Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 11:18-20Psalm 54
Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall exalt you.
I like historical novels, particularly those set in England. I've been reading a series set in the late middle ages, which was a time when England was constantly at war with her neighbors and those neighbors, France and Scotland mainly, often allied together to battle the common enemy. Their armies were supplemented by mercenaries from many nations. War is a difficult thing at any time, but the constant battles between these nations were violent, bloody and motivated by greed.
The armies were made up of men who were determined to get ahead by any means possible. They looted the people they defeated; they sought gold and stole the purses and armor off the dead and dying in the field. They took the lords and nobles as captives to ransom them for great wealth. They wanted to stand out, to gain recognition for their strength and bravery. They wanted to be remembered; they wanted to catch the eye of the king, to be raised to new rank in their world. They went to war to get rich and they did whatever was necessary to do so.
It is no wonder that people have a negative opinion of the military. Things are different today, at least in the United States, but even here there are those who serve for the wrong reasons. It is hard for many to believe, but there are good reasons to serve in this way. Our military does far more than just shoot guns and kill people. They do more than drop bombs. Our military sends relief supplies to those who are in need. They help people escape oppression. They build roads and other infrastructure, especially in those places where they have caused the damage. See, we don't raid and destroy then walk away; we do what is necessary and then we make things better.
I know: not every military action is good and we have made some horrible mistakes, but overall we've done more good than we have done harm. In general, our motives have been to help rather than hurt. We don't usually fight for gold or fame or even power; the good fights we have fought have been for the sake of others. Many will argue that even good intentions have selfish motives, but I guess that's why we need to face these difficult times with wisdom and humility.
Whether we like it or not, a strong military is necessary to maintain peace and ensure justice in our world. Martin Luther and other reformers understood that there are two kingdoms: the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God. They believed that God ruled both kingdoms, but He did so in the kingdom of the world through temporal authority. The left hand of God is found in the hands of kings and presidents, church leaders, bosses, parents and others who hold positions of authority. These temporal authorities have the power to rule through law, including the use of military power as necessary. The right hand of God rules the spiritual, and this authority is not given to man, but to the Holy Spirit whose power is the Gospel. A Christian can (and should) serve in the kingdom of the world, but should never allow the kingdom of the world to usurp the authority of the kingdom of God. Notice that church leaders are appointed to rule in the kingdom of the world,
Martin Luther writes, "God has ordained the two governments: the spiritual, which by the Holy Spirit under Christ makes Christians and pious people; and the secular, which restrains the unchristian and wicked so that they are obliged to keep the peace outwardly... The laws of worldly government extend no farther than to life and property and what is external upon earth. For over the soul God can and will let no one rule but himself. Therefore, where temporal power presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God's government and only misleads and destroys souls. We desire to make this so clear that every one shall grasp it, and that the princes and bishops may see what fools they are when they seek to coerce the people with their laws and commandments into believing one thing or another."
Luther also said, "We are to be subject to governmental power and do what it bids, as long as it does not bind our conscience but legislates only concerning outward matters... But if it invades the spiritual domain and constrains the conscience, over which God only must preside and rule, we should not obey it at all but rather lose our necks. Temporal authority and government extend no further than to matters which are external and corporeal."
There is always a risk to living our Christian life in this world; persecution will eventually come to those who hold up God's truths against the laws of the land. The thing we must always remember is that we are both saints and sinners in this world, saved by the grace of God but still flesh and blood that fails, and so our righteous indignation must be tempered by humility. What is our motive for standing against the temporal authorities appointed by God? Are we doing so out of faithfulness to God, His Word and the Gospel or are we motivated by some selfish intention?
In the end we can trust that God will make His justice prevail.
Jeremiah the prophet lamented over the suffering he faced. It is difficult enough to be persecuted by strangers, but Jeremiah's suffering came at the hands of his own family. They wanted to destroy him because He was trying to tell the people about their unfaithfulness. He had to tell them that they broke the covenant and that they are cursed by their guilt. Despite God's saving grace leading them out of Egypt, they turned from Him and their unfaithfulness would send them into exile. God told Jeremiah that he should not even pray for the people or to offer a plea for them. They had gone too far to be saved from the consequences of their rebellion.
