Sunday, March 1, 2020

Righteous!: Sermon on Proverbs 10-11

It wasn't a long trip for them to catch him. They were the posse formed by the high priest, determined to put the man to death. He spent his time in the temple courts, on his knees day and night in prayer for his people and their salvation. So it was a short trip. They got their hands on him, and gathered a crowd around. This time – the rare time between governors – was the high priest's best chance to pressure the man, through threat of death, to publicly renounce his teachings. And the man's reputation among his sect was so high – he was esteemed so righteous, and so committed to the Law – that it would surely break the back of the movement. But when they took the man to the nearest high wall, he would not recant. He kept proclaiming his commitment to this one they called Jesus, whom he'd grown up alongside. And so they pushed this 'Righteous One' over, and appointed men below grabbed their stones and pelted him. And before the day was done, 'James the Righteous' was with his Lord at last. Acts of the Apostles doesn't quite reach this end to his story – it only tells us he, James the brother of Jesus, was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, enjoying seniority there even over Peter and John. But as soon as we step beyond the New Testament, history tells us that James bore a nickname: 'James the Just,' or 'James the Righteous.' Over and over again, in the stories of his death, those who persecute him taunt him with just that reputation: “We and the whole people testify that you are righteous,” everyone addresses James as “Righteous One.” The word is unavoidable: 'Righteous.' What's that all about?

Throughout the Old Testament, the word 'righteous' or 'righteousness' shows up a lot. It's all over the place. It isn't a word we use as much today. Originally, it seems to have meant something that was straight – a straight line, as opposed to a crooked one; a straight stick, as opposed to a bent one. And from that, it came to mean anything that measured up to a norm, a standard – things that were and did exactly what they were supposed to be and do, like weights that weighed exactly what they said they did. So the word means 'rightness' – a thing meets its specifications, a thing measures up well against the standard, a thing functions properly as it was designed to do. Then that thing is 'right,' then that thing is 'righteous.' In the Bible, God is righteous because God himself is the standard for all being – everything he does matches who he is, he is “righteous in all his ways” (Psalm 145:17); and moreover, as he enters covenants with human beings, he proves that he keeps to their terms, is exactly who he promised to be, and so is the perfect example of righteousness. In particular, he is righteous as he vindicates his loyal covenant partners by coming to their defense when they call on him.

And just as the Bible lays out what it means for God to be righteous, so it lays out what it means for humans to be righteous. To be righteous is to be right – we meet our specifications as humans, we function properly as we were designed to do, we measure up well to the standard, we act according to a correct moral norm. And there's the ethical content of the word. To be righteous is to be upstanding, upright, well-integrated as a person, and virtuous according to a clear and correct morality, such that – if an investigation were done to see how closely the person measured up to that moral standard – they'd be pronounced innocent. A righteous person is one who follows the straight path of morality and measures up.

In the Law, the word shows up mainly in courtroom settings – Israel's judges aren't supposed to condemn the righteous (Exodus 23:7), but are supposed to be righteous in how they judge (Leviticus 19:15). The stories tell us that Noah was “a righteous man” (Genesis 6:9), and tell us that Tamar was 'more righteous' than Judah, that David was 'more righteous' than Saul, that Abner was 'more righteous' than Joab, while Job declares his own righteousness (Job 27:6). The opposite of being 'righteous' is being 'wicked' – rejecting the correct moral norms in practice, seeking your own advantage at others' expense, effectively malfunctioning as a moral agent and thus failing in light of the standard. The prophets exhort us to “keep justice and do righteousness” (Isaiah 56:1).

But the Proverbs take a different approach. They talk a lot about 'righteousness' and 'wickedness.' In fact, they explain that the whole reason they were collected – the reason they're found in a single book – is to give you “instruction in... righteousness” (Proverbs 1:3). Wisdom herself “walks in the way of righteousness” (Proverbs 8:20), and offers “righteousness” in her hand (Proverbs 8:18). So to receive wisdom from God will mean that “you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path” (Proverbs 2:9). But instead of these proverbs outright telling you what to do, they want you to understand why you should do it. So these proverbs, they take you under their wing and tell you about what it's like to either stick to the straight path or go careening off of it. They want you to see for yourself that righteousness is a worthwhile commitment.

The first thing they'll explain to you is that righteousness puts you in God's line of sight. One of the practical consequences of righteousness, Proverbs says, is positive divine attention. It says that “the way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD – that is, God rejects, God is disgusted by, the lifestyles of those whose practice of life rejects close adherence to the correct moral norms, those who pursue immorality – but on the other hand, God “loves him who pursues righteousness” (Proverbs 15:9). God is pleased with, God is attached to, people whom he sees putting a priority on doing things the right way, morally speaking. Those who care about doing what's right, those who actively make the effort to do the right thing, those who accept the true standards of right and wrong – Proverbs says God loves to watch someone pour their effort into chasing that worthy goal.

