25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
I think we can all agree, there is a difference between being “smart” and being “wise.” I think we can also agree that one will get you a lot farther in life than the other. For example, I have peculiar kinds of intelligence. I’m not terribly book-smart, nor do I have great strengths in science or mathematics; but I can read a person. I’m empathetic, so can usually tell what a person is feeling, even when they don’t want me to. Also, I’m insightful: I usually have pretty good thoughts about what a person ought to do with those feelings. I possess peculiar kinds of intelligence. My wisdom comes in knowing that I should probably keep all that to myself until asked. Needless to say, wisdom has gotten me a lot farther in life than my intelligence would ever have.
Maybe that’s the reason the Bible seems to put such value on wisdom. As I’ll mention later, wisdom is mentioned throughout Scripture as something we ought to seek to possess. But as James reminds us today, there is more than one kind of wisdom. And we would be wise to know the difference.
To begin our lesson today, James asks a surprisingly good question: “Who is wise and understanding among you?” The question almost slips right past us, but it warrants an answer. Who is wise and understanding among us? I mean, please raise your hands; we need to know who you are! This church has some decisions to make; who are the wise among us?
I guess another good question might be: who is supposed to be wise and understanding among us? Don’t tell me it’s me! I try, but I must confess that some days are better than others. Perhaps it’s our Ruling Elders; perhaps that’s why we elect them to make decisions for us. They do seem pretty wise to me; maybe they are the wise and understanding among us. But then again, we do believe in a “priesthood of all believers” around here too. My guess is, James has us all in mind. So maybe (and not just “maybe”) we all are supposed to be wise and understanding for each other. But as I said, that might be trickier than it sounds.
We continue today in our study of James. A book that I believe reminds us of what it means to practice the good kind of religion. Like it or not, if you put in the time and effort to get yourselves to a church on a Sunday, you are a religious person. The tricky part, of course, is remaining the good kind. Today James shows us that, key to remaining a good kind of religious person, is wisdom. But of course, it isn’t just any-old wisdom, is it?
Wisdom is a remarkable concept in Scripture. I don’t think we spend nearly enough time exploring this it. In the Bible, Wisdom is more than just knowledge or insight, or even experience. Wisdom is described almost as a conscious being with a will of its own… and even a gender. As we study what the Old Testament says about Wisdom, we see that it looks a lot like what the New Testament says about the Holy Spirit. Wisdom knows the heart of God; Wisdom seeks God’s good above personal good; Wisdom seeks a deeper sense of spiritual maturity.
But today we find that there is more than one kind of wisdom, isn’t there? According to James, there is the Wisdom that comes from heaven, and then there is a wisdom that is “earthly, unspiritual, and even devilish.” I think bad religion is made when we confuse those two kinds of wisdom.
I was talking with one of our friends this week about today’s sermon title. He pointed out that “wise guys” was a phrase common to the Three Stooges. This is not a reference I was trying to make, but now that he mentions it, I wish I’d thought of it. One of the ways that bad religion manifests itself is through the same kind of self-serving, Stooge-like behavior that James describes. His insight mage me start to imagine the practitioners of bad religion slapping each other around like Larry, Moe, and Curley.
“Eh, a wise guy, eh?” Boink! “Neaahh” “Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck.”
If anything sums up the kind of wisdom (if you can call it that) displayed on the Three Stooges, it’s the kind James describes as “envy and selfish ambition. And as silly as that might initially appear, it is also the same kind of wisdom that permeates our culture depends on. As one commentator I read put it: “North American culture depends on active envy and ambition as heavily as it depends on fossil fuels.” It is the culture we live in. It permeates our media, our economy, our schools, and even our homes. It’s no wonder this kind of wisdom finds its way into our churches, it’s all around us!
And by the way, it may seem here like this is turning into one of those “us and them” kinds of sermons, but I don’t like those sermons. You know the ones I mean? The ones where the preacher rails against the evils of this world; and how we shouldn’t be like “those people.” First of all, I like those people; the main difference I see between “us” and “them” is that we know to seek godly wisdom. In fact, I see a lot of them working with us in the Kingdom of God, even if they don’t know it yet.
Besides, sermons aren’t meant to focus us on them, they’re meant to focus us on us. What James talks about today isn’t about us versus them, it’s about good wisdom versus the bad kind. And we are called to find the good kind.
The first thing we ought to notice about this good kind of wisdom is where it comes from: notice that it comes from above. Not literally. You know what he means, it comes from God. We don’t find this wisdom out in the world not because the world is evil, but because that’s not where this wisdom comes from. It comes from God alone. So to seek the wisdom of God, is to first seek God.
The second thing we notice is that God’s wisdom turns your wisdom on its head. James says God’s wisdom is, “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” In short, God’s wisdom is a wimp, right?
My original sermon title was written back when I thought every woman would be gone today at the women’s retreat. I was going to point out how God’s wisdom flips just about every masculine trait our culture admires. Selfish ambition is a quality that is not only accepted and praised in our society, but it’s a rewarded, masculine trait.
It sounds to me that, if God’s wisdom were in grade school, he’d probably get his lunch money taken away a lot. This can’t really be what God wants from us, can it? Does God really want us to act so vastly differently from what our society expects? Well, of course. We proclaim the Good News, in part, by living lives that are noticeably different from the world around us. Of course God wants us to live out a wisdom that might even go against what we might even think is wise.
But there is one final thing we notice about the wisdom that comes from God: what it produces. James says, “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” As we seek wisdom in discerning our future, does our wisdom produce peace, or does it foster envy and selfish ambition? I know we are dwelling in the wisdom of God when we produce peace. I know we are all the wise and understanding when we growing peace, both among ourselves and out in this world.
Let us all seek the wisdom that comes from God alone; and may his peace be born within us, through us, and out throughout our world.