Humbled Wisdom

Cover image: Icarus by Senad D.

Scripture | James 3:13-18; 4:6-10

How does God speak to us?
and How do we hear God’s word when God’s speak?

How do we not just listen, but hear it…
How do internalize it and welcome it into our innermost self,
How do we welcome God’s word into our heart… 

And how does hearing it change us?
How does this word not only take root in our interior world
but then reflect outwardly into the exterior world?

How do we become not only hearers of God’s Word, but people who DO God’s word?

How do we put our faith into practice? No matter who we are? No matter what stage of life?
No matter what resources we have available?
How can we put our faith into action?

These may be questions that you have asked before in your faith journey. 
These may be questions you are asking now. 
These are questions that are at the center of our faith. 

How do we live out the the things that we feel in our heart? How does our faith matter?

And these are the questions that come alive throughout James’ letter. 
And they are present here in this short book of the bible because of the context of James’ world and because the context of the group of people he’s writing to. These were the questions they were asking.  This is what was on the mind of christians about 30 years after Jesus died, and these are the questions, James is attempting to provide some answers to.

James is writing to a group of Christian Jews, dispersed outside of Jerusalem.  They had been living in Jerusalem, but had become more and more frustrated by life there under Roman Rule and occupation. There was rampant corruption, injustice and poverty plaguing the city.. and the Jews laid the blame on those who were in charge. So the Jews revolted against the Romans, which led to violence and persecution and in some cases all out war, and many of the Christian Jews decided to leave the city in order to survive. 

By the time James writes to these groups, they are spread across the region outside of Jerusalem. They are isolated from each other. They are still traumatized from all the violence, and still grieving from the injustice and poverty.  And they are still angry, and still fired up for their fight for justice… They know they are in the right and… and they are still willing to put their life on the line to fight for cause they believed in.

But something has switched… the fight for their cause is now personal… its about winning the fight they’ve now been fighting so long… its about revenge and seeking their own advantage.

So James writes this letter to them with a real immediate purpose: to encourage Christian Jews not to revert back to violence in their fight against the roman empire, but instead to stay focused on living out their faith by doing good and staying holy. James is urging them to humble themselves, and trust in God. 

James saw that they were living in the wisdom of the earth relying on ambition, selfishness, hubris, in hopes of bringing about change. And he urges them instead to seek a wisdom from above, a wisdom found through a practice of humility, a wisdom that shows itself through acts of peace, mercy, gentleness and love.

He’s saying that even in the face of great injustice and poverty, if you are fighting for the wrong reasons, if its about you, and not about God you will fail. Don’t be so earthly, don’t meet the injustice you’ve experience with equal injustice, don’t seek revenge, instead, being faithful to God looks like humbling yourself, submitting yourself before God.

It reminds me of a classical Greek myth. The story of Icarus and his father crafty father Daedalus, and how Icarus fell from the sky. You remember how this myth is told right?

Icarus and his father Daedalus are held captive in a tower on an island, they are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in this tower. But Daedalus is a designer and engineer, and he spends his time figuring out how they might escape. He studies the birds flying around the tower, and after collecting enough feathers from the birds, and wax from the candles they burn at night, he constructs two sets of wings for he and his son to escape and fly away. 

They put them on, and Daedalus warns his son Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, because the wings are made of wax, and the heat might cause them to melt. So they take off, they get the hang of the wings quickly and fly away successfully. They put a great distance between themselves and the island… but then Icarus forgets his father’s advice… He is overly confident in his ability to fly and he flies too high. The wax melts, the wings fall away, and he falls to his death.

The lesson is clear right? Don’t think you can fly with the Gods… The myth is intended to caution us against hubris.  It aims to teach us that we should heed Icarus’ fathers advice. Don’t fly so high that you wind up somewhere out of your own ability, where your wings are no longer able to fly… If you are full of yourself, overly proud, too big for your own britches, you will fall. The better path seems to be to fly low, to play it safe, don’t make a stir and don’t cause a ruckus. 

It sounds like the same path of humility that James is urging Jewish Christians to live out their faith. Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord… fly low, and that way God will pick you up.

Except that, this isn’t the full myth of Icarus. It is often all we hear, but Icarus’ dad doesn’t just warn him about flying high, he also tells him that it is dangerous to fly too low. In the original myth, Daedalus warns Icarus against flying too low because the sea mist might cover the feathers of his wings and weigh him down becoming too heavy to maintain flight. [This telling is inspired by Seth Godin’s Book The Icarus Deception]

The myth isn’t just intended to warn about excessive hubris and arrogance, its also intended to warn us about excessive caution, about flying so low that you can no longer fly at all. Its meant to warn that the opposite of hubris and selfish arrogance can also be dangerous, that if you don’t risk anything, if you play it safe, and fly low you may wind up not actually flying at all.

So really the myth of Icarus is a story about finding the sweet spot that exists between two worlds. It is about flying at just the right height, flying between the heights of hubris and the lows of fear, caution. Flying not so high that you are overly confident and full of yourself, but also not so low that you cease to make any difference at all. Flying at just the right height, a height that allows you to keep continue flying on as long as you need to.

James would argue that this sweet spot, This flight path that is at just the right height is humility. 

James wrote his letter to a group of people who were flying so high that they were at risk of crashing. They were so confident that they were willing to turn to violence in order to fight for their cause. They were the were relying on themselves, and forgetting to trust in God. 
His advice to them was to level off their flight into humility, fly lower into that sweet spot, take up acts that show mercy and peace… submit yourself to God… Humble yourself… and rely on God.

But the thing is, James would have similar advice for them if they were flying too low…
If they had left Jerusalem out of fear for their life, and let that fear for self preservation dominate their lives. I think he would have the same advice If they were playing it safe for selfish reasons, and stopped doing anything to follow their faith, stopped doing anything in their work for justice. Draw closer to God… Humble yourself upwards… Humble yourself before your God… 

Because Humility doesn’t mean inaction…
Humility doesn’t look like giving up the fight.
Humility doesn’t look like ceasing to act all together.
Humility doesn’t look like flying close to the sea.

Humility looks like aligning yourself with God… Acting in a way that God would… acting with peace, acting with mercy… acting with Love…

Humility looks like relying less on yourself… Humility looks like relying on God.

How have you been flying?
Have you been soaring to the heights?
Seeking your own betterment and advantage? Hoping to climb higher?

How have you been flying?
Have you been playing it safe? Staying low, out of sight and unnoticed?
Have you been trying to avoid stirring the waters? 

Humble yourselves… Draw close to God and God will draw close to you.
Humble yourselves downwards or upwards… Fly into that sweet spot in the middle.
Where it isn’t about you, but where its about God
Fly into the middle where Gods wind blows at just the right speed, where you can stay in flight forever…

Amen.