Two Kinds of Wisdom
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
We’ve been talking quite a bit about purifying water in this church lately. The Living Waters for the World system in Honduras that was installed is designed to do just that: purify water. It is our hope that this system is removing all the impurities from their water and emitting a finished product that is safe to drink.
What kind of impurities are in the water? All sorts of things. Some of it is just dirt and debris, suspended solids, that are in the water simply because it hasn’t gone through a filter of any type. The reason our rivers aren’t blue is because there is all sorts of mud in the water, mud that is filtered out before it ever winds up in anybody’s tap. There are things smaller than mud, however, that are in water, too. Micro-organisms, viruses and bacteria all work their way into some water sources, unseen to the eye but having the potential to be very harmful if they find themselves in the human body. Everything from hepatitis to typhoid can be in that water.
So we work to purify it. We have filters, ozonators, UV filters. All sorts of devices that work to purify our water. We are usually very separated from the process, so often we have no idea how dirty our water is that goes into the system. Perhaps that is a good thing!
Having pure water is a wonderful thing, but establishing a system to purify it is time-consuming and expensive. It’s no easy thing to come up with a way to get bacteria and viruses out of water. Thankfully Living Waters for the World has come up with a fairly basic and affordable way to do it, but obviously the water system for a town the size of Chattanooga has to be far more complex.
Water isn’t the only thing we purify. We purify our air we breathe in our houses and our cars, trying to keep out pollutants and allergens.
Today’s passage from James is talking about wisdom. The write is comparing wisdom from above and wisdom that originates on earth, urging the listener to choose the wisdom that comes from above. Basically, James is calling us to filter our wisdom to make sure that what makes it through isn’t contaminated with impurities.
When we read through this section of the letter from James, it is challenging to keep track of what is coming from where and how it is affecting us. We start out with good works borne of wisdom and done with gentleness, but we immediately jump into envy and selfishness, which is borne of earthly wisdom, which is unspiritual and devilish. Wickedness of every kind follows soon after, but the we immediately jump back to the good wisdom from above, which is first pure, with no partiality or hypocrisy. James refers to this as being sown in peace with a harvest of righteousness.
From our harvest of righteousness we immediately jump back into conflict and disputes, cravings and war. Murder and disputes, with pleasure driving it all, dominate this section.
We finish up with submission to God and resistance to the devil. Draw near to God, James says, and God will draw near to you. Resist the devil, and he will flee.
Everybody got that? I feel like we need a map, some path through this muddle to clarify exactly what we are supposed to do and how to get there.
It’s like life. We feel like we need a map, some way to lead through this mess of information that is pouring into our lives. It is as though we are standing at the output of a river, a mess of information flowing downstream into us, and somehow we are supposed to pick out the good from the bad, the holy from the not-so-holy. To say it is a difficult undertaking is an understatement. Especially when we add in all of the false prophets, the prosperity Gospel preachers, and all those people who come in the name of God but really just seem to want your money or your attention. How in the world to filter out all the trash and end up with only the worthwhile stuff?
If it makes you feel any better, you are not alone in your struggle. Nor are you the first person to go through it. We began to study Paul’s letter to the Galatians on Wednesday night. In it, Paul is addressing the Galatians rather sternly for their failure to follow the teachings he brought to them. Paul taught them about God’s grace and the love of Christ, but some others came along and taught them some other things, and the Galatians were twisting in the wind, reaching out to any who offered help, not able to filter out the trash from the true message. Paul is none too happy with the Galatians for their inability to live according to what Paul taught them. He wants them to follow the true Gospel.
So here we are, thousands of years later, still trying to discern the truth. We have the question that so often sits on our chests like a thousand pound gorilla—what does God want us to do? How does God want us to live? The Gospel says nothing about the internet, or television shows, or the frightening people I keep hearing about in the news. It doesn’t address complicated issues that we so badly want the answers to, let alone how we are to live in middle class America. James speaks about true wisdom that comes from above, but how do we find this wisdom amidst all the noise in our lives?
We need a filter. We need a giant filter to stand before us and filter out all the impurities, all the debris, all the garbage in the world and leave the earthly wisdom, the kind of wisdom that tells us we need to be better, to be successful, to be rich and famous and beautiful and well-dressed and superior to others, behind, allowing only the true wisdom from above to filter through and guide our hearts and minds in this life. We need true wisdom from above that will lead us in making decisions in complicated times, that will inform our hearts and minds and help us to live Godly lives that will testify to our faith in God. We need a filter.
I’ve got great news. We’ve already got one.
We believe that God reveals himself and his will for our lives in three ways: the Word proclaimed, the Word read, and the Word lived.
Today I want to talk about the Word read. For our reading of Holy Scripture is one of the ways in which we discover God’s will for our lives. When we pick up the Bible and read, we read about how other Godly people have lived, and we read about how God has interacted with God’s chosen people. We read about the choices others have made and the results of those choices. We can see how selfish decisions play out and what selfishness looks like. We can read about what humility looks like and how Godly people go about making Godly choices to live Godly lives. In short, the Bible is a giant filter that helps us recognize the gold in the river and sort it out from the trash and debris floating alongside it.
But it’s an active filter. We can’t let it passively work, because it won’t. Our Bible doesn’t do one lick of good sitting on a nightstand or bookshelf colleting dust. It does not work through osmosis, and we cannot download it into our minds. In order for the Holy Bible to help us filter out wisdom from above, we have to pick it up and read it.
It can be tough to find the time. We have to make time. The first order of business is to find a translation you like. I would be happy to recommend some translations to you. There are a few that I adore, that make reading the Bible fun. Find language that you like.
The second is to give yourself time to do it. Read it over breakfast. Get a Bible on tape and listen to it in the car. Download it to an mp3 player and listen to it while you exercise. There is a version of the Bible read by James Earl Jones. Yes, you can have the Bible read by the same voice as Mufasa from the Lion King. Have it emailed to you every morning. There are countless ways to introduce the text to your life. Find one you like, because you won’t stick to it if you are forcing yourself to read the KJV at five AM if you hate it.
Also, try to find a partner in reading. Spouses, friends, children, parents, co-workers, anyone. Develop a reading plan together and talk about what you’re reading. See what they think about this passage in James. It changes the way you think about a text to hear what someone else thinks. You will never see a text the same once someone else tells you what they think. It forces us to engage the text rather than simply read it.
Make it fun. God delights in God’s wondrous creation and wants us to live in gratitude and in worship, but first we have to filter out the trash. God gives us the tools to do so in the gift of the Word revealed, proclaimed and lived out in Christ. God guides us because God loves us, and God is speaking to us through the Holy Spirit, helping us filter out the impurities and end up with Godly lives. Listen to the Spirit, work with the Spirit’s guidance, and may we, as a community, follow the Word of God and listen to the true wisdom from above.
Let us pray.