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Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Proverbs, chapter 6.
Proverbs is one of the wisdom books, like Ecclesiastes; think about it like a letter written by a father and a mother to their children, and to generations they’ll never get to meet; telling them what’s actually important in life, and how to live it right. Wisdom is calling out in the streets, they write, but it’s hard to hear over the noise of everything going on in the world. There’s so much being said—it’s hard to know what’s good and nourishing.
I started out in this series making a contrast, drawing a line between wisdom and what we’ve replaced it with in our time: immediacy and information. The world is happy to tell you everything popular and trending and therefore, from the world’s perspective, important and true. But in all the noise forming you, shaping and misshaping you spiritually, do we know what’s wise? Can we step out of our own perspectives, for just a moment, and notice the way we see the world? Are we willing to look at our world, and the ways in which we live our lives, and recognize that not all progress has been toward a good end?
We’ve talked about those things which are meant to be at the core of our lives; things like love, wisdom, family, and the Spirit of God. They are necessary things, to keep in your heart, meaning at the deepest part of your thoughts and desires. Your heart is like a well or a spring. If you lose it, or if you allow the enemy to poison it, you run dry.
And last week, we talked about those small, daily temptations which can just as easily bring us down the wrong path. The god of death doesn’t always look like some monster with a gaping mouth trying to swallow you whole. Sometimes death looks enticing. Sometimes it looks fun and exciting. But all the same, sin and death consume you without ever being satisfied.
This week, we’re being asked to choose, what is of worth and value in life. Read with me, Proverbs, chapter 6, verses 12-23. […] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
Flannery O’Conner is one of my favorite American authors. One of my friends recently asked me for book recommendations from Christian authors, and I strongly recommended O’Conner, but didn’t tell my friend anything about her—it was a passing conversation. But my friend did a quick search at the library and found a story of hers called “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” She thought the title sounded happy and a bit romantic, so she took it on vacation for some encouraging and inspiring reading.
In reality, that story is about a serial killer who waylays and murders a whole family while they’re on vacation. O’Connor’s faith lends her a deep understanding of evil, the shape of it and the way it works in the world, and her stuff tends to be pretty dark. Literary critics dubbed her work “Southern gothic” or “grotesque,” but she called it “Christian realism.” So here’s my friend, on vacation, reading this terrifying book which I accidentally recommended to her about people dying on vacation. She told me she read the whole thing on pins and needles waiting for the hero to arrive and the happy ending.
Ironically, I think discovering Flannery O’Connor in that way is one of the best possible intros to O’Connor’s work. Because O’Connor is always trying to tell people in her writing, what’s on the outside doesn’t matter nearly as much as your heart, your heart meaning your deepest thoughts and desires. Her most disturbing characters usually show up in the book at first as the people we all emulate—a helpful motorist stopping to help stranded travelers, or a kindly old church lady making conversation at the doctor’s office. Like we talked about last week, death isn’t some monster living in the shadows. Evil is so wretched it’s proud of itself.
Outside appearances not matching inner worth was an important idea for O’Connor, because she, herself, struggled for most of her life with a crippling illness, one which disfigured her slightly and took her father from her at a young age. She was frail and considered crippled, but her deep thoughts and inner life were vast and bold and vibrant.
In our passage today, we see three men. So with all of our talk of wayfinding and paths we walk, here we are at a crossroads. You have to choose. Which man do you want to be? Or which one do you want to befriend, support, uphold, emulate? Two of the men Solomon calls wicked. The other, in vs. 20, he calls the wise man or simply “my son.”
The first wicked man, in v.12, is what most people would think of when they think of a corrupt person. Verse twelve says he’s worthless. That’s not a comment on his value as a person, but the concept is that he doesn’t do anything of worth and value for himself or the people around him, and we’re going to return to this concept of worth later in the sermon. But it says his speech is crooked. He’s offensive, he’s insulting, and the rest of his body, too, is complicit. His fingers point, his eye gives a signal. He’s violent. He preys on people, the passage says he’s broken, seemingly beyond healing. Again, he’s exactly what you would think of when you think of an evil man, one who has sown evil in society and dies despised, alone.
Then in v.16-19, he describes a different kind of wicked man. And I want you to notice how much language is repeated from the previous verses. Again, he talks about the man’s mouth and eyes, his speech and his heart, everything is the same about the two wicked men, with one difference.
This second wicked man looks good. He looks good! If you were just looking at the outside, he describes the man as haughty, which is an old word for proud. Pulling from Armstrong, an even older, more accurate word would be vainglorious. Vainglory is when you claim glory for things which are vain, you’re proud about things which ought to make you ashamed. Like I said already, evil is so wretched that it’s proud of itself. The Pharisees, for example, weren’t ashamed of their legalism, they argued about who was best at it. Society revered them, they were the great men of their day. They glorified those like Saul who were the most extreme. Vainglory. Vainglory exists in our day, too. Even though the word is antiquated, the sin is trending.
