“What’s the difference between bird flu and swine flu?
For one you need tweet-ment and for the other you need oink-ment.
What’s the difference between a cat and a frog?
A cat has nine lives and a frog croaks every night.
or my favorite:
What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?
I don’t know and I don’t care.
“What’s the difference” jokes. I like them. What happened in your brain when I asked you those questions besides considering the appropriateness of such silliness at the beginning of a sermon.
They get the hearer thinking and comparing two items in their brains and it makes it easier to remember the two items because of their differences.
We were at the zoo this week and we saw an alligator. There was a lovely young girl there using a plastic skull of an alligator to teach about the difference between an alligator and a crocodile. An alligator has a “u” shaped snout and a crocodile has a “v” shaped snout. An alligator is grey in color and a crocodile is green. An alligator lives in freshwater but a croc lives in salt water.
Contrasting and comparing, establishing the difference between two or more subjects is a very effective means of teaching.
What is the difference between grace and mercy. Grace is receiving a gift that you never earned whereas mercy is NOT receiving a penalty that you did earn. All have sinned and fall short and the wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord - mercy and grace.
Jesus and the apostles used this device for teaching on many occasions.
Jesus taught, “Moses said “Do not commit adultery, but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
What is the difference between lust and adultery? Not much. One is an action and one is an intention but as we learned last week, they both come from a sin condition, they both result in our need for the savior, Jesus Christ.
Today’s passage is a story of two very different realms that James will contrast for us. It’s a very important teaching for understanding the war of passions within us. It’s relevance to our human condition is timeless. It was crucial to the believers of first century Jerusalem and remarkably relevant to Afton, Beloit, Janesville, the midwest and this confused nation in 2015.
Let’s turn to this rich passage now and begin a discovery of James 3:13 - 18. Let’s stand and I will read the entire passage then we will look at it point by point.
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
(James 3:13-18 ESV)
This is God’s Word!
There are two realms, one is governed by a heavenly wisdom, the best use of knowledge that mankind can attain to, a wisdom that leads to true and lasting peace, a wisdom where humanity thrives and flourishes.
The other realm is earthly and sensual, governed by base desires and urges, greed and selfish ambition, where a war of passions within lead to a moral confusion without leading to every kind of disorder.
Let’s speak of order for a moment. Order is not the default setting for reality, don’t take it for granted. God spoke into a void, a state of chaos and confusion and a divine order was established in this universe. In this order, everything thrived, everything had form, everything displayed the glory of the Creator, everything was good!
God made man in his image, an under-king to maintain order on the earth and to love and acknowledge the glory of God. God in his providence desired to show the man all of his perfections and so he gave Adam and Eve free-will.
We must proceed carefully here - Adam and Eve were unique in two things, one, they did not have belly-buttons, or an umbilicus would be the formal medical term.
The second unique attribute was this thing called ‘free-will’. Free-will has been debated since Eve and the Serpent took it up, but if we properly define free-will, the debate solves itself. (A slightly longer discussion of 'free will' can be found here.)
Free-will is the ability to choose freely that which we desire the most.
We are choosing agents, we make decisions everyday and it feels, it feels, like we are free; but are we really free in our choices?
No, as the result of sin, Adam’s sin, an inherited sin condition, a condition that I prove by my own wayward desires, our will is not free. We are slaves to our desires, to our corrupted nature.
When the doctor spanked me nearly 60 years ago, I took my first SELFISH breath, but Adam and Eve, before they sinned, were truly free of selfish desire. How then did Adam sin? How does a truly good man sin? I don’t know. If you pay for the pastries and coffee then I would be happy to stay up all night and see if we can find that answer.
The only other person besides Adam and Eve, “pre-sin”, with truly free will is Jesus Christ and he did not sin though tempted in every way.
I don’t know HOW Adam sinned but I do know WHY Adam sinned - so that mankind and the angels, the heavenly watchers, would see and understand the larger spectrum of God’s perfections - his mercy, his justice, his love, his grace, his holiness, his supremacy. The universe displays the Glory of God.
Returning to the subject of order, God created order but then ORDAINED a measure of disorder to enter his creation, for his glory. God causes all things to work together for good to those who love him and are called according to his purpose, (Rom 8:28) but that doesn’t rule out an epic struggle for mankind as we learn to depend on God the Father, as we look to God the Son for redemption, as we are led by God the Holy Spirit.
Order is heavenly in origin, disorder is earth bound and this struggle between order and disorder describes the history found within the Bible and the history found within our text books.
