True Greatness

“We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves; and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.” – Thomas Merton

Proverbs 31:10-31 – Greatness comes through character and diligence

Mark 9:30-37 – Greatness comes through being able to defer

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8 – Greatness comes through embracing humility

Also in this Sunday’s readings: Psalm 1

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SUMMARY  The theme of the week is True Greatness

Proverbs 31:10-31: Greatness comes through character and diligence, as exemplified by Proverbs’ depiction of the “wife of noble character” whose skill, diligence and business acumen are all examples of the wisdom that comes from “the fear of the Lord”, meaning a willingness to submit everything to Him.

Mark 9:30-37: As the disciples argue about their individual status, Jesus teaches the Suffering Servant’s way of greatness through being able to defer.

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8: The teaching of the Early Church emphasised conquering pride, envy and personal ambition and embrace godly submission and humility, the true greatness.

MESSAGE OF THE WEEK  The fear of the Lord, submission and conquering pride sound like calls to a rigorous, monastic-style obedience – but the reality is that knowing God personally through Jesus releases and enables. The Life of the Spirit is empowering: it brings a freedom from ambition and status, enabling us to WANT to put God and others first.

Also in this Sunday’s readings: Psalm 1

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Alternative OT reading (C of E option) Jeremiah 11:18-20

OLD TESTAMENT READING

Proverbs 31:10-31 | Greatness comes through character and diligence

Book of Proverbs wisdom illustration about character and respect

Last week’s reading, at the beginning of the Book of Proverbs was about wisdom personified and wisdom’s voice – as it happens, a woman’s voice. Here at the end of Proverbs, we meet the wife of noble character. This wife, who is marked out by her fear the Lord, v.30, is also like the personification of wisdom. This chapter was not written by Solomon but King Lemuel, Prov. 30:1, not an Israelite king but a foreigner who had come to know the Lord.

10-12 A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.

 “Noble character” – moral and spiritual, but also very able. Elsewhere the term is used for the military exploits of men. Her husband can trust her because she is godly.

13 She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.

“Wool and linen” – wool spun from the fleece, linen woven from flax fibres. A linen garment sold for half a month’s wage and a woollen garment for four times that.

14 She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.

15 She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants.

“Like the merchant ships” – she is enterprising: remarkable in a male-dominated culture and “provides… portions” – also considerate, the opposite of Proverbs’ sluggard, Proverbs 6:9-10, 26:14, not one to have servants attend her in bed.

16-19 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks. She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.

“Considers a field… sees that her trading is profitable” – showing independent judgment and financial wisdom, not the norm for women of that time. “Her lamp does not go out” – not working through the night but a sign of a well-run house where the lamp was kept burning all night as a sign of life.

“Sets about her work” – establishing a vineyard planting and press in stony ground was an arduous undertaking. By contrast, drawing wool thread from the distaff stick on to the spinning wheel was skilled work undertaken by women.

20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.

21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.

“Clothed in scarlet” – implies dyed wool and good quality. She makes good clothes for her household and at the same time shows generosity to the less-well off, a characteristic of wise people.

For further study: generosity is characteristic of wisdom as emphasised in Proverbs, Prov. 11:24-26; 21:13; 22:9,16,22-23; 28:27.

22 She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple.

23 Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.

24 She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes.

25 She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.

This woman’s hard work and good judgment brings security and respect to the household and also her husband, who is valued as a decision-maker “at the city gate”.

26 She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.

27 She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.

28 Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:

29 “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”

30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

31 Honour her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

“A woman who fears the Lord” – the poem, an A-Z of wisdom, builds to its conclusion that the reward of wisdom, personified as the woman of wisdom, is about where that wisdom is rooted: in the fear of the Lord, a simple but profound statement, Prov. 1:7, 9:10, 15:33. Being willing to listen to and defer to the Lord is perhaps a more feminine trait, as in this depiction, which wise men do well to acquire.

IN PRACTICE  In a hard-nosed world which prizes knowledge and puts a high value on information, something called wisdom looks like a ‘soft skill’. Perhaps in a different way, it is – set in largely male-centric stories and events, the word for wisdom is feminine. Proverbs begins and ends with wisdom, which it explains in terms of personality and character – a God-fearing, submitted, spiritual woman. It is more than having skills, it is having the character and sense of direction to know what to do with them. This is what brings that elusive quality we call success.

QUESTION  Out of the many attributes of this ‘woman of wisdom’, which particularly speak to you? Should you ask God for wisdom or just rely on Him to provide it?

