Do not claim honor in the presence of the king, and do not stand in the place of great men; for it is better that it be said to you, "Come up here," than that you should be put lower in the presence of the prince, whom your eyes have seen.
Do not go out hastily to argue your case; otherwise, what will you do in the end, when your neighbor puts you to shame? Argue your case with your neighbor, and do not reveal the secret of another, lest he who hears it reproach you, and the evil report about you not pass away.
Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances. Like an earring of gold and an ornament of fine gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear. Like the cold of snow in the time of harvest Is a faithful messenger to those who send him, For he refreshes the soul of his masters.
Like clouds and wind without rain Is a man who boasts of his gifts falsely.
Sermon for the Seventeenth after Trinity
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Preaching on the Proverbs. It is a difficult task. As you heard the words of our text, what did you hear? Yes, you heard the Word of God. Yes, it was true and wise. But did it have a unifying theme? How did it sound to you? Can you tell me where these seemingly disconnected proverbs are going?
Obviously, this set of proverbs was chosen because Jesus used them, or the same wisdom, in the Gospel lesson this morning. He, too, said that it would be better to be invited up into higher glory than to be humiliated before others. But the rest of it - it speaks about arguing with your neighbor - real disputes that could land you in court. These proverbs address keeping confidence and not being a gossip. They speak about faithfulness and about both reproof given and reproof received. Finally they speak about boasting falsely. What they have in common is Wisdom. Our theme this morning is "Wisdom".
My dictionary at my desk says, "[Wisdom is the] power of judging rightly and following the soundest course of action, based on knowledge, experience, understanding, etc.". My favorite definition says that Wisdom is defined as the proper application of knowledge. I want you note that neither definition said that wisdom is the "best" or "most useful" or "most expedient" use of knowledge. The point is that Wisdom is proper, good, right, and helpful, but it is not always what seems "best", whatever that means. Wisdom is not always going to be popular. It is simply 'wise'.
Wisdom is the point of Proverbs. Some proverbs address specific pieces of wisdom and some talk about wisdom itself. Our text today talks about specific points of wisdom. If you think about them, they mostly speak about humility. Be humble before the king, be humble with your neighbor - at least humble enough to deal directly and personally with your neighbor rather than some other route. It also says not to reveal the secrets of another, another way of saying that we should let our grievances be between us and our neighbor, and not the subject of public gossip. Our text reminds us to be humble enough to receive reproof when it is spoken to us, and to treasure anyone who has the wisdom to offer us "wise reproof". We are urged to be humble enough to be faithful, and finally reminded not to boast, particularly falsely.
Wisdom is contained in those words, and yet they are recorded for us to teach us, that we may be wise and exercise wisdom. The very thought of wisdom in the abstract begs us to ask the question, "What is the best use of the information contained in these very proverbs?". How do we apply these proverbs in our lives wisely?
The answer is - or at least the answer begins with - listening to the proverbs and taking them to heart. We can profit from them only if we apply the lessons to our own lives and to what is going on in our world today. It is applied by doing precisely what Paul says in our Epistle lesson today, "walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."
We need to remember who we are and how we got to be here, as part of the body of Christ. We are sinners. The word is thrown around so much in churches that it seems to have lost its sting. "Of course we are sinners," you say. We say it as though it means nothing. What it really means is that we are not nice people. We are not good or wholesome. We are not the kind of people we want others to think we are, that we like to pretend to be. We dress nice, and we live in swell homes. We drive nice cars, and we hang out with "church people".
But we judge others. We gossip. We do things with no thought for the other person. Our behavior in this regard is like the congressman who has been in the news lately. He said one thing and did another, and the other thing he did was done for his own pleasure, without any thought about what it might do to the young man with whom he was in contact, or to his political party. We also often do and say things for our own advantage or our own reasons without thinking how we would feel if we were the recipients of such words or behavior - or how our doing or saying such things might play out in the lives of those around us. Everything we do or say is not evil or destructive, nor, hopefully, as perverse as the congressman's conduct - but there are times and places in which we take care of number one first, and forget the other guy.
Most people feel pretty good about themselves. They haven't actually murdered anyone. They haven't stolen things out of their neighbor's garage or house. They don't do drugs - leastwise not illegal drugs. We manage to keep our lives outwardly respectable, and publicly decent.
But God sees the heart. He sees the secret thoughts and desires, like the desires to dominate, the desires to injure, the desires to be just like someone else, or to be utterly different from them. He sees when we do or say things to get our way without considering how they impact others. He sees when we put ourselves and our goals above others, or above Him and His will and His Ways and His Word. God sees our sins even when no one else does. He knows the truth that we can hide from others by putting a good face on and speaking very pleasantly. He even knows the truths that we manage to hide from ourselves.
