The importance of preparation

Text Ecclesiastes 10:10 Date 20/09/10 Place LTS, Finchley (Beginning of new year)

If I ruled the world. There's an old Tony Bennett song with that title. If I ruled the world I'd do many things I'm sure but one of them would be to have the text of tonight's sermon put up wherever students training for the ministry are found. The text is Ecclesiastes 10:10
"If the axe is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed but skill will bring success."
I'd love to see it up here in the Library, in the dining room, on a wall in each student's accommodation throughout the time of his study. Ecclesiastes 10:10
"If the axe is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed but skill will bring success."
(Textual preaching)
Why I say that, if it is not obvious, we will see in a moment but first let me say something about textual preaching. Probably most of the preaching you hear and practice involves preaching a passage of Scripture rather than a single text. It will be Ecclesiastes 10 or 9:10-10:11 rather than Ecclesiastes 10:10. Textual preaching is quite different. I would like to commend it to you as a good alternative way of preaching Scripture, as I am tonight, from Ecclesiastes 10:10
"If the axe is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed but skill will bring success."
(Using an axe)

I remember once hearing a man preach and at a certain point he brought out from behind the lectern an axe. It was quite a striking act but to tell you the truth I can't now remember why he did it or what was his point. It was one reason why I decided against bringing an axe with me tonight. I am assuming you can all picture an axe in your mind and can understand the picture that is being used here.
There are a few different translations around and there is some difficulty about the final part of the verse. But the basic idea is clear enough -
Here is a man who wants to chop down a tree. He reads here in 9:10 do it with all your might and so he grabs an axe, finds his tree and hacks and hacks. But the axe is dull and its edge unsharpened. He would be wiser to stop and sharpen the axe. Doing a thing with all your might does not mean rushing at things, it often involves taking time for preparation. As Abraham lincoln once put it, no doubt drawing on this verse, "If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend six of them sharpening my axe"!
Now, of course, if you take a text you must give the context. It's no good just plucking one from nowhere. As has been said “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text” and prof texts can be used to prove all sorts of things. Every text has an address, a location and we must say something about that location whenever we take a text.
This particular text is from the Old Testament Wisdom Book, Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes was probably written by Solomon, perhaps towards the end of his life after his fall into idolatry and his apparent restoration.
Some see the book as a sort of pre-evangelistic tract or apologetic work. Older commentators often saw it as a warning to backsliders and the unconverted. Some see it as deeply sceptical, even cynical or nihilistic. Some say the theology is so pessimistic that without the important epilogue it wouldn’t even be in the Bible. It is there chiefly as a foil to the rest of Scripture.
Rather, like Job, Ecclesiastes warns against taking the very positive wisdom of Proverbs in a superficial and simplistic way and failing to see how complex and difficult life can be. Here is life in the raw, life as it is. The writer is not looking at life without God in the strict sense but life as it is even though there is a God – something much more demanding and profound. The book is firstly for God’s people - to help them in their daily toils and struggles. It is not only hard-nosed but has many words of encouragement, calls on us to fear God and frequently draws attention to the coming judgement.
The whole book can be divided into four parts. These different sections say basically the same thing in different ways. Repetition is a fundamental feature of Scripture. You can summarise the first three main sections thus

1:12-2:26 True contentment is found in God alone not in man so look to him for wisdom, knowledge and happiness, refusing to go on any longer in our sins.
3:1-5:20 God wants us to live in a good and proper way. This way is satisfying; indeed, to know how to enjoy life and be content is God's gift. Such people are so taken up with God they have no time to worry about death, etc.
6:1-8:15 Prosperity is not always a good thing; adversity is not necessarily a bad thing. Rather we must avoid unwise extremes, thinking too highly of human power or giving up seeking wisdom because it is so difficult. Recognise the importance of obedience to the powers that be and the good it does but recognise their undoubted weakness. Also consider both the judgement of God and the unfairness of life now.
The final section (where our text is found) begins in 8:16. The section doesn’t really open up new arguments but confirms and enlarges on what has gone before, coming to some practical exhortations. Within the final section, 9:10-10:11 forms a subsection. Here Solomon starts to use more and more Proverbs. He produced a whole collection of proverbs, of course. These are not from there but additional and appropriate to his purposes here. We can see three things in this subsection

