Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Knowing this beautiful new banner was coming, I’ve been thinking a lot about angels as I’ve prepared for Advent this year. Look closely and you’ll see that Brom designed these two, paired banners so that the lines along the bottom of the angel’s robe on the left actually flow into the lines of the hills around Bethlehem, on the right. Angels are central to the early chapters of Luke’s gospel, to the Advent and Christmas stories there. Angels set the stage and prepare the way; they deliver important messages from God - critical assignments too - and when the baby Jesus is born, they are on the scene to proclaim the good news. So it’s fitting that an angel stands before us as we enter the season of Advent today, visually tied in with all that will follow in the coming weeks.
We’re featuring angels when we can in our Advent music this year as well. We gathered ourselves for worship this morning – and will each Advent Sunday – singing of “angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold.” We’ve also sung this morning about “hear[ing] the brush of angel wings”– a reminder of the holiness of this space, and God’s presence with us in it.
Angels. We have one beautiful artistic rendition before us. What other images come to mind when we speak of angels? Do you think of classic Renaissance paintings with winged cherubs on high? Or do your thoughts run toward portrayals of angels in films? If you’ve ever met Denzel Washington as the angel Dudley in “The Preacher’s Wife,” or Carey Grant in that same role in “The Bishop’s Wife” decades earlier, it’s hard not to add them to the mix, when you think of angels. And how many of us carry in our mind’s eye lovely illustrations of angels from the children’s Bibles and Christmas books we most love? For that matter, how many of us call to mind the pint-sized dressed-up angels we enjoy in our children’s Christmas pageants here each year? We’ll see them again soon, with this year’s pageant just two weeks away.
Biblical angels are certainly interesting creatures. Gabriel, whose name in Hebrew means “God is my warrior,” is one of only two named angels in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, the other being Michael. Gabriel is “sent to Daniel to explain a vision of ‘the time appointed for the end’ (8:15-26) and later to reveal the hidden meaning of [prophetic words] (9:20-27).” Whereas most messengers from God in the Old Testament are unnamed, and sometimes it’s even a little unclear whether they’re of human or heavenly origin, Gabriel’s angelic credentials are impressive. Which perhaps explains one of the funnier elements in the story you just heard from Luke’s gospel. When Zechariah questions the message Gabriel delivers, saying “How will I know this is so?” the angel replies “I am Gabriel.” (Luke 1:19) As if to say: are you seriously going to question me? Do you not understand who I am? Or, in the more elegant language of our actual Scripture text: “I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” (Luke 1:19) My takeaway from that little exchange? When Gabriel talks, people oughta listen!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because it’s important to understand why the angel Gabriel was sent to Zechariah in the first place. Both Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth themselves have impeccable credentials, being from priestly families. And we’re told both are “righteous” and “blameless” before God. (Luke 1:6) Unfortunately, as was the case for our friend Job about whom we’ve been reading over the last couple of weeks, being blameless and upright doesn’t necessarily mean everything turns out exactly as you might hope. The lives of good people, too, can be touched by disappointment and tragedy, and in the case of Elizabeth and Zechariah, their greatest disappointment was not being able to conceive a child. Like Abraham and Sarah, their OT counterparts, they have waited, and waited, and waited, longing for a gift from God that simply would not come. Doing the right thing while they waited, too. Serving God in the temple, in Zechariah’s case, and praying, both of them, that their prayer for a child would be heard.
That’s the back story we need to understand, when one day Zechariah is going about his regular duties as a priest in the temple, and suddenly there is Gabriel standing in front of him, next to the altar. The text says Zechariah “was terrified, and fear overwhelmed him.” And the angel said to him “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.” (Luke 1:12-13)
As I read around in biblical commentaries it seems to me an awful lot is made of Zechariah’s fear. But as my daughter once wisely pointed out years ago, “angels are always saying ‘fear not,’” which tells me it’s a pretty natural reaction to be frightened when they turn up! I’m inclined not to single Zechariah out on that account.
