Sermon delivered on Trinity 16B, Sunday, September 19, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
Lectionary texts: Proverbs 31.10-31; Psalm 1; James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a; St. Mark 9.30-37.
Let the words of my mouth & the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock & our redeemer. In the name of God: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.
The lectionary picks up right where it left off last week with the theme of wisdom. In our texts for today, there’s a contrast between two types of wisdom—worldly wisdom and wisdom from above; the way of man and the way of Christ; false wisdom and true wisdom.
In our gospel reading (Mark 9:30-37), the disciples exemplify worldly wisdom. For the second time, Jesus tells His disciples that He will He handed over to men, that He will suffer and die, and that He will rise again (v. 31). They don’t really understand what He means (v. 21), but apparently, they grasped enough to realize that Jesus was about to be gone. We cannot say for sure, but perhaps this is what led to their argument about who was the greatest (v. 34): if Jesus was going to die, who would take His place? Surely that vacuum of leadership would be filled by the greatest of Jesus’ followers. This is worldly wisdom on display. Conventional wisdom tells us it’s a dog-eat-dog world. You gotta look out for #1. You have to seize every opportunity and make a name for yourself. The message of our culture is to chart your own course, be whoever you want to be, do whatever seems right or feels good to you, follow your heart. This is how one finds true happiness and inner peace.
But there’s just one problem with this sort of “wisdom”—it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. It doesn’t produce the kind of results it promises. Scripture warns that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9). Following our own sinful desires and selfish ambitions will never truly satisfy our deepest longings. Instead, it will inevitably lead to heartache and pain, and not just for us, but for others who happen to be in our orbit. St. James tells us, “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind” (James 3:16). In our self-centered pursuits, we use and abuse others to get what we want (James 4:2). Our psalm warns us where this well-worn path will ultimately take us: “The wicked will not stand in the judgment . . . the way of the wicked will perish.” (Psalm 1:5-6). Likewise, Proverbs 16:25 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” The bottom line is this: so-called worldly wisdom is not really wisdom at all. It’s folly. As St. James says, “It’s earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (3:15). If we chose to follow the way worldly wisdom, we do so to the peril of our own souls and to the determent of those around us.
But there is another way: there’s true wisdom, wisdom that comes from above. Jesus takes the wisdom of the world and turns it on its head. He tells his disciples, “Whoever wants to be first [in His kingdom] must be last of all and servant of all” (v. 35). Jesus draws their attention to a child. Children occupied the lowest place on the social ladder; they had no status and no authority. And yet, in a parallel passage, Jesus says one must become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3). True wisdom is rooted in humility. As St. James tells us, “Wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality and hypocrisy.” Jesus perfectly embodies this true wisdom. While the disciples argued about who was greatest, Jesus had His eye toward Calvary where He would take on our sin and lay down His life so we could have eternal life. Instead of following His own desires or charting His own course, Jesus humbly submits to the will of the Father. Jesus shows us that true wisdom does not begin with selfish ambition but with humility. True joy and contentment are not found in self-actualization or in following the cravings of our flesh, but in submission to God’s ways. If we want to know what it looks like to live according to wisdom from above, let us look no further than Christ, the Wisdom of God in human flesh. (1 Cor. 1:24).
But if we want to learn to live in wisdom, we need more than just an example. It’s not enough for me to say, “Be like Jesus!” We can’t do that on our own. Our epistle reading tells us that “envy and selfish ambition” come from “our hearts” (James 3:14), that our conflicts and disputes come from “cravings that are at war within [us]” (James 4:1). We need more than an example. We need to be transformed from the inside out. And thanks be to God, that’s exactly what Jesus came to do, to make us into new creations by the power of the Holy Spirit.
How does this happen? Sanctification takes place when we avail ourselves of the means of grace that God has given us, when we do the kinds of things we do when we gather for worship. We must humbly confess that “following the devices and desires of our own hearts” leads us down the wrong path and ask God to guide us in His ways instead. As our Psalm instructs us, we learn the “way of the righteous” from God’s Word as we meditate on it. God’s Word reveals God’s ways. But not only does God’s Word give us commands and principles to guide the way that we live, it also tells the gospel message—the story of how God is redeeming us—and the whole world—through the death and resurrection of His Son. As we read the gospel message—and as we see it reenacted as we celebrate the Eucharist—God’s Spirit is at work, shaping and molding us into the kind of people that God calls us to be. Confession, Holy Communion, regular reading and study of Scripture—these are just a few of the ways that we can “draw near to God” as our epistle reading admonishes us (4:7), but when we do, we can be assured that he will “draw near to [us]” and cultivate in us the gift of wisdom from above.
As we close, let us do as St. James instructs (James 1:5) and ask God to grant us His wisdom with a prayer by St. Thomas Aquinas:
O God, Creator of all that is,
From the treasures of Your wisdom,
You have arrayed the universe with marvelous order,
And now govern with skill and might.
You are the true fount of light and wisdom.
Pour forth a ray of Your brightness
Into the darkened places of our minds;
Disperse from our souls the twofold darkness into which we were born: Sin and ignorance.
And since you have given us the privilege to share in the loving, healing, reconciling mission of Your Son Jesus Christ, our Lord, in this age and wherever we are,
May your Spirit make us wise;
May your Spirit guide us;
May your Spirit renew us;
May your Spirit strengthen us.
So that we will be
Strong in faith,
Discerning in proclamation,
Courageous in witness,
Persistent in good deeds.
May You guide the beginning of our work,
Direct its progress,
And bring it to completion.
You who bring all that is good to its proper end,
Now prosper the work of our hands.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord,