Warning! Danger!

James 5:1-6

When James says, “Now listen,” That is to be understood very much in the tone of voice you might use when you are about to correct some very disobedient children, “Now listen!” Once again, he is using very strong language to let his audience know that he is very upset and very passionate about what he has heard is going on in the church. This stuff is really important!

He talks tough, not like so many sermons you hear these days, funny illustrations, gentle words and big on grace. Many sermons today hardly mention sin except to say that you are forgiven f it. But, maybe James approach is appropriate sometimes. It is better for the people to hear the truth and maybe be jarred awake and into an urgency to do something about the problem. It would be far better than what happened to the rich man that Jesus talked about in connection with Lazarus.

The story I am talking about is recorded in Luke 16, and I will go ahead and read to you verses 19-26. It’s not the whole parable, but it makes the point that James is making in our text today. It is better to weep and wail now, while there is time to repent, rather than to go blindly along not thinking about the coming judgement.

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.  At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.  In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.  So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.

That’s James’ point, it is better to be in agony now so that you are moved to care for the poor more than for your own riches. That is far better than neglecting the poor and suffering for it in the coming judgment.

But how can James say such a thing to the church? The church is full of people who believe the gospel and are forgiven of their sins so that they will not suffer the coming judgement. Isn’t it? Doesn’t the gospel mean that sinners don’t get punished? Yes, the gospel does mean that sinners don’t get punished. But if the church was full of forgiven sinners who really understood the gospel in such a way that it led to their full repentance, then there wouldn’t have been a need for James to write his book at all.

It must be the case that at least some people who think they are saved Christians, really only think they are, while in reality they are more like the unmerciful servant in another parable, recorded in Mathew 18:24-34 where Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.  As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him.  Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’  The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.” That’s forgiving grace right there.

Now I am interrupting the reading to comment here that the servant really did receive his forgiveness. The debt was cancelled. But he apparently did not receive the blessing of a grateful heart that reflects the character of the forgiving God. That is why the story goes on as follows:

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

Here is the first servant’s chance to show he understands the character of his master and do likewise, to pay it forward, …

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.  When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.  Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’  In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

The point is that the forgiveness offered is definitely real. Jesus died on the cross for you and you can believe that and receive your forgiveness on one level, while on another level completely miss the point. Certain behaviors that you may engage in after you thank Jesus for his death on the cross may show that you didn’t really repent of the sin that was forgiven. Repentance is definitely an important part of demonstrating that you have truly received the grace of God and that the Holy Spirit is now at work in your heart making you a new creation so that your behavior starts to look a lot like the way Jesus would behave.

Note that this parable of the unmerciful servant also features a response to money. In fact, in the New Testament, Jesus offers more wisdom and has more to say about money than any other subject besides the “Kingdom of God.”[i] This must be because money is the most powerful rival against God for capturing the hearts and desires of human beings. Both Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13, record that Jesus specifically said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” If you love money, you can’t love God. And if you love God, money will have no power over you.

James was apparently writing the words that we read today to supposed Christians who had forgotten or who had not yet accepted this fact. It almost looks like the love of money may have the power to rob you of salvation, much like the birds snatched the seed away on the rocky path in yet another parable Jesus told. Or, if greed could not actually rob you of salvation itself, it may be a vexing problem that keeps you from fully maturing in a life of faithful living.

But still, how could any of us be guilty of this sort of thing? Well, James isn’t really saying anything new. He’s just trying to wake people up who are blind to their guilt in this matter. And as for us, the fact of the matter is, if you are living in America, you are wealthy. Even if you are living in poverty in America, you are still wealthier than at least 75% of the rest of the world’s population.

We are the rich people James would condemn today! And sad to say, we really have no idea how much of the inexpensive foreign made goods we enjoy are produced by virtual slave labor. And even if you “buy American” there are a lot of raw materials imported that are mined, grown, harvested or produced by slave laborers who suffer extremely unsafe and life threatening conditions. James may as well have been talking to us when he said, “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.” This is talking to all rich people, not just the mean ones we might think of like the Scrooges of the world.

Verses 2-3 tell us plainly that riches are ultimately worthless anyway, especially when compared with the glories and blessings of the eternal life to come. Moth and rust destroy. Sound familiar? Jesus was the one who said we ought to lay up treasures in heaven where moth and rust cannot touch them. And the treasures you can lay up in heaven are the friends you make, the people you lead to Christ and the voices of gratitude of the people you served or saved. They’ll be saying, “Thank you for giving to the Lord.”

In verse 5 perhaps James lets us off the hook a bit. The luxury and gross overindulgence he is talking about here really do describe not just the wealthy in general, and us who cannot extricate ourselves from the economic oppression of others unless we get off the grid and become subsistence farmers. James is here talking about the really mean Scrooge type people who do know what they are doing to others and just don’t care because they just want to get rich. We’re talking here about people who are more like the loan sharks of the Mafia.

But as far as James is concerned, he makes it sound like anyone who is rich is oppressing the poor, just by being rich, as in not helping the poor because they are too busy quietly investing in their retirement account, which is a way of hoarding resources they ought to be sharing. I’m not saying no one should have a retirement account. I actually think everyone should if they can. But the principle here is to be aware that we will have to give an account to God for how we use the riches he entrusts to our care. We also will be held accountable for whether or not we earn our riches according to God’s will and wisdom, with no ill-gotten gain allowed. It is so easy to be unintentionally blind to God’s concern for the poor. It is also easy to be blind to whether or not our income is earned legitimately.

This is pictured in Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus that we have already mentioned. Apparently, the rich man just didn’t realize he was supposed to do something for poor Lazarus. Here’s another picture of what I mean, and what I think James means. Scrooge has a nephew in that story. He wears nice clothes too. He’s obviously better off than Bob Cratchit the poor clerk with the little lame boy, Tim.

But Scrooge’s nephew is a nice guy. He’s so polite and amiable. He talks to Bob Cratchit with great concern, asking about the health of Bob’s son, Tim. And at least in the movie, the nephew is portrayed as another innocent victim of Scrooge’s venom. But I noticed that though he expressed concern, he didn’t offer to help either. He did no more for Bob or Tim than the mean, miserly Scrooge did. That nephew was all talk and no action. Nice talk, but still no action. It reminds me of the verse we have already read earlier in the book of James 2:15-16, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”

And yet many of us are like Scrooge’s nephew. We’re not mean and ornery or miserly like Scrooge. We express concern for the well-being of others and we think ourselves kindhearted and friendly. But we are often blind to the fact that to some degree we are actually living in self-interested and even irresponsible luxury. We should be intentionally and deliberately thinking or planning for how we use our finances with God’s priorities in mind. Failing to care for the poor is directly the opposite of expressing God’s compassion and concern for the poor. For example, a worthy principle might be, live on as little as you can so you can give away as much as you can.

I heard a story about a couple of Chinese Christians who were desperately trying to reach the lost in their country. They kept serving and giving, but not much money was not coming in to support their efforts. When they were visited by a supervisor, he found that their apartment had no furnishings at all, and no food stored. They had sold everything so that they could give to the needy people they were caring about. And now that the apartment was empty, they had begun selling their blood, one pint at a time, as often as they were able. I think that’s a little extreme. But what courage and sacrifice! It reminds me of the story of the widow’s mite, in which Jesus exclaimed that she had given more than anyone else because she had given all she had and not just part of a surplus.

There is another scene in the movie about Scrooge in which he is brought back in time to a Christmas party thrown by his first employer. Scrooge himself had never thrown such a party for his employees because he considered it a waste of good money that he’d rather keep. But in watching the party and calculating the cost of it, he was made to realize that a small sum of money given away for blessing others can produce great joy, in both the receiver and the giver, that is worth far more than the money spent.

But, it remains that possessions and riches are a great danger to us mere mortals. Scrooge was moved by the acts of generosity he saw in others, but he did not really repent until he was confronted with his own imminent death. Through the movie, he keeps insisting that he’s too old to change. But when he sees his name engraved on a tomb stone and faces his own death, then he is weeping and wailing in repentance of the life he had lived thus far.

James doesn’t give us the answer or the solution to the problem in this part of the book he has written. The call to confession and repentance is in another part of his book. Here he just points out a particularly gripping sin that makes it hard for us to enter the kingdom of Heaven. James wants us to really see clearly that we who are rich or wealthy ought not to be happy about that, because money isn’t everything.

