Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
Mark 9:30-37; James 3:13–4:10
Magnets are cool. When I was little, it was almost like they were magical. You could perform all kinds of feats with them, like connecting an impromptu chain of at least three – three! – large paper clips using the power of a single magnet. And even though you really weren’t supposed to, you could take a magnet up to an old CRT television and make all kinds of colors warp on the screen. Magnets are cool. I’ve long wanted to get a set of the rare-earth magnets called Buckyballs, spheroid magnets that you can arrange in as many shapes as your imagination (or your supply of Buckyballs) would allow. These hunks of metal allow you to experience the push and pull of opposing forces, invisibly connecting the world around us without benefit of electricity or duct tape. But people figured out how to add electricity to the electromagnetic equation, though, making magnets even more powerful. Cranes can now lift heavy cars magnetically, trains can fly along over rails at incredible speeds, and you iPad can even turn on automatically when you open its cover! Magnets are cool. I’m not sure if anyone could argue against that assertion, but it seems like whenever somebody makes a point these days, it doesn’t take too long before another person pops up in opposition.
I have here a handheld compass that my parents gave me which they’d picked up in Europe. It’s a pretty fancy one, as compasses go, so much so that I don’t really understand how to use its full capabilities. In theory, I could use it to navigate slopes and other topography, even use sophisticated maps. And while that’s currently beyond my training, I get the basic concept: the compass helps guide you where you need to go. Using the earth’s electromagnetic field, the compass can lead you from one spot to another, keeping you on track – provided that you’re following the arrow. There’s a potential risk when using a compass, though: in the presence of a strong magnetic field, the compass arrow might turn in the wrong direction. The compass might take you off course and point you to where you do not want to be. Those opposing forces throw each other off and lead you into confusion.
Our texts today highlight a couple of opposing forces that have much to do with the trouble that exists in our world – not just the world out there, but the world much closer to home: in our hearts and in our minds – pride and humility. We heard about them first in our epistle text. James raises the question and then provides the answer: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” Those desires that seem to spring from deep within our minds or hearts always seem to be leading us one way and then another, often pointing us in directions where we shouldn’t be going. In the Gospel reading, Jesus asks his disciples a leading question about what they’d been discussing on the way to Capernaum. They don’t want to tell him. Why? Because they’d been arguing with each other as they went, debating who was the greatest among them. Who was the most important, the most significant of the disciples? We don’t know the exact progression of their conversation, but maybe it went something like this: “Who of us has been with Jesus the longest? Which one of us is the closest to Jesus? Who has paid the best attention to all the things that he has said? Who here is his best friend?” Who should have the pride of being the greatest?
Our passions and our pride keep putting the same question before us: “Who is God, you or God?” Seems like an easy question to answer, doesn’t it? I am a human being. You are a human being. We did not create the universe; we do not sustain it from day to day. We are not all-knowing or all-powerful. Of course neither you nor I is God. But you and I are each tempted to think that we are the most important and worthy of all praise and honor. That’s what was going on with the disciples. While they argued as to which of them was the greatest, they failed to appreciate that God himself was leading their way. James pointed out the problem of pride to his readers – and to us today whenever we fall into contests over who’s the most important, or the most correct, or which one of us should have our way. In each of those circumstances, we set ourselves up as if we are a god, since we fail to follow the One who is really God.
It would make sense that we have a problem with pride and struggle with humility in our lives. There’s an old song by Mac Davis that goes, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble… when you’re perfect in every way.” It's not too hard for us to fall into thinking that we are perfect. Pride!
What is pride? When you get down to it, it’s about putting yourself above others. It’s putting your own interest above the needs of the people around you in life. In all its forms, pride causes separation, kind of like opposing magnets. When pride is part of the equation, it’s hard to come together. You might seem like you’re getting closer to others, but you’ll never really be able to connect. If you’ve had an argument with a friend or family member, the more pride is involved in the disagreement, the more difficult the reconciliation. Pride drives people apart. When you or I let pride rule in our lives, we’re standing in opposition to God’s mission of reconciliation in Jesus. Our Savior came to bring us back into right relationship with God, for every child, woman, and man – every soul separated from our Creator by sin – Jesus has come to bring back. Pride opposes that reconciliation. It doesn’t want God to be God, since that means that you can’t be. As we heard from James, though, God opposes the proud. And that is not a force against which any of us could ever hope to win!
What is humility, then? Especially for us as Christians? Jesus lays it out: humility is going to the cross. He set his own glory and life aside, allowing himself to be given over into the hands of pride-filled mankind so that we might live. The humble one is the servant… of all. Following Christ, you and I as Christians are now called to live in humility, setting self aside to live in active love, caring for others. That is life in the Kingdom of God, which is among us by the working of the Holy Spirit even now.
You and I don’t need to be God, because God is God. We are called to humble ourselves before God; yet you have heard God’s own promise that He is there to lift up the humble. You don’t have to be your own advocate in every circumstance in life, letting pride run unchecked, because you can trust that God is there for you. Jesus showed his love for even a child, one who would be disregarded as unimportant by the society of their day. He took that child, bringing him into the midst of the disciples, and told them that receiving even such a seemingly insignificant guest in Jesus’ name would be as if you were receiving God Himself. In faith, you can trust that you have a God who will care for you and lift you up, even in humility.
So what are you to do when almost every choice in life is fraught with the risk of pride and self-centeredness? As with a compass, when you spend time in proximity to distracting or misleading forces, your arrow can be thrown off. Exposed to all those influences that would stoke the fires of pride and tempt you to put yourself above others – whether it be what you choose to watch as entertainment, what you see in all those stores that want you to put your own passions first, or those rifts in your relationships that lay in an argument over who is really right – you are at risk of being led off in the wrong direction. Those are the things that are distracting us, throwing us off course and pointing us away from Christ.
I have here another compass that my parents put into my hands: the Bible. God’s Word is another compass, one that can’t be thrown off course. It always points us to Jesus, the ultimately humble servant who gave himself for us to bring about the reunion between our proud, sinful humanity and the God who loves us.
Living life as someone who follows Jesus, take the time in the week ahead to examine at least one aspect of your daily life that could use more humility. Where is pride creeping into your life and your relationships: with your spouse, with your parents or children, with your coworkers? Humble yourself before God. Ask for His guidance and seek His direction in His Word. He will not lead you astray.
In a world that is cluttered with opposing forces, stick to Jesus and the compass of God’s Word. He’ll hold on to you tighter than even a Buckyball. You are his, and he will lead you home.