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Sermon for Sunday 29 September 2021

First Reading: Jeremiah 11:18-20

18The Lord made it known to me and I knew; then you showed me their deeds. 19But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. I did not know it was against me they devised schemes, saying, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.” 20But, O Lord of hosts, who judges righteously, who tests the heart and the mind, let me see your vengeance upon them, for to you have I committed my cause.

Psalm 54

1Save me, O God, by your Name; in your might, defend my cause. 2Hear my prayer, O God; give ear to the words of my mouth. 3For the arrogant have risen up against me, and the ruthless have sought my life, those who have no regard for God. 4Behold, God is my helper; it is the Lord who sustains my life. 5Render evil to those who spy on me; in your faithfulness, destroy them. 6I will offer you a freewill sacrifice and praise your name, O Lord, for it is good. 7For you have rescued me from every trouble, and my eye has seen the ruin of my foes.

Second Reading: James 3:13-4:10

13Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

1What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 4You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. 5Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? 6But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

Gospel: Mark 9:30-37

30{Jesus and his disciples} went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him. 33And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

Godly Wisdom or Worldly Claims

Long ago, there was an old man who lived on the outskirts of the village.  He’d lived there so long that no one really knew who he was or where he’d come from.  Some thought that in the past he’d been a powerful ruler.  Others suggested that he was once famous, rich, and generous, but he’d lost everything.  Still others said that he was once very wise and influential.  There were even some who said he was holy man.  The children in the town, however, thought he was an old and simple-minded man, and they made his life miserable.  They threw rocks at his windows, left dead animals on his front porch, destroyed his garden, and yelled obscenities at him at every opportunity.

One day, one of the older boys came up with an idea to prove once and for all that those who thought he was a former ruler, or rich, famous, and generous, or wise and influential, and most especially those who considered him holy were all wrong.  No, the lad insisted that the old man was simply stupid.  The boy’s plan was simple, he’d catch a bird in a snare, and then he and his friends would go to the old man’s house and knock on the door.  When the man answered the door, the boy would ask, “Old man, do you know what I have hidden behind my back?”  Now he might guess that it’s a bird, but with the second question I will get him.  I will ask him if the bird is alive or dead.  If he says dead, I will allow the bird to go free, but if he says the bird is alive, I will crush it to death with my hands.  Either way, we’ll prove he’s just a foolish old man.

The children thought it was a great plan.  So, the older boy caught the bird and together they went off to the old man’s house and pounded on the door.  The man opened the door and seeing the large gathering of children, he realized something was up.  The older boy spoke quickly, “Old man, do you know what I have hidden behind my back?”  The old man looked at the children one by one and out of the corner of his eye he saw a white feather fall to the ground.  He answered, “Yes, I do.  It’s a white bird.”

The children’s eyes widened.  How could he know it was a white bird?  Maybe the people in town were right all along.  The older boy wasn’t to be deterred and quickly asked the second question.  “Well, that was a good guess, but is the bird alive or dead?”  Again, the old man looked with sad eyes at each of the children.  Finally, his eyes met those of the boy.  He answered, “That depends on you; the answer is in your hands.” 

Certainly the old man was filled with wisdom.  Not only could he “outfox” the children, especially the older boy, at their own game, but he was wise enough to be able to teach them an important lesson at the same time.  We have the choice to do good or evil.  We have the chance to choose the wisdom of God or that of the world.  The question we must continually ask ourselves is, which will I choose?

The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with admonishments to seek wisdom and they also provide numerous examples of how the Lord laid before His chosen people distinct options that required them to choose between God and the world.  The Genesis account of creation relates how God gave Adam and Eve all that they could possibly need or want, yet they weren’t satisfied.  Satan tempted them by claiming they could be like God, but in reality, they were being asked to choose their desires over God.  As we know, they took the bait; they made the unwise choice, seeking ambition over what they had been given.  The end result was chaos and wickedness in the world, what we’ve come to understand as “original sin”, and no one can escape from this reality.

Later in Deuteronomy, God, in a conversation with Moses, places another fundamental choice before His prophet: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deuteronomy 30:19b-20).

