Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, January 24, 2022
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Whose Friend Are You?

Mark 9:30-37 and James 3:13-4:7

 The words Jesus spoke in Mark 9 and the words that James wrote in his epistle were about 20 years apart, but both dealt with the same basic issue:  Are we going to live by the wisdom of the world or by the wisdom of God?  

 Mark 9 is set shortly after Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah.  And much to the dismay of the disciples, Jesus keeps saying that “The Son of Man will die,” which is not what they expect of him as Messiah.  Mark tells us that Jesus was trying to avoid the crowds.  He was trying to spend time with his disciples so he could prepare them for what is coming.  But they just don’t get it.  

They are still thinking of the Messiah in very worldly terms.  We talked about that last week.  Almost everyone expected that the Messiah was going to bring in an earthly kingdom through military power and victory.  They think Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to begin his conquest.  And they are arguing about which of them will have the most prominent place in this messianic kingdom.  

Status was a very important thing in the ancient world.  But there was almost no way to move up in status.  A slave could become free.  Very rarely a person might move up from the poor to the middle class.  But for the most part, wealth and nobility could only be had by birth.  Classes were much more fixed than in our world.  Most first century Jews were poor freemen, only higher than slaves in status.  But they were God’s chosen people.  So they expected that in the new creation, they would receive a higher status.  

Jesus said, “The first must take last place and become the servant of all.”  Humility and loving service to neighbor are the ways to greatness in God’s economy.  Jesus pointed them to a child.  In the first century world, children had almost no status.  And to enter into the Kingdom of God, we must become like a little child:  trusting and dependent on God, not grasping for more and more.  

Almost 20 years later, possibly in 49 AD, James was writing to fellow believers in and around Judea.  In the years between Jesus’ words and James’ words, the tensions had continued to rise in Judea.  The movement called the Zealots had gained momentum.  They were committed to violent revolution against Rome, but also against their fellow Jews who were seen as collaborators.  Some Jews had gained wealth and power by cooperating with the Romans, and were seen as traitors.  

James was writing to fellow believers, Jews who had become Christians, who were living in the midst of this tense and hostile culture.  They were not removed from the world, so they were tempted by it.  They were tempted to join in with the Zealot cause.  The Zealots claimed to be wise, but it was a very worldly wisdom.  It was earthly in its focus, unspiritual, and Satanically motivated.  

True wisdom, James reminds us, is that which comes down from above, from God.  True wisdom is humble, pure, peace-loving, gentle, willing to yield to others rather than demanding its own way, it is full of mercy, does good, and shows no partiality.  True wisdom is not jealous.

In the Greek language, the same root word meant both jealous and zealous, as in the name Zealots.  Jealousy and envy can be a root of all kinds of evil.  It is not for nothing that God included envy in the 10 Commandments.  The last of the 10 Commandments, “You shall not covet,” is the only of them that deals with human relationships that has anything to say about something than actions.  The internal life matters.  The envy in a person’s heart is the thing that leads to lying, stealing, adultery, and murder in their actions.  As Jesus said, it is not the things out there in the world that lead to sin; it is the internal matters of the heart that lead to sin.  

The Zealots tried to justify those things.  They went so far as to justify murder, if the “right person” was murdered.  They murdered their fellow countrymen who were seen as collaborators with Rome, justifying it as an acceptable means of “wealth redistribution.”  

I believe that our world focuses on a mentality of scarcity.  The world focuses on limited resources, and part of that philosophy is that the “more so-and-so has, the less there is for me.”  So of course, then, you don’t want others to have more.  It’s hurting you if they do.  And I think we see that attitude in the world.  In the eyes of some, it’s not enough for me to have more, I want others to have less.  Quite possibly, I want to take what’s theirs because they have too much, and I, of course, never have enough.