And yet we often treat money as if it is everything. James says we ought to weep and wail now about the fact that we have so much and feel so little urgency to share it. We know that money can’t buy happiness, but we reserve to ourselves the idea that it sure helps. Instead we need to learn from Jesus that what really ought to make us happy is the god given ability to let go of all our earthly possessions and follow Jesus into eternity and into glory. You remember the story of the rich young ruler who was so good and obeyed much of the ten commandments. He lacked only one thing, to sell all he had and follow Jesus. But he just couldn’t do that one thing! It is hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

I have struggled with this issue personally, not that I have ever been loaded with money, but I have been burdened with whether or not the choices I have made in life have been motivated by wanting more money rather than wanting God’s will. That’s what it comes down to. I pray for discernment so that I will do whatever God asks of me, and let him provide for me. That’s different from doing whatever I want to make more money and hope it’s ok with God. And the only way to discern that is to be a born-again Christian filled with God’s Holy Spirit.

We can’t solve this problem before we give our lives to Christ with great appreciation for all that he has done for us. Pre-Christians do not have God’s Spirit in them to guide them. Oh, they might have what looks like altruistic motives. We might think some of the nicest people we know are not Christians. But unless they are living for God, they are still living for themselves, outside of God’s will and missing out on God’s forgiveness.

The problem with wealth is that we feel that if we are rich then somebody up there likes us. We feel we are blessed and so we do not feel any great concern for the condition of our souls. That’s the hypnotic power of riches that can so easily keep us from turning to God for the real life that comes from him. But if we can open our eyes to the trouble that we are in for the sins in our hearts, even if the world may not see, and if we can repent of our dependence upon money and love of money and turn to God for dependence upon him and to love him, then we could potentially let go of millions of dollars, if we had them, and count it all as loss for the sake of gaining the salvation that is ours only in Christ Jesus.

With the real live love of God in our hearts, we could potentially even give away our last pennies as the widow did that Jesus raved about when she gave her two mites to the temple treasury. But in order to properly discern what God wants us to do with our financial resources, we must first be in Christ, through faith in the gospel that saves our souls and causes us to reflect the character of God in all our life of giving and goodness that are the works he has prepared in advance for us to do.

Let us pray.

[i] http://patch.com/georgia/smyrna/jesus-talked-the-most-aboutmoney

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Wise Speech and Good Discipline

James 4:11-17

I love my little Maddie. She is so cute and adorable! And oh, does she have a temper! One of the funniest things she does is when we disappoint her or do not let her have her way. All of a sudden, she will do this: (If you’re reading this I am sorry you couldn’t see me slumped over, hunchbacked with my arms hanging straight down in front of me as I stomped across the floor with a big pouty face and sad-angry eyes). She seems to think that maybe we will change our minds if we see how upset she is. But unfortunately for her, even if she puts on an Oscar winning performance, we will not change our minds about what we believe is the right thing for her. And slowly, over many repetitions of similar circumstances we watch her grow and learn how to behave better.

When she is slouched over like that and stomping around, she also sometimes slanders us, saying that we never let her have any fun, or, we don’t love her etc. It is a great sin. Other, even greater sins she commits when she is lying or trying to hide from us something she is doing when she apparently knows we should disapprove. Did I mention she is only 5? Can we forgive her? How can we NOT forgive? We love her!  But do we let her get away with it? Of course, not! That’s no way to forgive. Letting her get away with her sinful ways would be negligence! Refusing to instruct her, because we know she loves us and assume she will automatically grow up, would also be negligence.

To our loving Heavenly Father, we are all a lot like such toddlers. If he had a refrigerator, our scribbled drawings would be hanging all over it and you should see his Iphone full of videos of you being cute! You have probably loved your own children the way God loves you. You love your kids even when they drive you crazy? You’d do anything to help them and show them the wisdom that they need for life? God loves us even when we drive him crazy. God has done all he could to how his love and instruct his children. His love is shown not just in Jesus’ death on the cross but in all the history beforehand. Through the Old Testament, God makes his concern for sin and judgement of rebels very clear. God makes rebellious humans love for sin very clear! God makes our need of a Savior quite obvious!