God was telling Moses that the choice for God is a choice for life; to choose the world is a formula for death.  This fundamental choice is also repeated numerous times to the rulers of Israel and Judah by the many prophets sent by God.  In short, the message of the prophets is a basic choice.  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, and all the others placed before the ruling elite, and the people, the choice to follow way of the world, manifest by false gods, such as Baal, or even more common, the false avenues of power, wealth, and prestige or, to follow God which leads to peace, and life.

God didn’t simply place choices before the Hebrews people, He also showed them how to make the wise and proper decision.  When Jesse brings each son before Samuel to see which one has been chosen by God to replace Saul, he doesn’t even consider the youngest, David, because he’s young and ruddy in complexion.  In other words, David doesn’t “look the part.”  God, however, corrects this attitude when the oldest son is brought before the prophet.  God tells Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).  God is telling Samuel, and Jesse, that they must not look at what the world considers important, but what God deems valuable.  As always, there’s a choice — the way of the world, or God.

Jesus, in His ministry, also provided numerous examples of the need to choose God over the world.  Recall if you will, the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  The former thought himself important because of his perceived righteousness, while the latter came in humility and admitted his sinfulness.  Jesus is clear, “I tell you this man [the tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).  Humility comes from God; arrogance and self-centeredness comes from the world.

The parable of the man with a super abundance of wealth in St. Luke’s gospel (12:13-21) is another example of making the choice between God and the world.  All the man seems to be concerned with was where to store his great wealth; he seems totally oblivious to the source of his prosperity.  Thus, his life will be taken.  Jesus concludes, “So it is with those who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Four chapters later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the story of the rich man, traditionally known as Dives, and the beggar Lazarus (16:19-31).  Remember how Dives seemed unconcerned about the beggar at his front gate until it was too late?  Dives made his choice, and so too his family will have the opportunity to choose, God or the world.  Interestingly, all three synoptic gospels report the story of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man who was challenged to divest himself of his wealth (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30).  The option is ever before us; we must choose between God and the world.  

Jesus provides a great challenge to those who are attached to the world: “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  Jesus continued, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:23b-24, 26b).  Clearly Jesus is telling His disciples and the gathered crowd, they must choose God and not the world.

Lastly, Jesus himself was given the challenge of choosing the world or God.  After His baptism, the Holy Spirit led Him into the desert to prepare Him for His public ministry (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-15; Luke 4:1-13).  There Satan tempted Him with the three great challenges that have always faced humanity: power, wealth, and prestige.  In each case Jesus rejected the world, saying that the things of God were more important.  The First Commandment is clear, we too must choose, God first, above all else, or the idols of this world.  James took seriously his Master’s challenge and passed that challenge on to his readers.

James begins this passage by basically asking the people how they recognize wisdom and understanding.  In a rhetorical manner he answers his own question by suggesting there are two possibilities.  One form of wisdom, worldly wisdom, is characterized by envy, selfish ambition, boastfulness, and lack of sincerity.  This wisdom is earthly, unspiritual, and evil; it’s an understanding of life that creates chaos and wickedness of all kinds.  James wrote from personal experience of what such an earthy attitude had done in Christ’s ministry.

There is, however, a second form of wisdom, Godly wisdom.  This is what James wishes to emphasize.  He provides powerful words to describe the wisdom of God.  First, he says Godly wisdom is pure, peaceable, and gentle.  I looked each of these words up in the Greek and found the exercise very interesting.  James is saying more than simply pure, he’s saying that God’s wisdom is innocent, modest, it’s perfect.  In addition to being peaceable, it’s also gentle, fair, reasonable, and moderate.  In essence, God’s wisdom isn’t tainted by the world, but rather seeks the good for all.  James continues by explaining that God’s wisdom is full of mercy.  

Godly wisdom, in other words, watches over the individual.  Where the world’s wisdom often unceremoniously “runs a person over,” God’s wisdom gives people freedom.  And when we make a mistake, God forgives, while the world is often very unforgiving and intolerant.  James says God’s wisdom is without a trace of uncertainty or hypocrisy.  In other words, God’s wisdom is rock solid, dependable and doesn’t suffer from double standards. 

