Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father,
and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
My father is a wise guy. No, I don’t
mean that he’s part of an organized crime family. Nor is he one of those
constant smart-alecks we all find annoying, although he’s always been rather
witty and quick with a quip to suit the occasion. What I mean is that he has a
well-developed degree of wisdom, much of which I am only now beginning to
It seems we all need to figuratively “touch the hot
stove” a few times before we appreciate the wisdom that our elders attempt to
pass along to us.
One of my Dad’s favorite quotations even reflects on
the fact that often it takes some rough lessons in life before we start to
understand the world around us well enough to function somewhat competently in
it. I don’t think it originated with him, but he’s fond of saying, “Experience
is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted.” I repeat that one rather
often, not only to my own children or to people I meet who are struggling with
things of the world, but frequently to myself as well. It’s a good reminder
that our plans and goals in life will often fail, yet even so, we may take away
valuable practical lessons from having striven for them.
More importantly, though, this quotation also can
remind us that what we want and what we need are often two very
different things, and only our loving heavenly Father truly has the wisdom to
discern between them. Realizing that, we not only develop greater wisdom and
understanding, but a greater humility toward God as well.
Yet true wisdom, understanding, and humility come not
from anyone’s pithy human words, but from grasping the truth the Lord has
supplied us from His own wisdom, from the message of His inerrant Word.
Looking at that Word today, we are confronted by a
question asked by St. James of his readers; words which are at the start of our
epistle lesson: “Who is wise and understanding among you?” It’s
a challenging question, a godly question. It’s the sort of question the Lord
frequently asks of you throughout Scripture; sometimes quite plainly, and other
times simply by confronting you with your limitations and your ignorance. It’s
a question that provokes a variety of responses.
To those of us blindly chasing after the things of
this world, our minds and our energy focused on the next thing that we want to
obtain or achieve or buy, that question is often set aside. We think we know
what we want and how to get it. Where we currently lack the resources to
obtain those goals, we seek to address those shortcomings with great gusto,
seeking the wisdom, understanding, and skills necessary to get where we want to
be. If we answer that question, “Who is wise and understanding among
you?” at all, our response might be, “I’m still working on it. Just
give me the opportunity, and I’ll do the rest.” In essence, we’re saying:
“I know wisdom is out there; I’ll hunt it down and make use of it when and
where I find it.”
Another segment of the population, no less envious of
all the world has to offer and no less ambitious in seeking what they choose to
obtain from it, scoff at the wisdom of God. They grasp as knowledge and
understanding only what they can see and feel and measure. Then, they apply
their discoveries to manipulate the world and the people around them to conform
to their wishes and to fulfill their desires. Their answer about who is wise
and understanding sounds something like this: “I’m the only one who ‘gets
it.’ Wisdom is what I choose it to be, and it exists for my benefit. If it
doesn’t serve my wants, it can’t be important.”
In both these cases, wisdom and understanding have
selfish purposes: To place the individual in a better position to satisfy his
or her ambitions. To obtain a bigger and better slice of life’s finite pie at
the expense of others. We argue vehemently that this is not our purpose, of
course. We claim we have an understanding that it’s a dog-eat-dog world out
there. If we don’t look out for ourselves, who will? We’re only trying to get
Yet the Holy Spirit has a warning about this for us.
St. James writes, “if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your
hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.” Our seeking of
knowledge for the purpose of getting ourselves ahead isn’t something to be
proud of, really. Nor is pretending that this isn’t our motive, our end-game
objective. The first is a sin of deed; the latter a sin of though and word.
For has there ever been a more apt and accurate description of our contemporary
world, at home and abroad, than James 3:16?
James writes: “where you have envy and selfish
ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”
Indeed, has there ever been a more apt and accurate
description of me and you as individuals, either? Lord, have mercy on me, for
that is my foolish wisdom; my twisted understanding, all too
often. I have used my wisdom to serve myself, my understanding to seek the
satisfaction of my own needs.
The trouble with all that, of course, is that it is
our own wisdom we’re depending upon. It’s our own understanding that we’re
attempting to apply. And whenever and wherever we come to rely on ourselves
for any good at all, we’re really exercising complete and utter foolishness.
Doesn’t Scripture tell us that God has chosen the foolish things of this world
to shame the wise? The weak things to shame the strong? The lowly, despised,
and unseen things to nullify the visible?
What’s more, He promised through the prophet Isaiah
that He will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and frustrate the intelligence of
the intelligent. Count yourself among the blessed, then, if you are sometimes
foolish, ignorant, and lack understanding of the things of this world.