Nature reminds us that disorder is working ceaselessly to take over. Cars rust, storms damage, foods rot, buildings crumble, laundry keeps getting dirty, your children’s rooms will not tidy themselves, your CHILDREN will not tidy themselves! Bones weaken and fail, eyesight diminishes, and memories… I forgot where I was going with that.
James asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you?”
James lived in a Jewish country governed by Roman rule but the philosophy of the day was Greek. The word ‘philosophy’ itself is greek. “Philo” means “love” and “sophos” means “wisdom” and the greeks loved their wisdom. Pursuing wisdom was the great pastime of the intellectual. They would build arguments for just about anything, matters important and many matters frivolous. Morality was a topic of the philosopher but only for the sake of intellectual battle.
Philosophers sat around and thought about thinking, while orphans and widows went hungry, so James hits them with this,
“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.”
Ouch, now there is an odd and offensive turn of a phrase, “meekness of wisdom”. The philosophers loved wisdom for sure but “meekness” was an wretched concept. They equated “meekness” with “weakness”. Cowards were meek. The meek were mealy mouthed weaklings who didn’t dare to enter into a good battle of wits, they were the ignorant masses, dust in the wind.
The philosopher was a warrior of the mind and James was ready to meet him there but he took the battle further. Remember, James is the fellow who preached faith, but he wanted to see actions as the result of our faith. He’s the man who said, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
James was well known to the widows and orphans.
James is the teacher who said, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
James was up for the wisdom game but he wanted to see ACTIONS as a result of our ‘high thinking’.
James transforms the word “meekness”. It is not weakness, but it is gentleness. It is not cowardice, but it is submitting to the teachings of Christ, trusting God at his Word and using that Word as a weapon of offense, as the Apostle Paul says, “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5 ESV)
That is the “meekness of wisdom”.
Pastor James continues, “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.”
The wisdom that the world practices is motivated by selfish-ambition.
What does a realm look like where selfish-ambition is the basis of thinking and a foundation of governing. It’s a world where the wants and feelings of the individual rise above the family. Where the desires of the individual rise above the community, the state, the nation. It’s a world where everyone does what is considered right in their own eyes, it is a world of moral, social and political confusion.
This word that is translated “selfish ambition” is translated differently in Galatians 5:20 and Philippians 1:17: 2:3, there it is translated as “rivalries”. The greek word actually means “selfish ambition that leads to divisions or rivalries”.
In a world where selfish ambition is the driving force what would we expect to see? I would expect to see governing factions, political parties, let’s call them ‘Republicans’ and ‘Democrats’, entrench themselves in power by encouraging factions and divisions in the people that they govern.
Each new label is a juicy morsel to the governing faction because division means disorder and the need for a ‘nanny-state’ to keep her ‘children’ in line. Black people, white people, brown people, African-American, Hispanic, Latino, Asian, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Straight, gun-nuts, rednecks, Confederates, Hollywood types, boomers, millennials, feminists, right-wing Christians. Government loves divisions, government encourages divisions because government needs divisions.
James says in verse 18, “This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.”
The world is not functioning as it was created to function. The thinking of mankind is earthly. It does not acknowledge the Creator, it does not seek to do good, but seeks to elevate the individual - to place man on the throne.
The thinking of mankind is unspiritual. In other words, not led by the Holy Spirit but led by the flesh and it’s craving for the sinful; to be unspiritual is to be sensual. What would we expect to see in a world whose thinking is sensual?
Unfortunately, we don’t have to use our imagination, we just have to walk through the mall, turn on a TV, check the Internet. Advertisements for cars are sensual. Efforts to get me to buy a caramel-colored liquid, over sweetened with high fructose corn syrup are done through sensual images. It’s fat inducing, teeth rotting, vitamin leaching, brown sugar water but if you want to be a fun, beach-bodied celebrity look-a-like, then you should drink it!
Lastly, James says this earthly, sensual “wisdom” is demonic.
I wouldn’t have brought that up in 2015. People are uncomfortable with talk about demons unless it’s some spectacular, over the top fiction from Hollywood.
In order to permit a level of disorder to enter into the universe, God appointed an archangel as His agent for just retribution. God does not create evil and God does not create disorder, but for his Glory, Satan was appointed to bring tension into the universe.
Satan is evil and evil begets disorder.
Satan can never work outside of God’s permission, we see this truth demonstrated in the Book of Job.
Satan tempted Eve and she learned of selfish ambition and the earthly, sensual and demonic wisdom of this world was born. Adam passively stood by and would soon join her in this new way of thinking.
