“From Selfish Ambition to Humble Service” (James 3:13 – 4:10; Mark 9:30-37)

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 23, 2018

“From Selfish Ambition to Humble Service” (James 3:13 – 4:10; Mark 9:30-37)

In this long green season of the church year, the non-festival half of the year, the Epistle reading is not chosen to go along with the theme of the Holy Gospel, as it is in the festival half of the year. Instead, it’s just a straight reading-through of a particular epistle. Thus any correlation between the Epistle and Gospel is merely a coincidence. Well, we have such a coincidence today. The Epistle reading from James and the Gospel reading from Mark do have a common theme. It’s the theme of Christians, disciples of Jesus, being called to move “From Selfish Ambition to Humble Service.”

Selfish ambition: That’s what we see in the Gospel reading, as Jesus lets his disciples know that he knows that they were arguing about who was the greatest, who would be first. Selfish ambition: That’s what we see in the Epistle reading, as James rebukes his Christian hearers for their “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition,” which causes disorder and quarrels and fights among them. Selfish ambition: That’s what we need to see in our own hearts, in our lives, in our family–even in the church. Today you and I are being called to move from selfish ambition to humble service, and we want to heed that call and put it into action, by God’s grace.

But you say, “Selfish ambition? Why, Pastor, that’s not me! I don’t have any ambition at all!” Well, that would be an opposite problem, wouldn’t it? No ambition at all would mean sitting around all day doing nothing. That would not be ambitious, but it would still be selfish. A certain amount of ambition–better, a certain kind of ambition–is necessary to make your way in the world and not be a burden to others, and even to make a positive contribution. Ambition, per se, simply means that you’re striving after something, and that can be a good thing. So, for example, St. Paul could say, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel.” Paul tells the Corinthians, “We have as our ambition to be pleasing to the Lord.” He tells the Thessalonians, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” So it’s not ambition in itself that’s wrong. It’s what kind of ambition it is. It’s selfish ambition that’s the problem.

There are many passages in the New Testament that speak against selfish ambition. Paul tells the Corinthians that he fears he will find among them “contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, backbitings, whisperings, conceits, tumults.” In Galatians, he lists among the works of the flesh “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy.” Paul instructs the Philippians, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” It was necessary to warn those congregations against such things. So maybe we need to hear it too.

Our text today fits right in. James writes: “If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” And then James describes the bitter fruit that this selfish ambition produces: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.”

Selfish ambition is not true to our new nature as Christians. But it does come naturally to our old sinful nature. It is the way of the world, and it does produce fights and quarrels and damaged relationships among us Christians. Can you see it in your life? Do you recognize this selfish ambition in your heart? Recognizing this selfishness in yourself–not in your husband or wife or neighbor or fellow church member, but recognizing selfish ambition in yourself–this is part of repentance. Then you will be ready to receive the Lord’s forgiveness and his help to live differently. It’s always easier to recognize selfishness in others, isn’t it, than to come to grips with it in your own life.

Selfish ambition is me wanting to get my way, no matter whether it’s the best way for all concerned or not. Think about how you try to put your own interests first, to get ahead of others, to get others to cater to your desires. This can take many forms, but it’s the same underlying spirit. How often this causes quarrels and fights among us–in our marriage, in our home, in our congregation. So often we’re operating from a “me first” spirit, and whenever two or more “me firsts” collide, there will be conflict. And hurt and resentment will result. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above. This is sin. This is you. This is me.

What to do? James tells us: “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” In other words, in one word, repent. Don’t rationalize your sin; repent of it. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” There you go. This is the way to think of the sin that would control us and condemn us to death: Give it up. Let God lift you up. Give God your sins, because “he gives more grace.” More grace than all the sins and selfishness that ever were or ever will be–that’s what God gives us freely and superabundantly in his Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ, in his person, is the embodiment of the wisdom that comes down from above. “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” This describes our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the life he lived, the ministry of service and self-sacrifice he practiced. Jesus is the wisdom that comes down from above. He is God’s Son, who came down from heaven for us men and for our salvation. That’s why he came, to rescue us from our sins and to give us new life and a new spirit as his people. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” “He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”

And this is the way of the cross that Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel reading: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” It was necessary for Christ to go this lonely way of suffering, in order to save us. There was no other way for us to be saved from sin and death, other than through the atoning death and victorious resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

We are new people in Christ, free and forgiven! This is how God exalts us, this is how he lifts us up. He raises us up to new life and to eternal life, through faith in Christ. We are baptized into his death and resurrection. We receive his Spirit, to live as his new people, a community of servanthood, reflecting the character of our Servant-Lord. Jesus schools us in the academy of humble service. He teaches us, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” This sounds so upside-down to the ears of selfish ambition, but it is really life lived rightside-up. This kind of humble service is the wisdom that comes down from above and serves others. This is love. This is you, dear Christian, this is you in Christ.

How will this play out in your life this week? I’m pretty sure that God will give you opportunities for love and service every single day. Every time there are people put in your path or that come to your mind. You will be strengthened for that moment, you will be strengthened for all those moments, whenever they occur. Why? Because you are a Christian, you are a new person in Christ. How? Because you are baptized. You have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. And you were here today, in church, to hear the good news of Christ and to receive his body and blood. This blessed Sacrament strengthens us in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another.

So now you will be ready to respond in love and humble service. You know that your position is secure in Christ. Therefore there is no need for selfish ambition. God is the one who lifts you up, he exalts you. Indeed, God will raise you up on the Last Day for the life of eternal joy and bliss that is in store for all who trust in Christ. Be secure and strong in that knowledge and sure hope. Now you are free to let go of selfish ambition and to serve others in humble service. God will supply the love. Just ask him for more whenever you run short. He always gives more grace.

This is why we can say to the Lord what we sang in the hymn:

Called by worship to Your service,
Forth in Your dear name we go,
To the child, the youth, the aged,
Love in living deeds to show;
Hope and health, goodwill and comfort,
Counsel, aid, and peace we give,
That Your servants, Lord, in freedom
May Your mercy know and live.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ: By grace you are saved, and by grace you will serve! Receive God’s grace, live in that grace, and go and love and serve!

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Published in: on September 22, 2018 at 7:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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