“Without a vision, the people perish. . .”
– Proverbs 29:18
Has anybody here not heard the proverb, “Without a vision, the people perish”?
Usually, we hear those words applied to groups or to businesses or churches or other big organizations. “Without a vision, without a mission statement, without a plan, we’re not going to succeed.”
“Aim at nothing, and you will certainly reach your goal.” That’s the common application of this scripture verse. It encourages us to think, to plan, to have a vision.
Without a plan or a mission statement, we’re operating on inertia. We’re being fueled by tradition, not by intention. We will certainly fail, if we don’t have a plan.
Our meeting has a vision statement. It’s printed in the bulletin every Sunday. Without looking – no cheating, now! – can any of you tell me what it is?
I thought not. Why don’t you turn over your bulletin and look on the back and let’s read it together.
“Springfield Friends Meeting invites all people to witness the love, message and power of the living Christ. We encourage fellowship, forgiving, friendships, discipleship, personal holiness, and obedience to Scripture. We affirm that all believers are ministers to one another, our community and the world.”
That’s a good mission statement. I didn’t write it – it was written by Ray Luther when he was pastor here. I like what it says. I agree with it. I think we should be doing all those things – every one of them, a lot more. If we’re not doing those things, I want you all to speak up, and say so.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s what this morning’s scripture reading is all about. It doesn’t say, “Without a mission statement, our church will go out of business.” That may very well be true, but it’s not what the scripture says.
I always like to look at different translations of the Bible. If you look at today’s Scripture, you can see that the people who translated it had a tough time figuring out what this verse really means.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” (King James)
“Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint; but happy are those who keep the law.” (New RSV)
“Without guidance from God, law and order will disappear; but God blesses everyone who obeys God’s law.” (Contemporary English Version)
“Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; but blessed is he who keeps the law.” (NIV)
“Where there is no vision, the people get out of hand; blessed are they who keep the Torah.” (Jerusalem)
I’d like you all to notice what these different translations are saying. Vision, prophecy, guidance from God, revelation – these aren’t things which we provide, by our own human efforts. When something from God is missing – when something which God provides isn’t there – then we’ve got a problem. That’s what it says.
We can write our own mission statement. We can try to capture a vision, to re-state it in some way. But we don’t create the vision. We aren’t responsible for the revelation. God gives the guidance. God gives the vision, or the message, and shares it with us.
That’s a really important distinction. Prophecy is what happens when people listen very carefully to God, when people hear what God is saying about who God is, and who God is not.
Do you understand the difference? It’s not what we think. It’s not what we say. Prophecy is about hearing and sharing what God has to say about the world, and what we’re doing about it.
Prophets in the Bible often begin, “Thus says the Lord. . .” or “The vision which the Lord granted to so-and-so. . .”
Prophets tremble when they speak. Isaiah saw a vision of the Lord sitting on a throne, high up in heaven, with flaming angels singing to each other that the Lord is holy, and that the whole earth is full of God’s glory.
The doors of the temple shook, and Isaiah said, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:1-5) Isaiah was almost overcome by his vision.
But the prophets are also fearless. God said to Jeremiah, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you. . .” (Jeremiah 1:7-8)
Prophets often deliver bad news. God said, through Amos, “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!. . .It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear. . .I hate, I despise your festivals, I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. . .I will not accept your offerings. . .Take away from me the noise of your songs. . .But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. . .” (Amos 5:18-24)
In ancient societies like the ones we meet in the Bible, the king ruled the country. The king ran the army, and fought the battles, and collected the taxes. Besides his own officials, the king had two groups of people to advise and support him.
On the one side were the priests. In most societies, the job of the priests was to bless the king, and to bless what people were doing. Priests accepted gifts and sacrifices, and offered them to God. And then the priests announced that God had blessed them and that God was happy with them.
So, you’ve got the priests. On the other side were the prophets. Their job was to announce and articulate whatever God was thinking, or feeling, or doing at any particular time.
In Hebrew society, the prophets often had a very special role, which was to say that God was not happy with what was going on.
