Wisdom From Above

Text: Mark 9:30-37
Date: Pentecost XVI + 9/20/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

This is now the third and final time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus tells his disciples about his coming passion, death and resurrection. And their reaction just seems to get worse every time he brings the subject up. The first time (8:31-33) Peter rebukes Jesus and becomes the unwitting tool of Satan himself. The second time (9:9-12) followed Jesus transfiguration and the inner group of disciples were left with more questions than answers. This third and last passion prediction so stuns them that they were, literally, speechless. “They did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him” (v. 32). They don’t get it yet, that the way of the Christ, and therefore of his followers, is the way of meekness as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, saying, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). The Messiah is, as Jeremiah prophesied, “like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter” (Jer. 11:19). Taking a child for an object lesson, Jesus illustrated the peaceable innocence and meekness that characterizes Him and therefore is also to characterize those who follow Him in the way of the cross.

The Apostle James, in today’s epistle, calls this attitude of meekness “wisdom from above.” “Who is wise and understanding among you?” he writes. “By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13). Meekness (which, of course, is not to be confused with “weakness”) is one of the great qualities which wisdom produces in the wise person. And, in the same way that salvation is beyond our reach but must be received as a gift from God, so the meekness of wisdom is beyond our ability to produce of ourselves but must be received “from above.”

“From above.” Recall with me, please, the conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus in John’s Gospel. In the face of this religious teacher’s spiritual blindness, Jesus tells him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). That term, to be born “again,” is more clearly translated as born “from above.” It is the same word James uses here when he writes about wisdom “from above.” In both cases the issue is that conversion, repentance and faith and understanding or wisdom can only be obtained as the gift and working of the Holy Spirit, which he gives and works from above through the means of the Word of God. To be born anew from above means to receive the gift of faith through baptismal washing of water with the Word (John 3:5; Eph. 5:26) and through the preaching and hearing of the Gospel (AC, Article V). For through the Word of God the sinner is cleansed and enlightened with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

In this third passion prediction, Jesus introduced one new element. Whereas before he had said that he would “suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed” (Mark 8:31), here he reveals how this would come about, namely, by being “delivered into the hands of men” (Mark 9:31). Being delivered or handed over implies a betrayal on the part of one of his own disciples! Was it this new element that caused the fear in his disciples not to ask him what he meant? The point is that the promised, mighty deliverance of the world from the ravages of sin and death would not come by means of a spectacular, action-packed battle but by means of the bloody sacrifice of an innocent, meek, seemingly defeated victim, the Lamb of God who, like a sheep that before its shearers is silent (Is. 53:7), would not protest but give Himself over willingly.

The “wisdom from above” James describes as “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” These qualities, you need to know, first describe our Lord. To qualify as the one-and-only sacrifice able to take away the sin of the world, our Lord was, first of all, pure, holy, sinless in Himself. In His incarnation He was conceived by the Holy Spirit in such a manner as to be sinless in body and soul. In our Lord’s earthly ministry He demonstrated that He was “peaceable, gentle and open to reason.” A better translation might be “yielding and obedient.” In His ministry He was gentle, as Isaiah wrote, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Is. 42:3). He welcomes sinners who come to Him for the healing of forgiveness. And He was obedient to the Father’s will to the point of death (Philippians 2:6-8). He was full of mercy and good fruits toward all in distress. He was impartial and sincere for He was bringing salvation to all, sinner and supposed saint alike, from the lowliest to the highest on society’s least-to-most-desirable list.

If this is true of the Lord and Master, then it shall be true also of those who follow Him. By faith in Christ, the Christian is to be, first pure. Though saint and sinner at the same time as we trudge our way through this life, though very real sins continue to daily give very real grief, we have the assurance of living in the forgiveness of sins, Christ himself presenting us to the Father “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing…holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27), pleading our cause. “For Christ has entered…heaven, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb. 9:24). By faith in Christ the sinner is washed in His blood and declared righteous for Christ’s sake. Then is the Christian disciple, like his Lord, also peaceable to all, yielding to those in need and obedient in divine love.

Those same faithless, fearing and prideful disciples would remember and, more than that, finally understand His words when, after the strange and dreadful strife when life and death contended on the bloody cross and the dark tomb, the angel would proclaim His resurrection, saying, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise” (Luke 24:6-7). And they did remember. And the victorious, risen Jesus would open their minds to understand the Scriptures, saying, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations” (Luke 24:45-47). And now, thanks to their witness and preaching, through their inspired word, you and I have received this same life and salvation through the forgiveness of sins. So also are we receiving the same faith and understanding, the wisdom from above, and are sent now as peacemakers sowing a harvest of righteousness.