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. …




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