Portrait of a Wise Person

Sixth in a series on the book of James,
Delivered August 19, 2001 by Rev. George Antonakos.
Theme: For James, wisdom has everything to do with harmonious relationships.

Sermon Text:
James 3:13-18
13 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.
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, of the devil.
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 raise a harvest of righteousness.

I am not going to ask for a show of hands, but think about this question: Is there anyone here experiencing conflict with another person in your world today? And if not presently, can you call to mind times when you have been in conflict with others? What do you do when you are diametrically opposed to another person’s viewpoint and yet you wish to stay in relationship with them? What do you do when conflict gets to the place where people want to just give up, when they just want to stop trying to work things out? What do you do when folks move from seeing that there is a problem to solve, to thinking that you are the problem? That’s when things can really start to get rough because no longer is conflict simply about a solution to seek, no longer are the words collaboration and negotiation part of the vocabulary, at that point distortion leads to coldness and if things get intense enough things lead to the fifth level of conflict. The four levels of conflict prior to the fifth level, the first one is a problem to solve, the second one is disagreement, the third one gets to be a contest of the wills, the fourth is that its fight or flight and then the fifth level of conflict is intractability. All out war. The only solution is the elimination of the other party and if that’s not true physically, then it can be true professionally or at an emotional level. And all of this is especially grievous when it goes on in the church. Now I am grateful today to be able to preach this message in a congregation where it is not going on and that’s the best time to preach it. But a good friend of mine said and has told me throughout the years and reminded me, like I needed reminding, that there is no conflict like church conflict. It leads to all kinds of little quips like thinking that some folks were baptized in pickle juice or saying that Christians are like porcupines. They have a lot of fine points, but are tough to get close to.. But when you think about the hot spots of the world, whether it is in Sudan or Indonesia or Northern Ireland or the Middle East, one thing they all have in common is religious ideology. And when we get into the church with our view that God is on our side, watch out, it can be very, very difficult because it is so emotionally and spiritually connected. Without going into a great deal of detail, I have been involved in church conflict and I can attest to the gut wrenching pain that is experienced and it really doesn’t help a whole lot if you happen to be in the position of pastor when its going on. It’s something that is really, really unpleasant, to put it mildly.

Brother James, who we have been getting to know this summer, is writing to folks in this kind of situation. He is writing to people who are struggling, for some reason, in the church. Last week we spent a lot of time talking about the power of our words. This becomes especially difficult when we are stirred up and its not just a message about watching our speech, its especially important in the context of conflict to watch out what we say. And so there seemed to be some leaders in James’ community who boasted that they were in the right, that they were the wise people and that therefore it led them to judge and to censor others and to say if you all would just see it my way, everything will be fine. And so James asked this question: He says, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” You see, he is asking the question, not because there are no wise people, but because there are people who claimed to be wise and really we’re not. He goes on to paint a portrait of what wisdom is and what is isn’t. And basically, in a nutshell for James, wisdom has everything to do with the ability to relate to others well. The ability to get along, and try to get along even in the midst of difficult circumstances. You see James knew that wisdom was one of the most precious qualities that any Christian person or any Christian leader could possess. We read it today from the Proverbs. Both Proverbs 3:15 and Proverbs 8:11 essentially say the same thing. They show that wisdom is among the most desirable of things to have. Solomon said that, “Wisdom is better than rubies and of all things that might be desired are not to be compared to it.” You see wisdom is not necessarily knowing a lot, there are a lot of folks, as one person quipped, who have a lot of branches, but no roots. It’s not about knowledge, and there are other people who are rather uneducated formally, but they have a great deal of depth and a great deal of wisdom because they know how to conduct themselves with others. The dictionary definition of wisdom has to do with judging soundly and assessing facts as they relate to life and conduct. It’s not something in a vacuum, it’s not some high spiritual thing. It’s the nitty-gritty of life and how to conduct oneself. We have been looking in Proverbs and you know Proverbs. All the Proverbs deal with is how to live a life well. Things like how to choose your friends, how to run an effective household, how to handle money, how to relate to the opposite sex, how to work with others, how to use words, how to manage in life. These are the things of wisdom. And so James answers his own question: “Who is wise and understanding?” In verse 13 he says, “Let them show it.” Vintage James, “Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. A wise person first and foremost is a humble person.” And that is exactly what Proverbs teaches. That the fear of the Lord, reverence, and humility before God, is the beginning of wisdom. One must bow before God in their inner most being to truly begin to be wise. Jesus said in the well known verse in Matthew 11, “Come to me all who are weary and heavily burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” Now listen to what he says right after that passage, “for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.” The word humble, when Jesus spoke it, and the word in James 3:13, “let him show it by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” Same word. What is it that Jesus wants us to learn in humility? That God is good. That to follow God’s will is light and life. That difficulties in carrying out God’s will don’t mean that God is against you. That we are to trust God without fear. That we can learn to not react to the evil that others would inflict upon us. That we can even accept that those who disturb us, may be sent by God for the purpose of chastening and purifying us. So the wise person says, “God, what is it that you are trying to teach me in the midst of these conflicts? Because I don’t want to attain my ends, I am more interested in attaining your ends.”