But there is always an abundance with God.  God is always able to supply our needs.  Jesus said so in Matthew chapter 6:  “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.  So don’t worry about everyday life, what you will eat, drink, wear.  Does not God take care of his creation:  The birds and the flowers?  Are you not more valuable to God than those?  God will give you what you need from day to day, if you

seek his Kingdom first.”  God may not give us everything we want, but he promises that if we trust him and seek him first, he will give us what we need.

James tells us that envy destroys the life of prayer.  There are three reasons that God does not answer our prayers, according to James.  The first is because we do not ask.  The second is if we ask for the wrong things.  We ask for what we want; and God is not obligated to give us everything we want.  And third, we ask with the wrong motives.  Our goal is selfish gain and not genuine need.  

In verse 4, James calls his readers a bunch of adulterers.  That’s probably not on the list of ways to win friends and influence people.  But there is a reason for it.  They are acting like spiritual adulterers.  They have been unfaithful to God.  They have put earthly things ahead of God.  They are acting like friends of the world, not friends of God.  And it is impossible to be a friend of God and of the world at the same time.  

The Greek word for world is KOSMOS.  It often referred to the physical world.  But in the New Testament, it was also used to describe a mindset, a way of thinking.  “The world” is a way of thinking that has no place for God.  It is living as if this life is all there is.  I had a professor in seminary who said that the world is like an old television commercial that said, “You only go around once, so go for all the gusto you can.”  That is the world.  This life is all there is, so you may as well try to have it all right now.  

Jesus said it this way in Matthew 6:  “No one can serve two masters.  He will hate one and love the other or be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and Mammon,” an Aramaic word that meant money or things of this world.  

Verse 5 tells us that God is jealous for us.  That’s actually a pretty tricky verse to translate.  I think the best translation is something along the lines of “God is jealous for our spirits.”  We were made by God and we were made for God.  We rightly belong to him and we are meant to have relationship with him.  Jealousy can be a bad thing, but it doesn’t always have to be.  It is not wrong to be jealous for what rightly belongs to you.  And we rightly belong to God.  In the 10 Commandments, God says, “I am a jealous God who will not share your affection with other so-called gods.”  And in Deuteronomy 32, God says, “They have roused my jealousy by serving idols and things that are not gods.”  

Are James’ words from 2000 years ago still relevant today?  I should say they are!  I think our society is built on a foundation of envy.  We are all told that we should want what others have.  That is how advertising works.  Advertisers show us people who have

things that we do not, and they show us how wonderful life is for them.  And the implication of it all is, “You would be happy and satisfied if you had this thing, this car, this vacation, this kitchen, etc.”  

But I think there is more.  Many people say that we have a growing divide in America, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.  I can’t say for sure if that’s really true, but I think many people believe it is.  And often it doesn’t matter if it’s really true if people believe it.  And I think more and more people are acting like those first century Zealots: “We deserve more and we’re going to take it!”  I think about the “Occupy” movement that started a couple years ago, Occupy Wall Street and so on.  There was a resentment of the “One-Percenters,” the richest and most powerful of our society.  There weren’t any murders that I know of, but is that coming?  

I get concerned when I hear people in politics talk about the redistribution of wealth, because that’s envy at work.  “I don’t have enough, so-and-so has too much, so someone should take some of theirs and give it to me.”  As if life is measured by the abundance of wealth.

Does this mean that we should be unconcerned about issues of injustice and inequality?  No, I don’t think so.  Certainly we should work for justice and equality in our world.  But the truth is that even if those things were to happen, it would not put an end to the strife in the human condition.  The strife in our world is because of sin at work in our hearts.  Strife and hostility are the result of a spiritual condition, not economic or social conditions.  Those who imagine that human strife would disappear if we “just fixed society” are delusional.  They don’t understand human depravity.  

What is the antidote to greed and envy?  The answer, James reminds us, is humility.  It is the pride in our hearts that says, “I deserve it.”  But humility reminds us, “I deserve nothing.  All I have I have because God has been gracious to me.”  So humble yourself before God.  That is the first and most important step to dealing with “the world” and its wisdom and its temptations.

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