By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 19, 2021
James 3:13–4:3, 4:7-8 (ESV)
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. 1 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
I want to begin today by saying that at times scripture convicts me deeply. I believe that that is the point of why God inspired the writers of the various books and letters that we hold to be so important. I believe that scripture is inspired. The idea of inspiration among us may differ. Some might say that God literally dictated the words to be written, while others might believe that that the inspiration came over the course of observation, prayer, and mediation. The later view gives us a picture of a union or relationship, a conversation between God and the writer. A conversation that the writers deemed so important that they were compelled to write. The unique relationship of the writer and God gave the weightiness to the validity. Meaning they had some connection or testimony to back up what they are saying. The apostles spent years walking and ministering with Jesus, because they had that relationship their words carry more weight than someone else. Moses became the law giver because of the experiences he had at the burning bush, and also because the people of Israel saw unexplainable things happening prior to Moses providing a message he said came from the Lord. The prophets, at the time of their writing were often regarded as lunatics until the messages they pinned were later proven to hold great authority. Which basically meant that the exile did occur how they said it would.
The letter of James was one of the last letters to be accepted as cannon in scripture. There are many reasons for this, but I believe that part of the reason for the hesitancy dealt with who we believe wrote the letter. Jesus’s brother was not the most supportive of Jesus’s teaching when we read through the gospel accounts. Jesus’s family at one point questioned if Jesus had lost his mind. I think that would cause some of the earlier followers of Jesus to hesitate in wanting to distribute a letter written by James the brother of Jesus, to the general assembly of people that believe that Jesus was the distributor of the words of life.
There could have been some hesitancy over the early acceptance of this letter because of that history. But I find it encouraging that the history of the church does not focus on the initial misgivings but on the fruit of his life.
I want you to think about your siblings, if you have any, if you do not, think of a close relative. This individual you have known your entire life. You know what irritates them, and you know how to bring a smile to their face. You know just about everything about this relative that can be known without being in their mind. At times it might even seem as if you are in their mind because you know how to read the most minute details of their face and posture. This is Jesus and James. Did James know Jesus was a devout and righteous man, absolutely. Did James know that the circumstances of his brother’s birth were unique and potentially scandalous, of course he did. He would have known this because his own life circumstances would have been plagued by the same scandal. James grew up with Jesus. Imagine your relative again. Imagine how you were better at something than they were and they were envious of it. Imagine how they were more gifted in another area and how envious you were of them.
My brother is much more mechanically minded than I am. He could look at something and figure out how it worked. He used to get kids in his class to give him broken portable cd players and he would fix them and at times sell them back to the kids. He even figured out a way to give a privacy feature to a screen making it so that the only way you could read it was if you wore the proper glasses. This is now something that you can get for your phone and when that came out, he sent me a link and lamented about his missed opportunity. I felt a bit guilty about that because I told him that he was stupid for thinking it was cool. I told him that not because I thought that it was because I was jealous of his skills. I wanted to be able to do what he could do. You all might think that I can do a great deal with technology, but the truth is the only reason I appear to have knowledge is because I have an amazing brother that is very generous with his giftedness. I could also tell you about the amazing attributes of my sisters, but if I keep talking about my family you might just realize how mediocre I am.
I have an amazing family, and I love them, and at times they annoyed me. Imagine if your sibling was Jesus. This is where James is coming from. Imagine the jealousy that James might have felt, he was not simply trying to live up to the standard of a sibling, but his sibling was God. Consider the story of Cain and Abel. The jealousy that Cain felt for his brother because God was more satisfied with Abel’s offering than Cain’s. Cain was filled with jealousy that become something worse, his jealousy became murderous. I am not saying that James felt that kind of burning envy, but I could not imagine growing up in a family where my brother was literally always right.
I hope that gives us some idea as to where James is coming from, and I do believe that love not jealousy dominated the relationship between Jesus and his brother. Even though James initially rejected Jesus as messiah, Jesus visited James after the resurrection. And that encounter changed everything. James was no longer the one wishing to silence Jesus, but when God had opened the faith to the Gentiles, it was James that provided the words of wisdom that brought peace to the church. “Therefore my judgement is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” (Acts 15:19-20)
James becomes the one that provides the words of wisdom that allowed us to worship God in this manner here today. He became one of the greatest leaders in the church at Jerusalem, the apostle Paul goes as far as to tell us in Galatians 2, that the pillars of the church that first accepted and encouraged his ministry were James, Cephas (Peter) and John (the gospel writer).
