This is the message I preached at Kingscote on 13th September and Stokes Bay 20th September 2015.
Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13:-4:3, 7-8a.
The great theme of the Bible, indeed of the entire Christian message including the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the Kingdom of God. Well that’s the way I look at things. Some have said that Christ’s message is all about love for neighbour, enemy, and self, and that “love is love”. Others believe Jesus came primarily to preach the cross and his own sacrificial death as substitution for our sins. Still others believe that Christianity is a social message about getting into the streets and the gutters to save the bruised, abandoned, lost and broken. Each of these Christianities is thought to be the most genuine and faithful following of Jesus Christ: more than just a set of beliefs about God they are a way of living and being in the world. We have been told that Christianity is not a religion, it is a lifestyle.
Christianity is a lifestyle of love above all else, a lifestyle of salvation by faith above all else, and a lifestyle of social action on behalf of the poor above all else. If we, you and I, were really Christians we’d be out there marching under the rainbow flag demanding equality for all of God’s children to love whomever they wish, since a literal interpretation of the Word of God says in 1 John 4:8 that God is love. If we, you and I, were really Christians we’d be out there standing across the road from those marching under the rainbow flag preaching the cross and sacrificial atonement for sins since a literal interpretation of the Word of God says in Romans 1:18 that the wrath of God is being revealed from Heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. If we, you and I, were really Christians we’d be well away from anyone doing any marching because we’d be hanging out in secret in hospices and drop-in centres talking to the poor, sick, smelly and afraid, since a literal interpretation of the Word of God says in Luke 10:36-37 that Jesus asked him “which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell among robbers?” and the expert in the Law replied “the one who had mercy on him”, and Jesus told him “go and do likewise”.
Hmm, it’s hard to be all three of those at once, but which one do we choose? Which real Christianity is the genuine one? In another way of thinking, if Jesus were here in his human form where would he be? Would he be with the rainbow flag-wavers, would he be preaching faith in himself to the rainbow flag-wavers from across the road, or would he be sitting with the broken while the fornicating idolaters and the self-righteous Pharisees shout amongst themselves? In the Spirit he can do all three, but in the flesh which one, at the expense of the other two, would he choose?
Well, as I say my Christianity right now is based on the idea of the Kingdom of God. When I read the Bible, or hear a sermon, or speak and listen in prayer, I always have an eye or an ear out for “what is this saying about the Kingdom of God”? How does this message address the issue of what the world would be like if God was King, and Elizabeth Mountbatten-Windsor or Sir Peter Cosgrove, or Hieu Van Le were merely divinely appointed deputies? What would a human Jesus be doing in that situation? Well for me, in that mindset, the answer is actually pretty simple. Jesus would be doing whatever makes God the Father look good. After all if you trust your king, and your king is ruling well, then why wouldn’t you want to support his reign and tell everyone else how good your king is and how much better off they would be living under his reign than the reign of the tyrants and fools in other kingdoms? Hmm, that sounds like praise and evangelism to me; but praise and evangelism with the specific message of the reign of God.
So, now I need to ask myself the question, how do I make God look good? What would a life under the reign of God look like? Well of course the first place I would want to look is to the wisdom of God that we find that in the Bible, and specifically in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. Let us look at Proverbs 31:10-31.
The first thing I notice here is that in the NIV this passage is entitled “Epilogue”. As someone who has a degree in English I’m pretty sure that means that what we’re going to read here is a summary of what has gone before. This is the whole book of Proverbs, all thirty and a half chapters of it, in twenty-two verses. So that’s point one: it’s all here in concentrated form.
Two. It’s about a woman. Relax blokes, you’re off the hook. Really? No. In the Hebrew languages as well as Greek and Latin, the words for wisdom are feminine terms. You may know that many languages have genders for all nouns, well here the word is feminine; but that does not mean it applies only to female people. Nonetheless the words in each of those languages Hokmah, Sophia, and Sapienta are feminine, and indeed one of those we immediately recognise as a girl’s name and another as the species designator for ourselves. We are Homo sapiens, “wise Man”.
