The Sermon for Sunday, September 19th, 2021, the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
The Lessons: Wisdom 1:16 – 2:1, 12-22; Psalm 54; James 3:16 – 4:6; Mark 9:30-37
The Text: James 3:16 – 4:6
The Topic: To receive God’s grace, be humble.
St. James has just issued a challenge to his readers by asking the question, “Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? Let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13, KJV). If you are wise and have true knowledge, you will show it by your good behavior and the humility of wisdom, is what he means. On the other hand, he continues, if you have bitter envy and strife (or we might better translate, “a desire to put oneself forward”) in your hearts, you do not have ground for pride and you should not deny the truth. This kind of wisdom does not come from heaven, but is sensual, demonic, and earthly (James 3:15). Our Epistle Lesson begins from the next verse, concluding that where there is jealousy and strife, there confusion and every evil work exist.
In contrast to this, the wisdom that is from above, or heavenly wisdom given by God, is firstly pure, then peaceable, gentle, easily obeying, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and without hypocrisy (James 3:17). To this St. James adds that the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace (James 3:18). It is instructive to compare this verse with St. Paul’s description of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in his Epistle to the Galatians:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.
(Galatians 5:22-23, KJV)
Whereas St. Paul lists the first virtue of the Spirit’s harvest as divine love, St. James lists the first characteristic of heavenly wisdom as purity. There was a long tradition of Jewish wisdom literature, in which wisdom is often described in lofty epithets, as the first out of all God’s creatures, who was with him at creation. As Christians, we believe with St. Paul that God has made Jesus Christ to be our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30). But one of the greatest contributions of the Jewish tradition of wisdom to Christian theology is the idea that wisdom shows itself in godliness, purity, and humility, revealed in the lives of the faithful.
Another significant thought from this passage in the Epistle of St. James is the way that he sees wisdom as affecting the behavior of the Christian community. The divine wisdom in our lives shows itself in peaceful behavior, peacemaking, reconciling, mercy, sincerity, and virtuous deeds.
WARNINGS AGAINST DIVISIONS AND QUARRELS
Having outlined the qualities of heavenly wisdom, St. James shows he is aware of quarrels, strife, and divisions in the Christian community when he asks where these quarrels among them originate. He declares that the origin is their desires waging war among their members. “Members” (James 4:1) refers to different people in a local church, who were in conflict even to the point of killing one another because they could not obtain what they wanted. However, St. James may be thinking of “kill” in a metaphorical sense, such as destroying another person’s reputation.
There are reasons that Christians do not have what they want. The root of the problem is threefold – the things they want, God does not wish to give them, or they do not even ask God for what they want, or they ask with wrong motives, to spend it on their pleasures (James 4:3).
What is the solution to this problem? Christians must acknowledge that naturally speaking, apart from the grace of God, we have a spirit that easily turns to envy and selfish ambition (James 4:5). The solution to the problem is to realize that God gives more grace to resist our own sinful and selfish desires (James 4:6), but we must approach God with humility to ask for this grace. If we are truly humble, we will keep depending on God for the grace to withstand the temptations of evil desires and to grow in God’s wisdom. Rather than being proud and finding that God is resisting us, we must be humble, to receive God’s grace (James 4:6). Malcom Muggeridge eventually learned this lesson according to this story:
British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge was captivated by Mother Teresa’s deep compassion for the poorest of the poor in Calcutta’s slums. But he, an unbeliever, could not accept her faith. He could not join the church, which was such a flawed institution.
Once, when Mother Teresa visited London, she and Muggeridge took a walk. “I took up my well-prepared defensive position about the church, whose deficiencies, crumbling barricades, and woeful future prospects, I expatiated upon, with little effect,” the journalist said. Later Mother Teresa sent Muggeridge a small devotional book. Here are excerpts:
I am sure you will understand beautifully everything if you would only become a little child in God’s hands. Your longing for God is so deep, and yet he keeps himself away from you. He must be forcing himself to do so, because he loves you so much, as to give Jesus to die for you and for me. Christ is longing to be your food. Surrounded with fullness of living food, you allow yourself to starve. The personal love Christ has for you is infinite. The small difficulty you have regarding his church is finite. Overcome the finite with the infinite. Christ has created you because he wanted you. I know what you feel, terrible longing with dark emptiness, and yet he is the one in love with you.
Eight years before he died in 1990, Muggeridge finally overcame his objections and joined the Christian church.
— Kevin Miller, Wheaton, Illinois
Where do you stand with respect to the wisdom that is from above? Is it being clearly revealed in your life, so that others may see it?
 Quoted on p.44, Craig Brian Larson & Phyllis Ten Elshof (General Editors): 1001 Illustrations that Connect. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, Christianity Today International, 2008.