This second wicked man in our passage, he’s standing tall in court, giving witness. But he’s a liar, and his witness is false—but because he presents himself so well, people believe him. He’s the crack lawyer who wins the day and drives home in his Porsche. The blogger everyone follows. Solomon says, this man is just like the first man, the one who obviously does nothing of value. They are the same. They have the same eyes, the same hands, the same hearts. They sow the same discord. But this man holds his head high at the gates of the city, bears witness, is revered. Evil is so wretched it’s proud of itself.
So when you imagine these three men, the wise man and the two wicked men, standing side by side, imagine—three men who look fairly alike. And in my mind, they’re on a stage standing at attention, because the author of Proverbs seems to be looking them up and down. Again, he starts with the mouth in v.12, his eyes, his feet, his finger, and then finally he lands, in v.14, on his heart. The difference between them is not anything external, but it’s their hearts, their deepest thoughts and desires.
What the author is trying to do by mentioning all of these body parts and talking about what God hates, how the Lord feels about what these men have done—he’s drawing attention to the difference between the human and the divine perspective. If we’re not careful, if we’re not intentional, all we’ll see as humans is the exterior of a person, how he presents himself. But God is always looking at the heart. He sees past the lies and the haughtiness, past the pride and he looks at the heart, the wellspring. Because if the heart is twisted, if the heart is evil, then the rest of the body will be poisoned by it. Basically, he’s saying the shape of the heart determines the shape of the body. Or again, where your heart goes, so goes the rest of you.
We humans are always getting this wrong, sometimes, as we’ve seen in the news this week, sometimes we misjudge character to our downfall. Maybe we don’t read enough Flannery O’Connor. We’re always judging by what we can see. In what is probably my favorite Flannery O’Connor story, the main character is a young woman who is missing a leg, and because of that deformity she’s somewhat despised. You get the sense she doesn’t really date, she’s looked down upon in her town, and here comes this boy. A young, strapping bible salesman. He’s humble, he’s faithful, he’s thoughtful.
She falls for him. Spoiler alert, by the way, but come on, you’ve had like a hundred years to read this. He gets her alone, and he pulls out one of the Bibles, and it’s hollowed out, he cut out the center of the pages, and put in it a flask of whisky and pornography, and other things. And long story short, he ends up taking her prosthetic leg from her, and he puts it in the suitcase of bibles, gets up and leaves her stranded.
What O’Connor is saying in the story is, it doesn’t matter if you carry a bible around, or ten, or if you say the right words, or if you’re handsome and polite. None of it matters, if what’s inside is hollow and deformed and stolen.
Jesus had his own metaphor to get this point across. When the sadducees and pharisees in Jerusalem were trying to trap and kill him, he calls them whitewashed tombs, because he said outwardly you appear beautiful, “but within [you] are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness…outwardly [you] appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
Isaiah says it this way—listen, allow these verses to convict you: “You come near me with your lips, but your hearts are far from me.”
Again, in the gospels, when they accused Jesus’s disciples of immorality because they didn’t do the full ceremonial washing before they ate, Jesus tells them, it’s not what goes into a person’s mouth that defiles him, but what comes out, because what comes out of a person’s mouth reveals their heart, and where your heart goes, so goes the rest of you.
You see, they looked down on Jesus and his teaching, along with most of the prophets, because it didn’t look good. In fact, it had bad optics at times—Jesus, for example, accepted the right dinner invitations, but then he showed up with a bunch of fisherman and a prostitute. A woman wiped his feet with her hair, and he praised her for it. He finally gathers a crowd, and he preached an unsettling sermon about eating his own flesh and blood. He gets an audience with the Sanhedrin, and he completely offends them. Dude just didn’t quite have it, you know? Didn’t quite get it.
The pharisees, meanwhile, would have worn the scriptures on their foreheads and on their hands in leather pouches—they’re called phylacteries—because in Deuteronomy it says to bind the word of God to your head and to your hand. They were in obedience to those passages, sort of. I would argue for a more metaphorical reading. But this passage, the one we just read, is one they forgot. This is the passage Jesus kept trying to remind them of. Yes, you should bind the word of God to your hand and to your head, but first, before letting the word of God guide your hands and your head, bind it to your heart. Sure, people won’t be able to see it there, but where your heart goes, so goes the rest of you.
Solomon here is warning us not to assume too much by the look of a person. Sometimes people wear masks. Notice, the wise man in our passage today is enveloped in the law of God. It’s metaphorically around his neck, it’s on his mind, it’s on his heart. God goes before him, behind him, beneath him, all around him. He may look the same as the others, but he is filled with the love, vibrancy, and spirit of God.