The priests were the “yes-men”. They were the ones who put the divine seal of approval on things. The prophets were the critics, the “nay-sayers”, the gravel in the gearbox of the king’s plans and society in general. Do you see the difference?
The prophets’ job was sometimes to share a vision of a world that was restored and redeemed.
But more often, the prophets’ job was to tell the kings and the priests and the people, “You think that you’re doing the will of God, but you’re not!” Or, “You think you’re getting away with something, but God sees what you do. What you are doing is terribly wrong. And you will pay a terrible price for what you do. Your actions today are planting the seeds of your own destruction.”
Now, put that together with what this morning’s scripture is saying. Without a vision, without prophecy, without guidance from God, without revelation, terrible things happen. People cast off restraint. Law and order disappear. People get out of hand. People perish.
That’s the bottom line. When we try to substitute our own vision for the vision of God, people die. And we can see that happening, all over the world today. In wars and famines, in places where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, in places human rights are ignored and people are tortured.
When we substitute our own vision for the vision of God, people die. Violence multiplies, and peace disappears. Poor people live in cardboard boxes and homeless shelters, and rich people build bigger and bigger McMansions.
When there’s no vision, politicians scream at each other like animals with rabies. Nations destroy everything they ever stood for. Societies send their children to fight and to die. This is what happens, when there is no vision from God. People die, in great numbers, and it’s terrible.
One of our biggest problems, from a religious point of view, is that there are so many false prophets around, and there are so many people who are ready to listen to them.
Isaiah writes that the people of Israel “. . .said to the seers, ‘Do not see’; and to the prophets, ‘Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions, leave the way, turn aside from the path, let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel. . .’” (Isaiah 30:10-11)
Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow, and the road is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. . .Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. . .Every good tree bears good fruit, but every bad tree bears bad fruit. . .”
And Jesus also said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you doers of evil. . .’” (Matthew 7:13-23)
According to the Bible, bad prophecy, or false prophecy, is worse than no prophecy at all. And there are plenty of bogus prophets around. And even if we don’t call them that, there are still plenty of priests, who make it their job to bless the people in power, and tell society that God is happy with what they’re doing.
“You will know them by their fruits,” said Jesus. Not by what they do or say in the moment, not by their standing in the polls, not by whether their words are beautiful or inspiring. “You will know them by their fruits. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit; a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. . .”
We could turn this morning’s scripture around, and say, “When people are dying, there is no vision here. When law and order disappear, we are not living under God’s guidance. When people are unrestrained, this is not a revelation.” It works both ways.
I don’t have all the answers for the problems of today’s world. I don’t think that any of our leaders do.
I think that it is our job, as faithful Christians who try to listen to the voice and leading of God, to say no to what the world is doing a lot of the time. We may not always know what the right thing to do is, but we see the fruit of the wrong decisions.
We can say no when our leaders try to substitute anything else for the vision and teaching of God. We need to say no, loud and clear.
When we’re in doubt, we don’t have to rush to a solution. There are often many possible ways to deal with a problem. We can say, “Let’s wait and see. Let’s find another way. Let’s not give up on God’s vision.”
You don’t have to look very far in the Bible to hear what God wants. When Jesus was born, the angel told the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to all people. . .” That’s a vision for us – a vision of peace.
When Jesus was dying, do you remember his last words? “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing. . .” That’s a vision for us – a vision of reconciliation.
When Jesus rose from the dead, do you remember what he told people? “Go into all the world and share the good news with all nations. . .” That’s God’s vision, too – a vision of outreach across all kinds of boundaries.
We can listen, deeply and carefully, with our hearts and our minds, to what we think God is saying. We can test what the prophets of our day are saying to us.
One of my favorite passages in the New Testament says, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil. And may the God of peace make you holy through and through; and may your spirit, soul and body be kept healthy and whole until our Lord returns. The one who chose you can be trusted, and will do this. . .” (I Thessalonians 5:23-24)
Let’s take all this into our time of open worship together. If you have questions, or answers, or if any of you have a vision to share, please let that be part of our worship.