Sermon delivered Sunday, Sept. 20, 2009 at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH. If you would like to listen to the audio version of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is the Human Condition?
Good morning, St. Andrew’s! Today we continue our series of sermons on discipleship. You recall that we define discipleship as following Jesus and becoming more like him through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us. This, of course, requires us to know Jesus and his will for our lives. The goal of discipleship is to become just like Jesus.
In today’s Gospel lesson we see another classic example of human wisdom and folly at work. Jesus has again told his disciples that he must be betrayed into human hands and be killed. In reporting this, Mark is reminding us of Jesus’ mission to be God’s humble servant who will suffer and die for the redemption of the world. We saw in last week’s Gospel lesson that this notion had so violated Peter’s expectations for Messiah that he rebuked Jesus for saying this. This, in turn, led to Jesus rebuking Peter severely and calling him “Satan,” who focused more on human ways than God’s (Mark 8:33).
The verb Mark uses for betray in today’s passage (paradidomi) is interesting because it means to deliver up or hand over. It was used to refer to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and of God’s delivering up Jesus to death for the redemption of the world (see, e.g., Acts 2:23). There are some commentators who believe the latter meaning is intended here, which suggests that Mark is telling us that the implied agent of Jesus’ being delivered is God, not Judas. The very language Mark uses therefore reinforces Jesus’ observation about Peter looking to human wisdom rather than God’s when it came to seeing real purpose of his Messiahship.
Mark then tells us that Jesus’ disciples again did not understand what he was trying to tell them about being Messiah and this made them afraid to ask him for clarification, presumably because Jesus’ rebuke of Peter was fresh in their minds or perhaps because Jesus’ pronouncement was such a severe violation of their Messianic expectations (or both). Matthew reports the same story and tells us that Jesus’ disciples were “deeply grieved” on hearing this (Matthew 17:23).
Whether they were afraid to ask Jesus for clarification or grieved by what he told him, this didn’t stop them from putting aside this strange new teaching about Messiah and moving on to the more important things of life, like who was the greatest among them (apparently Jesus wasn’t an option). I can hear them now. “Jesus likes me better than you. He took me up to the mountain with him.” “I do more good deeds than all of you put together.” “No, I’m Jesus’ favorite disciple because he called me first.” As a result of all this “wise” talk, which was born out of pride and worldly ambition, an argument erupted between them.
Sound familiar? Apparently it did to James too because in today’s Epistle lesson he reminds us how we as Christ’s Body, the Church, must behave. He reminds us that when we allow our own envy and selfish ambition to reign, the result is disorder and wickedness of every kind. James calls this kind of wisdom “earthly, unspiritual, devilish.” It doesn’t take much of an imagination for us to believe this is what Mark had in mind when he reports that the disciples were arguing among themselves about who was the greatest.
In response, Jesus asked them what they were arguing about. His question was greeted with silence, the kind that is produced when we get caught with our hand in the proverbial cookie jar. If it weren’t so tragic, it would almost be comical because we persist in behaving the same way today in a thousand different contexts.
Where is God’s Grace?
But Jesus reminded his disciples (and us) that this is not the way it is to be if we are to be his followers and become like him. He tells us that if we want to be first in God’s kingdom, we need to become a servant to all. This does not mean we let other people abuse us or run over us. Rather, at the heart of this statement, Jesus is reminding us about who we were created to be and how we are to act as a result. The beginning of wisdom is to have a reverential fear of God. It is the realization that we are utterly powerless to fix our own brokenness, let alone that of others. It is the realization that God does indeed know better than we do and has acted decisively on our behalf to fix the problem of sin and the separation it causes.
When we really believe that God took on our flesh, suffered and died for us, and gave us his Holy Spirit to help us become more like him, it produces a profound sense of thanksgiving in us and a desire to do and be all that God wants us to do and be. But because of our sinful nature, this is a terribly difficult process and takes a lifetime to accomplish. Nor is it possible without the Power and Presence of the Holy Spirit working in us.
This difficult and sometimes painful process of transferring our ultimate allegiance from ourselves to Christ is what Jesus was talking about when he told us that if we are to follow him we must deny ourselves and take up our cross. Doing so will inevitably begin to create a servant’s heart in us because we are willing to set aside our own selfish desires and seek to be the creatures God created us to be. As each of us knows, this is a terribly difficult thing to do, but the reward is even greater because in Christ’s own example of suffering, God promises us that suffering for his sake is our path to glory, biblical language that refers to the day when the New Creation is brought about at Christ’s Second Coming and we receive our new resurrection bodies and live directly in the presence of the Lord we love forever. What a magnificent hope!
We also see this notion about the beginning of wisdom leading to servanthood reflected in James’ Epistle today. He contrasts human wisdom with God’s wisdom, noting that the former produces disorder and wickedness of every kind while the latter is full of mercy and produces good fruits. He reminds us that wise people understand that human wisdom (different from knowledge) is foolish and so they earnestly seek God’s wisdom so that they can behave in ways that are pleasing to God. Implied in this statement is the promise that God, through the gift of his Holy Spirit, will be pleased to help us become the creatures he wants us to be. We see this reflected clearly when James reminds us that we do not receive because we do not know how to ask. In other words, when we ask for things that we want that are contrary to what God wants for us, we should not be surprised when God does not grant our request. But when we seek what God wants for us, the result will always be to have a servant’s heart because we know that is God’s desire for us and we are confident that he gives us that ability through his Holy Spirit.
