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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
July 23, 2023
Proverbs 1:1-7, 3:1-8
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
I mentioned at the beginning of worship that today we’re starting a short series on Wisdom Literature in the Bible.
And there are three books that fall into that category: Proverbs, which we’re reading today and next week, and which has a more positive or optimistic view of wisdom. Ecclesiastes and Job are the other two, and they have a more questioning or pessimistic view of wisdom. We won’t read from Job this year, but we will read from Ecclesiastes in a few weeks.
Unlike the other books in the Bible, wisdom literature is poetry. And like all poetry, there are layers of meaning in the words and phrases, and it communicates in language that’s directed at the heart as much as it is the head.
The purpose of the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes is character formation. Young adult men were the original audience, so there’s an obvious male-centered perspective in the writings – but that doesn’t make them less valuable for the rest of us.
The book of Proverbs was written specifically to urge young people to do well by doing good; meaning, to have the “good life” by embodying virtues of honesty, hard work, self-control, and above all the fear of the Lord.
And the fear of the Lord doesn’t mean being afraid of God. There isn’t a direct translation from the Hebrew language, but it means truly appreciating who God is in terms of God’s character, God’s will, and God’s actions.
So, when a person has that deep level of appreciation, they fear the Lord, meaning they love the Lord and serve the Lord. They have a God-centered worldview – and a wise person knows this.
So, as the book of Proverbs teaches people how to live, it assumes that God-centered worldview and it addresses the issues of everyday life through that lens – offering knowledge gained through life experience.
Usually when we think of Proverbs, we think of sayings like:
Some pretend to be rich, yet have nothing;
others pretend to be poor, yet have great wealth. (13:7)
Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself. (26:4)
They’re short and to the point. Easily remembered.
But reading Proverbs in the 21st century, the tricky part for us is that the sayings sometimes seem like they’re oversimplifying life. On the surface, they present things as being either this or that, without any middle ground. It divides people into two groups: the wise, who are righteous, and the fools, who are wicked and lost because they’re unethical.
Proverbs also assumes that people automatically get what they deserve. The wise will prosper and enjoy a long, rich life. While fools will suffer and fall. But we know that isn’t always true. We know that in our world good people, wise people, often experience suffering, and the fools sometimes prosper.
But, most of the time, life is both/and. So, when we read this type of writing, it’s important to hold it together with our lived experiences and what’s going on in the world today.
And as we do that, we come to fear the Lord – meaning, we develop the deep appreciation for who God is. And as we do that, and as we work toward living life with a God-centered worldview, the teachings of Proverbs and our life experiences work together to help us find our way forward and build trust in God.
This is laid out for us very plainly in 3:5-6 – Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge God, and God will make straight your paths.
Notice that it doesn’t say, “Believe in the Lord with all your heart…” It says, “Trust.” It’s easy to say, “Yes, I believe in God. I believe God exists.” But to trust in who God is, to live life with a God-centered worldview, is a lot harder.
And as people of faith, that’s what we strive to do in our daily lives – it’s the way we seek to live, which is faithfully.
Faith in God and trust in God are interchangeable because faith is trust. Instead of saying, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart…” the proverb could just as easily say, “Have faith in the Lord with all your heart…”
We talk a lot about our faith in God being developed and deepened and strengthened over time, throughout our lives. Nurturing our faith in God means that we’re nurturing our trust in God. And we know that building trust is a process – it’s developed over time in every relationship, including ours with God.
And as we nurture our trust in God, what we learn is that God walks alongside us, loving us and guiding us. Even when things go sideways. That’s what helps us find our way forward, and that’s what we trust.
Samuel Wells is the vicar of the church St. Martin-in-the-Fields which, despite its name, is in Trafalgar Square in London, England. He shares a story about a man who was hospitalized and diagnosed with autoimmune arthritis, which means his immune system attacked the tissue in his joints.
The man’s condition stabilized after a month and he started to rebuild his life. He went through rehab and physical therapy. He had to learn to walk again. He has developed new strategies for his life. He has learned to depend on others and to accept help. He does a routine of daily exercise. It’s a complete transformation.
His infant daughter learned to walk at the same time he relearned. Like most parents, he thought his job was to teach her, but instead she taught him. He has come to appreciate the smallest gifts; he treasures the people that care for him. He thanks people just for walking with him and is continuing to make progress.
As Rev. Wells shares this story, he talks about the difference between belief and trust. Both are part of faith – but he describes this man’s story as one of trust because trust is rooted more deeply than belief. Trust doesn’t assume that life is about overcoming limitations. Instead, it finds truth, beauty, and friendship in the midst of those limitations.
Trust doesn’t think that if you wave a magic wand, things will change overnight; trust finds companionship with those who are in it with you. Trust is woven together with the exercises and patience it takes to rebuild when things break or are strained. It places all its energies in making relationships that get us through our struggles.
As Christians, our trust in God is our faith in God – our faith in Jesus. Trusting God, trusting Jesus – having faith in them – is what gives us our God-centered worldview. It informs how we respond and react to the world around us, to events in our own lives, and helps us find our way forward through them.
It helps us learn how to love and serve God, and to understand how deeply God loves us. It gives us the space – and the grace – to ask questions of God, and even to be angry at God, when life doesn’t go the way we planned or the way we think it should. Trust sometimes wavers when tragedies happen. And if it ever shatters, it can be rebuilt.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Have faith in the Lord with all your heart. And do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge God, and God will make straight your paths.
In our lives as people of faith, as we strive to live faithfully, these are the words we live by. All of the other proverbs and wisdom writings are rooted in them.
As we live these words, as we nurture our trust in God, we learn that God walks alongside us, loving us and guiding us. Even when things go sideways – and especially then. That’s what helps us find our way forward, and that’s what we trust. Thanks be to God! Amen.