Rev. Jeffrey T. Howard

Sermon James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8 “Wisdom from Above”

Presbyterian Church of Easton

September 19, 2021

This morning I am continuing my series of sermons drawn from the Book of James.  As we have seen Jesus’ own brother, James, is concerned with problems in the early church.  These problems concern the introduction of poor people into congregations.  This has resulted in partiality, favoritism, and sometimes hot discussions with tongues on fire.  

James told the churches to always listen first and then be slow to speak and slow to anger.  This appears to be useful advice and could be given by any lecturer speaking on conflict resolution.  But James is talking to Christians in a church setting.  Is there anything about the faith, growing in our hearts, that helps us to be slow to anger and welcoming to everyone?  James says yes there is because we Christians are the beneficiaries of a gift from God called wisdom.  But before we look at wisdom, please pray with me.

Grant unto us, O Lord, to be occupied in the mysteries of thy Heavenly wisdom, with true progress in piety, to thy glory and our own edification. Amen. (John Calvin)

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8  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.  15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.  16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.  17 But the 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.  18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.  

NRS James 4:1 Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?  2 You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask.  3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.  

7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

The Book of James is a book of wisdom.  Wisdom is the integration of our thoughts, our wills, our actions, and the context within which we exist.  Therefore to be wise means that our beliefs inform and control what we do.  King Solomon defined wisdom in this way:  1 Kings 3:9 Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil”  

According to James there are two sources of wisdom. One source is the world we live in.  Here we find wisdom such as: maximize your happiness. It teaches us to be jealous of what others have, and selfish.  With wisdom like this our actions might be to stay out late and get drunk, or have a lot of sex outside of marriage, or get rich by taking advantage of others.  You can find the world’s wisdom taught in schools, glorified on television and in the movies, and generally accepted by most people in our culture.  The world’s wisdom encourages us to be self-absorbed and destructive.  The ultimate source of the world’s wisdom is the devil who wants to corrupt us and ruin our lives.

Another source of wisdom is from above.  With this wisdom we are encouraged to be peaceful, gentle, holy, obedient, compliant, and filled with compassion.  With wisdom from above we love our neighbors; welcome everyone in worship with no partiality or favoritism, and our actions match our faith.    Wisdom from above is a gift from God and should be taught in churches.

You can see this difference between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom from above in a story in  Presbyterians Today.  Several years ago a woman came to her pastor, with an unusual request.  She asked if a group of Pentecostal Christians from Guatemala could worship in their sanctuary.  This woman had been teaching ESL at a local manufacturing plant and met new immigrants there.   

The session approved the request and around 100 Guatemalans came to Community Presbyterian Church every Friday and Saturday evening.  The church did not ask them to pay rent, but the immigrants gave them handmade needle work and had other fundraisers to give the church as much as they could every October when they worshiped with the Presbyterians and thanked them for letting them use the building.  Clearly all concerned were wise, from above, exhibiting gentleness and compassion toward each other.  

But the wisdom of the world was not far away.  In May of 2008 federal immigration officials raided Agriprocessors Inc. and arrested 389 undocumented workers.   When this happened the pastor was on his way to Ohio.  So he missed the helicopters and the sight of frightened immigrants herded into buses.  His cell phone rang from members of the church asking if the families of those arrested and too frightened to go home could find sanctuary at the church. Several members of the church stayed with these families and immigration lawyers from out of town came to help.  The church was silent on Friday and Saturday evening because most of the Pentecostal church had been arrested.  A year later the town has yet to recover from the raid.  Businesses have left.  Lots of houses are for sale. Most of the men remain in jail or have been deported.  Those who have been released are prohibited from working.  And the meat packing plant has gone bankrupt.

So wisdom from above is based on love and has compassion for all people.  But the wisdom of the world enforces laws that harm people for selfish gain.  

James gives us three questions to ponder about wisdom.  These are:  First, who is wise among you?  Second, from where do conflicts arise?  And third, what does God want?  Let’s look at how James answers each of these.

Who is wise among you? One answer could be, “the pastor” or maybe “the elders of the church”.  We assume that being wise was one of the reasons elders attained their offices.  And we hope that the pastor and session of the church will be wise in making decisions.  

But this is not what James says.  As we look around the church for people of wisdom, look for humbleness, kindness, willingness to yield, gentleness, with no partiality or hypocrisy.  These, according to James, are the marks of wise people.  Do you know anyone like this?  Wise people seem not to be ego-driven and not envious of each other.  Do we have any wise people in the church?   Wise people are not like everyone else; they are a little counter cultural in a society that is driven by ambition and self-gratification.

Now let’s turn to James’ second question.  What is the source of conflicts?  According to James, the world’s wisdom leads to disordered desires.  These desires include bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. A few years ago there was an ad on television for an automobile.  It started with a father putting finishing touches on a tree house for his kids.  He came down from the tree and went to look for the children.  He found them in the back seat of his new car playing cards.  The father told them about the new tree house.  But the kids asked him:  “Does it have leather seats?”  “a DVD player?”  They had no interest in the tree house their father had just built.  Even children are taught the wisdom of the world: to desire the wrong things.

When the disordered desires of two or more people come into contact conflicts will arise.  Ultimately all conflicts come from desiring something someone else has.  We want the newest television set and a bigger home.  We want the most expensive car on the block.  We want husbands that will take care of us, or wives that look like a trophy, or children in the top 10% of their class.  And when we don’t get what we want we just take it from someone else and so conflicts arise.  Our only hope to avoid conflicts is to rely not on the wisdom of the world but on the wisdom from above.

And this leads us to the third question in James.  What does God want?  And the answer to this is, a God who created us in his image wants us to live that way.  So we must turn away from the worldly wisdom that leads to conflict, destruction and death.  And turn toward the wisdom from above.  A wise person, therefore, is defined not by what he has, or what she desires, but by their relationship with God.

We have a biblical story of James using wisdom from above.  A dispute arose over whether or not to accept Gentiles into the church.  An assembly was held in Jerusalem and, according to the Book of Acts, this is what James did.

Acts 15:12-19  12 The whole assembly kept silent, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.  13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me.  14 Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name.  15 This agrees with the words of the prophets, … 19 Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God.

In this story James listens patiently.  He is slow to speak.  But when he does speak he speaks from a position of humility and gentleness.  He reflects God’s love not just for a chosen few but for all of creation.  He demonstrates the hours he has spent meditating on the word of God and developing a relationship with God so that he can make a decision with wisdom from above.

I have a few suggestions for this church based upon the book of James.  First, when selecting church officers, choose people who demonstrate wisdom from above with gentleness of spirit and humbleness of heart rather than those who contribute the most money or have served the longest.  Second, make sure that all disputes in the church are settled with mercy and love, never selfish ambition.  Third, pray, not just for your own selfish desires but for the good of everyone and that the needs of the poor will be met.  And fourth, always remember that your worth is measured not by the things you possess but by your closeness to God.

So how is one to be wise? You start by resisting the devil and the selfish desires of your heart to focus on the more important matter of God’s place in your life.  Wash the sin away in confession and come to God in purity and humbleness.  Develop a relationship with God with regular prayer and worship.  Receive the gift of faith by meditating on the Word of God.  Nurture that faith and let it grow in your hearts so that it transforms you into what God created you to be. Then ask God for wisdom in your prayers and the gift of wisdom from above will be yours.  You will become wise.  Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus Christ, we will follow you wherever you lead us.  Help us to turn from our selfishness and greed.  Help us to be instruments of your love, and humbly and gently receive your gift of faith.  We ask for wisdom and pray this in your name, Prince of Peace. Amen.