The call of the two women - Proverbs 9:1-18
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
As people wait in eager anticipation for the next Star Wars film to be released in May- 'The Revenge of the Sith' I must confess that I am still feeling rather sorry for Anakin Skywalker, the soon to be Darth Vader. To be honest, I am not surprised he is confused and ends up as the dark, asthmatic monster of the evil Empire. You see, back in Episode II, every time the Jedi apprentice turns around, a spiritual master tells him to trust his feelings, search his feelings or follow his feelings. The trouble is the adolescent Anakin is a whirlpool of feelings. He feels love. He feels hate. He feels ambition, desire, frustration, fear, fury- you name it he feels it. And then, as if the poor fellow hasn't enough problems trying to identify and reign in his emotions, the Jedi master tells him to set aside his desires and do his duty. Well, which is it to be- follow the voice of feeling or the voice of duty?
But you know, Anakin's dilemma is also our dilemma living in the West at the beginning of the 21st century. We too are surrounded by conflicting voices. The dominant one is follow your feelings. We may not know what we think but we know what we feel- so if it feels good do it. What motivates many is the desire to 'feel happy', hedonism; the seeking of pleasure is the order of the day. But then we, and especially our younger people, are thrown into confusion when we are told that we should respect people and their property, that we should not cheat or lie. But if cheating and lying and showing disrespect is the only means for me feeling good then, why not? No wonder our schools and universities are bristling with Anakins and Anakinesses!
However, at the end of the day it all effectively boils down to two voices which vie for our attention: God's voice and the world's voice. Each reflecting two different outlooks: the first sees God at the centre of everything whilst the second sees man at the centre of everything. There is the God's eye view of life, where life is viewed from the vantage point of the one who knows all things. And because he is creator of all things, he is perfectly positioned to prescribe the best way we are to live, for, since he is the one who designed us, then he is the one who knows how we best function in his world. By way of stark contrast, man's standpoint is severely limited. Even the collective knowledge of the entire human race (assuming we could agree on what that is) is only a minute fraction of everything that could be known. Add to that the fact that we are very selective in what we see, ignoring things we find unpleasant or uncomplimentary, then our perception of reality is severely distorted and not very reliable. It is relative, fragmentary and desperately flawed. But rather than admit to this, people ignore it and blunder on regardless. In the fifth century BC Protagoras pronounced, 'Man is the measure of all things.' In the Renaissance, Leon Battista Alberti declared, 'A man can do all things if he will.' In the 19th century this self-confidence blossomed into an all out anti-god campaign, typified by Algenon Swinburn's 'Hymn of Man', 'Glory to Man in the highest! For Man is the Master of all things!' words which now seem more than a little hollow after the horrors of two World Wars. But it is still the dominant voice, whatever its particular manifestation-whether it be humanism, Marxism, post-modernism, they are all the offspring of the same spiritual harlot which seeks to depose God from his rightful place as ruler and replace him with ourselves.
And this is what the book of proverbs would tell us is the case. There are two ways to live: the way of wisdom and the way of folly. For the Bible, having wisdom is more than having information, it is having the ability to use that knowledge properly. Wisdom is the art of cultivating those skills and virtues which enable us to live in God's world, God's way. That means first of all seeing the world aright, viewing it as God sees it- a good world which operates both on the physical level and moral level according to certain laws and principles and we are to fit in with those. It also recognises that it is a scarred and fractured world, broken and dislocated by the effects of our sin. What is more it is a world which is the theatre of a spiritual war which we ignore at our peril. So wisdom is both descriptive and prescriptive. The wise person sees things as they are and then seeks to act accordingly. So there are wise ways of doing things which have good effects and foolish ways which have harmful effects. Growing in wisdom involves gaining the ability to discern which is which.
But there is also a 'worldly wisdom' operating too. This says we make our own rules. We are pragmatic- going for what 'works'. We re-work reality if we don't like it for we can do whatever we decide to do. So if we don't like our gender, we can have a sex change. If we don't want to be pregnant we have an abortion. If we don't like history we just re-write it. But, as we shall see in a moment, there is a terrible price to pay when we go down that particular road.
Now, these two contrasting and conflicting ways of living are presented to us in Proverbs 9 in the form of two women calling out to gain our attention: Miss Wisdom and Miss Folly. And as is the stuff of many a TV programme we are going to take a tour of their houses and have a taste of their table.
