudan. Our latest World Relief
report says we have 365 churches there, among the poorest people in the world.
They grow just by getting together and raising cheerful voices in song. People
hear the singing and come and join them. Jim Sundholm tells how one Christian
village had been warned by authorities to cancel Christmas worship. If they
gathered they would be bombarded by mortar fire. They celebrated anyway,
marching around their village in joy for the birth of their Savior. And as they
marched and sang with mortar shells exploding around them, not one person was
That’s the kind of
good cheer for which we have to keep going back to the source, to the truth and
good news that God is there and that He has come into our world, and will come
into our lives. That’s why the last few verses of this chapter are about
heeding admonition and accepting instruction. We all need to hear it again and
again, to let the good news sink deep into us, so that we can be cheerful when
the bombs are falling or just when the car won’t start.
The last verse, verse
33, takes us one more time to the heart of it all. “The fear of the Lord is
instruction in wisdom.” But then it adds, “and humility goes before honor.” It
all fits together, being humble enough to accept correction and instruction,
being humble enough to be content with fewer possessions, being humble enough
to eat a simple meal rather than always wanting a feast. Living humbly is
another form of Christian cognitive therapy. It’s another way we teach
ourselves the truth that we can count on God.
So we have a feast. It
feels little. It’s a tiny scrap of bread and a little cup of grape juice. Yet
in it and around it and through it comes the living reality of a Savior who
died so that we could be forgiven, and who rose again so that we could have an
abundant and, yes, cheerful life in Him. When we come to His Table, our Lord
turns up again for us, just like He did for those hungry people by the Sea of Galilee. We eat and drink this little feast and we are cheerful, because we know He
is here. We know it’s true.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj