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Proverbs 5: The god of Death

Good morning, church.  Please go with me to the book of Proverbs, chapter 5.

Proverbs is one of the wisdom books, like Ecclesiastes; think about it like a letter written by a father and a mother to their children, and to generations they’ll never get to meet; telling them what’s actually important in life, and how to live it right.  Wisdom is calling out in the streets, they write, but it’s hard to hear over the noise of everything going on in the world.  There’s so much being said—it’s hard to know what’s good and nourishing.

I started out in this series making a contrast, drawing a line between wisdom and what we’ve replaced it with in our time: immediacy and information.  The world is happy to tell you everything popular and trending and therefore, from the world’s perspective, important and true.  But in all the noise forming you, shaping and misshaping you spiritually, do we know what’s wise?  Can we step out of our own perspectives, for just a moment, and notice the way we see the world?  Are we willing to look at our world, and the ways in which we live our lives, and recognize that not all progress has been toward a good end?

Last week we talked about those things which are meant to be at the core of our lives; things like love, wisdom, family, and the Spirit of God.  They are necessary things, to keep in your heart, meaning at the deepest part of your thoughts and desires.  Your heart is like a well or a spring.  If you lose it, or if you allow the enemy to poison it, you run dry.  I know so many people who are still living, but they’ve lost any semblance of what life is meant to be.

Today we’re going to shift a little bit, from talking about broad big, ideas, finding your way in life, worldview and purpose—to talking about those small, daily temptations which can just as easily bring us down the wrong path. [Proverbs 4:20-27]  This is the word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.  Pray with me, briefly.

We’ve been talking for the past couple of weeks about wayfinding—the major metaphor thus far in Proverbs has had to do with finding your way on a long journey where you’ve never been before.  Here is chapter 5, the metaphor changes.  He’s still talking about paths and roads you take, but this is not a long journey.  These are roads you know.  This is your daily commute, the street that goes by your house.

I drive the same road about every day to my office, straight up Carollton Ave. all the way from my house to the lake.  I know every pothole, which in New Orleans is impressive.  I’m starting to recognize my fellow commuters.  There’s one lady who does her makeup in the car, so I try not to be in the lane next to her—the eyebrows go on straight, but the car gets a little swervy.

I also walk in the park almost every morning.  As much as I try to avoid interaction at that time of day, I’m starting to make park friends, some of them people, some of them ducks.  I prefer the ducks.  I’ve timed it so that I’m facing east as the sun rises over the cathedral.

In the ancient world, they would have gone every day to the same pool to get water.  Every day to the market and the city square.  Each evening the waste of the house and the meal would be thrown outside of the walls.  Growers and merchants would come in through the gates each morning when the watch changed and the doors opened to trumpet sound and music coming from the singers at the temple.  Voices and animal noises rising through the air of a city thronged with people until evenings spent under stars, no lights brighter than a lamp to shroud your view of the galaxies, left to wonder if the stars are telling us something, and if so what it is they know.

Some paths you know.  You don’t need to find your way; you walk them every day.  Like the way home at the end of your day.  We all know how to get there, no matter where you stay or sleep, you know the way there.  But, he says in the passage, the way home is not the only path we could take.  We know all the wrong paths, too.  We know them just as well as we know the way home.  We know exactly where they end, and who’s waiting for us there.

My coworker and friend, Leroy, grew up in Northern Louisiana in the 1950’s.  The delta.  Country, farms, small towns.  He lived in a dry county—alcohol was banned.  He was the grocery delivery boy in his town.  He knew the path to everyone’s home.  The grocer would just tell him who called for delivery, and off he went on his bicycle to bring it there.  He told me about a house in town; they called the shot house.  Everyone knew about the shot house, but the sheriff turned a blind eye as long as nothing spilled onto the street.  People would go there to get drunk, even though it was against the law, to gamble and meet prostitutes.  His father sat him down before he started his route and told him, “Son, you listen to me.  You don’t go anywhere near that house.  It’s dangerous.”

Some paths you know.  We all know the path home—but we all know the path to turn aside.  In this proverb we read, “Son, listen.  That path leads to destruction.”  He’s talking specifically of prostitution, but he’s intending something a little broader.  There are a lot of moments in our lives when we’re standing at a crossroads: do I go home, or turn aside?  There are many people willing to tempt us toward things we know lead to destruction.

This passage makes more sense when you understand it against the religious landscape of the day.  Some of the religious practice of the surrounding nations in that day involved cult prostitution, so this scenario in which a stranger entices you on your way home from the market wasn’t a bizarre scenario—if you’re familiar with the story of Judah and Tamar, this is the backdrop to that story as well.

And then there’s what everyone would have thought about when they thought of death and destruction.  Most of the surrounding nations at the time believed in a god named Mot.  I have a picture.  Mot was everlastingly, insatiably hungry and devoured everything in the world in his attempt to satiate his hunger.  In ancient Canaanite mythology, Mot even attempted at one point to devour Bal, the god of rain.  His throat was said to lead to Sheol, or what in the Bible is mostly just called the abyss, seen as a vast kind of underground ocean where souls await judgement.  This belief was why the Egyptian army perishing under the waters of the Red Sea was considered such a curse—they were devoured living into the abyss.  Death is ever devouring and never satisfied.

