James 3: 13 – 4: 8a———-Mark 9: 30-37———–17th Sunday after Pentecost
September 19, 2021
Listen to this description: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth!”
This is what Numbers 12:3 tells us about the most famous leader in the early history of our faith! A very HUMBLE man. Isn’t humble a funny word? We might say, “Welcome to my humble abode” when we actually have a home any royalty from Biblical times would have loved to have! Or we might preface our remarks by saying, “In my humble opinion…” when the truth is that we are often fairly proud of our opinion!
When we use the word properly, we say that Moses was a humble leader, the most humble person you could ever find. This description in Numbers 12 is meant to be praise. Think about the Presidents you have liked best in the last few decades. Would you describe them as “humble”? What about the best leaders you have had in your various organizations and groups—is “humble” a characteristic you would elevate in them? I remember one time at Presbytery when we confessed to each other that our egos want to strut—we want to show all the other churches that our ministry is better than theirs! I, on the other hand, am proud that I am one of the most humble of all the pastors—if not THE most humble. I am proud of that. Yeah.
At that meeting, we explored the possibility that the badge of servanthood can actually just be another effort to seek glory for ourselves—but “through the back door.” Yes, each of us has a desire to be considered important. Oh, sure, we’re all special—but, truth be told, I want to be MORE special than others.
Friends, if you find yourself able to relate to this condition, then today’s Scriptures are going to be helpful to YOU! James warns us that conflicts and disputes arise because of envy and selfish ambition. And Jesus tells us, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Let’s look at this situation, and then we’ll explore the prescription for the cure!
Two Kinds of Wisdom
We often see in Scripture a comparison between two kinds of wisdom. There is earthly wisdom, and there is Godly wisdom. Earthly wisdom is often marred with bitter envy and selfish ambition in our hearts. This is the natural outgrowth of focusing on our wants, to the exclusion of understanding the wants of others. The result is a determination to have our pleasures, our stuff, our power, and our recognition.
Godly wisdom, on the other hand, is reflected when we follow the advice of James: “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” This is the wisdom from above, which he describes as “First pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” See the difference?!
A phrase that might describe this Godly Wisdom is “Servant Leadership.” Remember last week, when we compared Isaiah’s Suffering Servant with a more earthly ambition? In today’s reading, Jesus told his disciples “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” They didn’t understand. In fact, in last week’s reading, Peter went so far as to try to dissuade him from this path. Jesus rebuked him, called him Satan, and explained that he was not thinking God’s way but with human understanding. Godly wisdom versus human, earthly wisdom.
The disciples did not get the message. In fact, in today’s reading it is revealed that they had been arguing about which one of them was going to be the greatest when Jesus came into his kingdom! In a way, Jesus had to start all over with them, and spell things out clearly. He needed them to understand that Leadership Is Based on Servanthood.
Anyone who wants to be great in the kingdom needs to care more about others than about self, and this is especially true for those who would be leaders. Think about the motivations for leadership: Is my motivation mostly about personal glory, or is it a genuine interest in the wellbeing of others?
We have all had a variety of bosses in our lives, right? Some have been good, while others—well, not so much. A good boss will bring out the best in others, helping them grow.
I read an interesting comment that one person had about her boss. “He is the most capable boss I’ve ever worked with,” she writes. “He is brilliant, energetic, everywhere at once, on top of every detail in the business, always enthusiastic, always there with the right decision.” Then she continues, “He is the worst boss I’ve ever worked with.”
Wow! I didn’t see that coming. But think about it: a good boss helps others to grow, brings out the best in them. A good leader doesn’t DO everything. A good leader enables others to do their best work. THAT is one way a servant leader leads.
If you and I would be servant leaders, we will want to bring out the best in others, foster an environment of creativity and accountability, and serve their needs. (Turns out this is the best way to serve our own needs, as well!)
Recipe for Success as a Servant Leader
In our texts for today, we have two complimentary “recipes for success as servant leaders.” James tells us, “Submit yourselves therefore to God (who is our Leader). Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”
In Mark, Jesus stood a little child in their midst, then he gave the child a hug and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” It makes me think of the line in Isaiah 11, “And a little child shall lead them.”
I will finish today with a story about Servant Leadership. Rodger Nishioka was attending a Christian conference, and he was excited about hearing the keynote speaker. Minutes before the speaker was to begin, Rodger make a quick trip to the men’s room. When he was washing his hands, he saw a man in a nice suit picking up paper towels that had been dropped on the floor, and putting them into the trash can.
Rodger thought, “Wasn’t that nice of him? Such a humble man!” When it was time to begin, the keynote speaker was introduced, and he walked out onto the stage. Rodger was amazed to see that it was the man who had picked up the stray paper towels! Then he thought, “This guy really is humble.”
Let me recap: The World’s Wisdom says, “I am too important to be a humble servant.”
Wisdom from above—Godly wisdom—says, “The only way to truly lead is to serve.”