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“This hill, though high, I covet to ascend;
Good morning, church. Please go with me to Proverbs, chapter 3, as we continue our series through the Proverbs. And I’ll ask you this morning, even more than usual to get a Bible in front of you, I’m going to be very specific at a few points in this sermon. If you don’t have one, you can raise your hand and we’ll get one to you. If you don’t own a Bible, feel free to take one of ours with you. Proverbs 3, toward the center of the Bible.
Y’all, I’m already pumped about this series and I’ve only preached one sermon in it. It’s just this book. Anne-Elise and I have a ritual each morning we call coffee Bible Jesus time, where we sit and read, sometimes a lot, sometimes a little just depending on what book we’re in, but we’ve decided to read through the Proverbs as I’m preaching through them.
We’ve been going through them very slowly, just one or two each morning. Usually I’ll read, and ask Anne-Elise to give her thoughts before I go off in one direction or another. Thursday I finished reading two of the proverbs, looked up at her, and her comment was: “This is really good advice.” And then we both laughed, right, because obviously.
But realize, in a world filled with advice, most of it trash, here is something good and true. Do you feel the weight of that? In my work life, I work with a lot of nonprofits. One group in our city, Sankofa, works to bring fresh fruits and veggies to corner stores in neighborhoods without good access to fresh food, and reading through Proverbs for the past few weeks has been like that: my life is filled with bags of chips and sodas, and all the sudden this book is giving me satsumas and green beans and good, fresh, lifeish things to shape me, spiritually form me, where before so much of the advice I had taken, I took because it was cheap, easy, with a flashy label, and it tasted good—that same advice was misshaping me in unhealthy ways.
I long desperately to know whether or not I’m living my life in a way that is wise and meaningful. My ringtone in college—remember ringtones?—my ringtone in college was John Mayer asking me over and over again, every time someone called, “Am I living it right?” Andrew was right last week: this book is like a vein of silver or gold found in an otherwise hard ground, an otherwise barren landscape. I’m eager to mine the wisdom in this book and allow it to shape me, to inform the course of my life; to teach wisdom to my children; to teach it to you.
When I started this series, I claimed, in our society, we’ve replaced wisdom with two things: information and immediacy. Information and immediacy. The difference between information and wisdom is kind of like the difference between knowing the right answer and knowing the right question. We know all the answers, and the ones we don’t know, we can google. But we’ve forgotten the questions which really matter. To quote Jon Foreman, “We’ve got information in the information age, but do we know what life is?” Do we know what the human life is meant to be? All of your furious effort and emotion in this life; everyone’s tired; all of this running, do you even know where you’re going? And shouldn’t you figure out where you’re going before you go any further?
We’ve replaced wisdom with information and immediacy. Immediacy, pulling from Chris Armstrong, is when you gauge the importance of events on whether or not they “are happening now;” or the worth of ideas on whether or not they are happening now.
I want to try and explain this idea of immediacy better, point out some places I see immediacy in society. I remember putting our crib together for the first time about five years ago, as we were finishing the foster care process, and it was in that moment I realized, by all standards now, I’m an adult. And I was shocked to realize my own immaturity. In my mind the great scandal of adulthood is how little you actually grow up. We still tell our parents and our ancestors, “you don’t understand,” in the way we live, in the way we tell stories of our histories, and in the way we overvalue immediate things.
For example, in our society, millions of people knowingly trade mental health and privacy to media companies in order to know, not what’s true, but what’s trending; and every day we trade our individual voice and expression in order to be what’s trending, allowing what’s popular to shape our expressions to the point where many of us have lost all sense of self, intellect, or expression apart from the opinions of others. We idolize and imitate those people who are influential, regardless of their character or wisdom. We trade loving friendships for taking sides in the intellectual battles of today.
This book of Proverbs is speaking specifically against that kind of valuing of the present and ignorance of the past. The refrain of the book of Proverbs, over and over again, is “My son, hear me.” “My son, listen to my teachings.” And in our passage today, “My son, don’t forget.”
Read it with me, Proverbs, chapter 3, starting in v.1. [Proverbs 3:1-12]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
“My son, don’t forget my teaching.” I’m reading the Harry Potter series with my seven-year-old right now, and there’s a great scene in which Neville, a very forgetful kind of clumsy boy, receives a gift one day in the mail from his grandmother, something called a remembrall, a little glass ball that changes color when you forget something important. He picks it up out of the package overjoyed to have help to not be so forgetful, and immediately the remembrall changes color. Neville says, “well, I know I’ve forgotten something. The only problem is, I can’t remember what I’ve forgotten.”
That scene sticks in my mind, because I have that feeling so often about little things, like leaving the house with a feeling of knowing I’m forgetting something—but what is it? Or in preaching and teaching, so often I have this nagging feeling like I’ve forgotten to say something important, needed for the congregation today—but what I’ve forgotten I can’t remember. I feel it, too, playing with my children. I recognize I’ve forgotten some part of me that’s necessary to playing a game of pretend, or really just letting my guard down and getting silly with them, but what exactly I’ve forgotten, I don’t know. It’s easier to know you’ve forgotten something; it’s harder to remember what it is you’ve forgotten.