And then God meets the need because he loves us! He sent his one and only son in to the world that whosever believes in him may not perish nut have everlasting life. That’s love that blesses us to survive the judgment to come. Then, once we understand how much God loves us, we are better able to accept his instruction and wisdom for living.

Being born again in Christ is not an end in itself. It is just the beginning of a wonderful new life in Christ! It is as if you have been recruited for a heavenly mission that will take great effort and determination to accomplish. It’s not easy street. It’s boot camp! Most religious people think they have to obey God or else. But Christians know the real truth. We want to obey God because he loves us!

Ans so we want to know how God intends for us to live according to his will. That’s why James wrote his letter In this section, James continues on in what sounds a little like a tirade against bad behavior in the church. Now he is highlighting sins that occur because of an uncontrolled tongue. He has earlier simply announced that the tongue is a source of trouble, set aflame by evil. Now he is giving three specific examples, slander and judgment, which go together and boasting. The first two break the Law of Love for one’s neighbor. The third attacks the foolishness of pursuing wealth without regard for God’s will.

First, about slanderous or judgmental words. One might wonder why James thinks it important or necessary to repeat these basic truths here. The answer is, good discipline is accomplished through much repetition of the same wisdom. God has ordained that many of his servants were inspired to say similar things, often. The more it is repeated, the harder it is for us to learn it and yet the more important it is for us to learn too. Doesn’t this principle bear out in the process of raising our own children?

James has already talked in general about the dangers of an uncontrolled tongue. So, it makes sense that he would give an example. It also makes sense that he would choose an example that illustrates what is actually happening in the church he is writing to. I spoke last week about the uphill battle they had against the culture that they had originally grown up in and that was all around them. James is working hard to overcome this. But what about us. Are we so civilized and enlightened that we no longer have this struggle?

That’s a rhetorical question. All you have to do is glance at all the newspapers with their colorful pictures and bold headlines, you know, the ones you find at the head of the check-out line at the grocery store. Those publishers are making tons of money selling slander and judgmentalism! People love it! Humans tend to be opinionated. We like to be right and we like to be sure we are right. The more controversial the opinion, the louder the supporter can get in defending it. And if it hurts somebody’s feelings, they will stand on their freedom of speech.

Trouble is people tend to theorize and jump to conclusions. We prefer to believe what makes sense to us. Sometimes there doesn’t even have to be much basis for it in reality. The flat earth society is still going strong. Conspiracy theorists of all kinds always seem to find their followers. Social media has only fueled this fire. Fake news is big news these days. I saw a case in which one author took the same raw facts on a political story and wrote it up in two slants. He sold the same story to publishers on both the left and the right. He told it to the left the way they wanted to hear it and he told it to the right the way they wanted to hear it. And he made it sound like bad news either way! That’s what people respond to.

Just a couple days ago, I learned about a whole web site that a young man set up just to see how fast his totally false news would spread. He started it as a joke. He literally made up stories and told lies in public using catchy headlines about politics and public figures. Those stories spread into millions of likes and shares in just a few days as people passed them along and hardly anybody tried to verify. If it’s on the web it must be true!

Now, you have to realize, that I got that story off the internet too. So, there’s a good chance that this story about totally fake news being wantonly and uncritically gobbled up as if it were true, may itself be very fake news! No matter how likely it sounds and how believable it is, knowing what we know about human nature, you have to check the facts before you pass it along. And if you can’t know for sure, don’t share it. Especially when it’s about people who are  close to you. There is however, one place, and only one really, where you can find absolute, verifiable, totally reliable truth. And that is in God’s word!

The Law of God says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” – Exodus 20:16. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” – Leviticus 19:18. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” – Matthew 5:44 And in Matthew 12:36 Jesus said, “But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.” There’s plenty about this all over Scripture.

James argues it this way. “Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it.  There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?”

Slander and judging breaks relationships. But the triune God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, have always existed in loving relationship. So, of course, his design and plan is for all humans to be united with him and with each other in deep and abiding, loving relationships. Slander and judging threaten to break that up or prevent it from happening. The one Judge and Lawgiver of the universe will make sure that one way or another this kind of behavior comes to an end. Repent and accept God’s discipline! Give it up willingly, or else!

