Sermon preached by the Reverend Eleanor Rance at the Benefice Service at the church of St Thomas à Becket, Tilshead, on Sunday 1st February
I want to look at this passage in Proverbs for a little while, and I think it will help if I give you the background to it first of all. Proverbs 1 to 9 is a separate part of the book of Proverbs that explains to us the difference between the way of life led with God, and one led with no reference to him. The whole passage is spoken to a young man about to go out into the world, and as he prepares to take control of his life, the teacher warns him about the choices he will have to make. It uses a very clever image to do this because as an example, he is presented with two women. One is Wisdom and the other Folly.
Folly is described as the one who will seduce him with her sweet speech, her ideas of great pleasure and momentary happiness. In the passage leading up to the one we heard this morning, she has called the young man into her house at twilight. She says ‘I’ve prepared my room with beautiful fabrics and sweet perfumes, my husband is away on business, we are free to enjoy ourselves…’
And on the surface we might laugh at the stupid boy who runs after this woman and ruins his life and his standing in society. But of course the book wants us to use that image as an example. What is really going on? The boy is looking for the momentary pleasures. The woman has flattered him, she has enticed him. He hasn’t stopped to think about where his actions will lead, what they will mean for the rest of his life.
A life lead as a fool is a life where we wander from one momentary, temporary pleasure to the next. It is a life that glides over the surface and ignores what’s going on deep inside. It is a way of life that is very tempting, that often doesn’t seem to hurt anyone else. And yet, in the long run the book tells us, it leads to destruction and death. It is not a setting in which things can take root and grow in us. It is not a lifestyle that has space for God.
But the boy is offered another way of life. And in the example, this is reflected in the figure of Wisdom. Here, in the passage we heard this morning, Wisdom makes her speech to the boy. Instead of trying to seduce him like Folly, Wisdom talks about the greater scheme of things. She calls him to follow her, because she can show him the path of life. She was there at the beginning of time, she is joined to God; she was like a child delighting in the creation of the world and of humanity. And her guidance leads people to God.
And this image tells us to look at life in a very different way. Rather than looking at the surface pleasures it tells us to look back to the very beginning- not simply of our own lives, but of creation itself. We came into being because God wanted us, and delighted in us. And that new life that was set spinning by God continues to need God to grow and develop and flourish. Wisdom points us back to our creator, Wisdom points us back to the beginning of all things. And without that source of life found in God, even the most exciting achievements that the world can offer will finally fall away and be able to offer us no more fulfillment.
Wisdom tells us to look for life in the presence of God; to commit our plans to him, to make decisions and have visions of our lives with him in the centre.
It is implicit in this message and a belief central to our church that as we approach our plans with God’s guidance, we may also find ourselves in the place that Wisdom describes for herself- like a child dancing with joy at the beginning of time, sharing in God’s new work of creation. And God’s presence within us means that we may be content and at peace as we look toward new things. We are not suddenly filled with great ability, but we learn to step forward looking for God’s will, his assurance and at peace with the sense that he is in control.
So the book of Proverbs presents us with a choice, do we look for superficial pleasure or do we seek God’s way? And it reminds us that the wise will chose the latter.
Well that’s all well and good. But I reckon we are rather more like the stupid young boy than we would like to imagine – I certainly am. I’m sure we have all at some point in our lives battled to have our own way, to make things fit our plans. We have perhaps fought to make a move possible, a new job, a career move, a relationship work, when deep down we have known that this is not God’s will for us, that in the end, it will not cause us to flourish, but to suffer and to be miserable. We have all gone after the surface things, and lost our way. So this passage could be rather depressing. Because here the onus is very much on the individual- it’s up to us to make the choices. And we know that we are vulnerable and bound sometimes to get it wrong.
The wonderful thing is of course, that God knows that too. And he isn’t watching us make a mess from a distance. He is knocking on the door longing for us to let him make things right. So the passage in Proverbs leads us part of the way reminding us what choices we should make, but we mustn’t forget that God is involved in our lives too, longing to help us and guide us.
So as we reflect on our life with God, perhaps we need to acknowledge our tendency to do our own thing, to look for the surface pleasures and securities, and ignore God’s plan for us. But we need also to be more aware of that overwhelming love of God who knows our weaknesses and will forgive us when we have been self-obsessed, greedy, conceited, when we have found ourselves far from him, and from his plans for us.
Because in God the dead ends become merely closed chapters in an ongoing story. In God the world’s pressures fall away into the background. In God our mistakes are dealt with, over, forgotten. In God, the stupid boy that we all try to hide is offered another chance to be wise and seek the path of life.
The passage from Proverbs…
The False Attractions of Adultery
Chapter 7: My child, keep my words and store up my commandments with you; keep my commandments and live, keep my teachings as the apple of your eye; bind them on your fingers, write them on the tablet of your heart. Say to wisdom, ‘You are my sister’, and call insight your intimate friend, that they may keep you from the loose woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words.
For at the window of my house I looked out through my lattice, and I saw among the simple ones, I observed among the youths, a young man without sense, passing along the street near her corner, taking the road to her house in the twilight, in the evening, at the time of night and darkness.
Then a woman comes towards him, decked out like a prostitute, wily of heart. She is loud and wayward; her feet do not stay at home; now in the street, now in the squares, and at every corner she lies in wait. She seizes him and kisses him, and with impudent face she says to him:
‘I had to offer sacrifices, and today I have paid my vows; so now I have come out to meet you, to seek you eagerly, and I have found you! I have decked my couch with coverings, coloured spreads of Egyptian linen; I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. Come, let us take our fill of love until morning; let us delight ourselves with love. For my husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey. He took a bag of money with him; he will not come home until full moon.’
With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him. Right away he follows her, and goes like an ox to the slaughter, or bounds like a stag towards the trap until an arrow pierces its entrails. He is like a bird rushing into a snare, not knowing that it will cost him his life.
And now, my children, listen to me, and be attentive to the words of my mouth. Do not let your hearts turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths. For many are those she has laid low, and numerous are her victims. Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death.
The Gifts of Wisdom
Chapter 8: Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: ‘To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.
O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it.
Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right; for my mouth will utter truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips. All the words of my mouth are righteous; there is nothing twisted or crooked in them. They are all straight to one who understands and right to those who find knowledge.
Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.
I, wisdom, live with prudence, and I attain knowledge and discretion. The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate. I have good advice and sound wisdom; I have insight, I have strength.
By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; by me rulers rule, and nobles, all who govern rightly.
I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me. Riches and honour are with me, enduring wealth and prosperity. My fruit is better than gold, even fine gold, and my yield than choice silver.
I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice, endowing with wealth those who love me, and filling their treasuries.
Wisdom’s Part in Creation
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth – when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.
‘And now, my children, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways. Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it. Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors.
For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favour from the Lord; but those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death.’