Sunday,July 25, 2004

St. James the Elder, Apostle or Eighth Sunday of Pentecost
1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 7:1-11
Acts 11:27-12:3a
Mark 10:35-45
Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-15 [16-19]
Luke 11:1-13

For the Son of man also came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Today’s lessons are simultaneously lessons in boldness and humility. It might seem strange to put those two together since they seem to be so far apart. When one is bold, he or she seems presumptuous, stepping out in confidence that gives the impression of pride. There is an assertiveness that is not present in someone who is humble. Humility is exactly the opposite, a meekness that shows no pride or arrogance.

Yet, boldness is not always a negative trait and humility is not always true. I hesitate to share my website with people because I do not want to seem too presumptuous or proud. I don’t want to force my gifts on others and often sit back and wait, expecting that God will open the right doors for me to share. This is a mock humility. God blesses us with gifts to be a blessing to others and we sin against God by hiding them under a false meekness.

When I moved to Little Rock three and a half years ago, I learned what a blessing it is to be bold when it comes to sharing our gifts. The women were planning an event and were asking for help. I was new to the congregation, but I offered my services to the person in charge. As it turned out, she saw me as an answer to her prayers because I was able to fill a position that was desperately needed. I know now that God was calling me to that time and place, and I almost missed it because of this false sense of humility I was trying to live.

So, as we look at the stories for today, we see both stories of boldness and stories of humility, some of which are quite shocking. Take, for example, the story from Genesis. Last week we saw Abraham humbly serving the LORD by offering Him hospitality in the desert. His guests were on their way to deal with the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. As the men began to leave, Abraham boldly stood before the LORD and begged Him to spare the city for the sake of the righteous, even if their number was few. The LORD agreed, first to fifty righteous, then to forty-five, then to forty, then thirty, then twenty, then ten. For the sake of ten righteous people in Sodom, the LORD would not destroy it.

It has always been shocking to me that Abraham would negotiate with the LORD and yet, this is the sort of boldness we hear about in the Gospel lesson from Luke. Jesus told a story about a man who needed bread for a guest, who went to his neighbor in the middle of the night. At first the neighbor answered that he could not provide the bread because his house was locked and his family in bed. But Jesus continued, “I say unto you, Though he will not rise and give him because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will arise and give him as many as he needeth.”

Abraham was bold, not for his own sake but for the sake of the innocent who lived in Sodom. He went to the LORD seeking bread for his neighbor, despite the fact that his boldness might seem presumptuous. The LORD listened and agreed, though in the end not even ten righteous people could be found in all of Sodom.

In the Gospel lesson for St. James the Elder, we see another story of boldness. James and his brother John went to the Lord Jesus and asked Him boldly to make them his right and left hand men. They wanted positions of authority in the Kingdom of God, positions of honor. Jesus asked them if they were willing to pay the cost of such honor, “Are ye able to drink the cup that I drink? or to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They answered, “Yes.” They really did not know what they were asking. They thought that the seats of honor were to be in an earthly kingdom, that they would be rulers along with Him in an Israel free from Roman rule. However, the cup Jesus would drink and the baptism He would undergo was for a kingdom much greater.

Jesus told them that they would indeed suffer for the sake of the kingdom, but He could not give them the seats of power. Only God had the authority to offer such honor and Jesus would not assume such authority.

The other disciples were upset that James and John would be so bold. This request was definitely not done in humble submission to God’s will and was quite presumptuous in the eyes of their friends. Yet, Jesus took this opportunity to teach them a lesson in true humility and right boldness. “But it is not so among you: but whosoever would become great among you, shall be your minister; and whosoever would be first among you, shall be servant of all.” The one who will be great in the kingdom of God is the one who will humbly step forth in faith for the sake of others.

In the story from Acts for this week, we see that boldness for the sake of others can get us in trouble with the world. At the time, some prophets foretold of a famine that would cause much suffering throughout the Roman Empire. The disciples decided to help the believers who lived in Judea. So, they sent a gift to the elders in Jerusalem. Such kindness is not always looked upon with favor and the growth of the Christian church made the authorities uncomfortable. They sought to stop the apostles as they had stopped Jesus. James was among those who had been arrested and he was beheaded. He did drink the cup and suffer the baptism of Jesus Christ – very literally.

