A Sermon by The Rev’d Adrian Stephens
“13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.” James 3.13-14
Last week James spoke of the power of the tongue and how we can use the tongue to both bless and to curse. I did preach on that very subject last Sunday morning and there may be some copies of that sermon still sitting at the west door. This week James speaks of two types of wisdom.
He speaks of wisdom from above that can be used for good, and wisdom from the heart of humanity that can be used for evil. The wisdom used for good is a gift from a love of God. The wisdom used for evil is driven by a love of the world. This he interprets as jealousy, or selfishness. It seems that the choice of how we use wisdom is left for us to decide, but James encourages us to use that God given wisdom for the good of all.
James declared that faith without works is dead, and he continues with this theme today. We are to live our life in imitation of that which we see in our Lord Jesus Christ, and in so doing ensure that all we do will reflect our love for God and for God’s creation.
It is interesting to explore this reading from James with a view to identifying the two forms of wisdom that he describes and how they impact on our lives. Earthly wisdom, or worldly wisdom, unspiritual and selfish. Wise as a serpent comes to mind.
Wisdom from above is the product of the generosity and the continual offering of grace by God. The Grace of God is never exhausted, and it never concludes. Each and every time we turn to God in prayer, or perhaps in desperation, God will, and does, respond with the continuous gift of his grace and mercy.
The characteristics of the wisdom of the world is bound up in jealousy and selfish ambition. The characteristics of the wisdom from above are purity, peace, gentleness, open to reason, full of mercy, without uncertainty, and without insincerity. The results of these two wisdoms are extreme. With the earthly wisdom there is disorder, and what James describes as “every vile practice”. The result of wisdom from above is the “harvest of righteousness”.
It is the characteristics of each wisdom that we might identify with, and more quickly recognise. No doubt we have all met people who are jealous of everything and everyone around them. These are the people who strive for positions of power and then use that power to bully, exploit, destroy, dominate, and diminish. These are the people who will stop at nothing to get their selfish needs met. They want recognition. They want to be noticed. They want to be worshiped and adored. We might think of the classic narcissist. It is all about them. They will begin their conversations with “I deserve”. That is the most selfish introduction to a statement ever constructed. “I deserve”. I have met a few of these people, and I am sure that you will have as well.
On the other hand, many of us have met those lovely people who open their hearts to the people around them. We can see and feel the purity and gentleness surrounding them. These are the people who seem to always be at peace with themselves and with God. When mercy, or help is required, these are the people who step forward and offer themselves, their time, and their expertise. Their only desire is for the good of the people involved. We often see them working in the background. They do not seek accolades and applause. In fact, they will reject those things. It is in humility that they contribute to the greater good.
Wisdom from the world does not appear as humble, peaceful, or merciful. For the most part it is designed to cause division and disaffection. Too often it is based on a divide and conquer mentality. It is the charge to worship me, or I will destroy you. These people are usually cowards as well. They will spread gossip, poison, and rumour to destroy a person’s reputation before publicly condemning them.
Enough of that. I am far more interested in the wisdom that comes from above and the beauty that it brings with it.
James constantly encourages us to look to God and to imitate the love and compassion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Conflicts, disputes, and cravings are from the devil and foreign to God. It is with this image in mind that James leads us to ask God for the right things. He says that “We do not have because we do not ask. And we do not receive because we do not ask properly”. His follow up is that we may well be asking for something that we can then exploit and enjoy in this life.
It is a better thing that we ask for the right things that can be answered by God. One thing is certain, all prayer is answered. It is just that sometimes the time is not right; sometimes we forget to listen; sometimes we disagree with the answer that God places before us.
Many years ago, I had some difficulty with a supervisor. I complained often and bitterly. One of my friends then complained about me complaining all the time and said, “For goodness sake pray for the man.” I must admit that this was not something that sprang to mind in the first instance.
Thankfully God did not answer my prayer in the manner that I asked. Apparently hurling people into sulphurous pits is not his thing.
As time went by my prayers modified and, eventually, I began to pray for him as a child of God. The interesting thing is that he did not change. But I did. The answer of my prayer was the healing of my attitude, and my fear, and my anger. Yes, my prayer was answered, but only when I asked properly. By properly I mean that which I requested in my prayers could be answered by God.
James is adamant that we are to live our lives by focussing on God above and the wisdom of God that will give us all that we need and all that we desire. This is not the stuff we can buy online, and stuff in our pockets at bargain sales. What God offers is a wisdom that will bring us peace, harmony, purity, and gentleness. The qualities that we desire in our life are those that will ensure a desire for eternal life, not eternal debt. Eternal truth, not perpetual lies. Confidence and certainty, not selfish ambition.
Praise God for all of his goodness for us.