GCI Sermon – September 19, 2021

Wisdom from the Brother of Jesus

James 3:13-18; 4:3, 7-8 ESV

You wonder if the sight was familiar to him. Maybe he’d once watched his brother up there on that pinnacle—hesitating, talking to someone. Now he was there himself.

This was the end of life for the apostle James. He was led here by an angry mob—to the same pinnacle of the temple where Jesus was led by Satan years before.

James was forced to the temple spire and told to tell the people to stop believing in Jesus. He, of course, used this as opportunity to preach the gospel loudly to the crowd.

The mob pushed him from the tower, and he crashed to the ground. He didn’t die. They started to stone him. He still didn’t die. He rose to his knees, praying for Jesus to forgive his attackers. Someone hit him with a club, and then he died and was buried right there at the steps of the temple.

This is the tradition of the martyrdom of James, the brother of Jesus. Traditions aren’t nearly as reliable as Scripture, so we don’t know the exact details, but we know most of the apostles faced similar deaths, and the idea of James, the brother of Jesus, enduring to the end and praying for the forgiveness of his attackers fits what we know of James and the other apostles.

James was in charge of the Jerusalem church, which was one of the epicenters of the early church but also the most embattled and troubled. Despite their initial reluctance to welcome Gentile believers, the Jerusalem church was eventually supported financially by Gentile communities (see Romans 15 and other letters of Paul). They had some acute needs and were often in tension with their Jewish neighbors.

As the details of this martyrdom story show, James was tough, focused and Christ centered. If Paul was your philosophy professor, and Peter was your hothead friend always getting in trouble, James was your football coach. The wisdom of connecting true faith and actions is his theme, and he rings it throughout his short letter.

He starts with two topics we can all relate to: the danger of showing favoritism and the taming of the tongue. It’s interesting that he starts with universal and “acceptable” sins. He doesn’t jump straight to murder or fornication. James’ target audience is everyday people struggling with everyday sins. In a word: us.

In chapters 3 and 4, he digs into this wisdom theme, seeing godly wisdom as the place that right action grows from. He compares heavenly wisdom with its cheap, earthly copy. For James, wisdom means living life the way God made it—living according to the grain of reality.

Let’s look at three things James teaches us about wisdom. Wisdom from above:

  • Comes from peace
  • Arrives with gentleness
  • Brings wholeness

Comes from peace

And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:18 ESV)

It’s no secret that we live in noisy times—from the alarm that wakes us up to the manufactured white noise we need to sleep. More than any other era in history, our center of peace is crowded with sound.

An observation from a recent article on the noise of our modern age says the following:

Scientists define “noise” as unwanted sound, and the level of background din from human activities has been doubling roughly every three decades, beating population growth. Road traffic in the United States has tripled over the last 30 years.

It’s often hard to find a center of peace, yet James encourages us to be the center of peace for others. James’ point speaks to us, telling us that righteous action and the results of it comes from that center of peace. That may run against instinct for a lot of us. When we think about faith and faith instruction, we might automatically think of busyness and work—changing our habits, watching our interactions, serving difficult people. We may also think of the hard work it takes to go against the flow of culture and stand up for righteousness.

James doesn’t disagree with that—he is clear that the evidence of faith is action. But he says the beginning of it is peace. That peace is behind it all, and that’s where the power of living the Christian life comes from.

In our noisy, over-busy world, this kind of inner peace is the exception, even in the church. The word James uses for peace means that things are the way God made them and working together the way God made them. It corresponds to the Hebrew word “shalom.” Jewish and Muslim people greet each other with this word “shalom” (“salaam” in Arabic), wishing integration and rest to the person they meet.

Do we act out of this center of shalom?

Shalom is the state of people who know who they are in Christ and have hope and trust that God will take care of them. Shalom is this state of clear-headed quiet within this noisy world—the place where the true strength comes from.

You might be familiar with the third step in the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.

The operative word hiding in here is “care.” The antidote to addiction is believing that God will take care of you—that you don’t have to self-care through addiction anymore.

We can learn from this as Christ followers—this kind of centered peace comes from believing that Christ will take care of us. We don’t have to protect ourselves with scorching cynicism; we don’t have to live in constant distraction by devices and entertainment—God will take care of us. We don’t have to steal the spotlight and live in the constant hunger for attention—God loves us, we are his royal children.

It is out of this peace that we sow the seed whose “fruit is righteousness” (verse 18). Think of the firebrand pastor who delights in scolding his congregation and decrying the evil of “the world.” He doesn’t come from peace, and he rarely sees a harvest of righteousness.

