Living with Wisdom from Above

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
October 7, 2018

James 3:13 – 4: 1-3, 7-8a (CEB)
Are any of you wise and understanding? Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom. 14However, if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, then stop bragging and living in ways that deny the truth. 15This is not the wisdom that comes down from above. Instead, it is from the earth, natural and demonic. 16Wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and everything that is evil. 17What of the wisdom from above? First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. 18Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts.
What is the source of conflict among you? What is the source of your disputes? Don’t they come from your cravings that are at war in your own lives? 2You long for something you don’t have, so you commit murder. You are jealous for something you can’t get, so you struggle and fight. You don’t have because you don’t ask. 3You ask and don’t have because you ask with evil intentions, to waste it on your own cravings.
7Therefore, submit to God. Resist the devil, and he will run away from you. 8Come near to God, and he will come near to you.

We’ve been digging into the book of James for a few weeks now, and as we continue our study of this book, I want to spend just a few moments this morning sharing some details about the book as a whole. We don’t know exactly who wrote this book. Some say it is James the brother of Jesus, or James the disciple, but because it’s nearly impossible to date this book with any precision, it’s also difficult to nail down the exact author. In any case, James is considered by many to be a letter, much like Paul’s letters. This would be an understandable conclusion as James opens with standard greetings. However, the book ends rather abruptly, with no closing remarks, which has left scholars baffled. Whether or not James is a letter, it is a piece of wisdom literature, and the only such wisdom writing in the entire New Testament. So you understand what wisdom writings are, the wisdom books of the Old Testament are Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes. Specifically, James’ wisdom is offered in the form of moral exhortation. Within the 108 verses of this book, there are 54 imperatives, which might explain why James can be difficult to swallow sometimes and why it is not so popular as most of Paul’s writings. I share that with you this because as we dig into chapters three and four this morning, James lays out a stark contrast between “the way it is” and “the way it should be.”

As we consider the way things are and the way they should be, I want you to think with me for a minute about a time when you yourself or someone you know received a tough medical diagnosis. And maybe that diagnosis included the revelation that this disease may have been doing damage to the body for years. I have stood at many bedsides in my years as a pastor and seen people dealing with lots of different ailments and surgeries. Sometimes, people had just learned they had heart disease, or they had just received a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis with a bad prognosis. And sometimes, that information came even as the people were carrying on happy, seemingly healthy, full lives. As I would imagine most of us are aware, it is entirely possible for someone to think they are perfectly healthy when in fact they are walking around with some disease eating away at them inside.

That is what James is talking about here; not physical illness of course, but more of a spiritual sickness. He even names it, “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition.” And what James is talking about is a spirit which is always criticizing and cannot let a nice word go by without adding a nasty one. What’s interesting though, is that the problem is not only in this spirit of negativity; the problem is compounded when someone with such a spirit claims to be healthy—claims, for instance, to be a Christian. James’ rebuke of such false claims is unequivocal; that is boasting, such persons are telling lies that deny the truth! But it doesn’t stop there. This sickness goes even deeper. You’ll remember that last week we talked about taming the tongue, and James’ claim that the tongue is like a “small flame” that can set a whole forest on fire. Now, in verse 15, James essentially says the misguided wisdom that drives such negative language is worldly, even demonic. It may sound like true wisdom, but James wants to make sure we understand that it absolutely is not! So it is that we are faced with a choice, with two kinds of wisdom; worldly wisdom and wisdom from above.

Think about it this way: Several years ago, I had a friend who refused to wear a seatbelt. Anytime we were riding in a car together, I would always say something, encouraging her to buckle up. Anyone else in the car would do the same; we nagged her pretty incessantly, but it was always to no avail. This went on for several years. Then one day, she climbed in the car, reached back and pulled her seatbelt across her body, and buckled. After my friends and I picked our jaws up off the floorboards, someone asked, “What happened to you?” She said, “Last week, I went to see a friend of mine in the hospital. He was in a car crash and he went through the windshield. He had like 200 hundred stitches in his face. Since seeing him in that state, I’ve had no problem buckling up.”

I was a little confused and so I asked her, “Well, did you get new information? What changed you? Did you not know that unbuckled passengers can go through a windshield?” Of course I knew the answer to those questions and so did she. What happened was that an idea suddenly became an actual experience—something seen and felt and understood. As the great preacher Jonathan Edwards used to say in essence, “It’s only when you attach to some truth that real life change occurs.” Something has to become real in your heart, then you will be changed.

We can have worldly wisdom, but it may not be enough, or even worse, it might be misguided. And if we live by such worldly wisdom, it could be devastating. But even beyond that, think about what happens if by our words, our attitudes, our actions, we perpetuate that misguided worldly wisdom? Think about this not only in terms of things like wearing a seatbelt and other safety measures, but also in terms of everything that is going on in the world around us. We can reach back into history and see the problems caused and lives ruined because of the widespread idea that slavery was an acceptable practice. In a lot of ways, that idea has carried through the years and even into the present with the sense that it’s okay for a company to increase their bottom line at the expense of workers who don’t even earn a living wage.

There are so many things wrong with our world, aren’t there? I’d imagine that most of us feel some frustration nearly every day. We’re fed up with the way the country is run, or with the global economy, or with the way that people treat one another. Our criticisms may be fully justified, as they would have been in James’ day. But the challenge for God’s people is to be able to tell the truth about the way the world is, and about the way wicked people are behaving, without turning into a perpetual grumble, especially without ourselves becoming someone whose appearance of “wisdom” consists in being able to find a cutting word to say about everyone and everything. Our challenge, our task as Christians, is to be people who share wisdom from above, not people who propagate the so-called wisdom of the world.

So how do we do this? The first step is to remember that we live in a world created by God, who called it “good.” There is still a vast among of beauty, love, generosity, and sheer goodness in the world. We have to open our eyes to see all that is good, and then we have to name it and celebrate it. This is simply a matter of being optimistic in our lives rather than pessimistic. And we should be optimistic because we are citizens of hope and promise in God’s kingdom. But even more than seeing and naming all that is good, we also have to live that way ourselves. We have to embody and enact the wisdom from above. And the good news is, James tells us exactly what that looks like in verses 17 and 18! “What is wisdom from above? First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts.” Wisdom from above focuses on making this world look like the Kingdom from above, God’s kingdom. Much like we said last week, wisdom from above is about building others up, building our world up, not tearing it down.

This is a lot. It’s a lot for every single one of us. To be pure, and peaceful, and gentle, and obedient; to be filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. I don’t know about you all, but I’m lucky if I hit one of those a week, much less every single one, every single day. So again we might ask, how are we to accomplish this? And again, James gives us the answer, so beautiful and so simple, “Come near to God, and he will come near to you.”

We see the task before us as an “either/or” battle. We understand our task as overcoming worldly wisdom with wisdom from above, but we have to remember that God works at both ends. Whether principalities or powers, whether heights or depths—nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, Paul says. God has already overcome worldly wisdom, in our savior Jesus Christ; God has already conquered with wisdom from above, and all we need, all we need, is to come near to God in faith.

And isn’t it wonderful to know that when we come near to God, God will come near to us?

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