As with physical bullying, slanderous words and judging others harshly is usually the result of harboring deep insecurities in one’s self. But if you know who you are in Christ, you will be much better able to be merciful and patient with others. By self-awareness of God’s grace at work in our own lives, that is when we are able to say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” That sentence really means not, that I got lucky enough to be spared that downfall, but really, that I know I am just as human as the worst of sinners and under the right circumstances I could actually act like the worst of sinners. And at least in my mind, I have. So, if I haven’t actually fallen so far in public, it is really only by the preserving and forgiving grace of God.

As for James second example of poor tongue control, boasting about pursuing dreams and goals without referring to the Lord’s will is just as foolish and dangerous. We often forget just how quickly our circumstances can change, when our frail bodies encounter overpowering and destructive forces that can change everything about us in the blink of an eye, up to and including the end of life itself.

Jesus himself spoke of the issue in this parable from Luke 12:15-21, “Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

This points at another common thread between the ancients and us, materialism. Storing up treasures is a common human practice. Many hoard gold and silver, storing up treasures on earth. In another place, Jesus instructs us to store up treasures in Heaven instead. In this parable, Jesus is making the same point as James. Be on your guard against greed. Do not rely on how much money you have stored up and believe that it will always be there for you, or that you will always be there for it.

This is even more true in today’s economy. It used to be that if you had a pile of gold or other goods stored up in a vault or a barn, it would stay there until you used it, spent it, sold it or someone stole it. In today’s economy of investment and debt, most of you here have recently lived through the proof that so-called piles of money can just evaporate when investments fail and the stock market drops. I’m sure no king ever stood at the door of his vault to watch his gold melt like snow and disappear. But just a few years ago, you could check your investment account every couple of minutes and watch your net worth go down. I’ll bet some of you have personal experience with the distress of the drain and strain on your resources.

In Jesus’ parable, and James’ teaching, we learn of the other variable. Life itself is fragile and unpredictable. There is weakness inherent in anything other than God that we might look to for security. Brand new tires on a sturdy car? Might be no match for a fine slick of ice! Strong healthy body builder type fitness? It still doesn’t take a very big car in a high-speed accident to break the strongest muscleman. And it doesn’t even have to be your fault! Also, diseases, from the common cold, to the dreaded cancer can still strike.

Use all the wisdom you can to grow that nest egg. The bible encourages you to do that. God wants you to be blessed. And do the best you can to take care of your body. It is God’s temple that he has loaned to you for this life. Keep it strong and healthy so that you have more options and greater freedom and strength to serve the Lord in any way he calls you. Enjoy good health so that you can sing and dance and feel the joy of life. But neither one is guaranteed.

There is only one eternal reality in which we ought to find our surest security. That is God and his great, great love for his creation. Do everything according to God’s will. Take into account that only his plans stand firm. The builders labor in vain if they’re not mindful that the Lord is the architect and provider.

James’ book is all about discipleship, the art of discipline. It is the instruction that moves us to live more by the spirit than by the flesh where we began. It is teaching Christians how Christians ought to behave toward one another and toward people in the world around them. But we need to remember that Christianity is not a religion where one has rules that need to be adhered to. It is a relationship with God where a life of love and unwavering devotion is the result. For God and humanity.

What did Jesus mean when He said that the law is written on our hearts? He didn’t mean that it’s memorized in our minds like a script you are to follow. It means that mutual love produces devotion in a natural and unforced way. You WANT to please the one you love. And over time, you learn how to. Do you follow a script on how to keep the love of your family and friends or does your love actually create the script?

And the same applies towards your family and friends’ love towards you. Can you tell who has genuine love for you and who may be using you to benefit themselves? Can God tell? A works based faith is using God to benefit you. But, in a genuine relationship, you have nothing to worry about because the love is there.

God knows we are flawed and cannot pursue the perfect relationship with Him. But He also knows whether we have a contrite heart and want to do the best we can to remain devoted to Him. And the same can be said of Him to us. He knows what we need and when we need it. Both physically and emotionally.

And like your parents, he disciplines you because He loves you and wants you to learn what you need to learn so that you may grow. That’s the Triune God I know and love. A God that interacts in love in your life just like a relationship does. The love is there, but the behavior that fulfills that love is learned through the discipline administered by a wiser overseer, either parents, teachers or God himself. We can thank God for James.