I also find it troubling that Zechariah is apparently punished for questioning the angel’s promise – that God had heard their desperate prayer, and Elizabeth was going to bear a son. If you’d hoped for something not just for months or years but for decades, and not seen it materialize, it’s understandable that when news like this finally came, you might be a little skeptical, right? And keep in mind, what was standing in front of Zechariah in that moment was not yet his wife, in her sixth or eighth month looking especially pregnant, but an angel delivering words of promise. And the thing about promises is that the actual evidence of their truthfulness only comes in hindsight, right? We can’t know beyond a shadow of a doubt that a promise is true ahead of time. That is, we don’t have evidence for it in the form of cold, hard facts until we actually watch it come true, sometime later on… which is why faith is required.
But whatever we may think of Gabriel’s frustration with Zechariah’s difficulty believing him, whatever we may think of poor Zeke being struck mute for months as he awaits his baby boy, here’s the marvelous thing. His doubts did not in any way impede God’s fulfillment of the promise. That is, God’s ability to work a miracle didn’t hinge on Zechariah’s ability to believe it. It reminds me of the story in Mark’s gospel, of another father who in great desperation said to Jesus: “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” As far as I can tell, the divine answer to each of these men seems to be: “that’s good enough for me!” And then the God for whom nothing is impossible gets to work on a miracle, and hope is restored.
Amy McCullough suggests, too, that while plenty discouraged, the couple hadn’t actually been hope-less. Their hope had just, over the years, morphed into a sort of hoping against hope:
"By the time we meet Zechariah and Elizabeth, they have stopped believing a baby will join their family. The years have gone by, the gray hairs have sprouted, their bodies have wrinkled, and the child hasn’t come. But I’m not sure they’ve stopped hoping for a baby. Gabriel’s words tell us that they have prayed for a child, just like one might pray for … a month without a school shooting [or a Christmas when the world isn’t at war] … Past experience might suggest it is worthless to pray for such things, but your heart cries out nonetheless, hoping past hope that this year something might be different. The cry holds a flicker of faith in God’s power to revive, the hope that never truly, fully dies."
And now Zechariah is told that his prayer has been heard. I can’t explain why every couple hoping for a baby doesn’t get the same answer; I dearly wish they did. But in God’s response to Elizabeth and Zechariah we at least see that God’s spirit can be at work in parts of our lives over which we’ve given up hope.
Barrenness? Hopelessness? Emptiness? From a human perspective, it’s hard to see the promise in such places. But for God, these situations seem to invite intervention. And so, Zechariah, your prayer has been heard. Whether you can believe it or not. Whether or not you find the promise of your wife’s conceiving a child utterly in-conceivable. Fear not, Zechariah, even your disbelief won’t slow God down when he’s ready to get moving on something this important. After all, it’s time to bring John the Baptist onto the scene here, so he can prepare the way for Jesus!
I’ll admit the “why’s” of this story of Gabriel and Zechariah still confuse me. Why, for instance, did Zechariah and Elizabeth have to wait so very long to have a child? Why, for that matter, do some couples wait their whole lives, in vain, and never receive the same good news? Why was Zechariah’s fairly understandable difficulty in believing apparently punished with this strange inability to speak? And why wouldn’t he have been afraid, suddenly to see an angel of God appear at the altar?
The “why” questions may confuse me, but what comforts me are the promises of God that shine through it all. For the “who” and the “what” of Zechariah’s story are clear. God’s at work; and God’s working miracles.
Please pray with me:
Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief. Or help us, in spite of our unbelief. Whatever it takes, God. When we enter your sanctuary entirely unprepared for you to actually turn up, we know that won’t stop you from sending an angel our way. When we’re so discouraged by past experience that it’s hard to hang on, we know you are quite capable of bringing life and hope to barren, empty places. When we’re frightened, we trust that you’ll continue to send messengers our way with comforting words: “Do not be afraid.” “I am with you.”
