(A) Introduction

The chapter contains many colourful, pithy, observations. I am going to concentrate on those that appeal strongly to me and which I am able to elaborate.

Keeping a sense of proportion. v1: As dead flies give perfume a bad smell so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour.

It is wrong to think that a little folly doesn't matter. It can easily outweigh wisdom and honour. It is a shame if a couple of dead flies spoil the aroma of a jar of precious ointment. A little folly can ruin human relationships.

I have just been studying the bust up between Paul and Barnabas recorded in Acts15v36to41. It occurred over such a small matter - the inclusion of John Mark in the team to revisit the converts made on their first missionary journey. It should have been easy for Paul and Barnabas to reach a compromise. They could have taken both Mark and Silas with them into Galatia. Neither brother was prepared to compromise and a little folly led to a violent disagreement and a permanent rift in their relationship. I think it is one of the saddest episodes in the New Testament.

We all understand a women not liking to use tainted perfume. A little folly can lead to fellow Christians viewing us with distaste. They are like the rich woman who often turned to her jar of favourite perfume until the faint whiff of corruption reached her nostrils and then she ignored it all together. I have admitted in these expositions that I am very hot tempered. My pupils frequently experienced my anger. However, I rarely lose my temper in church life. I did on one occasion speak with undue warmth in an elder's meeting. One of the men who attended that meeting treated me a bit like tainted perfume thereafter. A little folly outweighed such wisdom and honour as I possess. It is not inconceivable that a man of volatile disposition, at his reflective best, is also capable of exhibiting wisdom.

I once had two formidable girls in my form who were close friends. I will call them Bubble and Squeak. I was fond of them and they were both tolerant of my weaknesses. Sometimes I would chase them over the desktops. Enough of that! Both of these girls had a nonconformist attitude to school uniform. They were supposed to wear V topped sweaters but insisted on coming to school in the round topped variety. I had to enforce the rules! I was very annoyed about having a battle of wills over such a trivial issue. The girls were deeply resentful that I was getting tough with them over such a minor matter. In the end I had to send them both to the Deputy Head. They never quite forgave me!

We mustn't think that small issues don't matter - they do. However, we should keep a sense of proportion and not over react to flies in the ointment. At one time we had a Scottish lady in our congregation. She had a fine singing voice which she used to good effect during the hymn singing. I learned that a group in the congregation had complained to the Pastor that she was showing off and singing too loudly. They threatened to stay away if her enthusiasm wasn't curbed. It wasn't as if she was singing out of tune! My brother Peter and I used to stand along side our friend the Pitman at Pioneer camp and the singing of one of us was so tuneless that by the end of a hymn we were all out of tune - and helpless with laughter. It is wrong to let minor irritations wreck relationships.

We are very fussy today. People in Britain won't buy fruit with minor blemishes. Guanlong Cao in his book, 'The Attic,' writes about his excitement as a boy in China whenever he bought 10 cents worth of rotten peaches. On all the bruised and spoiled peaches there was some flesh well worth the eating. Cao writes: Mother took the biggest and best peach ..... and handed it to me. One huge bite and the juice was dripping from the corner of my mouth. We are all flawed. We should not expect perfection in others when we are so imperfect ourselves. But like those peaches we are not all bad. There is some good in most of us. The secret of good relationships is to be like the boy Cao who overlooked the rottenness for the sake of the wholesome and sweet.

(C) The danger of presumption

The Teacher warns: Whoever digs a pit may fall into it. v8. There is nothing wrong with digging a pit as long as you don't forget you've dug it. After dusk one summer's evening at Pioneer Camp a creature from the pit staggered into the kitchen. Albert was covered from head to foot in black slime. He had fallen into a deep ditch used to drain what were formerly saltings. The dykes of east coast marshy meadows are notorious for the dark silt they contain. His wife wasn't very pleased with him. Albert protested his innocence: "The ditch wasn't there when I went up the field this afternoon." I am afraid that it was - Albert had just forgotten about its location and existence!

Forgetfulness is dangerous. Driving home from school one hot afternoon I forgot to look right at the Mickfield crossroads and escaped death by the skin of my teeth and the Grace of God.

King David forgot about the correct way to carry the Ark of the Covenant. He loaded it onto a cart and not very securely at that. When the oxen stumbled and the ark nearly toppled out of the cart Uzzah grabbed at it. The LORD'S anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God. 2Sam6v7. David was angry at what God did and afraid of the LORD that day. The next time he moved the ark he did so according to the instructions given by Moses.

There is a right and wrong way of doing things and it is presumptuous to think we can ignore God's instructions with impunity. The Bible gives guidance about the relationship of men and women in marriage and in the church. Increasing numbers of Christians ignore God's advice. They do not dance to God's tune but to some modern fashionable number. Children are taught to honour their parents in the Scriptures. Father's are expected to discipline their offspring. Many parents seemed to have lost the will to excercise authority. There is an awful price to pay for such presumption - the lawlessness and alienation of the young.

The Teacher goes on to say that if you engage in a dangerous activity you may end up getting hurt: Whoever quarries stones may be injured by them; whoever splits logs may be endangered by them. v9. If a snake bites before it is charmed there is no profit for the charmer. v11.

