September 20, 2015 James 3: 13 – 4: 3, 7-8a Mark 9: 30-37
Rev. Catherine Purves
If you don’t want to hear the answer, don’t ask the question. It’s hard to argue with the logic of that statement. Of course, you won’t learn if you don’t ask, but maybe there are some things that you just don’t want to know: awkward things or uncomfortable things, demanding things or frightening things.
If you don’t really want to know the living arrangements of your young adult children, don’t ask. If you don’t want your doctor to tell you how sick you are, don’t ask. If you’re afraid that your job may not be all that secure, don’t ask. And if you don’t want to hear how much life is left in your car’s tires, don’t ask. Of course, the fact that you are not asking doesn’t mean that roommates are just roommates, or that you are phenomenally healthy, or that your job is secure, or that your tires will last through the winter. If you’re afraid to ask and if you don’t ask, then you just won’t know. Or at least you can pretend that you don’t know, and then live your life accordingly. But our Scripture readings for today leave us in no doubt that being afraid to ask is not the best way to live.
Jesus and his disciples were walking down the road. He was teaching them again that he would have to suffer and die. To say that this was an important thing for them to understand is, obviously, a huge understatement. If they were not forewarned, how would they ever make sense of the cross? By worldly standards the cross made no sense. It still doesn’t. The world respects and rewards those who have power and those who succeed. It honors people who are ambitious, even ruthless. The world is not impressed with self-sacrifice or humility, or with people who put others first. As James explains in his letter, the world has its own kind of ‘wisdom’ which accepts envy and selfish ambition as normal. But God’s wisdom is different, and God’s way is different. Jesus was trying to explain God’s way to his disciples as they walked along that road, but the disciples didn’t understand what he was talking about, and they were afraid to ask him what he meant.
When Mark says that they were afraid to ask, I wonder what he is implying. Could it be that they were genuinely afraid? If they were listening at all to what Jesus was saying, it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t be afraid. Jesus said that he was going to be betrayed and then killed, presumably by those who had the power and ruthlessness to do that. What then would happen to the disciples? Would there be a general round-up of the known accomplices of the condemned criminal, Jesus? And wouldn’t that mean imprisonment, interrogation, torture, and possibly crucifixion for them too? That is a frightening prospect, and something that no one would want to think about. No wonder they were afraid to ask.
Christianity makes demands of all of us. And perhaps we are afraid to ask, afraid to probe too deeply into the message of the cross because we don’t want to know what those demands are and what true discipleship entails. Walking along the road, listening to the stories of Jesus, enjoying the fellowship, and maybe witnessing the occasional miracle, that’s one thing. But picking up a cross and following Jesus is quite another.
Maybe the disciples were afraid to ask because they didn’t want to know what was being asked of them. Maybe they didn’t want to hear how much their lives were going to have to change. Maybe they thought that they could live as followers of Christ without sacrificing their belief in the wisdom of the world. When it seemed likely that the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world were going to clash, the disciples were afraid to ask any questions that would reveal the fact that they had to make a choice. Were they going to follow Jesus to the cross, or were they going to live by the wisdom of the world. They, and we, cannot do both.
That the disciples were still judging things by the world’s standards is evident. As they were walking along that road with Jesus, instead of trying to understand God’s wisdom and God’s way, they were busy arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest and which of them would be in the top spots when the kingdom of God arrived. While Jesus was talking about the humiliation of the cross, the disciples were fighting over how great they were. As James warns us in today’s reading, envy and selfish ambition always result in sin and conflict. This is how people live in the world and by the world’s wisdom. The demands of God’s wisdom, a wisdom of the cross, couldn’t be more different. Are we afraid to ask about that wisdom and those demands?
We should not let sentimentality cloud the potency the little teaching interlude that followed, in which Jesus took a child and made that child a living example of how to be a disciple. You may know (or you may not know) that the attitude toward children in the first century was very different from our current fascination with children and our celebration of children in the 21st century. Children were largely excluded from adult society in Jesus’ day. They were certainly not pampered or praised or entertained. Until they reached a certain maturity, they were pretty much at the bottom of the food chain, below the servants, who were, at least, useful members of the household.
For Jesus to bring a little child into the middle of an adult discussion was fairly extraordinary. But then to use that small and powerless child as an example, as a way for the disciples to know and receive Jesus, well that was phenomenal and totally mind-blowing. This turned the wisdom of their world on its head. It revealed just how counter cultural the wisdom of God was, and it challenged the disciples to choose. Which wisdom would they follow? Which Lord would they honor?
James is quite clear about the fact that he thinks that the devil is alive and well and prowling around looking for his own disciples. Peter would later write a similar warning to new Christian converts: “Discipline yourselves,” Peter warned, “keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around looking for someone to devour. Resist him.” This vivid imagery should remind us of the danger we face in this world. James writes about the wisdom from above and the wisdom from below. We are challenged and commanded to live according to the wisdom from above, God’s wisdom, God’s way. But we must live below, where the powers of evil prowl, and the wisdom from below is all around us. It is the culture in which we live.
We are just like the disciples, walking down the road with Jesus, listening to him talk about the cost of discipleship and yet frequently we are distracted by our own selfish ambitions, sin, and the promise of worldly pleasures. It is not easy to resist that. It is not easy to rise above that. It is not easy to choose Christ’s way over the way of the world, but we must.
If the disciples hadn’t been afraid to ask about that way, they might have learned something more. And that is, that while the way of the cross, the road of discipleship, requires sacrifice, it is also the way of life and blessing. Following the wisdom of the world only leads to death, as James so pointedly insists. “But,” he writes, “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits.” And he quotes the book of Proverbs: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” When we follow in the way of Christ, when we choose that way over the way of the world, then we discover God’s abundant grace for us in Jesus Christ.
But we must ask, we must seek, we must ponder the mystery of the cross. We must walk with Jesus along the way and listen to what he has to teach us. We must choose to live by the wisdom of God. We must resist the so-called wisdom of the world. If we, like the disciples, are afraid to ask about the cross, about Christ’s way, about God’s wisdom, then how can we receive the good gifts that God has for us? And if we instead seek wisdom in the wrong place, the wisdom from below, then we will find only sin and strife, disappointment and death. But, “Resist the devil,” as James says, “and he will flee from you.” “Submit yourselves to God…Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” This is Jesus’ promise to us: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” So don’t be afraid to ask.