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

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Proverbs 21
“Good Direction”
September 14, 2014 - Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

         Who will get the water? That’s the question which is already acute in California and our southwestern states, and is becoming more of an issue even here in Oregon, where we seem to have water everywhere we look. Over the last hundred years human beings have made major alterations in how and where water flows. Most of Oregon’s rain falls here on the western half of the state, but 80% of the water we take is used for irrigation. And most irrigation happens in eastern Oregon.

         In other words, we’ve made water flow where we want it. But with less rainfall and ground water drying up, it’s harder to come to agreement about where it should go. Farmers, ranchers, supporters of fish and wildlife, industry, Native Americans and ordinary household users all have an interest in water. So who decides where it will go?

         Comparable to the way we build dams and change the courses and beds of natural streams, verse 1 of Proverbs 21 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” God decides which direction the human heart will turn. And it’s not just rulers. Verse 2 reminds us that while everyone thinks what he or she does is right, God discerns the inner motivations, the heart behind those actions.

         Skip down to verses 30 and 31, and you find a double affirmation of God’s role directing the flow and the end of our actions. Verse 30 says it strongly, “No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel, can avail against the Lord.” The courses of our lives, even the feelings of our hearts, flow where God wants them to go, when we let them.

         Scripture, reason and human experience all teach us we have free-will. God made us able to make key, crucial decisions about the directions we take in life. He does not predestine those choices. He lets us make them freely. From Joshua’s “Choose this day whom you will serve” to Jesus asking a sick man whether he wanted to be healed, we see God allowing us to turn toward Him or away from Him. Proverbs itself offers us basic choices between wisdom and foolishness, between righteousness and wickedness.

         Jesus’ parable in our Gospel lesson shows us a king whose heart is turned in God’s direction as he forgives the huge debt of one of his servants, fifteen years wages, hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet that forgiven servant fails to let his own heart be turned and demands payment from a fellow servant for a much smaller amount, a hundred days wages, maybe a few thousand dollars. That unforgiving servant finds himself back in hot water with the king, who cancels his forgiveness and sends him off to be tortured.

         Verse 3 in Proverbs 21 is the basic direction God wants to turn us. “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.” In the parable, the  servant sacrificed his pride, begged forgiveness, and received the mercy he needed. But what mattered was what he turned and did as a forgiven person. He failed to show that same kind of mercy to someone else, to act righteously and justly in relation to a fellow servant. Verse 27 near the end of our chapter from Proverbs echoes the same idea, “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination; how much more when brought with evil intent.”

         God looks at the heart and He knows when we only worship Him and beg His forgiveness so that we can go away and say and do more wrong which hurts others. That kind of sacrifice, that kind of worship, is an abomination, a total perversion of true worship and sacrifice offered with a heart willing to be turned in God’s direction.

         That’s why verse 4 says, “Haughty eyes and a proud heart—the lamp of the wicked—are sin.” If your eyes look down on others, if your heart is turned proudly toward yourself, then the light inside you, however bright it is, is shining in the wrong direction, pointing you toward sin. Skip down to verse 10 and there is Jesus’ parable in a nutshell, “The souls of the wicked desire evil; their neighbors find no mercy in their eyes.”

         Glance down through it and see how much of this chapter of Proverbs we can read in terms of our choice of direction, whether we will go the way God wants us to turn us, or whether we will cling in pride and sin to our own direction. The next four verses all point to the disastrous consequences of going our own wicked way, whether that’s simply by lack of planning as in verse 5 or by active deceit in verse 6.

         That picture of water flowing where God turns it brings to mind the pictures you may have seen of flooding in Phoenix Monday. Cars bobbed around in deep water covering I-10, a major interstate highway that runs through the city. In Tucson one woman died when her car was swept away by a flash flood. That’s how verse 7 pictures where violence gets you. Those who go in that direction will be swept away by their refusal “to do what is just.”

