Thursday, July 28, 2011

How To Preach Proverbs: One Sentence Proverbs #1

How To Preach Proverbs
One Sentence Proverb Sermons

The one-sentence proverbs from chapters 10:1 to 29:27 offer challenges to preaching because of their brevity and succinctness. They seem to lack sufficient material from which to develop a full length lesson. But, there are a couple of approaches to these proverbs that make them valuable material for sermons.

Behind every proverb is a story, and the single-statement is simply a summation of a drama lived out in real life. For example, the Sage provides the background story to the numerous sluggard proverbs. In 24:30-34 he describes an experience of observing the unattended farm of the sluggard. Weeds had overtaken the crops and the protective wall was crumbling. The Sage wrote, “I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw: A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest - and poverty will come on you like a bandit, and scarcity like an armed man” (vv.32-34). This brief statement of financial and social doom for the lazy man is a summation statement of a larger story that the wise man has studied with keen observation.

Photo Compliments of Jennifer Blair Photography

The approach of the Sage is to study the attitudes and behaviors of people and the eventual outcomes of their actions. He pays attention to cause and effect, noting how certain actions produce discernible results. He then summarizes what he observes in brief, tightly worded phrases that capture the essence of what he has observed and reflected upon. The result is a compact statement encapsulating a vital truth distilled from a much larger and complicated drama. The proverbs thus provoke our thinking, luring us into their story, and challenging us to imagine their application in the drama of our own lives.

There are several steps I have found helpful in using the sentence proverbs for sermons or classes. Even if we don’t know the original context for a proverbial statement, we can catch the essence of it and imagine situations where it would apply. The steps are as follows:

1) Read, reflect and pray upon a particular proverb. Look for key words or ideas in the sentence being repeated in surrounding verses. Does this verse fit into a larger theme? What seems to be the main idea? What does it say about attitudes, behavior or life?

2) Think of an Old Testament story that illustrates the truth of the proverb you are studying. Since there is a story behind every proverb, find one that seems to flesh out the truth of a particular proverb.

3) Think of a New Testament text or story that illustrates this truth as well. Many times a statement of Jesus or situation in his life complements the proverb.

4) Finally, think of a situation in your own life that exemplifies the message or statement you are studying. Ideally, you will spend enough time reflecting upon a proverb that you will think of situations in your own life where it applies. You may think of an instance in where you lived up to the expectation of the proverb, or you may think of a situation where you didn’t. In either case, your own life experience validates the truth you are studying.

Here is an example of how a sermon may be developed from a one-sentence proverb. I’ll use Proverbs 11:24: “One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.”

1) Study, reflection, prayer, and larger context.
This verse is part of a larger theme in the book about generosity and selfishness. Following verses discuss generosity, hoarding (selfishness), goodwill (the result of a generous spirit), and trusting in riches. This one verse opens up a wide array of possibilities for a sermon, and even at this early stage it is apparent that you will have to think about how to narrow the scope of the lesson.

2) An Old Testament story.
Possibilities could include Moses, who gave up life in the palace with its accompanying wealth to live among the impoverished Israelites. He did not give material things, but gave his very life to his people, and what he gained was not physical possessions or wealth, but much spiritual treasure (Exodus 2:11ff; Hebrews 11:24-28).

Think also of Boaz. He graciously allowed the less fortunate to glean his fields after the initial harvest (as the law stipulated). He gave freely and God blessed him not only with an abundant harvest, but with a wife, Ruth (Ruth).

These are two stories that exemplify the positive aspect of Proverbs 11:24. Negative examples can be considered, too. During David’s sojourn in the wilderness he requested aid from a local farmer. Instead of providing aid the farmer, Nabal, offered insults, and almost lost his life when David came after him in anger. Only the intervention of his wife Abigail spared him. But, even that was very short lived as he died shortly after. Nabal withheld and came to a fate worse than poverty (1 Samuel 25).

3) A New Testament story.
Numerous stories from Jesus’ life and ministry would fit here. Think of the two brothers fighting over an inheritance (Luke 12:13ff), the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19ff), and the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18ff). These stories all contain negative considerations of what it is to withhold blessings from others. Considered positively, think of Zacchaeus. As a tax collector Zacchaeus earned his living by overcharging the citizens in his territory. Tax collectors were thought of as little more than legitimized thieves. They were hated by the people because of their abuse of power and how they amassed their fortunes by taking from others. But after his encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus opened up his tight fist and began to share, pledging to make proper recompense for overcharging, and giving half of his possessions to the poor. This man overcame his tendency to withhold and began to give freely. What did he receive for his change of heart? Jesus said of him, “Today salvation has come to this house ...”

4) Personal story.
I remember my parents offering help to people on numerous occasions: to motorists stranded in the country; to an injured friend; to neighbors needing help repairing their homes. Sometimes what was freely given was money; at other times it was time and labor. I have seen my parents gain from their generosity. It may not have been money, but appreciation and friendship.

In Proverbs, the man or woman who withholds is considered selfish and greedy. They do not receive God’s approval, and will not be blessed for their behavior. God likes the righteous spirit of generosity and mercy. These are the attitudes and dispositions we want to pass on to our children, and Proverbs 11:24 was written to help us do that.

Warren Baldwin