So You Wanna be a Wiseguy, Eh?

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Trinity 17B, September 23, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Proverbs 31.10-31; Psalm 1; James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a; Mark 9.30-37.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Since it is Father Bowser’s birthday today, he felt compelled to offer me some advice about my preaching now that he is an official geezer and since I’ve been out of the saddle for awhile. “Preaching,” he told me, “is like drilling for oil. If you haven’t struck it after 10 minutes, stop boring.” 

In our psalm lesson this morning we are given a stark choice. We can live our lives wisely or foolishly. The former will result in us enjoying God’s blessings while the latter will result in our ultimate destruction. Of course life is not as clear-cut as the psalmist might imply. Real life is much messier because human beings are a mess. This doesn’t negate the psalm’s exhortation for us to live wisely, however, because the love, grace, and power of God are far greater than our messiness and this notion of living wisely is what I want us to look at this morning.  

Before we look at what wise living looks like, we had better understand how the Bible defines wisdom. Wisdom is not the same as knowledge. Wisdom as Scripture uses it starts with a healthy fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9.10). But what does that mean? Fearing the Lord does not mean we are to be terrified of God. To be sure, there is an element of judgment to fearing the Lord. After all, our Lord Jesus told us to fear God who can destroy both body and soul in hell (Matthew 10.28). But fear of the Lord is much more than our dread of God’s judgment on us because we have seen the cross of Jesus Christ and we therefore know the great love and grace that flows from the Father’s heart for us. God’s desire for us is life and health, not death and destruction. What truly loving father would not want good things for his own children? So we have a healthy respect for God’s power combined with a grateful heart for God’s love for us and his gracious and generous heart that causes him to shower upon us his undeserved blessings. We therefore live wisely when we order our lives in ways that are consistent with God’s created order and God’s will for us as his image-bearing creatures. After all, God created us in his image so that we could run God’s world on his behalf. To do that, of course, means we have to reflect God’s generous heart, love, and passion for justice for all his creation and creatures. This is why God gave Israel his law, so that they could learn how to live as God’s image-bearers and reflect God’s goodness and blessings to the world as God had promised Abraham (Genesis 12.3). So at its very core, biblical wisdom is always manifested primarily in what we do. We see the advantages of living wisely that Psalm 1 promises in our OT lesson this morning. Rather than seeing the wife as the gold standard for which we must strive (an impossible task even for the best of us), we see the blessings that result from wise living. As a result of this woman’s noble character, her wise living brings God’s blessings to many others. Her family and community are blessed and while the writer never states this explicitly, we can safely presume she finds blessing and self-satisfaction in serving as a conduit for helping others experience God’s blessings through her noble character and work. This is how biblical wisdom is supposed to work and manifest itself.

This all sounds simple enough and it was before the Fall when our human ancestors lived in paradise and enjoyed perfect communion with God. But unfortunately we live in a post-Fall world where we are expelled from paradise and are thoroughly infected by the twin powers of Sin and Evil that make it impossible for us on our own to follow God’s laws. We all know, for example, that such a wife as we read about in Proverbs (or a husband for that matter) does not exist—well, except for my own wife; just sayin’. Does that mean we are free to ignore the biblical exhortation to live wisely? No at all! Help is available to us as we shall see shortly. Our job is to use our will (or to use the language of Scripture, to follow our heart) to choose to live wisely. This is not easy and we should be prepared for a lengthy battle to attain godly wisdom because of our corrupted nature and because as St. Paul reminds us, our real battle is not against flesh and blood but against the dark powers that hate us and have enslaved us with the sole purpose of destroying us (Ephesians 6.12; cp. Colossians 2.13-15).

In our epistle lesson this morning, St. James addresses this struggle to live wisely because of our thoroughly corrupted hearts, the center of our will. Like the psalmist in our psalm lesson, St. James is encouraging us to choose the path of godly wisdom and not worldly wisdom, in part by warning us of the dire consequences of following the latter path and holding before us the blessings of following the former path. Keep in mind that St. James was not a head-in-the-cloud idealist. He was a tough realist who knew well the human condition with all its corruption. He knew life was messy and sometimes ugly. After all, he was martyred for his faith. But St. James also knew the reality of God’s love, grace, and power in our lives, and we would be wise to take some time and reflect regularly on the wisdom he imparts to us.

