Today’s passage begins with a question doesn’t it? Verse 13 asks us: “Who is wise and understanding among you?” I guess we all want to be thought of as wise, don’t we? Certainly no one wants to be thought of as foolish or even stupid. If you call someone “a wise old owl”, they might object to be called ‘old’, but they won’t be offended at being called ‘wise’!
And the Bible says that wisdom is a good thing. God’s Word says that being wise is something we should all aspire to – in fact one whole book of the Old Testament (the book of Proverbs) is devoted to the subject. Scripture says wisdom is well worth pursuing, something that is pleasing to God and useful for life. You might say that wisdom is good for body and soul – something that is spiritually beneficial AND practically useful.
But what does true wisdom consist of, and where does it come from? In other words, what does it mean to be wise, and how do we get it? Well those two questions are the topic of our passage in James this morning. If my sermon had to have a title, I would call it “James’ inspired advice on how to get wise” (x2).
But before I go further, let me pray: Heavenly Father, as we come to your inspired Word this morning, please help us to become wise. Teach us true wisdom we pray, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.
So firstly, then, what does a wise person look like? Well the Bible in general, and James in particular, are clear that wisdom is intensely practical. Wisdom is different to knowledge. You can have an armful of qualifications and an encyclopaedic memory but still be foolish. You can have a big brain and giant intellect but still be woefully short of wisdom!
You see, the Bible presents wisdom as something like a skill or character trait. Wisdom is the ability to skilfully negotiate your way through the different circumstances and challenges of life. In the Bible ‘wisdom’ is the ability to discern the good and godly thing to do in any situation. A wise person knows the right thing to say and do at just the right time.
We see this in the second half of verse 13 don’t we, where James invites his readers to show their wisdom “by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom”. James does ask us to produce exam certificates to prove our wisdom, he wants to see evidence of our wisdom in the way we behave. Wisdom is manifested in our actions and attitudes, not our academic achievements.
In verse 13 and 14 James puts particular emphasis on humility. A wise person is humble, he says. A wise person’s deeds are done in humility, he writes. You see, a wise person knows their place in the world. A wise person is sensible enough to recognise that the world doesn’t revolve around them. A wise person loves God and their neighbour, and puts their needs, their desires, before his own. A wise person is not consumed by pride, envy and selfish ambition, says James – but is instead self-sacrificial and servant-hearted. The wisdom of the world says look after number one, but the wisdom from heaven says put God’s glory and neighbours’ needs before your own.
Our Gospel reading from Mark chapter 9 gives a great illustration of humility. As God’s Son, Jesus had every right on earth to live like a king. Every right to receive universal reverence, worship and respect. But for our salvation – for the forgiveness of our sin – he was willing to be betrayed and “delivered into the hands of men.” He was wise enough – humble enough – to suffer many things at the hands of evil men, culminating at the Cross.
And so Jesus is the ultimate example of humility for us. If we are Christians, if we are his disciples, we should seek the same wise and humble attitude that he had on earth. As Jesus says in verse 35 of our Gospel reading, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
The apostle Paul makes the same plea in Philippians chapter 2, where he writes: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!”
Two weeks in, I’ve been very impressed with the servant-hearted, humble attitude I’ve seen so far at St. John’s. I’m impressed by the number of people willing to be involved in the running of this church – the number of people willing to put their name on different rotas and give up time to serve other members of our congregation and our community. So well done, you are showing some early evidence of wisdom!
Returning to today’s passage in James, in verse 17 he goes on to list some of the other qualities and character traits of a truly wise person. Humility isn’t the only evidence of wisdom. Listen again to what he says: “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.”
It should come as no surprise that people with those qualities get along with one another. People who put others before themselves rarely fall out with one another! Contrast that with the disastrous consequences of foolish pride and envy. James says it leads to disorder, evil, quarrelling and even fighting. A society (or even, sadly, a church) that is consumed by pride and selfish ambition is doomed to self-destruct!
So how then can we become wise? Where can wisdom be found? Where can we seek the wisdom that will make us more humble and more servant-hearted?
Well, the answer James gives is that true wisdom comes from God. Wisdom is “heavenly”, he says, because it comes down from above. The Old Testament book of Proverbs makes exactly the same point. It says: “The Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.”
So if we are to become wiser, the first thing we must do is pay close attention to God’s Word. We grow in wisdom by listening to what God has to say to us in Scripture, in the Bible. We can grow in wisdom by making Bible reading part of our personal daily routine, and by paying close attention when the Bible is read here in church. And yes, even by listening to sermons like this one that try to explain and apply what the Bible says. In Scripture God speaks words of wisdom, if only we will listen!
There is of course one other way we get wisdom from God, and that is by prayer. James refers to prayer in the opening verses of chapter 4 today, doesn’t he? He contrasts the prayers of the selfish person with those of someone seeking wisdom.
You see, a foolish person prays to God with their selfish shopping list. A foolish person presents God with a greedy list of things they want, they ask for things that will give THEM pleasure, not for things that will glorify God or bless other people.
Unsurprisingly, such selfish prayers go unanswered. As James says in verse 3 “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
In contrast, Christians should draw near to God in humility and repentance. When we pray we should ask God for forgiveness for the past and wisdom for the future. We should ask that his Holy Spirit will help us to do what is right in each and every situation we face. We should pray that God’s agenda becomes our agenda, that his priorities become our priorities – and that Christ’s character traits increasingly become our own.
So as I finish, why don’t we pray right now for just that wisdom:
Heavenly Father, thank you that all true wisdom comes from you. As we face the challenges and uncertainties of daily life, help us to draw near to you for the guidance and good sense we need. May we all be attentive to your Word and devoted to prayer. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Copyright © 2015-2018 St John the Evangelist, Ashton Hayes. All rights reserved.