James 3:13-4:3, 7-8 CEB
Are any of you wise and understanding? Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom. However, if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, then stop bragging and living in ways that deny the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above. Instead, it is from the earth, natural and demonic. Wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and everything that is evil. What of the wisdom from above? First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts.
What is the source of conflict among you? What is the source of your disputes? Don’t they come from your cravings that are at war in your own lives? You long for something you don’t have, so you commit murder. You are jealous for something you can’t get, so you struggle and fight. You don’t have because you don’t ask. You ask and don’t have because you ask with evil intentions, to waste it on your own cravings.
Therefore, submit to God. Resist the devil, and he will run away from you. Come near to God, and he will come near to you.
Have you ever noticed that wisdom and humility seem to be two good qualities that escape us if we say we have them? At the same time, like humility, wisdom is something necessary for all of us that seek to ardently live out our faith. For as long as there has been scripture, wisdom has also been attributed to God, as one of those divine character traits that makes God who they are. The entire book of Proverbs is dedicated to wisdom. For James this week, there are two kinds of wisdom, that of the heavens and of God or that of the world. Often we can be found saying that we hold onto the wisdom of God while really abiding by the wisdom of earth in our hearts. What kind of wisdom can be seen in how we act? The world’s wisdom is based around scarcity and conflict, while God’s is of making peace by chiefly serving others rather than ourselves and serving God rather than the evils of this earth. Do we pursue peace, mercy, truth, and justice or do we pursue more selfish desires? When we follow the wisdom of God, it might at first seem mundane and weak, until that wisdom is allowed to live visibly in a world where so much is given over to selfish desire.
If we hold there to be these two realities, God’s reality and this world’s reality, there are also two wisdoms, one coming from above and the other coming from our own selfish desires. Each points to the knowledge and experience of their reality and says this is how it is best to live! We see God's wisdom outlined in our reading from James this morning: “it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts.” These are the markers of someone following God. On the other hand, the wisdom of this earth is defined by conflict, not peace. First, we all have desires, we all have things we want, what James calls our “cravings.” These cravings come into conflict because the world holds onto a value of scarcity. That there are only so many riches, only so many goods, and only so many things to go around. In order for me to succeed, you must fail. In order for me to be rich, you must be poor. In order for me to have something, someone else must lose out. These selfish desires, these cravings naturally come into conflict as the focus is on this view that there is only so much to go around. Each person looking out for themselves leads to sin and war and murder and all the worst impluses of humanity. Throughout James, a frequent concern is that instead of living earnestly into the reality of God, this kingdom of heaven, we will be double-minded, trying to split ourselves between these two opposing realities.
James shares something here that should sound familiar to us as Jesus spoke of the same. Back in Matthew, Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, delivers a warning about serving two masters, that “you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” James uses even stronger language in the few verses of chapter four skipped in our reading like in verse four where James calls such people adulterers! We cannot claim to abide by God’s call and wisdom if we do not live like it is true! We are self destructive cheaters at that point. To give one example, there is something within church studies called the myth of scarcity. You may have seen this before. There are churches that live in fear, saying that they do not have enough. They do not have enough people, enough resources, or enough money to truly be the church. When in truth, what they have is more than enough. For instance, when I was growing up in Edinboro, Pennsylvania we attended a Lutheran church where people lived into myths of scarcity. Folks started to believe that resources were in short supply, so each one felt their cause, their desires were in danger. They fought over what the church should do and where it should focus, each holding onto what they had, refusing to let go. It got so bad they decided to stop paying their pastor! They turned inward away from the wider community, away from each other, and ultimately away from God because they thought they had to cling onto what they had or they would die. Well, they killed themselves through conflict and through scarcity. They stopped being the church and lived fully into the wisdom of the world. That church ended up dying because they could not serve two masters, they could not be vital and be double-minded, and so they ceased to be at all.
You see in James, our worst enemies are not some outside evil power, as James doesn’t think much of those, rather our worst enemy is ourselves. Look to verse seven from chapter four, the devil cannot withstand even a little resistance before it flees. The cosmic battle has already been decided with God as the absolute victor, so now our conflict is chiefly with our own selfish desires. Can we master ourselves through faith and live as the children of God and disciples of Christ? When we look to James for how to do this, we might be a bit disappointed or frustrated! We ask the text, how can I fold my faith into wisdom so I can know how to live out that same faith in this world? Unfortunately, James’s response seems rather lackluster. Live peaceably and be gentle, yielding and merciful, while sharing the good fruits of our faith with one another without playing favorites or being a hypocrite. To put it another way, James’s advice doesn’t seem that dissimilar to advice on how to live well we may have received from parents and grandparents. For instance here are a few common ones: “If you can’t say anything nice, … don’t say anything at all. How would you like it if someone did that to you? Well, maybe you would understand them if you could walk a mile in their shoes. Sharing is caring!” All of these are pretty mundane, and really don’t sound like much. However, by the same token, how often do we actually live all of these out all the time? These are only ordinary if everyone did them constantly, but instead, these traits that James shares are the exception to the norm. Maybe these mundane pieces of ethical living are shared generation after generation because we fail to live them out. We are reminded that our Christian wisdom finds expression not in extraordinary actions but in the everyday routines of living. By seeking peace, by practicing being gentle and merciful, by planting seeds of justice, and growing the good fruits of faith in our lives, we show the world that the wisdom of God is the way to live!
Think about it. If the wisdom of the world prizes conflict, we should desire peace. We should be peacemakers in the face of so many selfish desires and mindsets of scarcity that drive conflict. Peace is not just the absence of conflict, it is the set of actions we take to make it so our relationships are defined by an abundance, an excess of mercy and compassion, equity and fairness, love and justice. When we make this kind of peace, we are drawn away from this world’s hold, and the strange thing is that we find ourselves captured by the pull of a different power altogether. We will find ourselves caught up in God. When we live out the wisdom from above, when we show the world that this lifestyle is not just for Sundays but for 24/7, 365, we disrupt the selfish conflicts and contentious desires of this world. You see that is the strangest thing of all, following this wisdom of heaven does not draw us away from the earth and from the rest of humanity, quite the opposite in fact! It is like a famous quote from theologian and writer C.S. Lewis, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and get neither.” When you aim for God's wisdom, you are drawing near to God and God draws near to you. Where are you right now? You are here in this world. By abiding by the wisdom of God, by serving as peacemakers, we draw God and God’s kingdom into this world.
Being a peacemaker involves practicing our daily ethic of living out this heavenly wisdom, meditating on the pieces of God’s wisdom found in scripture, found in our experience of the divine, found in our God-given reason, and found in the rich traditions of our faith. When the divine and humanity draw near to each other, heaven’s light spills out into the world and through communities of faith. When we allow the wisdom of this world to pervade, we turn inward to be torn apart by selfish conflict. When we believe God’s abundant grace is scarce and try to grasp onto it, it withers in our hands and our faith lives with it. It is easy to fall into this mindset, especially when we believe we see signs that the church is shrinking or that our culture no longer knows Christ! As a result, do we separate from the world? Do we show envious longing for the way things used to be, so we cling onto cravings for the past? You know, when people are asked why they don’t attend church, consistently, people respond that they do not see how it is relevant to their lives. My friends, this world still needs God’s wisdom! What if the church lived out this wisdom? What if we lived it out beyond our Sunday worship and let it impact everything we say and do. Imagine with me a world amazed at the gentleness, mercy, compassion, justice, love, and equity of the church. Imagine at the surprise of the world at seeing a community of peacemakers in a world of conflict! My friends, this wisdom has eternal relevance as it comes straight from our God! The question is whether we are willing to put this wisdom in all that we are to truly be servants of peace and children of the living God. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman