Pastor Schroeder

Text: James 3:13-18

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The book of James, one could say, is a “challenging” book of the Bible. We could call it challenging for two reasons. The first reason is that there are some verses in this particular book that are hard to understand. If you have done much Bible reading, you have come to understand that that is nothing new, and it’s never a bad thing if God’s Word makes us slow down and think for a while about what God wants us to know and believe. 

But the second reason that James’ letter to the New Testament church can be called a challenging book is because of the tone that James often uses. By today’s standards, James sometimes comes across as more than a little bit harsh toward his readers. That’s no accident. One of the main purposes of the book of James is to challenge a false sense of security that often threatens the Christian and his or her relationship with God and the Church. 

Today’s words are a good example of challenging words. God, through James, challenges each of us to take a good long look at ourselves in order to make an honest evaluation of where we are in our faith life. He does so by comparing what can be called two kinds of wisdom. 

Our opening paragraph once again: 13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

James talks about two kinds of wisdom here, from two different sources, but we soon realize that one of them isn’t really wisdom at all. Genuine wisdom, you see, comes from heaven and shows itself in what? In humility, in putting others before yourself. And we’ll come back to the topic of humility after we consider the other kind of wisdom…

The second kind of wisdom is characterized by the opposite of humility: here James calls it, “bitter envy and selfish ambition”—basically an elevating of self instead of a lowering of self.  James goes on to say that such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. What James is really doing here by laying out this contrast is issuing a challenge, asking a question of each one of us: So what kind of wisdom do you most often live by? 

The foundation of this challenge isn’t really anything that will come as a surprise to God’s people gathered here today. True spiritual wisdom comes from heaven—from God. False wisdom comes from the world around us, influenced by none other than the devil himself. That’s easy enough for us to comprehend, and it makes perfect sense to us in our sanctified way of thinking. We all know that as God’s children, humility is a much better quality to possess than selfishness. We all know that to give is better than to receive, to serve God and to serve one another is better than to serve ourselves. We all know that God’s will should come first in our lives, because it is so much better than the plans we make for ourselves.

So it’s good for us to realize that James isn’t challenging the way we think about it when we are sitting in church; the challenge comes when we look back at the week of our lives that we just lived. We could put it this way: James challenges not what we know, but what we show

What he is really driving at is the fact that the way live, the way we act reveals the core principles that truly govern our lives. And the principles that we follow in turn reveal the god that (deep down inside) we are most interested in serving. So again, think of this past week. Think of your interactions with your spouse, your children, your parents. Think of your interactions with your classmates, your coworkers, your neighbors, with people you did business with. And now answer this: in times of conflict, whose feelings were you most concerned with? Whose needs were you most concerned with meeting? Whose rights were you most concerned with upholding? Whose desires were you most concerned with fulfilling? Whose future were you most concerned with? Who were you hoping to build up by the way you spoke? Who were you trying to defend by the way you acted?

Can I run through that list once more to help the point sink in?...  In times of conflict, whose feelings were you most concerned with? Whose needs were you most concerned with meeting? Whose rights were you most concerned with upholding? Whose desires were you most concerned with fulfilling? Whose future were you most concerned with? Who were you hoping to build up by the way you spoke? Who were you trying to defend by the way you acted? 

If we answer each of those questions honestly, to our shame, isn’t it far too often “me or mine?” Aren’t we all tempted to be so eager to point out selfishness in others but so stubborn to admit our own selfish pride? Aren’t we all tempted to be like the disciples of Jesus and argue far more intensely for our own greatness than for the greatness and the glory of our God and Savior?

If we listen to James, it should come as no surprise. We live in a sinful, devil-influenced world, and by now we all have advanced degrees in the way a sinful world leads us to act and think as its inhabitants. Every day in this world is an ongoing education in sin. And the world would have us get numb to sin, to tolerate sin, to joke about sin, to be entertained by sin, and ultimately to join right in and go along with sin, no longer worried about the consequences of sin, either now or in eternity. Again, to our shame, we have a great education in sin. 

So now let’s take a class on humility. Now is a good time to bring it up, because if we have all been paying attention, God’s law has done a pretty good job of humbling each of us and pointing out our lack of true godly wisdom and understanding, our natural weakness and rebellion. But now look again at the instruction God gives through James. 17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

No, that doesn’t sound like us.  But it does sound exactly like the way God handled conflict with a sinful world. You see, the greatest conflict this world has seen since the fall into sin is when God took on flesh and walked among sinners. But even amid all the pain that Jesus suffered and all the rejection he faced, he was first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Jesus humbled himself, even to death on a cross, because he was primarily concerned with us and our needs and our eternal future. He lowered himself to elevate us and our status before God. We could never have satisfied God’s wrath, but Jesus humbly took our selfishness upon himself and replaced it with his purity, to make peace with God on our behalf. 

And now, as we consider the wisest way for us to live, will we not at least consider following our Savior and choosing humility? In this world, we will have plenty of opportunities, because one guarantee is that conflict will arise, even among Christians, even in Christian homes and Christian churches. We know it from experience. But doesn’t God’s grace to us lead us to see humility as a wisdom worth striving for? Will we not seek an ongoing education in God’s Word to strengthen us and direct us as we live our lives, not in order to be saved from sin and hell, but because in Jesus Christ we already are. May God give us the wisdom to submit to his will and his Word, so that we learn from Jesus to humble ourselves and glorify his name in all we do. In Jesus’ name.  AMEN.