Think of how we might abstain from certain behaviors or conversations because of our commitment to Christ. Do we do so with an air of judgment? Or with the fanfare of showing off our righteousness? Or do we do so out of shalom?

The brother of Jesus shows us that the wisdom from heaven begins and ends in peace.

Arrives with gentleness

Truly strong people freely share their strength, but they don’t waste time showing it off.

If you’ve ever had the privilege to spend time with some great saints of the faith, you may be surprised by how gentle and humble they are in their interactions. They are not announcing their strength and their credentials every time they enter a room – they let their manner and actions speak for themselves. People who “announce their strength” constantly are usually tiring company.

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. (James 3:17 ESV)

Wisdom from heaven arrives with gentleness. This word James uses translates as “equitable, fair, gentle, reasonable.” Do we arrive with gentleness? Has anyone complained recently that Christians are “too reasonable” when we arrive on the scene?

An accomplished professional journalist and marketing executive tells a story of going to see Billy Graham speak at a rally as a young college student. She was positive she was called to the missionary field and could barely sit still through her college years so she could get out to the jungle to serve. There were thousands of people at the conference, and Billy gave his typical downhome style of preaching, ending with an altar call for those who felt moved by God to go to the mission field.

This young woman stayed rooted to her seat as all her friends went forward. She had no idea what kept her there.

As the crowd filtered out, Graham himself waved at her and asked her to come closer and talk with him. Baffled by the invitation, she went up to talk with him. He said he was sure she’d be the first one up to the front for the altar call. He said he’d been watching her while he preached—to thousands of people by the way—and thought she’d jump forward to make her call to the missionary field known.

She said she had no idea what kept her seated, and then Graham chatted with her for a solid ten minutes like they’d known each other for years. Hundreds of other people vied for the preacher’s attention, but he talked with a lost college student for one suspended moment, listening to her concerns.

He encouraged her, “You know, you don’t have to go to a foreign country to make a difference. I can tell by talking to you that you will touch lives in your community and in your work life.”

As they parted ways, he took her hand in his and winked, “Now go and do great things.”

This was in 1976, after Graham had traveled the world many times, written best-selling books and advised presidents and royalty. This was not Billy just starting his career. The gentleness of this moment is shocking—Graham taking time to talk with and listen to a confused college student—there are no shortage of these examples in his life and in the life of other godly people!

But the gentleness with which he moved in the world shows someone who, despite incredible busyness and pressure, was present and available to someone in need of his attention. Instead of the seriousness and severity we might think we should be known for, James calls us to be warm, kind, and real in our interactions.

Philip Neri, a 16th century priest and missionary to the poor in Rome, was known for many great spiritual accomplishments, not the least of which was a great sense of humor. He knew how to welcome because he’d been welcomed by Christ. Heavenly wisdom, then, comes from peace and arrives with gentleness.

Brings wholeness

Let me go back to the beginning of James’ letter for a moment.

And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:4 ESV)

The word that James uses for “perfect” describes a fullness or completeness, a person that is fully integrated with their faith, values, and actions, not someone who never makes mistakes.

This is that state of heavenly wisdom—fully integrated with yourself, knowing yourself and having a keen ear for God’s direction. Most of us live in such a fragmented state that we don’t even know it. We say we believe God will take care of us, and then we try to control every situation. We say we want God’s peace on our lives, but we fill our days with noise and entertainment. We say we trust God’s provision, but we work constantly to the detriment of our relationships and worry about money compulsively.

We are out of harmony.

James describes this lack of harmony:

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. (James 3:14-15 ESV)

James describes the noisy, fragmented life we live without wisdom. Driven by lack, self-addicted and exhausted, he calls us to relief from this, refocusing on the life of wholeness God gives us.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (James 4:7-8 ESV)

Submit yourself to God. Let him take care of you rather than trying to rule your life yourself. Where there is wholeness and integration, where there is peace, there God is.

The wisdom of heaven….

Comes from peace—Peace is the starting point and the energy of heavenly wisdom.

Arrives with gentleness—Like the story of Billy Graham, truly powerful saints are known for their gentleness.

Brings wholeness—Jesus takes us from a fragmented state to a true state where we are in harmony with ourselves and others.

James, even in his final moments, showed this centered wisdom. He was tough, strong and faithful while showing his peace, and praying for forgiveness for his killers as he passed from this life.

May God allow us to be instruments of his peace to all he places in our path.


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