And of course the opposite is true. If the wise are humble, then of course the unwise are proud. And James goes on to say in verse 14 what some of that looks like. “But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about, or deny the truth, such wisdom does come down from heaven but is earthly and spiritual and of the devil. When he uses the words “bitter envy and selfish ambition,” its not just to be thought of again in an individual context, like I envy what you have and I want to have it or I am ambitious and I want to reach my professional goals. He is writing in the context again of community. And so when he says “bitter envy” he is really speaking more of a zealous spirit that is devoted to one’s cause in the context of community. That one is going to attain that goal even if there is contentiousness that comes about as a result of it. And this idea of selfish ambition speaks more of factionalism. It describes a person who wanted to obtain political office through any means at all, even if they are unfair. It also refers to a migrant or unattached worker who goes around to seek a day’s work just to further his or her own needs and really has no interest whatsoever in an attachment to a community or accountability or authority. A freewheeling kind of behavior. And friends, it is a dark day in a church when these spirits exist.

Lyle Shaller who is a church psychologist has written at least 40 books, and consulted in thousands of churches over decades and is still writing books, still visiting and trying to help congregations understand what is means to be healthy. He said in his book, The Interventionist, that in church maladies, one is dysfunctionalism, that one of the most telling symptoms of dysfunctionalism in a congregation, the thing that (and again your listening now to somebody who has been around the church for half a century, and has consulted in thousand of churches) he says, “Here to me is the thing that is most difficult in church life.” When a staff member undermines instead of under girds the ministry of the pastor, the stage is set for tremendous conflict. Now it doesn’t have to be a staff member, it can also be any leader or church member who might say things to a guest like, “We are so glad you’re here, but you really ought to come back when the other pastor is preaching.” James describes this kind of attitude, this kind of spirit as earthly, natural, devilish. Earthly because it’s just godless. It’s totally separated from heaven. He says it is not the wisdom from heaven, it’s earthly. It’s unconnected from heaven. It’s a goal that is inferior. It’s like a cult leader who is simply trying to attain their own goals and could care less about the health of the people that they are seeking to lead. It’s natural and that is the opposite of spiritual. You remember in 1st Corinthians, chapter 4, where Paul says, “Brethren, I could not write to you, I could not come to you as spiritual people, but as to natural people.” You’re acting like you’re not believers, you’re not even Christians, like the Spirit of God doesn’t even exist. Why? Because there is jealousy and quarreling among you. And when that happens, aren’t you walking like mere natural people, like you don’t have a clue about what God wants? And then thirdly he said, “Devilish, arrogant, conceited, manipulative, self-seeking.” All the things that we connect with the devilish ways of the enemy or of devilish behavior. Things that can look good but really there is a payoff, there is a hook to it that you do not want.

So James states that to live in this way and to boast about it was not good. People were boasting that they had wisdom, but they were allowing this kind of attitude and behavior. Those who boast about it, and who say things about it and who says things like, “I’ll show them”, or “Just wait until they see who they are dealing with,” or “Who do they think they are?” When we get into that mindset, we are denying the truth. And what’s that truth? That we are to humbly follow Jesus. He goes on to say that those who engage in this kind of behavior are led to disorder, chaos and every evil practice.

You know, I come from Greek heritage and when we were kids, my grandmother would come into the room when everything was upside down, or when we were fighting, and she would say, “Keeta catastasee!” Catastasee is the word for disorder. It just sounds like disorder. And that’s what she would do, she would just say “Look at this mess!” And that’s what James is saying. When there is this kind of earthly, natural, devilish, zealous, contentious, factional spirit, there is complete anarchy. This is why Paul said again to the Corinthians, “God is not the author of catastasee.” “God is not the author of chaos and disorder.” God is the author is peace. Now here is a question: What happens when two Christians are at polar opposite positions about what God wants? What do we do then? We could raise an illustration of what’s going on right now in the Presbyterian Church. But lets back up, lets go back 20 years because it is a little safer. Remember when some folks would say, “Listen I know that the scripture says women are not to be in leadership.” And somebody would stand over here and say, “I know that the scripture says that women are to be in leadership. It’s very clear.” What do you do then? Well you really have three choices. And in most of these kinds of emotional, religious kind of things there is really only three. I can convince you, you can convince me, and those first two rarely happen. Or we can try to stay connected and learn from one another and try to help let God work it out. But one thing I do know is this: That when we are in that kind of situation, if it leads to chaos, and being with each other in a way that Jesus would not want us to be, that’s not of God. It’s not the way one author said, “Thy kingdom that I seek is thine, so let the way that leads to it be thine as well.” And so what do you do? Well, you try to listen to reason, you try to discuss things openly, without fear of being attacked. You try to work it out and if you don’t agree with the corporate decision, then you agree to not to stir up dissension. And if your conscious is violated, then the last resort, the very last resort is to withdraw peaceably. Francis Schaeffer, in his book, The Mark of a Christian, would say “Sometimes Christians just don’t agree, and when that time comes and company has to be parted, the major emotion that should mark that moment should be grief and sadness, not anger. Not good riddance, but a sadness that on this side of heaven we can’t work it out. That’s the spirit of Jesus. Even in the midst of disagreement.