         Verse 8 sums up, “The way of the guilty is crooked, but the conduct of the pure is right.” Turning our own way, turning away from God, means the spring of our lives will flow in a devious, crooked path. Think about how our thoughts turn when we’ve been lying or acting mean. We keep looking for a way to justify ourselves, to turn it into something good, when the truth we need to admit is that we’ve gone the wrong direction. It’s much better to put our hearts back in the hand of God and let Him turn them down the straight, pure path.

         We come to the first of two verses that make us chuckle, but don’t seem to have much to do with our theme of good direction. Verse 9 says, “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious wife.” Verse 19 amplifies it. “It is better to live in a desert land than with a contentious and fretful wife.” Either way, the point is that you are better off by yourself than with a constantly quarrelsome spouse. It’s a note we’ve already heard and that is going to come back yet again in Proverbs.

         Let’s remember here that Proverbs is addressed at the beginning to a young man, just starting to find his way in the world. So it makes good sense that part of the advice offered is about what to look for in marriage. As amusing as all these contentious wife verses are, they make the solid point that a person considering marriage ought to consider more than a person’s physical attraction or financial resources. Ask which direction your life is turning.

         Beth and I watched the film “Nebraska” a few nights ago. It’s about an old man named Woody Grant who thinks he’s won a million dollars because he received one of those ridiculous magazine sweepstakes letters that starts out, “You are a winner!” He wants to travel from Billings, Montana back to his home state of Nebraska to redeem his winnings, because the magazine company’s office is in Lincoln.

         One thorn in the old man’s flesh is his feisty battleaxe of a wife, who constantly tells him he’s an old fool and an idiot and that if she had a million dollars she’d put him in a “home” where he belongs. You kind of feel sorry for the poor guy and wish he could retreat to a corner of the housetop. But we also learn that he’s pretty much made for himself the marriage bed in which he lies. He’s been a drinker from his youngest years, and he passed up a kinder girl he had dated before his wife because he wanted someone who would “let him get round the bases,” as the other woman now tells his son.

         There’s a bit of redemption for Woody in the film and even his crusty wife shows him a moment of tenderness and comes to his defense against his relatives. But we can also see that the way of life Woody chose landed him in the marriage he’s got, and that his own drinking, and his failure to show love to his family, are at least partly responsible for the way his wife now talks to him and treats him.

         So we can laugh with verses 9 and 19 at a pitiful man with a shrew of a wife, but we also need to hear the warning and lesson here about the deep and intimate consequences, which appear even in our homes, when we let our hearts turn away from God and toward pleasure or wealth or violence.

         We’ve already mentioned verse 10, so let’s move on to verse 11 and several following verses which tell us that turning in the wrong direction will lead to another sort of turn, a reversal of fortune orchestrated by God. Verse 11 tells us that the scoffer’s punishment only makes the “simple,” the person willing to learn, wiser. And verse 12 paints the big picture that the Righteous One, who is God, has got His eye on “the house of the wicked,” and He will bring the wicked to ruin.

         Verse 13 points out that if you fail to be generous and help the poor, you may someday find the situation reversed. When you need help, no one will listen. Verse 15 says that real justice will bring dismay to those who do evil, and verse 16 tells us that wandering away from “the way of understanding” will land you in the company of the dead.

         We get a clear reversal in verse 17 where we hear that those who love pleasure are going to end up lacking what they need, and that those who like their drink and rich food too much are going to end up poor. Verse 18 talks about ransom, which means a payment to take the place of a person. So the wicked become a ransom for the righteous. Rashi, one of the medieval Jewish commentators, pointed out how in the book of Esther the wicked Haman winds up on the gallows he prepared for the righteous Mordecai. In Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus, the wicked rich man who enjoyed things in this life now suffers for eternity while a poor man lives peacefully in God’s presence.

         We skipped verse 14 which talks about a secret gift and concealed bribes, that they can be useful in placating anger and averting wrath. This is a saying like one or two of Jesus’ parables where there is a lesson to be learned even in a wrong practice like bribery. Major crossroads in our lives depend on what we do with the gifts we’ve received, whether it’s talent or intelligence or inheritance or simple good luck. Will we use those gifts in ways that turn away God’s anger or which invite that anger?

