When I first looked at this passage, the first thing that occurred to me was that it might be a waste of time to preach a sermon on it. And that’s because none of us, myself included, have any of the spiritual defects that James writes about in this handful of verses.
I said to myself, “Self, we’re a great church, were a loving community, we care deeply for others, and we’re doing a pretty good job of moving forward in ministry. We’ve got lots of good things going on, we’re having fun, and we’re growing together in our faith in Jesus. And we’re doing our best to respond to the challenges that Jesus puts before us in terms of reaching out with the good news of the Gospel. Those folks that James was writing to must have been really messed up for him to have had to speak so sharply and so sternly to them. They must not have been behaving like Christians at all.
But then I got to thinking and pondering; something that I am too often prone to do maybe, and I got thinking about myself. So let me let you in on a little secret. I think I’ve let you in on this secret before, but it doesn’t hurt to bring it up again once in a while. When it comes to sermon preparation, you folks don’t hardly enter into it at all. Honest ministers don’t prepare sermons for congregations and we don’t preach them to congregations. We prepare them for ourselves, and we preach them to ourselves. Sermons are the result of our own spiritual struggles and often the result of our own spiritual agonies and failures. They are primarily a learning experience for ourselves, and if the rest of you can get anything out of what we have to say, well then, that’s great. We pastors aren’t the great and wonderful Oz. Wait a minute, he wasn’t so great and wonderful after all, was he? Really, we’re only fellow pilgrims, fellow travelers on this great journey of faith. We do have the privilege of studying the Bible for a living, and that’s a grand thing, but its sometimes a scary thing, too. Its scary, because if we do gain any wisdom and understanding, it bears heavy on us, but it also compels us to share whatever wisdom and understanding that God imparts to us.
And so the first verse of this passage hit me hard this week. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” Am I wise and understanding? Maybe. Am I afflicted with any of the evils that James discusses in this passage? Of course I am. Are any of us here this morning afflicted with any of these evils? Probably. So let’s hold hands, forget that I’m the preacher who’s tempted to think he’s got it all together, and let’s journey down this path together, headed in the direction of becoming wiser and more understanding.
First off, what does it mean to be wise and understanding? This seems to be James’ goal for his readers, and he seems to tie it very closely to something that he calls the “Good Life”, which I suspect is something very different from how our culture defines the Good Life.
The first thing that James encourages us to do is to get friendly with confession of sin. Its confession time, James implies, and what needs to be confessed is bitter envy and selfish ambition. Bitter envy and selfish ambition is almost a positive attribute in our world. Its a necessary personality trait to getting ahead in the world. Envy motivates and ambition empowers. Its the fast track to success. But we’re not like that, right? Not me, Wayne says. That’s how the world works, not me. That stuff is “Out there”, but its not “In here!” But as much as it is “Out there”, it also is “In here.” And its really nasty when its “In here” because I can disguise it. I can fake it, I can pretend its not there, I can hide it from others and I can even hide it from myself.
So what is bitter envy and selfish ambition? It’s stuff that’s all about me. Its me, myself, and I: all three of us. It’s me before you. Its me at the expense of you. Envy is jealousy, but its subtle jealousy. Its covetousness, its wanting what others have, its wanting what others do, its hating others who have it better than us.
Selfish ambition is also me, myself and I. Its self focus, its unhealthy introspection, its looking out for number one, its seeking the praise and adoration of others and dismissing them out of hand when we don’t get it. Its greed.
But the worst thing about bitter envy and selfish ambition is that they both work very hard at proving to us that they don’t exist. They’re subtle, deceptive and demonic, given the chance, they will destroy us and others, before we even realize it. James says that “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” We know what wickedness is, but disorder is a fast-spreading disease that breeds confusion and ultimately hatred. We’ve seen that in the news all week long.
