May I speak and may we listen in the name of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
James 4, vv 7:10 read:
‘Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.’
Today, we move on to our penultimate sermon in the preaching series, having looked at the themes ‘Doers of the Word’, ‘Faith and Works’ we are looking this morning at the theme: ‘Speech and Wisdom’.
Now, again – James is giving advice to an existing community of Christians, and once again – he speaks about controlling this thing, our tongues.
James insists, that those who want to be teachers, those who want to lead in the Church, those who are looked up to, must first learn to control their tongues. To master this most uncontrollable and contradictory member of the body, is for James, to have perfect self-control. One small spark, can light a forest fire. A single word can be just as destructive as a deadly venom….the same tongue used to bless can be used to curse, can be used to do good and to do untold harm. And this inconsistency James says, in vv 11-12, is against all the laws of nature.
More powerfully than that, in verse 6 it seems as though James is saying that through the tongue, all the evil characteristics of a fallen world find expression. It not only pollutes the whole personality, its evil influence continues through the whole course of life. And so our tongues need to be tamed, they need to be controlled, they need to be purified.
Yet James also knows, that people are human and ‘make many mistakes’ (3:2) and as a result he knows, and reminds us that those who confess their sins will be forgiven (5:15-16).
But it wouldn’t really be like James, to just stop there – and so he not only thinks of the tongue, but also of the mind. He talks about Wisdom. I thought I’d look up a dictionary definition of wisdom, and here’s what I found:
‘the quality of being wise, prudence, judgement, circumspection, soundness’.
So, wisdom isn’t just a thing that we arrive at – it’s also a quality….
And when James talks of wisdom in the positive sense, he’s talking about True Wisdom or ‘Pure Wisdom’. ‘Pure Wisdom’ comes from God and shows itself in gentleness, peace, mercy. It is a very different thing from being worldly wise.
Well, firstly beause the wisdom that comes from God is bound to be different from the wisdom of the world, because of the nature of who it comes from….but also because the worldly-wise are full of selfish ambition, eager to get on, asserting their own rights. James offers a sort of counter-order wisdom, in contrast to the conventional wisdom of the wellborn and well-educated Greco-Roman world.
For James, Wisdom isn’t found in everyone, but is to be found amongst some people and not amongst others – ‘who is wise and understanding among you’ (3:13) he asks.
And in his mind, there are two types of wisdom: true wisdom, and false wisdom – wisdom from below, and wisdom from above.
He says, that wisdom from below is ‘bitter, full of envy, selfish and ambitious, it is earthly, unspiritual and devilish’ (3:14-15)
And in contrast, that the wisdom from above is ‘pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.’ (3:17)
There’s no prize for guessing which kind of wisdom it is that we need, in our world and church today.
And James says that gentleness is born of wisdom. Gentleness which is the opposite to the conflict he talks about in chapter 4.
Scripture praises wisdom, all the time – and recommends it to us, in Proverbs 3:13 we read:
‘Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy.’
For James, all of this is a bit of a vicious circle – a lack of wisdom results in conflict because conflict is the result of a lack of gentleness. The root cause of quarrels and fighting is envy: setting our hearts on something we want and determining to get it –
No matter what.
No matter who we hurt.
No matter what we destroy.
No matter the path, as long as the destination and the outcome is in line with our desire.
When we behave like that, we align ourselves not with God, but with the world. And James says that the world’s friend is God’s enemy.
And the opposite, the antidote to being people who lack in Wisdom and who are tied up in Conflict and who have control of the tongue, is to ‘submit to God’. Because for James, conflicts are the manifestation of subtle sins which get nourished in the human heart….
So for James, conflict is a bad thing – it’s a bad thing because it’s unnecessary and it’s a bad thing because it is the sign of sin – and unlike conflicts in the political world which are resolved through negotiation often, the only way these conflicts can be solved is through repentance. So James, invites the people to return to God, he invites us to return to God.
To separate ourselves from the things of the world, which are under the power of the devil, and to draw near to God. And interestingly, James decides to use very strong vocabulary when he speaks of the importance of repentance….submit to God, resist the devil, wash, purify, mourn, wail, and humble ourselves… vv 4:7, 4:8, 4:9, and 4:10. And very quickly his tone has changed from previously addressing them as ‘brothers’, he now challenges them as ‘sinners’.
I think James has his finger on the pulse with this ‘submit to God’ thing….
Do you know, the thing that holds the Church back more than anything – is a lack of submission to God in every area of its life. And that lack of submission in our corporate life does exactly the same thing in our personal lives. Trust me on this.
And so, we have this abundant lack of wisdom, and a profound amount of conflict.
In our lack of wisdom, we have led ourselves so often down a path of error. Because rather than submitting to God, we have too often acted as though we were God…and we still do it too often. Even here.
We have done the opposite to what the proverb teaches us, in Proverbs 3:
‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
It will be a healing for your flesh
and a refreshment for your body.
Honor the Lord with your substance
and with the first fruits of all your produce;
then your barns will be filled with plenty,
and your vats will be bursting with wine.’
How many times have we as Methodists, struggling with apparent decline,
Not sure if people are doing all they should be doing to help us enlarge our numbers,
Having found our barns empty, and our vats running dry –
Acted and behaved and spoken as those who have no wisdom.
And our buildings,
And our patterns,
And our worship,
And our ministry becomes all about us, and less and less about God.
And again, we want something so badly that the *earthly* destination becomes the only important thing, and our desires being satisfied, and our eyes seeing what we consider progress….becomes the essential motivation – and actually, being ‘doers of the word’, doers of that Word which God has given us becomes secondary. Because we simply want to do, what we want to do – but not what God’s word demands of us.
The thing we’ve lost more than anything in the midst of that, is trust in God – and a solid understanding of sacrifice.
We do what we want to do, but not what God’s word commands us to do…..
And it is only wisdom that can reveal to us the difference between the two.
Our fear about the future as Methodist people, when it becomes panic – is really just the embodiment of faithlessness.
So you see, James telling us to submit to God – isn’t about simply making us slaves to God’s will.
It isn’t just about blind obedience.
It’s about living in a community centred upon Jesus Christ in which every single individual is aware that they are not God.
And in submitting to God, James tells us that we resist the devil who will flee from us – and in drawing near to God, God will draw near to us. He tells us to cleanse our hands, and purify our hearts and most importantly to humble ourselves before the Lord that we might be exalted by Him.
I suppose, what we need to reflect on is whether we believe that sin and the devil can be as much of a force in our lives, and in our church, and in our world, as James seems to believe.
Sin is an issue for James,
The Devil is an issue for James,
Evil is an issue for James,
And I think for me, the question James leads us to ask ourselves, and believe me it’s a searching question – it is this – if we are not as the Body of Christ submitting to God, who and what are we submitting to?
Because we all live our lives in submission to something,
And every institution under heaven has an object of adoration at its centre.
Every movement – has its superior.
For James, there is nothing more superior to the Body of Christ – than the one by whom that community has been redeemed.
God in Jesus Christ, is that to whom we should submit.
God in Jesus Christ, is that divine wisdom which we should seek.
God in Jesus Christ, is the one who ends our conflicts, and leads us away from error, and the one to whom in our fears we should look.
That we are not God, is the wisdom that we so desperately need as a Church.
That God is other to us, whilst at the same time being our friend and savior – is that wisdom that we so desperately need as God’s people in this place.
And rather than seeking to submit to a God who is made in our image,
We must learn to submit to the God in whose image we are made.
Now I can’t help but think of St Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians when we speak about wisdom.
In this world where nobody, including the Christian, wants to submit to anything bar Money, Sex and Power St Paul says:
‘the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.’
And for St Paul, The Wisdom of God is foolishness to human beings – because God’s wisdom is seen in Jesus Christ, and most importantly in the Cross. And St Paul’s says, again:
‘For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified.….Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
…..God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
For us to be changed, and renewed –
For our speech and our tongues to be made pure,
For our souls to submit to God,
We need the wisdom to know that there is no other name under heaven by which we may be saved – but by the name of Jesus Christ.
And it is Jesus Christ alone who can change and renew us,
For Jesus is the wisdom of God spoken into the human family. He is the one in whom we hope, he is the one in whom we trust, he is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. And it is to Jesus, And to his word, And to his way – that we must willingly submit ourselves, that we might truly live for Our Lord as people of right speech and of wisdom.