Sermon delivered on Sunday, Trinity 16B, September 23, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: Proverbs 31.10-31; Psalm 1.1-6; James 3.13-4.3, 7-8; Mark 9.30-37.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning I want us to look briefly at the biblical notions of humility and wisdom, and why they are so essential for us if we really want to call ourselves Christian and be living signs of God’s love and new creation for the rest of the world. First, I want us to look at what Jesus said about humility. Then I want us to look at how James and the writer of Proverbs apply their understanding of humility for their respective audiences to see what we might learn from them.
We can all relate to the disciples in today’s gospel lesson. If Mark wants us to know that the disciples’ elevators didn’t go to the top floor when it came to understanding Jesus’ radical redefinition of what greatness is all about in God’s kingdom, he does a splendid job. Here Jesus has told them a second time that he is going to Jerusalem to suffer and die. As outside observers who already know the punchline, we know he is telling them that he is going to Jerusalem to die because that is what God’s Messiah had to do to rescue God’s people from their sins and usher in God’s promised new creation. Jesus didn’t get that specific with them, of course. As we saw last week, things got pretty tense between Jesus and the twelve when Jesus dropped this bombshell on them and I am convinced that after that interchange, Jesus basically stopped trying to explain the nature of his mission to his disciples (other than to tell them the obvious) because they could not come to grips with the concept of a crucified Messiah. And now once again we see they don’t understand and are afraid to ask. Their reluctance is understandable, especially when we remember that Jesus called Peter “Satan” after Peter protested Jesus’ fate and urged him to rethink his plan. Surely none of them wanted that kind of exchange to happen again!
Then to top it all off, they start to argue among themselves about who is going to be the greatest after Jesus ushers in the kingdom. It’s like they hadn’t heard a thing Jesus said about his impending suffering and death and how God’s kingdom comes on earth as in heaven. They were stuck in their own flawed preconceptions of what power and glory in the kingdom look like and they wanted to know what was in it for them. Forget that suffering and dying stuff. If Jesus was going to Jerusalem to proclaim that he was God’s true Messiah, they didn’t want to be left out of the action and we can relate to all that. So when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about, they responded in silence. Just like we do when we are caught in our own selfishness and asked to defend the indefensible, they remained silent so that their petty and self-centered thinking would not be exposed any further. In other words, the disciples got caught with their pride showing and when that happens, we can be assured that strife, anger, and conflict will not be far behind because unfortunately the rest of the world does not see itself as being our oyster, even if we do. Instead, Jesus tells us we must be like one who has no power to exert.
And of course it is our pride that caused our relationship with God to blow up in the first place. Being the proud creatures we are, we’ve never been satisfied that we cannot be God’s equals, even when it is impossible for us to be God’s equals. But that didn’t stop us and things have gone downhill ever since. Our pride got us kicked out of the garden and pride is the essential reason for Israel’s chronic rebellion and disobedience. It is also the main reason why there is so much conflict in the world today. We do not want to be told how to run the show. We want to run the show. We want the best seats in the house, the fanciest cars, the most money, the biggest houses, the most important titles, the sexiest mates. The list is endless. And to make matters worse, we will usually stop at nothing to get what we want because after all we are the most important person in God’s world and that is where strife and conflict inevitably come into play.
But the wondrous news about the gospel is that despite this, despite our animosity and hostility toward God, God still loves us and wants us to be reconciled to him because he created us for relationship, not to destroy us. That is why Jesus came to be a crucified Messiah so that God could condemn our sin in the flesh without condemning us as people. As James reminds us in today’s epistle, God is jealous of the spirit he put in us. In other words, God made us in his image so that we could love, worship, and enjoy him. He longs to be near us and be our friend if we will simply return the favor. And because God loves us, he never forces himself on us. Instead he keeps inviting us back into a relationship with him, a relationship made possible by Jesus’ atoning death. But if we do not have the needed humility to want that kind of relationship with God and to acknowledge God’s terrible and costly gift to us in Jesus’ death, we don’t have a snowflake’s chance on water of enjoying the kind of relationship God created us to have with him. Our pride will prevent us from seeing how grievous any sin is to God so that we really do not see the need to put our whole hope and trust in Jesus’ blood shed for us. This, in turn, will prevent God from being able to truly forgive us, precisely because we refuse to accept the sole basis that God has established to offer us real forgiveness, and we will therefore remain hostile toward and alienated from God.
