JAMES 3:13-18

AUGUST 26, 2012




            Once upon a time there was an old man who lived on the outskirts of town.  He kept to himself and had lived there so long that no one knew who he was or where he had come from. Some thought he had once been famous, rich and generous, but had lost everything.  Others thought he once had been very wise and influential.  There were even some who said he was holy.  The children in the town, however, thought he was an old and stupid man and they made his life miserable.  They threw stones at his windows, left dead animals on his front porch, destroyed his garden, and yelled nasty words at him at every opportunity.

            Then one day, one of the older boys came up with an idea to prove once and for all that those who thought he was once rich, famous, and generous, or wise and influential, and most especially those who considered him holy were all wrong.  No, he truly was just a stupid old man.  The boy knew how to catch a bird in a snare.  He told his friends that he would catch the bird and together they would go to the old man's home and knock on the door.  When the man would answer the boy would ask, "Old man, do you know what I have hidden behind my back?"  Now he might guess that it is a bird, but with the second question I will get him.  I will ask him if the bird is alive or dead. If he says dead, I will allow the bird to go free, but if he says the bird is alive, I will crush it to death with my hands.  Either way he will prove he is only a stupid old man.

            The children thought it was a great plan, so the older boy caught the bird and together they went off to the old man's house and knocked on the door.  The man opened the door and, seeing the large gathering of children, realized something was up. The boy spoke quickly, "Old man, do you know what I have hidden behind my back?" The old man looked at the children one by one and out of the corner of his eye he saw a white feather fall to the ground.  He answered, "Yes, I do. It's a white bird."

            The children's eyes grew large.  How could he know it was a white bird?  Maybe the people in town were right all along.  The older boy was not to be deterred from his goal and quickly asked the second question.  "Well that was a good guess, but is the bird alive or dead?"  Again, the old man looked at each of the children.  Finally his eyes met those of the boy.  He answered, "That depends on you; the answer is in your hands."

            Most of us would agree that whatever this old man had been or was ... rich, famous, generous, influential ... we would agree that he was wise.  Not only could he "outfox" the children, especially the boy, at their own game, but he was also wise enough to teach them an important lesson at the same time.  The lesson?  We have the choice to do good or to do evil.  The choice is in our hands, and this morning James asks us if we have made the right choice when it comes to wisdom.  Have we chosen the right type of wisdom?

            Let's turn to our passage.  Verse 13.


            Who is wise and understanding among you?


            Let's not answer too quickly because this is a trick question.  "Who is wise and understanding among you?"  We need to be careful how we answer because we may be wise, but we may haven chosen the wrong kind of wisdom.   Based on James' description of wisdom, we need to be careful how we answer because when it comes to wisdom we may not be doing as well as we previously thought.

            It's like the man who thought he was doing better than he was.  He was a devout man, a practicing Christian, but he was suffering from headaches, so he visited his doctor.  He said, "Doctor, I don't know why I keep on getting these awful headaches.  I don't drink like so many others do.  I don't smoke like so many others do.  I don't run around at night like so many others do.  I don't overeat like so many others do. I don't . . . "

            The doctor interrupted at this point.  "Tell me," he said, "this pain in the head is it a sharp, shooting kind of pain?" 

            "Yes," the patient replied, "that describes it perfectly.  A sharp, shooting kind of pain!" 

            The doctor then made his diagnosis:  "Simple," he said, "your problem is that you have your halo on too tight.   All you need to do is loosen it a bit."

            "Who is wise and understanding among you?"  Before seeing the doctor, the man with the headaches probably would have answered, "I am.  I am wise and understanding."  After seeing the doctor, he may have answered differently.  James continues. 


            Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.  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 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.


            Note a couple of things.  First, note how James ties wisdom to character.  He did the same with faith in the previous chapter.  He tied faith to works, faith to behavior.  He does the same thing here with wisdom, and he describes two kinds of wisdom.  He ties earthly wisdom to envy, selfish ambition and boasting and he ties Godly wisdom to gentleness, submission, good fruits, no trace of partiality or hypocrisy, and a peaceful soul.  Who is wise and understanding among you?  Well, look at our character.  That will tell you.

            I recall an old beer commercial.  I'm told some of you like beer, so you may remember this old commercial as well.   Some guys are relaxing by a river bank after a day of fishing, and one of the guys is frying the fish they caught earlier.  They pop open cans of beer and one of them says, "It doesn't get much better than this."   The message?  The good life is fishing, sitting by a campfire and drinking beer with your buddies.

            And, of course, there is no harm in that.  There's nothing wrong being outdoors, enjoying a cold beer with friends.  There is no harm in that, but there is harm in defining "the good life" as that.  The good life is far richer and more rewarding.  The good life is a life based on character.  It is not defined in terms of accumulated possessions, or leisure activities or nights with the boys, rather a father who is always there for his children, or a mother who denies herself to build a home for her family.  We see the good life in a spouse who hangs in there with a mate suffering from senility, who can no longer remember their name.  That's the good life!   Or as James says, "Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom."

            Unfortunately, we have a problem.  Of course, every generation has had the same problem.  It's the choice we hold in our hands.  Will we choose earthly wisdom or godly wisdom?  Scholars refer to it as free will.  It's what supposedly separates us from the rest of God's creation.  Animals, apparently, don't have it.  They function on instinct, but we have been created to rise above instinct.  We have been given free will and we have been encouraged to use our free will judiciously and wisely, but we haven't always done so.

            Years ago a The London Times conducted an essay contest.  You can tell it was a long time ago, because of the way they posed the essay question.  They asked the question, "What is wrong with man?"  Today they would have posed it, "What is wrong with humankind?" and they asked readers to write an essay in response to the question.    The best answer came from C.K. Chesterton who answered the question in two words.  "What is wrong with man?" The Times asked.  Chesterton answered, "I am." 

            Why did he answer himself?  He did so because he knew he, and sometimes you and me, don't always use our free will judiciously.  We often hear people ask, "Why does the world suffer?"  "Why do pain, problems, and suffering exist in such abundance?"  "Why do wars exist and people die in innocence?"  "Why do people fight one another over the color of one's skin or one's religious belief?"

            From where I sit, its two words:  poor choices.  It's our free will to choose the wisdom of the world or the wisdom of God. It is free will that allows the drunk to drive and kill others. It is free will that allows people in public service to break the law and thus lower the integrity of government.  It is free will that places certain members and groups in society on the fringe and does not allow them to participate.  Free will moves us closer to God or further from God.  It raised its head in the Garden of Eden and it has been raising its head ever since.  

            When I get to heaven I'm going to ask.  If allowed, I'm going to ask God, "Why did you think this free will thing would work?  If you had it do do all over again, would you rethink free will?  Why did you allow us to make such a mess of things?          

            So sometimes we make the wrong choice.  But when we judiciously exercise our free will by choosing the wisdom of God, we become people worthy of emulation.  We become people of gentleness, mercy and good works. 

            And that leads us to the second thing James has to say about wisdom this morning.  He not only ties wisdom to character, but he also speaks to the origin of wisdom.  The unwelcome kind of wisdom comes from below ... it's earthly, unspiritual and devilish.  The welcome kind of wisdom comes from above ... it's gentle, pure and peaceful.

            And do we ever need help from above.  Do you ever need help from above?  Have you ever had the pirate ships of Captain Envy and Captain Selfish Ambition sail into your life or are you always so full of the Holy Spirit that you are always content with what you have?  My guess is the wisdom of the world sometimes gets a hold of us.  I venture to say we all need some help in this area.  We all need an intervention from above.

            I recently read of an old Arabian ruler who had three rather brilliant sons.  That is to say they were full of knowledge, but not necessarily wisdom.  As the old man lay dying, he called the sons into his bedroom to discuss their inheritance. "You will inherit my herd of camels," he said.  The oldest son was to receive half of the herd, the middle son one-third, and the youngest son, one-ninth.  When the old man died, the sons met and attempted to divide the herd according to their father's wishes.  But, alas, there were 17 camels.  No matter how well they did the math, there was no way to divide a herd of 17 camels by one half, or by one-third or by one-ninth.

            The sons began quarreling with one another.  The quarreling got worse. Gradually it infected the entire household, then the town, and then the Sheik's entire region.

            Then, one day, an old woman walked into town holding a rope attached to a single camel.  "Here," she said quietly, "if it will stop the quarreling, I will give you my camel. I will now divide your inheritance for you."  Which she did, she divided the inheritance for them because they were unable to do it themselves.

            And the problem was solved.  The oldest son received nine camels ... half of eighteen.  The middle son, six camels ... one-third of eighteen and the youngest received two camels ... one ninth of eighteen.

           Then they did the math:  9 + 6 + 2 = 17. With just the hint of a smile on her face, the old woman picked up the rope from her camel and headed back home.

            When it comes to wisdom we, too, need help from someone on the outside, or shall we say from someone above?  Amen.