Sunday, September 20, 2015


[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Springboro, Ohio, this morning.]

James 3:13-4:10
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, "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 is supposed to have told the flight attendant. “That’s true,” she replied, “But Superman don’t need no airplane either. Fasten your seat belt.”

It’s good to have confidence. I believe that God wants us to feel confident in ourselves, children made in the very image of God, redeemed by Christ so that we can claim our inheritance as God's children. 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 3:13-4:10, James reminds us that such an attitude isn’t the wisdom that comes from the God we know in Jesus Christ.

He reminds us too, that this me-first, pseudo-wisdom of the world has horrible consequences. James says, starting in verse 13: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.“

Followers of Jesus Christ know that arrogance is inconsistent with our faith. 

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. 

And when you’re confident of your identity as a child of God, you don’t need to resort to the pathetic crutch of arrogance. Like Martin Luther, when dogged by temptations or doubts about our value, we can say, “But I am baptized!” We belong to the crucified and risen Jesus Christ!

Yet the war in the gut that James writes about in our lesson today seems to happen 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 to all followers of Christ, just for the asking, to guide our lives? 

Some psychologists tell us that we tend to live out of certain stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. 

Sometimes, we live out of stories of arrogance. 

Often, our self-told stories cause us to sell ourselves short, believing that we’re not enough. 

Both are equally destructive. 

James and the rest of the Bible would say that all these stories come from the devil. 

But because we often believe those stories, we can make shambles of our lives, often compensating for our perceived inadequacies by adopting attitudes of arrogance. 

Whether the stories we tell ourselves lead us to feelings of arrogance or inadequacy though, the result is always that we fail to tap into the power, love, and goodness of God to feel confident about who we are as children of God.

“What causes fights and quarrels among you?” James asks. “Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.” 

The consequences of believing 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 waiting room where she’d gotten the horrible news, the mother was understandably distraught and screamed out to God, occasionally uttering profanities.

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 the 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. 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 false story they were telling about themselves and they didn’t want him messing the story up by telling the truth that this world isn’t always perfect even for Christians and that while followers of Christ aren’t always strong, we have a God to Whom we can go to be strengthened together. 

The Church is called to be 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, where God’s children look out for each other and our neighbors.

James says that we have those kinds of congregational fellowships 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 surrender to Christ. 

That’s when we quit having to prove ourselves, can bask in God’s approval, and can look beyond ourselves

Sometimes, it should be said, we do ask God for His help, after a fashion. James writes, starting in the middle of 4:2: “...You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”

Instead, James says, starting in verse 7: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” 

It’s only when we utterly submit to God, taking responsibility for our sins and seeking His forgiveness for the sake of Jesus Who died for imperfect people like you and me that we have true wisdom, as well experience God’s forgiveness and new life.

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 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 and love for neighbor (1) builds faith, (2) enhances Christian fellowship, and (3) fills us with the hope of the Good News that all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ have life with God for eternity.

The wisdom of this world--which is really the wisdom of hell--tells us to look out for ourselves. The wisdom of heaven says to reach up to Christ, reach in to be mutually strengthened in faith through the fellowship of Christ’s Church, and reach out to others with the good news of Jesus. 

Worldly wisdom leads to turmoil within and turmoil without. 

The wisdom of God, the wisdom that comes when we follow Jesus Christ, leads to peace in our souls and peace with others. 

Which wisdom 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? 

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