1. A leading principle for life with some balancing considerations
1 A leading principle (action) 9:10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
2 Balancing considerations to keep in mind.
God’s sometimes surprising providence 9:11 I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.
Our general ignorance 9:12 Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them. Not just ignorance of death. We don’t know when we will die.
The public’s scorn and amnesia. The story in 9:13-15 starts off as what we expect to be a story of heroism but that’s not what it's about. You think – I wish I’d been that man! But no, it wasn’t like that, nobody remembered that poor man. Conclusion (16) Wisdom is better than strength. But the poor man's wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded. Wisdom truly is great, no question, but it doesn’t solve everything. We're in God’s hands and must look to him.
2. Two further points about wisdom’s limitations
1 The disproportionate influence of foolishness. That's really what 9:17-10:3 is about. Fools can be very influential. No matter how many wise you have one fool can make a terrible mess – in a company, a government, a family, a church, a seminary. What a disproportionate impact fools have.
2 Wisdom’s power to strengthen and its limitations. Solomon goes on with an example of wisdom in action. Wisdom demands diligence, demands that we are faithful, that we press on. We mustn’t panic. We need to be faithful but faithfulness isn’t going to solve all our problems. We must be realistic – faithfulness doesn’t guarantee success. We feel so powerless and frustrated sometimes, we wan t a revolution, but we must stay calm.
3. Final principles of wisdom to keep in mind at all times
Keep in mind the need for a balanced approach. 10:8, 9 refer to a series of activities where a danger is involved. Whoever digs a pit may fall into it; whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake. Whoever quarries stones may be injured by them; whoever splits logs may be endangered by them. The wise person doesn’t say I’m never going to dig a pit, etc, because it is too dangerous. Rather he recognises that there is danger in these activities and so he takes care. 10:11 reminds us of the dangers of procrastination. If a snake bites before it is charmed, there is no profit for the charmer. Eg People who are perpetual students for the ministry.
(The text)
The other thing is our text, which speaks of the advantage of thorough preparation.
"If the axe is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed but skill will bring success."
There are many obvious examples of where this applies.
I saw this advert. It said
"True interior painting and exterior painting professionals realise the importance of surface preparation in achieving maximum paint performance. In this part of the world, a professional painter must consider a number of factors before specifying proper surface preparation: substrata (the surface and its condition); environment; expected service life of the coating system; surface contamination (if present); types of primers; types of topcoats.
Surface preparation is often the most tedious and time-consuming aspect of any interior painting or exterior painting project. As a result, many discount painters shortcut this stage of the process to save time and money. This is where most decorative painting jobs run into trouble. As high as 80% percent of all coating failures can be directly attributed to inadequate surface preparation which affects coating adhesion. Before choosing an interior painting or exterior painting contractor, make sure you understand their methods and the extent to which they prepare the surface. If their estimates are unusually low, this is one area where your custom painting job is likely to suffer."
Obviously there's a bit of hyperbole there but you recognise the point they are making.
Or to take another example. Donovan Germain made these comments on a Jamaican musician who died at the age of 28 some years ago:
"Garnet was the consummate professional in his whole attitude and approach towards the work. He was always well prepared and that's one of the greatest things about an artiste. He didn't come around trying to find the song. He always came prepared so it was just a mater of fine-tuning it when he got to the studio. I would normally give him the track in advance and he would go home and write the song and rehearse so when he came to the studio it wouldn't be any long drawn-out session."
Now, of course, what I want to do this evening is to apply it to the Christian ministry. I think that this is one of the applications. Tree felling is a particularly appropriate metaphor for the ministry as it is hard work, work that involves a certain amount of skill and potentially dangerous work. Further, a good deal of it does involve that rooting out or chopping down work that has to be undertaken before the work of planting and watering can be properly entered into.
Now, I didn't come from a Christian home but I was converted when I was not quite 13 and from very early on I felt God calling me to be a minister. There was a certain urgency about this and it seemed to me that my best plan of action was to finish school as soon as I was allowed, at 16, do 3 years in a Bible College and then get out there as fast as I could. I was like a man who had some tree chopping to do and wanted to get on with it asap.
Though taking a generally sympathetic view of my desire to be a minister, my parents weren't so sure that this was the way to go about things. So we arranged for them to meet with my minister and, (would you believe it?), he basically agreed with them – Do 'A' levels if you can, then a degree and then think about some more specifically theological training. It seemed crazy advice to me at the time but I bent to it and ended up spending five more years studying than I had ever intended. From this perspective I can see that another year or two on top of that would not have been too much.
Now the very fact that you are students at LTS would suggest that you are at least partly convinced about the importance of preparation but as you sit there sharpening your axe as it were and still no trees have been felled it can be tempting to think that you are wasting your time. I want to prevent you from making that mistake by means of this text.
"If the axe is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed but skill will bring success."
Take Greek and Hebrew for example. You all know that neither language comes easy to most people. When you are busy trying to learn their unfamiliar and intricate ways you may be tempted to think that you are wasting your time. "How it this contributing to my saving souls?" you may find yourself wondering. At such times you need to say to yourself "I am sharpening the axe. In the end this will save me time not waste it." None of you, I guess, will rise to be great Hebrew or Greek scholars but if you work hard while you can here over the next year or two, you will at least gain a facility in the languages that will enable you the quicker to follow commentaries and make your own decisions about whether versions are right or wrong. And sometimes the tree you are working on will come down that much more easily because your axe is so sharp.
Something similar can be said for the other subjects taught here – theology and church history, biblical studies and ethics and so on. Work hard to get the basic structure of the Bible and of theology and of church history and so on clear in your mind while you are here. It will stand you in great stead when you are in the minis try and there is rarely time to be learning Hebrew, exploring bypaths in church history or clarifying where you stand on creationism or traducianism, infra- or supra-lapsarianism or the parity of elders.
And I think something more can be said too. While you are here you are inevitably developing habits and patterns of life and thinking that will leave their mark on you for years to come. If you are prayerless here then what makes you think it will be any different in the ministry? The same thing can be said of Bible study and other things. If you are not walking close to Christ now then when will you?