September 13, 2021
The Proper 20B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 9:30-37 from the Lectionary Gospel; Proverbs 31:10-31 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 54 from the Lectionary Psalms; and James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Psalm: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 114 (Lord’s Day 44)
Author: Chelsey Harmon
Verses 30-37 in Mark 9 provide us a very clear picture of a human response to fear and confusion: changing the subject instead of taking the risk to look foolish. Who likes to look dumb? Worse yet, it was just last week when we heard Peter speak up and “question” Jesus, and where did that get him? He got rebuked and identified with the evil one!
As the Textual Point below explains, verses 30-32 reveal a pattern, or ongoing activity, between Jesus and his disciples. Rather than seeing them as isolated events, when we read about Jesus saying what is going to happen to him in the immediate future, the text cues us to the fact that these conversations were ongoing projects. Which means, as the disciples kept silent, the tension built and the discomfort was getting unbearable. They were in a state of fear about asking Jesus to say more about the awful things coming out of his mouth, but having to stay present to it was becoming an even worse feeling.
The source of their fear was manifold: not understanding and feeling ill-equipped for the challenge; worrying about what might happen if they ask for help; afraid of what it all meant… Very understandable, very human responses to the situation. In true human fashion, their response to being stuck by fear is to cope by distraction—by changing the subject.
Instead of grappling together at how they might face the challenge Jesus is depicting together, they jockey for superiority among one another. After settling into a house in Capernaum (houses tend to be used by Mark for key teaching moments with the disciples), Jesus asks them what they were talking about when he was trying to talk to them on the road.
“But they were silent.”
They got caught! Ugh. Worse than the fear they felt on the road is the shame they feel now about how they tried to distract themselves from that fear. For instead of being honest, they tried to make themselves feel better by trying to be “top dog.” Top dogs feel in control and secure—exactly what’s missing when someone feels confused and afraid. The disciples know it’s the wrong approach; you don’t need the scholars to tell you that they’re like school boys who have been caught mid-mischievous act and are now standing silent because they know they’re guilty and they don’t know how to get out of trouble.
“But they were silent” communicates quite a bit and speaks directly to all of our experiences. We all know the feeling of getting caught—both in our internal angst and confusion and wanting to escape from it, and in getting found out and having to face the fact that our coping mechanism is not healthy for us (and possibly disastrous for others). We all have had the experience of knowing it would have been better to just tell the truth from the get-go. But fear is fickle that way. Even though we know it, it is hard to believe and act the truth that voicing fear is not a sign of weakness or lack of faith.
Fear will not go away on its own, and it usually takes a community of people to surround us and help us work through it. Whereas our coping mechanisms tend to isolate us, the God-designed remedy for fear is to enfold us and help us re-orient our passions into a cruciform pattern.
This is what God does in our passage. When Jesus decides to give them an object lesson in verses 36 and 37, he isn’t just addressing their debate about being the greatest, he’s also giving them a communal purpose and focus that just might help them understand that the thing they fear (what Jesus is saying is coming for him) maybe isn’t all bad—that maybe, just maybe, it will be good for the world.
We might be tempted to read some emotion into Jesus taking a seat to teach this particular lesson—that he’s tired of having to go through this with them all the time—but in the gospels, when Jesus sits, it’s a sign of his authority. By including the detail here, I see Mark communicating in-between the lines, implicitly reminding us of Jesus’ authority over not only the external chaos, but over our internal confusion, fear, and coping mechanisms as well.
Jesus tells them that greatness is measured in service, in making less of what you deserve and more of what you will do to serve others. This is literally the meta-narrative of the Incarnation, as we hear poetically in Philippians 2… Then Jesus plops a child into the center, embraces the kid, and tells his disciples that the real task to focus on is welcoming those like this little human being.
We have to pause here for a very necessary caveat. We’ve come a long way in our view of children as part of the Christian community since the time Jesus spoke these words. In some ways, we’ve overfocused on children out of fear (!) that they will lose their faith if we don’t cater to their church experience. This is perhaps not the sermon to focus on that issue, but it does make it necessary to note how our context differs with first-century Palestine. Children at the time of Jesus had no legal status, no rights, and no ability to have self-determination. They were of the lowest status and part of “the least.” Like servants, they were the kind of people who “the greats” didn’t have to waste their time interacting with… even the people who did care for children (ahem, women and servants) were thought to be less important.
