He’s the Greatest

He’s the Greatest

Grace, mercy, and peace
to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

From our Gospel lesson
from St. Mark’s account today:

“And when He was in the house, [Jesus] asked them,
‘What were you discussing on the way?’ But they kept silent, for
on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.”

From medieval fairy tales
asking “Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
who’s the fairest of them all?”
to modern sports fans
chanting “We’re Number
about their favorite team, the desire to be the best is
a deeply-rooted part of the human experience. But it goes back further than
that, doesn’t it?

There’s Pontius
Pilate, asking Jesus if He doesn’t realize that he has the authority to
release Him or crucify Him. There’s David, not satisfied with being a
beloved, wealthy, and successful king; he’s got to have another
man’s wife, too. There’s Moses, not content with speaking
God’s words, but adding the little un-commanded flourish of striking the
rock and speaking of his own power to bring forth water for the people. There
are the people of Babel,
attempting to build a tower to heaven so as to make a name for themselves.

And, of course,
there’s the whopper that got the whole filthy mudslide started: Two
creatures believing another creature instead of the Creator, and seeking to “be like God, knowing good and
Even Satan’s own rebellion against God was
based on a desire to be more than what God had created him to be.

There’s a tendency
within us to look at biblical accounts like that and say to ourselves, “Well, I’m not a Roman governor, and
I’d never crucify Jesus.”

Or, “I’m not a king, and I’d never have
sex with another man’s wife.”

Or, “I’m not a prophet, and I won’t be
proclaiming God’s word or performing any miracles.”

Or, “I’m not foolish enough to think I could
build a tower that could reach up into heaven.”

But don’t delude
yourself. Like David, you’ve violated another’s wife or husband
with every lustful thought, word, and deed… even if that person
isn’t married to his or her spouse yet. Like Moses, you’ve taken
credit for the work God has done in you and through you, and you’ve
manipulated His word to suit your own preferences and circumstances. Like
those at Babel,
you’ve attempted to construct things and shape circumstances so that the
results bring glory to you rather than your Creator.

And yes, you’ve had
every bit as much to do with Jesus being delivered into the hands of men and
killed on that cross, as did Pontius Pilate.

As you journey down
life’s pathways, then, what are you going to say when Jesus asks, “What were you discussing on
the way?”
Are you going to give him some vague or false
answer, attempting to mislead Him from your true motives and actions? Are you
going to remain silent, like the disciples, knowing that you, too, have been
fighting with your brothers and sisters, struggling to determine who among you
is the greatest? Or will you throw yourself down in humility and repentance,
admitting rightly, “Lord, I have been
living my life as if I mattered most, not loving or serving You or my neighbor
according to Your will. Have mercy on me, and save me from my sins.”

St. James, in our epistle
lesson today, has many things to say to us about our desires to be the
greatest; to have things our way. Through him, the Holy Spirit seeks to guide
us toward a clearer picture of what it means to be truly successful, truly
great. The text begins with a question: “Who is wise and understanding among you?”
It’s both a genuine inquiry and a challenge to us.

Now, how many of us can
stand up, raise our hands, and truly say, “I
am! I’m wise and understanding!”
In the very act of answering, we reveal
our true colors, and like most of God’s work, the answer to the question
turns things upside down. Those who claim wisdom and understanding as their
own attributes clearly don’t have them, and those who admit they do not
possess wisdom and understanding are further along on the path toward obtaining

It’s not that there
isn’t wisdom and understanding in the world. There is more knowledge
available to us today than at any time in human history, and access to much of
it is nearly instantaneous, and often very comprehensive. There are highly
complex software packages available to make well-reasoned decisions from
incomprehensibly-large amounts of data, and even such everyday things as
clothes dryers and thermostats can be set up to respond in a certain way to
certain conditions.

But if our worldly wisdom
and understanding can do nothing more than give us advantages for this
life, how beneficial is it, really? We may find ourselves more comfortable,
more admired, healthier, and living longer lives, but if at the end we still
die, what has it gained us? St. James reminds us that there are important
distinctions between both the content
of worldly and heavenly wisdom, and its effects
on us.

Our wisdom is shown,
James says, in conduct that is not self-serving or self-aggrandizing. Our
wisdom is best exhibited in meekness—not wimpiness, but in a firm
commitment to be gentle and humble. The world uses jealousy to make
comparisons between one person’s status and success and another’s,
and then encourages ambition so that we are driven toward shifting how those
comparisons are perceived by others. “Where
do we rank?”
we want to know. Are we making more money than
others? Are we more attractive than so-and-so? Is our house bigger, more
tastefully decorated, cleaner? Are our children better behaved, smarter,

It’s wrong to boast
of such things, James says. Boasting of them is false to the truth, which is this:
None of your successes are your own. Every scrap of ability and intellect you
have which might enable you to get ahead in the worldly sense has come to you
from God. You are His, and you ought to act like you are, putting your gifts
to work for His glory and the benefit of your neighbor, not for your own glory
or success.