I am missing my three front teeth. Two were knocked out playing hockey and one smashed keeping wicket at cricket. Both are dangerous games - increasingly so as age takes its toll. It is presumptuous to believe that you can play dangerous games without getting hurt.

It is always dangerous to campaign for change because this threatens people's security. A lady in our fellowship was opposed when she tried to rearrange the chairs at the prayer meeting so participants sat in a circle. Most folk felt exposed sitting in a circle. They were used to hiding behind others. I was quite strongly opposed when I attempted to move our evening service out of the chapel into a small schoolroom. The few who met for worship did not want greater intimacy. They preferred the formal atmosphere of a tiny congregation in a large space. The further from the action the better! Next year our evening service will close all together!

It's safe talking in general terms about man's sinfulness but dangerous being too precise and dealing with particular sins. My father used to say, "If you throw a stone at a group of dogs you soon find out which one you have hit." Jesus denounced the sins of the experts in the law and the Pharisees and they crucified him.

It is very dangerous for a Christian leader to criticise the behaviour of one of his flock. I know a pastor who was asked by one of the lady members of his church to marry her to an unbeliever. The pastor told the woman that she should not marry a non-Christian and he certainly had no intention of conducting the marriage service. I would not have refused, myself, to conduct the marriage service but nevertheless the decision of that pastor is understandable. The woman and her large extended family never forgave their minister and remained thorns in his side until he left for another calling.

The Teacher observes that: Whosoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake. v8. The Teacher means by this that no one is harmless and it is very dangerous to presume so. The old wall, weathered and mellow, and the new wall, whitewashed and cheerful, may look harmless but behind each facade there lurks a snake. Similarly within each human being, regardless of the attractiveness of the facade, there lurks a snake - the old nature. If that old nature is disturbed, stirred up, it will strike and its venom will poison your system.

Sometimes we catch people with their defences down. They are feeling vulnerable, stressed, unloved or frustrated. A little tap - the facade crumbles - the snake strikes. The old nature lurks just below the surface in those with low self-esteem and fragile egos. So, I tell the usually sweet Victoria that she needs to spend longer on her homework and she snarls, "I've better things to do with my time than Geography homework." Her venom gets into my system and I am in a bad mood all morning.

Other walls are strong and the snake is buried deep. The strongest wall can be broken down and then, beware, because the serpent unused to being disturbed can be the deadliest of all. A jolly, kind hearted, easy going, headmaster may bear with the antagonism of an aggressive and awkward member of staff for many years but finally something is said and the wall crumbles and the snake strikes. The member of staff who has gone unscathed for so long and has begun to presume upon his safety is finally struck down.

We should not be surprised if we break through a wall to get bitten by a snake. It is no use complaining!

(D) The folly of procrastination. v18. If a man is lazy, the rafters sag; if his hands are idle, the house leaks.

A man who puts off repairing his roof must expect it to sag, leak and eventually fall down. Lee, who used to be the umpire for the hockey team I played for, told me a chilling story. He worked for a time for Rentokil the damp proofing specialists. One of his jobs was to survey properties for prospective buyers. He had nearly finished a survey of one house and found nothing untoward until he pulled up a corner of the carpet in the lounge. Beneath the carpet was a fine red dust - the spores of the dreaded dry rot fungus. The entire wooden boarding underlying the lounge had succumbed to dry rot. A water pipe under the floor had sprung a tiny leak. A fine spray of water had fed the dry rot fungus all through a warm summer and done thousands of pounds worth of damage. The owner of the house had inadvertently neglected the leak - to the ruination of his property.

We are inclined to put off:

    (a) Things we don't like doing. There are certain necessary tasks that give me little or no pleasure or satisfaction. I find it a chore to take a bath, clean my teeth, clean my shoes, dust the house and sew on a button. I particularly hate sewing on buttons. I put that job off until I have scarcely a shirt left with a full set of buttons and then I have a blitz and do the lot.

    Now in Christian service there are chores I have to do which give me no pleasure. I never mind preparing and delivering sermons and I even get a lot of satisfaction from writing these expositions but I have to spend a lot of time doing boring tasks: booking speakers, writing to confirm bookings, writing minutes of meetings and news items for the village magazine, cutting the graveyard grass, counting the money in the mission boxes, organising games for 5 to 9 year olds and filling in forms for our trustees. I would not miss any of these tasks. It requires discipline to do them. None of them can be put off without the church suffering. It is a lot easier for me to study for eight hours to prepare a sermon than to spend two hours cutting the grass in the cemetery. I don't think those who do the church chores should be taken for granted!

    (b) Things that are hard, painful or distressing. Lots of people put off going to the dentist because they think it is going to be uncomfortable. I can't imagine anyone wanting to be a dentist. Very few people enjoy seeing a dentist whereas they are positively delighted at the appearance of a plumber. I went 25 years without visiting the dentist. I worked on the principle: sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. It was an evil day when eventually I did go. My dentist was outraged by my neglect and found eight teeth that needed filling which he proceeded to do in a very robust fashion.