God, lift up those who are discouraged. Bind up the brokenhearted. Bring light into our dark places. Breathe hope back into hopeless hearts. Bring messages of life and peace to a hurting world. In our best moments, we know you can do these things. And we’re eternally grateful that you keep on doing your thing, that you continue working wonders, even when we’re not so sure. You are at work behind every story, and nothing is impossible for you. Thank you, God. In the name of the Christ Child of Bethlehem we pray. Amen.
 “Gabriel,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary.
 Amy P. McCullough, “Musings on Advent” Journal for Preachers Advent 2015, pp. 5-6.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Last Sunday we began our study of the Old Testament book of Job by focusing on a common misunderstanding, one promoted by Job's so-called friends or comforters, and one that finds widespread support even today. It goes something like this. Since we believe that God rewards the good and punishes the bad, if something bad happens to you, you must have done something to deserve it. It's the assumption that people only get what they deserve, or at least that we deserve what we get. That we're ultimately to blame for whatever suffering we encounter in this life.
The biblical book of Job resolutely insists this is NOT the case. Job was blameless and upright, a good and faithful man. The fact that he suffered terribly had nothing to do with anything he did, and certainly nothing that he did wrong. It was Job’s friends who were mistaken in their assumptions, not Job himself. God even affirms in the end of the book that Job spoke what was right. He really was innocent. One of the conclusions we can draw from the book of Job is that people DON'T always get what they deserve. Sometimes good people suffer, for what appears to be no good reason.
Another common misunderstanding stems from our reading of this brief passage in the NT book of James which in many translations refers to the "patience" of our friend Job. Patience as most of us understand it implies putting up with things, waiting and accepting, letting things run their course, bearing without complaint. And the expression "the patience of Job," as it's found its way into contemporary idiom, calls to mind all of this to the nth degree. ("If ever ANYONE was patient, it was Job. Remember everything he had to put up with!")
But since the author of James presumably had the same book of Job in front of him as we do, we ought not jump to conclusions about what "the patience of Job" means until we're fairly familiar with the guy the NT author is talking about here. As we heard in our second Scripture lesson this morning, the kinds of "patient" words Job spoke actually sound more like these: "I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul." And these are just a few of many similar lines spoken by Job in the middle section of the book, typical in their brutal honesty. As the story moves along, Job becomes even more bold, accusing God of piercing him with poison arrows (6:4), of crushing him with a tempest and multiplying his wounds without cause (9:17), of hunting him down like a lion (10:16), of breaking him down on every side (19:10).
Clearly it's oversimplification and probably a serious misreading of the book of Job to say that Job bore his sufferings without complaint, that he was patient in that sense. He complained like this for some 30 chapters, with some of the strongest language we ever find in the Bible for people addressing God. So where did James get off calling Job a patient man? If, like me, you were familiar with this NT evaluation of Job long before you ever encountered the words of Job himself, you might well find yourself wondering what happened to that silent, stoic calm you were expecting.
But here's where we need to be careful. In the Greek, the word that James uses to describe Job is hypomene--which actually means something more like "standing fast," or "holding one's ground," or "endurance" (as our pew Bibles more accurately translate it). Hanging in there, yes. And hanging in there with God, in spite of it all. But not necessarily bearing without complaint. Job bore his sufferings, yes, and endured, and persisted in his integrity and his faith, but he was also brutally honest with his friends and with his God about how miserable he was, how unfair his situation was. And he demanded that God respond.
So it's partly a misinterpretation of James' interpretation of Job that leads us to think Job was patient in the sense of passively sitting by and letting things happen to him, as if he were somehow tolerating it all with a gentle smile. Far from it! He stood before God with his fists held high and demanded justice and fairness, using the same standards of justice that God had given him and applying those to God. And in this, Job was not thought to be uttering blasphemy or saying things that ought not be said to God. In fact, he was standing solidly in biblical tradition. Elsewhere in the OT--in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, in the book of Lamentations, and particularly in the psalms of lament--people of strong faith struggled with God, speaking out from their experiences of suffering, crying out in pain, expecting that God would honor their honesty, that God could handle their complaints, and that God would respond.