Jesus taking a child and not only centering it by putting the child in the middle of the twelve disciples, but also giving the child a hug, taking the time to acknowledge and include and value the child, is a huge statement, an embodied example of the welcome he wants them to engage in.
Jesus repeats the word “welcome” four times in one sentence. Do you think it matters?
The disciples tried to ignore their fear and thought it would go away if they could feel more secure about their status. Jesus, on the other hand, shows them another way through: by giving up their status and welcoming those who have been left off the edge, they will know the welcoming presence of God in their midst. The presence of God is the best antidote to fear. Instead of clinging to things of this world, Jesus, as God, is inviting them to enter into his way by becoming like God and welcoming others through service and sacrifice. Which, it bears repeating, is the literal work of Christ in his life and death, and is also the thing that makes the disciples the most afraid.
If we consider some of the sins of the church, we can see how fear, an unwillingness to speak up, a lack of centering and welcoming people on the edges, really boils down to the fear of losing status, and perhaps worse yet in our modern world, control of the narrative (what we want to be true). I live in Canada, where some of the church and its members continue to struggle to do the work of reconciling with past sins against First Nations and against God. We wish to cling to the narrative that we had good intentions or that we personally have nothing to do with the sins of the past, but as we listen to the stories of survivors (which is their legal status in Canada) of residential schools (both government and church run), it is impossible to use the word “welcome” to describe what we did. We did not center and embrace these children, nor did we seek to value and give them status just as they were, instead thinking that we needed to “take the Indian out of the child” so that they would be more acceptable; like us. Lord in your mercy, forgive us. The fact that we continue to argue about these matters, deny the realities and debate amongst ourselves, even as thousands of unmarked graves are uncovered at the site of former schools, shows our fear. If we trace the story of other past sins, racism, misogyny, sexual abuse, greed, we’ll find the same pattern.
As it was in our text, the invitation through the fear is to welcome God into it, to welcome others into the center of importance. To surround them with service. To remind ourselves of what we have already heard from Jesus in the gospel of Mark: to ruin our lives and our status for Jesus’ sake by giving or using it for the sake of others—and not just “others” who are like us, but those who are forgotten, de-valued, or perhaps even make us nervous (i.e., a little afraid). See the Illustration Ideas below for some examples of how this is happening in some faith communities.
It is important to remember who Jesus is giving this message to. He is not speaking to an individual, he is speaking to the disciples, a community of believers. We can each take up our crosses as individuals, but there is also a calling on the collective body of Christ to reckon with its fear and to not stay silent. To confess when we’ve been caught in our sin, and to take up the task of repentance by centering those we have pushed out—whether we meant to or not.
To do unto others as Christ has done for us.
Many of the verbs in verses 30-32 are in the imperfect tense. That means, as R.T. France points out in his commentary The Gospel of Mark, we are supposed to understand them as an ongoing activity in the past. To highlight just one example: Jesus was teaching his disciples about the immediate future. (p. 371) We get a sense that he was in the habit of talking to them about his passion. The verbs describing the disciples are also in the imperfect tense. They were not just unable to understand in this moment, but were in a state of confusion about what Jesus was telling them to the point that they had become afraid to ask him to explain it. Did they think Jesus had talked so much about it that it would be bad to ask him about it now? Did they feel ashamed—as though they should understand what he was saying? Or was it that they didn’t want to understand it because the cost of doing so was too high? Maybe combination of all these (or others)?
Centering people, as Jesus did with the child, is more than having a ministry that serves them—though that’s a great start. “Welcoming” is much broader than that.
Though it is not enough, my denomination, the CRCNA in Canada has three Urban Indigenous Ministry Centres “where Indigenous people can feel safe, valued, and respected to use their gifts and to grow.” Learn more about them through links on this page: https://www.crcna.org/indigenous/urban-indigenous-ministry-centres
To work through our fears in order to serve those who have no status is truly a difficult one. This article talks about one church’s attempt to welcome members into their church from the Living Water Ministry Network (a ministry that helps men paroling from prison reintegrate into the community):
If you watch the video about this story, you’ll notice that what we gain from welcoming is a greater understanding of grace. As a bonus, the video has the story of this church and alongside another one seeking to be a community of welcome: https://vimeo.com/178634280.