    I am putting off decorating my study because I have hundreds of books that will have to be moved and the dust will make me wheeze and sneeze. That's how we are; and sadly it's how we can be in Christian service. It is not very agreeable to discipline a church member or to speak to someone about disruptive conduct.

    I faced a problem with old Jack whom I picked up and brought to the Sunday morning service and Tuesday prayer meeting. These services always did him good. He was often surly and disagreeable on the way to chapel but in much better humour on the way home. Jack had flirted with the Jehovah Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists and he had some views that were at variance with ours. The strange thing is that the American group to whom he left a substantial legacy was never willing to baptise and accept him. He was baptised at the Grace Baptist church at Brockley. We accepted him! Jack had one very bad habit. His public prayers were long and consisted of mini sermons by which he hoped to convert us to his point of view. These diatribes were ruining our prayer meeting. I needed to talk to Jack about his prayers. I kept putting it off and putting it off. In the end I got angry with him about something else and he stopped coming to the prayer meeting. I would have healed the breach but I could not face the resumption of his prayers and the likelihood of another row in the future. It was too hard for me. I am ashamed of myself. We were never reconciled because of my procrastination. It is a blot on my record as elder at Brockley.

    (c) Things we feel ill equipped to do. The Teacher writes: If the axe is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed but skill will bring success. It is very easy to put off chopping wood if the axe is blunt.

    Every Good Friday morning I join with the other members of the Brockley Cricket Club to get our ground ready for the start of the cricket season. I never get invited to do a skilled job involving machinery. I am always given a mundane task that requires limited expertise. So this year I had to repair the plastic fence that stops balls rolling into the river that fringes our pitch. Several of the posts holding up the plastic fence had broken. No new posts had been purchased and so I proceeded to cut some out of the hedge with the bluntest billhook imaginable. It was not a pleasant task. It was not long before both hands were bleeding from encounters with blackthorn. The blunt billhook made the work especially unrewarding. Then there was the mallet I borrowed from DJ. The head kept slipping off. DJ repeatedly informed me, "It needs soaking in water for an hour JR. If I am going to use it I always soak it in water for an hour." I had to hold the head onto the haft. If I missed the post I was trying to knock into the ground I drove my hand onto it instead. More gore! I could have given up - but instead I persevered and used such skill as I possessed to steadily restore the damaged fence.

    We may jib at tasks God expects us to do. I was not equipped to care for my invalid father after my mother died. I had no nursing experience. Cooking, washing, ironing and cleaning were not in my repertoire of acquired skills. Worst of all I was notoriously short of patience and dangerously volatile. Nonetheless it was a job God wanted me to do. I was not without some skills. I was well organised, adaptable and good at problem solving and with God's help these helped me to complete the work I was called to do.

    God can use a blunt axe! He has the strength and skill to use the meanest instrument to fulfil his purposes. In just the same way that Samson used the jaw bone of an ass to defeat the Philistines so God can use you and me to rout the foe.

    (d) Things that God really wants us to do and which Satan is keen we should not do. Satan does not want us to visit the dying, pray with the sick, give to the needy or pray privately. He hates these activities and will tempt us to procrastinate - to put off the visit, to postpone our giving and to delay prayer until we are too tired to concentrate.

    Procrastination is the thief of time and that is one thing we do not have an unlimited supply of. My friend Dorothy is 93. When she was a babe her father died leaving her mother with three little girls to bring up. Her father's people 'didn't want to know them.' They were poor themselves and shrank from the additional responsibility of supporting a widow and her young family. When Dorothy was about seven she was taken to see her parental grandfather who was very ill. He came down stairs with his face all bound up and took his small granddaughter onto his lap. He gave her a half a crown and said, "We should 'a looked arter yu." Within a week he was dead - the opportunity had been lost.

    In December I knocked at old Mr Mott's door as I had been doing for nigh on 40 years. We were out carol singing and I was collecting for Spurgeon's Child Care. Mr Mott took a long time to come to the door. He had not been well. Eventually he came and made his contribution. I asked him how he was. "Not too good bor," he replied, "Come and see me." I promised that I would. I put the visit off and off. Mr Mott died before I got round to paying him the visit I had promised. He forgave me because, before he died, he asked his son to be sure and get John to take his funeral. It was harder to forgive myself.

    There is a right time to do something; to put it off is to spoil the deed. There was a right time for Jesus to die on the cross. He knew when his time had come. Jesus asked his Father if the bitter cup could be taken from him but when God reaffirmed his will the Son went without hesitation to Calvary's cross. If Jesus had put off his sacrificial death and gone to the cross later than God had planned it would not have been the perfect offering for sin and we would remain unsaved.

    (E) Conclusion.

    There are Christians who find expositions on procrastination and presumption rather mundane. Perhaps what I have written is unexciting and uninspiring but I do not apologise for dealing with these subjects because Jesus addressed them in his parables. He it was who told stories about five foolish virgins, a servant who buried his master's money and the rich farmer who presumed the good life would go on for ever. He it was who when a man replied to his call of, "Follow me," by saying, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father," responded, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Luke9v60.