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

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Proverbs 29
“Bad Influence”
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 delicious smell.

         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 other.

         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.”[1]

         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.”[2] 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 be?

         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 around us.

         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 good influence.

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

[1] The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 14.

[2] Ibid., p. 15.

Last updated November 9, 2014