Our jealousies and
selfish ambitions are earthly, unspiritual, and even demonic, James writes.
That’s a serious indictment of our motives, isn’t it? In them, we
are connected not to God, but to Satan. Through them, there becomes chaos and
disgusting behavior, as we attempt to climb over the wounded bodies and ruined
lives of others to reach the top. Even the structures we put in place to make
our ambitions organized in a worldly way are perverted in how we use them.

From our vain and
fruitless attempts to gain ground on others comes strife. We struggle against
others who struggle against our aims, and quarrels and fights arise. Even
within ourselves, our passions are at war, James says. And it makes sense,
doesn’t it? A passion is something that fully consumes someone, often to
the exclusion and detriment of everything else. When our passions come into
conflict, either within ourselves or in competition with others, something has
to give. We can’t have everything our way, nor can anyone else.

Thus, James says, “Your desire and do not have,
so you murder.”
Not always in the overt, literal sense,
of course, or the streets of Austin
would run red with the blood of those who get in our way. But we do continue
to covet having things our way, and we cannot always have them, so conflict is

Even our prayers get
corrupted, because in those moments where we do have a flash of true wisdom and
understanding, and realize that all things are possible with God, we ask for
the wrong things, out of the wrong motives. We ask for the things that satisfy
our worldly desires, and neglect to ask first and foremost for a right spirit.

It’s sad, really:
We want the friendship, or at least the admiration, of the world for our
accomplishments. But in seeking it—whether through ignoring God in our
pursuits or in wrongly asking Him to address our worldly desires—we put
ourselves at enmity with God. The effect is that we end up at odds with both
God and the world.

James points out, though,
that in spite of our unfaithfulness, our selfishness, and our desire to go
chasing after worldly acclaim, God remains faithful and gracious to us. He
does, indeed, as James writes, “yearns jealously over the spirit that He has made to dwell
within us.”

How about that? God is
jealous over you! He loves you so much that it hurts him to see you
prostituting yourself over the things of the world, consorting with the devil, being
a gold-digging tramp of a man or a woman in this life. But we need to
understand this jealousy rightly. It’s not the unjust jealousy of envy
or covetousness, the sin of seeking after what isn’t yours. It’s
the righteous jealousy of the God who has created you, the God who has given
you everything, and who has every expectation and entitlement to your devotion,
like a faithful husband who only wants his bride to remain faithful, too.

James then quotes a
Proverb: “God
opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
opposes the proud because pride is self-elevation.
It’s the meaningless consideration of ourselves which ignores or
downplays our shortcomings, and excessively plays up our imagined positives.
Our view of ourselves isn’t what matters, nor is the world’s view
of us significant—only how we are seen by God is important.

So let Him see you as you
ought to be: As a humble sinner, recognizing that you are lost apart from
Him. Call upon Him to help you resist the devil and the temptations of this
world and your own prideful flesh, for it is only through the Word of God that
Satan is defeated and driven from the field of battle. Cleanse your hands not
with plain water, but at the Spirit-enriched font. Purify your hearts in His
richly-appointed Supper, so that even as you live in the tension of being
double-minded saints and sinners in this world, He may drive out your fears and
ambitions and jealousies.

What James advises next
is no picnic. It sounds unpleasant, and runs completely contrary to what we
are told by the world. To draw close to God, we are told that we are to be
wretched, to mourn, and to weep. We are to turn our laughter to mourning and
our joy to gloom.

But this is only for a
little while, and only for our good. It is contrition. It is repentance. It
is being put into a right relationship with God, that we might receive His
harvest of righteousness, and true joy and comfort, in this life and the next..

Above all, it is
humility: It is placing ourselves at the mercy and in the service of God and
neighbor. It is denying ourselves the opportunity of being great as the world
judges, so that God might make us truly good, truly pure, and exalted to the
highest heaven.

In this, we are made
truly Christ-like. He who said, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and
servant of all,”
was exactly that Himself. He set aside
His glory to place Himself in service to God and neighbor. He humbled Himself
and became obedient unto death, so that His life, His gifts, His kingdom, might
also be yours. Delivered into the hands of men, He suffered and was killed on
your account.

You need not vainly chase
the passing things of this world, sacrificing your relationships with God and
one another on the altar of jealously and ambition. What you need, God will
provide. By Jesus’ service, humility, and grace, everything is changed
for you. By Jesus’ good conduct, and though His works in the meekness of
divine wisdom, God now sees you in a whole new way: Cleansed and faultless;
covered by a righteousness that is not your own, but Christ’s. That is
the wisdom that comes down from above: heavenly wisdom, spiritual wisdom,
divine wisdom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you, for
Jesus’ sake. Amen.