Within / Without
Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 9:30–9:37, James 3:13–4:10
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [i]
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
Mark 9:30-37; James 3:13–4:10
“Within / Without”
Don’t they know who I am? How dare they treat me like that? It’s like they thought I was regular people. I put in the time to get to where I am now; it’s not as if I just walked in off the street. They didn’t do anything to show that they respected me. I’ve got status. I am important. And they still made me wait in line, just like everybody else! Don’t they know that I am the proud owner of a “Burrito Elito” customer loyalty card here at California Tortilla‽ VIP here!
Have you ever felt like this, slighted and put off because people failed to recognize you for how great you are? Maybe you weren’t a “Burrito Elito;” maybe you were just you: in a conversation with a coworker, in an argument with your parent, waiting for a table at a restaurant or in a line at the supermarket. There’s something about those times when you feel like you’re not getting what you deserve, that you’re not being properly appreciated by the people or institutions around you. But what is it?
In today’s Epistle, James wrote, “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” Jealousy and selfish ambition: wanting what others have, setting yourself above other people. It can seem like those are pretty much the central motivating forces for the culture around us – but we’re a part of that culture, and jealousy and selfish ambition can find make a home within our hearts just as easily as anywhere else.
You’ve got an enemy within you. That part of you that wants to be in charge of everything, that part that wants to take God’s place – it’s cooperating with the devil to try to turn you away from God and away from good. It wants you to pursue what James calls “friendship with the world,” to join in the rebellion against your Creator that lies behind jealousy and selfish ambition. And a scary part of its persuasion is that it’s insidious. It sneaks in to your heart and mind under the pretense of looking for the good, seeking what would make you happy or successful. It whispers your praises, encouraging you to think of yourself first, to make sure that you’re getting your due. And before long, you might be upset that world around you has failed to appreciate your status as a “Burrito Elito!” More seriously, though, you’ll forget that the world was never really going to be your friend. It’s your enemy.
You live in a world that wants you to be an enemy of God. I try to make sure that my sermons are tied into a specific time and place, but the hostile setting in which you and I find ourselves today isn’t specific to this calendar year or the nation in which we live. This broken world has been humanity’s enemy ever since we broke it by choosing to doubt God’s love for us. That said, though, we Christians in America might be feeling less comfortable when living out our faith as time marches on. The culture around us more and more frequently openly rejects Jesus as the Savior for all people; it even rejects the need for a Savior. But the opposition that you and I might face here pales in comparison to the hardship and outright persecution that other Christians experience in the world today. As the world rejected Jesus, so it will continue to reject his disciples. It’s the enemy without.
Jesus knew what waited for him as he journeyed towards Jerusalem in today’s Gospel text. He told his disciples, but they didn’t understand. It’s possible that part of their lack of understanding came from what seems to have preoccupied them: who was the greatest disciple! Following Jesus, they were still thinking of themselves. Who’s the VIP? They’re missing the point, aren’t they? But we often do, too, and we’re on the other side of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. We get caught up in the wrong things. Our focus is within, preoccupied with our own self-importance, when it should be turned without. You and I are each tempted to think of ourselves as the VIP, relying on our own sense of what’s right and best, relying on our own strength, relying on ourselves for hope. But why are we trying to do it all ourselves – even diving headlong into jealousy and selfish ambition?
Jesus lovingly redirects his disciples, bringing a child among them to make a point. In the first century world, children had far less standing than they do in our society today. They had no status, no prestige, no authority. People didn’t look to a child and think, “There’s a VIP!” They couldn’t do anything for you. A child was totally dependent on his parents to provide for his well-being and future. But such are the VIPs in the kingdom of God. They can look to God for their hope. And you can, too. He delivers for those who have no hope in and of themselves.
Look to God. See how He provides without. We ask our Lord to “give us this day our daily bread,” reminding us that it’s God who gives us everything needed to support this body and life. God is at work to physically care for you and me in the midst of a world that seeks to turn us away from Him. He even brings us into community in His Church, where we are called to receive each other as we would receive Jesus – because that’s exactly what happens when we do.
Look to God. See how He provides within. God calls you to repentance from jealousy and selfish ambition, for when you’ve sought friendship with the world instead of seeing others as worthier of your care and compassion. God gives forgiveness, wiping out the debt that self-centeredness built, sending that Savior who willingly went to take up his cross and give up his life for you – because he knew that you needed his service. And God gives hope with the assurance that cares enough about you to be your servant, welcoming you into His kingdom without any merit on your part.
James letter of encouragement to those who follow Jesus points us to gentleness and humility rather than worldliness. He paraphrases Proverbs 3:34 when he writes, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” In the choice of humility, we depend on God to provide within and without. Instead of the discord and disruption that come from jealousy and selfish ambition, God gives the humble the good gifts that we could never deserve. He gives peace.
Jesus calls us to follow him, not as VIPs but as humble servants who care selflessly for others in Jesus’ name. He told his disciples, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” That’s why we ask the questions, “What good can we do around here?” and, “How can we be ministering through prayer?” God puts opportunities for service before us each day in our families, schools, workplaces, neighborhoods. In His grace, God frees you and me from slavery to self-importance, moving us from jealousy and selfish ambition to service. So who are the real VIPs He is calling you to serve?
Don’t look within for hope. Look without. Look to Jesus.
[i] This week’s memory passage:
And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” – Mark 9:35b (ESV)