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The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 23, 2012
The Epistle: James 3: 13-4:3, 7, 8a
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
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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.
James 3: 13-4:3, 7, 8a
We live in a confused age. Values are completely askew. Our time has been compared to that of the Jewelry store that was burglarized. When the thieves broke in, they took nothing. Rather, they simply switched all the price tags around on all the merchandise. Items that were in actuality quite cheap and inferior received the highest prices, while the items of real value were sold off as junk.
It’s a parable for our times. Truly, we live in an age when vice is valued above virtue, and glitter is more highly prized than gold. A recent TMZ report stated that a certain rock idol had slipped in her value. (Value, was their word by the way.) She is, they said, now worth only a mere eighty million dollars a year. They also lamented that a particular rapper is having to “struggle” along with a paltry eighteen million dollars in value. Contrast those values then, with what we as a culture are willing to pay school teachers, nurses, and farm workers; the people who teach, heal and feed us.
Even the word, value, has come to be devalued. It now has a cash-register ring about it. We use the word, value, to describe a deal, a bargain, even “a steal.” Increasingly, it is this consumerist notion of value that is influencing the way we use and understand this word.
But “value” is a very old word; an Old English word derived from the Latin “Valere”. It means “to be strong, to be valiant.” A value is meant to be something that makes us strong and valiant; something that makes us better and nobler for possessing it, or for doing it.
Today, the word value has come to mean something more subjective than objective. I mean that actions and causes are no longer considered to have intrinsic value; it’s only how people “feel” about them that gives them value. Previously, people saw themselves pursuing certain kinds of actions and causes because those actions had value; they made them better people. Now we are more apt to conclude that a person’s internal desires are the values that should lead them to behave however they choose. We’ve come to think of values as simple personal preferences. “He’ll have his and you’ll have yours and I’ll have mine, and together we’ll be fine!”
But, in our Epistle lesson from the third chapter of the letter of James this morning, we find that James has a lot to say about values. Here, James refers to values in terms of wisdom. True wisdom begets good values. He contrasts true wisdom with what often passes for wisdom in this world; in short he contrasts virtuous, valiant values, those that make us strong, from those that are merely vice, those that leave us weak. We need to take a look at what makes the difference. So let’s look closely to our passage to understand the distinction. The distinction between them is found in what motivates them.
First, James tells us that what motivates false values is vice. He tells us this in verse 14. Vice is characterized by bitterness, arrogant envy, selfish ambition and fanatical falsehood to the truth. Its bitterness regards opponents as enemies to be annihilated rather than as friends to be persuaded. Its arrogance is pride in its own knowledge rather than humility over what it has yet to learn. The truly knowledgeable and accomplished person is far more aware of what they do not know than what they do know. Its selfish ambition is, in the end, more eager to display itself than to display the truth, and it is interested more in the victory of its own opinions than in the victory of the truth. In its fanaticism, the values it holds are held with unbalanced obstinacy rather than with reasoned conviction.
According to James, the values of the wisdom from below are all these things in their inner motivation. Yet these are what many pop culture advisors tell us are the “right” motivations for living. “The greatest love of all,” sings one, “is to love yourself.” The only worthy pursuit, writes another, ”…is self-interest.” Always watch out for yourself first, get yours, stay number one. Admitting dependence on others is weakness. But these confuse value with vice; arrogance with wisdom. These values are confused with consumer preferences.
It reminds me of a character in Jules Feiffer’s play entitled “Elliot Loves.” Elliot is a 40ish Chicago urban neurotic who comes straight out of a Feiffer cartoon. He has one particularly marvelous exchange with his twice-divorced, two-childrened girlfriend Joanna, “I don’t have values,” says Elliot. “I have sentiments; they’re like visitation rights to values.”
That’s the moment-to-moment false value structure of vice. In the end such values just make us weaker. They leave us sapped of the strength to live courageously-valiantly.
So what is it that motivates true values? James tells us in verse 17. He actually lists eight qualities here. Chief among these qualities are first purity, and then peaceableness.
Purity, most simply put, means clean. In Biblical terms, purity is a matter of the heart and mind, not just the outward appearance. The outside of a person was to be cleansed in order to enter the temple, but the inside, the heart and mind were to be cleansed in order to enter the presence of God. A pure motivation is one that is cleansed of all ulterior motives, so cleansed of selfishness, that it has become pure enough to see God. As Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heat, for they shall see God.” False motives might well wish to escape God’s sight, but the true virtuous motive is able to bear the very scrutiny of God.
When Albert Schweitzer, the great missionary doctor, was a boy, friends proposed that they go up in the hills above their town and kill birds. Albert was reluctant, but afraid of being laughed at, he went along. They arrived at a tree in which a flock of birds was singing. The boys put stones in their sling-shots. Suddenly, the town’s church bells began to ring, mingling their music with the birdsong. For Albert, it was a voice from Heaven. He ran at the tree and shooed the birds away, then turned and went home. From that day on, reverence for life was more important to him than the fear of being laughed at. It was for him, he said, “the beginning of the purifying of my heart.”
True values purify our hearts and minds. They also make us peaceable. In the Greek, when this word peace is used of people its basic meaning is right relationships between one person and the next, and between a person and God. True values are the ones that produce right relationships. There is a cynical kind of wisdom in our world, a kind that proclaims itself clever when it is merely arrogant and separates one person from another, and makes one person look with superior contempt upon another. There is a kind of cruel wisdom that takes a delight in hurting others with cutting words. But the true wisdom of valiant values at all times brings people closer to others, and closer to God.
A wise person, one who has embraced true values, is one who has learned to choose between good and evil; who knows that trust is better than fear, that love is better than hate, gentleness is better than cruelty, that forbearance is superior to intolerance, that humility is greater than arrogance, and that truth is more powerful than falsehood. The motivation of Godly values ennobles us and makes us valiant.
And, according to James, it does one more thing: it moves us into merciful action. James tells us in verse 14 that valiant values, true wisdom, are full of mercy and good fruit. When the early Christians first got hold of this word, mercy, they turned its meaning on its ear. To the Greeks mercy meant having pity on those who suffered unjustly. But Christians changed it to mean far more than that. In Christian thought, this word means mercy for every person who is in trouble, even if the trouble is their own fault. Mercy is a reflection of the mercy of God, who died for us even when our suffering was due to our own sins. As a result, Valiant mercy is always to issue forth into practical help; into good fruits, as James puts it. Christian mercy doesn’t just feel sorry for someone in need; it turns sorrow and sympathy into deeds.
It was winter in downtown Truro, Nova Scotia. Outside a shoe store a little boy was standing on the hot air register in his bare feet, trying to keep warm. The owner of the store was disturbed by the sight of the boy. He truly felt sorry for him, but didn’t know what to do for him. Just then, a lady by the mane of Zelda Cornish came by. After a few words with the barefoot boy, she brought him into the shoe store. She bought him new shoes and heavy woolen socks. The boy asked Zelda, “Are you God’s wife?” “Am I what?” Zelda responded. “Are you God’s wife?” he asked again. Zelda though carefully, then responded, “No, dear, I’m just one of his children.”
“Well,” the boy exclaimed as he joyfully turned to run out the door, “I knew you must be kin to him someway!”
Godly values result in merciful deeds. Valiant values, God’s wisdom, say that whatever I give of me is far more important than whatever I get of things. The world calls that foolish, but then again, the foolishness of God is greater than the wisdom of this world. Seek God’s wisdom; his values are what make for real strength, and the valiant life. Be truly wise; be valiant!