November 9, 2014 - Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
“You can move the
mountain but I’m never coming down.” So goes the song about Harry Randall
Truman who refused to move out of his lodge at the south end of Spirit Lake by M t. St. Helens in the spring of 1980. Beginning in March, volcanic activity
led authorities to try and evacuate everyone in the vicinity. But regardless of
how much he was warned, Harry Truman and his 16 cats refused to leave. When an
earthquake from the volcanic action knocked him out of bed, he just moved his
bed to the basement. No matter what anyone said about an upcoming eruption,
Harry refused to believe it.
On May 18, 1980, Mt. St. Helens exploded and buried Harry, his lodge, and his cats under 150
feet of volcanic debris. It also killed 56 other people in the area. Afterward,
Harry’s sister Geri said, “He was a very opinionated person.” The first verse
of Proverbs 29 fits him to a T: “One who is often reproved, yet remains
stubborn, will suddenly be broken beyond healing.”
I have no idea how
Truman got the way he was, though maybe living through a torpedo attack on the
ship he was on during World War I had something to do with it. But today’s
chapter in Proverbs suggests that at least one way we become dangerously
stubborn, as well as foolish or wicked in other ways, is through bad influence.
As we heard from Proverbs 27 three weeks ago, we can have a good influence on
each other, can motivate one another toward good character. We only briefly
touched on this week’s subject, the fact we can also have a ruinous effect on
those around us.
Much of this chapter
is about how those in power can cause grief for those they rule. Verse 2 tells
us, “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the
wicked rule, the people groan.” Verse 4 picks up that same theme, speaking of
the stability a king brings when he deals in justice, while a ruler who is
greedy and lives off large bribes will ruin it.
You can pick out some
other verses here addressed to kings and how their conduct affects the people
they rule. But sandwiched in between are verses which remind us that almost all
of us have authority in some way, over someone. And how we use that authority,
that influence, or how we let ourselves be influenced, can also cause a lot of
ruin. So we get verse 3, which tells us how a child who loves wisdom makes
parents happy, but one who spends time with and is influenced by prostitutes
wastes all that parents have invested.
We move back and forth
here between public and personal influence. Verse 5 warns that flattery is a
way we personally influence each other for the worse. George may tell Nancy how beautiful she is, only to get her into bed with him. Nancy may tell George how
much she admires his strength, only to get him to buy her gifts. False praise
is a way we bring out the worst in others for our own advantage.
The falsehood of
flattery is taken for granted. After taking a final and before it’s graded you
tell your teacher how much you enjoyed the class. That cute TV detective flirts
with the crusty old desk sergeant to get an unauthorized peek at a file.
Politicians glad hand their way to votes, handing out compliments to anyone and
everyone. And whenever that admiration is merely phony, it’s a trap for those
who hear it.
Proverbs is big on
that image of evil as a trap, a snare. It carries forward in verse 6 and shows
up again in verse 25. At our cabin in Arizona last month I saw evidence that
mice had been there, so I set some traps. Long ago someone taught me to use
peanut butter instead of cheese. I dipped a little dab out of the jar and
spread it on the trigger, then pulled that wire bar back and carefully locked
it into place, ready to fire whenever a little critter was enticed by that
Fortunately for them,
the mice at our cabin were gone by then, or maybe just smarter than we are when
we hear flattery or get enticed by other sorts of evil. None of them bit and
felt that cold metal snap down while I was there. But you and I and others
around us aren’t always that lucky or smart. Under the spell of bad influence
we come to all sorts of grief. And we are trapped.
Think about it. Maybe
someone handed you your first cigarette. Or showed up at the party with a
six-pack. Or asked you for an answer during a test. Or spread out a picture
from a magazine. Or offered you a little kickback. Or said sweet things in the
back of a car. Or told you that everyone does it. Or promised you wouldn’t get
caught. Or made you feel accepted. Or implied that you needed what you only
just wanted. And you never saw the trap ready to spring shut on the back of
your neck. That’s bad influence.