Solomon is saying, son, listen.  The god of death isn’t always some monster.  Sometimes, the mouth of the god of death drips honey.  Sometimes the god of death is alluring.  And you know where she lives.  But she will devour you and still be hungry, move on to the people closest to you.  Often in life, you’re going to have to make a choice between two paths.  One is the path home, and to life, v.6.  But if you turn aside from that path, if someone or something entices you, you’ll be on a path that leads to a hunger which can never be satisfied, one that desires to devour you and bring you down to the abyss.

Probably most of us in this room don’t have to do too much imagining to think of hunger which doesn’t have an end except death.  Most of us know what it means to feel like there is something out there which wants to devour our life, bring us down to the abyss.

This goddess of death—her lips drip honey, Solomon writes, and her words are smooth.  But the end of that path is bitter and violent.  Foolishness, sin—it tastes good, doesn’t it?  It looks good, too.  But listen, son, daughter.  Just go home.  That way is dangerous.  She will consume you and still somehow want more, still somehow be hungry.

In New Orleans, we all know the places and moments we’re tempted to turn aside from our paths home.  For me, it’s when I’m alone.  Sometimes when I’m alone, I feel so alone, like feeling anything would be better than feeling this alone.  I find myself with my phone in my hand without any purpose.  I had to delete my social media apps, because my mind was consumed with what people were thinking about me—consumed entirely, yet still somehow hungry.  And when I’m feeling anxious, like I’m carrying too much and there’s no way to relieve the pressure.  And when I’m feeling alone and unhelped, like no one really sees what I’m trying to do, or cares.

What consumes you and then still somehow wants more?  The word enough is one that consumes me.  Did I do enough for that person?  Was my sermon good enough?  Am I a good enough pastor?  I stop and I stare at the path of self-destruction, gluttony, and anxiety, even though I know exactly where it ends—everybody knows where the shot house is—and I think, it looks good.  I bet it would taste good, too.  And then the enemy begins to tell me I’ve already failed just by stopping to look down the path, so I might as well turn aside.  You’ve already failed, just go all the way so you’ll at least enjoy it before the guilt sets in.  He rails me with guilt about the last time I turned off my path home, and tells me of course no one cares for you, you’re not worth their time—maybe if you take on a few more things and you’ll finally live up to your potential.

Temptation isn’t always as bold and obvious as a prostitute on the side of the road—I mean, sometimes it is, just not always.  Sometimes temptation looks like letting work creep into your time at home.  Daddy?  Hold on, baby, let me send this text.  Or into your Sabbath, your time off, meant to be for your rest and healing.  Work can consume you and still be hungry.

Sometimes temptation looks like the wrong focus.  Have y’all ever read the Screwtape letters?  Have him so focused on social peace that he’s able to be rude and hateful to the people closest to him without seeing any contradiction.  Have him so focused on a legalistic set of certain rules that the rest of the law of God is forgotten.  Have him recognize his humility and love in that situation and take pride in it, get high-and-mighty about it, think the other person is less because they weren’t as humble.  The enemy consumes us and is never satisfied.

Some paths to destruction are literal streets.  Don’t walk down the street where someone’s going to offer you a drink after a week sober.  Get out of the Quarter.  There’s no end to that hunger, nothing to satiate that thirst.  If there were any end besides death on that path, wouldn’t you have found it by now?  Don’t go to that friend’s house who doesn’t care about your sobriety and is going to offer you a hit and tease you about being a better person.  Don’t go.  Some people need to be loved from a distance.

You know which paths for you bring you to appetite without end.  Don’t even give yourself the option to overspend.  Cancel the card.  Don’t even respond to the Facebook message.  Delete the app.  Make the conversation awkward by mentioning your wife.  Leave your computer at your office.  Buy a dumb phone, or whatever the opposite of a smart phone is—one that doesn’t have social media or the internet.  Just don’t even go in that direction, go home.

Listen, it’s not paranoia if someone is actually out to get you, and it’s not legalism if you have a problem.  Recognize the appetite without end, admit your problem to the people around you, and don’t even step foot in that direction.  Like we talked about last week, temperance, keep your heart in balance.  Let your head speak to your base emotions.  That’s wisdom.

Listen.  Listen to my instruction.  Go home.  Don’t turn aside.  It tastes sweet at first, but it’s a bitter end, and by the time you get to the end, you’ll be longing for everything you walked away from.

As I did last week, I want to end with a word of hope, because we are in a book of wisdom, a book of law, and the law is meant to show us our sins and lead us to repentance.  There is hope in Christ for you.  Even if you’ve been lost on the wrong path for years, Jesus, himself is a way, a road, for anyone who would come.

If you have met the god of death, and known appetite without end, Christ has a water you can drink and never be thirsty again, be truly satisfied.  Even if you’ve been hiding for years, and that corner of your heart has grown very dark, Christ is bright enough to bring light to your situation.  There is hope in him.  In Christ this morning, you are forgiven; you are welcomed; you are loved.