Daily Archives: September 13, 2015

Eating Carp – Sermon on James 3:13-18 Pentecost 15B

September 6, 2015

My first husband liked to scuba dive and spearfish. These are great sports if you live near the ocean. We lived in southeast Kansas. The only bodies of water available for scuba diving and spear fishing were old strip mining pits, and the only fish you could legally spearfish were carp.

Carp are bottom-feeders. They eat muck. They taste like muck. It doesn’t take much imagination to rearrange the letters in “carp” to come up with another word that fully describes their flavor. And they are full of tiny bones, so they are difficult to eat. It doesn’t really matter how you cook them, they are still going to taste like carp, and you will always have a little pile of bones on the edge of your plate when you finish the meal.

So why did we keep settling for mining pit carp, when we could have been fishing for river trout or lake bass? James asks a similar question in today’s passage: why settle for worldly wisdom, when your life can be guided by heavenly wisdom?

Sometimes, we don’t even realize we are settling for carp. We think we are eating good fish, and we can’t figure out why it tastes so bad. Think of the times in your life you have settled for less than God intended for you. Maybe you have taken the easy way out when faced with a choice, or maybe you’ve struggled to have your work recognized, and you felt hurt when your efforts to serve have gone unnoticed.

It seemed like what you were doing was good and worthwhile, but you found no satisfaction in it. Things just didn’t go the way you wanted them to go, and you couldn’t figure out why you were fighting so hard and getting so little return. You thought you were eating good fish, but you kept finding carp bones in your teeth.

You might tell yourself it really doesn’t matter much; you don’t mind the taste of carp. But when it comes to living out our lives as followers of Jesus, the wisdom we draw upon matters a great deal. Allowing worldly wisdom to seduce us away from heavenly wisdom can have dire consequences for us, and cause great spiritual harm to others who look to our example.

As servants of Christ, we need to be able to tell the difference between God’s wisdom and our own, so that we can let God’s wisdom guide our speech and actions, and so we can avoid becoming a stumbling block for others.

So, how can you tell when there’s carp on your plate? How can you know when you are being guided by heavenly wisdom instead of earthly wisdom? James identifies several characteristics that will help us recognize the difference between heavenly wisdom and worldly wisdom, and he gives some clear examples of the evidence we can look for to make sure we are depending on wisdom from God. As we begin to let heavenly wisdom guide our lives, we can stop settling for carp.

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

 17 But 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. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:13-18)

Teachers use ‘best practices’ to help students remember – and use – the skills and concepts needed to master a particular discipline. The best way to teach a skill is to provide careful coaching until the skill is performed correctly once, then use repetitive practice until the skill is mastered. The skill must be performed correctly at least once before any repetitions can be called “practice.” (Until then, repetitions are just “attempts”.)

But to learn a concept, or idea, we need lots of examples to identify the concept’s critical attributes, or characteristics. We need positive examples, to establish what the concept is, and we also need negative examples to learn what the concept is not.

James is a good teacher. He wants us to follow heavenly wisdom, and he gives us both positive and negative characteristics we can recognize in our own speech and conduct, so we can determine when heavenly wisdom is guiding us.

First of all, heavenly wisdom is pure, and last of all, it is sincere. These bookends of purity and sincerity frame the list of positive characteristics. Purity of heart is easy to spot. The world might call the spiritually pure naïve or gullible, and some might even try to take advantage of this. But remember that purity is a mark of wisdom. There is no guile or deceit in heavenly wisdom. It is transparent and honest.

Linguistic experts insist that the legend surrounding the origins of the word ‘sincere’ is no more than a folk tale, but that folk tale is a good one. It goes like this:

In ancient times, a potter who wanted to disguise an imperfection in a vase or vessel could fill the crack with wax, buff it smooth, and pass off a damaged piece of pottery as whole. The only way to see the crack would be to hold the vase up to the light. So potters of integrity began to advertise their wares as Sine Cera, or ‘without wax.’ To be sincere meant you weren’t hiding anything, or trying to pass off imperfection as perfect. Whether or not James knew the story about the potter, he certainly knew that heavenly wisdom would never try to disguise an imperfection. Heavenly wisdom always tells the unvarnished truth.

