James 3:13-4:3, 7-8; Mark 9:30-37
September 23, 2012
I. Before getting into full-time pastoral ministry I did educational research and editorial development for Family Concern. We shared office space with Youth for Christ in Wheaton, IL and my cubical was directly across from Vic Glavich’s. Before coming to Youth for Christ, Vic had been a legislative aid to Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield. Vic told me how one evening the senator had arrived at a hotel where he was to speak, the room was not set up and the events staff had gone home. The senator’s team was vigorously complaining to the night manager and madly scrambling to locate someone with the authority and will to call in an overtime crew. When the senator’s staff returned to tell him they were having trouble getting anyone to come in to set up, they found the senator with his coat and tie off setting up the last row of chairs. He had just enough time to freshen up in the men’s room before his audience arrived. I tell you this, not to comment of Mark Hatfield’s politics, but knowing that he openly identified himself as a disciple of Jesus, this incident illustrates that if you get close enough to God, you will welcome great humility.
A. This is a difficult lesson to learn. In Mark 9:30-37 Jesus was teaching it to his disciples, who just didn’t seem to get it. From the Mount of Transfiguration …
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
1. This is the second time in Mark that Jesus told his disciples about his impending death and resurrection. Rather than ask him about what they didn’t understand, they argued with each other about who was the greatest. I don’t think they were suggesting Abraham, Moses, David or Elijah as candidates.
2. Once they were in the house in Capernaum and away from distractions and public scrutiny, Jesus overtly told his disciples that whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.
3. Then to illustrate, he took a little child from the host family in his arms and said that receiving one child was equivalent to receiving him, to receiving the one who sent him. In the first century, children were not thought of as cute or innocent. They had no social or legal status; they were vulnerable and insignificant.
B. Candy and I got to know David and Karen Eubank when we were at Central Christian Church in Dallas. The Eubanks live in Thailand and are deeply involved with the people of Burma. They have met Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democracy movement there. So I follow the developments in Burma with personal interest. Though Aung San Suu Kyi is Buddhist, not Christian, I think her advocacy of the relaxing of sanctions against the regime in Burma now that she is free from house arrest and elected to parliament, also illustrates great humility.
C. In James 3:13 the word translated “gentleness” is the same word that is translated “humility” elsewhere. Verse 17 is a magnificent definition of great humility. “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.”
II. Great humility may seem incompatible with great visions, but both Jesus and James are clear that great humility is essential for accomplishing great visions. For Senator Hatfield, setting up chairs was as much a part of sharing his vision for the country as speaking to his audience. For Aung San Suu Kyi, making life better for all the people of Burma is more important than her personal political ambitions. Jesus was prepared to be humiliated, betrayed and killed to accomplish the redemption of broken humanity.
A. 1st Christian Church, Midwest City has a great vision to serve your neighbors in the name of Jesus. A decade ago you took the bold step of moving to Anderson and Reno into a new facility. About a year ago you took on a massive capital campaign and construction project to build the JCAC as a venue for serving your neighbors.
B. I appreciate Susan Updegraff’s encouraging and challenging update on the capital campaign. You have made a great start, but in the interim between pastors with lots of other things calling for attention, you will need to be intentionally determined to keep and accelerate the momentum on your capital campaign. This is a lot bigger than having funds come in at a pace to keep ahead of the mortgage payments. It is a lot bigger than the satisfaction of completing a successful campaign in three years. This is about actualizing your great vision of bringing the love of Jesus to your neighbors.
C. Because of that, your capital campaign is a spiritual issue. I know a lot of prayer went into moving into this building, constructing the JCAC, and into launching the capital campaign. James 4:1-3 is a stark reminder that just praying about something doesn’t necessarily obligate God to provide what is requested. God cuts through our pious language and knows whether we are asking for our ambitions or for the glory of God. How we ask is as important as what we ask.
III. How can you tell if you are asking for your ambition cloaked in noble pious words or are genuinely asking for God’s glory? Get close enough to God and you will welcome great humility. Humility so great you release your ambitions to welcome God’s vision.
A. The disciples argued about which of them was the greatest. James 3:14 names envy, selfish ambition and boasting as signs we are not on God’s wavelength. The 4th century Desert Father, Abba Matoes said, “Whenever you hear [people] praising [their] neighbor more than [themselves] it is because [they] have reached a great stature: for this is perfection to praise one’s neighbor more than oneself.” (p. 144)
B. In the next few weeks you will all have opportunity to contribute your ideas for the congregation’s vision for the future. You can expect people to have different ideas and even to disagree. The spiritual test will be whether you have great enough humility not to sink to conflicts and disputes, but to listen for the voice of God in what each one contributes.
C. Humility is elusive. Just when you think you might have achieved a little humility, it slips away. Yet, great humility does not denigrate or discount the Holy Spirit moving in you and enduing you with gifts. Just as the Apostle Paul encouraged people to use their spiritual gifts, in Romans 12:3 he wrote, “By the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
IV. So how do you get close enough to God to welcome great humility? James 4:8 says, “Draw near to God, and [God] will draw near to you.”
A. Great humility reminds me that I need God most for what I think I can handle on my own, not just when I know I’m overwhelmed. The hackles of our egos bristle when we feel we are being unfairly criticized. Defensiveness crowds out humility. The 19th century Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse wrote this antidote: “When you find that you are being maligned, accept it: it is a kind of healing mud-bath. You do well not to lose the feeling of brotherly friendliness toward those who apply this medicine to you.” (p. 242)
B. Jesus’ profound teaching about greatness and humility came as almost a sidebar to his teaching his disciples that he was to be betrayed, killed and rise again. Yes, the disciples did not understand and were afraid to ask, but their argument about greatness was not just random. For Jesus the cross and the resurrection were the essence of great humility. Jesus says to us as he tried to say to his disciples, “Start seeing the cross! Start seeing the resurrection! The cross and the resurrection are not just what I am all about, the cross and the resurrection are what I am calling you to be all about.”
C. I have quoted from the 4th century Desert Fathers and from Theophan the Recluse today. All of the Christian spiritual classics, all of the Christian spiritual giants through the centuries agree. Get close enough to God and you will welcome great humility.