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Worship and Sermons
September 23, 2018

“Gentle Wisdom” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, September 23, 2018, 18th Sunday after Pentecost – Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22, Psalm 1, James 3:13 - 4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37

THEME:  Nurture humility so we can hear and follow God’s voice.


Like many of you I’ve been keeping an eye out this week for news of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Less than two weeks from now, on October 5th, the winner of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced.  Many are speculating who the recipient might be. 

But I’ve been more interested in the man whose name is on the prize.  His story is an interesting one, to say the least.

Alfred Nobel was a Swede who grew up in St. Petersburg in the 1850s.  Even though he was more interested in poetry than science, he went to Paris to study chemistry and physics.

In a laboratory there, he worked alongside an Italian colleague who had developed nitroglycerin three years before.  Because it was so volatile as a pure liquid, however, it was considered worthless. 

Alfred became fascinated with Nitroglycerin. After much experimenting, he figured out how to stabilize it by blending it with very fine sand.  This also allowed it to be formed into oblong tubes that could be inserted into drilling holes, thus making blasting much easier.  He named his new invention “dynamite.” 

This was only one of his 355 patents.  His inventions revolutionized construction of buildings and bridges.  They also revolutionized warfare.  As a result, he became immensely wealthy.

Then something happened that would change his life and his legacy. 

When his brother died in 1888, a writer at a French Newspaper mistook the deceased for Alfred himself.  When Alfred had the uncomfortable experience of reading his own death notice.  It was titled “The Merchant of Death is Dead.”  This changed his thinking about the need for peace.

When he died 8 years later, he shocked the world by establishing prizes to be awarded not only to those who have done their best for humanity in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine and literature, but also peacemaking.

That’s the kind of self-examination that writer of the Letter of James has in mind.   in our As we continue to make our way through the Letter of James, this week we encounter a vivid contrast between two schools of wisdom. 

First, there is the wisdom of the world.  The goal of worldly wisdom is personal gain above all else.  The picture James paints for us of life lived according to worldly wisdom is one of no-holds-barred aggressiveness.  It requires scrambling and scratching, clutching and clawing.  It has no qualms about coveting what belongs to others, and stepping on them in order to get it.

In the 1st century Mediterranean world, this was not only accepted, it was admired. The life and death contests in the Roman Coliseum were mirrors of this kind of daily struggle to survive and thrive at the expense of others.

There is no mistaking where this wisdom has taken hold.  Wherever there is envy and selfish ambition we also find disorder and wickedness of every kind.  That’s why James calls this wisdom earthly and even devilish.

Standing in sharp contrast is the wisdom from above.  The calling card of Heavenly wisdom is a life of good works:  peacemaking, gentle-ness and graciousness, flexibility and self-giving, and mercy.  Those who rely on Godly wisdom exhibit nary a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.

It’s obvious where Heavenly wisdom has taken root.  There we find peaceful communities producing a harvest of righteousness with mutual, self-sacrificing care for everyone, from the weakest to the strongest.

That is the choice James presents to his cadre of Jewish Christians.  It’s obvious which wisdom he means for them to follow.

All of us would agree.  We, too, would rather live among those whose wisdom comes from above, wouldn’t we?

The question is, why don’t we?  Why is it that so much of our world is governed by the devil’s wisdom?  And, if we’re being entirely candid, why do we ourselves too often fall prey to that same, selfish ambition that leads to chaos and death?

At the root of these questions is the real question:  what makes it so difficult to follow God’s wisdom?

That’s what I‘ve been thinking about this week.  The answer is it requires us to do something we’ve had trouble with ever since Adam and Eve lost their way in the Garden. 

“Submit yourselves therefore to God,” James writes, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”  Well, Adam and Eve found that one too tough, and so do we.  Frankly, we don’t like to submit to anyone, not even God.  

That’s primarily because we’re afraid to do it.  Fear is one of the devil’s most powerful weapons.  Satan has conned us into fearing God’s will, tempting us to believe that submitting to God’s will is going to be painful and will make us unhappy, when in fact the exact opposite is true.

We fall for that temptation because we don’t really know God as well as we should.  As a result, we don’t trust him to be good. 

Instead, we trust ourselves.  We fool ourselves into thinking we know best - better than God.  I know that sounds crazy, but it happens all the time.  And none of us is immune from it.   

This sin has a name:  it’s called pride.  As C.S. Lewis said, it’s the greatest sin of all, the fatal flaw in the Christian life.  When it leads us to trust ourselves instead of God, God simply withdraws.  He lets us have our own way.  Without God’s guidance and provision, sooner or later, we take a fall.

And along the way, our priorities become warped.  Without God at the center of our lives, we become the center of all things.  What we want is what we work for. 

When pride has overtaken us, not having our own way becomes the most dangerous thing we can think of.  Looking out for anyone’s interests other than our own seems to us the very definition of foolishness.  Instead of loving our neighbors, we compete with them.

Today we see the result all around us.  Division and conflict are everywhere.  Between genders and generations; between races, classes, political parties, and nations.  And even in the church. 

That is what concerned James.

It’s as much a problem in the church today as it was then.  There is seemingly no end to the things we church folk are willing to fight about.  I’m not just talking about the big, hot-button issues either.

I recently came across a list of 25 silly things churches fight over.  I shared these at Kyle Anderson’s ordination and I’ll share them with you.  Apparently, this list started out as a Twitter survey, and then it went viral. 

I know that we would never fight over anything as silly as these things.  Here are my top five from that list:

  1. The appropriate length of the pastor’s beard.
  2. A dispute between two deacons that culminated in an impromptu parking lot boxing match.
  3. A 45-minute discussion over the best color for the new filing cabinets:  black, white or brown?
  4. A schism over whether or not to use medium roast or dark roast at coffee hour.  People actually left the church over that.
  5. A major brew-hah-hah at the annual meeting over a 10-cent discrepancy in the budget.  It was finally settled more than an hour later when a young woman stood up, came forward and placed a dime on the communion table.

These are absurd.  They’re funny.  But this kind of conflict is exactly what happens when worldly wisdom creeps into the church.  This is the rotten fruit of prideful, ego-driven, selfish ambition, just as James warns us.

Instead, James want us to seek and follow God’s wisdom the way Jesus taught it, especially in the beatitudes.  That teaching begins with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

By “the poor in spirit” Jesus means those who have mastered the essential spiritual practice of humility.  They’re willing to listen for God’s will, and prioritize it over their own.

That’s the hallmark of a spiritual leader.  It’s what we ask of all our elders on Session.  That’s why, in our Session meetings, we follow a specific protocol for discussion:  one voice at a time, speak with love, and – above all – listen for God’s will over and above our own.

We don’t insist on this protocol simply because it’s polite.  We do this so we can really and truly listen to God speaking to us.

If you’ve tried to put this discipline into practice in your own life, you know it’s anything but easy.  Whether God is speaking to us through the voices of others or directly to us in our own hearts, his voice constantly competes with the voice of our own ego.  The trick is to learn (through practice!) to distinguish between the two, and then submit to God’s voice. 

Where in your life do you need to nurture more humility? 

The best clue is wherever your relationships have become frayed and fraught with conflict.

Conflict is not always bad, of course.  Sometimes, it’s inevitable.  But when it happens because we’re paying too much attention to what we want instead of listening to what God wants, it’s time to take a step back and ask the question, “What does God want?”

More often than not, that’s all it takes to hear God’s voice.  Pausing and asking “What would Jesus have me do or say here?”

And we’ll know it’s Jesus speaking when that voice leads us into more humility and less pride, when it cools our anger and warms our hearts . . .

And, above all, when it leads us to make peace with our neighbors.  Afterall, it was Jesus who taught, “blessed are the peacemakers.”

Someday when someone writes our obituary, let’s work to make sure that’s how they describe us. 

We may never win the Nobel Peace Prize, but we will certainly win the peace prize in God’s eyes.

May it be so.


Last Published: September 27, 2018 8:36 AM
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