Sandwiched in between purity and sincerity, James lists characteristics that are very closely related: peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial… that last one must have been referring to the problem James addresses in chapter two, where the wealthy were being treated with favoritism in the early church.

Being at peace with others seems to be the primary focus of heavenly wisdom in this passage, for James restates this idea in verse 18: peacemakers who sow in peace will reap a harvest of righteousness. Righteousness here can also be translated as justice, goodness, or being made right.

What do all these characteristics of heavenly wisdom hold in common? They describe how we are to interact with others. The focus is outward, considering the other’s need with personal humility, acting and speaking in love.

To make sure we get the point, James gives us some negative examples, as he lists the characteristics of earthly wisdom: selfish ambition, bitter envy, boasting, denying the truth. Just as heavenly wisdom results in peace, James tells us that earthly wisdom results in disorder ‘and every evil practice’. Such chaos is the exact opposite of peace.

But notice what earthly wisdom’s characteristics hold in common: selfish ambition, envy, boasting, and lying are all inward-focused tendencies. Instead of being all about another’s need and well-being, earthly wisdom is all about me. My needs, my desires.

Isaiah 5:21 says, “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!” They depend on earthly wisdom. They discover they have been eating carp.

Being guided by heavenly wisdom is certainly important as we strive to live out our call as Christians, but let me remind you that our call is to some form of ministry, and ministry always means ministry to someone else. Will we benefit personally? Certainly! But our own good is not what we look for when we seek heavenly wisdom. It is the good of others that drives us.

If we take a look at this passage in the context of the entire letter from James, we see that this lesson about heavenly wisdom falls in between two lessons on taming the tongue. James is eager for our interactions with others to reflect Godly wisdom. This means governing our speech so the things we say show compassion and mercy instead of pride and envy. Psalm 141:3 says, “Set a guard over my mouth, LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.” And Jesus admonishes us to remember, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:10)

Heavenly wisdom isn’t something to acquire and keep to ourselves as some special secret knowledge. Its purpose is to help us as we speak and act, teach and encourage, ministering in Christ’s name to those he died to save. Heavenly wisdom’s greatest purpose is to show love.

So, what’s on your plate? Is it a melt-in-your-mouth, freshly caught fish fillet? Or is it mucky-tasting carp? If your speech reflects your own ambition or bitter envy, it’s time to clean the carp bones out of your teeth. If the words falling out of your mouth express sincere, compassionate, humble love, may God continue to grant you the grace to show heavenly wisdom in all you say and do.

The big question, however, is this: how do we get such heavenly wisdom? The answer is found in the pages of the Bible. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” we read in the psalms and proverbs. (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 1:7, Proverbs 9:10) We develop a healthy fear of the Lord by reading his Word.

That is why we are taking on this journey through the Bible called The Story. As we read together from the beginning to the end of God’s biblical story, we will learn how God’s great love for us has been demonstrated time and again. And we will discover how our own stories are part of God’s story.

On Wednesday night, we watched a short video made by Randy Frazee’s church, as they were beginning this same journey together. In the video, actors put on a skit about being on the game show Jeopardy. As the skit begins, there is only one category left on the Jeopardy board – The Bible. It’s pretty clear that the players know very little about the scriptures. They can’t get a single question right, even though their answers are pretty funny.

We didn’t watch the next part of Randy’s video, but I can tell you that it is based on the game show Deal or No Deal. Have you watched that before? 26 suitcases hold dollar amounts from .01 to 1,000,000, and the contestant’s job is to choose, by process of elimination, the suitcase with the highest dollar amount. As the game progresses, the banker makes a cash offer to the player. If the player accepts the deal, the game is over.

