Sermon for September 19th

First Reading Psalm 1

Second Reading James 3:13 – 4:8a

Gospel Reading Mark 9:30-37

Sermon “Drawing Near to God”

Our Gospel lesson this morning opens as Jesus and his disciples have returned to Galilee after a long trip up north. Jesus continues to teach the 12, preparing them for the time to come when he will be crucified and rise from the dead. This serious topic makes the the discussion that follows jarringly inconsistent. After they had arrived in Capernaum, Jesus asks them, “sooooo, what were you guys arguing about on the road a while back?” Knowing full well that they had once again been arguing about which of them was the greatest. Jesus then taught them about, from the worlds perspective, the upside down nature of position and honor in the kingdom of God. Jesus told them ” If anyone wants to be the first, he must be the very last and the servant of all.”

Jesus then drove his point home by picking up a child from the home he was staying in and telling his disciples “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” Here the emphasis is not on the simple earnest faith of the child as it is in another account, but rather on the complete lack of status of the child – no position, no power, no public influence whatsoever. Jesus will have quite a bit to say about children and the kingdom in the texts for the next couple of weeks as well, but here the assertion is simply that the disciples coveting of position and status was wrong headed and not in keeping with God’s plan for his kingdom here on earth.

What was true for those disciples was also true, a bit later in time, for James as well as he wrote to early believers in the late first century. James, that down to earth practical preacher that he is, tells us pretty bluntly where most of our troubles come from. He explains that there are two sorts of wisdom. First there is earthly wisdom – that is how to get ahead and come out on top in this dog eat dog world. Yep earthly wisdom – its envious, covetous, selfishly ambitious, unspiritual and even demonic. Then there is Godly wisdom. Godly wisdom, James explains is pure, peace loving, peace making, considerate, impartial, sincere and full of mercy and good fruit. I would invite you to consider those lists as you consider the variety of voices clamoring for your attention these days and see where it leads you. Does it lead to us or me first? Does it claim that life is a zero sum game so you had better get yours now? The world’s system is consistently held up by scripture as fundamentally incompatible with the character and nature of our heavenly Father, whose very Spirit dwells in us. No wonder we are so conflicted when we try to live in a society that does not value the things that the God values.

Think with me for a moment way back to the giving of the 10 Commandments. The first several of course deal with God himself – Summed up by the Shema, from Deuteronomy, the great confession of the Jewish Faith – Deuteronomy 6:4-5 NIV

[4] Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. [5] Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

The other 6 Commandments have to do with how God wants us to treat each other – they of course are summarized by the verse from Leviticus, quoted by our Lord which simply says: Leviticus 19:18 NIV

[18] “ ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

James has a slightly different angle on these last set of commandments – he traces it all to violations of the very last commandment. All the rest are prohibitions on actions, but the last one is different, it is concerned with thoughts and attitude. It goes like this: Exodus 20:17 NIV

[17] “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” It is perhaps the most natural thing in the world to see something nice and be attracted to it, and as such there is probably nothing wrong with it, but it leads to trouble when you start scheming how it can be yours!

Some years ago someone put together a list of property rules for two year olds that humorously illustrates the point. And it is definitely not what Jesus admired about childlike faith! It goes something like this:

Property Law As Viewed By A Toddler

1. If I like it, it’s mine.

2. If it’s in my hand, it’s mine.

3. If I can take it from you, it’s mine.

4. If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine.

5. If it’s mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.

6. If I’m doing or building something, all the pieces are mine.

7. If it looks like it’s mine, it’s mine.

8. If I saw it first, it’s mine.

9. If I can see it, it’s mine.

10. If I think it’s mine, it’s mine.

11. If I want it, it’s mine.

12. If I “need it, it’s mine (yes, I know the difference between “want” and “need”!).

13. If I say it’s mine, it’s mine.

14. If it’s broken, it’s yours (no wait, all the pieces are mine).

It sounds funny, but it gets ugly fast in the playroom. It’s even uglier and much more destructive when adults engage in this behavior – and they do!

James explains why coveting is so bad: James 4:1-2 NIV

“[1] 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.” Attitudes and thoughts are important, remember Jesus’ own words that we read in worship a couple of weeks ago that speak to the same point: Mark 7:21-23 NIV

[21] For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, [22] adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. [23] All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

Our inner thoughts are difficult to control. We brood and we fret and soon our hearts are locked in a sinful cycle that can result in harmful words and harmful actions. So what is the antidote for all of this? Well, James has advice on that too. Listen to the rest of the reading: James 4:4-8a NIV

[4] You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. [5] Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us ? [6] But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” [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. Now adultery here refers to adultery against God – Being spiritually unfaithful. Verses 5 seems particularly important where we are reminded that God “jealously longs for the Spirit he has caused to dwell in us.” or as one commentator puts it: “God’s Spirit yearns over that which he has made to dwell in us.” That of course is the gift of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, The birth gift to every new believer who comes to new life by saving faith in Jesus, the Christ.

At the heart of James’ reflection on true and false wisdom stands the strong conviction and confession that Godly wisdom is a sign of the Spirit’s indwelling presence. Further, it tells us of the ongoing grace at work in those who seek to be faithful. That brings us to the final part of James’ teaching. As we saw last week, we are called to be authentic sons and daughters of God – not merely avoiding the bad stuff, but giving up our own priorities for God’s much better ones. That’s what Jesus meant by his words “Take up your cross and follow me” – Exchanging “our” life for “His” life. It is similar to what James is teaching us here when he says: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you.”

The nearness to God that James is talking about certainly has to do with practicing the discipline to avoid those things that the spirit reminds us are not in keeping with God’s will, but more yet to seek fellowship, even friendship through prayer with God who is the very creator of “every good gift”. God’s gifts have the ability to guide our lives and freely inspire good works that flow from God’s indwelling Spirit. Just as our relationships with good friends and encouragers makes it much easier to walk our daily journey with its sometimes difficult choices, the same is true when we live in a relationship of nearness and trust to our God who always yearns to supply us with wisdom and every good gift of creation. In the intimate presence of the One whose Spirit yearns over us, we will not be left to drift in a state of “double-minded” incapacity. Instead we will be inspired to the exercise of wisdom in humility — in making the Godly choices that are “born of wisdom” as James says.

Soooooo then, Who is great in the Kingdom of God? One who knows that they are not, but one who knows well who is. The Psalmist reminds us –

“Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.”

Let us then by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit that dwells within the believer, mediate on the goodness of the Lord. Let us seek fellowship with God by drawing near to him in unceasing prayer so that his will becomes our will. Let us humbly remember our frail limits and resist the temptation to rely on our own strength and earthly wisdom. Thanks be to God that it is in fact God who draws near to us to give us the good gifts that he would have us share.