[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]
When Muhammad Ali was heavyweight boxing champion of the world, he was supposedly a passenger on a commercial flight that developed some problems. As you know, Ali never appeared to lack confidence. He called himself--and as a boxer, may have been--"the greatest." The airline attendant announced that because of some turbulence, all passengers needed to fasten their seat belts. “Superman don’t need no seat belt,” Ali told the stewardess. “That’s true,” she replied, “But Superman don’t need no plane either. Fasten your seat belt.”
It’s a fine thing for us to have confidence. I believe that God wants us to feel confident in ourselves, children made in the very image of God. I believe that God wants those of us for whom Jesus Christ died and rose--the whole human race--to feel good about ourselves. But arrogance is an altogether different thing.
The wisdom of the world says that pushing your way to the top is just the way things are supposed to be. But, in our second lesson for today, James reminds us that isn’t the wisdom that comes from the God we know in Jesus Christ. And this me-first, pseudo-wisdom of the world has its consequences. James tells us: “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... “
Followers of Jesus Christ know that arrogance is inconsistent with our faith. We know that it leads us to kill one another, if not literally, then with our words, actions, and attitudes.*
We know, too, that Christ gives to all who turn from sin and follow Him, all who grasp God’s grace, the unshakable approval of God.
We know that we have God in our corners forever, helping us to become our best selves.
Yet the war in the gut that James writes about in our lesson today happens inside those of us who believe in Jesus Christ as much as it does in non-Christians.
Why is that? Why do we Christians refuse to allow the wisdom that God willingly gives all followers of Christ, just for the asking, to guide our lives?
Some psychologists tell us that we all live out of certain stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. Sometimes, we live out of stories of arrogance, which is bad, of course.
Often, our self-told stories cause us to sell ourselves short, believing that we’re not enough. This is equally destructive. I know Christians, for example, who think that they’re not faithful enough to get God’s attention. A man in one of my former parishes, one who was about the most faithful person I'd ever known said to me once, "I'm not really much of a Christian, pastor." "What do you mean?" I asked. "You believe in Jesus Christ. You've sought God's forgiveness for sin. You seek to live according to God's will each day. God says you're good enough because you trust Christ with your life. It's only you who believe otherwise!"
James would say that all these stories come from the devil.
And because we believe those stories, we make shambles of our lives, often compensating for our perceived inadequacies by adopting attitudes of arrogance.
But whether the stories we tell ourselves lead us to feelings of arrogance or inadequacy, the result is that we never tap into the power, love, and goodness of God to feel confident about who we are as children of God.
“Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” James asks. “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.”
Tragically, the terrible consequences of believing these false stories about ourselves can be seen not only in the lives of individual Christians, but also in the lives of many Christian congregations.
Gerald Mann tells the true story of a pastor and his family who had something horrible happen as they were arriving in a new community where a local church had called them. Just as they entered the town, their baby, the couple's only child had a seizure. They rushed him to the local hospital where all attempts to revive him failed. There, in the hospital waiting room where she’d gotten the horrible news, the mother was understandably distraught and screamed out to God, occasionally using profanity.
One of the nurses on duty was a member of the congregation. She told the congregational leaders how the grieving mother had initially reacted to the death of her child. Those leaders, in turn, went to their denomination’s area superintendent to say that because of how “unspiritual” the pastor’s wife was, they wanted a different pastor.
The superintendent told those leaders that the members of that church needed to learn what it is to be the church, a fellowship where imperfect people can share the strength and the power to live which the resurrected Jesus gives to all who believe in Him.
The congregational leaders didn’t like that answer at all. And so, the president of the congregation pulled the new pastor aside and said, “Well, I guess we’re stuck with you. But don’t you ever mention the death of your son or any pain you may be going through. We hired you to make us feel good, not to join you in your family’s difficulties.”
Here you had a congregation whose members believed a false story. They believed that if their pastor had an imperfect life, it would make their lives less perfect. He violated the story they were telling about themselves and they didn’t want him messing the story up by telling the truth that this life isn’t always perfect and that while followers of Christ aren’t always strong, we have a God to Whom we can go for strength and we have the Church in which we can be strengthened by God together.
The Church is the practical, real-life laboratory where Jesus Christ gives us new eternal identities born not of looking out for number one, but of letting Number One look out for us and where God’s children look out for each other.
But how does that happen? James says it happens when we ask God to help us own the humble confidence and self-assurance that belong to His children. It comes, he says, when we submit, we surrender to Christ. That’s when we quit having to prove ourselves, bask in God’s approval, and can look beyond ourselves.
“You do not have,” James says, “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...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.”
In an old folk tale, a woman loses her only child. She goes to the local holy man and asks him to bring the child back to life. He tells her, “Search for the home that has never known sorrow, and, in that home, find the magic mustard seed and bring it to me. Then we will have the power to bring your child back.”
The woman’s first stop was a palace. Sure that everything would be good and joyful there, she knocked on the door, explaining that she was looking for a home without sorrow. “You’ve come to the wrong place,” she was told. And then the owner of that palace recounted all the sorrows that he and his family had experienced in spite of their wealth. The woman thought to herself, “Who is better able to help these people than I, who have had such misfortune of my own?” So, she stayed to comfort them.
Later, she continued her search. She went from hovels to palaces and in each place, she got so involved in helping other people through their griefs that she was able to deal with her own. In forgetting about herself, she found healing and peace.
Arrogance destroys faith, fellowship, and hope. Buying into false stories, whether they’re ones that tell us how great we are or how insignificant we are, or how aggrieved we are, creates conflicts within us and creates our conflicts with others.
Humble surrender to Jesus Christ, allowing Him to enlist us in His army of love for God, love for neighbor, and respect for the earth that God has given to us (1) builds faith, (2) enhances fellowship, and (3) fills us with hope.
The wisdom of hell tells us to look out for ourselves. The wisdom of heaven says to look up to Christ. One road leads to turmoil within and turmoil without. The other, the road of following Jesus Christ, leads to peace in our souls and peace with others.
Which road will you choose? Which story will you believe, your own story about you or the story Jesus Christ has created just for you? On whose wisdom will you build your life, your own or that of God?
*In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, "You shall not murder'; and "whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, "You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.”