Today, I’m going to make you the same offer Randy Frazee made to his church, when The Story had just begun. In your bulletin is a commitment sheet. We’re going to go through it together. You can decide “Deal” or “No Deal” for each of the items listed on the page. When we’re finished, you will have decided how much you want to commit to this process, how much you want to invest in heavenly wisdom. …

 

 

 

Made for a Purpose – Sermon on Genesis 2:4-9, 15-17

We’ve had a great start to reading The Story together.
Several of you have already told me about the way this has impacted your lives, and it is good to see God already at work among us.  If you missed the discussion on Wednesday night, let me bring you up to speed.  (Then plan to join us this Wednesday, as we dive into chapter two!)

Here’s what we have so far:

The beginning of our journey through the story of the Bible is like the beginning of an action-packed movie. If you miss the opening scenes of a good action movie, you will probably not understand the rest of the story. There is so much packed into those first few minutes, it’s worth sitting through all the previews to make sure you’re in the theater when the action starts.

It is the same with the Bible’s grand story. The story of Creation sets the scene for the whole revelation of God in the Bible. So many things happen here at the very beginning, and so many characters are introduced that you may miss an important fact if you skip this first chapter.
If you come into the theater after this movie has begun, you might think this is a story about Adam and Eve, and what happens to them.  

And you would be wrong.

The main character of the Grand Story of the Bible is God.
This is a story about who God is, and what God does.  The very first thing God does in this story is create. From Genesis 1:1, we learn that the beginning of the universe is not an impersonal accident, but the result of the creative purpose of a personal God.  

The story of creation is presented to us as a poem. It is art. The book of Genesis is traditionally attributed to Moses, but he wasn’t around at the beginning, so what he wrote probably came from words that had been spoken from one generation to the next. The easiest way to remember an important story and pass it along to others is to put it into the form of a poem or song. Here in Genesis, we have a beautiful work of art that tells us how the world was formed.

It’s arranged in an order that makes sense, and is easy to remember. First, God makes the places, and then he creates the things that belong in those places. So, on the first day, God makes light and dark, one the second day, he divides sky and water, and on the third day, God creates land and covers it with vegetation. Then on the fourth day, God puts stars and moon and sun where they belong, to rule over the day and night that were created on the first day. On day five, God puts birds into the sky and fish into the sea, and on day six, God populates the land with animals. God saves his crowning achievement for last. The final thing God makes is humankind.  God’s core passion is people, made in God’s own image. 

We read in Genesis 1:26-27:

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

All the beauty of creation is secondary to you. Let this truth sink in. God made you in God’s own image, whether you are male or female, for a purpose: to live with God while caring for his creation. God’s supreme passion is to be with us at all costs, to give us everything that is good. 

“In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, 5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6 but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7 then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8 And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:4-9)

“15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.16 And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (2:15-17)

Notice that the tree of life was not forbidden for food. Only the tree of death, knowing good and evil.
And almost from the beginning, something goes wrong. We call it “the Fall” but it really should be called Adam and Eve’s rebellion. 

You see, when God made humans, his purpose was to live together with us in friendship. But God knew that the only way that could work would be if humans chose to love God the way God chose to love us. God gave Adam and Eve the freedom to choose.
They could choose life in friendship with God, or they could choose death, by knowing both good and evil.

God does not force love.
Love must be given freely, or it isn’t love. So God let Adam and Eve choose, and they made the wrong choice. Adam and Eve rebelled against God and ate from the forbidden “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and God’s vision to be with people was ruined. 

But here’s the good news: the rest of the Bible is about God’s pursuit to get us back!

Sin damages the whole human race.
Because Adam and Eve chose a different vision than God’s vision, sin became part of their spiritual DNA and they produced more sinners. Their children were born with sinful natures, one brother even killing another out of jealousy. And the sin virus was passed on from generation to generation, until things got so bad, God said, “I want a do-over.”

So God looked for the most righteous person he could find, and he chose Noah to start over. But it didn’t work. The flood erased the wicked human race, but did not erase the sin nature from Noah and his family.  Once they were off the ark, Noah planted a vineyard, and made wine from the grapes. One day, his youngest son found Noah drunk and naked, and he went snickering to tell his brothers about it.

