Sermon by Hannes Ramsebner
When children are playing something will inevitably go wrong. They might break a toy or a child gets injured. So when parents want to find out what happened, what’s the number one excuse? “So-and-so did it as well!” And this is what Proverbs 1:8-19 might seem like as you read it for the first time. It’s about parents telling their child not to be influenced by others – in this case to participate in criminal activity such as ambushing people on the road. Now this example might not immediately resonate with us. Of course, we should expect people from all backgrounds come to church (including those who claim to have experience in ambushing people), but for most of us it will be hard to relate to the temptation to attack people on the road – unless it’s rush hour and someone cuts you up at the roundabout!
But generally, there is a temptation for us to gain stuff through questionable means. Take for example the struggle with gambling. The temptation is very real. Someone struggling with it will find it tough walking down the high street and seeing the places they used to frequent, or when they are going to a football match and someone gives them a betting coupon. Or imagine a person that has been struggling with sexual temptation. How many times will they see a suggestive billboard on the morning commute? Or even go online and see what their friends are posting? Temptation is a very real thing that is often reinforced by what we see. Now those are just two examples but we should all be able to identify areas in our lives where we are tempted to sin. This is where we need the care and instruction of our heavenly Father.
In fact, family is something that is seen quite clearly in the text. The beginning speaks of the parents’ teaching and the whole passage seems to be addressed to a child. This theme of parental teaching is something that will come up more often in Proverbs, as the best teaching will be like those of parents. Because parents teach with affection, they love and care for the child. And they have authority, as they know the child and are able to speak into their life. This is exactly how our heavenly Father teaches us, as the sovereign creator who has shown his love and affection for us.
“Turn your back on them!”
The main part of the passage shows how the parents imagine an invitation by robbers to join them. But even before that, there is a clear warning to the child: “My child, if sinners entice you, turn your back on them!” And this statement is central. Do you notice how most of the verses in this passage contain parallelisms? It’s a feature often found in proverbs, where two very similar things are stated in one verse to show the connection or draw attention to it. But here verse 10 draws attention to itself as it lacks a parallelism. It’s simple: “Turn your back on them!”
Now the way of the sinners is described. They might invite you and explain their plan, a shady business. They are hiding to ambush people on the road. At first it seems that they don’t even have a reason for it, it’s just for fun! What they are doing is described with horrible pictures of death and the grave, who seem to be allies of the robbers. But then it is revealed that it is not just about the killing of innocents – of course, the robbers are after plunder as well. And isn’t it nice of them that they even share the loot among themselves…
Again, the father warns the child: “Don’t go! Stay away from their paths!” Their deeds are wrong and they are even rushing to commit evil. The picture of catching birds is used as an illustration. If you want to catch a bird, you simply put out a net with some bait and the bird will approach it and be trapped – so I have been told! But if the bird is smart and saw you putting out the net, it will avoid the trap. Now we could either compare the child to the bird. The trap – the invitation of the robbers – is so obviously wrong and is avoided. But the bird could also refer to the robbers. What they are doing is clearly wicked and they should see it. But they jump straight at the bait and are caught in the net – their evil way of life ultimately leads to death.
The way of sinners ends in death. Just like the end of the passage tells us, they set an ambush for themselves. They spend all their time trying to kill others and gain profit. But what they don’t realise is that they have been setting an ambush for themselves the whole time. They are eventually robbed of their own lives. What an irony.
This brings a new dimension to the warning of the parents. It’s more than just saying to a child: “Look what could happen to you!” No, it’s a picture of the deadly power of sin. Sin came through Adam, and death through sin (Rom 5:12). “You will surely die!” was the consequence of the first sin (Gen 2:17). Sin destroys people. And as sin is rebellion against God, the giver of life, it should not surprise us that turning away from him can only lead to death. We see this working itself out physically – in pain, sickness, and the groaning of the whole creation, spiritually – as a relationship with God is impossible, for he is holy and we are not, and eternally – as a life of rebellion against God leads to an eternal life without him, without the source of all goodness.