That is why James is so adamant that we learn to develop humility in the power of the Spirit. And let’s be very clear about this. We only develop humility in the power of the Spirit. Of course we have to work at it, to put in our sweat equity. But if we try to develop humility on our own we are immediately defeated. Our pride has already convinced us we do not need help! If we do not learn humility we will never learn to fear the Lord and develop the kind of wisdom that flows from our reverent respect for, and trust in, God. Instead, we will develop a wisdom that is based on ourself, which James calls earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. Fortunately we can test the nature of our wisdom (and the needed humility or lack thereof) by looking at the fruit of our behavior. Do we love peace and work for it or are we more interested in having our own way and doing whatever it takes to make sure we get it? Are we more interested in showing mercy or being “strong”? Are we considerate of others or just of ourselves? Can we submit to the wishes of others in a healthy way or do we insist on having our way all the time? These are some of the things we can look at to measure what kind of wisdom we have and from whence it comes.
This helps explain some of James’ vivid language that follows. He tells us that when we take pride in our ability to get our own way, when we love a good fight rather than seek a costly peace, (which is not the same as appeasement, by the way), when we gossip and backbite and stir up strife so that we can get our own way and then turn around and call ourselves Christians, we are adulterers. The Bible often compares the relationship between God and his people to marriage. In saying this, James means we commit spiritual rather than actual adultery by being unfaithful to God in our pride and arrogance which produces these kinds of behavior. We can’t claim to be Christian while rationalizing our proud behavior. James calls that being double-minded. If we are going to call ourselves followers of Jesus, then we must follow his example by denying ourselves and taking up our cross. To do that, we must work hard in the power of the Spirit to kill off all vestiges of pride. Otherwise, we can never hope to be Jesus’ salt and light to a world that desperately needs to be shown a better way, God’s way, the way of the cross.
But what might this look like? We see an idealized version of real wisdom made manifest in the wife portrayed in our lesson from Proverbs. The writer of Proverbs is not telling us that women are only good for endless work. Rather, in light of Lady Wisdom who always manifests a fear of the Lord, we see in the housewife a person who works tirelessly for the sake and betterment of others. She does this not to be a doormat, but because the Lord commands us to live in this manner and in doing so she advances peace. There is no place for sinful human pride in this dynamic and we notice the absence of that vice in the housewife’s work and spirit.
All this suggests we had better take the needed time to engage in serious self-examination if we want to manifest real wisdom and humility. That is what James is talking about when he tells us to wash our hands and purify our hearts. What kind of wisdom are we producing? What are its fruits? A good place to start is James’ list in verses 8-10: purity, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Part of the problem is we do not want to spend much time on this because it is so uncomfortable and distasteful. We have to look at all the ugliness in us and that is always unpleasant. Looking at our ugliness will make us grieve, mourn, and wail. But it is necessary if we ever hope to become truly humble and wise so that we can follow our Lord and be his living signs of healing, hope, and new creation as he calls us to be. God cannot transform us in the power of his Spirit if we will not give him our time and effort. To do so would be to impose himself on us and true love simply does not work like that.
But when we are willing to undergo this thorough and ongoing self-examination, James makes the most remarkable promises to us. When with the Spirit’s help we are willing to root out our pride so that we are not sowing the seeds of discord and conflict but instead show a willingness to draw near to God (itself a sign of humility), God will draw near to us. When we humble ourselves, God will lift us up. When we say yes to his offer to be our friend, God will indeed be our friend and his friendship is a far better thing than being friended on Facebook, which so many of us want! James also reminds us that we will have resisted the devil, who is somehow intricately involved in all the disordered desires that bubble up within us and cause us to behave in ways that are unfaithful to God. When that happens, we will know real wholeness and peace.
This is the ultimate basis for real happiness and true blessedness, and that is why God encourages us to undergo the difficult process of looking at all the ways our ugly pride manifests itself. To be sure, God wants us to be happy. But he wants us to establish the only real basis for our happiness, which is grounded in our reverent obedience to his will (which the Bible defines as loving God), not our own disordered desires. And when by God’s grace and our own effort, we develop the humility needed so that we are wise enough to follow Jesus in all dimensions of our life, we will know what it means to have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.