I would like to close with a prayer that I received in my e-mail from Stephen C. Weber. He called it “A Prayer for Godly Character” and he didn’t write it either. It is abbreviated from a prayer written in a blog called “My Sunshine Room” http://www.mysunshineroom.com. That blog is owned by a woman called Margaret. Her friends call her sunshine. The world in which we live is rich with resources and blessings that Christians are sharing all over the world through the internet and social media. All the best of them are examples of words well chosen for the benefit of others, the opposite of slander, judgement and boasting. So, it is a fitting conclusion to today’s message. Let us pray.

“Father, grant us strength and courage as we face the many decisions to divert from Your plan of truth and righteousness.  May godly character be that by which we are known, for a good name is more desirable than great riches (Proverbs 22:1). May the rewards of our good character lead to blessings for ourselves as well as for our children (Proverbs 20:7). And may our children be known by their actions as well, by whether their conduct is pure and right (Proverbs 20:11).

Help us to make every effort to grow in our character as we add to our faith, goodness, and knowledge, and self-control, and perseverance, and godliness, and brotherly kindness and love. For if we possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep us from being ineffective and unproductive in our knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:5-8). Amen.

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How to Play It Safe (Do Things God’s Way)

James 4:1-10

Before I really get started I want to share a little story that kind of illustrates the problem I want to talk about today.  A man was driving down the road one day and saw another car pulled over, lights blinking.  So he stopped to see if he could help.  But first he wanted to know something.  He asked, “What’s your name?  And are you religious?”  The man said, “I’m Bob, and yes I am religious.”  The helper said, “Me too. What sort of religion? You’re not Buddhist are you?”  Bob said, “No. I’m a Christian.”  The guy said, “Me too.  Are you Catholic or Protestant?”

“Protestant.”  “Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”  “Baptist.”  “Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”  “Baptist Church of God.”  “Me too! Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”  “Reformed Baptist Church of God.”  “Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?”  Bob said: “Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915.”

At that, the potential Good Samaritan said, “I can’t have anything to do with you, you heretic!”  And he got back in his car and drove away.”

Is it surprising sometimes what kinds of things can divide us, even though Jesus very strongly prayed for our unity?  Can you see why the world of unbelievers today doesn’t know that Jesus was sent to show his love to the world?  If Christians can’t be inspired by God to love each other, why would anyone looking at the situation we are in think they should give it a try?

What really does cause quarrels and fights? James says it is the desires that battle within. We tend to want things to go our way and when they don’t, we’re not very good at taking it lying down. In fact, some people are proud of their stand up and fight for their rights attitude. They’re not the problem. The people who disagree with them are.

When James warns them that “You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.” Does it sound like James is talking to Christians? But he is! And he talks about them killing people? Seriously? Well, listen, James was talking to people who had recently become Christians in a young church. The James who wrote this was Jesus’ biological half-brother, another son of Mary.

He was martyred for his faith in about AD 62, a mere thirty years or so after the death and resurrection of Jesus and the birth of the Church with the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. So, his letter was written before that, perhaps several years earlier, potentially even a decade or two earlier. His audience then was a very young church with virtually no Christian traditions. Out of the whole lot of them, probably very few of them were “raised in church.” If any were raised in that church they would have been babies, or not even born yet, when Jesus walked the earth. Most of them were brand new believers who had no idea how to “do” churchy stuff.

Most of them were probably born again Jews. So, their worship services looked a whole lot more Jewish than ours would. Maybe they even met on Saturday instead of Sunday! Likely they spent a lot of time together and ate together frequently. They wouldn’t have sung many hymns, but would have recited or sung a lot of the psalms we have in the book of Psalms.

Also, some of them would have been Gentile believers, whose parents had raised them in pagan idolatry and a Roman culture of power and forcefulness as the paths to success. But even the Jews among them were not untouched by the human tendency to rely on power and influence rather than on God.

Pharisees, in particular, had actually learned how to use God and his law as a way to secure their own prosperity by controlling the people and benefitting from the sacrificial system, while making themselves look good as supposedly strict adherents of the purity laws. They made the rules hard to keep, partly because the easier it was to break the commandments, the more frequently the guilty parties would have to come to the temple with appropriate sacrifices.