Three. It’s about a wife. Excellent, it applies only to married people. Really? No. We already know it’s feminine, now we hear that it’s talking about management and stewardship of one’s own resources. The concept of a wife, mistress of her own home, is a suitable metaphor for a feminine domestic steward but it’s just that. Metaphor. This is a story about a wife but it’s a message for everyone.
Four. So this is the story of what a wise steward looks like, one who manages on behalf of herself and of her master. This is a poem about a manager from the director’s perspective, a wife in whom her husband has full confidence.
So, what is she like? Well in verse twelve she brings benefit to her master, so that’s a good thing. In verses thirteen, fourteen, nineteen, and twenty-four she is good at what she does, proficient in her craft and a preferred supplier for others. In verses fifteen and seventeen she is hardworking and comprehensive in all she does. In verses sixteen, eighteen, twenty-five and twenty-six she is discerning. In verse twenty she is generous and hospitable. In verse twenty-one she is responsible and forward thinking. In verses twenty-two and twenty-seven she is capable and honourable. In verses twenty-three and twenty-eight she is respected because she is respectful and respectable. And in verses twenty-nine to thirty-one she is lauded as best of the best.
This woman is hardworking and she acts with foresight to ensure provision and resources. She is to be trusted completely, she is worthy of respect and her value is beyond price. Who wants an employee like that? Who wants to be an employee like that in the context of God being the boss? Who wants to hear God list off those things about you before pronouncing “good and faithful servant”? I’m sure that if this story had appeared in Matthew rather than Proverbs Jesus would have said “the Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman…”
Five. This is a parable of excellence in Christian life and witness. Despite centuries of misuse in this direction it is not a shopping list for eligible bachelors or a checklist for desperate spinsters. “Oh if only I could be a Proverbs 31 Woman” cries the desperate, boyfriend-less girl at the Church Youth camp. We should all want to be a “Proverbs 31 Wife”, even those of us who are male and unmarried.
So what would happen if we actually did this? How does it benefit us if we work hard at making the boss look good? Does it even matter? After all so long as God gets the glory it really doesn’t matter whether we are crushed or killed in the process since it’s all about God after all. Right? Hmm, well the evidence of the wife of noble character, or the valorous woman as Rachel Held Evans calls her, seems to offer a different outcome. While it is true that the Proverbs 31 woman is hard-working and up at all hours at the loom, the wharf, and her children’s bedsides she seems pretty happy with her life don’t you think?
But if the testimony of truth is proven by two or more witnesses then we’d best look elsewhere too. So let’s flip over to Psalm 1 and have a look there. What this passage describes is the consequences of life lived according to the rules of wisdom. Remember wisdom? That’s Missus Sophia to you, the Valorous Woman and Wife of Noble Character. And what’s her story? Look at verse three. In all that she shall do she shall prosper. Again we already knew that from Proverbs 31, but here we get the impression that she is not successful at the price of burn-out. The person in Psalm 1:1 is “happy”, or “blessed and to be envied”. I don’t know about you but if I were to envy anyone it would be someone who is happy, not someone who is wealthy-but-grumpy or someone who is faithful-but-complaining. “Yeah thanks for the compliment but I really can’t enjoy the glory of my workmanship because my lord gets all the credit and I just feel used and forgotten.” If that were the answer given to your word of praise and encouragement you probably wouldn’t want to have much more to do with that person, or with his boss, would you? But the master of the Proverbs 31 Wife, the Bridegroom of the Church, is one who strengthens us to be the envy of the world and to stand in the congregation of the righteous (Psalm 1:5).
So let’s do that. Let’s all be women and men of valour. Let’s all be women and men of noble character. Let’s all be ones about whom our master is praised in the business places of our town because of our godly example and our notable prosperity as happy and diligent people. Let’s live such big lives that God gets all the glory, knowing that we are not forgotten and that we will find our reward in a life supported by our loving king and the promise of rest and eternal enjoyment of God when we are done.
If the Kingdom of God is like someone who cannot wait to tell everyone about how good their life is because of how great their God is, then I want to live in such a place. Because I want to live in such a place I want to tell everyone about it so that they can live there too. I want to tell everyone no matter what side of the rainbow flag upon which they stand or on what side of the tracks they find a bed, because to declare my God’s glory is to make my God look inviting as king, saviour, and lord.