He starts with a probing question. St. James asks us if we really want to seek godly wisdom, which by necessity is based on humility, or do we seek God’s wisdom just to feed our pride and ambition? Seeking godly wisdom means we seek to follow God’s order, not our own chaos-producing sin. This means we must humble ourselves before the word of God and submit to it, something none of us is particularly eager to do. We must listen and seek to understand so that we can follow God’s order faithfully. It means we embrace our role as God’s image-bearers and seek to order or lives in ways that reflect the goodness, love, mercy, and justice of God to his corrupt and hurting world and its people. Of course, human nature being what it is, there are some who seek to appear godly so that folks will look up to them when in reality they are pursuing their own selfish ambition. The scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church of late or the other horror stories that involve fallen theology and church leaders in our own Anglican Communion and elsewhere remind us that St. James knew what he was talking about, and anyone who is a leader in a church, myself included, had better take this warning to heart and examine prayerfully and consistently his or her own heart and motives in the light of God’s law. Do our actions reflect our profession of desiring God’s wisdom? There is nothing more catastrophic to our duty to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to an unbelieving world than to act proudly and hypocritically or to pervert God’s word by making it submit to our own warped agendas and corrupted desires rather than having the needed God-given humility to learn God’s ways and laws. Scripture calls this kind of living “foolish.”

And how are we to distinguish between earthly wisdom and godly wisdom? Simple, says St. James. Earthly wisdom has its roots in rebellion and Sin and Evil. It is devilish because there are unseen and wicked powers behind wicked and evil human behavior. The result? Warfare and chaos, the defining characteristic of sin—think of God ordering the chaos of nothingness in the creation narratives in Genesis 1-2. We all know how this works because we all have engaged in it. We don’t get what we want so we go on the attack. We slander our enemies to discredit them. We see this happening in the Kavanaugh hearings right now. The enemies of Judge Kavanaugh are trying to paint him as a sexual abuser/predator to discredit him. The enemies of his accuser, Dr. Ford, are pointing out examples that call her motives and character into question to discredit her and her accusations. Both sides will be relentless until their enemy is destroyed and victory (in their eyes) is achieved. This is the evil of PC in our culture because this is how PC works. Jesus’ disciples also provide a sad example of what St. James is talking about in our gospel lesson. They were arguing about who would be the greatest when Jesus came to power as Messiah. Do you think that argument was going to produce peace? And the silence that ensued when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about is quite telling. They knew the evil they had committed in their desire to lord it over others. Shame often results in silence.

And it’s not only politics. It’s money (lying, cheating, stealing, drug dealing, embezzling to get it), fame (we all desperately want our minute of fame), power (we oppress others in various ways to impose our will over them), security (gated communities, stealing and embezzling to secure our future retirement, carrying weapons), sex (body shaming to make us feel better, adultery, any kind of sex outside marriage), you name it. We do what we have to do to satisfy our lesser, base, and sin-corrupted desires, harming or destroying others along the way, and the result is chaos. As this nation continues to lose its Judeo-Christian moorings we can expect this phenomenon to accelerate and intensify. This is the wisdom of the world at work and sadly every one of us is intimately familiar with it because we are all thoroughly sin-infected.

