We all want to be right, right? We all want to claim the mantle of most caring and most loving. We all want to win the arguments, own the discussions, and dominate those whose opinions are, frankly, to us, wrong. And that is why, today, name a topic and I would guess that you have an opinion on it and, yes, you probably think you’re right about it. Politics, COVID, race issues, pick your topic, we all have our opinions. We all have articles and statistics and podcasts and experts to back up those opinions, and of course, you are right and anyone who disagrees with you is wrong.
This “need to be right” shows itself in our daily lives as well – and all the more so when our opinion has been rejected. I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but smile to myself when my wife takes the slower way home even after I’ve proven to her that the other way is faster. That’s maybe the uglier side of our need to be right – our proclaiming after the fact that “I told you so.” And whether that is spoken or not, the implication is clear. “I am wise – pay attention to me! I am the voice of reason calling out in a wilderness of fools!” We all like to be right. We all like to be wise.
Well, today the apostle James is curious to know just how wise and right you are, so he starts out our lesson with a question. Here it is: “Who is wise and understanding among you?” You see, James, he also lived in a society where many people liked to be right, and from his experience that wasn’t always a good thing, especially in God’s church, so he was curious as to what kind of wisdom God’s people carried in their heads and in their hearts. It might then be good to take James’ question as a sort of personal challenge, “Hey, you, are you really wise do you really understand things?”
James wants us to examine ourselves because it’s not just enough for us to be right. It’s not just enough for you to have the answers, a wise and understanding person – as James puts it – “Does.” He puts that wisdom and understating into action, that is James’ response to his own question. “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”
I need to emphasize that last line, “by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” That word humility is key today. Humility you might have noticed was a running theme throughout the lessons we heard this morning. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus’s disciples were arguing about who was the greatest. So, what did Jesus do, he sat down a child and said, “Look this child is someone who can’t do anything for you, in a way this child is useless, but you would still do many things for that child.” Jesus’ illustration was brilliant in its simplicity. Wisdom shows itself in actions and service done for others who could never repay us. It’s humble service.
Keeping that humble thought in mind. Go back to our 1st lesson from the book of Numbers. There in that lesson, we heard about the disgruntled siblings of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam who were envious of Moses’ authority, and there was one line in that section of God’s Word that really stood out to me and it was verse 3 – let me read it for us. “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” Do you know who wrote that verse? Moses. I wonder as God’s Spirit guided Moses to write those words if Moses didn’t blush just a bit. That would be like me writing in my own autobiography (which by the way is going to be subtitled “Well, That Didn’t Work”) that Jason Free was the most humblest of pastors, far more humble than his associates. That’s not true. This verse about Moses, though, was true. And Moses proved it true. He didn’t put himself above his siblings, Aaron and Miriam, and, even though he had every right, he didn’t tell them they deserved God’s anger. In fact, he interceded for them. In humility, he acted, he served, and he trusted God. And that, that made him wise.
So, “Who is wise and understanding among you…among us?” Anyone want to raise their hand? That’s what these words from God’s Word today do to us. They humble us. I’m not a big follower of Zen Buddhism, but that false religion has some good stories. Here is one that’s stuck with me over the years. In the 19th-century, Japanese Zen master Nan-in had a visitor, a university professor who wanted to be taught about Zen. Being a Zen master, of course, Nan-in was all about the metaphorical object lesson. So, he served tea. The visiting professor held up his cup, and Nan-in started pouring.
He poured until the cup was completely full. Then he kept pouring, and the tea overflowed and splashed onto the table, and that professor shouted, “Stop! It’s full! No more will go in!” Nan-in, that Zen master, smiled, and said, “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How then can I teach you unless you first empty your cup?”
That’s James’ lesson for us today. His question “Who is wise and understanding among you?” is simply meant to make you look at your full cup of opinions, and facts, and wisdom, and to ask yourself “What am I doing with this knowledge?” Or, better, “What is this knowledge keeping me from doing for some else? Maybe I need to empty my cup and be filled with something better?” You see, James knows the human heart.
He points out in verse 14, that it often “harbors bitter envy and selfish ambition.” And that envy and ambition he says in verse 16 lead to “disorder and every evil practice.” Think about it, the family, where everyone–or even just one person–is constantly obsessed with having things their way because it is the right way, the congregation where someone is intent on making sure that everyone submits to their decisions because they are older, or wiser, or older and wiser–those groups are going to have all sorts of disorder. And we saw this disorder in our other two lessons as Moses’ siblings became jealous, and Jesus’ disciples sought their own personal glory.
But, I get it, because like you, I like to be right. Like you, I enjoy proving people wrong. Like you, I want to have all the answers. And here is the really interesting thing, you and I, we do have all the answers, but we often lack perspective and we most definitely lack humility. So, often our cup is full of this desire to be right and nearly spilling over with arguments about worldly affairs that we lose sight of what we need to be right about and whom we need to win people over for.
So, James tells us we need to empty our cup and fill it with a “wisdom that comes from heaven.” And look at verse 17, what makes up that wisdom? It’s “pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy, impartial and sincere.” Notice what’s not included: you. This wisdom is focused on others. Go back to our gospel lesson for a moment.
Did you notice how that section starts? It’s Jesus, yes, talking about himself, but not about how wise and great he is but about what he was going to do, how he was going to die. It’s interesting that often when Jesus talked about his impending death and resurrection – and he spoke about it a lot – that the disciples either didn’t get it, didn’t like it, or they often, as we read in Mark, were afraid to talk about it. But for Jesus, this was what needed to be talked about it. Jesus knew this was what his disciples and others needed to hear and, more importantly, this is what Jesus needed to do.
Jesus was someone who knew it all. He was someone who was always right, but what did he do? He emptied his cup. He humbly put others before himself. He humbly submitted to his parents and others in authority. He had no time for worldly arguments about who is the greatest. His focus was serving and dying and being the answer to that age-old question, “How do you know that you’re going to heaven?” I know you know because Jesus “did.” Jesus died for our sins. He did this by living a perfect life, by being pure, and peace-loving, and full of mercy.
Jesus demonstrated the wisdom that comes from above, and by God’s grace and Spirit he now pours that wisdom into our own cups, but there’s got to be room in your cup. So, today humbly empty it of your envy and your selfish ambition and your need to be right about what’s going on in the world and fill it with Christ. Then you will be wise.
You will be wise not because you have the answers to all of society’s problems, not because you can articulately defend your stance on masks or vaccines, or because you know exactly who to vote for or how to fix any racial inequalities that might exist, you will be wise because you will look at every individual and you will “do.” You will love them and care for them and serve them no matter their opinions or your own. Most importantly you will share with them the answer to their greatest problem, you will give them the solution to their sin.
In a world, where we often get so much wrong, that you and I have right. We have the answer to sin. We know Jesus, and he knows you. That is what makes you wise. That is a wisdom God wants you to share, the peace of Christ, a peace that will raise up a harvest of righteousness, countless souls in heaven forever.
So, “who is wise and understanding among you?” By God’s grace, you are. Go then and show it, by a good life, and by deeds done in the humility that comes from knowing Christ your Savior. Amen.