Saturday, September 22, 2012

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: Unasked Questions

Readings for this Sunday:  Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54; James 3:13-4:, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37 

Who is wise and understanding among you?

Come on – let’s see a show of hands.

I’m guessing that after last week’s advice to not strive to be a teacher because there’s a lot expected of teachers and a lot to be accountable for, you’re probably not in a hurry to claim you are in the wise and understanding group.  No telling what the downside is on it.

And in some ways, this is trick question.  Because many people who consider themselves wise don’t have the kind of wisdom that James is talking about.  There’s a contrast between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of the kingdom of God.

The world says, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”
         God says, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.”[i]

World wisdom: “Look out for number one”;
       God’s wisdom: “If you save your life, you lose it and if you give up your life for my sake you gain it.”[ii]

World:  “Might makes right.”
          God:  “Turn the other cheek.”[iii]

“First come, first served.”
          The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”[iv]

“God helps those who help themselves”[v]
          “God is a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their time of distress”[vi]

“It’s every man for himself.”
          “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Revenge is a dish best eaten cold.”
          Love your enemies and pray for them.”[vii]

“You get what you deserve.”
            “God gives us grace, not because we deserve it, but as a gift.”[viii]

 God takes the wisdom of this world, turned in on itself, and turns it on its head – turns it back to true wisdom, Kingdom of God wisdom.

Who is wise and understanding among you?

The disciples probably would have raised their hands.  They’ve been with Jesus, heard him teach.  They’ve been with Jesus and seen him heal, and were sent out to heal in Jesus’ name.  They’ve been with Jesus and seen him walk on water, calm the storm and feed the 5000.  They’ve been with Jesus three exciting, eventful years.

They might think they are wise and understanding – they know just who Messiah is and what Messiah is going to do.  But their view of Messiah is earthly – a conquering king who will raise up a righteous army of oppressed Judeans to overthrow their Roman oppressors.  They’re just waiting with Jesus until the time is right!


Jesus paints an entirely different picture:

·         A servant king,

·         Who suffers out of love for his servants,

·         Who dies,

·         Who rises again.

It’s not what they wanted to hear.  Not what they expected to hear.

It’s no wonder that the disciples are afraid to ask Jesus any questions.  After that statement, they probably are afraid of the answers Jesus might give them.

Afraid to ask questions, they fall to bickering among themselves.  And since they haven’t asked Jesus to clear up their misunderstandings, they argue about who is going to be the greatest in Jesus mighty kingdom – next to Jesus of course.

Jesus overturns the world’s wisdom once again:

·         The first will be last;

·         The greatest is servant;

·         Whoever welcomes a little child – the least of these – welcomes Jesus, welcomes God.

Pride, envy, ambition are all tossed out – those things lead the disciples to ask who will be greatest , to argue over their own qualifications for that title, to fight with each other jockeying for position and status.

Who is wise and understanding among you?

As followers of Jesus, we want to learn the wisdom of the kingdom of God.  So how do we learn it?

James gives some good guidance – Draw near to God.  Submit to God and resist the wisdom of the world.  Worship, prayer, Bible study, thinking about God, remembering all the blessing God has given you – God uses all these things to draw you nearer.  “Submit” is maybe harder – that’s actually doing those things that we learn in worship, in reading the Bible, and following the example of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit nurtures the implanted Word of God in your hearts (again, James 1:21).

James also diagnoses our problem:  we’re asking the wrong questions.  Or maybe we’re not asking the questions at all.

Are we afraid to ask?

Why are we afraid to ask?

Maybe we fear we won’t like the answer. 

Maybe we are afraid that some of our deeply cherished views of how the world works, who God is and how God works in the world will be overthrown.

Maybe we are afraid that the answer will ask too much of us, that we will have to change in ways we don’t want to change.

Maybe we are afraid that by just asking the question, we somehow admit that we are less than perfect Christians, that we don’t have it all together.

Maybe we are afraid that asking shows doubt and we think that doubt is bad, that you can’t doubt and have faith.

We don’t ask and then, like the disciples, we start to argue over things that don’t really matter in the big picture of God bringing in the kingdom.

But what if we could ask?  What if this community was a safe place to come with your questions, and your doubts, and your struggles?  A place where you could ask the hard questions and instead of being ridiculed or shamed for your lack of faith, you find that others are asking the same questions.  You find that others are asking questions that you haven’t thought of yet, but speak to the yearning in your own heart?

What if this could be a place where we come together and wrestle with the hard questions, learning from each other, waiting together for the implanted Word of God in our hearts to grow into the answers.

A place to wait for God.

Who is wise and understanding among you?

What questions do you have?  About God?  About Jesus?  About faith?  About being a disciple?

Let’s ask those questions.  Let’s offer them to God.[ix]  In your pew are some index cards and pencils.  Take one and write down one question you would like to ask God.  Don’t put your name on it. 

Then during the offering, offer that question to God.  We offer to God all that we are, time, talent, treasure and our questions and doubts and challenges.  All that we have, all that we are.

Maybe as a community struggling to understand the wisdom of God we can work on these questions together.

[i] Luke 18:22
[ii] Mark 8:35
[iii] Matthew 5:29
[iv] Matthew 20:16
[v] No that is not from the Bible – it’s usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin as he quoted it in his Poor Richard’s Almanac.   It has its origins in one of Aesop’s Fables, and Franklin got the quote from Algernon Sidney.
[vi] Isaiah 24”5, paraphrased.
[vii] Matthew 5:44, paraphrased.
[viii] 2 Timothy 1:9, Ephesians 2:7-8, Psalm 51:1 and many others, paraphrased.
[ix] Idea gleaned from David Lose’s Dear Working Preacher at


  1. This is the sermon I was hoping to preach tomorrow. thank you for such beautiful simplicity and for helping clarify my own writing!

  2. The list of world "wisdom" and heavenly wisdom is awesome! Very clear and inviting.