Evil influence comes
in many forms. Verse 8 tells us that scoffing will do the job, will set a
community on fire. Making pointed fun of others and their viewpoints gets
everyone riled up, whether it’s conservatives mocking liberals for their
soft-heads and immorality or liberals scoffing at conservatives for their greed
and lack of compassion. That kind of talk has an influence, but it’s not a good
influence. It’s the kind of influence which verse 9 picks out as the work of
fools, “ranting and ridicule without relief.”
As we are going to see
at the end of the chapter, ultimately there is a great divide between good and
evil, between righteousness and wickedness, between wisdom and foolishness.
Proverbs keeps that division before us as it does in this chapter. Verse 7
divides righteousness and wickedness in relation to justice for the poor. Verse
11 separates the wise and the foolish in regard to how they handle anger. But
verse 13 reminds us that for right now, in the present moment, that divide is
not yet absolute. The righteous and the wicked, the oppressed and the
oppressor, have something in common, “the Lord gives light to the eyes of
both.” That means the light of life. You and I and all those around us,
no matter how good or bad, smart or stupid, are alive by the grace of God.
In our “Slow Church” Sunday School class this morning, we remembered that God is gracious and patient.
God has been at this business of separating out good and evil, wise and
foolish, for a long, long time. And He is in no hurry. He keeps on giving life
to everyone, leaving time and space for each of us to turn one way or the
Reading this chapter,
I thought of C. S. Lewis’s beautiful sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” in which he
talks about the great personal reward of glory which is part of our hope as
Christians. He means the hope that one day we may stand before God and receive
our Lord’s approval, like children receiving the genuine approval of a parent.
But then he acknowledges that there is a danger in focusing too much on being
rewarded and approved. So he says, “It may be possible for each of us to think
too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to
think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor.”
I’d like to paraphrase
that thought from Lewis in regard to how we think about our influence on each
other. It’s perfectly possible for you or I to think too much about how others
are influencing us, to worry excessively about bad influences. That’s the path
to prejudice, segregation and exclusiveness. Worrying about bad influence on us
or our children can make us guard the doors of our church or shut our kids up
in Christian schools or even keep them safe at home so no evil can get to us.
It can give us a spirit totally opposite from our Lord who gives life to
everyone and who came to eat and drink with sinners like us, not concerned
about our bad influence on Him.
We can worry too much
about the influences on us, but like Lewis suggests, we cannot worry too much
about how we influence others around us. In that sermon Lewis went on to point
out that the people around us are the one thing we see that will last forever,
that everyone you see is headed for one of two destinations. He says, “There
are no ordinary people.” And, “the dullest and most uninteresting person
you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly
tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if
at all, only in nightmare.” Then, here’s the key for us today, “All day long we are, in some degree,
helping each other to one or other of these destinations.” In other words, we
are influencing those around us either toward glory or damnation. Which will it
So we get verse 14.
The king who judges with equity, who influences people toward justice and
fairness, will accomplish something that lasts forever in the people around
him. And in verse 15, the mother who offers children good discipline gives them
lasting wisdom, while the mother who neglects a child is going to disgrace
herself in the end.
This chapter keeps
doing that, bouncing back and forth between the influence public authorities
have, like in verse 16, and the smaller, but still powerful personal influence
that happens at home like in verse 17 or between employers and employees in
verse 19 or between friends in several of these verses.
We are influencing each
other, as Lewis says, for good or bad, for glory in the kingdom of God or for the eternal disgrace of not being accepted by the Lord, like those foolish virgins
in our Gospel lesson.
In the meantime, God
gives life to both wise and foolish, wicked and righteous. And we influence
each other. As I’ve said, this chapter is mostly about bad influence, the lack
of discipline in verse 19 or pampered indulgence in verse 21 or anger in verse
22 or pride in verse 23 or simple larceny in verse 24. We should worry about
those bad influences and not let them trap us like mice drawn to peanut butter.