Not just that, but Proverbs adds that “the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD – that is, God gets no enjoyment out of costly ritual actions performed by those who won't live right – “but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him” (Proverbs 15:8). Proverbs goes so far as to say that “the LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous” (Proverbs 15:29). Contrast that with the proverb that says that “if one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination” (Proverbs 28:9)! That's a pretty shocking sentiment. If someone chooses to commit him- or herself to a way of living that's counter to what God says, if someone doesn't want to listen to God, then according to Proverbs, God isn't too keen to listen to them either. Their prayer, even their sacrifice, is disgusting, and God is a distant figure for the wicked. But for someone who lives the right way, someone who follows a properly functioning moral compass, God is near: he's listening to their prayers, and he finds them valuable. He finds a day in the life of a righteous person more valuable, more pleasing, than the kinds of gifts he was given in the temple courts: “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:3). Or as one of the psalms says, “The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous, and his ears toward their cry” (Psalm 34:15; cf. 1 Peter 3:12). And like James says, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).

Accordingly, God's positive attention shows favor toward those who live rightly according to the standards he has set. “Blessings are on the head of the righteous” (Proverbs 10:6), we're told – favors from God are like a crown that the righteous wear wherever they go. And we're even told, proverbially, that “the LORD does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked” (Proverbs 10:3). This general observation – it only holds universal force in the world to come, the world we're waiting for – suggests that God is intent on looking out for those who live rightly, watching their back, providing for them. Again, we know of times where that doesn't look true – Paul was righteous, yet says he was “often without food” (2 Corinthians 11:27) – but Proverbs aims to create a broader picture of God's determination to provide for those who live rightly.

A second practical consequence Proverbs sees in righteousness is security. We're told that “the righteousness of the blameless keeps his way straight, but the wicked falls by his own wickedness” (Proverbs 11:5). In other words, wicked living is self-destructive. And we can see examples of that throughout the world, all over, even in the lives of people we know! Those who reject correct moral norms, those who are hostile to God's standards for healthy human living, end up digging a bigger hole for themselves. As a French journalist once quipped as he watched revolutionaries tear the country he knew to the ground, “the revolution devours its children.” And so do our revolts against true morality: wickedness devours the wicked. But someone who keeps himself innocent, on the other hand – someone who values doing what's right and puts that into practice – will avoid a lot of pitfalls in the world. What's more, Proverbs suggests that righteous living yields security and stability – that “the righteous will never be removed, but the wicked will not dwell in the land” (Proverbs 10:30). Just like the Canaanites couldn't stay after their wickedness polluted the promised land, so Proverbs warns that wicked means evicted, in the long-term. (Indeed, in the eternal term, we know this will be true!) And “when the tempest passes, the wicked are no more, but the righteous is established forever” (Proverbs 10:25). The storms of life are a lot tougher to weather if you haven't lived by a consistent and correct moral code. That, we might say, is like building a house on a foundation of loose sand – constantly shifting. It doesn't lead to stability. But on the other hand, someone who lives the right way, who measures up to the standard, have a firm foundation to build life on, and build it well. A wise person will build the house of his life on a rock, so that even when rain and flood and wind come, the house won't collapse – that's what being righteous is like (Matthew 7:24-25).

But we know that things don't always quite work out. The storms of life may not be able to collapse the house, but they can batter it up. And even the righteous sometimes find themselves in trouble. Proverbs suggests that a third practical consequence of righteousness is rescue, a mitigation of trouble and a way out of trouble. “The righteous is delivered from trouble, and the wicked walks into it instead” (Proverbs 11:8). “The righteousness of the upright delivers them, but the treacherous are taken captive by their lust” (Proverbs 11:6). “Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death” (Proverbs 11:4; cf. 10:2). This doesn't mean that righteous people will never die, or never die before their time. James was righteous, and he was killed for it. It looked, for the moment, like his enemies had the upper hand. The psalms contemplate “wicked rulers” who “band together against the life of the righteous and condemn innocent blood” (Psalm 94:20-21). James himself, while still living, had chastised the rich for having “condemned and murdered the righteous person” who “does not resist you” (James 5:6). And yet, as a general rule, living consistently in the right way is a pathway out of life's pitfalls. Do the right thing, and even when trouble gets stirred up, the settling dust will usually see you vindicated in the end. Righteousness has rescue as a practical consequence.

And that's not all. As a fourth practical consequence of righteousness, Proverbs mentions satisfaction. “What the wicked dreads will come upon him, but the desire of the righteous will be granted” (Proverbs 10:24). As Proverbs pictures the righteous person, the righteous person's yearnings are for the right kinds of things. And in taking a long-term view, the righteous person's desires are ultimately granted – at least in what God has in store eternally, if not always in the near-term of this life. “The hope of the righteous brings joy, but the expectation of the wicked will perish” (Proverbs 10:28). In the long term, living wickedly, living in rebellion against moral norms, living out of line with God's will, leads to shattered dreams and fearful consequences. Righteousness is the other way around. It can be costly and demanding now, but thanks to God's kindness, it will be rewarded. Or, as Proverbs says, “one who sows righteousness gets a sure reward” (Proverbs 11:18). And that reward is life, abundant life: “Whoever is steadfast in righteousness will live” (Proverbs 11:19), “whoever pursues righteousness and kindness will find life, righteousness, and honor” (Proverbs 21:21). “Disaster pursues sinners, but the righteous are rewarded with good” (Proverbs 13:21). Living rightly is – contrary to the lies of the world's lusts – a more satisfying way to live. That's what Proverbs is aiming to get across. There's more true liveliness in the steady pace of righteousness than in the cheap thrills of wickedness, even now: “The righteous is repaid on earth” (Proverbs 11:31). “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).

