Sermon delivered Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009, at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH. If you would like to listen to an audio version of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Proverbs 1:20-30; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is the Human Condition?
Good morning, St. Andrew’s! Today we continue our series of sermons on discipleship. You recall that we define discipleship as following Jesus and becoming more like him through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us. This, of course, requires us to know Jesus and his will for our lives. The goal of discipleship is to become just like Jesus.
So, are you wise or foolish? In today’s OT lesson, we hear Wisdom’s urgent exhortations to the “simple ones,” “scoffers,” and “fools.” Some of the early Church Fathers saw Wisdom as being Christ himself (see, e.g., Athanasius’ Second Discourse Against the Arians) and so it is not inappropriate for us to read this passage with the view that Christ is personally exhorting us. Wisdom literature, of course, was written in part to show the close relationship between religion and everyday life. The writers of Proverbs did not envision religion as some esoteric, navel-gazing activity, but rather as being fully integrated into the secular world. When the whole of life is brought under God’s control and we seek to fully integrate God-given wisdom into our daily lives—and you recall that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7)—Proverbs tells us that the result is noble character and harmonious, happy homes.
We see this integrative nature of religion reflected in today’s passage because Wisdom cries out in the streets and the public squares for all to hear, not just “religious” folks. Christ as Wisdom urges us to repent of our human folly and to submit to God’s will. Our folly leads us to rebel against God and set ourselves in his place. We want to be our own boss instead of allowing God to be. Today’s passage reminds us that we have this nasty tendency to get fat and sassy when things are going well in our lives. When that happens, we quickly delude ourselves into believing that we are responsible for our happiness and prosperity, not God.
But Christ as Wisdom warns us that things will not always go well in our lives and when trouble comes, as it inevitably will, we will be left to our own devices, and the results will be disastrous. We do not have to look very far to see how true this all is: whether it is remembering the monstrous evil that happened on 9/11 or sickness, death, infirmity, divorce, addiction, or unemployment to name just a few. The language in this passage may sound harsh to our 21st century ears but it really reflects a deep and abiding love God has for his creatures as he tries to warn us what is coming if we choose to make ourselves gods instead of him. Who among us would not hesitate to warn our loved ones if we see them making disastrous decisions? If we cracked mortals are capable of demonstrating this kind of love, how much more so is God?
No, Christ as Wisdom knows a better way for us because as the psalmist reminds us in today’s Psalm, following God’s will and way for us revives our soul, rejoices our heart, and gives us light and understanding to guide us in the living of our days. Christ as Wisdom knows that when we delight ourselves in the Lord, he will give us the desires of our heart (Psalm 37:4).
Yet we humans don’t seem to get it. Each one of us at one time or another are the three groups of people to whom Christ as Wisdom speaks. We can be the naive simpleton who refuses to see life as it is, broken, finite, and temporary. We can also be the defiant and freethinking scoffer who hears God’s word and dismisses it because we think we know better or because our experience leads us to one course of action or another. For example, we hear Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:25 that, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom,” but we don’t really believe it because we still see sin and suffering in this world. And we can be the morally insensitive fool who deliberately or inadvertently makes poor decisions about doing right and wrong in the living of our days because we are relying on our own devices, not God’s.
We see this folly of the human condition reflected in our other readings for this morning as well. The psalmist wonders about his secret faults and unknown sins, and how to prevent them from occurring. James tells us that even though the tongue is small, we humans cannot seem to control it so that much evil is caused by our intemperate and uncontrolled speech.
Then, of course, there is good old Peter in today’s Gospel lesson. He goes from hero to goat in under 60 seconds. First, he is given grace and insight by God to recognize Jesus as Messiah, God’s Anointed One, who was expected to be Israel’s deliverer. Then when Jesus tells his disciples that as Messiah he must suffer and die, thereby violating their human expectations of what Messiah should be, Peter rebukes his Lord (Hey Jesus! Knock off that suffering and dying stuff. What’s the matter with you? Everybody knows that Messiah will be a conquering hero and not some dead guy. Get with the program, dude, and start living up to our expectations! I mean, really. Why are you talking crazy all of a sudden?). For you see, at that moment, out of his great love for Jesus, Peter was also playing the part of the scoffer. At that point in his life he couldn’t believe that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. Thankfully by God’s grace, that changed for Peter and it can for us as well.
In response, Jesus looked at his disciples, and apparently seeing that they agreed with Peter, turned and rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8:33). Can you imagine Jesus looking you straight in the eyes and calling you Satan? It makes the blood run cold, doesn’t it? But in rebuking Peter for putting human things before divine things, i.e., for being a scoffer, Jesus is also reminding us what it takes to be his disciples. We must be wise enough to see that God’s foolishness, the foolishness of the cross, is wiser than our human understanding of how things work. When we begin to really understand this, then taking up our cross, denying ourselves, and following Jesus begins to make some sense because it is the beginning of wisdom to have reverence for the Lord for all he has done for us in Christ. We will gladly suffer for the Name as Jesus’ apostles did (Acts 5:41). Makes you want to sign right up to be a disciple of Jesus’ doesn’t it? It will if you have God’s wisdom.
Where is God’s Grace?
For you see, from all eternity, God has passionately loved his creatures. Given the state of his creatures, one might question God’s sanity, but I digress. No, God loves us passionately and wants us to live with him forever. He understands that our time here on earth is but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of eternity, but he also knows that how we live our lives here is important, albeit ever so briefly. That is why he took on our flesh, died for us, and bore the punishment we rightly deserved, making it possible for us to live with him forever.
What must we do in response? Well, first we must have faith that God has really taken care of the problem of sin and the separation it has caused. When we have that saving faith, we gladly and humbly submit our lives to him and seek to obey him in all things. This is what Jesus meant when he told us that we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him (Mark 8:34). Denying self is not the same as self-denial and all sorts of dreadful practices have developed because of this misunderstanding. When we deny ourselves, we are not denying our personality or “things” or saying that we intend to die as a martyr. Instead, we are making a conscious effort to turn away from our idolatrous self-centeredness and every attempt to rule our lives by self-interest. When that begins to happen, and this is a lifelong process that is only made possible by the Living Presence of the Holy Spirit within us, we are ready to take up our cross.
Taking up one’s cross was not an established Jewish metaphor in Jesus’ day, but it was an appropriate figure of speech in Roman-occupied territory. It brought to mind the sight of a condemned man who was forced to demonstrate his submission to Rome by carrying part of his cross through the city to his place of execution. Thus “to take up one’s cross” was to demonstrate publicly one’s submission and obedience to the authority against which he had previously rebelled. To deny ourselves perforce leads to taking up our cross, because we now give Jesus, the one against whom we previously rebelled, our ultimate loyalty and obedience. In other words, cross bearing symbolizes the fact that we are transferring ultimate authority from ourselves to Jesus. When we do that, we are ready to follow Jesus.
Taking up our cross and following Jesus does not mean stoically bearing life’s troubles but accepting the consequences of our decision to learn and obey his will for us in our lives. The writers of the NT make it quite clear that suffering will often be an expected consequence of following Jesus. For example, in Acts 9:16 Jesus tells Ananias that he has shown Paul how much he must suffer for him. In Romans 8:17 Paul talks about sharing in Christ’s suffering and glory. In Philippians 1:29 Paul infers that we are granted the privilege—yes, that’s right, the privilege—of being able to suffer for Christ. Later in chapter 3, Paul talks about sharing in the suffering and death of Jesus so that he can also share in the Lord’s power and resurrection.
At this point, some of you are probably saying, “Gee, Fr. Kevin. Such a deal, being a disciple of Jesus. You are telling us we must do all these fun things if we want to be his disciple? Sounds perfectly dreadful. But let’s do lunch sometime.” Ah, but you are seeing God’s foolishness and human wisdom playing themselves out! For you see, did you catch the connection the NT writers make between suffering and glory? Human wisdom tells us to avoid suffering at all costs. You know. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and all that. God, however, in his “foolishness” has shown us through Christ that suffering for obeying him and giving him our ultimate loyalty is the path to glory, a biblical term that means living with God forever with our new resurrected bodies. It doesn’t make sense using human wisdom, but this is God’s wisdom, not ours. Let me give you a quick example from my own life that reflects this idea. It is imperfect, but I hope it will help you see that suffering for Christ is a joy, not a burden [personal testimony about my ordination process]. I suspect if I were to ask you to share your “God moments” with me, we would hear many other stories that point us to the truth that suffering for Christ will lead to our glory. What about you? Do you desire God’s wisdom, which the world counts as foolishness, or are you content to rest on human wisdom, which is folly in God’s sight?
Where is the Application?
How you answer that question and the following questions will help you gain insight into the state of your discipleship. I do not ask these questions to make you feel guilty; instead, I ask them to help you assess where you are in your walk with the Lord and to ascertain just how “wise” or “foolish” you are.
If we are to appropriate God’s wisdom and submit to his will, we must engage in the proven spiritual disciplines. So, are you reading your Bible everyday and systematically to better learn God’s general will for his creatures? Are you praying regularly to learn God’s particular will for your lives? Are you in small group fellowship to help hold you accountable so you can be a better disciple of Christ? Are you worshiping God each week to give him thanks for all he is doing in your life and his world, and feeding on his Body and Blood to help nourish and sustain you? Are you being a good steward of God’s gifts to you by giving the first portion of them back to him? Are you sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with others as opportunity presents itself?
I cannot, nor can anyone else, tell you what God’s particular will for you is, only God can do that. He has given you his Holy Spirit to help you realize the desires of your heart and these means of grace have been proven over time and culture to be effective in helping us become like him. Engaging in them (or not) indicates how willing you are to deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow him. If you are engaging in these means of grace, you can expect him to revive your soul, make your heart rejoice in obeying him, and give you clear light and guidance to live your lives. It is a wondrous and inexpressible gift and I pray we all will embrace God’s wisdom, not our own. This is a difficult thing to do and it takes a lifetime. But in doing so, we are promised that our suffering for Christ will be the means to our glory.
As St. Augustine put it, we are “cracked pots” who revel in our sin and are consequently separated from God. God, in his infinite wisdom and love for us, has taken care of that problem by taking on our flesh and dying for us. He calls us to love him and give him our ultimate obedience and loyalty, which will be costly for us as we learn to deny ourselves and transfer our ultimate loyalty to him. But he promises us that in doing so, our suffering for him will be the means to our glory, and he has given us demonstrable and historical proof in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. When we learn the Wisdom of God, we realize that that’s good news, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.