Pomme de Terre United Methodist Church
Worship  Calendar Sermons UMM Missouri Conference
Daily Devotions Pastor's Page Ozarks Districts UMW United Methodist Church


"Wisdom from Above"
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
       It is said that Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant reformation, argued that the letter of James should be removed from the canon.  That it did not belong in the Bible. 
    And Luther's concern was that it placed too much emphasis on works rather than on faith as the means of our salvation.
    I suspect that Luther was half-right. 
    In the thirty-ninth through the forty-third verses of the twenty-third chapter of the gospel according to Luke, in the story of the crucifixion, we read that "One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding Jesus and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? 
    “Save yourself and us!"  But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong."  Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."  Jesus replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
    Now, if it takes works to earn our salvation, that criminal on the cross probably did not have them.  But does that let US off the hook?  I don't think so.  Listen to the words of James in the thirteenth verse of the third chapter of his letter:
    "Who is wise and understanding among you?  Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom."
    But James isn't really saying--at least not in this passage--that it is our works that save us.  Rather, he is telling us that IF we truly have wisdom and understanding, we need to be providing the evidence.
    Wisdom and understanding are abstractions.  We cannot SEE them.  But we CAN see their results.  We watch the lives that people lead, and we draw conclusions regarding their wisdom. 
    And yet, look more closely at what James has said:  "works done with gentleness born of wisdom."  The King James Version speaks of the "meekness" of wisdom. 
    But the question must be raised here, does wisdom always accompany GOOD deeds and works?  Or can it be used to other ends?
    James warns us, "But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth."
    So, maybe there are two sides to this coin called wisdom.  We can have works done with gentleness, but we can also have works rooted in envy and ambition. 
    Pastors are not immune to this.  Ideally, pastors should serve congregations for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of the congregation.  And I do believe that most of us try to. 
    But occasionally, envy and selfish ambition, just as James labeled it, creep into the lives of some of us.  And the concern is not, "What can I do for these people?" but, "what can I do for myself?"
    But pastors are not alone.  I'm sure you can think of instances of those whose motivations were not other-centered, but self-centered.  Even one of the twelve disciples, Judas, should probably be placed in that category.
    And James tells us that if that is the case for us, we should not be boastful and false to the truth.  But HOW is this "false to the truth"?  Well, James informs us that there are different kinds of wisdom.
    "Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish."
    And we might say that we are not moved from above to act, but rather are moved from below.
    Consider almost any socio-economic issue.  How much are we concerned for people, and how much are we influenced by the making of money, the bottom line on financial statements, the peddling of power and influence? 
    Is the wisdom coming down from above?
    But let's back up a moment to the closing words of the previous verse.  What did James mean by being "false to the truth"?  I think that James is suggesting that there really are NOT two kinds of wisdom.  That what we may PERCEIVE as some kind of earthly wisdom is in fact deceptive, a warped form of wisdom.  We fool ourselves into believing that it is another kind of wisdom, on equal footing with wisdom from above.
    And he continues by telling us, "For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind."
    Actually, James didn't have to tell us that.  All we have to do is read the daily newspaper.  Envy and selfish ambition is the stuff that wars are made of.  It is the root of crumbling civilization. 
    And if you don't read the daily newspaper, read your bible; you'll find much of the same thing.  And it is a very good reason for one of the ten commandments to tell us, "Thou shalt not covet."  In fact, we can't get more than a few pages into our bible before we find the first couple eating fruit that God told them to leave alone.  And greed came into the world.
    But let's look to the positive side.  Because James has a marvelous description of what true wisdom is.
    "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 there is a remarkable echo here of Paul's definition of love in the fourth and fifth verses of the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians:  Love is patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
    Now ask yourself, "Could James description of wisdom from above possibly be compatible with selfish ambition?"  If selfish ambition were the moving force in our lives would we be gentle and willing to yield, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy?  Would we be full of mercy and good fruits?
    These are not idle questions!  I think the church needs to be constantly asking itself:  Is selfishness creeping into our lives? 
    Are we more concerned, as a church, with taking care of ourselves than we are with taking care of others?  So much so that we forget what the mission of the church is all about?
    But James tells us, "And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who MAKE peace."
    And the peace that we make becomes contagious.  It multiplies its efforts, just as James spoke of wisdom that was full of mercy and good fruits.  The peace that we plant magnifies itself in righteousness, justice, and goodness.
    But contrast this with the wisdom that does not come down from above, that is earthly, full of selfish ambition.  What are ITS fruits? 
    If whatever understanding we have is only pointed inward for ourselves, what can possibly be gained for the community beyond ourselves? 
    And where do envy and selfish ambition lead us?  James tells us:
    "Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?  Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?"
    What if there were no cravings at war within us?  I don't think we can escape the cravings, but we can escape the inner turmoil.  And if we can escape that war within us, what effect would that have on the community of which we are a part?  If we are at peace with ourselves, would it not be easier to be at peace with others?
    Jesus knew of the cravings within us and addressed them in the sermon on the mount.  In the twenty-fifth verse of the sixth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, we read,     "Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?"
    And although James is concerned with more than food and clothing, the principle that Jesus is advancing is the same.  We need to be wary of becoming wrapped up in ourselves, of becoming obsessed with our selfishness.
    Isn't it amazing, all the things that once upon a time we had never heard of, but now believe that we can't live without?  And our neighbors acquire something that we wish WE had.  Now, I don't think there's anything inherently WRONG with that--except when it takes control of our lives.  Cravings at war within us.
    James observes, "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."
    Now, the first part of that verse might sound a bit extreme to us:  murdering because we want something and don't have it.  And yet the history of war provides us evidence. 
    And maybe not in this community, but in other communities, murder does occur to acquire what someone wants but does not have. 
    But what are we to make of the last sentence in that verse:  "You do not have because you do not ask."  Is THAT all there is to it?  Well, not really.  And James should have added something to that sentence.  It really ought to read, "You do not have because you do not ask God." 
    Yet, those who engage in murder and disputes and conflicts aren't paying much attention to the wisdom from above anyway.  It wouldn't occur to them to ask God.  But if we ARE seeking wisdom from above, and if we DO ask God, James has some more advice for us.
    "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures."
    In other words, if we're asking and not receiving, it's because we're asking for the wrong things.  But if we want the same things that God WANTS us to have, God is more than willing to help us get them. 
    Several years ago, I attended a workshop with a focus on the small church. 
    And the leader of the workshop, a fellow who specialized in working with small churches in the Oklahoma conference, pointed out that too often small churches think that they are "too small" to do anything. 
    And his response to this was that every church is EXACTLY the right size to do what God wants it to do.  God doesn't EXPECT us to do what a much larger church would do; but God DOES expect us to do whatever a church OUR SIZE can do. 
    And maybe the problem too often is that small churches ASK WRONGLY.  We need to be asking God to help us do whatever we can.
    "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."
    And WHY should the devil flee from us?  Possibly because evil is of our own making, in our selfishness. 
    So to abandon that selfishness is to remove the devil from our midst; but if we seek God, we will most certainly, and immediately, find God, ready, willing, and able to help us.
    So who is wise and understanding among us?  And is our wisdom and understanding true, coming down from above, or are we deceived by a false wisdom of this world?
    In the movie "Field of Dreams," about the building of a baseball field in a corn field, there is the line, "If you build it, they will come."  And if we ASK GOD for wisdom and understanding, seriously seeking not for ourselves but for the good of others, God WILL provide.                

Return to Home Page