“The Rhythm of the Christian Life: Repentance, Faith, and Servanthood” (James 3:13 – 4:10; Mark 9:30-37)
As I was reading through the lessons for this day, I was thinking, “What would make a good message for us to hear today, something timely and fitting and that would apply to us all? What is God’s word saying to us through these readings?” And as I mulled those questions over in my mind, what began to emerge from the lessons–particularly from the Epistle of James and the Gospel of Mark–what I began to see is this: These readings portray very vividly and plainly the rhythm of the Christian life, and that is, in these three things: repentance, faith, and servanthood. So let’s look at those things now and see how they apply to us in the daily rhythm of how we live.
“The Rhythm of the Christian Life: Repentance, Faith, and Servanthood.” I think the aspect of repentance comes out most strongly in the reading from James, and faith and servanthood in the reading from Mark. So let’s start with the strong message of repentance that James has for us today. He writes: “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.” Boy, that doesn’t sound like something we like to hear! No, this is a tough message indeed! This is not something you’re going to hear at a happy-clappy, pep-rally praise center, where everything is light and fluffy and designed to make you feel good about yourself. By no means! But this is a true and authentic preaching of God’s word. It is the hard message of repentance, and we need to hear it.
“Cleanse your hands, you sinners.” Listen, James is calling us sinners! Where does he get off, calling us that? I’m a pretty good person! But no, God’s word of Law shows us that we’re not that good. The Law shows us that we are sinners, every one of us. We each have broken God’s commandments, in thought, word, and deed, in the wrong things we have done and in the right things we have failed to do. Where have your hands gone, what have they done? On your computer keyboard? With the remote control of your TV? Where have your hands gone? Whose will have they served? We must confess that our hands are dirty and in need of cleansing. But you can’t wash them clean enough to pass God’s inspection test. You can’t do like Pilate and wash your hands in a basin and think that’s good enough. All the hand sanitizer in the world won’t cleanse your hands clean enough for that.
“Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” Well, now we’re getting to the heart of the matter, aren’t we? We may be able to put on a show of clean hands, to all outward observation, but inwardly our hearts and minds are not free from corrupt and evil desires. Covetousness, greed, envy, lust, impurity–all these things take place on the inside, where no one can see them. Except God, of course. He sees the heart. He knows your mind. Have you been double-minded, sometimes wanting to do the will of God, but at other times setting your mind on the things of this world, wanting to follow your own desires and the passions of your flesh? That’s being double-minded. And so we must pray, “Create in me, a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
And so James says: “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.” This is sorrow over sin. Your sin. My sin. This is not about other people. This is not just some theological theory. This is real life. How often do we let this message of repentance just bounce off our head and not touch our heart? It’s an abstract theory for us. “I, a poor, miserable sinner”: The words just roll off our tongue. But do they rip up our heart? They should. One thing we need to repent of is a shallow, surface repentance, not heartfelt, not deeply felt, all too easy.
But our sin–my sin, your sin–should move us deeply. Are we content, are we satisfied, to remain in our rut, to think lightly of what grieves God so and betrays our identity as his children? Do we let God’s grace and his forgiveness become a license for our continued sinning? Hear the word of the Lord: Repent! “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.”
But then hear this word, too, also from James: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” When the Law does its work, to humble you, then the Gospel comes to the rescue, to lift you up and exalt you. God does not want you to stay down, but you do need to mourn your sin, in order to be ready to hear the good news of how God lifts you up. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
And where is this grace found? When you are beat down with the weight of your sinfulness, who comes along to pick you up? It is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Now this is where faith comes in. Faith, the second of the three things today we’re calling the rhythm of the Christian life. After repentance comes faith. And it is faith focused on Christ.
This is the Jesus who says, as we heard in the Gospel of Mark–the Jesus who says, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” Again, this does not sound like a happy, peppy Jesus, your best buddy and your friendly life coach. No, this Jesus does a bigger and better job than that. He gets to the root of the problem. He does the only effective thing that will deal decisively with your sin and the death that follows. What does this Jesus do? He dies for you. He dies for the sin of the world, that’s how deep the problem goes–and the solution reaches. For the very Son of God dies for your sins; he sheds his holy blood for you on the cross. And this is what will cleanse you of all your sins. This is what cleanses those dirty hands of yours. This is what will purify your double-minded mind. It is the blood of Jesus, God’s own Son.
Trust in him for your cleansing. There is no other. Only Jesus can put you right with God. Only Jesus can raise you from the dead–the deadness of sin and the physical death that will land you in the grave. Jesus can and will raise you from this double deadness. Faith looks to Christ Jesus for forgiveness and cleansing, for new life now, and for eternal life to come.
And so faith is central to the rhythm of the Christian life. Faith always looks to Jesus and his cross and resurrection for everything we need. This faith, this believing in and trusting in Christ–this is itself a gift of God. The Holy Spirit works through the gospel, through the means of grace, Word and Sacrament, to generate this faith in you and to keep your faith strong.
And that leads us then to the third aspect of the Christian life brought out in our lessons today, and that is, servanthood. Repentance, faith, and servanthood. Listen to the words of Jesus: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
This sounds odd, doesn’t it? If you want to be first, if you want to be great, you would think the idea is to put yourself forward, to advance your own cause, to get to the place where people are serving you. But no. Jesus turns this whole thing around and stands greatness on its head. The way to being first is to be last. The way of greatness is servanthood. If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be the servant of all.
That’s how Jesus himself did it. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And so now his followers, his disciples–that’s us–we are called to walk in the way of our Master. You see, we have been freed up. We are secure in Christ. We don’t have to advance ourselves. Christ has already moved us up to a higher place. So now we are able to let go and to stop striving and climbing over other people in our quest for greatness. We are even free enough to serve them.
Whom will you find to serve this week? Jesus took a little child and placed him in the midst of the disciples, and took that child in his arms and said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” The point being, even to serve a seemingly insignificant little child, someone who cannot do anything to advance your cause, someone you might pass over on your path to greatness–to serve such a one is what we do as followers of our Lord. Whom will the Lord put in your path this week, for you to serve?
Jesus’ disciples, the Twelve–they were all caught up in the game of who was the greatest. They saw Jesus as their ticket to great things. He was bringing in the kingdom of God here on earth, and they wanted to be in on the action and grab the best spots in his administration. They were thinking like climbers and self-advancers–the way of the world. So Jesus has to straighten out their thinking. They didn’t get it yet.
Maybe sometimes we don’t get it, either. We get seduced and caught up in the ways of the world. “But,” as James says, “if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”
And so now we have come full circle. Now we come back to repentance. Now we must confess our sins. Now it is time to look to Jesus once again in faith, for forgiveness and for grace and for the Lord to lift us up and get us going again. Now we get back, restored and strengthened, to the place of servanthood. You see, this rhythm of the Christian life–it is a daily thing. It is day-to-day baptismal living. Dying to sin, rising with Christ, and serving others in love, in the power of a new life. Repentance, faith, and servanthood–the daily rhythm of the Christian life.