Author: Scott Hoezee
What are we to make of this conclusion to Proverbs? In the past some women saw it as a kind of blueprint for life and so were honored if they could be seen as fitting this profile of the “wife of noble character.” Not surprisingly, more recent times have witnessed other reactions. Some now more-or-less reject these words because they think this represents a biblically sanctioned role restriction for women as being domestic only.
Meanwhile others have hailed this as a kind of proto-feminist tract in that it shows women as active in not only household affairs but in wider concerns, too, involving commerce in the larger society.
And then . . . sometimes you see cemetery headstones that are lovingly engraved with the line, “Her children arise and call her blessed.” In a lighter vein you sometimes may hear a woman who works full-time outside the home joke with her friends about how she’s not exactly “a Proverbs 31 woman”.
But there are textual oddities here, too. What is this doing at the end of a book made up mostly of proverbs, maxims, and aphorisms? This book does not typically present you with long passages about just one thing: it tends to be more wide-ranging and eclectic (which is precisely why many of us resist ever preaching on Proverbs). Yet now it concludes with an extended passage on a single theme. What’s more, these verses are not proverb-like at all. Wisdom is mentioned in passing just once and folly is not mentioned at all. Also, unlike any other part of this book, these verses are a poem written in the form of an acrostic.
In short, Proverbs 31 is not like the rest of the book, is not a string of wise sayings, and in fact scarcely deals with this book’s central theme at all in any overt way. And this is the climax of Proverbs? How does this fit and how should we interpret it today?
To begin I want to suggest that these verses are neither a timeless blueprint which all women must follow to the letter as God’s sole will for their lives nor is it a piece of stealth feminism that demonstrates that even way back in Solomon’s day life wasn’t quite so patriarchal after all. Rather this is like an old photograph you find in a shoebox in an antique store somewhere: it gives you a window on an ancient time when men were in charge, ruling things from the city gates, and when women took care of all things domestic. It would probably be a stretch to say that this woman’s purchase of a field or her trading at the market puts her on a par with her husband (much less that it was some ancient equivalent of working outside the home). To suggest that it means this would have been shocking news to the wife and husband depicted in Proverbs 31 (and probably also to the author of this poem, to whom talk of equality and sexism would have been utterly foreign, and perhaps even distasteful).
Instead we need to take these verses for what they are: a glimpse into a different time, culture, society, and mind-set. We no more need to wonder what is the modern equivalent of a husband sitting at the city gates than we need to ponder whether a woman buying her kids new mittens at Target is the equivalent of knitting the family scarlet attire for the winter. It probably won’t work to try to line these verses up on a one-to-one basis with life today. That hardly renders these verses irrelevant, however. In fact, if we can come to understand how and why this apparently out-of-place poem actually rounds out Proverbs quite nicely, we may begin to see the real ways in which this connects with our lives right now.
There are two main ways by which these concluding verses help to unify the larger Book of Proverbs. One is the way this ties in with the first nine chapters and the personification you find there of Lady Wisdom (over against Lady Folly, who is consistently presented as a kind of seductive adulteress whom the wise son is told to avoid). The second way these verses clamp this book into a unity comes in verse 30 and the line about how a good woman “fears Yahweh.” That line is a clear echo of Proverbs 1:7 that claims “the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom.”
Both that verse and the image of Lady Wisdom are echoes of earlier parts of Proverbs and so both summarize what this book is finally all about: the formation of character. Having a good, wise character is founded on the fear of the Lord. A proper reverence for God means that you know right up front that this creation has a certain orderliness to it. Life possesses unity and coherence, sensibility and structure if only we take the time to discern and figure out which patterns of living work and which ones flop. Life is not a booming, buzzing confusion and so we are not free to make up our own rules as we go along. Instead we believe down to the core of our being that there is a right way and a wrong way to do most everything, and our faith in God makes us want to find the right way.
Lady Wisdom calls us to do the sometimes hard work of sorting things out, discerning right from wrong. Lady Folly, on the other hand, is always enticing us to live for the moment, to take the easy way out, to put pleasure before principle and short-term gain ahead of long-term nurturing of a good reputation. Lady Wisdom tells us to measure our speech, to value people more than things. Lady Folly says that being your own unique personality, expressing your own opinions, and amassing life’s goodies are more important than fitting yourself into what God wants you to be.
