Well good morning folks! Let me introduce myself to you if you're visiting or have recently started coming to the church – my name is Ken Matthews and I'm the minister here at St Joseph's.
Some of our regular attenders have been doubting that is who I am – since I returned from a recent holiday with this beard. But there is no need to keep asking, "When is the Minister coming back from holiday?" I'm back! Ok?
But I don't want to spend our precious time together this morning about my fuzzy face – I would much rather talk to you about your heart. Because as we turn to the next instalment of our "How Not To Be a Fool" series from the book of Proverbs we come to chapter 4, which tells us this in verse 23:
"Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life."
Proverbs 4 has about a billion and one commands – So it's easy to get lost. But this verse on its own is worthy of our attention. In fact, it is also worthy of our memorisation. Maybe like me, you memorised it as a young Christian from the old NIV translation:
"Above all else, guard your heart because it is the wellspring of life."
Earlier on in the summer, this little fella started coming into our garden of an evening. This is Spike the hedgehog – I know! I know! A very original name, eh? And some might speculate that Spike is the true inspiration for my beard! Can you see the similarity?
Maybe not! But he came night after night which was not great news for the slugs in our garden, but great news for our plants. But whenever we tried to approach him – what would he do? Yup, you guessed it! Spike's prickles would go up and he / she (it's hard to tell) would curl up into a ball.
Now we tend to think that being like a Hedgehog is a negative thing. But if you are a Hedgehog, there is nothing negative about protecting your vital organs by defending the soft furry underbelly through which they can be reached.
Proverbs 4 is telling us that our hearts – that your heart is so important that it needs guarding like that, with caution and care… "with all vigilance" as verse 23 says.
Why? Why guard your heart like that? Well it's because your heart is critical to your existence. We know that about our physical heart, don't we? If it packs in – well that's it! You're finished! But when the Bible talks about our hearts it is not talking about the pump in your chest that is keeping you alive. It is talking more about your core personality – your innermost being. It is really talking about the heart of who you are.
We live in a society that is so obsessed with how we look – what's on the outside – our exterior appearance or achievement – that often our vital organs can go pretty much unguarded. But Proverbs 4 says, "No! What's on the inside is much more important than what's on the outside – so you guard that as so significant, so valuable that if you lost it… you would die."
"Keep your heart with all vigilance (Because…) from it flow the springs of life."
Do you see? Your heart is the source. It is the source of all your behaviour, all your thinking and acting, all your emotions too. Your heart is like a reservoir if you like – from which flows everything you do, say, feel and think.
So guard the source! If you want to live a life full of blessing, purity, joy and good deeds – You've got to guard your heart.
And this morning I just want to ask the question: Well how do we do that? How do we guard the source of our life?
Well let me highlight two instructions Proverbs 4 gives us to help us guard our hearts:
1. Get Wisdom In
You can't miss that message as you read through the first handful of verse, can you?
"Gain insight…", verse 1. "Get wisdom…", verse 5, "…get insight…" And again in verse 7 – "Get wisdom… get insight…" Over and over again it goes. Here is a wise, loving father passionately, almost pleadingly encouraging his sons to get God's wisdom in his heart – in his innermost being. And in order to do that, the sons need to do two things:
i. Be a Student
Look again at verses 1 to 5 – we've got words like:
- a father's instruction…
- my teaching…
- hold fast my words…
- keep my commandments…
The heart must be educated. The Christian life is not less than learning.
But we have a problem with that, don't we? It's not natural for our hearts to take instruction from others. We can get as prickly as a hedgehog when others – no matter how wise they are – tell us what we should do.
But if we want to guard our hearts we need to get God's wisdom in. So the Father says "Listen up! Come on pay attention to what I say. Open yourself up to instruction and be willing to take it on board. Ask for it. Pursue it."
In fact, he says more than that, doesn't he? Do you notice in verse 5 – what does the father say? "Get it, get it, don't for-get it."
We need to keep going back over God's wisdom, to make sure we keep it in our hearts.
If you come to church regularly this is one of the reasons why some of the things we do might seem quite repetitive, like saying the creed together; or doing communion; or doing sermons from the book of Proverbs! Every week so far it's been "Get Wisdom! Get Wisdom!" But the message is repetitive because we need not only to get wisdom – but to always, continually, every day keep be pursuing it.