GOSPEL READING

Mark 9:30-37 | Greatness comes through being able to defer

The disciples are caught in an argument about status

30-32 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because He was teaching His disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill Him, and after three days He will rise.” But they did not understand what He meant and were afraid to ask Him about it. ”

“He was teaching His disciples” — they still couldn’t accept His teaching about His death and how it formed part of God’s plan. The resurrection of an individual was a new concept to them – they expected the resurrection of mankind at the final judgment foretold in Daniel 12:2. Luke’s explanation is that “it was concealed from them so that they could not grasp it”, Luke 9:45.

33-34  They came to Capernaum. When He was in the house, He asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

“Capernaum… in the house” – probably the one belonging to Peter and Andrew, Mark 1:29.

“But they kept quiet” – they expected disapproval of the argument. It would surface again, Mark 10:35-37. Because they had not yet understood Jesus’ destiny, they didn’t grasp the implication for themselves.

35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

“Sitting down” – as we would stand up, assuming the role of a teacher. Jewish rabbis taught sitting down.

“Want to be first…last… servant” – (here and below) Rank and status were important in Jewish society at this time. Jesus confronted those assumptions by teaching that in God’s kingdom true greatness comes through being the servant, not the master. Finally He demonstrated this conclusively in His death as the Suffering Servant.

36-37 He took a little child whom He placed among them. Taking the child in His arms, He said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes Me; and whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me but the one who sent Me.”

“Whoever welcomes one of these” – Children had no status and were not romantically considered pure and innocent – just weak and inferior. Welcoming a child was putting yourself last in line, in a dramatically unexpected way.

IN PRACTICE  The disciples belonged to a stratified Jewish society – aristocratic and common, rich and poor, politically powerful and oppressed. Status and hierarchy was discussed a lot in their culture. For us (depending on what newspaper you read) there is quite a lot of emphasis on ‘being a celebrity’. But all of this flies in the face of God’s kingdom order, which turns man’s order upside down, twists it around and shakes it for good measure. Jesus was a servant, a suffering servant to the cause of providing a salvation path for mankind at the cost of His life and reputation. His life on earth made Him the greatest human being who has ever lived. True greatness, in His terms, has nothing to do with our imagined ideas of status, but is achieved by conquering human pride and self-sufficiency, and learning to embrace dependence on God and gain a true servant spirit.

QUESTION  Think of someone you know who is different because you can see Jesus in them? Why is that? What part of status and position would be costly for you to say ‘no’ to?

EPISTLE READING

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a | True greatness comes from humility, not pride

Teaching about dealing with ambition and embracing godly dependence

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

“Humility” – literally ‘meekness’, prautes. ‘Gentleness’ in Gal. 5:23. Greeks considered it a weakness but Jesus made it a fundamental virtue, Matt. 5:5, 11:29. It is not passive or timid but an attitude of trusting God and therefore having no need to self-promote.

“Humility that comes from wisdom” – true wisdom, like true greatness, has nothing to prove.. James writes to Spirit-filled believers in the churches about “deeds done in the humility of the consequential fruitfulness of faith in their day by day experience of God.

14-16 But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

“Selfish ambition… disorder” – worldly teaching based on man-centred values  is unspiritual; more seriously, it invites the conflict and division that is the hallmark of the devil, James 4:1-3 below.

17-18 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

“Peace-loving… considerate” – the list parallels the character qualities of the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23  with more than a nod towards the Royal Law James has already mentioned, James 2:8.

“Desires that battle within” – the life produced by the Spirit and characterised by the peace-loving and fruitful unity He brings, contrasted dramatically with the bitter church conflicts and character assassination that result from rivalry and desire to control.

4:1-3 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

7-8 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and He will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

“Resist the devil” – the opportunities given to the devil by unholy attitudes have been set out forcefully. Similarly the remedy – recognising the rule and reign of God in willing submission to His values. This ‘repent and resist’ teaching is paralleled by Peter, 1 Peter 5:8-9, in His letter written at a different time, giving weight to the gravity of this teaching.

For further study: the ‘wearing holy attitudes’ teaching in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Eph. 6:10-18.

IN PRACTICE  This week’s teaching follows a familiar pattern. The principles are set out in the Old Testament passage, but at this point, it’s more theoretical than practical. In the Gospel passage, Jesus brings the principles alive in His own life and teaches the values to the disciples. It still needs to be earthed in everyday spiritual life. The epistle is written to believers in the churches who are learning to live in their new life and new identity, as those who are new creations “in Christ Jesus” and who have the Spirit of Christ Jesus in them. They are empowered, they are guided, they have the original Scriptures and the new records of Jesus’ teaching BUT they have to make it work in their lives and their relationships, with all the tensions of a community. They have new life, but as we all find, the test is whether we can avoid being pulled back into what the Bible calls the flesh, or selfish nature. In this case, it’s rivalry, envy and desire to control and, like the weeds in your garden, it’s ready to spring up in every church fellowship to be a vehicle for the conflict and the disunity the devil wants to sow. That’s his strategy to disable the advance of the kingdom of God. We have a better a strategy to disable the devil, and that is the active choice to repent of pride, embrace again utter dependence on God and recognise that whatever we have of worth, is only from Him.

