Sunday, February 26, 2017
Sermon: James 3: 13-18 Faith in Action: Wise Up!
Over the past week or so, our front porch has been carpeted with a forest of glossy papers, each with a smiling face looking up at me as I’ve collected our post each day. You might even have had some of those smiling faces knock on your door, because, just in case you’ve somehow missed it, we’re having an election to the NI Assembly this Thursday.
Each of the candidates, with their smiling faces, is trying to persuade you to vote for them. (I will never tell anyone who to vote for - that isn’t my position; but I will encourage you to use your vote.) Those election leaflets are sent out to help you to decide who you’ll vote for. And the way they do that, is to try to persuade you that they are the wisest choice - that they have wisdom and understanding in what should happen up at Stormont.
You have until Thursday to decide who is wise and understanding out of the list of candidates in the election, but James confronts us with a more pressing question. Isn’t this James’ style all over again? He’s upfront, direct, he gets us to think, and react, and hopefully act in the light of what he’s saying. So here’s the question we’re thinking of this morning. ‘Who is wise and understanding among you?’
Forget about the assembly election candidates. He’s asking the hearers of his letter, the local church gathered together. It’s a question for us, Aghavea church family. Who is wise and understanding?
Perhaps as your mind races to think of people, this is a great question to be asking. You see, in a few month’s time, it will be the Easter Vestry, when churchwardens, glebewardens, and Select Vestry are elected and appointed. And this year is the triennial - with the special once every three years elections for Diocesan Synod members and Parochial Nominators - those who will work to find a new rector during the vacancy.
As your mind spins with all those positions and roles, the need for wisdom and understanding becomes obvious. But even besides electing parish officers, as we meet week by week and seek to grow together in becoming more like Jesus, we want to know how to work out how we’re getting on, and seeing how we’re growing in wisdom and understanding.
Perhaps by now you have some names in mind. Maybe you include your own, or maybe you look to others and recognise in them this notion of wisdom and understanding. Or perhaps you’re not sure what to look for; how to discern who is wise and understanding. Well, thankfully, James helps us to recognise what this wisdom and understanding looks like; and by contrast, what is definitely not real wisdom.
So let’s dive in to verse 13, as James answers his question. ‘Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.’ How do we see who is wise? It’s ‘by his (or her) good conduct.... in the meekness of wisdom.’ Wisdom will be worked out - it will be seen in our works, our good conduct. (It’s a bit like faith - which, as chapter 2 showed us, also works itself out in what we do).
Wisdom is seen in our meekness, and seen in our good conduct. In fact, the way James puts it, he’s talking about seeing it in other people - ‘he’ and ‘him’. And do you see the contrast with verse 14? It’s not he and him now, it’s you. James is addressing ‘you’ (which includes me) directly. ‘But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.’
The way the two verses sit together, it’s as if James is saying: it’s ok to point at someone else and recognise that they are wise; but to point at yourself or put your own hand up is to be boastful (and therefore definitely not wise!). The root of this boasting comes from wanting to be seen to be wise - this bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in our hearts.
Bitter jealousy - seeing other people having wisdom and being jealous of them. Selfish ambition - wanting to be in the position where other people honour us as wise, so that they look up to us. Either or both of them are far from true wisdom. And that’s what James goes on to say in verse 15. ‘This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.’
This way of thinking; this attitude of the heart; this isn’t godly wisdom, but rather is of the earth, a product of our own thinking; it’s unspiritual, not something the comes from the Holy Spirit; and it’s demonic - the same desire that the devil and his angels had to overthrow God.
And look where this earthly, unspiritual, demonic so-called wisdom leads us - verse 16: ‘For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.’ This false wisdom in our hearts will lead to disorder and vile practice. When you think of it, this is a fitting description for our world, as we see the consequences of jealousy and ambition worked out every day. The teatime news would be a lot shorter if they said ‘because of our jealousy and selfish ambition, today there was disorder and every vile practice. Good night.’
This is the world we live in, as we live out our heart’s desires. And if we only had this earthly, unspiritual, demonic so-called wisdom, then we would despair. Because try as we might, we couldn’t do anything about it. We couldn’t change.
But there is good news. It doesn’t have to be this way. There is what James calls ‘wisdom from above.’ And Psalm 19 helps us to grasp this wisdom from above. The first part of the Psalm is all about seeing God’s glory and handiwork, his wisdom as we look up at the heavens. The stars, and the sun show God’s wisdom. But they’re up there, out of reach, we can’t touch them. But then Psalm 19 changes, and God’s glory and wisdom are touchable, they’re down here. ‘The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.’ God’s wisdom has come down, as he called a people to himself through Abraham; as he spoke through Moses and the prophets in the Old Testament; and supremely as he came down in the Lord Jesus, who is ‘our wisdom’ (1 Cor 1:30).
This wisdom from above is seen in the life of Jesus, and as we trust in him, as we submit to him, as we receive the implanted word, he gives us his wisdom (James 1:21, 5). Rather than living out of our own earthly, unspiritual, demonic jealousy and selfish ambition, we can now live out the wisdom from above.
And here’s what it looks like. ‘First pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.’ (17). This is what the good conduct of v13 looks like as it interacts with other people. How attractive it is, compared to the disorder and every vile practice.
So how do we become wise and understanding? If this way of life is so attractive, how can we start? It’s about being reconciled to God first of all, as we turn to him. We need to submit to God’s word and wisdom, as we unlearn our sinful attitudes and ambitions and instead learn God’s ways. As we daily seek to live out this wisdom from above. And it will impact the way we deal with others - inside the church and beyond.
Verse 18 sums it up well. If the farmer is expecting a harvest later in the year, then he’ll have to sow some seeds. If there’s no sowing, there’ll be no growing. And so, James tells us: ‘And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.’
If we want to see a harvest of righteousness - in our own life and in the lives of others; if we want to see people flourishing, and to see God’s kingdom spread. If this is our desire, then we need to get to work. We need to be sowing - not seeds, but peace. We’re to be active in making peace, and in that way, seeing this harvest of righteousness grow and be gathered in.
So let’s return to the original question James asked us. ‘Who is wise and understanding among you?’ As we thought of this today, who did you consider? And was your name among those considered wise? Please do consider this question later on, while you’re waiting for your dinner, or when you enjoy a quiet Sunday evening, or when you close your eyes and wait for sleep. And, can I say as respectfully as I can, it seems God is saying to us today: ‘Wise up!’
Perhaps you realise that you are operating according to the world’s wisdom. Your life is controlled by this jealousy and selfish ambition. See where such a life leads you, and how it affects you and those around you and our church family. Submit to the Lord Jesus, who is our wisdom, and allow him to change your heart, as he applies his sin-sacrifice to you, and begins to lead you in his wisdom.
Perhaps you’re considered respectable, well-liked, and wise, but it’s still just this worldly wisdom. Submit to the wisdom from above. Become truly wise today, as you live in line with heavenly, spiritual and godly wisdom.
And, even if you are already truly wise, then keep going. Keep an eye on the harvest, and act accordingly. Sow the seeds of peace. Make peace. And watch as the harvest grows, thirty, sixty and a hundredfold, for God’s glory.
Wise up, in the wisdom from above, and so we wise and understanding. Amen.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 26th February 2017.