Mark 9 30-37 James 3 13- 4 3 7,8
On Friday evening David and I went to a gig – not just any gig, a meet and greet with, wait for it…..Merrill Osmond! Now I know some of you will be scratching your heads and thinking who, while others, especially those of a particular generation will be well impressed! For the uninitiated, Merrill Osmond was the lead singer of that mighty boy band of the 70s The Osmonds! For women of a certain age these were the heartthrobs whose posters adorned our bedroom walls – although I have to confess, I was more of a fan of Merrill’s younger brother, Donny! Anyway, as well as going to the actual concert, we went first to a smaller gathering at which there was the opportunity to ask Merrill questions about his career which was actually very interesting as he had met some amazing people. What struck me most however, was the way in which he spoke about the importance of humility and how when this was lost, how destructive life could become.
Humility is an important virtue in Christian life and indeed there are many examples of what happens when people forget to value it and the consequences this has on their lives. Equally there are many verses that celebrate the importance of humility – not least one of my personal favourite verses of scripture, Micah 6:8 “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”.
However, it would appear that at the point at which we join Jesus and his disciples in our Gospel reading, humility is in short supply! Jesus asks the disciples what they had been arguing about but they are too ashamed to speak out, hence their silence. Jesus tells the twelve that in order to be first, it is actually necessary not only to be last but to be the servant of all others. No doubt this would have confused them – after all how you be first and last all at the same time? And as for being a servant, well that definitely didn’t point towards greatness! Servitude was considered to be the lowest of positions, an indication of a failure to achieve. To be a servant was to have no control or autonomy, to be subject to the power of others. There was no honour in being a servant. Likewise, to be a child was almost to be invisible. In communities where large families would have been the norm, a child was considered a drain, useful only when they reached the age of being able to assist in the running of the household or to find some sort of employment that would supplement the meagre income on which families struggled to survive. But in Jesus’s eyes to be a child or to serve others was a thing of beauty, an outpouring of God’s love and of his desire to create a world where service to others is honoured and where the innocence of a child is something to treasure. Only through striving to have the humility of one who spends their life seeking to undertake acts that will benefit others and who recognises the pureness of heart of a child can we hope to recognise who Jesus truly is.
It is through humility that we are able to free ourselves of the burdens of pride and ambition and therefore create the right mindset that will enable us to recognise who Jesus truly is. The disciples are so caught up in proving to each other who is worthy that they have completely forgotten that their view of each other is irrelevant. This desire to be the best, the greatest, clouds their ability to understand why Jesus has chosen them to follow him. They are so locked into an inward-looking model of community that they fail to see the bigger picture of who Jesus really is and why he has been sent to the world. And we can very easily get locked into that model as well. We can become so obsessed with trying to preserve a model of community that reflects our own vision of the world that we forget that we are not here to create a cosy community where no one rocks the boat and we all just jog along, with no one really noticing that we exist.
We are here to be disruptive, to place God at the centre of community so that he is noticed, that people are drawn towards him and in doing so we extend his kingdom. It is the view that we have of the nature of God that is important because when we recognise the nature of God, we are able to recognise the nature of Jesus. When we truly accept who Jesus is and what he has done for us through the cross then we can begin to create a relationship with God that will extend beyond the vagaries of this world into the heavenly kingdom and eternal life. We can see that there is a very clear link between the model of humility that Jesus is trying to impart to his disciples and James’s words of counsel to his sisters and brothers in Christ. “Who is wise among you” he writes “Let him show it by his good life done in the humility that comes from wisdom”. He is trying to encourage them to focus on serving others with a good heart rather than getting caught up in the prevailing culture of envy and ambition which can only lead to chaos and the creation of a world where goodness and kindness are a long way down the list of aspirational qualities. James was writing of a world that existed over 2,000 years ago but actually its one that doesn’t look too different from our world today. James is very pragmatic. He knows that his friends harbour ambition and envy and these are both highly destructive forces that are indeed the work of the devil. When the devil sees a world in which the prevailing culture is one of generosity and inclusive love, a place where everyone pulls together to create an environment of peace and consideration for others, he longs to destroy it, to smash it to smithereens so that it is irreparable, broken for eternity.
Without realising it many of you will have observed the negative effects of spiritual attack. You may not have experienced it directly yourself, or indeed you may not have realised that the wave of sadness or negativity that suddenly washes over you is a form of subtle spiritual attack but it cannot be denied that when a community is flourishing then the risk of it becoming a target for evil forces increases. James questions what causes fights and quarrels among the emerging churches. He points out that it is from within our own broken characters that we allow these destructive forces to prevail. It is because we forget that all that we have comes out of God’s grace and generosity to us not through our own efforts. Without God we are nothing, we cannot expect to achieve anything good or worthwhile. We need to bring to God all that we strive for, all that is on our hearts because it is only through his blessing of our lives that we can hope to thrive. James is very clear about how we should deal with such attacks. “Submit yourselves to God” he cries. If we do this with integrity, we will be strengthened to resist the devil. He will be unable to withstand this and thus flee from us, enabling us to move closer to God and discern more clearly his call to us.
The dangers that James describes are as relevant today as they were when this letter was written. We are at risk from them both as individuals and as a community. We can allow divisions among us to cause rifts, to disrupt the work that we have set ourselves to do as God’s people in this place. We can be distracted by the illusion of hierarchy, believing some to have more influence, to have more power simply because of the roles they occupy or the persona they present. We can forget that we are all equal in God’s sight and that he calls us all to participate in his mission for the world according to the unique gifts he has bestowed upon each of us. There are forces that seek to prevent God’s kingdom being built, to create fragmentation, to destroy all that is good in the world. This is what we are up against and this is what we need to work together to withstand. We have to commit to love each other as Jesus loves us, we have to put into practice James’s words “Come near to God” he writes “and he will come near to you” If we place those words on our hearts and try our hardest to live by them, then our resilience as both individuals and as a community will surely grow and together, we can work to build God’s kingdom right here.
These last nineteen months have been hard for so many people. Much has been lost – loved ones, livelihoods, peace of mind, security. Yet much has been gained – a sense of togetherness, partnerships with those we may have thought different from us, resilience in the face of adversity, a sharing of resources….I could go on. And all of this has been possible because despite what some would have us believe, God remains relevant to our world today, through His Holy Spirit lives are transformed, through His presence alongside us much can be achieved to His glory. We are slowly returning to a way of life reminiscent to the one we enjoyed prior to this pandemic season yet we do so with some remaining trepidation, we do so in the knowledge that things won’t ever be quite the same again. But we do so in the firm assurance that God is our protector, with him by our side we have nothing to fear and everything to look forward to. Amen