You see the Christian life of guarding your heart and getting wisdom is not like painting a wall – where you do a coat and leave and come back and nothing has changed. Rather it is like pushing a boulder up a hill – you can't walk away and leave it for a while because if you do what will be there when you come back? Nothing! Because the Boulder has rolled all the way back to the bottom of the hill.
When we stop pursuing and clinging to God's wisdom… we stop being wise... and we start falling backwards.
To which you might say, 'But Ken, I'm not a learner. I'm not bright. I'm not a reader.' Well in Proverbs it is not a case of intellect – it's more a case of decision. 'Do you want it? Come and get it.'
We can get it from books – but the primary way he brings us his wisdom is through other people. Especially those older and wiser than us. The son gets it from the father – but the father do you see? Verse 3 – He got it from his dad before him!
Folks, don't despise the wisdom of the past! We are so dismissive of previous generations, aren't we? And the old in particular. But most of the wisest, godliest people I know are older than me. 'Cos they have the distinct advantage of being much further on in the race, of having fought the good fight and having kept the faith. So let's not give in to the temptation to think, 'Well what do they know?'
I wonder who you could ask to teach you God's wisdom this year? Is it your dad or your mum? Is there an older man or woman who could help you understand and apply God's word to your life? Could you join with others in a Midweek group to seek God's wisdom? And if you are an older, more mature Christian. Who could you be coming alongside to instruct and to teach? Encourage and helping others is one of the ways God helps us to keep growing and learning.
But we are not only to be students, we are also to...
ii. Be a Lover
Look at verse 6 will you:
"Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you."
We must go beyond learning to loving. Our hearts must not only be educated, they must also be won.
It's back to this Proverbs idea that wisdom is fundamentally relational. Wisdom is pictured here as a woman – who we are to be close to. This is personal you see.
Guarding your heart it is getting to know and love the one who will guard it for you. Not just woman wisdom, but the one that she foreshadows – the Lord Jesus Christ.
I mean he is our ultimate protector, isn't he? In John's Gospel, he speaks of himself as the gate for the sheep. The sheep in the pen – him standing in the breach as the one who will protect. Jesus progresses the image and says, "I am the good Shepherd who will lay down his life for the sheep. When the wolf comes some shepherds will flee, but I will guard." And so we find him later on in the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples – and Judas and the soldiers come to arrest him and rock their world. And Jesus once more stands in the breach. His disciples – guarded in a garden. And then he goes to the cross. Where he will lay down his life to shield his disciples not only from the threat of their enemies, but also from the reality of death as he lays down his life for their sins.
Who can you trust more than Jesus to lead and guide you? No one! Guarding your heart is fundamentally coming to Jesus, as the one who will guard it for you. Spending time with him. Talking to him. Getting to know him and his words. And folks, that's not just a superficial reading or listening – but a meditating, a cherishing and a praying through so that it's not just in my mind as a student, but in my heart as a lover.
Invite Jesus and his wisdom in. But secondly, Proverbs 4 says guard your heart by...
2. Keep Wickedness Out
I don't know if you ever used to watch the TV show 24. I've got to confess that in the days before we had kids Fiona and I got a bit addicted to it. And in series 5 (which I think was one of the best), the terrorist plot was that they were planning to kill as many people as they could with a lethal gas. Now how do get a lethal gas out into a city so that it has a maximum effect? That is of course a rhetorical question! I don't really want to encourage you to think like a terrorist in church! Or anywhere for that matter!
The answer was that the bad guys went to the gas distribution plant. If they could infiltrate that – everyone who turned on gas in their home would feel its fatal effect.
Isn't it like that with our hearts? You've got to guard the source. You've got to guard the distribution plant. Otherwise all of your thoughts, emotions, actions and reactions – will be polluted.
Which is why Proverbs 4 wants us to warn us that there are indeed terrorists seeking to waylay and poison our hearts.
Do you see that in verse 14?
"Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of the evil. Avoid it; do not go on it; turn away from it and pass on."
We guard our hearts not just by filling them with Christlike wisdom, but also by guarding the inlets or influences. "Above all else guard your heart…" – by keeping wickedness out.
You see, wisdom is sometimes expressed most clearly… by avoidance. By keeping far away.
Which is why Proverbs 4 goes onto tells us in verse 24:
"Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you. Let your eyes look directly forwards, and your gaze be straight before you. Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil."