QUESTION  What do you feel entitled to control? Where do you have the need to be in charge? Where is the lordship of Jesus – over or under those perceptions?

PRAYER  Lord, looking into Your eyes is looking into life itself. Help and empower us to be people of the New Life – and life-givers to others who in their pain may need us to exercise our faith on their behalf. I pray this in and through Jesus. Amen.

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C of E alternative OT reading

Jeremiah 11:18-20 NIV

The plot against Jeremiah revealed

18 Because the Lord revealed their plot to me, I knew it, for at that time He showed me what they were doing. 

“Their plot” – people in Jeremiah’s home town of Anathoth. He was a priest from a town of priestly families just north of Jerusalem, Jeremiah 1:1.

19 I had been like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; I did not realise that they had plotted against me, saying, “Let us destroy the tree and its fruit; let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.”

“Destroy the tree” – they wanted Jeremiah and his memory blotted out. They hated him because of his words against the ruling order at a time when God’s judgment was building, which resulted in Jerusalem’s fall to the Babylonians and deportation of most of the people.

20 But You, Lord Almighty, who judge righteously and test the heart and mind, let me see Your vengeance on them, for to You I have committed my cause.

“Your vengeance” – not personal vengeance. Jeremiah is simply calling for God to judge the actions of his oppressors fairly and handing over any personal desire for retribution to Him.

Jesus’ way changes the world as we abide in His love and joy

WEDNESDAY, MAY 2
John 15:9-17

The joy and love which are characteristics of those who are the Lord’s have the effect of transforming our world

9  “As the Father has loved Me, so have I loved you. Now remain in My love.

“Remain in My love” – a parallel, but not identical,  statement to “remain in Me” or “abide in Me”, v.4.

10 If you keep My commands, you will remain in My love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in His love.

“If you keep…” – a condition. Doing what Jesus said to do is important and the key to knowing His abiding presence and the security of His love. Jesus, fully God but also fully man, stuck closely to His Father’s instructions and intentions in His human life.

11 I have told you this so that My joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

“My joy…in you” – a defining characteristic of Christian believers is their joy, the joy of Jesus which is the same as the joy of the Spirit of Jesus. Obeying Jesus is not, as is sometimes supposed, drudgery, John 1:4, John 5:2-3.

“Complete” – our joy in a fallen world flickers in an uncertain way which the Holy Spirit’s joy makes into a secure connection.

12-13  My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

“Love each other”, John 13:34.

As I have loved you” – Jesus demonstrated a depth of love that was sacrificial in a final sense. He calls us to love others beyond what is polite, expected and convenient, but showing His love even when it costs us to do so. We can’t claim to love God without showing love that extends beyond ourselves, 1 John 4:11-21.

14-17  You are my friends if you do what I command.  I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last – and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.  This is my command: Love each other.

“If you do what I command” – this is not about formality, discipline and duty in the way the language may suggest. What characterises Jesus’ friends is that they seek to grow more like Him and be found doing more of what Jesus Himself did. Appointed to bear “fruit that will last” is broadly about showing Jesus to the world through our changed hearts and attitudes, which itself attracts God’s provision.

“I have called you friends” – a rabbi’s disciples were seen in a relationship of bond-service, but Jesus’ disciples are in a bond of friendship. This is a key to the way the kingdom of God operates – through people and relationships.

For further study, the OT prophets foresaw an era of people of joy, Isaiah 25:9, 35:10, 51:3, 61:10, Zeph. 3:14-17, Zech. 9:9

Application

We are on a mission to transform a selfish and love-deficient world by demonstrating a new way of relating. First of all, we learn this within the fellowship of the church, but quickly we join Jesus on His mission, letting His love and joy, in us by His Holy Spirit, spill out to bless others. This is showing an unbelieving world what God is really like, and it is what Jesus called “fruit that will last”.

It doesn’t just happen – we have to work at it a bit. And we will find the enemy is ever active in making relationships difficult, wherever he can find a foothold to get in. Then, “remaining in His love” gets more costly. We find ourselves having to lay down parts of our life – being right, having what’s fair, letting go of what is ours – and trusting God for the outcome.

That is what Jesus did. It was His way of life and He says it is ours, too, as His “commanded” followers. But as we do, His love for us becomes more keenly felt, the joy that carries us through kicks in and we are reminded that we are not just followers, but teamed up with Him as his friends.

For reflection and discussion

Think of a time when you came to a decision to let go of something in life to do what was right by Jesus. How difficult was it at the time, and looking back, what did you gain by doing what was right?