That is what this book has been about all along. So now we come to the end and find this lyric portrait of one person who is Lady Wisdom incarnate. Never once is this woman said to do anything just for herself–her attention is ever and only on others, whether it is her own children or some poor people she happens to see on the street. Additionally, like the Book of Proverbs in general which ranges so far and wide across the face of life, so also the depiction of this woman zooms right along. These verses encompass everything from household finances to dinnertime, everything from sewing to real estate, everything from prudent speech to business transactions.
In the culture of that time the actions described in Proverbs 31 were the hallmarks of a wise woman, a good wife, a prudent mother. But although some of the specific tasks would have been different, this same kind of diligence, prudence, honest work, and focus on other people is what has been recommended throughout this book to men and women alike. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of this book (nearly all of it, in fact) was clearly addressed to young men. But this conclusion is a stellar reminder that wisdom is for everyone, male and female, husband and wife, alike. Indeed, even though at that time formal schools of wisdom were restricted to males only, Proverbs 31 stands as eloquent testimony to the fact that you didn’t necessarily need a formal education to develop wisdom–such divine wisdom can also arise from common sense and hard work in the ordinary situations of everyday life.
The underlying principles of Proverbs 31 apply to men as well as to women, but these verses demonstrate that then as well as now all tasks are honorable, all people (no matter what their station in life) are to be wise in carrying out their tasks. And if they do so, then it doesn’t matter whether the person is a CPA or a housewife, a stay-at-home dad or a working mother, a high octane lawyer who rules things from the modern city gates or a quiet widow who takes good care of her grandchildren–it doesn’t matter who a person is or what he or she does, if it is done in the fear of the Lord, it is honorable and to be commended. A person like that is worth “more than rubies” and will indeed bring praise not just to him- or herself but to other members of the family as well.
So whether in the past you have seen Proverbs 31 as describing domesticity as a peculiarly feminine matter or whether you’ve viewed it as an example that women can be just as active as men in contributing to society, either way what cannot be missed is the elevation of the mundane up into the realm of divine wisdom. All of life, Proverbs has been proclaiming all along, is to be lived in the fear of the Lord. A proper respect for the boundaries of God’s creation order is the beginning of wisdom, the end of wisdom, and the whole of wisdom.
Or as Jesus, the Wisdom of God incarnate, once put it, “Do not worry about what you will eat or what you will wear. But seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you as well.” We do not need to know much more than that the Lord Jesus abides with us every day and in every situation. The kingdom of God has something to do with everything. The wise live like they really believe that is true.
At one time or another it is something maybe most of us experienced, probably as young children. Perhaps you were at your great-grandmother’s house, rooting around under an old bed or in some musty closet when suddenly you ran across a shoebox. Curious, you slipped off the cardboard lid and peered inside. There you discovered, thrown together slapdash and in no particular order, a cache of old black-and-white photos that never made it into albums for some reason. Some are yellowed with age and faded a bit as the photographic chemicals had degraded over the decades. So you gingerly picked one up and were confronted with an image, frozen in time, from long ago.
A handful of people stare out at you–relatives of yours who died long ago and who you maybe never knew, or not very well at least. They are standing in front of an old house–probably a house that is no longer standing or, if it is, one which today would be almost unrecognizable due to remodeling and renovations. You know it’s an old house because it is covered with that gray, shingled siding that you almost never see anymore. One woman wears what looks to be a hairnet (which you also don’t much see anymore) and all of the women are wearing plaid or checked gingham house dresses. Behind them and off to one side is a Ford with enormous fenders and a design reminiscent of vintage automobiles from the 20s. On the other side, next to the house, is an old-style water hand-pump. It’s a glimpse into the past, into another time when people not only looked different but thought differently, lived differently.
Proverbs 31 is a little like that: it’s a glimpse into the distant past. This chapter is a window on another time, an ancient culture, a society structured very differently from our own. Sometimes we forget that. When you’re looking at an old photo of your great-grandparents, sometimes maybe you quietly assume that if by some magic trick of time travel you could get back to that day when the picture first was snapped, you would fit in pretty well. You imagine you would maybe enjoy talking with those folks, driving that old Ford, and spending a few days in that house during that time.