Job also bears some similarity to the figure of Abraham arguing with God over the fate of Sodom in Genesis 18, a story of Abraham's "holy protest" against the injustice he felt would be done if the innocent were destroyed along with the wicked. The spirit of lament and the spirit of "holy protest" are both well represented in the Scriptures. Job's is not an isolated case. In the Bible, the kinds of things Job said--and even the boldness with which he said them--were felt to be within bounds, one of the ways people of faith could appropriately address God.
We've somehow lost this tradition of lament as people of faith, and gotten away, too, from the tradition of protest that stands there shaking its fist, demanding that the Judge of all the earth do what is right. So it's important to be reminded from time to time that God expects complete honesty from us. True faith can include protest. Genuine prayer may at times need to incorporate complaint.
I've heard people offer prayers of simple acceptance of God's will in situations in which there's a complete disconnect with what they're actually thinking and feeling. Before the 'dear Lord' and after the 'amen', there are powerful, genuine expressions of anger, fear, hurt, and frustration. But once heads are bowed, all this gets swept under the rug. Why is that? Perhaps because we've been taught that true faith means graciously, calmly accepting whatever comes and never questioning its justice or injustice. But this doesn't accurately reflect the range of biblical teachings on prayer. Job carries on a dialogue with God for more consecutive chapters than most anyone else in the Bible. I would think, then, that the presence of this book in the Scriptures suggests we can expand our definitions of what is and is not allowed in prayer. Do we really think we're fooling God when we spit out the words we think we're supposed to say while everything in us wants to cry out in pain or anger? God treasures real conversation with us, and that requires complete honesty on our part. Saying not just what we think God wants to hear, but what needs to be said. Might we all, in this sense, approach the injustices of our world with the so-called "patience" of Job!
The painful truth of the matter is that life can be incredibly hard at times.
The beautiful truth is that we are allowed to say so – even and especially to God – trusting that God’s not going anywhere. Bring it on, folks. He can take it!
Far from being hurt or offended by our honesty, God welcomes it, and holds us, and loves us, through every difficult moment we could ever face.
It’s been said that we pray not so much to tell God what our concerns are. God already knows them, after all. We pray to remind our concerns who God is.
So come as you are to this place of worship, bringing your most painful grievances as well as your deepest joys, and let us celebrate honest conversation and true communion with our Lord. Amen.
We began our series on Biblical wisdom this fall by focusing on Proverbs, a book of practical theology, composed largely of concrete, down- to-earth instructions. Elders, parents, and wisdom teachers showing young people the way to go. Teaching them by word and example how to prosper in life, how to avoid its pitfalls and dangers.
Among other things, I’ve emphasized that according to Proverbs, life works in fairly predictable ways. Human actions have consequences, and we can know ahead of time what those consequences will be. Life is tidy. The created world is a neat, orderly, and well-organized system. The problem, of course, is that life doesn't always work this way.
Probably the most striking evidence that Proverbial advice does not apply equally well in all situations is the repeated assurance throughout the book that good behavior will be rewarded while the bad guys will get it in the end. So, for instance, we read that "the wicked are overthrown and are no more, but the house of the righteous will stand" (12:7) or again, that "no harm happens to the righteous but the wicked are filled with trouble" (12:21). We don't need anyone to tell us it ain't necessarily so. It's obvious—as individuals, and on a global level too, all too painfully obvious--that life doesn't always turn out this way.
Fortunately for the reputation of Wisdom Literature in particular and the integrity of the Scriptures as a whole, the Bible does offer an alternate perspective to balance the overly simplistic notion of rewards and punishments in the book of Proverbs. For the book of Job is precisely about life not always working according to the usual rules.
Let's briefly review the plot of the two chapters we read this morning.