Now this passage might strike us on different levels. For everyone it could be a challenge to the way we deal with temptation to sin. But for some of you this might strike at a more foundational level. You are not on the path of God where you might experience being tempted to sin, no, you are set on that path of sin all the way. You recognise that you have been living like those robbers: for personal gain only. Sure, there might be a community, but like this group of robbers, they all have the same mind: gain through questionable means. No one can judge you. But God. Now as you realise that you are on this path I want to plead with you to choose life instead of death. We have just seen how these robbers are actually just ambushing themselves. They jump into an obvious trap, blinded by their sin.
But there is a way out. As we just celebrated at Christmas, God sent his son Jesus into the world. And he is the only one that can rescue you from the path of sin. He has experienced temptation. But he did not sin. And in his death Jesus took the punishment that sinners deserve on himself, to make a relationship with God possible for those who trust in him. Hear the warning: “Turn your back on sin, turn to Jesus instead!”
How do Christians deal with temptation?
Finally we will consider how believers should apply the command to turn our back on sin and temptation. Let me stress that this is only something for those who already trust in God. Don’t see this as some sort of self-help plan to deal with uncomfortable expressions of sin. This is only for those who know they are forgiven and are struggling with sin.
First of all we need to remind ourselves of what Jesus has done. Trust in his forgiveness and remember that this is not something you can do by yourself! Secondly, you need to call it what it is. Gambling is not a way to earn some extra money. Watching porn is not some nice distraction. Sexual temptation is not simply the classic example of a husband having an affair. And for those who are singles, it is not something that will suddenly go away once you are married! Those are not unhelpful habits. We need to call them what they are – sins.
And thirdly, it is helpful to consider the different areas where temptation to sin arises. It could be from ourselves. Yes, as Christians we have been given a new heart. But we are still, bit by bit, being made into the image of Jesus. And so we sill struggle with sinful desires (Jas 1:14-15). At the centre of this is an issue in our relationship with God. When things don’t go our way and we struggle to trust him, temptation creeps in easily. How much time and importance do you give to prayer? Neglect in this area can often be a sign that temptation is on its way. A healthy relationship is simply not possible if we don’t communicate and this will lead us to look for fulfilment in other places.
But don’t be discouraged if you do pray, study your Bible, spend time in fellowship with other believers, and yet become more and more aware of sin in your life. This can also be a sign of growth, as you are challenged to see how needy of grace you really are!
The other area that might evoke temptation is outside. This can take many different shapes and forms and will often be met by some desire on the inside. Let’s take the example from the passage: If other people do it, it can’t be bad, can it? Are we as Christians still comfortable with challenging those areas that seem to be more and more accepted? And will we start in our own life? Will we find the sources of our temptation and deal with them? Now the tough thing is that this might mean cutting ties with some people. The Gospel might call us to leave things behind that have a negative influence on us. For the child in the passage, this should have been a no-brainer. These robbers were set on doing evil and the advice is clear – “don’t join in!”
But what if those people are family, good friends or even colleagues at work? Clearly we cannot shut ourselves away from everyone and all evil influence of this world. This is why it is important to have a solid relationship with God that helps us through temptation. But if we see that certain experiences of temptation are strongly connected to spending time with a certain person or group, the hard question we need to ask is: “What is actually happening in this friendship? Who is influencing whom?”
This is not just advice for you as an individual. This is an application for us as a church, for us as a family. We need to realise that there are people around us that have made substantial sacrifices to be here. And it is a difficult thing for someone to break up a relationship because of the direction it is heading. Are we as a church willing to act as a family? Are we willing to care for each other? Are we supporting each other in dealing with sin? It’s a mistake to think that you can fight temptation to sin on your own. You need your brothers and sisters. So, brothers and sisters, are we willing to help each other in that?