Societally, right now, there is a great sense of loss. Most of the people I talk to seem to be on the brink of being overwhelmed by loss. Out of most mouths, I hear, “What a world we’re living in,” or, if you’re older, “things just aren’t how they used to be” or, if you’re younger, “no one ever said it would be this hard.” Collectively, we’re conscious of having forgotten something, some wisdom which might cause us to thrive individually and as a society, but like Neville, we can’t remember what it is we’ve forgotten, and we disagree.
Most of us, I think, along with Mark Taylor and other theologians, are in varying stages of giving up on remembering or finding any kind of cure to the loss. To quote one of the defining movies of my generation, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” But this morning, I’ll tell you, I have nothing to sell, but I do have hope. It’s a genuine hope that I want to share with you, hope that life can be something other than loss and pain; it can be more like resurrection and joy—but we need to remember, call to mind, not what is immediately around us in the world, or even what we believe God to be saying to us immediately today. We need to remember his works through the ages. He’s been weaving a better song, a better story of the world all these years.
Here, in our passage today, this is a piece of what we’ve forgotten. C.S. Lewis says it beautifully: “Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past…because we…need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods….A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar [who] has lived in many times…is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”
I’m stalling on v.1 in our passage, because I know when we read Proverbs 3, anyone who grew up in church goes straight for v.5. It’s a famous verse. I was in a Sunday school room last week where it was painted across the top of the wall. But I would argue, you should not consider v.5 before you consider v.1. You aren’t going to have any chance leaning not on your own understanding until you gain a sense of the Lord’s understanding, and learn to hear the wisdom coming from our histories, our fathers’ instructions. Until you learn to look past your own individual time and place, you have no hope of your path being straight, and I’ll explain what I mean.
This is where you need to be looking at the text. Verses 5-8 are an extended metaphor, and as in chapter 2 the metaphor is about taking a journey—you can see, in v.6, the author introducing the idea of straight and crooked paths. Most of the proverbs repeat the same idea twice in different language, so the author here is saying, if you lean on your own understanding, if you are wise in your own eyes, then your paths will be crooked and dangerous. If you trust in the Lord, if you fear God, meaning if you’re in awe of him, if you acknowledge him, then your paths will be straight, away from evil, and you’ll be able to rest. Are you seeing that idea repeated?
The metaphor is specifically, not just being on a journey, but wayfinding on that journey. We’re used to this metaphor of life as a journey, but the nature of our journeys has changed, and so we need to do a little work to understand what the author means.
First, we’re used to driving everywhere, but you need to keep in mind that ancient people were mostly walking on journeys. Animals were used to carry supplies and things, but horses were very rare, mostly it’s donkeys or camels at this time, stirrups won’t be developed until much later, and riding is rare. And when you have to walk everywhere, you tend not to take unnecessary journeys. Ancient people were not big explorers for the most part, because it took enormous effort to get anywhere, especially anywhere far away.
Traveling was dangerous. You, today, can put your wallet in the glove box and lock your car. If your car is a donkey, he’s gonna be upset if you put something in that glovebox. Ancient travelers had to play a delicate game of traveling with enough on them to get where they were going, but not so much that they became targets for robbers.
We’re used to t-shirts and things saying life is the journey, man, commercials always have teenagers in cars with the wind and sun in their hair, and I’m always like, nope, not in New Orleans, roll that window right on up, pull the shade down, turn on some a/c. Ancient t-shirts probably said things like, “Eat local, shop local, and just don’t go anywhere else, ever.”
If you were going to go on a journey in the ancient world, you were probably either fleeing something, like war or famine, or going on some kind of pilgrimage or mission. Either way, you wanted not to live life on the road, but to arrive at your destination. This is not Jack Kerouak On the Road, James Dean on a motorcycle, this is a refugee needing a home, or a messenger sent on some errand of great importance.
And you have to remember this is before maps—not just the app, but before paper maps. Before paper for that matter. Definitely before the invention of the compass, before any kind of directional instrument more accurate than the sun, itself. This is also before roads, roads were a classical invention. The word for road in ancient Hebrew just means path or way, the way to get from one place to another.
There were few bridges, so sometimes you would need to go around a swamp, or a valley, or a lake. No dynamite, so you would need to find a pass to get past a mountain range. No saws to clear forests, so you go through them, and if you have ever tried to walk through a forest, or in hill country, you know it’s easy to get turned around, even to start walking in circles and waste precious daylight hours. To find your way on a long journey in the ancient world, you would have to stop and ask people along the way, how do I get to the next village? How do I get past these mountains? Where do I cross the river? Constantly gauging whether the person giving you directions means you well or ill, whether they really know how to go.
And when they told you directions, because there are no maps, to keep your paths from going in circles, they would give you directions according to landmarks able to be seen from a great distance, like a mountain or a constellation, because if you focus on your feet, as you wend and find your way through, you get turned around, walk in circles. But if you are able to see a landmark in the distance, you can always right yourself, make your path straight, and start walking again in the right direction.