In the world, social Darwinism continues to forward that the powerful, rich, and beautiful should dominate others and we should strive to be like them.  God’s wisdom, on the other hand doesn’t break people up into the haves and the have nots; all who seek Godly wisdom will benefit.  Finally, James says that for those who seek the wisdom of God, the result will be a harvest of righteousness sown in peace.  James then goes on to address what happens when we make friendships with the world.

We see in our daily news reports, conflicts and disputes are a widespread problem.  Who would have thought that a school board meeting could end in abusive language, violence, and vandalism?  Most of us want peaceful lives, but where can we find that?  When we make alliances with the world, the tendency is to push and shove when we cannot obtain what we want, some even resort to the use of force and violence to achieve their perceived goals.  We engage in disputes with others.  But let me ask this, how often do we ask God to give us wisdom in how we engage with others?  And, when we do ask for God’s guidance, what are we actually asking for?

Recall Jesus’ promise that all our needs would be met: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for anyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10).  When asked for the right reasons, with the right heart, God will guide us and meet all our needs.  We may not receive it when we planned or in the manner we thought.  We must also remember that our needs and desires are not always the same.  God will meet all our needs.  Our desires, however, may not be good for us.  James does provide the proper means to choose God over the world.

First, we must submit to God.  Submission doesn’t mean we give up our free will; we should choose to make God and God’s wisdom the pattern of our lives.  Next, we’re told to resist the devil and all his empty promises, and he will flee from us.  When we draw close to God, God will draw close to us.  We must, therefore, seek the wisdom that God provides and when we do, all other things will fall in place.  James’ message is that God gives us the gift and opportunity to choose.  And the choice we make determines how we live and what our future will be.

Soren Kierkegaard, the nineteenth-century philosopher and theologian, once wrote, “Faith is a matter of choice, our personal decision in finding God.”  This personal decision, our free will, is why the world suffers.  It’s free will that causes others to engage in unfruitful conflicts.  It’s free will that allows people in public service to break the law and thus lower the integrity of the system.

It’s free will that places certain members and groups in society on the fringe and does not allow them to participate.  Free will moves us closer to, or further from God.  As Kierkegaard wrote, it is our decision; faith is our choice.  As God said it to Abraham, “I place before you death and life; thus choose life.”  Too often we willingly choose the world and, thus, death, but if we wish we can choose the wisdom of God and life.

Yes, we must use our gift of free will wisely, to always choose God’s wisdom over that of the world.  Often we hesitate; we’re unsure how far we can go or how much we’re willing to risk.  Thus we balk and miss opportunities.  A little story illustrates how our tendency to hesitate can lead to loss.

Three wise men were encouraged to experience what others called the cave of wisdom and life.  They made careful preparations for what would be a challenging and arduous journey.  When they reached the cave, they noted a guard at the entrance.  They were not permitted to enter the cave until they had spoken with the guard.  He had only one question for them, but he insisted that they answer only after talking it over amongst themselves.  He assured them they would have a good guide to lead them through the various regions of the cave.

His question was simple, “How far into the cave of wisdom and life do you wish to go?”  The three travelers discussed the question and then returned to the guard.  They said, “We do not want to enter very far.  We only want to venture far enough to say we’ve been there.”  The response of the guard manifested none of the disappointment that he felt as he summoned a guide to lead them into the cave.  Then he watched as they set out to make the return trip back to their own land.  Too often we seek the easy way, the way of selfishness, the way of the world.  But Jesus is clear, wide is the path that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13). 

The children in the story were wrong; the old man wasn’t a nasty and simple-minded person.  On the contrary, he was a man of great wisdom and prudence who, at the same time, was a great teacher.  Each day we must choose, we must consider the options that stand before us.  Let us have the courage to go forward, confident of God’s presence with us.  May we always choose wisely the wisdom of God.  If we do, the promise is a harvest of righteousness sown in peace.


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