Pentecost 17 B 2021
James 3:13-4:10 ‘Wisdom of the Cross’
Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, Who did for me endure the horror of deep darkness, teach me by the depth of Your agony the vileness of my sin, and so bind me to You in bonds of gratitude and love, that I may be united with You in Your perfect sacrifice, my Saviour, my Lord, and my God. Amen
In the Name + of Jesus
The letter of James is a kind of wisdom literature. It has a lot of connection to Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament.
Certainly, our text today starts out that way: Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. James sounds a lot like Solomon, the wisest of old, for he quickly makes the connection between understanding and doing, between thought and practise. Real wisdom is not some head-in-the-clouds philosophy, but a down to earth way of living.
But what kind of wisdom are we talking about?
Many claim to be wise – clever with cash, wizards with technology, astute in getting ahead. There is a worldly wisdom, and sometimes it’s a good thing, a gift of God. Using your head is not wrong. God gave you a brain for a purpose. Learning from experience separates the wise one from the fool. Listening to and taking advice is the humble way of the wise. Common sense is great; it would be good if it were much more common.
However, worldly wisdom has a problem, the deep failure which we confess whenever we gather here. We all sin in thought, and word, and deed. We are by nature sinful and unclean – and that nature includes our reasoning, our minds, our highest thoughts. We cannot free ourselves from our sinful condition, from messing up the good gifts of God.
James explains the effects that come naturally from that sad cause:
But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.
These are tough, but clear words. Earthly wisdom is tainted by sin. It is demonic; think of the first demonic wisdom put into Eve’s ears by the devil himself: Did God really say? Worldly wisdom is unspiritual; that is, it is not from the Spirit, the Holy Spirit. Worldly wisdom is not something created; the devil cannot create anything. Rather, it is simply opposing what God gives as true.
So, for example, there is a good kind of jealousy. God is rightly and blessedly jealous to have you and all people enjoy His goodness, His mercy, and His gift of life that never ends. You can be jealous for the good of others; teachers can jealously desire that their students learn; doctors can jealously desire that their patients stay healthy.
Bitter jealousy is a demonic distortion of that zeal. It is focused not on the good of the neighbour, but on what I want. And as a sinner, I want what I cannot have, what others have been blessed with. So instead of rejoicing and being glad for their blessings, I covet them and turn bitter toward them.
Likewise, ambition is not evil. It was created in us by God. Adam and Eve were given a whole garden, a whole world, in which their rightful ambition to please God and one another would have created wonders beyond our imagination. Your ambition to learn, to create, to serve others by the gifts God gives you, is a piece of being truly human.
But ambition also is turned inward instead of outward, and becomes selfish ambition by our greed, by our lack of love, by our idolatry of ourselves.
This sinfully warped wisdom on the inside, in the heart, has effects on the outside. James declares: For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. When you click on your ipad or look at your phone (or, if you are old like me, you open your newspaper) you ought not to be surprised by news of conflict, of injustice and people being hurt by it, of lies in an election campaign or just a rising tide of rage, of one group trying to out-shout another. Saddened maybe, but not surprised.
After all, what can be expected of people like us? All people are, as we confessed when we got here today, those who have sinned in thought, word, and deed, and…we cannot free ourselves from our sinful condition.
James clarifies this source in our text: What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
This is worldly wisdom at work. These are the effects of what is in the sinful human heart.
And remember, James writes to Christians, to those who have believed in Jesus. We are not ‘better’ than the rest of the world. We are forgiven, made new, cleansed and changed only in Christ, to be sure. But we are not home yet. We are still living in this age, in this world, in these minds and bodies that are tempted as all others are tempted. James specifically says to Christians: You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
There is a war going inside you. Not only the world, but our sinful flesh also, is not wise in God’s way of wisdom. As long as you are in the mortal body, in this age, the devil enlists your thoughts and urges and desires to sin. Your mouth can spew vulgarities, or your ears can hear gossip; your eye may be covetous or lustful for flashy desires or fleshly ones. Your hand may slap or steal.
So repent. And repent again. Then repent some more. Realize that your whole life is a life of repentance. THIS is the wisdom of God for you, given to you here. This is the wisdom of the cross.
James whets our Spirit-worked appetite for this wisdom as he describes what God would give us: But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
This all sounds wonderful. The new man in us, created in Christ, wants this kind of wisdom. Life for ourselves, and life with others, will be incredibly more blessed and enjoyable if we can be made peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.
But notice this: this is the wisdom from above. It’s a gift of God. It belongs to those who have been born from above in Holy Baptism and Holy Word. Yet that is not a one-shot deal. You don’t just receive it once, and you are good to go. It’s not like the world has a bunch of Christians in it who are always peaceable, and gentle, and open to reason all the time. As we said, we are in a battle still, at war even with ourselves.
In this battle against the old Adam, against the earthly wisdom that comes naturally, God is always at work, bringing His wisdom from above to you. It’s not going to be up to you to keep yourself truly wise, in Christ’s wisdom. You will not do it on your own steam. It’s a constant gift from the Father.
So James asks: do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that He has made to dwell in us”? But He gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” God yearns for you to have His wisdom, the wisdom of the cross of His Son.
This wisdom comes not in the form of our being smart, or getting it right all the time, or being perfect of ourselves. Just the opposite, this wisdom comes to us when we have been humbled before God, when we confess our folly, our foolishness of thinking we could make ourselves what we ought to be.
This wisdom of the cross comes to the penitent. That’s the reason for the other tough words of James at the end of our text: 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. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
The wisdom of the cross is received as we mourn our sin, as we weep over our wrongdoing, as we admit our wretched state. The wisdom of the cross comes as we resist the devil, who twists all that is good, as our hearts are purified by the Word of God. The wisdom of the cross silences our proud and selfish laughter in order to make us weep for a broken world, for our broken selves. The wisdom of the cross clings to the Word of God’s promise, that He will exalt the humble.
And that Word is Jesus. Jesus is the Wisdom from above. God’s Wisdom came to earth to upset and overthrow our earthly wisdom. God’s Wisdom took on flesh in order to embody what it is to be peaceable, gentle, fully of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. Jesus lived the wise life, for you, and for all. Jesus’ only ambition was to win for you the life God desires for you, His eternal life. Jesus’ only passion was to remake you by His grace to be people fit to live in the kingdom of God.
In order to make peace with God for you, Jesus suffered the guilt and pain of the quarrels and fights we have created in His bitter death at the cross. In order to exalt you to be wise in God, Jesus was lowered at the cross into the depths of hell, to bear the wrong of all that is earthly, unspiritual, and demonic.
Jesus was raised from the dead because the foolishness of God portrayed at His cross is wiser than men. So, we preach Christ crucified, the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the crucified Jesus is the risen forever Lord, the only One Who can also raise you to life in God’s wise kingdom.
It might not look wise to those who claim an earthly wisdom, but the wisdom of the cross is God’s way of true understanding. You will live in this wisdom forever. And already now, in repentance and faith, this wisdom will show in your peaceable, gentle, reasonable, merciful life in Christ Jesus.
All glory to Jesus alone. Amen.