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February 28, 2021

For many years Saturday Night Live had a running bit called “Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey,” a short segment between sketches filled with short, silly and non-sensical one-liners. For example, here’s my favorite:

"Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them and you have their shoes."

How’s that for a deep thought? Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey – they’re like words or wisdom or modern day proverbs driven to the absurd.

This morning we continue on in our sermon series on the book of James as today we look at a passage about wisdom, not a nonsensical kind of wisdom, but rather the real thing. In fact, in our short passage this morning, James contrasts two kinds of wisdom for us.

One is what he describes as an earthly wisdom, a false wisdom of sorts, and the other is described as a wisdom “from above”, that is a godly, heavenly, true kind of wisdom.

And through this compare and contrast, James is continuing a theme he’s been using since the start of his letter, where he’s constantly putting two paths, two choices or two options before us.

Where in chapter 1, he taught about trials, that we would consider the trials in our lives as pure joy, and put before us two options, will we see the trials in our lives as tests that strengthen our faith or tempt us into sin?

Later in chapter 1, he talked about hearing and doing, that we wouldn’t simply be those who hear the word, but also people who do it as well.

Then in chapter 2, he talked about faith and works, that we wouldn’t simply have an empty faith, but rather an active faith that naturally produces good works.

And then last week, as we looked at the subject of our tongue, that is, our words and speech, James challenged us, asking if would use our words to bless our Lord and Father and neighbor or to curse them?

Just about each week, James puts before us two paths, two ways to live, two choices, and this morning, he’s doing much of the same as it pertains to wisdom.

Will we seek after and live lives that reflect true and godly and heavenly wisdom or an earthly one? That seems to be the question James is driving towards in this passage on wisdom.

As for this morning, we’ll focus on three things. First, the characteristics of what James describes as earthly wisdom, followed by the characteristics of heavenly wisdom, then finishing with more generally, how to grow in wisdom itself.

So let’s get started:

James says,

14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.

So notice how he is characterizing earthly wisdom, not only does he describe it as unspiritual or devilish, but also describes it as those who have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts.

That earthly wisdom is revealed through bitter envy and selfish ambition. Which, in a way, doesn’t sound like wisdom at all and seems strange and counterintuitive that James would characterize this earthly wisdom as wisdom at all.

Yet, here seems to be his point, and that is that the logic and wisdom of this world often champions and promotes a “me first” mentality where bitter envy and selfish ambition are at the forefront.

Often times, the wisdom of this world, whether it be through popular culture or self help books or whatever else, tells us that we need to look out for ourselves above all, and that we’d be wisest to seek our own personal gain above all. A wisdom that says, I’ve got to look out for myself and my own interests above all. And from there, this logic or wisdom often displays itself in more subtle and benign ways when we say things like, “look within, follow your heart, you do you, look out for #1,” things like that.

It’s a wisdom that promotes selfish ambition that can drive people to the top, and yet manifests itself through bitter envy of others when we feel that others are further along or more successful than we are.

And given this, here’s what follows this kind of wisdom. James says,

16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.

Here I think he’s speaking to the ramifications of earthly wisdom as it relates to them as a community – that where there is envy and selfish ambition, a “me first” attitude, you’ll find disorder as well.

There’s a great example of earthly wisdom, gone wrong, in the sports world. One of the things you’ll notice in professional sports is that teams rarely repeat as champions, they so rarely win in one year and then defend their title by winning a second. Now, truth is there are some nerdy sports reasons why that is, that I won’t bore you with here, rather I share this with you because there’s a very human reason why as well, one characterized by a wisdom of bitter envy and selfish ambition.

Legendary basketball coach Pat Riley has an explanation for all this, describing a team’s inability to win back to back championships as the “Disease of More.” At first, that “more” was winning the championship. But once players have that championship, it’s no longer enough. The “more” becomes other things - more money, more TV commercials, more endorsements and accolades, more playing time, more plays called for them, more media attention, much of which is driven by envy and selfish ambition.

As a result, what was once a cohesive group of hardworking men and women begins to fray. Everyone wants more. Everyone says, “Me first.” It’s my time for the spotlight and acclaim. More, more, more, more. As James says,

16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.

Whether it be on the sports field, in our congregations, in our workplaces, in our homes, or baked into popular culture and ethos of the day, there’s an earthly wisdom that wants to take root, characterized by bitter envy and selfish ambition, one that says, “Me first.”

But of course, that’s not the only kind of wisdom out there. It’s about time we get positive, and consider a different kind of wisdom, a heavenly wisdom, a wisdom from above.

Here’s what James says next:

17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.

A pretty beautiful list, right? You know sometimes I feel like James focuses too much on the negative, that he’s some kind of Debbie Downer or Negative Nancy, or maybe a Judgmental Jamesy, that was the best alliteration I could come up with. But then he surprises us with a gem like verse 17,

17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.

There’s a reason why I referred to earthly wisdom as a “me first” attitude, and that is, I think it provides a helpful and simple contrast between the two kinds of wisdom, and that heavenly wisdom, doesn’t say “me first,” but rather, “you first” or “we first.”

The wisdom from above is pure, it doesn’t have any ulterior motives. It’s peaceable – it strives for peace with everyone, as far as it depends on us. It’s gentle – it’s a strength under control that is kind and patient with one another. It’s willing to yield – it gives up its own rights for the sake of the group, it defers and relinquishes power and control and preference when appropriate. It’s a wisdom that says “you first”, “we first”, not “me first.”

One of my favorite stories that speaks to this kind of wisdom is found in Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play major league baseball. (Yes, that’s right, two sports illustrations in one day, so you’re either going to love or hate this sermon … but this one was too good to pass up.)