But if you could travel back in time, you might discover you wouldn’t fit very well after all because so much would be different that you’d feel lost. You’d hop in the old Ford and turn the key only to find that nothing happens. After all, what’s a starter button? In conversations with relatives from back then, you might be unsettled to hear the vaguely racist way they refer to various ethnic minorities (and maybe it would not be so vague!). You might be struck by how little they know of the wider world (having maybe never traveled more than 50 miles from home). If you described your life to them–including things like movies, shopping malls, restaurants, and travel abroad–your pious and well-meaning forebears might slap a “worldly” label on you.
Exploring Proverbs 31 is like that—it’s a trip back in time. When we forget that and try to make these verses some kind of a contemporary portrait, that is when we may get led astray.
Author: Scott Hoezee
In TV shows and movies—often as part of a comedic scene but sometimes in a more serious vein too—we have all seen the musical and visual effect that signals someone is having a flashback of a memory or is getting ready to recount something from his or her past. As you can see in the first part of this clip from the very silly movie Airplane! the woman playing a flight attendant glimpses her former boyfriend talking to someone and this makes her flash back to when they first met. Typical of such flashback scenes, some dramatic music—often harp music in some films or shows—is accompanied by the picture going all wavy and fluttery as the picture fades over to a recreation of the memory in question.
If we were to read Psalm 54 backwards, you could imagine that kind of thing happening for this psalmist. Start at verse 7 where the psalmist declares that God “has delivered me from all my troubles” and then imagine the psalmist saying, “What troubles, you ask? Well . . .” and then the picture goes wavy and some harp music plays and the psalmist takes us on a flashback to his past as recounted starting in verse 1. Because indeed, the first three verses of this psalm paint a bleak picture.
A sharp cry for help and deliverance is screamed out by the psalmist. We are then told that some genuine enemies are not just slandering the psalmist but actively trying to kill him. Whatever the specifics—and few if any psalms in the Hebrew Psalter give us such specifics—this is a dire situation. It reminds me of one of the final scenes in another movie, Saving Private Ryan. Watch just the first minute of this clip and near the one-minute mark, notice Pvt. Ryan (played by Matt Damon) gripping his knees and crying out in fearful horror as a terrible WWII battle rages around him. Look at his face in that brief moment and imagine this is the psalmist in Psalm 54:3.
At the end of verse 3 comes the Hebrew musical notation Selah. No one is completely certain what that word—that occurs in many Hebrew poems—means but it almost always seems to mark a break in the psalm. A place to pause, take a breath, and anticipate a shift in focus or some other kind of key transition.
And indeed, starting at verse 4 the tone of the psalm shifts. Suddenly words of utter confidence about God are sung out followed by a declaration that God will take care of evil people. And then it’s a quick slide in this very short psalm to where we began in verses 6-7 on the high side of the troubles of the first three verses. Deliverance did come. God did come through. And so then imagine the picture going back wavy again in a reverse of the flashback we imagined early and we arrive back at the picture of calm as the psalmist makes a thanksgiving offering to God even as he triumphantly declares the wonder of God’s deliverance.
It seems that many psalms are structured like this. Sometimes laments and cries for deliverance are followed by words that imply some confidence that God will yet come through. On rare occasions—Psalm 88 being a glaring example—no hint of restoration or deliverance ever appears. And then there are poems like Psalm 54 that very much appear to have been written in retrospect with the troubles and agonies of the psalmist clearly belonging to some (perhaps) distant past but the psalm itself is written from the vantage point of having arrived by God’s grace at a far, far better day.
This makes preaching on a psalm like this—or really any of these psalms that traffic in the area of cries for deliverance and the utter surety of said deliverance coming through—a little pastorally dodgy. We have noted this in the past here on the CEP sermon commentaries but there is always the danger of over-celebrating God’s coming through—and then connecting it perhaps to a concrete situation in the congregation—because there may always be at least one other family or group in the church who pleaded every bit as hard for God’s salvation and restoration as some other family or group but whose prayers were not answered as they hoped. We never want to preach as though we are unaware that these hurting people are also in the room.
What we can say with utter assurance is that God is on the side of deliverance and so if it is slow in coming or appears not to have come at all in a given scenario, this does not put God on the side of oppressors or suffering. And in the longest possible run, God will of course restore all things and bring us to himself.
