Sermon (Cromer, 27/7/17)
What is there that you just have to have, though it cost you everything? Would you say, ‘Understanding’? That’s what Proverbs 4:7 says: ‘Wisdom is supreme, therefore get wisdom. Though it cost you all you have, get understanding.’ The message of most of this chapter is simply this: listen to my instruction, so that you can become wise and understanding – these are the most important things in life.
But are they? I guess most of us wouldn’t naturally talk about instruction, wisdom and understanding in this way. What lies behind it? What is God saying to us? How can this teaching help us?
Let’s look at these things in a bit more detail. As we do so, note that these words are given to all who can read them: this instruction, wisdom and understanding are within the reach of all of us, not just the brainy or well educated. So what are they?
This passage begins with a father’s instructions to his son – this teaching wasn’t from any school or college, it happened within the family. As a father passed on his knowledge and skill to his sons so they could continue the family farm or business, so he also passed on his instructions for living, especially for living in relationship with God. Part of our investment in families must surely be to equip them to help children grow in their knowledge of God and his ways, whatever their intellectual abilities.
Wisdom is skill in living, knowing how to make the best of each situation we find ourselves in. The word could be used for skill in doing your work; but it was particularly concerned with doing the right thing in the eyes of God. Two weeks ago Derek Osborne was telling us about Proverbs 3:5,6: ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.’ Note that this skill in living is something that God gives, and he can give it to anybody – so James tells us in his letter that if we’re having problems knowing what to do, ask God for wisdom. And trust him to give it to us.
Understanding is making sense of it all, so that we have some idea about why the instruction or guidance God gives is good for us. That doesn’t mean we should have all the answers. We’ve been looking after a five month old puppy, and I imagine that as he lives with us he hasn’t a clue what’s going on most of the time. Yet we can see that he is growing in doggy understanding, and knows full well that certain noises and activity means a meal for him is on its way, and that if his master is sitting at his computer it’s not a good time to ask to play. As far as our relationship with God is concerned, we cannot expect to understand all he is doing – as Paul wrote, ‘Oh the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgements, and his paths beyond tracing out!’ But we can understand a good deal. Paul wrote in Colossians 2, ‘My purpose is that… they may have the full riches of complete understanding.‘
This understanding is not merely so that we can satisfy our curiosity. Listen to what Paul said in Colossians 1: ‘We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way.’ (Colossians 1:9,10) God gives us wisdom and understanding so that we can know his will and live a life that pleases him. Isn’t that more important than anything else? We are made in the image of God, so we can relate to him in a way that is deeper than that of any other creature in heaven or on earth. Knowing God, knowing his will, pleasing him – that is life in all its fulness. That is why instruction, wisdom and understanding are so important. Let’s seek it from God, whatever the cost!
But where should we look for it?
Listen to my instruction, says the writer. We have an amazing privilege: that teaching, and all the spiritual instruction we need, is available to us in this book (the Bible). If we really want wisdom, if we really want to know God’s will and learn to honour and please Jesus in every way, then let’s see what God says to us in the Bible. When we know and are putting into practice everything God wants us to know, then we can stop looking. Anybody got there yet? But there is more. Paul told the Colossians that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ. As he wrote to the Corinthians, ‘You are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”’ It is Jesus who leads us into fulness of life, when we are united to him through faith.
There’s a lot more to think about in that, but I want to turn now to the last few verses of the chapter, verses 23 to 27.
v 23: ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the well-spring of life.’ This isn’t about low cholesterol diets: the heart in this context is the real you, the centre of your personality, your inner being. The ancients weren’t too concerned about the functions of our different internal organs. We would say that our brains were responsible for our thinking and deciding; the people in Bible times tended to locate our feeling and thinking in our hearts or stomachs or kidneys! But the point is this: as water springs from a well that reaches the water table, so our desires, motives, thoughts, decisions, words and deeds come from our heart, our inner being. The heart is the well-spring of life. Jesus tells us that we’re not polluted by what we eat, but by what comes from out of our hearts – evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. We have some control over our hearts: we can open our hearts to God or to each other; we can harden our hearts. But only God can truly change our hearts, and the Bible tells us that is exactly what God wants to do. Jeremiah prophesied that God would make a new covenant, in which he would write his laws in our hearts. Ezekiel prophesied that God would take out our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh.
When Jesus came, he promised those who believe in him that out of their inner being would flow rivers of living water – the Holy Spirit. God has shone his light into our hearts, he has sent his Spirit into our hearts. However, even if Christ is in us by his Spirit, our inner being can easily be tempted into wrong thoughts and desires and decisions: so Jesus taught us to pray, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. We have to guard our hearts, however spiritual we are.
How? I suggest, by keeping on the armour of God, and keeping an eye on what comes in and out of our hearts. Most of us are familiar with Paul’s description of the armour of God, based on Roman armour: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the footwear of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, and prayer. Notice especially the breastplate over our heart – it is righteousness, not our own, but Christ’s righteousness which he give us to wear. We are righteous in God’s eyes because of our trust in Jesus, so his Spirit can happily live in us: don’t be deceived into thinking otherwise. Jesus promised to be with us always – believe he is with us, he is in us, and let him be Lord of our hearts and lives: let the breastplate of his righteousness be the shape we grow into. Make it our aim to please him in all we do – that is the most effective guard for our hearts.
We need also to notice what comes in and goes out of our hearts. Verse 24 tells us to watch what we say – ‘Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.’ Jesus says to us, ‘The mouth speaks what the heart is full of… I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’ (Matt 12:36). How do your words measure up? Are they full of meaningless ‘Oh my God’? Or negativity – criticism rather than encouragement? Do we spread gossip and rumours? Or is your speech always gracious, building people up rather than putting them down? What is your heart full of? Fill it with the Holy Spirit!
Verse 25 tells us to pay attention to what we look at. ‘Let your eyes look straight ahead, fix your gaze directly before you.’ Many temptations come through the eye gate – sexualized images that portray people as objects for lust rather than as human beings loved by God, violence that glorifies brutality, merchandise dressed up to promote covetousness. In this world we can’t help noticing these things; but what matters is what we do next: do we refuse them a second glance, or do we look again and enjoy the attractiveness of the temptation? All temptations use what is good to tempt us to evil. Let us not give those temptations a chance.
Verses 26 and 27 encourage us to keep to the narrow path that leads to life. Don’t take the first step that leads you astray! And if you hear that spiritual sat-nav voice that says, ‘Please make a U-turn’ then don’t hesitate – do it at once!
I suspect there may be some people here who really need to listen to that advice. There is something particular in your life that should not be part of it, if Christ is in your heart. You know what it is. Deal with it now – turn round, go back onto the path Jesus wants you to walk, and don’t look back! As verse 18 says, ‘The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.’ May that be your experience from now on.