No sooner have we been introduced to Job than we learn that he is blameless and upright, that he fears God and turns aside from evil, that he goes to great lengths to live a holy and righteous life. We then overhear a conversation in heaven between God and "the satan,” a Hebrew word which isn't quite the equivalent yet of the proper name Satan we see in the New Testament. Here "the satan" (literally: "the adversary" or "the accuser") is a member of the heavenly court who stirs up a bit of trouble by making a bet with God about this man Job. When God points out to the adversary what a righteous man Job is, the satan answers "Well, sure, he's got everything going for him--riches, amazing real estate, a household of servants, a huge family. But I'll bet that if you took all that away, he wouldn't remain faithful for long." God accepts the adversary’s bet, and allows him to begin to afflict Job. And so Job loses all of his livestock, his servants, his house, and all of his children. To emphasize how rapidly all of this happens, the narrator notes that while each messenger was still sharing his own respective piece of bad news, another messenger would arrive with more bad news, and then another, and another. (Ever had one of those months?)
In spite of all of this, Job at the end of chapter 1 persists in worshipping God, "'the Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.' And in all this, Job did not sin or charge God with wrong-doing." So far, so good for God's side of the bet. Even when, in chapter 2, the adversary ups the stakes a bit and encourages God to afflict Job's own body with terrible boils, Job still persists in his integrity. It appears that God has won. Job does indeed fear God without all the comforts of his former life, saying to his wife "Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not the bad?" But at whose expense has God won the bet? God and the adversary may both be impressed with Job's integrity. But poor Job is still down there, grieving the loss of all he once held dear, scraping at his sores with a piece of broken clay pot, and having no clue that the only reason for his suffering (at least according to the storyteller) was this strange wager in heaven.
In any case, at the end of the chapter we meet three of Job's friends, who hear of Job's misfortune and arrive to offer him comfort. Notice the marvelous example of friendship they offer when they first arrive, as they too tear their robes and sit with Job in his ash heap. Not one of them says a word for seven days and seven nights. They just sit there with their friend, silently acknowledging the depth of his grief. Perhaps a lesson for all of us who so desperately want to DO something when we see a loved one in pain.
"A little girl came home from kindergarten one day. Her mother asked her how she had been. She said, ‘Good. I helped another girl on the way home.’
‘That’s wonderful,’ said the mother. ‘What happened?’
‘Oh, she was on her bike, and she fell into a mud puddle.’
‘And so you helped her out of the puddle?’ asked the mother.
‘No,’ said the kindergartner. ‘She was out of the puddle when I got there.’
‘Was she hurt?’ asked the mother.
‘Yes,’ said the little girl. ‘But I couldn’t fix her scratches. She was just sitting next to the puddle crying.’
‘Then how did you help her, sweetheart?’ asked the mother.
‘Well,’ answered the little girl, ‘I sat down and helped her cry.’"
For those of us wondering what to do for the people of Paris right now, and for so many other hurting people around the world, I wonder if, for a start, we might help them cry?
The problem is that the friends do open their mouths at the end of seven days, and then they can't seem to stop themselves from offering volumes of unhelpful advice. And much of their advice sounds like that same old proverbial wisdom -- "As you yourself know, Job, since we studied under the same teachers, the righteous are rewarded by God and it is only the wicked who suffer. Since you are suffering so greatly, you must have done something REALLY awful to bring this all on. So examine your life carefully, won't you? Once you determine where you've gone wrong, and repent of your sin, God will no doubt deliver you from your trouble." And so poor Job finds himself in the unenviable position of having to defend himself to his own friends even as he sits there scratching at his sores, grieving the loss of his sons and daughters.
