“Wisdom from Above: Humble Yourself, Serve Others” (James 3:13 – 4:10; Mark 9:30-37)

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 19, 2021

“Wisdom from Above: Humble Yourself, Serve Others” (James 3:13 – 4:10; Mark 9:30-37)

In the Epistle for today, St. James asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” Well, I suppose all of us would like to be considered wise and understanding. To have people compliment us on how smart we are and what good decisions we make. And in the Gospel reading for today, Jesus says, “If anyone would be first.” Well, I suppose all of us would like to be first. We like it when we’re in the top spot. To be wise, to be first, to be great–we like it when we achieve those things and are recognized for it.

The only problem is, that’s not the way it goes in God’s kingdom. If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be the servant of all. That’s counter-intuitive to the ways of this world, where people are pumped up with loads and loads of self-esteem. But in the kingdom of God, lowliness goes along with holiness. Humility and meekness are the virtues that are praised and prized. We’ll see that now from both James and Jesus, under the theme, “Wisdom from Above: Humble Yourself, Serve Others.”

Listen first to what James says: “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But 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. But 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.”

Notice here that wisdom is not just a matter of being smart or knowing a lot of stuff. Rather, true wisdom will show itself in how we live, in our character and our conduct. This is the wisdom that comes down from above, heavenly wisdom, God’s kind of wisdom. This is how God would have his Christians to think and act.

How about you? How do you think in your inner thoughts, those thoughts that are hidden from others, but are not hidden from God? Is there some selfishness in there? Maybe a lot of selfishness, in one form or another. What about jealousy, when we envy the praise or the good things that others are getting? When this self-seeking attitude works its way into our relationships with other people–in our church, in our friendships, in our family, in our marriage–what is the result? Disorder. Conflict. Things get out of whack. Harmony is disrupted. Bitterness. Unforgiveness. Resentment.

James says: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” Do you recognize this bad fruit in your life? Have you seen it disturb the harmony in a marriage, a family, a friendship, in a congregation? This is not the wisdom from above. This is, rather, in the words of James, “earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” The devil loves nothing better than to stir up conflict and dissent and disharmony among brothers and sisters. It takes our eyes off the Lord. It takes our eyes off of serving our neighbor. You and I get turned in on ourselves, at the expense of everything else. This is not good.

So, what do we do when we recognize this tendency in ourselves? In a word, repent. 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.”

“Humble yourselves,” but there’s more. “Humble yourselves before the Lord,” James says, “and he will exalt you.” Yes, the Lord will exalt you; he will lift you up. This is the grace of God, his unmerited favor and forgiveness. As James writes: “But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’”

God’s grace is such that he forgives our failures to love and to serve. He forgives our selfishness. God is in the business of forgiving and cleansing sinners like you and me. “He gives more grace.” Indeed, God gives his only Son! Grace and truth and wisdom come through God’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

The wisdom that comes down from above comes in the one “who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven.” Christ Jesus, the Son of God incarnate–he is God’s wisdom in the flesh. He came to rescue us from ourselves. And he did that by laying down his life on our behalf. Jesus was lifted up, but he was lifted up on a cross. He suffered death as the sacrifice for all the sinners of the world–including you and me.

Jesus told his disciples: “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.” Do you understand what this means? Jesus’ death and resurrection does the job! What Christ came to do is complete! Mission fulfilled! Sins covered, completely forgiven. Life triumphs, the Christ-life that lives forever, that triumphs over death and even now reigns in life. Therefore, you are a new person, dear Christian. You’ve been joined to Jesus in baptism. There is a new you available. A “you” that will live for others and not only for self. A “you” that will serve the God who has redeemed you. And now, in Christ, you are willing and able to do so. This is the renewing of your mind, the transforming of your thinking.

This new nature is manifested in our relationships. “The meekness of wisdom,” James calls it. Only, don’t mistake meekness for weakness. This is not a flaw. This is a strength of character, to be meek. In the Beatitudes, Jesus commended meekness, when he said, “Blessed are the meek.” The word “meekness” means “gentleness” or “humility.” Meekness is to be like Jesus. It is to be so strong and secure that you are willing to take the lower part, in humility, to bend down and serve others. This is strength of character. It is to be secure in who you are in Christ, so that you don’t have to be always grasping and looking out for Number One. It is to take the lower part in service to others. Your strength and security and confidence are found in Christ, and nothing can shake that. So now you are freed up to serve. This is a good thing. It is pleasing to God.

Jesus describes this meek, humble servanthood when he talks to his disciples in the Gospel reading for today. They were quarreling about who was the greatest among them. Same old, same old for these guys. So Jesus turns things upside-down on them, which is really rightside-up. He says: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Huh? Why are you talking in riddles, Jesus? The servant is really the greatest? The one who lets himself be last is really first? But you know, I’m beginning to get this! For who does this sort of thing more than Jesus himself? He came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. There is no greater servant than Jesus himself.

And Jesus would have his disciples do likewise. So he takes a little child and sets it in their midst. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” So, brothers and sisters, do you want to be great? Then serve a little child. Serve somebody that nobody pays attention to. Visit a lonely neighbor. These people may not get you anywhere. They may seem rather insignificant–powerless people, on the fringe. But if they’ve got no one to look after them, maybe God wants to take care of them. God kind of has a thing about caring for the poor and lonely. He cares about the last and the least and the lost. And maybe God will do that caring through you. Think about how that might happen. Keep your eyes open this week for opportunities. God will tap you on the shoulder and remind you who you are in Christ. Because you are able to love people now. You are strong enough to be meek. This puts a different perspective on things. But this is true wisdom. This is wise living.

Earlier in James’s epistle, it says: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” So, what do you say? Let’s take God up on his promise. Brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s ask God for the wisdom from above, the wisdom that shows itself in humbling ourselves and serving others.

Published in: on September 18, 2021 at 11:07 am  Leave a Comment  
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