There is joy in that for those who are able to join the poet at the end of Psalm 54 in looking back with satisfaction and gratitude for what God has done. There is hope in that for those still straining forward to see a deliverance they pray is yet coming. There is consolation in that for those who have to grapple with the whys and wherefores of a salvation that did not come.
For all of us, however, we hope we can always say in all circumstances—whether we say it through gritted teeth, through copious tears, in joyful assurance—the truth contained in verse 4: “Surely God is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains me.”
To that may we all be able to say a hearty “Amen!”
For illustration purposes, I will refer to the images already contained in this sermon starter: the idea of reading this psalm backwards so that verse 7 becomes an occasion for a movie-like flashback sequence. Also I mentioned the image of suffering in battle and in terror from Saving Private Ryan. Sometimes maybe we pass too quickly over the heart-wrenching portraits of fear and terror to which many psalmists give voice. But can we imagine what it may be like really to be hunted by enemies out to kill us? Can we imagine that cold fear that would grip our hearts if we were in the kind of peril some psalmists report to having once been in? If we can make those past times of struggle vivid for a congregation, we may also succeed in making God’s salvation a more vivid and wonderful gift too.
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Author: Doug Bratt
My friend whom I’ll call Wayne is struggling to submit to God (4:7) right now. In fact, that struggle has produced a fairly deep crisis of faith in him. Yet to Wayne’s credit, he’s honest enough to share that struggle with me as well as seek my help in becoming more submissive to God.
Wayne recently told me, “If God isn’t good, then I don’t want to submit to him, even if lands me in hell.” In addition to startling me, his assertion made me ask myself, and eventually him, questions like, “How do you understand God’s goodness?” and “How do you understand submitting to God?”
Wayne’s understanding of God’s “goodness” largely revolves around God’s gift of eternal life. His questions about the fate of those who have never heard the gospel are part of his exploration of God’s basic goodness. Wayne can’t understand how a good God would condemn anyone but a few particularly bad folks to everlasting punishment.
I have tried to unpack with Wayne a biblical definition of God’s goodness. It is as an ongoing project. But what both saddens and intrigues me is the link he has forged between his understanding of God’s goodness and his willingness to submit to God.
I must admit to an initial repulsion at what seems to be Wayne’s arrogance. Since he is young both in years and in his faith, I had to figuratively bite my tongue to keep me from saying, “You arrogant pup! Who are you to try to tell the eternal Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of heaven and earth what is ‘good’ and what is unjust?” But the Holy Spirit won the battle for my tongue (that time at least!). So I simply asked him what he thinks divine “goodness” might look like.
My conversation with Wayne got me to thinking about James call to “submit” ourselves “to God” (4:7). It particularly struck me that none of us naturally want to submit to God. Whether we’re 19 or 96, we want to choose who will be our lord. Since we naturally assume that we know better than anyone else what is good, we also assume we should be our own masters who submit only to our own insights and judgments.
Christians confess, however, that sin so affects every part of us that is also stains our moral judgments. While God created our first parents for joyful and loving submission to God’s will, they chose to submit to the evil one rather than God. They lost, among other things, the sense that voluntary submission to God is the straightest and shortest path to the shalom that God intends for both our neighbors and us. Our first parents’ children like Wayne, this Lesson’s proclaimers and I are still trying to find our way back to that road.
The God who creates and cares for us graciously calls us to back to that path of godliness. One way we walk it is by voluntarily submitting to the Lord. After all, it’s the way of life that most closely mirrors that for which God creates us.
Voluntary submission to God is, in fact, part of the “wisdom” (3:14, 17) with which God graces God’s adopted sons and daughters. Such wisdom is, as we’ve noted before, not the “intelligence” to which our culture generally links it. Wisdom is, instead, God’s gift of looking at God, the world, and our neighbors from God’s perspective. Such wisdom, in turn, prompts a certain way of living that includes submission to God.
Yet those who preach this week’s lesson from James will want to explore with hearers just what it means to “submit … to God” (4:7). After all, we might think about wisdom as somehow “running past God” every idea we have for an action, word and thought. Instead of asking what’s best for us, those who submit to God consider what God says is best for our neighbors and us.
Of course, submitting to God requires adopting a counter-cultural posture towards both God and our neighbors. We don’t just, after all, naturally assume that we’re our own gods. We also naturally assume that we’re our neighbors’ superiors. Figuratively bowing before God requires the death of feelings of superiority and the resurrection of our view of our neighbors as those whom God creates in God’s image.