Now because of the way they're set up in the book, it's easy to dismiss the words of Job's friends as so much foolishness, a stubborn adherence to insupportable old rules. But how many of us have been on the receiving end of similar advice over the course of our lifetimes? Well-meaning words from friends and acquaintances who'd have done us far less damage if they'd just had a seat in our ash heap and kept quiet, or plunked down in our mud puddle for a good cry? But instead, some of us in this room have heard in moments of crisis words like these: "It's all for the best really. . . Just think of all you're learning from this experience. . ." or “All things work together for good, you know, for those who love God,” or even "If only you had more faith. . . " Such thinking even rears its ugly head when we say to ourselves in particularly grim moments "what did I do to deserve this?" It's important to remember as we read through the book of Job that even God insists that it was Job, and not the friends, who was in the right. Job had not done anything to deserve his fate. It wasn't that his faith wasn't strong enough, that he wasn't good enough, that he hadn't tried hard enough. The tragedies Job endured had nothing to do with any of that. He was--and remained--a righteous man.
Now this isn’t to say Job is perfect, in some existential sense of being completely without sin. The friends have been quick to point out that all humans are sinful, and Job himself alludes to a few minor transgressions on his part as well. But for Job, and even for God, this point isn’t ultimately relevant to the situation at hand. The question is whether individuals are always punished for specific willful acts of disobedience, and always rewarded for righteous behavior. Job is introduced from the start as an obedient and reverent man. To the end, Job persists in maintaining his innocence. Lest with the friends we assume that Job is mistaken, the narrator and God both agree that Job is blameless and upright. This is not just a story about suffering, but a story about innocent suffering.
Certainly any number of the tragedies in our world can be blamed on human sin—that’s where Proverbial wisdom is right on target. But not all of them can, and this is where the book of Job helps us. A catastrophic earthquake does not discriminate between the just and the unjust. No one contracts Alzheimer's disease because they deserve it. A miscarriage is no indication of hidden sins. Because the book of Job so resolutely insists that Job was a person of integrity, we must--all of us--flat out deny the claim (too often proof-texted from the Scriptures) that people only get what they deserve. They don't. Good people, people of profound integrity, people of incredible faith, people who appear to be doing everything right, are the victims of life's tragic unpredictability everyday.
We all know this congregation has seen ample evidence of this. And again, this week’s news cycle, or any week’s news cycle for that matter, brings the point home powerfully as well. On the one hand we know that all those deaths this week at the hands of terrorists, for instance, were not God’s will, but were the acts of evil men. We know God isn’t to blame there. But I imagine that’s small comfort right now to the victims’ families. They are in good company, the company of Job and the biblical psalmists, if they are crying out to God right now that this is utterly unfair and unjust. Why couldn’t God have protected their loved ones? What did they do to deserve any of this? How long, O Lord, will such despicable acts be allowed to take place on this, your earth? Why do the wicked prosper, while the innocent suffer?
I mentioned last week that biblical wisdom shows us the "art of steering" through life (Zimmerli). But notice the situational nature of wisdom. Proverbs may teach us a great deal about how to live under normal circumstances, when all is going well, but the book of Job offers a powerful example of how to live in times of crisis. In fact the largest portion of the book recounts Job's response to his suffering. Since are told that how Job spoke and what he said was right in a way that the friends' words were not, we'll want to examine Job's words to see what we can learn from this fascinating character about how to live when tragedy strikes. For now, suffice it to say that he wasn't as patient as many of us have been taught that he was. He complained bitterly to God for some 30 chapters in the middle of the book and those chapters are integral to the rest of the story. So do stay tuned for next week's sermon when we'll look at a couple of those chapters in more detail. . .
For today, remember that while Job's friends may have gotten it wrong, God knew all along that Job was a righteous man. Remember that while Job never learned why he suffered, he was firmly convinced throughout that he was in God's hands. Like Job, we too can affirm that no matter what may happen to us, we belong to God. For reasons we do not understand, God may not always prevent harm from coming our way, but God will never let us go…
Whether or not we are able in any given moment to feel God’s presence, remember that in every chemo treatment and in every surgery, God is there. In every broken marriage and in every job loss, God is there. In France and in Lebanon and in Iraq this week, and in Japan and in Mexico, just as he has been in every other tragic situation in every week and every year of human history, God is there. God weeps with God’s hurting children, and holds those who grieve, and provides good people to come alongside good people who suffer, whether to bind up their wounds or simply to sit with them in silence. Right in the middle of the ash heap, God is there. As we weep in our respective mud puddles, God is there. And God is here. Receiving our grief and our anger and our questions, at the injustices and tragedies that weigh on each of our hearts today, God is here.