“When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. 22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.”
(Genesis 9: 21-23.)


There’s a clue at the very beginning of God’s story that God has a plan to save us, and Noah’s nakedness points us back to that clue. After Adam and Eve sinned and became aware of their nakedness, they made fig leaf clothing to cover their nakedness. God took away the fig leaves and covered Adam and Eve with the skins of animals. Here’s the clue:  For God to restore humans to their place in Gods created order, blood must be shed. 

God created the world with the grand vision of living together with us in the world. It is God’s supreme passion to be with you. God gave us freedom of choice. Adam and Eve chose out of the freedom of their will to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and ruined God’s vision of living with us.  
Sin was deposited permanently into the nature of Adam and Eve, a deadly virus separating them from a holy God. God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and set angels to guard it, in order to keep them from the Tree of Life, which would sustain life forever. Without access to this tree, they would eventually die.

We think God is being cruel by letting us die. But it’s actually an act of God’s grace to keep us from being able to sustain our life forever in a state of sin and hatred. Man’s choice resulted in separation from God, and it broke his heart. The ‘rest of the story,’ the entire Bible, tells us of the relentless pursuit of God and the extent to which he will go in order to get us back.

The flood is God’s first attempt to go to great measures to get us back. But it doesn’t work because it doesn’t deal with sin. Sin goes onto the ark with Noah, and it disembarks with him. But God isn’t finished. He will not let his good creation go.

Let’s review…

When God replaced Adam and Eve’s fig leaves with garments of skin, he gave us a clue as to how far he would go to fulfill his supreme desire to restore a relationship with us. Even when we are ashamed and feeling vulnerable, he covers us in order to restore our relationship with him, but covering us requires the shedding of blood. We are invited to soak in the fact that the God of the universe wants to be with us more than anything else on earth. You are the point of The Story.

God wants to be with you. Think about that. You. God wants to personally be with you. At great cost to God, God has done everything possible to get you back. You are valuable. Recognizing your own personal worth begins by believing what God says about you.

In Psalm 139 we read:

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
 before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God!  How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
 they would outnumber the grains of sand— (Psalm 139:14-18)

There was a time in my life when I had to read those five verses out loud to myself every day. I did not feel fearfully and wonderfully made. I felt completely worthless. I was sure that God didn’t care about me anymore. I had wandered away from God. I had turned my back on him, and I was afraid to turn around, because I had convinced myself that God had turned his back on me. Yet, when I read these words, I began to realize that God had been waiting for me all along. God wanted me back.  

Then one day, I glanced backward in my Bible and read the last verse of the psalm right before this one, psalm 138. The psalmist writes,
“The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever! Do not forsake the work of your hands.” 

The Lord will fulfill his purpose for you. God made you for a reason. He gave you a purpose when he formed you, before you were even born. No matter how far away from God you wander, no matter how much you rebel against his plan for you, he wants you back.

The rest of the story is all about God’s work to restore each of us to our place in his perfect creation. We can take the first step toward that restoration when we confess our sins and ask God to forgive us. Psalm 139 ends with these words:

“Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.”

The way everlasting is the path back to God, whose love endures forever. His purpose for all of us is to live in loving relationship with him, and he has created you to do that in a way that is completely unique to you. God made you for a purpose that only you can accomplish. Will you let God fulfill his purpose for you? He will not forsake the work of his hands. His love for you endures forever.

Will you take the first step back to God?

Let us pray.

Lord, you formed us and made us in your image, but we don’t do a very good job of reflecting your glory sometimes. You made us to walk with you in friendship, but we often turn away from you. We know this breaks your heart. Yet, you don’t give up on us. Your steadfast love endures forever. 

Help us, Lord. Help us to see your way in front of us, and help us to follow in that way. We pray for the things that continue to break your heart: for the migrants fleeing war and terror with no place to go, for those who suffer from incurable disease, for those who mourn. We pray for leaders to rise up among your people who will stand for justice and righteousness. We pray all this in the name of your son, Jesus Christ, Amen.