September 20, 2015
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
How many truly wise people have you known?
Jeff and I have two children, as most of you know. We’ve often joked in our family about different they are. Jennifer has always been our intellectual, sailing through school with little effort, only really studying once she hit law school – and then, I think, only because of the heavy load of reading that came with the program. She finished at the Honors College at South Carolina with a double major in political science and Spanish. She is so fluent in Spanish it makes my teeth hurt. We often tell people, she’s brilliant.
Christopher has always been our hands-on, practical thinker. He’s the one who always took the wheels off the trucks to see what made them work. He’s the one who worked on his own trucks all through high school, adding “accessories” that sometimes made us wince. You know those lifts and big tires? He’s the one who can figure out a practical solution to most everyday problems. He may not be an academic, but he is brilliant in common sense thinking.
We often said if you put their two brains in a blender and pressed puree, you’d have the perfect combination of book and practical smarts.
Is that wisdom?
Or we can look at the long roster of contenders for nomination for president. The Republicans are down to sixteen; the Democrats wavering around two or three. Among them we have a neurosurgeon, the former CEO of a top-20 Fortune 500 company, a business magnate famous for his real estate holdings and television programming, several former and current state governors and U.S. senators, a former first lady and U.S. secretary of state – do they represent wisdom?
What about leaders of the European Union, meeting on several occasions in recent weeks to discuss what to do about the growing refugee crisis that is flooding their member nations with immigrants, creating public relations nightmares when pictures like that of the body of little Aylan Kurdi hit the global media, creating public unrest at home as some citizens welcome asylum seekers with gifts of food and stuffed animals while others protest against growing numbers of migrants. Do they represent wisdom?
James’ letter points out that there are two kinds of wisdom. Earthly wisdom focuses on its own needs and wants. Earthly wisdom causes us to focus on having more, on getting the latest, biggest, and best. This wisdom creates conflict between people and nations. I want what you have; you envy what I have. Envy leads us to compete for scarce resources, rather than ensuring that everyone has what they need. Envy leads to rivalry, ambition, ill will, hatred, tyranny, and arrogance. An arrogance that will stop at nothing to get what it wants.
The other kind of wisdom is wisdom that comes from above. God-given wisdom looks very different from earthly wisdom. God-given wisdom focuses on the needs of others, not on building itself up. James describes this wisdom as “pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” These traits describe “a life that is not ego-driven, not grasping or envious.”
In today’s lectionary text from the gospel of Mark, Jesus has again told the disciples that he must suffer and die and then rise again. The disciples do not understand Jesus’ teaching. And as they walk along the road, they argue among themselves over who is the greatest. We pick up in Mark 9:35:
[Jesus] sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
When we in the church live by God’s wisdom, it changes life in the community. What does a “wise church” look like?
The wise church chooses its officers on the criteria of godly wisdom, rather than worrying about how much money they give the church.
The wise church involves church members of all ages and backgrounds in leading worship, rather than relying only on paid staff as worship leaders.
The wise church teaches and lives stewardship as a regular spiritual discipline rather than treating it as a seasonal obligation to collect pledges.
The wise church prays for good fruits that will meet the needs of all rather than praying for individual desires.
The wise church handles disagreements with love and mercy, seeking peace over selfish ambition.
The wise church addresses the earthly wisdom in the world around it through peacemaking and social justice ministries.
The wise church measures its identity by its closeness to God rather than the things it accumulates.
The world gives us many messages about who we are and what is important.
With godly wisdom, we recognize that our primary calling is as children of God.
It’s not easy to abandon or avoid earthly wisdom. It’s the way of the world. It’s the way of our culture. It is “in our very hearts.” Replacing earthly wisdom with heavenly wisdom first requires us to place our faith in the living God. The way of godly wisdom requires “a commitment to simplicity of heart and integrity of purpose that is extraordinarily rigorous.” We begin by humbling ourselves and turning wholeheartedly to God. When we do, God will lift us up.
How many truly wise people have you known?