James 3:13-4:4, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
17th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 23.09.18
Rev Tulo Raistrick
A few months ago I was in Kenya and witnessed the baptism of an 80 year old man and his wife. It was an extraordinary experience. The man had no teeth, had little eyesight, and could barely walk, but he managed to kneel as drops of water were sprinkled on his head. A few years before, in Oxford, I attended a small little service on the banks of the Thames, as some students walked down into the icy cold waters and were plunged under the water and brought back up again. As they came out shivering on the riverbank we all broke into song, singing the song we sang as we walked to the font: “He is Lord”. And today we have witnessed the baptism of baby Jacob.
For two thousand years people have been declaring their faith in God, seeking God’s blessing, by getting baptised. Sometimes baptisms can take on the appearance of a polite social convention, the acceptable, respectable thing to do. But rarely in the history of the church have baptisms ever been that. In many parts of the world, even today, getting baptised, publicly declaring faith in Christ, can lead not to a family party but to family ostracism, being thrown out of the family, facing persecution, possibly even death.
For baptism declares something very significant. In baptism we are declaring “this is the direction I want my life to go”. For that elderly couple in Kenya, coming towards the end of their life, they are saying, “From now on, for whatever time we have left, we commit ourselves to live a different way, to go in a different direction.” For those students in Oxford, out of childhood, beginning adult life, they were declaring, “From now on, I commit myself to following God, to going his direction.” And for Jacob this morning we have committed ourselves to saying, “At the beginning of his life, we want to do all that we can so he will grow up choosing God’s direction.”
Over the last few weeks we have been reading the Letter of James in the New Testament, a letter full of practical, down-to-earth advice (and just to say, the paper version of Week 4 of the daily reflection series are available at the back).
Our reading today makes it clear that there are choices to be made about what direction we go in. We can’t head in two opposite directions at the same time. As the baptism promises made clear, we need turn from some things – evil, sin – and turn to others, in particular, to Christ. We turn from the direction of the setting sun and turn in the direction of the rising sun. We turn from darkness to light.
James puts it like this. There are two kinds of wisdom, two ways of making decisions about life. One way of making decisions is based on putting the self-first, the “what’s best for me” approach. If it benefits me, I’ll do it. If there are consequences for others because of my actions, well that is secondary. The problem with such an approach to decisions, James says, is that it ends up being driven by all sorts of negative influences: envy of others – “I want what others have got” – and by selfish ambition – “I want to have more… money, things, friends, power… than other people”. Those desires can never get satisfied, and in our pursuit of them they cause huge amounts of strife and pain to ourselves and others.
None of us are immune from following that direction. We all find ourselves being pulled that way. Just look at the disciples, quarrelling and fighting about who would be the greatest, who would have the position of greatest influence alongside Jesus. They had totally missed the point. But we can too, can’t we?
The other way of making decisions is based on what the Bible calls “humility”, not forcing one’s own rights and demands on others, not seeking one’s own interests above everyone else’s, but instead valuing and putting others before yourself. Jesus put it like this: “If anyone wants to be first, they must put themselves last and be the servant of all.”
James spells out for us what that looks like. It means living a life of compassion, caring for those in need. It means living a life that works for peace, that works at bringing healing and reconciliation to situations, not division and animosity. It means living a life of gentleness, that is considerate and willing to forgive others. A life that is sincere. A life where people can trust that what we say is what we do. That does not discriminate or judge others, but instead treats all with love and respect. A life that speaks well of others, that is quick to praise and encourage, and does not look to put others down.
I wonder, who would you rather have for a friend, for a colleague at work, for a neighbour? The one who makes decisions based on self or the one who makes decisions based on humility? And if we want that for others, how about that for ourselves?
But choosing the direction of humility, of life, is not easy! Human willpower is an extraordinary thing, but in and of itself it is not enough to help us choose God’s direction rather than our own. We need God’s help. The good news is that though we have made promises to God, he has made some even more amazing promises to us, and James here lists a couple of those.
Firstly, God promises: “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” In other words, people who choose the direction of humility, of working for peace and the good of others, will have incredibly fruitful lives. They may not necessarily get to the top of their careers, they may not necessarily want or be able to afford all the latest technologies or holidays, but they will make a difference in the lives of those around them. Other people will thrive, will find themselves affirmed, valued, respected, encouraged, because of the life of such people. Situations of conflict will be resolved, situations of need will be addressed, because of the choices of such people. We want Jacob to grow up being like that. And we want our lives to be like that too.
James also writes: “Come near to God and God will come near to you.” Jesus told the story of the prodigal son, the story of a son who demanded all his inheritance from his father, went away, squandered it all, and ended up destitute and starving. At rock bottom he decided to turn home. Maybe his father would let him become a labourer on the farm. Little did he know his father had been waiting, looking out for him everyday since he had left home. The moment he saw him on the horizon, he dropped everything, and ran to meet him, and flung his arms around him. That, Jesus says, is how God is with us. He will not force himself upon us, but once we turn round, once we turn in his direction, he will come to us.
The key is not how far along the journey we are – whether we are like baby Jacob or have been a Christian for 70-80 years. The key question is which direction are we heading. If we are heading towards God, seeking his help, his friendship, then wherever we are, he will meet us.
For all of us today, today is a good place to pause, take stock, and ask which direction are we heading in.