The rest of this Lectionary Epistle helps encourage its hearers to submit in that way. It insists that submission is not some ethereal principle. Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson may want to quickly note that submitting ourselves to God especially concretely affects the way we talk to, act toward, and think about our neighbors.
For example, there is, insists the apostle, no room in submission to God for “bitter envy and selfish ambition” as well as boasting or denying the truth (3:13). Those priorities of the evil one, after all, reflect a kind of “wisdom” that our culture sometimes embraces, but is actually foolish in its “disorder and … evil practice” (3:16).
Nor is there room in submission to God for the perpetration of the kind of violence that James grieves in chapter 4:2. Rather than building the kind of community for which God longs, things like envy, selfish ambition and boasting break down relationships.
This week’s lesson from James’ proclaimers may want to consider and explore with their hearers how submission to God also involves a kind of submission to our neighbors. Those who submit to God don’t do things that harm our neighbors.
I think this speaks into the current debate over whether to wear masks. Some Christians choose not to do so because, at least in some cases, they question masks’ effectiveness. But what if Jesus’ friends who wish to submit to God asked a whole set of different questions about masks?
For example, how do I love my neighbor? Will my wearing of a mask make him or her if not safer, then at least more comfortable around me? Those who submit to God don’t first ask about our own rights. We relentlessly ask how we can more fully love our neighbors as much as ourselves.
Of course, proclaimers’ persistent fight against moralizing marches right through this week’s lesson. It is, after all, tempting to add James 3 and 4’s marks of wisdom and submission to a divine “honey-do list.” So this lesson’s proclaimers want to relentlessly ground our proclamation in the nature of both the God who gives it and the well-being of those who receive it.
That grounding becomes even more necessary when we read, study, and proclaim the positive signs of submission to God. After all, the list of those attributes is even longer than our text’s list of acts of foolish rebellion against God and our neighbors.
James 3:17 alone lists eight characteristics of those who submit to God. They’re “peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere [and] peacemakers who sow in peace.” Add to that 3:13 and 4:6’s calls to humility, as well as 4:2b-3’s invitations to proper prayer, and you have a moral checklist that’s long enough to keep even the godliest person both hopping and feeling guilty.
Those who proclaim this week’s epistolary lesson won’t likely have enough time to extensively address each facet of submission to God that James lists in it. However, we might note some things about a few characteristics.
In chapter 3:18 James gives particular prominence to the submission to God that is “peacemaking.” It’s one of God’s attributes that a world that’s so deeply riven by conflict certainly desperately needs. But 3:18’s allusion to “sowing” peace suggests that work for peace may take a long time to provide a “harvest.” Those who are wise learn that peace generally comes only after much prayerful patience and work.
James also ends this lesson on submission to God by asserting, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you” (4:8a). Neither assertion is particularly easy to understand. Satan and his henchmen, after all, relentlessly chase God’s adopted children until the day God draws us into God’s eternal presence. The devil’s “flight” often seems temporary at best.
Nor is it particularly easy to know what James means when he says, “Come near to God and his will come near to you.” The Scriptures, after all, consistently testify to God’s refusal to abandon God’s adopted sons and daughters for even a moment. But perhaps nearness, in light of what James say, refers to the kind of nearness that is the sense of God’s closeness of which submitting to God’s will makes us more aware.
In his book, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, Stephen Ambrose writes about Thomas Jefferson’s ambiguous relationship with slavery. Among other things, America’s second president seems to worry about the effect the demand for slaves’ submission would have on their owners’ children.
Ambrose notes that while Jefferson owned slaves, “no man knew better than Jefferson the price Virginia paid for slavery, most of all in what the system did to young [white] men. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he wrote: ‘The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and the most degrading submissions on the other.
‘Our children see this and learn to imitate it . . . If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave [whipping was generally accompanied by shouting and cursing and rage, all of it aiding the whipper in thinking that the slave deserved whatever he was getting], it should always be a sufficient motive that his children are present. But generally it is not sufficient.
‘The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.’ Jefferson knew whereof he wrote, and he knew no prodigies in this matter.”
Yet Jefferson didn’t live long enough to learn to submit to God in a way that allowed him to stop making slaves submit to him.