In C. S. Lewis’ wonderful book, Mere Christianity, he says,
“And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”
Are demons active today in creating disorder in our culture? Yes, of course they are. Should the believer be worried about this. No, you are in Christ. Your hero, your savior has crushed the head of the serpent at the cross. Jesus Christ sits on the throne of power and this world and his enemies are under his foot. Nothing happens outside of the sovereign power of God. In this world there will be many troubles but Christ has overcome the world and we need only trust in Him.
Should the unbeliever be worried about demons? Yes, but they won’t be. Demons are the agents of God’s wrath. Even now his wrath is being carried out as rebellious minds are being subjected to futile thinking. Men and women are being given up to impurity and dishonoring their bodies because they have exchanged the truth about God for a lie, Romans chapter 1.
James says it this way in verse 16 - For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.
The word translated as “disorder” means “a fighting frenzy”, “instability” and “restlessness”.
Are you nervous about what you see happening in the culture around you? That’s good, you are normal, you are sane!
Imagine standing next to a group of men and women and you have your children, or somebody’s children by the hand. The group turns into an angry, unstable mob and shouting is heard and then punches are thrown. The mob turns into a fighting frenzy.
You back away, you realize the danger, you clutch your children close and find a safe place.
Dear friends, I know my illustration may seem overly dramatic but I assure you, we are witnessing a restless, fighting frenzy in our culture. It’s driven by the demonic, it’s embraced by sensuality, it’s encouraged by those in power and it’s end is disorder and every vile practice.
What can we do? What can we do, for we too are earth bound and the disorder has reached a saturation point? I want to fight this thing! Should I make up placards and organize a march on the capitol? Should I run for office? Should I build an underground bunker and start stockpiling food and guns? Should I just give up in despair because I’m just one little speck in this ocean of disorder?
No, no, no and no.
The wisdom of the world is earthly, sensual and demonic but, look at verse 17, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”
Forget the placards, forget the guns and bunkers, seek the wisdom from above, seek the righteousness of God, seek purity.
Now, did I just give you an easy solution? No, I gave you an impossible solution, apart from the Gospel, that is.
Is this another one of those sermons where I tell you that the Gospel is the answer to all of our problems. Yes, yes it is, as was the last one and as will be the next one, Lord willing.
How does an earth-bound sinner become pure, and pure here means blameless. How does a sinner become blameless? Only through the hearing of the Gospel and trusting in the Christ of the Gospel message.
“Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe, sin had left a crimson stain, he washed it white as snow.”
Can we really be BLAMELESS? I’ve done a lot of horrible things. I’ve certainly been led by my own selfish ambition. I have created my share of disorder.
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he (Christ) has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.
(Colossians 1:21-23 ESV)
Can you see why the Gospel is called ‘good news’?
Or perhaps you’ve heard this doxology before, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.
(Ephesians 1:3-4 ESV)
As we cry out for mercy from the Lord, he gives us mercy and good fruits. Many of you are very familiar with the character qualities listed in Galatians 5:22,
love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Those are not the character traits of fallen mankind. Those are not the virtues encouraged by our culture or even our leaders. Those are not traits that come to us naturally. Those are the character traits of Christ who is willing to share them with us through the connection we have through the Holy Spirit.
James says that those who seek the wisdom from above are “open to reason”. How rare it is these days to find people who are open to reason. Several years ago Teresa and I were part of a pro-life march around the capitol in Madison and we had two very young daughters with us.
The pro-aborts sent out their professional protesters from the UW and I remember this one fellow in particular. He was looking right at me so I walked over to him. Now mind you, he was part of a mob that was roped off from our march.
I tried to engage him but he just kept screaming. He called me vile names and the spit was pouring out of his mouth, a river of drool was cascading over his short beard. I asked him to speak to me. I pointed out that he doesn’t even know me and yet he kept yelling curses at me. He was not open to reason. He appeared more animal than human. The poor man was trapped in an unstable, fighting frenzy.
The march continued, quietly, peacefully and orderly while bordered by a stormfront of earthly disorder.
James tells us in verse 18 that “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
Peace is the exact opposite of selfish-ambition. True peace is a gift of God the Father to those who trust in the Son. If evil creates disorder then goodness creates order and the ultimate goodness is demonstrated in God sending his only Son to die for sinners.
The Gospel turns back disorder, the Gospel pays the penalty for every vile practice for those who trust in Christ. If you have not done this then I beg you - acknowledge the disorder that rules your mind right now, agree with God that you have fallen short. Embrace Jesus Christ and his sacrifice for your sins. Cry out for mercy and then boldly ask the Father for this wisdom from above - ask him for His peace - and you will sow a harvest of righteousness.
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.
(Jude 1:24-25 ESV)