In that firm conviction, I invite you now to stand with me and--in spite of all the heartbreak we see around us—let us bravely affirm together God's steadfast love, using the Affirmation of Faith printed in the bulletin:
In life and in death we belong to God.
Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit,
we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel,
whom alone we worship and serve…
With believers in every time and place,
we rejoice that nothing in life or in death
can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 “Our Mud Puddle Lives,” by Steve Burt in Church Worship, April 1996, p. 13.
The book of Proverbs is, among other things, a book about choices. Wise teachers offer their students advice on hundreds of different topics, but most of them are ultimately about choosing righteousness over wickedness, choosing wisdom over foolishness.
And often these choices are presented as different ways or paths. Was it the recently departed Yogi Berra who said, “when you come to a fork in the road, take it”? In Proverbs, the road of life is full of forks, and wisdom is about knowing which fork to take in each situation. So we find in the vocabulary of Proverbs words having to do with guidance, navigation, steering as well as words for paths and roads and so on. Listen again for those kinds of words in today’s Scripture lesson, this time from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Proverbs 4 in The Message:
Dear friend, take my advice; it will add years to your life.
I’m writing out clear directions to Wisdom Way, I’m drawing a map to Righteous Road. I don’t want you ending up in blind alleys, or wasting time making wrong turns. . . Don’t take Wicked Bypass; don’t so much as set foot on that road. Stay clear of it; give it a wide berth. Make a detour and be on your way. . .
The ways of right-living people glow with light; the longer they live, the brighter they shine. But the road of wrongdoing gets darker and darker—travelers can’t see a thing…
Keep your eyes straight ahead; ignore all sideshow distractions. Watch your step, and the road will stretch out smooth before you. Look neither right nor left; leave evil in the dust. (Prov 4:10ff)
Throughout Proverbs, wise teachers describe for their students what the different paths look like and where they’re headed. Which paths lead to success, and which to failure. Which paths lead to happiness, and which to misery. In each case, both ways are presented as real options, but there’s clearly a smart and a not-so-smart way to go. Be smart, urges Proverbs. Think through the consequences of your decision before you take any old fork in the road that comes along.
So much is felt to be at stake that the sages employ every teaching method at their disposal to drive their point home. So to the fork-in-the-road metaphor is added the choice between bright light and deep darkness (4:18-19), the choice between laying hold of a great treasure and coming up empty –handed (3:14-15), the choice between a fountain of life and the snares of death (14:27) and so on.
And in case this whole host of analogies still doesn’t pack enough punch, stories are told in Proverbs too, more detailed illustrations of the consequences of following particular paths. One that crops up a number of times is the story of the young man who wanders off to his ruin after an evil seductresses. Not on the whole my favorite metaphor in the book, but the teaching strategy reminds me of the difference between quoting the law “thou shalt not commit adultery” and showing the movie “Fatal Attraction.” Or between the counsel to “just say no” and the famous egg-in-the-frying pan commercial from years back: “this is your brain on drugs.” Powerful visual imagery, consequences clearly illustrated. Again, Proverbs urges us to choose the way of wisdom because it’s the smarter way to go.
Granted, Proverbial wisdom implies that good choices are always rewarded and bad decisions always lead to bad consequences. It simply ain’t so, of course. Sometimes it feels like the more fitting proverb is “no good deed goes unpunished!” If you’ve ever entertained that thought, you’ll definitely want to stay tuned when we turn to the book of Job next week. You may find a kindred spirit there.