And so envy and selfish ambition has got to go. We’ve got to get rid of it. But we’ve got to find it first, because most of the time we’ve so cleverly hidden it from others that we can’t see it in ourselves anymore. Its confession time; self-examination time. Time to peel away the layers of self-protection and self-righteousness that so cleverly deceive us. As James says, its time to find the truth.
But the most important reason that we need to root out the bitter envy and selfish ambition is so that we can live in community again with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Bitter envy and self ambition puts us mostly in relationship with ourselves. It excludes others. And that can get terribly lonely. And quite frankly, when bitter envy and selfish ambition is buried within us, we don’t get along very well with ourselves either.
So the first step to being wise and understanding is to get rid of bitter envy and selfish ambition. It is to confess it, to seek God’s forgiveness, and then, very important, to forgive ourselves. That’s the hardest step, but an absolutely necessary step. Most spiritual malaise stems from our inability or unwillingness to forgive ourselves.
So, once we’ve discovered, admitted, and rooted out the bitter envy and selfish ambition, what’s next? Living in true community is next. None of us can stand alone. None of us was ever designed to stand alone. We were designed to be in relationship with our Creator and with one another.
James says, “Wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” OK, its a list. Its a list of nice things, good things, it has some similarities with the Apostle Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit, but mostly, for our purposes this morning, its a list of things that will help us to get away from ourselves and closer to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Its “Living in community” stuff.
And so first off, we have pure. Pure is a lot of things, but it mostly means being undefiled by all of the crud that we wallow through on a daily basis. We have to live in this world, but we don’t have to be shaped and molded by it. James would probably say that the chief sin of the world is bitter envy and self ambition.
After pure, there’s peaceableness. Peaceableness is often confused with passivity. But it’s not that at all. The peaceable person is someone who actively encourages harmony. Its someone who works hard at creating unity. It is someone who can think creatively when disagreements surface. It is someone who is deeply committed to mutuality and respect in God’s family.
Then there’s gentleness. In this context, gentleness is forbearance and patience. Its not placing unreasonable or unrealistic demands on someone else. It’s avoiding harshness. Its being willing to walk alongside of someone who is lost or struggling. Its empathy and encouragement.
Next, and not far removed from gentleness, is a willingness to yield. Man, this one’s tough! But its where its at when it comes to living in community. Its not insisting that we get our own way. Its putting others ahead of ourselves. Its avoiding stubborness, even if we believe that we are right. Its loving others enough to put our own needs and desires on hold for the common good of the rest. Its the ability to acknowledge that God has moved in the hearts of others, even when we disagree with them. Its even keeping quiet when we want to say, “I told you so.” Its learning to live community.
Next, we come to being full of mercy and good fruits. Mercy is the nature of God, but it can be our nature, too. Mercy is the willingness to forgive. It is a willingness to reach out in love to those who’ve hurt us or upset us. Its an understanding that we ourselves have hurt and offended God, and yet, even so, we have received mercy. It’s being a person who is characterized by a desire to restore broken relationships.
And finally, James concludes his list by reminding us that we need to do all of these things without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. Ouch! Even in Christian community there are people that we are going to like better than others. There are even some that we are not going to like at all! That’s because we are all in the process of being redeemed. None of us has made it yet. We’ve got to get dead before that happens. We are all somewhere along the way, and we have miles to go before we arrive.
And yet in the midst of it all, we share a profound similarity. We are all sinners saved by grace. Really, that’s all we are. We’re not much of anything else. This is our commoness, this is our unity. And when we grasp this truth, we can avoid both partiality and hypocrisy. It turns out that there is nothing to be partial or hypocritical about. The ground is quite level at the foot of the cross, and we are all gathered there in one place. This is our home. None of us is higher or better or nicer, or prettier or more glorious than another. We are all sinners saved by grace and heirs of God’s eternal kingdom. And not because we’ve earned it or deserved it or achieved it, but solely and only because of God’s amazing grace and unimaginable mercy. These are the things that I need to work on in order to be more wise and understanding. Thanks for listening.