When we read the words, James was inspired to write today, I want us to remember that he lived by these words. Once the truth of Jesus was revealed fully, James embraced his brother to such a degree that when the persecutions began James remained in Jerusalem while the other apostle left town. And traditions tell us that James was gaining so much influence in Jerusalem the scribes and Pharisees placed him on the pinnacle of the temple and threw him down. The fall did not kill him, so they then began to stone him and beat him with a club. This is a terrible scene, and one that made a profound impact on the religious community. Even outside of Christian writing James is mentioned and some ancient historians even go as far as to claim that the death of James is what prompted the siege of Jerusalem. I do not know if I would go to that extent, but James was respected both inside and outside the church.
James asks us, “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.” I love that phrase, “In the meekness of wisdom.” James wrote this before the apostles really came to an understanding of what exactly was going on in their lives. They knew that the Spirit had and was filling their lives with the same power that raised Jesus from the grave, but they were just beginning to find the words to express it. James could be using the concept of wisdom to explain how the spirit of God works. Proverbs speaks of the lady wisdom in an almost divine way. Wisdom is important and at times is almost a feminine expression of who God is. I do not want you to mishear what I just said I am not saying that God is female, or that wisdom is a female god. I am saying that wisdom is often an expression of God’s character, and that expression is often portrayed in a feminine sense. Sophia, or wisdom, is a feminine name. There are a few other attributes of God that are also portrayed in a feminine manner, we might know them as lady Justice and Liberty.
There is a reason for the feminine image of Wisdom. True wisdom is gentle, or meek. Think about the teachers that have been most important to you in the past, were they gentle or brow beating? For most of us it is the teacher that took the time to understand what our problem was and walked with us through the issue until we could grasp the concept that troubled us. Very rarely do have fond memories of a forceful teacher.
“But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in our hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” What image does this give us? What image would this create if I were to tell you that the words translated bitter jealousy could also be harsh zeal? The term zealot is derived from this same word. The concept is that there is a zeal of fanaticism or an us verse them mindset. Are we getting a picture of what is going on? When we add in selfish ambition, we can see the root of nearly every news story that you have watched this past week.
James has something to tell us about this type of mindset. It is earthly, meaning that it is of this world, the opposite of heaven. It is unspiritual. This is a bit harder to understand but the word used here is the same word we get our word for psyche, which in Greek philosophy is the word for soul. How can we say that a word for soul is unspiritual? In the New Testament this word used to describe a place where human feeling and reason reign supreme. Maybe if we consider it from the perspective of psychology, we might get a better understanding. The earthly could be the id those base desires and reflexes and the concept of unspiritual could be the ego. Meaning it is not from God but it is a wisdom that we have come up with. But James continues by saying one last thing about this false wisdom, its demonic. It will in some way oppose the things of God. Not only will it oppose God, but it will openly reject God and the things God hold most dear, his image bearers. James tells us that if our wisdom contains harsh zeal or selfish ambition, disorder and every vile practice will become the result.
We see that all around us. We can see that in the responses we have over the recommended Covid policies. We see it every couple of years when there is an election. Do you know that I have come to lament over the election cycle? I lament, because at times it seems as if we have lost our sense of reason and become engulf in the zeal of our party. James continues, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”
Do you see the contrast? We are now in the early stages of football season. For many of us we have a favorite college and professional team that we like to cheer for. We might even call ourselves a fan. No mater what the sports broadcaster that analyses the various statistics and variables of the teams says we will not believe a word if it does not support our team. I am not telling you to drop your favorite team, but what happens when we use that same logic for other things in life? What if our zeal or our ambition blinds us from reason, or mercy? What if our fanatism clouds the truth and causes us to act in a manner that is contrary to the words we say we believe?
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
I want us to really consider what these words are saying. Why are we getting upset with certain things around us? What is really causing the issue? If we ask the wrong questions, we will get the wrong answers. And if we are unwilling to listen, we will never hear. So often we hear one thing and we begin to make assumptions before we sought clarity. We do this with our children, we do this with our coworkers, and even with people in our church. This is not how it should work. The wise, those that have true wisdom are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. They do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit but they consider others before themselves. What does that mean? It means we do not always think about ourselves. It means that when making a decision, we will consider options. Let us remember James. Let us remember that he was once a man that rejected the truth, but the meekness of Christ turned that around. Let us remember that this man that once opposed the will of God, became the voice of reason within the debate that allowed for us to worship God in spirit and in truth. Let us remember that this man in his actions influenced not only those that agreed with him but was also so respected by some that opposed him that they included him in a positive manner within their own histories. This man is not encouraging us to do the impossible, he is simply encouraging us to love God, embrace the Holy Spirit, and to live the love of Christ with others. And we do this through our worship, prayers, and our actions.
Let us now prayerfully seek that wisdom from above. So that we can show our faith and live our lives in the meekness of wisdom.
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