But for all my inclination to temper the simplicity of its system, I still find much more in Proverbs than a sort of quaint old-fashioned book about life being perfect for those who walk the straight and narrow. There’s a realism here too. No, good choices aren’t always rewarded in the ways we expect. But there clearly are good and bad choices in life, and I expect we’ve all made some of each. Life is all about making choices. Some of them trivial – what to have for dinner, what color to paint the living room. Others with more lasting consequences—like which career to pursue, or when or whether to marry. We make choices every day of our lives – what we purchase, where we live, how we vote. And in some cases, we sense we are making a really significant choice. So we ask ourselves, our friends, wise mentors, if we have them: which path is likely to end in success, and which in failure? Which path will be life-giving, and which one draining? Which choice is the smart choice? Which way is the way of wisdom?
With this question in mind, let me read you another brief passage from Proverbs 26:4-5. This one’s a little tricky, so listen closely:
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
OK, so which is it? Are we supposed to answer fools according to their folly or not? Do we or don’t we? Yes. Both. Wisdom is about knowing when to apply which piece of advice. The art of steering along life’s path involves not only choosing between right and wrong, but between right and right. Because it depends, doesn’t it? Depends on the person hearing the advice. Depends on the fool. Depends on the timing. Depends on who else is standing around. The wise person will steer her way down the right path at the right time.
One of the more intriguing qualities of the book of Proverbs is the way it sets contradictory sayings side by side like this – to make that very point, that different pieces of advice apply at different times.
When you think about it, we pass around bits of contradictory advice outside the Bible too. “A stitch in time saves nine,” but “haste makes waste.” . . . “Look before you leap,” but “he who hesitates is lost.” So which is it? Both. It depends on the situation.
Each piece of advice is worth adding to our toolbox. But they’re not universally useful or their opposites wouldn’t be just as popular. Wisdom is about steering our way along life’s road, choosing not only between right and wrong but sometimes between right and right. Sometimes the road forks, and the way of folly is dark and creepy and overgrown and the way of wisdom is clearly marked with brightly colored signs and a yellow brick road. Those are the clearer choices between right and wrong, between wisdom and stupidity. But sometimes the road forks and each path could be a way of wisdom – it all depends on who’s walking the path, and when, which way they should go. The right path for me to take might not be the right path for you to take. The right path for me to take today might not be the right path for me to take a year from now, or next Tuesday. Wisdom as the art of steering involves all kinds of choices.
Bits of biblical truth are sometimes dispensed like fortune cookie sayings – just crack one open and it’ll automatically apply. But life is much too varied, and the Scriptures are too varied too, for that approach to work very well. Certainly some things are true always and everywhere. The Bible is quite clear, for instance, that wisdom is always better than folly, and righteousness is always better than wickedness, and we are always, always to remember our place before God. But some pieces of wisdom simply don’t apply in every situation. So we need to apply wisdom to the task of determining which good word to apply when.
It can be a little daunting to be faced with choices at every turn, not always knowing how things will turn out in the end. In the movies, people sometimes get a chance to sneak a peek at the road-not-taken. In “Me, Myself, I” for instance, a single 30-something businesswoman runs into a parallel version of herself, the version that said yes to that marriage proposal 13 years ago, and gets a chance to see what her life would have been like if she had chosen to get married and start a family at that time. At the same time, the married-with-three-kids version of herself also gets a chance to see what the single life would have been like. The movie “Family Man” told essentially the same story from a male perspective. In the real world, of course, we don’t get those opportunities. We can only do our best to imagine where each road will take us, when we’re faced with a decision; then we have to dive in and make our choice.
And let’s face it, if wisdom is the art of steering, there are times we’d just as soon keep the car in park. But what keeps us from becoming paralyzed by the complexity of it all is the assurance that we have more than a collection of useful words of wisdom, we have more than a guidebook full of directions – we have the promise of a Companion on the way.
As we read elsewhere in Proverbs, if we trust in the Lord with all our hearts, God will be there to direct our paths. (Prov 3:5-6). Life is complex, and there are all kinds of choices to be made. But we can step out in confidence and hope knowing that we never face life’s decisions alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.