Ignorance is not bliss, certainly, and we are instructed by Christ to be as
shrewd as snakes in dealing with this world. But human knowledge that puffs us
up, and human wisdom that drives us forward with arrogance and ambition, is—as
James writes—“earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.” That sort of
wisdom and understanding is not only inadequate; it is deadly to our faith, and
therefore dangerous to our immortal souls.
We are called to first seek Christ and His kingdom,
and all other things needful will be given to us. That’s quite a challenge for
us , of course, because apart from having been given faith in Christ and living
under the Spirit’s power, we not only don’t seek Christ, we actively resist Him
with every fiber of our sinful nature. We have no ability or inclination to
turn from our sin, love God, and be saved. Even once He has reached out to us
and the Holy Spirit has convicted us of our sins and drawn us to faith in
Christ through Word and Sacrament, we remain in the duality of sinner and
saint. We continue to constantly struggle with the envies and ambitions to
which we are led by our human wisdom and understanding. These things will not
let us go, for Satan refuses to accept the new reality of our lives in Christ,
whose peace not only surpasses all our human understanding, but the
understanding of even the angels, fallen or otherwise.
To read the opening verses of James, chapter four, we
might begin to lose all hope as the author gives us point after point of all
our failings: Fights and quarrels. Desires that battle within us. Our
selfishness, and all the horrible things we do in our feeble and impossible
desires to satisfy it. Our frequent neglect of asking God to address our
needs, and our unfaithful intentions and improper motives when we finally do
get around to asking. Then James lays it on the line: You can be a friend of
the world, or a friend of God. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t accept
things the world accepts when those things differ from what God deems
acceptable. You can’t try to force a compromise between human wisdom and
understanding and God’s given wisdom, foolish as it might appear sometimes. To
do so is to become God’s enemy, for you have chosen to be a friend to the
God’s envy for you is a righteous one, a jealousy
rooted in love. A perfect love that would allow nothing—nothing at all—to come
between you and Him. Isn’t that the sort of love you wish others had for you,
too? One that was so intent and intense that any threat to that love was met
with all the strength and power that could be brought to bear?
That’s the sort of love that sent true wisdom and
understanding down from heaven to overcome the self-generated wisdom of
mankind. Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God, St. Paul called Him.
Look at all those things James wrote at the end of the epistle lesson today, in
verses seven through ten: Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil and he
will flee from you. Wash you hands. Purify your hearts. 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.
All these things James wrote as exhortations to those
in the Church, those who had been called to faith in Christ Jesus but who were
frequently forgetting what it meant to put aside the things of this world and
remained conformed to the will of God. But those are all things that Jesus
Christ, the Son of God, had already done for them, and for us.
Eternal and divine, He submitted Himself to God to be
that wisdom come down from above; perfect knowledge—the eternal Logos—made
flesh. He resisted the temptations of the devil, who indeed fled from Him and
left Him alone, but remained crouching in wait for an opportune time. Sinless
and single-minded, He became sin so that in His washing, our double-minded
hearts might become purified. He came down to our sad and hopeless planet and
became one of us, leaving the joy and laughter of heaven to dwell in our
And then, according to His own wisdom and
understanding—aligned with that of the Father—He humbled Himself before the
Lord and was lifted up. First lifted upon the bloody cross to suffer and die.
Then, lifted from the cold, hard tomb to life made new. Finally, once again
uplifted to the glories of heaven where He dwells in power and majesty until He
comes again to bring us also from death to life, from sorrow to joy, and from
our own foolish wisdom to complete wisdom and understanding.
If you are asked, then, who is wise and understanding
among you, be prepared with an answer. It is not those who trumpet their
learning to draw acclaim to themselves or use it for fleeting gain. It is not
those who chase after it and think that their intellects will bring safety,
prosperity, and comfort to themselves or even to others.
Rather, the One who is wise and understanding among
you is He who showed it by His good life, by doing powerful deeds in a humility
that came from His perfect wisdom.
Jesus Christ is the wisdom that comes from heaven:
Pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit,
impartial and sincere. He is your Peacemaker with God, and having sowed that
peace, He now awaits a harvest of righteousness in you, His people. His Holy
Spirit works within you to turn envy into mercy; ambition into dedication; the
wisdom of this world into the saving foolishness of Christ crucified. As you
humble yourself in repentance, prayer, worship, and service, He will grant you
grace upon grace: The wisdom and understanding that you, too, will be lifted
up to your God in suffering, death, and resurrection.
May that peace of God, which does indeed surpass all
our human understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord,
now and forever. Amen.