Where is the Application?
We see this idea that accepting God’s wisdom will produce a servant’s heart in us reflected in all of today’s texts. In the reading from Proverbs, we read about the “capable wife.” When I read this, of course, the first person who came to mind is my beloved bride. She has given herself the nickname, “Sal, the Pack Mule,” and as I read all the things this wife does, my wife immediately came to mind. Now I really don’t understand why my beloved has given herself this nickname because I am the one who does all the work around the house. But I digress. Seriously, we should not get too hung up over the specific duties this “capable wife” performs because God is a God of history and his Word consequently must contain examples from particular historical and cultural contexts. Instead, we should read this passage through the lens of reading about a person with a servant’s heart and see how the wife’s behaviors reflect that notion. That is really why I thought immediately of my wife when I read this text because this “capable wife” has the heart of a servant and so does my beloved wife.
The capable wife does things to support both her husband and her household. She has a kind, gentle, and generous spirit. She not only looks out for the welfare of her family but also for the community in which she lives. She does these things because she fears the Lord and as Proverbs 1:7 reminds us, fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. As a result, God blesses her with praise from her family and community, and gives her a happy and secure household. We moderns tend to get a bit jaded about this promise but it is clear that the Bible does promise it. Dare we fail to believe or accept God’s promises to us?
We see the notion of accepting God’s wisdom also reflected in today’s Psalm. In it the psalmist paints a stark contrast between wise and the wicked. The former eagerly seek God’s counsel and want to obey his precepts (like loving him by serving others) because they take delight in doing his will and bearing his fruit. This does not mean the wise are immune to the hurts and heartaches that inevitably come our way because we live in a sinful and broken world. What it means is that the wise understand that it is a good thing to attach themselves to the Source and Author of all life, and seek to become just like him with his abiding help.
The wicked, on the other hand, don’t get it. They think they know better and seek to pursue their own selfish desires. They prefer to be their own god rather than to let God be God, and this will result in their ultimate death and destruction. It is a fearful picture the Psalmist paints for the wicked.
But we see the ultimate example of God’s wisdom producing a servant’s heart in the person of Jesus. In that magnificent early Christian hymn contained in Philippians 2:5-11, Paul reminds us that Jesus willingly gave up being God completely so that he could suffer and die for us, and give us our one and only chance to live with God forever. John reminds us that God took on our flesh because he passionately loves his world and wants each and everyone to live, and not die (John 3:16). And we have already seen that Mark may have been referring to God’s plan for salvation by his use of the passive verb paradidomi in today’s Gospel lesson.
None of us knows how costly this must have been to Jesus. To give up omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence to become a finite and limited mortal must have been unbelievably costly. The closest analogy I can offer is our lifelong development and maturation. Who among us would really desire to have to suffer through our adolescence again, knowing what we do now? It’s not a perfect example but it helps us wrap our minds around what Jesus gave up for us when he took on our flesh and allowed himself to be tortured and killed for our sake.
But Paul also reminds us that because Jesus was willing to become our servant and do this for us, God exalted him and gave him the highest place, where every tongue will confess him to be Lord and every knee will bow to his Name. This is what it means to be a disciple of Christ. It means to humble ourselves and acknowledge that God is God, not us. In the process of doing so, it means we gladly and willingly develop a servant’s heart, just like our Lord did, because we know that like Jesus, this pleases God and is our only path to glory. It is God’s path and wisdom for us.
How is the Lord calling you to serve? What is standing in your way in becoming more like Jesus? If you are not sure what the biblical notion of servanthood is, resolve to begin reading your Bible systematically and daily so that you can better learn what that means. Resolve to ask the Lord to show you what is standing in your way. Ask him to help you become more like him and for strength to fight the good fight, because we are in it for the long haul. Join a small group of other faithful people whom you can trust to love you enough to help you develop a servant’s heart, and help them do likewise. Do those things which help your affection for Jesus grow and avoid doing those things which decrease your affection for him. Ask Jesus to show you these things clearly and expect him to answer you in his good time and way. You will not be disappointed.
The beginning of wisdom is a fear of the Lord that produces in us a real desire to serve and please him rather than ourselves. This will naturally produce in us a servant’s heart that desires to please the Lord. Having ambition is not evil in itself. God calls some of us to powerful positions but in doing so expects us to serve others, not our own selfish desires. Given the human condition, this is never an easy thing to do. It takes a lifetime to accomplish and is often painful. But we are not left to our own devices. We have God’s very Spirit living in us, helping us in our weaknesses, and creating in us a desire to love and please him all our days. And even though this is a painful process, he promises us that wisdom’s reward will be great because we will get to live with him forever. That’s good news, folks, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.