And finally, Proverbs names a fifth practical consequence of righteousness: positive influence. While alive, Proverbs tells us, the presence of a righteous person is influential. “When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices; and when the wicked perish, there are shouts of gladness” (Proverbs 11:10). “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34). Those who live rightly have an uplifting effect. Their presence is a leaven that makes community health rise. Cities and even whole nations have reason to celebrate the flourishing of righteous people: they build up the moral capital of the whole community.

And even after the righteous person has left the earthly scene, their influence and legacy will be treasured by those who benefited from it. As a proverb tells us, “The memory of the righteous is a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot” (Proverbs 10:7). Those who live rightly set an example that will touch many people and aid their lives for the better. The same isn't as true for the wicked, those who rebel against morality – their legacy stinks, and however long it takes for that stench to be sniffed out, it rots their reputation. Think, for example, of all the public figures who've recently been exposed as sexual abusers. Less than a year ago, a man died who had widely been regarded as a 'living saint' – a theologian decorated with the highest honors for his ministry and service to those with developmental disabilities – and yet just last week, an investigation detailed how he'd used religion to sexually manipulate nuns and other women over the course of decades. And now his name has a rotten taste in people's mouths, and his memory is no longer such a blessing.

Proverbs has a lot to say about the practical benefits of choosing the path of righteousness. And the wisdom Proverbs is here to teach is here to help you find it. But the problem with all this is, our righteousness will fail us. Because none of us has, up 'til now, lived a perfectly wise life. We have all been fools. We have all been wicked. Paul writes: “None is righteous – no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks God” (Romans 3:10). “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20), “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Because we have not lived right, we need to be 'set right,' need to be justified. And the Bible informs us that we can't work our way there, we can't justify ourselves or fix ourselves – there's no program of behavior modification that clears us in his court and restores us to being seen as righteous when the whole story's said and done.

But so God sent Jesus Christ, who “became to us wisdom from God: righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). And Jesus, in the life he here lived, perfectly embodied everything that Proverbs outlines as far as what a righteous life looks like. As Peter declared to the crowds, Jesus proved to be “the Holy and Righteous One” par excellence (Acts 3:14). So no wonder Jesus was beloved by his Father, and no wonder he kept his way straight. For “Jesus offered up prayers... to the One who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Hebrews 5:7) – delivered by being given resurrection life, and rewarded with “the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). Living perfect righteousness, he did find “life and righteousness and honor” (Proverbs 21:21).

And what Jesus accomplished on the cross, Paul calls the “one act of righteousness” – the most truly righteous thing ever done – which leads “the many [to] be made righteous” (Romans 5:18-19). Trusting in him as our Righteous One, we attain “a righteousness that is by faith” (Romans 9:30). In Christ, we have come to embody “the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21), for we have “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). And “according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).

On our own, we could not live the proverbs. We could not live right or be right. But Jesus the Righteous One performed an act of righteousness that, as we receive it through the faith that unites us to him, declares us to be righteous in God's sight. As with Abraham, God counts our faith as righteousness (Romans 4:5), because our faith receives the righteousness of Jesus. And in this way are we “justified by faith” (Romans 5:1), declared and made righteous by faith. In Jesus Christ, we have received the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” (Romans 5:17). Through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has raised us up as a Zion, a righteous city rejoicing in the flourishing of the Righteous One who stands in our midst (cf. Proverbs 11:10).

But now that we walk in the Spirit of righteousness, we are called to live out what Jesus has given us. I once heard a preacher suggest – and I hope he was merely misspeaking – that 'right' and 'wrong' were no longer relevant categories for the believer. But that's wrong. Morality is not moralism. The Book of Proverbs, like the other scriptures of the Old Testament, has not lost value for the Christian today – Paul tells us that they exist for our sake, to give us “training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). And so Paul instructs Timothy to pursue righteousness” (1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22). John writes that “whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God” (1 John 3:10). Peter writes that we're called to “die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). It's unanimous: For us today, there is right and wrong, righteous and unrighteous. James led by example.

We know we can't do it on our own. But Jesus came to set us right – to let us at last function as we were always meant to. He came to make us righteous. And Proverbs is here to explain why that's so incredibly good. So as the Righteous One redeemed us from wickedness, let us display our faith, our hope, and our love by pursuing righteousness each day ahead, as Proverbs shows us how. It's the wise thing to do. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment