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Wisdom for church health

A sermon by Rod Benson

Proverbs 15:8

This is the first of three sermons on aspects of church life, drawing on wisdom from the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament.

Today we will reflect on what Proverbs might say to us regarding church health; next week we will look at wisdom for church planning,and the following week we will consider proverbial wisdom for church conflict – not how to create conflict between people in the church, but how to manage and avoid it!

The Macquarie Dictionary defines a “proverb” as “a short popular saying, long current, embodying some familiar truth or useful thought in expressive language.”[1]

We are all familiar with classic or popular proverbs: “Many hands make light work”; “Don’t cry over spilled milk”; “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”; “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”

Proverbs are best understood not as isolated statements of fact, but in a particular context and applied to appropriate circumstances. So too the proverbs in the Old Testament.

But there are so many of them! And although there are structures and patterns to be found in the Book of Proverbs, they all seem, at first glance, to be thrown together without regard to theme or emphasis.

There are some passages that are probably familiar to most of us:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (Prov 3:5-6).

“The Lord detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favour with him” (Prov 11:1).

“When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” (Prov 11:2).

“Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife” (Prov 17:1).

“Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (Prov 22:6).

“A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies” (Prov 31:10).

Practical, timeless, pithy wisdom drawn from long experience, passed on to us because it is good, and right, and true, and it makes for good people, and good business, and good communities.

And yet, unless I am mistaken, the Book of Proverbs is far from prominent in our churches, in our families, in our personal devotions – perhaps most especially in preaching.

Indeed, in his commentary on the Book of Proverbs, John J. Collins writes, “With the exception of Leviticus, it is doubtful that any biblical book is viewed with less enthusiasm by the preacher.”[2]

But this too is the word of God written, given to us in the same way as the Gospels, and Epistles, and Genesis, and Isaiah, and the Psalms.

The “Introduction to Proverbs” in the NIV Zondervan Study Bible notes that:

Out of his grace, God gave the Mosaic law and the Prophets to his people in order to reveal his will after the fall into original sin in Adam.

But the book of Proverbs takes up those matters that are too fine to be caught in the mesh of the law and too small to be hit by the broadsides of the Prophets.

The proverbs concern themselves with qualities such as honesty, integrity, diligence, kindness, generosity, readiness to forgive, truthfulness, patience, humility, cheerfulness, loyalty, temperance, and self-control.[3]

Like all wisdom literature in the Bible, Proverbs applies its truths to the whole of life, and the whole of humankind. There’s not a lot to be learned about ancient Israel’s worship practices, or history, here.

Proverbs isn’t saying that those things are not important, but that the shaping of one’s character, and the living of a good moral life in response to divine revelation, is of greater worth than external acts.

This is what we find in Proverbs 15:8, “The Lord detests the sacrifice of the wicked, but the prayer of the upright pleases him.” Simple, short, to the point, practical, morally challenging.

The Bible teaches that our external acts, whether they are donations of time or money, or the exercise of our natural talents and spiritual gifts in the service of God, or our attendance and active participation in public worship, or whatever they may be, must be matched by heart engagement with the living God.

“The Lord detests the sacrifice of the wicked, but the prayer of the upright pleases him.”

Prayer is of greater value to God than all our hard work and sacrifice because it more effectively unites external action with heart engagement, with our emotions, our imagination, and our spirit.

How is your heart today? Do your actions, your giving, your sense of commitment to the cause, reflect a heart that is close to God, responsive to the gentle whispering or the intuitive command of the Holy Spirit, softened by God’s grace? Or is your heart cold, and heavy, and a long way from God this morning?

God respects and receives all our sacrifices. He knows our motives. He understands our good will. He observes our desire to do the right thing. But above all else, he wants to know us, to hear our prayers, to be a friend, to be a loving father to us.

Proverbs frequently despises lazy people, and commends good hard work (e.g. Prov 6:6-11; 26:13-16). But here in 15:8 we find the principle that, no matter how hard you work, no matter how much you achieve, no matter what extraordinary and costly and painful sacrifices you make on the outside, it’s what is on the inside that ultimately counts.

If you want to know what really pleases God, what brings delight to God’s heart, what gives joy to the Creator of the universe, it is this: the simple prayer of a good person.

“The Lord detests the sacrifice of the wicked, but the prayer of the upright pleases him.”

The first Christians understood this as they sought to follow Jesus. The apostles who had spent time with Jesus before his death knew he was devoted to prayer. They witnessed how he would spend time alone at night in prayer to his Father in heaven. They were present in the upper room when he prayed that magnificent prayer for the church, recorded for us in John 17:1-26.

They walked with him to Gethsemane, on the night of his betrayal, where he prayed for strength to fulfil his mission (Mt 26:36-41), and heard his rebuke: “Watch and pray, so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (v. 41).

The early church was a praying church.

Acts 1:14: “They all joined together constantly in prayer.”

Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves … to prayer.”

Acts 6:3-4: the apostles chose seven deacons to administer the church, and committed themselves to give their full attention to “prayer and the ministry of the word.”

Col 4:2: Paul urges his readers: “Devote yourselves to prayer.”

James 5:16b: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

1 Peter 3:12: “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”

This all accords with the principle expressed in Proverbs 15:8: “The Lord detests the sacrifice of the wicked, but the prayer of the upright pleases him.”

There are many things you can do to encourage growth and support the health of your church. The best thing you can do is to love God with all your heart, to walk with him every day, and to pray.


Sermon 655 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 7 February 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] The Macquarie Dictionary (third edn; Macquarie University: Macquarie Library, 1997).

[2] John J. Collins, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (Atlanta, GA: John Knox, 1980), p. 1.

[3] NIV Zondervan Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), p. 1192.

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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