One of the most remarkable details about Jackie Robinson is that growing up, he was better at football, but yet chose to pursue professional baseball, as unlike football, was a sport that had not integrated yet, and so Robinson pursued baseball, hoping to bring change, hoping to be a trail blazer, yet also knowing he’d be walking a very difficult path.

Robinson was a fiery man and a man of deep convictions. Ordinarily, he was fearless about expressing those convictions, but for his first two years with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he chose to remain almost totally silent, whatever racist comments or insults or abuse were heaped upon him, as he wanted to prove that his race, that black people had the mental and athletic toughness to compete at the highest levels.

And story has it that at the height of this tension and racial strife, there was a great moment on the field one day, where in one game another team was firing the cruelest of racist slurs at Robinson inning after inning and inning.

And Pee Wee Reese, a white southern man, one of Robinson’s most popular and accomplished teammate, faced a choice. He could pretend he heard nothing. He could shout back at the other team. But yet, as the jeers and taunts grew, in between innings when he and his teammates were out in the infield, Reese walked over to Robinson, draped his arm around his shoulder, and smiled at the opposing team. And the tormentors in the dugout fell silent.

Consider the wisdom shown by both men. For Robinson, he quietly and patiently and courageously stood his ground, in helping to bring change and racial healing to professional baseball and beyond. And Reese, put his reputation out on the line when he walked across that baseball diamond and put his arm around Robinson, we not me. Both men were strong, yet gentle, courageous, yet peaceable. They showed and embodied heavenly wisdom, a wisdom from above.

17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.

Earthly wisdom vs. Heavenly wisdom. False wisdom vs. True wisdom. A wisdom from below vs. a wisdom from above.

Here in our passage, James has painted a picture of the two paths of wisdom, describing to us what they look like, and what characterizes them, but yet, it seems though that there is another important question we must consider and that is, how do we grow in wisdom? How do we get more of it? I’m not totally sure that this is a question that James addresses in this passage, but yet it feels worth addressing.

In some respects, we gain wisdom through age and experience and the lessons of success and failure.

There’s a story about a young man was appointed president of a bank. And overwhelmed by his new responsibilities, he nervously sought the advice of his old predecessor, asking: "Sir, what has been the secret of your success?"

And the old man said: "The secret, young man, is two words: right decisions!"

"But how do you make right decisions?"

"One word: experience."

"But how do you get experience?"

The old man smiled. "Two words: wrong decisions."

Right? That is so often the road to wisdom. It’s learning and growing through the experience of making wrong decisions, to then one day (Lord willing) make right ones.

But yet, wisdom doesn’t always have to be learned the hard way. In many ways, wisdom is a product of what we give ourselves to and fill our minds with.

And here I’m helped and challenged by something called The Wisdom Pyramid.

Somewhere in your bulletin if you have one is something called the Wisdom Pyramid created by a pastor by the name of Brett McCracken. And it’s a clever play on the old food pyramid, and I share it with you because I think it’s a really helpful image when it comes to how we grow in wisdom.

So think of the food pyramid, towards the bottom are all the staples, the things we need most, things like grains, then fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy and as you work up the food pyramid, as the pyramid gets smaller, you move towards food groups that we should eat less and less of, until you get to the top where there are things like candy.

The wisdom pyramid functions in the same way. At the bottom the core staple is as you might imagine, the bible itself, God’s living and active Word, the first and primary source where we find God’s wisdom. And then going up, in descending order of importance, above it is the church which captures, both what a church believes, as well as the wisdom and discernment that come from the people within it, our brothers and sisters in Christ. Above that is nature and beauty, the idea here is that we would spend time and enjoy and learn from creation itself. Above that is books, followed by the internet and social media. Together it makes up the wisdom pyramid.

Pretty cool, right? Though, truth is, I find it not only to be a helpful graphic, but a sobering one as well. Because I’ll be honest, there are days when my wisdom food groups are out of order, where it feels like my wisdom pyramid is upside down.

Maybe you feel the same way, and if so, I would encourage you to honestly ask yourself, what does your wisdom pyramid on a day to day basis right now and what might it look like, or what might it take for your pyramid to look more like this one?

Somewhere in your inbox, or spam folder, is a link to something called the Wisdom 40 challenge, essentially, a list of super practical ideas and examples of how we can live out the principals and guidance of the Wisdom Pyramid during the 40 days of Lent, a season that we’re about 10 days into at this point.

There you have it, the wisdom pyramid.

I’ll finish with this. Rather, we’ll finish by going back to the beginning of our passage. James begins with this question and answer, saying:

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.

Here James is asking a simple question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” to get us to begin to reflect on the nature of true wisdom.

And when he answers this question by saying, “Show it by your good life.” He’s highlighting a key trait of wisdom, one that separates itself from pure knowledge.

And that is, wisdom is more than knowledge and intellect, but also behavior too.

True, godly wisdom reveals itself, displays itself through our actions, through our living. Otherwise, it’s just knowledge at best.

Even more, when James says that those who are wise should show it by their good life, that word that James uses for good is likely better understood as attractive or appealing or even beautiful.

That is, real wisdom, true wisdom, heavenly wisdom from above, when displayed in the lives of you and me, is beautiful. It’s attractive, it’s compelling. Have you ever admired someone from afar and thought to yourself, wow, they have a beautiful life? They are living a beautiful life. Chances are, they’re likely one of the wisest people you know.

Real wisdom displays itself through a beautiful life, a life well lived. And call me crazy, but how could you not want that?

In the end, the wisdom from above that need is a wisdom that is outside of ourselves, one that we must seek and find in all humility.

For as the proverb says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Wisdom is a healthy respect and acknowledgment of the way God has designed the world, a healthy respect and acknowledgment of how God has defined good and evil.

So let’s be people who strive for, who pursue a wisdom from above, to the glory of God.

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