So in our passage, the author says life is like a journey, dangerous and unfamiliar. If you don’t heed the advice of people who have walked this way before, and depend on what you know, you’re going to get lost, walk in circles. If you’re wise in your own eyes, if you decide to just do things your way, your way isn’t going to take you anywhere near the destination. You’ll be lost in this enormous world.
The author says, acknowledge the Lord in all your ways. He is going to be for you that mountain, that keystone in the distance, so when you get turned around, if you acknowledge him, if you look to him, you can start back on the right path instead of wasting your time and effort. If you keep acknowledging him, then you’ll get to the next village in good time, to rest and heal your flesh that night before setting out again.
Life is like a journey without a map, without a compass, and with a dire need to get to where you’re going. Do you feel that? As a parent and as a pastor especially, I’m constantly thinking, can I get a map? Can someone tell me where I’m supposed to be going, because I’m pretty sure I just walked in a circle. I’m pretty sure I’m off the right path here.
The author of proverbs gives two pieces of advice. And to quote my wife, “this is good advice,” on wayfinding in life, and the first one I’ve already harped on. You have to stop and ask people who have been there before and who care about you—your fathers and mothers though the ages.
And also, secondly, in all of your ways, acknowledge the Lord. Keep looking up at him instead of down at your feet. You may stumble doing that, but at least you’ll be moving in the right direction.
And I want to get real and practical here for a minute, because I know when I say “acknowledge the Lord,” your mind may jump to legalism or mysticism, either operating within the bounds of a set of rules you’ve derived from Scripture, or depending upon your own mystical ability to hear directly from the Lord. That’s not at all what Solomon has in mind when he uses the word understanding. In fact, as a pastor, when I hear a person express confidence in their ability to follow the law of God, or confidence in their ability to hear directly from God, I take it as a mark of immaturity. Wisdom begins, not with confidence, but with doubt, and a troubled spirit, with questioning and dependence. Tell me if this verse resembles your Christian life: Paul writes, “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you…”
We read in chapter 1, understanding begins with the fear, or the awe of God. So start there. If you once felt awe of God, and now feel as though you’ve largely grasped his word and ways in the world, stop. Go back; you’ve lost your path. Or if God for you is still a philosophical concept to kind of pick apart or tell jokes about before you take a sip of your drink, you need to come to a place where you are in awe of him. If you tell me, “I have no idea how to get to to that place of being in awe of God,” I would respond—finally, you know how little you know. Stop and ask someone who does live in awe of God how they got there, and again someone else, until you can find the way.
If you are in a place, spiritually, where you feel like the awe of God is something you once knew, but you’ve forgotten, tell me. Tell the people around you, like brave Thomas, so we can give you directions until you find that wisdom again.
And then when you begin this dangerous journey, you’re going to need to find people along the way who have been further than you to tell you which way to go. For me, I stay in constant contact with a number of other pastors and people I consider to be wise and who actually care about me, like a son. I ask their advice. I’m open with my life and thoughts and invite their advice, rather than waiting for them to speak up.
We also need to learn to read the signs left by those who have gone before us long ago. Sometimes a blaze on a tree, even if it’s faded with time, can save you a lot of pain. I was on a trip a few weeks ago where we arrived late on the trail, and it was getting dark. We were hiking up a ridge to get to the campsite, and at one point we lost the trail. All five of us stopped and searched for about fifteen minutes, the light’s fading, but we had lost the trail. Finally, we saw a blaze painted on a tree about fifty yards away, put there God knows how long ago to mark the trail. It saved us.
Many times in my spiritual life, I’ve been there, where I look around and realize my whole church, my whole group is lost together. None of us know which way to go, and it’s been some saint of old, some old book or scholar, who showed us the way again. What I do is I find people who seem to acknowledge God in their ways and I ask for recommendations for reading material, or topics to research, like blazes on a trail.
When you fall, of course you’ll need people beside you, on your same path, to carry you. Through the various gifts of the spirit, we all kind of carry each other, serving each other as good stewards of God’s varied grace.
The best guides will tell you, not to keep your eyes on them, but they will point you to God, who will be your keystone. They will tell you in various ways, acknowledge him, and you’ll go straight there, rest a while, heal from the pains of the journey until you’re ready to strike out again. If you get lost, stop and find where God is. There’s no point in moving again until you spot him again, until you know you’re moving in the right direction.
I’ll end in this way. I said last time that there are many examples in literature of this metaphor in proverbs of the Christian life being a dangerous journey. One example, which is both old and wise, is Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, where the author dreams, and in his dream the pilgrim, Christian, must go on a journey and face many dangers on his way. He writes:
“This hill, though high, I covet to ascend;
The difficulty will not me offend.
For I perceive the way to life lies here.
Come, pluck up, heart; let’s neither faint nor fear.
Better, though difficult, the right way to go,
Than wrong, though easy, where the end is woe.”