James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
Proper 20, Year B
From tonight’s reading from James – “Who is the wise and understanding among you?”
We are incredibly intelligent. There’s no doubt about it – we are the smartest living thing that God’s ever created. And of course, I’m not just talking about us Longhorns – though, in good conscience, I could never preach this sermon in College Station. But, I mean humans. People. Homo sapiens. Our brains are faster and sharper than any other species on earth. We are incredibly intelligent, but we're also capable of being incredibly dumb. For example, did you know that we’re the only mammal in creation that routinely kills its own kind? According to Wikipedia, more than 30 wars are going on as I speak these words. And I believe it was Anonymous that said, “The study of history is the study of war.”
We can be so smart and yet so dumb all at the same time. We are capable of doing so much good and yet so much evil. I mean, think about it. We can take a nicely shaped chunk of metal that weighs over a million pounds, and make it glide smoothly through the air. But at the same time, we can glide that same plane right into a building and kill thousands of people. Or, consider this – we can split an atom and power a village. Or we can split that same atom and destroy a nation. We are capable of doing so much good, and yet so much evil. And we, intelligent people that we are, routinely do both. And so how’s it possible? How is it possible to be so smart, and yet so dumb, all at the same time?
Here’s the way that James asks this same question. “Who is the wise and understanding among you?” In other words, who among you is really smart? Who among you is really in step with reality itself? Because I hate to say this, but not everyone is. You see, the assumption behind James’ question is that there's a wisdom from above and a wisdom that doesn't come from above." And so all James is asking is this – “who among you is seeking the wisdom from above? Who among you is in step with reality itself? Who is the wise and understanding among you?”
Ok, hold that thought. A little trivia – does anyone know why Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? It isn’t because they skipped breakfast. They wanted to be wise. According to Genesis, and I quote, “when the woman saw … that the tree was desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.” According to Genesis, this is our “original sin” – seeking to be wise on our own terms. Our world has yet to figure this out, but my prayer and my hope is that our church soon will. Wisdom apart from God is no wisdom at all. It’s a dead end. Because if we seek to be wise on our own terms – apart from God – we’ll inevitably place ourselves at the center of our world. And we aren't made to be the center of our world – that's God's place. And so when it comes to being really smart, to being really in step with reality itself, our IQ doesn’t matter. Our degree doesn’t matter. How articulate we are doesn’t matter. Because according to James, seeking wisdom on our own terms and not God's terms is “earthly, unspiritual, and devilish.” And if we're seeking that type of wisdom, our own type of wisdom, it just doesn’t matter how smart we are. Because seeking wisdom apart from God is dumb.
Now, this is exactly what the disciples in today's gospel are doing. They are seeking a wisdom that's different from the wisdom that Jesus has been teaching – right? And at this point in Mark's gospel, the scene would be funny if it weren’t so absurd. Twice now Jesus has told them that, as the Messiah, he must die on a cross. But today the disciples are arguing over which one of them is the greatest! But notice – Jesus doesn’t rebuke them for aspiring to be great – if anything, Jesus encourages them. If anything, he teaches them what true greatness is. “And so you want to be great?” Jesus asks rhetorically. “Then here’s the wisdom I have to offer. Become a servant. Take up your cross. After all, I’m going to the cross, not in spite of the fact that I’m great.” “I’m going to the cross,” Jesus says, “precisely because I am great, precisely because I am wise, precisely because I am smart.
THE CROSS. That is the wisdom that Jesus offers us. And it is fundamentally at odds with the wisdom of the world. To a world that says look out for number one, Jesus’ cross-shaped wisdom teaches us to lay down our lives for one another. To a world that says “a penny saved is a penny earned,” Jesus’ cross-shaped wisdom encourages us to give some of those pennies away. And to world that screams “we can do anything we set our minds to,” Jesus’ cross-shaped wisdom is emphatic – “NO, actually you can’t. And so you’ve got to become like children, who can’t do anything on their own, and wake up to the fact that apart from me, you can do nothing.”
And so here’s the question I leave us with this week. My question isn’t do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? My question is a bit more demanding – do you accept Jesus Christ as your teacher? You see, we can't follow Jesus while we're also seeking a wisdom that's different than the wisdom he's teaching. The world has yet to figure this out, but my prayer and hope is that our church soon will: wisdom apart from Jesus, who is the very embodiment of God, is no wisdom at all. It’s a dead end. Because if we seek to be wise on our own terms, we’ll inevitably place ourselves at the center of our world. Like the disciples in today’s Gospel, we’ll strive to be great without ever knowing what true greatness is. And so if we want to be wise, we have to look at the cross. The cross is where the wisdom of God confronts the wisdom of our world. And frankly, we can’t have it both ways. There’s a wisdom from above, and there’s a wisdom that doesn’t come from above. And only one of them is cross-shaped.
And so, once again, “who is the wise and understanding among you?” Well, I guess the answer to James' question entirely depends on who we adopt as our teacher. Remember – we are capable of doing so much good, and yet so much evil, because there’s a wisdom from above and a wisdom that doesn't come from above. And so when it comes to being wise – to being really smart – remember that our IQ doesn’t matter. Our degree doesn’t matter. How articulate we are doesn’t matter. Because if we seek to be wise on our own terms – apart from God – we’ll inevitably place ourselves at the center of our world. And to place ourselves at the center of God’s world – that’s just dumb.