Most of us need not be martyred to drink the cup and experience the baptism of Jesus. In our own baptism, our old selves are buried in Christ and we are raised into new life in God’s kingdom. In that new life, we are given the freedom to live boldly, to walk with Christ and approach God for all we need. Our response is to humbly trust that God will provide all we need for life in this world and the next.

When we look around at the Church today, we see that there are a great many diverse ideas about what it means to be a Christian. It was no different in the early days, when the Apostles were building new congregations and establishing the documents and practices we know today. They faced many difficulties. Every city had false prophets who taught a false Gospel. It was no different in Colossus. The false teachers denied the divinity of Christ and they required obedience to ceremonial practices.

Paul wrote to the Colossians to make it clear that this is not the way of the Kingdom of God. This attitude reduces Christ to little more than a good person and raises humans to a level equal to the angels, even inferring that for men to be able to worship God they must become pure and perfect spiritual beings without imperfect flesh. This rejection of all things of the earth also separates us from the love of God given through Jesus Christ because it puts the human ability to be saved above the saving grace of God. “Take heed lest there shall be any one that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.”

As we consider how all these stories relate to our lives of faith, we look to God to understand what it means to be humble and what it means to be bold. In the Gospel lesson from Luke, Jesus’ disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. This is the most basic way that we live boldly in faith, approaching the throne of grace with all our needs. Jesus gives a simple, but powerful model for us to use.

Jesus said, “When ye pray, say, Father, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Give us day by day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins; for we ourselves also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And bring us not into temptation.” This prayer is said boldly, calling the Creator of the universe with the familiar, intimate name ‘Abba’. But we also approach Him in humility as we give God all the honor and glory. We seek His will and trust His provision for our daily lives. We confess our faith and our sins, recognizing our own failure to live as He has created and called us to live. We ask God to guide us in His ways.

Jesus teaches us to go to God boldly, believing that He will meet all our needs. “For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” We are reminded in Mark that God’s will is not always what we expect it to be. James and John thought they were asking to be part of Jesus’ inner circle when He became King of Israel. They thought the kingdom would come in power and earthly authority. Yet, many people missed it even when they met our Lord Jesus. They could not see the greater kingdom He was offering to those who believe. When He died on the cross, all hope seemed lost to those who followed, until He was raised from death into eternal life.

Jesus tells us that boldness in the Kingdom of God means humility before Him and each other. It means being a servant, no matter the cost. It means giving up ourselves, buried in Christ and cleansed of our sins and then raised with Him to live boldly in faith. It means sharing our gifts for the sake of others, not caring for positions of power and authority, but submitting ourselves to the authority of God in Christ Jesus. It means listening through prayer for the voice of God.

We have to remember that God’s voice is not always loud like a trumpet blast or a rumble of thunder. The story from 1 Kings was part of our lectionary a few weeks ago. We hear it again this week. We see Elijah, humbled by Jezebel and running in fear into the mountains. He was ready to give up God’s work, to let the world have its way. Just as I was falsely humble by not sharing my gifts, so too was Elijah refused to step forth boldly in faith to do what God had called him to do. On that mountain, however, Elijah did not hear God’s voice in the wind, earthquake or the fire. God spoke to Elijah with a still, small voice.

We sometimes miss that still, small voice of God because we are so busy being falsely humble or arrogantly bold. We are all too often like the Colossians who rejected the truth for their false Gospel or like James and John seeking the wrong things. We would do well to be humble like Elijah, quiet enough to hear His voice, but also bold enough to stand before Him in faith like Abraham.

Jesus promises that God will give us all we need. “And of which of you that is a father shall his son ask a loaf, and he give him a stone? or a fish, and he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he give him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” Let us humble ourselves before Him and go out boldly in faith to live as He is calling us to live. It might mean that we will be persecuted, but we can rest in the knowledge that no matter what will happen, we have been buried in Christ and raised in new life with Him. We will rejoice with Him in His glory one day. Thanks be to God.

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