If I were Jeremiah, I would have preferred being ignorant; I would not even want to have been called to be a prophet. Jeremiah's words fell on unwilling ears. He was opposed on every side; even his family was against him. His words brought the wrath of the left hand kingdom on his head, but their persecution would reach beyond Jeremiah. His family could be destroy, so his family schemed to destroy him, to protect themselves. A plot against Jeremiah would have had a positive impact on those who perpetrated it: they would have found favor with those in authority. They may have been elevated by their courageous acts against the prophet. Who wants to know that their family wants to destroy them or that they care more about getting ahead than caring for a loved one? But the Lord made this conspiracy known to Jeremiah and he had to live with the reality that not only the world, but even his family, hated him.
It might be easier to stay ignorant and we need not fear because we know that God is faithful to His promises. We know that persecution in the kingdom of the world will be temporary and that we will dwell eternally in the kingdom of God. That's why it is important that we not allow the world to overrule God, otherwise we will suffer like those in Jeremiah's day, exiled from God's kingdom for a time. God was faithful to His people; He restored them eventually. God is the God of second chances. However, if we reject God by choosing the world, we will suffer the consequences which can be eternal.
Besides, if we stay ignorant than we cannot help those who need us to stand firmly against the world. Where would we be today if men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not risk his own life for the sake of those who were being murdered under Hitler's reign? So many in Germany remained ignorant to the truth of what was happening until it was too late. Their ignorance led to the death of millions, not just Jews, but the sick, disabled, elderly, young, foreigners and those who spoke the truth. Average Germans even suffered under the rule of Hitler from lack of food, unjust laws and were beaten by those who were meant to protect them.
We should count it as a blessing when God reveals to us something we do not wish to know. God is faithful and He will make all things right. He calls us to be partners with Him in both kingdoms. We fight for peace and justice as we share the Gospel. We might not know how God is using us in this world or whether we are accomplishing His will, but we can trust that He will make all things right in His time and way.
The key is humility. The key is remembering that God is ruler of both worlds, and the work we have been called to do is His work whether it is flesh or spirit. It is never about what we can get out of it. We don't fight for God's kingdom or work for the kingdom of the world to gain gold or power or fame. We are called by God to do it to His glory and for the sake of others. When we put God and our neighbors ahead of ourselves, we take the risks of death and persecution without fear.
David trusts that God is his helper. In the psalm David begins with a cry for help, then a confession of trust in God, and finishes with a vow to offer thanksgiving and praise. David is confident that God will save him from his enemies. He comforts himself in the knowledge that God is faithful to His promises. That's what it means to be wise, not ignorant of the truth but trusting in God in the midst of it. When we face persecution, we too can cry out to God with our worries and fears. Like David, we can do so with the assurance that our helper God hears us and will make all things right.
The Gospel lesson has a wonderful message about what it means to be 'great' in the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ, our Lord and King, did not rule over us as is expected in the world. He was a humble servant to His disciples, even doing the most mundane tasks for them such as washing their feet. On this particular journey, the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest among them. When Jesus asked what they were discussing, the disciples were too embarrassed to tell Him. He sat down and explained that greatness in the kingdom of heaven was not as it is in the world where the rulers seek fame, power and possessions. In the kingdom of heaven, the least are the greatest. Welcoming a little child is like welcoming God Himself, and if they want to be first they must be the last and servant of all.
The disciples did not yet understand, but then have any of us really come to fully understand what God intends for us? We still want to live in that world where we "Eat, drink and be merry" or chase after the prize in war and in peace. Who wants to be persecuted when going along with the crowd can be so much fun? Who wants to be a servant when there’s a chance for a position of power and authority? Perhaps we don't really want to be ignorant, but we'd rather follow our own wisdom. James writes, "Whence come wars and whence come fightings among you?" We become involved with conflicts and disputes because we follow our cravings rather than trust in our God. We ask for the wrong things. We seek pleasure and in doing so we turn from God. We are motivated by our flesh rather than our spirit.
So, how do live humbly in this world? James writes, "Be subject therefore unto God; but resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye doubleminded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness." This passage includes ten commands calling us to action in rooting out the sin of pride in our lives. Pride is what causes us to chase after gold, power and fame. Humility, the opposite of pride, leads us in a life of service to others.
First, we submit to God. Submitting to God means trusting in Him. It means seeking His wisdom, being meek. We often misunderstand the word "meekness" to mean weak, but the reality is that meekness is the humble understanding that you are not the greatest. Greatness does not come to those who force or manipulate others. True greatness comes to those who do what they are called to do in a way that glorifies God; He will glorify them for their faith. Humility is trusting that God will accomplish His work through us as we go about life doing what we can do, even if it means risking everything.
Next, we must resist the devil. You see, the devil is clever. Too many people, Christians included, have fallen for the lie that the devil doesn't exist. The world laughs at the image of a red creature with horns and a tail, saying it is just ridiculous to think anything like it exists. The truth is that Satan himself has created that image to fool those who want to remain ignorant of the spiritual battle that is raging all around us. Then, when you don't believe he exists, the devil convinces you, slowly but surely, that all that God talk is ridiculous. And so you believe his word over that of God. We must resist!
Third, James writes, "Come near to God." This means that we should daily take time to be in His presence. We can resist the devil are more easily if God's Word is on our lips and in our hearts. Daily prayer, study of scriptures, worship and service in His name will give us the strength and the power to resist.
Fourth we are to wash our hands. This is not a statement about good hygiene, but rather points back to the practice of the Old Testament priests. They were required to wash their hands before they could approach God in the tabernacle. The next command "purify your hearts" continues this thought. Washing our hands symbolizes spiritual cleansing. Washing our hands is then an outward act showing the inward cleansing. We wash our hands and our hearts of sin by confessing that which we have done and failed to do in thought, word and deed. By admitting our sinfulness, we open ourselves to God's grace and forgiveness.
The next three commands come together also; we are to grieve, mourn and wail. They may sound like they are repetition, but as is true of so much of the ancient languages, there is always subtle shades of meaning that are not quite visible in English. In Greek, the word that is translated "grieve" in the NIV is better translated in the above quote from ASV. It means "be afflicted" or "endure hardship." James is calling us to be willing to accept the consequences of our sin. We are to mourn our sinfulness, to lament our failure to live up to the expectations of our God. And finally, we are to wail. There is more to this than simply crying; we are to wail. While cleansing our hearts is an inner confession, wailing over our sin is a public, outer confession. These are all acts of repentance, a recognition that we are not the greatest in anything. As a matter of fact,
We, like those in the days of the early church, treat our sin casually. Just as we reject the idea of the devil, we reject our wrongdoing is sin. We dismiss as sin those things which don't hurt others. We justify our actions even when they don't line up with the Word of God, rewriting the scriptures to fit our desires. Just as we laugh at the idea of the devil, we laugh at those who call us to repentance and we embrace our sin with joyful glee. We so what the world says we can do even when it leads us away from our God, and we do so with joy because the world's idea of life is so much more satisfying than the life that risks death and persecution. James calls us to change our laughter into mourning and our joy into gloom.
Finally, James says, "Humble yourselves." This returns us to James' quote of Proverbs 3:34 in verse six, "God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble." The other nine commands bring us to the point of receiving God's grace. When we are humbled, we can embrace the kingdom of God which begins with forgiveness and ends in the fulfillment of God's promise of eternal life. None of the other commands have any value unless they lead us to fully and completely resting in God's grace. That's true humility.
We are no different than the disciples, the people in Jeremiah's day or those soldiers in the middle ages. We still want to win. We still want to be the one at the top. We still want to be the most important one in the kingdom. But Jesus says, "Whosoever shall receive one of such little children in my name, receiveth me: and whosoever receiveth me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me." God sometimes shows us what we don't want to know, but He promises to bring us through it. Jesus showed us the child because a child trusts without condition. Can we? Or would we rather ignore the truth?
We fail to receive what we truly want because we chase after the wrong things. James writes, “Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and covet, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war; ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may spend it in your pleasures.” The humble Christian is a servant does not seek gold, power or fame, but who walks and works in faith that God will accomplish His good work in our lives.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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