         Verse 20 says, “Precious treasure remains in the house of the wise, but the fool devours it.” We’ve been given precious gifts by God. You may have good health or good looks or a good mind. Are you going to simply devour those gifts, getting what you can out of them? Or will you use them wisely, putting them into the service of the Lord and of others? One way is the path to ruin, the other way the path to peace and real happiness.

         The verses to come, 21 to 29, move back and forth between those two directions. The first three point in the good direction, with 21 declaring that righteousness and kindness leads to life and honor. Then verse 22 tells a little story about one wise person conquering a city of warriors. Verse 23 gives you the very simple advice that watching what you say will keep you out of trouble.

         Going the other way, verse 24 puts the label “Scoffer” on the person who acts out of foolish pride, while 25 repeats yet again the danger of laziness, especially laziness combined with craving. It’s fatal.

         Verse 26 shows us the two directions diverging around the issue of generosity. Those who are wicked covet. They just want more and more. On the other hand, the righteous willingly give away what they have.

         We’ve already paired verse 27 up with verse 3 at the beginning so we go on to see the two roads forking again. In verse 28, those who testify falsely, those who lie, are headed for their doom, while those who listen well offer a successful testimony. In verse 29 we see wicked people trying to put a bold face on their wrong actions, while the person going the other way is give careful thought to that direction.

         The main and primary direction in which God wants to turn us is the direction He’s always going. Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18 about the king who is ready to forgive even a huge debt is about how God does things. Our psalm today, Psalm 103, says “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” and that “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.”

         God’s direction is mercy and loving compassion. Proverbs talks about ransom and gifts and precious treasure. God sent us good gifts by the merciful love of Jesus Christ who gave His life a ransom for us, who rose to give us the gift of eternal life, and who sends to us the precious treasure of His own presence through the Holy Spirit. All He asks of us is turn our hearts and lives in the same direction He is going, to turn toward mercy and kindness.

         That’s why Paul in our lesson from Romans 14 tells us not to judge each other regarding things that make no difference, like whether we eat meat or vegetables or what day and time we worship. “God has welcomed them,” he says, welcomed all of us by His mercy and forgiveness. Who then are we, not to show each other the same sort of mercy?

         The difference in direction is the difference between aiming your life at yourself, at your own pleasure and comfort and success, and aiming your life where our Lord aims it, at love and mercy toward those around you. So Romans 14:7 and 8 says that for Christians, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord.” Our direction is toward God, not toward ourselves. That’s why Jesus came. That’s why Paul goes on to say, “For to this end,” to this direction, “Christ died and lived again, so that he might Lord of both the dead and the living.”

         I had a conversation with an atheist this week. In the course of it I asked, “What do you make of moral monsters like those ISIS people?” He brought me up short when he replied, “I’m not sure it’s helpful to call anyone a monster. Maybe there is more we could learn about why they do what they do, and be more understanding and forgiving.” Here was a non-believer reminding me of God’s direction, of the Gospel direction, of the fact that God has mercy for anyone who will turn to Him, and that He wants us to head in that same direction, to have that same mercy, no matter how bad anyone seems to us.

         We already mentioned the last two verses as indications that God is turning our lives in the direction He wants. Verse 30 tells us there’s nothing we can do about it, and verse 31 reminds us not to think that we or the world will get better because of our own efforts. The Lord is behind and above it all and His direction is the flow of mercy, the flow that poured out most fully and wonderfully in the blood of Jesus on the Cross. He’s inviting us to step into that flow and be carried along in His mercy as we show mercy to each other.

         It was reported this week that lava from the Kilauea volcano on the big island of Hawaii may be slowly approaching a residential area. It’s going to cross a road. A new road is being built around it so people won’t be cut off. But other than that there is nothing anyone can do. That hot, liquid rock is going to go wherever it is headed. That’s the love and mercy of God. We may try to skirt around it and dodge it for awhile, but eventually it will arrive where we live. Then the only question will be whether we are ready to accept it and join in it or whether we’re just going to be burned by it. My prayer and hope for us all is that we will live and move in God’s direction, and be people of grace and mercy.


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

Last updated September 14, 2014