This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 23rd September 2018. It was a service at which Holy Communion was shared and my last service as minister of that congregation.
Proverbs 31:10-31; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Today is a day of mixed emotion for me because it is my last Sunday in Morwell. While I hope as many of you as can come to Newborough will do so next week, today is my final service in this building and the last time I will preside at Holy Communion in Gippsland. I shall leave any profound words of parting until next week’s service, but I am pleased to say that today’s readings offer me some excellent words of wise departure. So, yes there is mixed emotion: I am looking forward to the future (mine and yours), and I do get to teach from one of my favourite preaching passages Proverbs 31:10-31; but it is also time to say goodbye.
But before goodbye, and before Proverbs 31, let’s have a look at James as we have been doing all month. Last week we read how Jacob commends the work of a teacher to only the bravest and surest of Christians, and how everybody who walks the Way of God must guard his or her speech, and in today’s reading from James 3:13-4:5 we read more about what the wise actually do with their wisdom. When a wise person is found and is set aside as a teacher let that person model gentle wisdom; let him or her avoid and denounce arrogance and corrupted ambition, and let the congregation follow that example. Jacob reminds us of what was written in James 1:6 that any one of us can and should ask God for whatever we need, confident in God’s grace to provide and confident because of God’s wisdom previously given that whatever we are asking after is good. The evidence that a supposed answer to prayer really has come from the grace of God is that it displays the character of God – pure, peaceable, gentle and considerate, submitted and willing to yield, full of mercy, impartial, sincere and not hypocritical. Does that sound like the answers to your prayers? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, more yes than no I hope. But if not I urge you to keep pressing in because God is faithful and it’s okay that we are still learning that.
One of the signs of the Kingdom of God, a sign that it has come and a sign that it is on its way, it peace. God is not a deity of war, God is peace and God is love. That is not to say that God cannot or does not fight, or that God did not strengthen the Hebrew, Israelite and Judahite armies back in the day, but the end of God’s engagement in battle is not empire or territory but peace and rest. So, when Jacob writes in James 4:1-3 that war is caused by human ambition, the temptations of power and the accrual of stuff, then we know he is speaking with God’s wisdom. When peace is brought about righteousness shall flourish amongst all people and especially amongst the peacemakers: where conflicts arise or remain these come from competitiveness and from self-seeking desires for something other than God. Choose God or choose the world as your source of identity, says Jacob, because you cannot have both. Jacob makes it very plain that to try to have the best of the world (stuff, power, honour) and the fullness of God is to engage in idolatry and adultery. Indeed, the New American Standard Bible specifies adulteresses in James 4:4 and the Complete Jewish Bible says unfaithful wives in reference to Hebrew traditions that God is husband to Israel.
So, follow God. Seek God, learn the wisdom of God, walk in the way of God, and live in a world where righteousness is rising, and peace is flooding. To live otherwise is not only disobedient it is disrespectful, in fact it’s kind of slutty – male or female.
Speaking of male and female, but not of slutty, have a look at Proverbs 31:10-31. The first thing I want to tell you about this passage is that it is directed at married women. That should be obvious. Why should it be obvious? Well it’s obvious in a more than obvious way, and also in a less than obvious way. This passage is directed at married women because…it speaks about a wife, and a great wife at that. But, that’s the less than obvious way. The more than obvious way that this passage is directed at married women is because it’s scripture and all scripture is useful for teaching and exhortation through the inspiration of the Spirit of Holiness. It’s Bible, it’s directed at everyone, wives included. So yes, it’s a passage for wives but it’s a passage not just for wives. It’s a passage for women who have never married, and it’s for all men, married or otherwise. In James 4:4 we read Jacob calling to church away from love of the world, hatred of God, to the faithfulness God as husband deserves. In Proverbs 31:10-31 we read perhaps the words of the mother of Lemuel to her son the king, perhaps the words of Abraham to his beloved wife Sarah, perhaps someone else writing as God’s instrument, what faithfulness to God as husband looks like.
The address in Proverbs 31:10 is often rendered in English as “capable wife” or “such a wife”, but that really waters down the Hebrew sense. The New King James Version says it best with a courageous wife, but even that falls short. The best translation is “woman of valour”. She is heroic, mighty and strong – she’s a Deborah, maybe she’s even a Boudicca. And in that phrase at least she’s a “woman”, not necessarily someone’s spouse.
Much as I’d love to unpack this reading for you we don’t have time for two sermons, or perhaps three. I really like Proverbs 31:10-31, so I have needed to contain myself and keep the focus on James 4 and how the proverbs of Hebrew Wisdom connect with the Hebrew wisdom Jacob wrote almost 1000 years later. So, I’m going to focus on one of many different interpretations of this passage, because that’s the one that best matches with what Jacob wrote. That’s not to say other readings of “The Proverbs 31 Woman” are not correct, or less correct, or less good, it’s just that today’s version matches today’s context.
So, today let me say that the woman in Proverbs 31:10-31 is not an actual woman. This is not, as far as today’s message is concerned, a book of instructions for Christian wives nor is it a checklist for Christian bachelors in search of a wife. If you are a “Proverbs 31 Woman” then I commend you, and let me express my sincere hope that your husband is one as well: here’s why, because this is a poem about wisdom. The woman in Proverbs 31 is a metaphor for wisdom: Sophia in Greek, Hochma in Hebrew, Sapienta in Latin and regardless of your gender or your marital status this is how you are supposed to act as a member of the people of God, (and a disciple of Christ). Be resilient, be trustworthy, be industrious, be wise, be righteous, be generous, be prudent, be loving, be compassionate, be brave, be virtuous, be humble, be bold, be kind, be vigilant, be honest, be honourable, be an example. These are the attributes of wisdom personified, these are the attributes of Jesus, these are the attributes we should aspire to and the characteristics we should display.
And so, when we read in James 4:6-10 that God not only desires our loyalty, but our submission, we read with the eyes of a wise woman or man. We understand that God does not need minions or sycophants, that we are to be submissive, but that we are to live submitted to God, honouring God as LORD and pursuing God’s desires for us to have wisdom aware that wisdom is best found in God. Loyalty to God brings loyalty from God. Imagine that the wife of noble character, “The Proverbs 31 Woman” is a real-life wife and mother and think of how her husband, the father of her children would treat her. Can you imagine God looking at you like that? Wisdom says it’s true, that God does look at you like that when you pursue wisdom. We are told, if we choose to believe it, in Proverbs 3:34 that God comes close in all faithfulness and love. Jacob further encourages us in James 4:8a that the healing grace of God will transform for the better the one who comes to God in desperate hope and openness. Come with confidence, come without doubt or double-mindedness, come to the one who welcomes you as the best beloved of all beloved ones.
Come and receive all that the faithful One has prepared for you.