Something Bitter, Something Better

The last month or so we’ve been reflecting on the Proverbs,
trying to let one of Scripture’s primary voices of wisdom 
guide us in the art of human life—
what it means to live truly alive kinds of lives.

One of the best ways to approach the proverbs is to “chew on them”—
to let them sit with us for a while until their verbal origami begins to unfold 
and we begin to understand the layers and depths of wisdom 
that have encapsulated as a micro-poem.

Today we’re going to practice chewing on yet another proverb,
and then I think we’re going to be in Proverbs for three more weeks.

Next week we’re going to be reflecting on 
“what does it mean when the Proverbs contradict each other?”

and then in two weeks we’re going to reflect a little on
“what happens when the proverbs don’t work?”

and then I think we want to reflect just a little on the way the book of Proverbs ends.

This is the proverb that I want us to chew on today:

(14.12) There is a way that appears to be right,
    but in the end it leads to death.

There are two layers of this proverb that have been standing out to me this week—
the bitter layer and the better layer.

I thought we could reflect on both of those layers briefly,
and then we’ll come to the table.

First, the bitter layer—
I’m not sure that this is the way we initially read the proverb,
but on one level this is just looking at the appearance of things.

To see the way things are.

No matter how we live,
no matter what path we choose,
the way eventually leads to death.

We can take the path that appears to be right—
we can watch the carbs, we exercise regularly, 
we can devote ourselves to doing good and serving others,
but even that leads to death.

On some level, 
this proverb seems to be saying that all ways lead to death—
even the one that seems right.

If that’s the case, this is a bitter tasting proverb.
But perhaps that’s just a realistic view of the world.

There are two other wisdom books in the Hebrew Scriptures (Job and Ecclesiastes)
and both of them wrestle with the bitter appearance of how the world works.

About a quarter of the way through the book of Job,
Job himself is wrestling with the reality that his life has fallen apart—
his children have all died, his wealth has disappeared, he has fallen chronically ill—
and he eventually blurts out:

(Job 9.21-22)
“Although I am blameless,
    I have no concern for myself;
    I despise my own life.
It is all the same; that is why I say,
    ‘He [God] destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’

Job has led a blameless life,
consistently honoring God,
doing all the right things.

The way appeared to be right.
But it’s leading to death.

Because God destroys both the blameless and wicked.

Everyone dies no matter what path they take.

The book of Ecclesiastes is wrestling with this reality 
through every single one of its twelve chapters.

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes writes in chapter nine:

(Eccl 9.1-3)
All share a common destiny—
the righteous and the wicked, 
the good and the bad, 
the clean and the unclean, 
those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.

As it is with the good,
    so with the sinful;
as it is with those who take oaths,
    so with those who are afraid to take them.

This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: 
The same destiny overtakes all.

Try embroidering that onto a teddy bear.

That’s got a bitter taste to it too, huh?

All of the human race has got a common destiny.

The righteous, the wicked, the good, the bad,
those who offer sacrifices and those who do not—
the same evil destiny overtakes everyone.

All the paths end in death—
even the ones that appear right.

At one level, this proverb tastes bitter
and is trying to prepare us for the way the world is.

There’s a myth that circulates in all of hearts—

the myth that if we can just pick the right path
I can guarantee that things are going to work out right.

If we can just budget and invest our money well enough,
if we can just make the right decisions about discipline and education for our kids,
if we can just maneuver the career just so,
and eat the right things and do the right things and honor God in the right ways,

then things 
are going to work out 
the way we want them to.

But at some point in all of our lives, 
the myth vanishes.

The economy tanks,
the children rebel,
the career collapses,
the body stops working,

We’re left saying

“Well, It looked like a good path, 
it looked like a good decision,
it looked like a good relationship,
but things are unravelling.”

“I guess I’ve chosen the wrong path.
Because this path has led to death.”

And perhaps this proverb wants to give us some bitter comfort:

“Even the way that appears to be right leads to death.
Don’t worry. You’re right here with the rest of us.”

And bitter thought that is,
it really is a form of comfort.

We all run into seasons where things unravel—
where the path unexpectedly drops into darkness and death.

And this proverb telling us bitter news
in the hope that we won’t get bitter.

The path looks good, 
but it leads to death.
“Don’t be surprised,” 
the proverb seems to say with Job and Ecclesiastes,
“get ready… this is the way the world is,”

That’s the first layer—the bitter layer.

But there’s a second layer—the better layer.

If there bitter layer gives us bitter news 
so that we don’t get bitter,
the better layer gives us inside information
so that we can choose better.

If the first layer is concerned with the appearance of things
(“this is just the way the world is”)
then the second layer is concerned with us looking beyond the appearance of things.

After all, there’s a way of living, a way of being, a way of traveling,
that appears to be good, to be straight, to be right
but it’s not.

In fact, it’s leading in the opposite direction.

It’s headed toward destruction.
It’s headed toward death.

And so do something about it!

There’s a second layer that wants us to recognize 
that very often it’s not the bad-looking path that leads us death and destruction
but the good-looking path. 

It’s not the path where we’re pursuing evil things that often trips us up,
but the path where we’re pursuing good things.