But even more we need to be concerned with offering good influence in the world
Verse 18 is famous for
its mistranslation in the King James Version, the first part of which read,
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” There were dozens of sermons
preached from that verse on the need for visionary leadership, for someone to
hold out a great dream to achieve so that a church or a company or a nation would
stay alive and healthy. We’ve corrected the translation, but leadership gurus
have held onto the idea that all we need is some great vision to which to
aspire and there will be success.
I’ll leave the
leadership strategies to real leaders, but verse 18 says, “Where there is no
prophecy,” no prophetic vision, “the people cast off restraint.” We’d
say they “go wild.” Prophecy is a word from God. It’s the good influence which
the Lord keeps speaking into our lives through Scripture. This verse is calling
us to be good influences by speaking the words of God, by sharing the Good News
of God’s Word with others.
We can be too worried
about those bad influences on us. Verse 25 says, “The fear of others lays a
snare…” Bad influence can be a trap, but constantly being afraid of bad
influence can be another kind of trap, a trap that keeps us from being a good
influence in the lives of our family and friends, and in our community. “The
fear of others lays a snare, but one who trusts in the Lord is secure.” Our security
and our good influence comes from trusting the Lord, trusting in what He says
about our future and our hope.
I don’t know if you
were pleased or disappointed by last Tuesday’s election results. Perhaps some
of both. Maybe you’re thinking along the lines of verse 16, “When the wicked
are in authority, transgression increases,” but that verse goes on, “but the
righteous will look upon their downfall.” God invites us to trust in Him rather
than in anyone we’ve elected or any law we’ve passed. Verse 26 explains, “Many
seek the favor of a ruler, but it is from the Lord that one gets justice.” Good
leaders are fine. Let’s try to elect them if we can. But God wants us to
remember that in the end real justice will come from His throne, not from city
hall or Salem or Washington D.C.
Both our Gospel lesson
from Matthew 25 and the reading from Paul in I Thessalonians 4 point us in that direction, toward our hope in God’s justice rather than the imperfect and
confused justice of this world. In fact, both of those texts teach us what we
read here in the last verse of Proverbs 29, “The unjust are an abomination to
the righteous, but the upright are an abomination to the wicked.”
We are all mixed up in
this together. We influence each other, for good or bad. But in the end, good
and evil, wisdom and foolishness, go their separate ways. Those wise virgins
had oil in their lamps. Well, right now in this world, we and the people around
us are like oil and water shaken up together in a jar. Sometimes we get so
mixed that we can’t tell the difference. It all looks the same, like water is
getting into the oil and oil into the water, like good is evil and evil is good
and we’ll never know which is which.
Yet in the end, like
in parable and in the promise from Paul, the separation happens. The wise
virgins go out to meet the bridegroom and return for the wedding feast. We rise
to meet our Lord in the air, like the oil rising above the water, and then
return to reign with Him forever on earth.
At that time it will
be too late. We won’t be able then to pour any oil into the empty lamps of
people who didn’t pay attention or listen before. But we can do it now. For
anyone we meet, we can pour forth the oil of the Holy Spirit, the healing balm
of God’s grace and love. As Paul urges in verse 18 of Thessalonians,
“Therefore, encourage one another with these words.” Yes, he was talking mostly
to Christians, but we can encourage anyone with the hope of words like that,
the hope that Jesus is bringing justice and new life to this world. We can be a
That’s why we’re here.
God put us here on this corner to be a good influence on this neighborhood. He
didn’t put us here to worry about whether folks around us paint graffiti on our
fence or sell drugs in the breezeway between our buildings. That’s bad. But
that doesn’t need to influence who we are. What they do doesn’t need to change
us. The question is whether we will be God’s good influence to help change
them. By sharing the prophetic vision of grace in Jesus Christ, God can save
them from going wild and change them into His children too.
You have influence. We have influence. We exercise that influence every time we get together and let
this neighborhood know that God is being worshipped. We exercise it when we
open these doors and welcome those who have no shelter when it’s cold. We’ll
exercise our influence this coming Saturday when we walk around and show people
that God is interested in them and in their neighborhood. May the Lord let all
that influence be good, by the grace and love of Jesus Christ.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj