A sermon delivered by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., on September 23, 2012.
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
James 3:13 – 4:8a
After spending a few weeks preaching from James I think I can understand why some people don’t like it very much: it’s so preachy! Do you know what I mean? This is just the kind of thing people are talking about when they say, “Don’t preach to me!” James keeps wagging his finger at us, saying, “Do this!” and “Don’t do that!” It gives the rest of us preachers a bad name. Where’s the grace of God in this book? Where’s the love of Jesus? And yet, if you’ve ever been the parent of a child who started across a busy intersection without looking both ways you may understand what James is trying to do: he is trying to save our lives. He yanks us back from the brink of disaster. He scolds us until his face turns red. And in all of this he is saying, “God loves you. God loves you so much he won’t stand idly by and watch you throw your life away.” New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson says that today’s passage is the heart of the letter, and one that gives us a glimpse of God’s heart, too.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 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. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 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. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 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 (NRSV).
“Who is wise and understanding among you?” James asks, and then adds: “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” The note in my study Bible says, “As in the Old Testament wisdom literature, wisdom is associated with practical good behavior, not speculative thought.” And so wisdom is not about what people know, but what they do; it is a way of life, a particular path. And the wise person is not the one who goes around spouting proverbs all the time, but the one who walks that path and lives that life, a life that you, yourself, might want to live.
And that’s where you have to be careful.
I’ve told you before about that scene from the movie The Pursuit of Happyness where a man named Chris Gardner is on the verge of homelessness when someone pulls up to the curb in an expensive red sports car. Chris just stands there, staring. You can see on his face how much he wants that kind of car, that kind of life. He’s practically drooling. When he can speak again he asks the driver, “Man, what do you do and how do you do it?” The man tells him that he’s a stockbroker, and from that moment on Chris Gardner decides that’s what he’s going to be, too. A stockbroker. He’s going to make a lot of money, buy a fancy car, and live happily ever after.
And that’s what I mean about being careful.
There seems to be a kind of conventional wisdom out there that says if you go to a good school and make good grades, then, when you graduate, you can get a good job. And if you get a good job then you can make a lot of money. And if you make a lot of money you can buy a lot of things. And if you have a lot of things you can live happily ever after. If wisdom is a particular path, then this is the path that a lot of people are walking. And the place they hope to get to is that place called “the Good Life,” whatever that is for them. It may not be an expensive red sports car, but it will be something they’ve dreamed of, something they’ve set their hearts on. “If only I could have that,” they say, “if only I could get there, then life would be perfect.”
One of the problems is that we often set our hearts on things that other people have. We begin to develop some of that “bitter envy” James talks about, where we can’t understand why that fellow who just pulled up to the curb has an expensive red sports car and we don’t. Or we develop some of that “selfish ambition” that James talks about, where we decide we’re going to do whatever it takes to have a sports car of our own. And like Chris Gardner in that movie, we decide to pursue happiness on those terms, believing that if we could only have what other people have, if we could only get what we wanted, then life would be perfect.
And that’s when James yanks us back from the curb. He says this kind of wisdom, this way of life is full of bitter envy and selfish ambition. It leads to “disorder and wickedness of every kind.” It doesn’t come from above, it comes from below. It is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish,” he says, whereas the wisdom that comes from above is, “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” There are these two kinds of wisdom, these two ways of life, James says, and if you walk down one path you will eventually step out of the woods and into a clearing where the abundant and everlasting life can be found, whereas if you walk down the other path you will eventually stumble around in the darkness and step off a cliff. And this is where James begins to sound a lot like his brother, Jesus.
Do you remember what Jesus said in last week’s Gospel reading? He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Now, that’s some unconventional wisdom, isn’t it? Jesus is saying that the path most people are on, the one they think will lead them to the happily-ever-after life, is the wrong path altogether, and this Chris Gardner, who wants an expensive red sports car, and who is going to spend the rest of his life trying to become a successful stock broker so he can have one? Well, one of these days he’s going to be in for a big surprise. He’s going to find out that the path he thought would lead to life led him instead off a cliff.
Now, I have to be careful about this because Chris Gardner is a real person, and the movie—the Pursuit of Happyness—is based on his real-life story. But I believe that if Chris Gardner were sitting in the sanctuary this morning Jesus would still say that those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose it for his sake and for the sake of the Gospel will find it. You have to remember why he said it in the first place. He had asked his disciples who they thought he was and Peter said, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus didn’t come right out and tell him he was right, but he didn’t come right out and tell him he was wrong, either. He was the Messiah, but not the kind of Messiah Peter had in mind. When he began to tell the disciples that he was headed to Jerusalem where he would suffer and die Peter rebuked him, but Jesus turned right around and rebuked Peter. He said, “You are not thinking the things of God; you are thinking the things of men!”
What was Peter thinking? That Jesus was going to go to Jerusalem and sit on the throne of his ancestor, David. That he was going to run the Romans out of town and restore Israel to its former glory. That he was going to be the greatest king who had ever lived in Israel, and that Peter was going to be his right-hand man. Peter was no different than Chris Gardner in that respect. He was already smacking his lips and drooling over the good life he was going to live. But Jesus says, “No, Peter! It’s not like that. That’s conventional wisdom, human wisdom, but that kind of wisdom will lead you down a path that will be the death of you. If, on the other hand, you choose to follow me, I will lead you down a path that will be the life of you. But that’s why I asked you who I am: because if you don’t believe I really am the Messiah, if you don’t believe I am the way, the truth, and the life, then you will never follow me, and you will never have the life I want to give you. So, come on, Peter: deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me.
But that’s hard to do, isn’t it? It was hard for Peter to do. In fact, when that servant girl confronted him in the courtyard on the night Jesus was betrayed he couldn’t do it—couldn’t deny himself. He ended up denying Jesus instead. At least one of the Gospel writers says that he “wept bitterly” after that. Maybe he was remembering what Jesus had said on the day he asked Peter to deny himself, that “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Which takes us back to James. He’s concerned about this “adulterous and sinful generation” too. In fact, he calls the people he’s writing to “adulterers.” Why? Because, like Peter, they are thinking the things of men.
“Those conflicts and disputes among you,” he says, “where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 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. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers!” he says. “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” And this is where Luke Timothy Johnson says we come to the heart of the letter and where we most clearly hear James’ voice, when he says that “friendship with the world is enmity with God.”
Picture it like this: if wisdom is a path then these people are trying to walk down two paths at the same time. One is the conventional wisdom of the world, the kind you find in every magazine ad, hear in every radio spot, and see on every television commercial. The other is the unconventional wisdom of Jesus, the kind that says deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. The problem is that these two paths run in opposite directions: you can’t walk both at the same time, although a lot of people try. In today’s Gospel reading the disciples are following Jesus—literally, following him on the road that leads to Jerusalem—and at the same time arguing about which one of them is the greatest. Will they never learn? Didn’t Jesus just say that if you want to follow him you have to deny yourself? And yet here they are, sizing each other up, wondering who will sit at the right and left of Jesus when he comes into his kingdom. Again, he shocks them with his unconventional wisdom. “If you want to be first, be last,” he says. “If you want to be the greatest of all become the servant of all.” And he can’t offer them any proof at this point, he can only promise: if you follow me, if you walk the path I’m walking, you will find true greatness and life everlasting.
So, here’s the question for us: are we walking the walk, or are we simply talking the talk? Have we resisted the devil, so that he flees from us? Have we drawn near to God, so that he draws near to us? Have we sinners cleansed our hands, and have we double-minded people purified our hearts? Have we denied ourselves, as Jesus asks? Have we taken up our crosses? Have we begun to follow him? Have we become least of all and servant of all? Jesus and James seem to agree that this is the way to the happily-ever-after life we dream about, but it seems like the most backward way in the world to get there. And, maybe it is the most backward way in the world. But not in the kingdom. In the kingdom it is that straight and narrow path that leads to life, and if we could trust Jesus enough to start walking that way we would soon discover that he was right all along.
I spent most of last week trying to figure out how to make all this sound like good news, because at the moment it doesn’t, does it? It sounds like we have to give everything up, like we have to give everything away. But then I remembered this old comedy skit, where a guy named Gallagher comes out on the stage carrying an anchor wrapped in a diaper. It’s supposed to be a baby, and he talks about what it’s like to be a new parent. He says, “Oh, sure. I’d love to come to your party, but I can’t. I’ve got the baby!” And then he throws the anchor out onto the stage where it lands with a huge thud, and you see that it’s chained onto his ankle. He can’t go anywhere. Now, we love our children, and they’re worth whatever sacrifice we have to make, but let me ask some of you young parents in the room: if you can afford a babysitter isn’t it a wonderful thing to get out of the house for a few hours? To go where you want to go and do what you want to do?
Now imagine for a moment that it’s not your baby in that diaper, but your self, and Jesus is inviting you to follow him but you can’t, because you’ve got to take care of your self. And you throw it out onto the stage to show him and it thuds to the floor like a huge anchor. How many times have you done that? How many times have you denied Jesus just so you could take care of yourself? Wouldn’t it be a relief to let him break that chain so you could leave it behind, so you could deny yourself and follow Jesus wherever he goes? Well, maybe this is the day to do it. Maybe this is the day to say, “Lord, I’m tired of taking care of my self. I’m tired of tending to my needy, clinging, selfish soul. I’m going to walk away from it once and for all. I’m going to follow you.” You may find with the first step that you have started down the path that leads to life, and that with every step that follows your heart gets a little lighter, your knees lift a little higher, until you are fairly running down that path, free at last from the chains that kept you captive.
Thanks be to God.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.