By contrast, St. James tells us that godly wisdom is pure, meaning it comes from God. “It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere.” To produce this kind of fruit of course requires humility, which is not a natural human trait. It has to be given to us by God and then cultivated by our hard work and willingness and desire to be true image-bearers. A moment’s thought will confirm the truth of how this works. If we are determined to have our way at all costs as earthly wisdom dictates (look out for yourself because no one else will), we will not yield to another person because we subordinate that person and his desires to us and our own. This is human pride at work. But when we understand we are all made in God’s image and that we and our needs are not more important to God than other folks and their needs, we are willing to yield on certain things. I am not talking about appeasement. I am talking about a willingness to help others have their needs and desires met, especially when we see that those desires reflect God and God’s laws. We might see someone in need and seek to help them. We shovel an elderly person’s walk or buy some food for a hungry person. We help Fr. Madanu buy a ticket to see his family when he cannot afford to buy one. You get the idea. When that happens, peace almost always breaks out. Think about it this way. You see two people walking toward you. One is cynical, quarrelsome, and always has to be right: a worldly-wise person. The other is gentle, humble, willing to help, ready to forgive: a godly-wise person. Which one will you try to avoid? 

As we consider all this, it is critical for us to remember that St. James was offering wisdom in the context of community, not just to individuals. We can’t very well make peace if another family member is unwilling to do likewise or is unwilling to forgive us or have mercy on us or is proud and haughty. This community dimension is critical for us as Christians because the kind of wisdom we choose to follow will result in the kind of witness we give to a watching world. When we follow our own devilish and evil desires, what are we proclaiming to the world about our faith in Christ? People will see us arguing and forming into factions and seeking our own interests over the needs and interests of others. Why would they think that the gospel of Jesus Christ has any kind of transformative power? Why would they want to be part of a family like that? So St. James is speaking to all of us here in the St. Augustine’s family, not just the leaders. 

But if we are so thoroughly corrupted that we cannot acquire godly wisdom on our own, what are we to do? It is here that the good folks who put together the Lectionary let us down once again because they omit the following verses from our lesson:

You adulterers! Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. Do you think the Scriptures have no meaning? They say that God is passionate that the spirit he has placed within us should be faithful to him. And he gives grace generously. As the Scriptures say, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4.4-6).

Well, it appears that the folks who choose the readings don’t have a taste for, um, “hard passages.” Adulterers? Life or death choices? Stern warnings? How very preachy and judgmental, no?! Well no, actually. There is nothing judgmental in these verses. St. James is following the biblical definition of love, which has very little to do with sentimentality and emotion and almost everything to do with the good of the beloved, which means getting it right about being human as we have seen. Here he warns us that when we follow the wisdom of the world we commit spiritual adultery against God by giving our heart to the ways of the world rather than to the ways of God in the manner God intended for us when God created us as his image-bearers. That will result in God’s awful judgment on us. So to help us stay loyal to him, God willingly and generously gives us his Spirit and the grace to be humble so that we can learn how to practice humility. St. James says the same thing later in our lesson. He asks how we can stop our incessant warfare and chaos? His answer is by self-discipline and prayer. Chaos results from pride and wicked selfishness. We think we have to provide for ourselves. But no! God provides for us if we have the good sense and humility to ask him, and to ask him for the things that bring glory to God’s name rather than to us. Jesus said much the same when he told us to ask for whatever we want in his Name and it will be given to us. As a young man I thought that was strange. Was Jesus giving me license to ask for money or a new car or sex or anything else that was important to me at the time? No, because those things would not bring God glory through the Son (John 14.13). A heart set on Jesus, i.e., God, desires the things Jesus (God) desires and is more concerned about bringing honor and glory to his Name than our own.

This then is the challenge for those of us who seek to follow Christ. It is a call to examine ourselves, especially in terms of how consistently we live out our profession of faith. It is a challenge because living wisely in the light of God’s law is not natural to us. But as with everything else involving the Christian faith, we are not called to attempt the impossible. The God who calls us to live godly lives that will reflect the glory and goodness of his Name also equips us in the power of the Spirit to give us a humble spirit and the freedom to develop it. Our challenge is not whether we can live godly lives, it’s whether we really want to at all. Examine yourselves, therefore, and ask the Father through the Son to help you develop his gift of humility so that you are empowered to live as you are called to live so that you will enjoy the great blessings God wants to give you. The Father has done the hardest work. He has sent the Son to die for you to break the power of Sin and Evil and free you from its wicked enslavement. Trust that God to help you live as he calls you to live. Doing so will make you real wise guys, my beloved. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.