In today’s world, we’re still always expecting the physical to reveal the spiritual. We don’t wear phylacteries, but we do have Christian tattoos, jewelry and t-shirts. In church, we smile at each other. And none of this is bad, but we judge people by their look, whether they’re fashionable or not, young or old, race, cleanliness. If someone smiles and is friendly to us, we trust them. If they know the right answers to our litmus test questions. If they say all of the right words and agree with us, we assume they’re on the level.
Deeper than that. More mournful than that. If someone knows the truth of God, we assume their heart is regenerated. If they know the scriptures backward and forward, we assume the scriptures are in that person’s heart, but it’s not always so. Arguably the greatest American Biblical scholar today believes none of it. And in the news this week, we were reminded. If a person has the scriptures on their tongue, is able to speak eloquently about the Bible, we assume that person’s heart is also bound by the word of God. This week has painfully reminded us that this is not so, as many pastors in our own denomination were revealed to be, not caring for their sheep, but devouring them. Bible salesmen, preying on the weak. I feel anger. I feel mourning. I understand complicity. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
I promised earlier to return to this idea of worth and value in Scripture. There’s a lot to say, entire fields of study surrounding worth and value, so I’m only going to touch on one small aspect relevant to this passage and relevant to this week.
Skill and influence are not good, worthwhile things in and of themselves. Skill and influence are not good, worthwhile things in and of themselves. They are tools. Skill, talent, influence. They are tools, like fire is a tool. The goodness, or the value, of skill and influence depend upon how they are used. For example, you can use fire to bake bread for your family and community—which would be of great value to your community. But you can also use fire to torch a building, burn a village, burn an entire race of people—the same tool, but the goodness and worth of it depends upon how it is used.
In my brief time working in churches, I have seen over and over again people valuing skill and influence over goodness of heart, or what I would call character. If a person is able to preach well or sing well, or really knows how to platform and gain influence, gather a large group, grow a church, we mistakenly believe that God is with them. If they repeat the right maxims and really fit well in our tribe, we trust them. But skill and influence are, pulling from Jared Wilson, what the Puritans would call neutral signs of health and value.
He points out, we look at churches growing as a sign of the health and value of the ministry, but we ought not. I’ll say, I have nothing against big churches, some of my favorite churches in New Orleans are big churches led by very talented pastors who use their skill and influence in very good ways, but hear me. Some of the largest, most influential churches in our nation have very little to do with the gospel or anything I would say is valuable in our faith. Usually, they are built on the skill and influence of the pastor. Yes, living things grow, but so do cancers. So does mold. Skill, talent, influence—our passage today shows us—these are neutrals. They are tools. They are not valuable and worthwhile in and of themselves, they have to be wielded well to be of value.
What the puritans identified as positive signs of the work of God in the heart of a church or of a person are these: a growing esteem for Jesus, devotion to the word of God, interest in theology and doctrine, evident love for God and neighbor, and a discernible spirit of repentance. If you’ve never heard your pastor speak of his own, current sinfulness, or if the attention is more on him than on the Lord, run away.
Otherwise we risk following Bible salesmen, who look good, and say all the right things, and yet, when you open their suitcases, open their bibles, they are hollowed out and filled with every kind of evil. You have to look to the heart, as God does. Where your heart goes, so goes the rest of you.
I’ll close with this, as I have through this whole series. One of my core convictions is to spiritually form myself and our people with both the law and the gospel. The law is meant to convict us, to mortify us, and tell us of our sin, to move us to a place where we say Lord, Have mercy. But you have to speak the gospel alongside, that there is mercy and grace enough for you.
If you, this morning, search your heart and fear that you are worthless, that your heart, too, is hollowed out and filled with evil things—I hope we do feel that conviction. If you look at the law of God and come away feeling as though you are guiltless, look again and again until you see yourself as one in need of grace. If you fear you’ve followed skill and influence more than you’ve followed character and true signs of health, know that you are able this morning to follow Christ, whose heart is pure and whose hands are clean. He is the wise son who listened to all of his fathers instructions, who loves with a pure heart every person he has ever encountered, even me. Ever you.
Even if you are worthless according to the law, you are valued in Christ. Loved. And because he values you your worth is inestimable. Both things are true, our worth and our unworthiness. As Keller writes, he does not love us because we are lovely, but rather we are lovely because he loves us. And if your heart is hollow this morning, and you’re putting on a mask, I want you to hear this morning the words of Rich Mullins:
“Though you are a stranger, still I love you. I love you more than your mask. And I know you have to trust this to be true. And I know that’s much to ask.” But it is true. In Christ, you are forgiven, your are welcomed, you are loved. Pray with me.