Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 23, 2018
Wisdom Leads to Pure Stewardship
The writer of Proverbs 9 tells us that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. The selfish ambitions of the disciples could have been tempered with a little more fear of God and the wrath that would be levied against Jesus in His death, but they did not understand. They were not wise and understanding. Instead they were proud and ambitious for themselves rather than for the work of God. Their thinking would be corrected after fear fell upon them when Jesus was crucified. Their understanding would change as they suffered persecution themselves. It wasn’t education that brought them around but the wisdom that comes from above as the earthly wisdom was stripped from their psyche.
James, in his letter, writes to pastors that suffer from this same earthly minded ambition. I guess we can classify them as the next generation after the Apostles and they have the same jealousies among them that we see festered among the twelve. The disciples argued among themselves about who was the greatest. They sought after earthly recognition and glory. They wanted to be in positions of power and authority that they might have the seat of honor and be recognized among the people as being great. Jesus used a child to teach them wisdom – wisdom that is from above. Greatness comes through humility of self. Greatness is recognized in humble service to others. Greatness is exercised in love for others.
James is the brother of our Lord. He had to be taught the same lesson. His hubris prevented him from believing until Jesus died for his sin. Such humility of the Son of God is the wisdom that comes down from above. Now it is his turn to pass along such understanding and wisdom that greatness is not found in achievement or ambitious accomplishment but rather in humble service to others in godliness and love.
The jealousies exhibited by the disciples and obviously by the pastors to whom James writes are not just misguided or slightly off kilter. As James writes, they are not from above. They are earthly, unspiritual, demonic. We live in a time in which it is generally recognized that Christianity in the west is in decline. We bemoan the heydays of Christianity’s explosive growth and seemingly never-ending activity and we lament the closing of church buildings even as we remember the loss of the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) to the Ottomans in 1453. Man’s desire for greatness in an earthly way has not diminished. Our want for recognition and respect from the world is no different today than it was in the day of the first disciples. But wisdom, that is, wisdom from above, even holy wisdom, teaches that greatness is achieved or, better yet, attained through humble service.
Wisdom teaches us that our greatness has been achieved through the humble service of our Lord. In his perfect obedience under the Law of God, we, through faith, are recognized as having done all that the Law requires. In His Passion and death, we, through faith, are purged of all unrighteousness and sin. In His resurrection and exaltation on high, we, through faith, are exalted with Him. Our greatness is achieved in His humility and received in our humbleness before God. Our Introit from Psalm 37 puts it this way: “He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.” God exalts. He lifts up. It is not ours to achieve but it is ours to receive.
Greatness is what God promises. Exaltation is what the His saints shall receive. But it does not come through our works. It is not achieved through ambitious endeavor. God does not recognize and award as the world recognizes and awards. Greatness is ours by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Any other ambitious effort on our part is the seeking after vainglory, is the result of bitter jealousy that wants to be recognized for ambition and achievement of self.
James, however, is not saying that these pastors should not have ambition and that they should not work hard. He is not implying that we, today, should sit idle and never plan and seek to do and achieve. He says that such ambition should not be for self. It should not be derived from the inner being that is self-centered. Nor should we be guided by an earthly way of thinking that is demonic, that always seeks a quid pro quo, that does things with an expectation of recognition and payment.
But, James goes on to explain, wisdom from above is active and does things. It is just that they are done for different reasons. Note in verse 17, that those reasons are outward. They are focused not on the doer but on the receiver. Wisdom from above compels us to have ambition, it is just that that ambition is not selfish. It is pure, and peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. As Paul would describe it, it seeks the good for our neighbor. James is not saying that these first century pastors and we should have no ambition. He is directing us to have ambition that seeks the exaltation of our neighbor and the greatness of those in our charge all for the sake of Jesus who has died for each of us.
While it was not planned, this is a good segue into the topic of stewardship. Our Synod’s coordinator for stewardship is often quoted: “I’m not here to talk to you about stewardship. I’m here to talk to you about your vocation.” James is talking to us, as he was talking to those pastors, about our vocations. Our vocations are our callings, those places in our lives that God has given us so that we might be a blessing to others. James was reminding us that our greatness is already ours and it is ours in and because of Christ. That frees us up in everything that we do, to do it solely out of love because it is no longer about achievement. Our ambition is to attain glory. Well that is done in humbling ourselves before God and receiving the glory that He has prepared for us in Christ. We have nothing left to achieve for ourselves. We are now free to be good stewards in all that God has entrusted to us for the sake of mercy and good fruits. We are free to love others without worrying about being noticed by God and receiving some award for what we have done. The award come at the front end as we have received salvation and life eternal. The vile practices of demon led ambition can be and must be set aside.
October has been designated a month of emphasis on stewardship in our congregation. You are going to be presented with descriptions of how we, as a congregation, endeavor to be good stewards of all that God has entrusted to us. These descriptions will help you understand how our congregation is set up to function as an organization and to help you find where you might assist in this corporate stewardship. You have many vocations or callings in life where God has placed you. Caring for your next-door neighbor that is ill could be one of them, being a loving parent or grandparent another. Those are all individual, but all of you are called to be a part of this congregation and as such, all of you have responsibility in this stewardship of witness, mercy, and life together.
I encourage you to pray about it, discuss it as necessary, and think on how you might participate in this service of peace. Earthly and demonic wisdom leads to ambition for self. Wisdom from above leads to ambition for others and a pure stewardship of what God has entrusted to us.