And so James ends this section with the fruit of the spirit type of list. He says, “Here is the wisdom that comes from heaven. Here’s what it looks like.” He says that it is first of all pure. It’s first pure. It is interesting that in our ordination vows, we have a question–“Will you seek to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?” “Well,” James would put, “Will you first seek to advance the purity of the church of its peace and its unity?” Now the key here is that he is talking about spiritual integrity. We’re not asking what does one group want, or what does the other group want, but what does the Lord want! We are trying to single-mindedly understand the Lord’s will and the Lord’s way. A purity that is single-minded in finding out God’s will as best we can and in the way that God wants us to. Then, after this sense of single-minded purity, going after what God wants, comes peace loving. A person works to spread peace, not dissension among his brothers and sisters.

Proverbs 6:16. Seven things the Lord hates. The first is proud eyes. Haughty eyes. People that look down on other people. The last are those who stir up dissension among their brothers and sisters. In between, there are all kinds of other things, but peace-loving is a sign of the kingdom, and a sign of a wise person. And then considerate, humane, and thoughtful. This word was used of judges who wouldn’t press the letter of the law. Submissive, yielding to God, yielding to others especially when its grey area. Full of mercy and good fruit. Blessing others by good deeds. Impartial, not playing favorites. Not doing what one group or the other wants to do per se, in a factionalized situation, but again what is it that the Lord wants? And then sincere, not hypocritical, not falsely pious. Honestly. Sincere. And what comes of this? This kind of wisdom does not produce chaos, this kind of wisdom produces what is seen in verse 18. Peace-makers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. Remember when James said the anger of people will not promote the righteousness of God, well here he is saying a peace loving spirit will promote the righteousness of God. Those who seek peace, sow in peace. And this is why our Lord Jesus told us that gentleness and humility were the marks of following him. And he said that when you are in conflict with people, when you are trying to help people get it right, when you see a speck in somebody else’s eye and you’re trying to get them to understand what they need to understand, make sure you take out that log of envy and bitterness and anger out of your eye or you will just make a mess. You know no one in the Old Testament was wiser than Solomon. I wish we had time to go through 1st Kings 3-5, but I will ask you, if you’re looking at the Scriptures to turn to 1st Kings, chapter 5. In 1st Kings, chapter 3 this is the passage where Solomon takes the throne and God comes to him and says, “What is it that you want me to do for you?” And of course we know from the story that Solomon asks for wisdom. And listen to how he defines it. He says in 3:9, “So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.” And then there is the story of how God grants this request for wisdom and gives him wealth and everything else to go along with it. Then he has to judge between two women who are fighting over which child belongs to whom. And you know the story. Even people who are unfamiliar with the text understand and know the story, about Solomon saying, “Well let’s just cut the baby in half and give half to each.” And discovers who is the true mother. And then it goes on to talk about Solomon’s wisdom and at the end of chapter 4 in verse 29, listen to this description. “God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight and a breath of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. And Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of Egypt, all the men of the east, and greater than the wisdom of Egypt and he was wiser than any other man including” and it lists a bunch of people there, and in verse 32, he spoke 3,000 Proverbs and his songs numbered 1,005 and he described plant life from the cedars of Lebanon to hyssop that grows on walls. He talked about animals, birds and reptiles. He wasn’t a botanist or a zoologist, he talked about all these things as they applied to life and conduct. Consider the ant, thou sluggard. Things like that. Now we come to chapter 5 and he is ready to build the temple. And King Hiram of Tyre sends envoys to him. And it says right in the beginning of chapter 5 that because Hiram had good relationships with his father David, he wanted to now see what it was going to be like dealing with Solomon. And Solomon writes a letter back and he describes how God has given him peace and how he is now going to build the temple. Listen to verse 6 of 1st Kings, chapter 5. Just to get the spirit of a person who can pursue their goals probably with no problem. I mean they are really very powerful and can get what they want pretty easily. But listen to how Solomon writes the letter. He says, “So give orders that cedars of Lebanon be cut for me. My men will work with yours and I will pay you for your men whatever wages you set. You know that we have no one so skilled in felling timber as the Sidonians.” Peaceable, considerate, affirming, do you really think that there was nobody in Israel that couldn’t cut a tree like the people in Sidon? It just shows what wisdom involves in relating to others. And listen to what Hiram says when he gets Solomon’s message. He was greatly pleased and he said, “Praise be to the Lord today for he has given David a wise son to rule over this great nation.” He knew that Solomon knew that what his goals were something that God wanted. But he still went about it in the humblest of ways. May those of us who are in pursuit of our goals do the same.

Let us pray. Lord we ask Your grace and mercy in our lives again. We thank You that wisdom comes from humbling ourselves before You and so we ask even in this hour that You would give us a reconciling spirit, that You would help us to let go of the rejection of others, that You would help us to cast ourselves again into your hands, and seek to be the kind of people that James describes today. We know Lord that wisdom comes from asking you single-mindedly and when we align ourselves with you, we will receive it. So bring healing and hope to our hearts today, in Jesus name. Amen.