Yes, we are sinners. We are not nice people. If we saw one another as God sees us, I suspect we could never trust one another, or particularly like one another. We would know that most of the time other people are trying to take advantage of us for their own benefit, and putting another face on it and calling it "business," or "friendship," or "being helpful."
And I am sure that most of you are grumbling inside right now and saying, "How cynical! I am not like that! I am genuine with my friends." And sometimes you are, but sometimes you are not - that is what being sinful by nature means - and I can see the truth of it in myself, so I know it fits you as well. Listening and believing what I tell you here is what our text spoke about when it said "Like an earring of gold and an ornament of fine gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear." Solomon wasn't writing so much about the reprover here, as he was about the wisdom of listening to the truth, even if it doesn't strike one as happy news.
So, wisdom reminds us that we are not God's people because we are so good or such swell men and women that we just had to belong to that select group. We are God's people because He forgave us, and called us to be His own through the preaching of the Gospel, and has kept us as His own by Word and Sacrament ever since. We didn't come walking in the from door, God snuck us in past the purity sensors and washed us clean in Baptism, and refreshes us each week with the holy meal of Christ's body and blood in the Sacrament. There, but for the grace of God . . . we would be just like everyone else outside of the church - lost and condemned.
So humility is appropriate. It isn't fun, but it is the proper use of the knowledge of who we really are, and how we got to be God's people. So, we walk in that "manner worthy". That means visible humility toward others - even toward those we don't think deserve it, or who are "just not our type of people." It means gentleness with someone, even if we think they are a jerk! - or wrong! - or evil and manipulative. After all, we aren't so clean ourselves, except that God cleans us regularly! It means patience with one another, and with the processes that we go through in life. The "manner worthy" means that we bear with one another for the sake of one another and for the sake of the unity of the body of Christ.
Paul says that we do this "in love". We do it in love toward God, and from God. We also do it in love for one another. That wisdom stuff should teach us that we are all alike, and connected by God's choice of us. It isn't the "other guy" who doesn't belong here! We are the ones who desperately needed to be redeemed, restored, and forgiven. We have been called out darkness into Christ's marvelous light of love and salvation! The others, however we may perceive them with our flesh, are just like us, chosen and select of God, fit into this great puzzle together. None too good, and none too evil for our association.
Of course, that is all within the congregation. Of course there are people outside who are too wicked for our association. We can witness to them of the love and salvation which is in Christ Jesus, but we do ourselves a favor if we don't make professional criminals our associates, or hang out with the drug crowd, invite prostitutes into our homes. We can invite them here, with the hope that they will hear the Word of God and be saved - but outside of that, there are undesirables out in the world.
But within the church, here in the congregation, every single person is family. Every one here has been called by God, and their presence is God's choice, just as ours is. And when we are tempted to doubt that, or act as though it is not true, wisdom teaches us humility.
And knowing the Gospel, that Christ died on the cross for you, to pay the penalty you earned by your sins, Wisdom, that proper application of knowledge, works within you by the power of God to comfort you when you feel the pain of your sins. Knowing the love of Christ for you, and the gift that He has given you in this blessed Sacrament, Wisdom brings you faithfully to the altar to receive that gift and be strengthened in your faith and in your life in Christ day to day. Knowing that you have been Baptized, called by name by God, through His chosen servant, and forgiven, having been cleansed by the washing of water with the Word, you can daily return to your baptism and find strength and comfort there by contrition and repentance. As Luther tells us in the Small Catechism, you can daily drown that old sinful self in the waters of your baptism, and allow God to raise up that new man of righteousness and faith, to walk before God in holiness each day.
All of these things are wisdom, the proper application of knowledge about Jesus Christ, and about the love of God, and about who and what we are, and who and what we were, and how we got to be here. Our text speaks about wisdom, and the chief characteristic our text speaks about is humility. We should pray God blesses us with ears to hear, and hearts to believe, and the wisdom to live in it, for as Jesus said in the last verse of our Gospel lesson today, "For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted."
Our text says, "Like the cold of snow in the time of harvest Is a faithful messenger to those who send him, For he refreshes the soul of his masters." You know what Solomon meant. You know how refreshing a little cold air is in the heat of the harvest-time. God's Word is what we need for our refreshing and strength, even when it calls us to humility and repentance. What we really need is a little God-given Wisdom.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
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