James is a fascinating little book.
It is a collection of brief and often scathing sermonettes attributed to the half brother of Jesus.
He was a pastor to the church in Jerusalem until his martyrdom during the chaotic time leading up to the Roman Jewish war. (Just for the record, this is mentioned in the Bible and other extra-biblical Jewish/Roman historical documents.)
These were particularly hard times to be a Christian in Jerusalem.
James’ importance to the early church is highlighted in both the Book of Acts and Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Where he is referred to as “a pillar of the church.”
James had led the early church, all new Christians, through hard times--through persecution, trials, suffering, and death. James was a pastor who led from the front, taking the hits with the rest of his people. And in doing so, he had earned the right to be heard, and not only that, he had earned the right not to pull his punches or sugar coat his convictions.
James knows how hard and how short life can be, so he shoots straight.
He brings us these 12 pointed and sometimes hard to hear teachings as fresh and timely sermons, but as you are reading the book you may find that much of it seems familiar. That’s because James is taking much of his content from the Book of Proverbs and re-reading it through the lens of Jesus’ sermon on the mount.
Now what most of us remember about the Book of Proverbs is the section that contains the proverbs themselves, sage and practical advice on how to live the good life. Pastor Jim brought in this idea a bit last week, but if last week we called James’ words “practical” this week we might call them “ethereal.”
So with that in mind let’s take a look at today’s passage...
James 3:13-4:3 New International Version (NIV)
Two Kinds of Wisdom
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. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
Submit Yourselves to God
4 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
So you heard all the proverbs language, right?
The leading questions,
The pithy instructions,
And all of the wisdom language…
So I think we need to take a minute to talk about wisdom and how the writer of Proverbs and then James are using it!
Wisdom: חָכְמָה (khok-maw') : The people who wrote the Old Testament believed that there was a creative force the held reality together. This force is mysterious, powerful, and benevolent, it is an aspect of the God, and wielded as a tool by God, it was the means by which God designed, ordered, built, and governs all of creation; this force, they called “wisdom.” While this “wisdom” belongs to God, God has made it available to human beings, allowing them to be creators alongside God, as they produces a more just and lovely world. When people use their natural abilities and gifts to make the world a better place, they are tapping into the “Khok-maw’” of God. Whenever people use their abilities in selfishways or to hurt others, they are working against the “khok-maw'.” You can only exhibit that you have access to this wisdom by joining God in the work of creating a better world.
The people who wrote the Old Testament believed that there was a creative force the held reality together. This force is mysterious, powerful, and benevolent. It is an aspect of God, and is wielded as a tool by God; it was the means by which God designed, ordered, built, and governs all of creation; they called this force “wisdom.” While this “wisdom” belongs to God, God has made it available to human beings, allowing them to be creators alongside God, as they produces a more just and lovely world. When people use their natural abilities and gifts to make the world a better place, they are tapping into the “Khok-maw’” of God. Whenever people use their abilities in selfish ways, or to hurt others, they are working against the “khok-maw'.”
So James starts off this section by talking about the two kinds of wisdom. (only one of which is true wisdom). There is what we might think of as a conventional understanding of wisdom, a tool fashioned out of knowledge sharpened over the wheel of time. I asked the youth about wisdom and the best answer I think I got from them was that wisdom is “applied knowledge” … but you can apply your knowledge in a lot of different ways, in a lot of different directions, and towards a lot of different ends. See you can take that skill, that applied knowledge, that wisdom and wield it to build a really beautiful life for you and yours. You can take that wisdom and use it to win! You could win and win and win, you could invent a better mousetrap and let the world beat a path to your door, but if the path leads only to you, it’s a dead end!
If the wisdom you collect only allow for you to climb over others, to acquire wealth, to build a better life just for yourself, to navigate the system, and to satisfy your ambition… James calls that “earthly, unspiritual, and demonic” that is - utterly opposed to khok-maw', the wisdom of God.
But James points to another kind of wisdom, he calls it “the wisdom that comes from heaven.” this is the khok-maw'. The creative driving force behind all order, goodness, and beauty- the means by which God creates and holds it all together. James says that this power is accessible in our lives; that we can utilize khok-maw', and join God at work in the world.
Well preacher… what does this kind of heavenly wisdom look like? How do we do it… easy! James says it’s pure! Peace-loving! Considerate! Full of mercy! Impartial and submissive!
So just do that! Right? That’s easy enough… just be pure, peace-loving, considerate, full of mercy, impartial and submissive!
Just like people do naturally, right? ….yeah...no
So how does James suggest that we get there? Well he kinda implies it with all of the dog whistles queuing us back to Proverbs… specifically his talk about submission to God, pointing us back to Proverbs 9, where the teacher tells us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
The fear of the Lord is the first step towards this new way of being human, connected to the creative force behind everything!
It is this step of submission the unlocks khok-maw' for each of us, the submission to God’s ethics instead of our own, God’s values over our own, God’s will over our own.
To this point, the Jewish philosopher and theologian Abraham Heschel says “Wisdom is the ability to look at all things from the point of view of God.”
The fear of the Lord is the start, that step gives us the courage and authority to start to forge the weapons of our wisdom and creativity - into tools for the working of God’s will.
Fear of the lord, submission to the will of God is the first step towards beating our swords into plows!
Then James takes it personal…
Starts quoting Jesus, “you have not, because you ask not.” we are all familiar with this line… and james pairs it with Sermon on the mount Jesus … “ask, seek, knock”
Ask and you shall receive
Seek and you shall find
Knock and the door shall be opened… but here comes the bitter pill.
James says in 4:3…
” When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives”
It’s like… when you ask, when you seek, when you knock nothing happens b/c you are not operating in khok-maw', but the world’s wisdom,
How about this…
Yall remember the Prayer of Jabez? The hit book from the early 2000’s, based on the two verses dedicated to this dude Jabez in 1 chronicles, where he prays “God, bless me and expand my borders, keep me from harm and pain.” … in case you forgot that’s it, thats Jabez, and all of a sudden, in the 2000s here comes the cultural sensation of people praying the Prayer of Jabez.
“Bless me and expand my borders”,
Let me ask you, what are Jabez’ borders now?
-6ft by 3 ft! Hes in a box in the ground
If your energy is being devoted to the expansion of your territory, God is likely disinterested, b/c this isnt a story about your empire, its about God’s kingdom!
Let me tell you what the bible says about all the energy, creativity, and wisdom being spent on expanding your dominion…
Wisdom lit - its all smoke
Jesus - its prospers a man not to gain the whole world
Paul - all my best efforts and deeds are garbage and filth
Luke, writing in ACTS, about David’s accomplishments boils the king’s whole legacy into two lines, the second of which is “then he went into the ground and experienced decay.”
And then heres James “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”
This is the best earthly wisdom can achieve, smoke, filth, and a gilded box in the ground…
But, we find full life, purpose, community, and fulfilment when we submit to the will of God and get in line with khok-maw', joining God in making a better world our actions take on kingdom meaning. We find our place in the Kingdom of God when we use our wisdom, our creativity, and our skill to bring glory to God, and to make a better, more just world.