The proverbs is full of examples of this,
so I thought I’d put a few them on a slide too.

(16.32) Better a patient person than a warrior,
    one with self-control than one who takes a city.

(17.1) Better a dry crust with peace and quiet
    than a house full of feasting, with strife.

(21.9) Better to live on a corner of the roof
    than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.

The proverbs are not saying that a strong body—
that the physical strength of a warrior—is a bad thing.

It’s a good thing.

And having plenty to eat 
and having a life-long partner in life (in a husband or a wife)—
these aren’t bad things.

Strength is a good thing.
Prosperity is a good thing.
A husband or wife is a good thing.

There’s a layer to which this proverb is asking
“can you discern between ‘the good’ and ‘the better’?”

Can you tell the difference 
between the path that appears good
and the path that is actually better?

Because it’s better to be single
(shivering alone in the cold, scorching alone in the heat)
than having a spouse who wants to fight with you.

Just some pieces of dry crust are better 
than feasting and prosperity and job promotions 
without love and intimacy.

The extent to which you can control your body
and guide your emotions and steer your appetites 
is far more important—it’s far better—
than how much you can bench press or your dress size.
On this level, Wisdom is asking us about the path we’re on—
about our priorities, about what we’re aiming at.

Wisdom is asking us,
are there ways, are there paths, are there directions in our lives?
that need to be reevaluated?

Because it’s possible 
for us to be pursuing good things 
in the wrong ways.

We’re so focused on a particular good thing,
that we can’t see all of the better things that we’re ignoring and trampling.

And we sacrifice better things in the name of a good thing:

Time and intimacy with our family
for the sake of prosperity.

Honesty, integrity, and lasting peace
for the sake of fleeting pleasure.

Learning to understand the difference between the good and the better—
that’s at the heart of what it means to come to this table— 
at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus.

When Jesus calls us to follow him, he says:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves 
and take up their cross and follow me.

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, 
but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”
(Matt 16.24-25)

We all want to save our lives—
to realize our full potential, 
to live our lives to the fullest.

That’s how we spend most of our lives.
“Saving our lives” is what guides 
most of our thinking and most our doing 
on a day-to-day basis.

But Jesus says there is entirely different path—an utterly other way of living.

A path that looks bitter but is actually better.
And it’s the life of following him.

Every path eventually leads to death—
even the blameless, sinless, selfless way of Jesus led him to death.

But the way of Jesus is the only way that doesn’t end in death.

The life of Jesus came to an end
only to be vindicated and resurrected by God.

Jesus is more alive than ever,
and will one day flood the world with his life
and destroy everything that destroys the world.

“We’re all going to be surprised,” the church says,
“Get ready… this is the way the world is.”

The way of Jesus is the only way that ends in life—
it’s the the only way that doesn’t end in death.

We could go further, though, 
because the way of Jesus is the only way that starts with death.

It starts with the cross.

With Jesus shouldering the weight of the world—
bearing death of the world for the sake of the world.
Jesus does this because he loves the world.

There’s no requirement saying that he must do it,
there’s no contract saying that he has to do it,

there’s just the love of God in Jesus saying,
“I love, and I will give myself up for you. 
And that won’t be the end.”

And that—that is what we’re invited to follow.

We’ve said it before,
but the life of wisdom is just a life of learning to participate in this love.

The truly alive life is our learning to believe this love,
to receive this love, and then follow this love.

Jesus has already saved the world by giving himself up—
by surrendering himself in love.

And we’re invited to participate in this kind of death too—
to participate in his death.

This is the absurdity—the craziness, the wildness—
of what we believe as Christians.

We believe that there IS a way that leads to life—
it just happens to be the way of the cross.

We believe that giving up our lives
is better than keeping our lives.

It’s like Jesus turns this proverb on its head and says,
there is a way that appears to be wrong
but in the end it leads to life.

The call of Jesus might sound bitter too,
but in reality it’s the better way.

It’s only the way.

Let’s bow our heads and prepare to come to the table this morning…

As we prepare to come to the table this morning, 
are there areas in your life that unraveling?
That it seemed like a good way,
but it’s just not working?

May God bring you rest and refreshment here.

Are there things that you’ve been pursuing—good things—
that are actually bringing you death?

May God bring you wisdom and strength 
to choose “the better” over “the good.”

Are you discouraged that every path seems to lead to death?

May God fill you with trust and hope here—
Jesus is alive, and he will make all things new.

And may you take up your cross and follow him.

On the night in which he gave himself up for us,
Our Lord Jesus took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread
gave it to his disciples, and said:
“Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”

Likewise, when the supper was over, he took the cup,
gave thanks to you, gave it to his disciples, and said:

”Drink from this, all of you,
this is my blood of the new covenant,
poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

And so, in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ,
we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving
as a holy and living sacrifice,
in union with Christ’s offering for us,
as we proclaim the mystery of faith:

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here,
and on these gifts of bread and wine.

Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ,
redeemed by his blood.

By your Spirit make us one with Christ,
one with each other,
and one in ministry to all the world,
until Christ comes in final victory
and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,