You take your heart with you wherever your feet go. Your heart is exposed to whatever your eyes see. Your heart listens in to whatever your ears hear. So guarding your hearts is sometimes not going, not watching, not listening. That is to say that guarding your heart this week may mean that there are…
- Books you don't read.
- Magazines you don't buy.
- Conversations you don't enter.
- Music you don't listen to.
- Films and TV programmes that you won't watch.
- Games you don't play and websites you don't visit.
- Fantasies you won't indulge.
- Dates you won't go on.
- Even friends you won't hang out with.
- Or places you don't go…
…because they are on the path of wickedness.
What might it be for you? What is it that caused you to be tripped up and stumble this last week?
The whole of the Bible is on the side of caution. Time and again it tells us to "flee". That means we don't just avoid sinning – but we also avoid the occasions that would lead to sin.
One old writer has written this, "To venture upon the occasions of sin and then to pray, 'lead us not into temptation' is to thrust your finger into a fire and then pray that it wouldn't get burnt."
Folks, there is foolishness in our hearts that thinks we are mature enough and strong enough to go close to the temptation of sin without being in danger. But Proverbs – and the whole of the Bible would err on the side of caution.
So in order to guard our hearts we need to be a bit like airport security – you guard everything that goes out, and you guard everything that goes in.
- You examine it…
- You question it…
- You x-ray it…
- You open it up and rummage through it
- You undress it.
Is it just me, by the way – or is airport security one of the most undignified experiences you've ever had in your life? As you frantically empty out your pockets, electrical devices, medication and toiletries into a big plastic baking tray, then comes the final dénouement as you have to take the belt off – before shuffling through the scanner as quick as you can before your trousers fall off! I hate it!
By the way, if you do work in airport security – we're so glad you're here! And thank you for all you do to keep us safe. But folks, you and I must guard our hearts in the same way!
And again we mustn't be naïve. Proverbs tells us there are only two paths:
- "The path of the righteous" – verse 18.
- And "the path of the wicked" – verse 14.
Those on the path of wickedness don't want you to live a godly life! They are not neutral! So when you watch your favourite TV show or film – it is not just entertainment. It is a statement – of how the creators see the world. It is a story told to seduce and win your heart over to their way of think and acting. Like have you ever found yourself swept along watching a film or TV programme and you've found yourself wanting someone to commit adultery or murder? Hasn't that happened to you? You're watching a film and the whole way that it is done makes you want the lead character to run off with someone else or kill the bad guy?
Or what about when you watch or listen to or read the news – That is not just information. It is communication – it is the telling of the story of what is going on in the world told from an editor's point of view. So much so that the Director General of the BBC admitted back in March of this year that their famous impartiality had taken a massive hit in recent years.
Or what about when you play Grand Theft Auto – that is not merely a game. Again it is an attack on your heart. That is making things like sex and corruption and violence normal. So guard your heart!
Now folks, I'm not saying that we should never watch and listen to and play those kinds of things – but we should be aware of what is going on. And question and thinking it through – because nothing is neutral. And everyone has a bias – A bias for wickedness or righteousness.
And so we need to be active in getting wisdom in and keeping wickedness out.
And can I just say as I finish – that for those who are parents of children and teenagers I think there is a particular challenge here. How are you going to help them guard their hearts as they mature and grow up? It may be to say that giving them a computer or a TV in their room or a smartphone in their pocket – is like giving a power tool to a toddler, and being surprised when they get hurt. Why don't you have the conversation with your teenage son or daughter – about how they guard themselves from the heart attacks? And help them put the necessary protections in place.
And some of us might need just as much help with our use of technology as our young folk do. I've lost count of how many times I've said to fellow men who have been struggling to keep their eyes pure: "There are more important things in life than having a smartphone."
And I hope by now that you know what this is folks… It's your heart, isn't it? It's your heart.
"Keep your heart with all vigilance… for from it flow the springs of life."
So what is it going to look like for you to guard your heart this week? Why don't we take a moment to think and pray that through. How and when will we get wisdom in? Maybe we need to think of a times and places when we will do that – Because unless it is scheduled it probably won't happen. But also – What, where and who do we need to avoid? It might not be the obvious things that pollute our hearts and trip us up. We all have blind spots. So ask the Holy Spirit to search your heart – what are the dangers that you need to keep yourself from?