Scriptures: James 3:13-4:17
Did you hear the questions in this morning’s reading?
“Who is wise and understanding among you?”
“From what do conflicts and disputes arise?”
“What is your life?”
James just hammers these questions at the listener, followed by a reflection on living the Christian life. It may seem like a hodge-podge of subjects, but James wants his hearers to know that what they think matters, what they say matters, how they act matters, and how they live matters.
One of my youth group kids in Wyoming came to one of our gatherings after having a discussion with two of her friends. They had just been baptized at their church. They were now saved and now they could do whatever they wanted. They were good to get to heaven. It was all about them and their “get out of jail free card.” James would have had a fit with that, because he makes it clear: every day and every action speaks to the faith that one receives on that day of baptism. And the questions James asks today point to a particular way of life, a life of humility with God and each other.
Now, I’m not sure how you define Christian humility, but one of the best definitions I’ve heard that humility “is living into the reality that God is everything.” It is no longer about us, but about God. And for James, living the God-centered life of Christian humility starts with wisdom.
“Who is wise and understanding among you?” You would think that James might answer this question by saying it is those in charge of the church. He was one of the early church leaders after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, but James isn’t looking for credentials or letters after someone’s name. He was the brother of Jesus! If anyone could drop a name to get attention, it would be him. And we hope the leaders of the church, then and now, would have wisdom and maturity of faith to make decisions, but this is not what James is looking for. James lifts up markers of evidence of God-given wisdom in the life of individuals. These include: Gentleness and a humble heart, purity, living in peace, willing to yield, full of mercy, no trace of partiality.
These are the markers of wisdom, and these traits are hard to live into. They speak of a life that is not ego-driven, not grasping or envious. Our culture says “watch out for number 1!” These traits of wisdom that James calls for move us away from self-gratification to a life where the concerns of the community take precedence. Look around. Are there people here that you see who embody the Godly wisdom James extols? What habits or practices do you see them doing and are there ways that what they are doing can be applied to the life you share in the community?
James then turns his attention to conflicts, and I think you could say James believes conflict happens when wisdom and humility are suppressed or ignored, and one’s ego and self interest take center stage. Within any relationship, family, or community, there will be times of disagreement. James looks at these conflicts and sees envy as the core of the problem. He calls it different things, selfish ambition, cravings, and coveting, but it really comes down to desiring what another person has. James sees this as a sin that feeds itself, wanting leads to wanting more, craving ever more, asking for the wrong things, and finally escalating in violence and death.
Sadly, this is the culture we live in. Advertisers would have us buy the newest brand-name cloths, cars, and electronics. One study showed that the average American is barraged with approximately 5000 advertisements per day. That is just one day. We are told we will be happy if we use the right toothpaste or drink the correct beer. We become envious that we aren’t on the bandwagon of goods we see on TV or even down the block at the neighbor’s house. We envy others who appear to embody or have what we want, making over ourselves and our homes in their images, instead of living into the image God has given us. Again it takes wisdom to discern what enough is and to listen to the Holy Spirit’s voice when the voice of the world says, “More!”
James then moves to the question of “What does God want?” by using contrasting the desires of the world with the desires of God. God wants our hearts. God is yearning and searching for the human spirit that mirrors God’s own image. Therefore, in choosing to draw near to God, we are throwing off the power that earthly wisdom has over us. This idea of friendship with the world versus friendship with God is not a call to renounce the world’s created goodness, but instead seeks primary loyalty with God, whose righteousness is made accessible in God’s wisdom. James sees wisdom and righteousness connected in this way, and one must choose to serve God or the world, no middle ground is possible. And when we say yes to God and God’s righteousness in our lives, we receive God’s gracious granting of divine wisdom. Saying yes to the world’s priorities, the “getting more and be envious of what others have”, leads to death and destruction.
James then brings his wisdom talk back to our relationship with each other when he asks, “Who are you to judge your neighbor?” This section could easily be tied back to James’ talking about the tongue from last week. What you talk evil or slander someone, James says you have made yourself into a judge of that person, lifted yourself above the law, thus making yourself above the lawgiver. We have a tendency to judge people quickly for all types of reasons, like how they are dressed or speak, before we know them. We may see one little side of them and automatically assume something about them which may not be true at all.
Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho said, “We can never judge the lives of others, because each person knows only their own pain and renunciation. It’s one thing to feel that you are on the right path, but it’s another to think that yours is the only path.” We really know only our own paths, and often we think ours is the only way to go or live and thus it is why we tend to judge others. But I also believe this command of James not to speak evil or judge one another is an invitation to walk with one another. It is one thing to stand and point a finger of accusation against someone you may not agree with, it is another to walk, live, and ultimately love them, knowing their hurts and struggles. This allows us to be with them and for them and not over them.
The last question that James asks is the most humbling. It is the one that puts all our plans and goal into perspective and makes us realize we are not in control. “What is your life?” James’ answer: Life is a vapor! Like a morning mist that soon vanishes, so life is short and uncertain. There are no guarantees about tomorrow, let alone next year or ten years from now.
You might be thinking, “That’s morbid! I don’t want to think about those things!” Now, I’m not saying we should obsess about it, but we do need to think about death for what it is, a thief that often comes unexpectedly. I’ve done one funeral for someone who is younger than me. He fell from a ladder. That wasn’t the plan for his family.
What James wants us to do is to contemplate our plans in light of our own mortality and God’s sovereignty and our dependence upon God. This doesn’t mean we don’t make plans, but when we make plans with God at the center of our lives versus trying to fill our own wants and desires, things can look a bit different. James’ example is as fitting then as it is now. In following God, income will not be the motivating factor for pursing a career. We must take the doing of good in God’s service the goal and direction of our lives. James basically says that ignoring God in our plans is folly, but we are called to be wholly in God’s service.
Friends, there is a promise in these hard passages. And that is living humbly in God’s will and with each other we will be exalted. I don’t know if you had a chance to watch President Obama’s eulogy at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the martyrs shot in South Carolina. If you didn’t, I’d recommend watching it, even if you aren’t on the same side of the political fence as he is. And if you watch it, you might come away thinking it was too political. And that’s ok; he is a politician by trade. But he also preached. He preached about grace, God’s unmerited, amazing grace and how it transforms our lives. He preached about how this small Bible study group had shared grace and hospitality to the man who would take their lives. They opened themselves up to a stranger by opening their church, their Bible study, and even their very lives to him.
Friends, grace is a free gift from God, and humility is one of the many gifts of grace we experience in our lives. It is by grace that we learn not to be self-centered, but self-giving, which is the very nature of our God who gave of himself in the Son. And as God’s grace transforms us, as humility becomes part of our lives, we will find that we are never far away from the heart of God.