First of all we have a contrast of two women. Miss Wisdom and Miss Folly are presented as mirror images of each other look at vv 1-6: Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn out its seven pillars. She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her maids, and she calls from the highest point of the city. "Let all who are simple come in here!" she says to those who lack judgment. "Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of understanding.' Then v13, 'The woman Folly is loud; she is undisciplined and without knowledge. She sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the highest point of the city, calling out to those who pass by, who go straight on their way. "Let all who are simple come in here!" she says to those who lack judgment. "Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious!"'
I said that they are mirror images of each other, that isn't quite right is it? Miss Folly is more of a distorted mirror, throwing up a grotesque image as in one of those halls of mirrors at a fair. She is a parody of the real thing. And of course that is the nature of evil and sin. Evil is a distortion of the good. It has no existence of itself, it is parasitic. Vices are virtues driven to excess or applied in the wrong context. So greed is the food instinct unchecked. Lust is the sex instinct gone wrong. Pride is self-worth grossly inflated and so on. And the closer the lie gets to the truth then the more effective and enticing it becomes. So the advocates of permissiveness shout, 'There is nothing wrong with sex'. The Christian would agree. But would qualify it by adding there is everything wrong with it when it is flouted, exploited and taken out of its proper setting which is marriage. At first glance, both these women seem to be offering the same thing- a home to live in and a meal to eat, but on closer inspection we discover that the contrast could not be greater. One offers plenty the other offers poison.
So let's take a look at Miss Wisdom first. She offers the best house-v1. This is really a mansion upheld by seven pillars (seven being the number of perfection-wholeness). Nothing is going to cause this house to collapse. It is sturdy and enduring. As such it is also vast, able to accommodate the many and it is always open house.
She also offers the best food-v2, meat and wine mixed with spices. She is the quintessential banquet director. You want a caterer for your wedding party? Then this is your woman.
What is more she offers the best promotion-v3. She sends out her maids to invite people in. She herself stands at the highest point in the city so everyone can see her and hear her. In other words she is vigorously active, going out of her way so that as many people as possible can have the opportunity of taking what she is making freely available. She is not selfish about it, there is prodigality about this wisdom, it is the great giveaway. And what she says is so inviting, it is an offer you can't or shouldn't refuse-vv 4-6. What she puts on is not just out of the good food guide, this is the good living guide at its best. People are called to leave their simple ways- that is shallow, superficial lives and really live. This is about quality life. We are invited to 'walk in the ways of understanding' that is, our whole direction in life, what motivates us, and guides us is to be an enlightened one.
But you don't find any of this with Miss Folly do you? Miss Wisdom calls out, she is smart, reasoning- but Miss Folly is simply 'loud'-v13, what we would call a 'loud mouth'-brash and vulgar. She is 'undisciplined and without knowledge' appealing more to impulse rather than intelligence. She is also lazy. Did you notice how in v14 and 15 she just sits at the door of her house and can't be bothered to go out and contact people, she just waits for them to come passing by and then bellows at them. Where I was brought up we had a woman just like this-she would sit on the doorstep, shout at the kids and the neighbours. Everyone called her 'Jaws'. And what she does is to appeal to people's sinful nature. Did you spot that in v17? Appealing to that desire lurking just beneath the surface which says 'Go on, you know you want to.' Somehow stolen water tastes better than bought water. Why else do people who can afford it-like the actress Wynona Ryder, shoplift? It gives them a thrill. As one young student put it: 'It is forbidden to forbid'. Miss Folly would have that saying emblazoned over her doorway. But the consequences are dire- v18 But little do they know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of the grave.'
Now without doubt, Miss Folly is the dominant voice of today. You hear her voice on Oprah. She writes the editorials in most of the daily newspapers. She is the Agony Aunt of the teenage magazine. She is social policy advisor of all the major political parties. She is a professor at our universities and the chief controller of BBC, ITV and Channels 4 and 5. She is the spinmistress supremo, master of the soundbite. She speaks in the name of 'liberation', 'freedom' 'rights' and 'choice'. Assumed rather than argued values. Those who oppose her are 'oppressed', 'narrow' and the killer put down of all- 'puritanical'. Miss Folly has more or less had free reign now for over 40 years. Now tell me, do not the results of the great 'liberal experiment' fit the description of verse 18 to the letter? The dead are in her house. It is a house of horror.
Let's take one tragic instance of this the rise in teenage abortions. Now over 3,500 girls under 16 have their pregnancies terminated every year. Think of how many are involved in under age sex. Add to this the undermining of parental responsibility for children, for now they are being offered abortions without their parents consent. The result? Not only a rise in pregnancies but of sexually transmitted diseases. This comes in part from the thinking of Miss Folly that children are mini- adults when they are not. Here is Melanie Phillips, not a Christian, but an honest thinker commenting on these trends: 'What they (Children) actually need are firm boundaries that tell them certain behaviour is wrong and that it inevitably carries unpleasant consequences. But instead, when it comes to alcohol, drugs and sex, the adult world has ripped up those boundaries and effectively told children to go ahead and indulge-provided they are careful- and then express mortification when they are not. Some influential people actively want to promote a breakdown in conventional norms of behaviour. Many other in official circles believe-wrongly-that government is helpless to resist the great cultural movement towards a behavioural free for all.' And she is right.
The name of the game is, 'Get rid of boundaries'. But that can only happen in dreamland. Films and TV Soaps can write stories which have no boundaries and contrive endings in which everyone 'lives happily ever after'. But real life is not like that. It is harsh and it is cruel. Boundaries are in place to protect us not to enslave us. There is after all, the boundary of the school yard fence as well as the boundary of the prison wall.
Sexual promiscuity and experimentation is not clever; it is emotionally damaging; and it does not lead, long term, to sexual satisfaction. We now have other research that confirms that those most satisfied with their sexual lives and the most sexually adjusted are those who keep to biblical standards. The massive recent Sex in America survey found that those who had the most fun in bed were wait for it-married Conservative Protestants.
This leads on to the contrast of Miss Wisdom. She shows us that God's ways are the best ways-empirically this is being proved. It's as if you don't just have to take the Bible's word for it- experience bears it out. When Miss Wisdom says in v 6, 'you will live' she means it, in some cases, quite literally. Two years ago New Scientist carried reports on its evaluation of happiness studies. They showed that Protestant Christians are the happiest of all denominations and evangelicals the happiest of all. They also found that other things significant in happiness are: making friends, getting married and doing good for others. The very stuff of Miss Wisdom and Proverbs. Least important are: intelligence, good looks and money- the stuff of Miss Folly and the media. Interestingly enough, most significant was genetics, some folk naturally seem to be better disposed towards happiness than others (I think I missed out on the happy gene- that comes from my Dad's side). But, when it comes to behaviour, you can't beat following Christ and living according to his ways.
However, we are not to think that when these facts are reported they will be well received or given the widest publicity. They won't. Hence, the inevitable two responses- vv7-9.
In verse 7-8a we have the stance of the unbeliever. He does not argue, he mocks. If you try and correct him, he will abuse you. A few weeks ago one of our members told me how she had leant a book by the Christian writer James Dobson on raising boys. Dobson does believe in boundaries and the importance of discipline as an expression of love. She said this was then passed on to the head of the Social Work department in the university in which she worked. His response? Not, 'the writer's arguments are weak', or 'his methods have been tested and failed'. No. It was, 'When there is a public burning of this man's books I want to be there to help with the bonfire.' That is the voice of the mocker-the fool.
But the believer on the other hand is a realist and is humble enough to know he hasn't all the answers. He is open to correction- v 8b rebuke a wise man and he will love you. And open to instruction v 9, Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning.' So could I ask how open are you to being corrected? How willing are you to learn? Because the answer given will be the measure to which you are wise.
So what is it that we need in order to see our society pulled up out of the mire in which it finds itself wallowing. A new moralism? Hardly, that simply adds guilt to frustration. More education, then? No, that just produces clever sinners. What is needed is a new power and new direction and this can only come about by having a new relationship- with God. And so we turn to the basis of true wisdom. It is no accident that v10 forms the pivotal point of this sermon in Proverbs, separating the two women on either side. Look at what it says: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.' This lies at the heart of God's covenant relationship with his people. The 'fear of the Lord' is mentioned over 25 times in the Book of Deuteronomy. What is that fear? One writer says it means 'to take God with utmost seriousness as the premise and perspective from which life is to be discerned and lived. That 'utmost seriousness' requires attentiveness to some things rather than others, to spend one's energies in response to this God who has initiated our life.' (Walter Brueggemann).
Isn't that precisely what we find being offered in the Lord Jesus, whom the apostle Paul says 'Has become our wisdom from God' ? He too calls out to us; 'Take my yolk upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.' He too presents us with two ways to live- the broad path which leads to destruction or the narrow path which leads to life. There is only one voice we are to listen to, one person to whom we are to spend our energies serving- the One testified to by the voice from heaven when he declared, 'This is my beloved Son, listen to him.' Let us pray.
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