I am trying to give you an idea of how different from us were the people to whom James wrote the book. These new believers had come mostly from having different kinds of unspiritual religious culture that stressed purity laws, or religious rituals, that were more externally imposed than eagerly embraced. It was the Holy Spirit who was teaching them things that we have become accustomed to hearing, that God wants a deep personal relationship with you, that loving one’s neighbor is to be not just an outward affectation or appearance but an actually heartfelt desire.

Also, think of Middle Eastern culture today, with all its passion for religious things, it’s harsh blasphemy laws and even the death penalty for religious opponents. That’s the kind of people James was talking to when he wrote this. So, it may be that his words about killing people they disagreed with or when they didn’t get what they wanted, could be taken literally. It was part of the background culture in which they all lived and grew up. And it isn’t always easy to change.

But then, our own Christian history, especially in what we call the Dark Ages, also came with a lot of violence and harsh punishment in religious disputes. Think of the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition as episodes in which the church tried to defend itself against attacks from the outside. It wasn’t always done in a very Christ like manner. But there was plenty of internal strife too. Do you know how many people were burned at the stake for trying to translate the Words of the Bible from the venerated Latin into languages that ordinary people could read and understand for themselves?

And yet, even in our more enlightened, more civilized culture, we may still have a lot in common with the people to whom James spoke. It is why the book remains in the Bible. The inspired words here can be applied to our lives also. Or would we try to claim that there are no more fights and quarrels in churches today?

There are fights and quarrels in some churches, aren’t there? Some of the worst kind too, with the gossip and back biting meant to hurt and harm the enemy in a more secretive manner. Church people like to avoid the appearance of conflict. So, they fight dirty instead of openly discussing their differences. And yet the tendency and desire of each of us is to turn a blind eye to our own human natures and say things like, “not me” and “not in my church.”

James used this strong language in his letter to get past the façade of social decorum. Christians are only human, just like everyone else. But since we tend to be more religious and we try to be better behaved, we get better at hiding what’s really going on inside. But we’re still fighting and quarreling. So, James is telling it like it really is, no matter how much we try to hide it or deceive ourselves.

But again, James does so much more than just hand down the judgement. He is all about mercy and grace that are ours if we repent and turn to the Lord. The next thing he says, in verses 2-3 is, “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.”

James understands that what all people really want is peace and harmony, or shalom. But he is pointing out that we tend to try anything and everything to get what we want without asking God and we usually go about getting what we want through selfish means. So that even when we do ask God, we are not asking for His Kingdom to come, but for our own Kingdom to come! People who desire to be in control of everything really think their ideas are best and if everybody would just agree with them and live by their rules everything would be fine.

This is so ingrained in us, children don’t have to be taught it. I was playing with my granddaughter Maddie in the snow yesterday. She had a bottle of colored water to “paint” the snow. But she was just using it to melt the snow. Then since I was playing with her, she graciously let me have a turn. But she was immediately upset with me for doing something a little different from what she had been doing. Instead of honoring my creativity she laid down the rule, “You have to do it the way I do it.” I said, “Really, who made that a rule?” She didn’t even think about it before she said, “Me.”

Maddie’s little sense of peace and tranquility depends upon her having everything her way. So, what do you suppose happens when two such children try to play together?  In a world of many Maddies, each with different ideas about what they want, usually centered in their own desires, there will be quarrels and fights.

But James is reasoning with his people saying God wants you to have what you want, only according to his will. And since God is God, his will counts the most for one thing. But also, by knowing Christ on the cross we can trust and believe that God’s will is determined to bless us. His will is not just what’s best for Him. It really, truly is what is best for all of us!

One way of picturing that is in a neat poem called Hug O’ War, by the late Shel Silverstein. He wrote:

“I will not play at tug o’ war. I’d rather play at hug o’ war, Where everyone hugs Instead of tugs. Where everyone giggles And rolls on the rug, Where everyone kisses And everyone grins And everyone cuddles. And everyone wins.”

That’s what we really all want, to just get along well together. But our unity and harmony can never be based on the will of any one human being. None of us is smart enough to know what will hold all of us all together. It is better to be centered on the will of God so that we all want what he wants.

But the natural state of man is to be focused on the worldly way of doing things. It is a very serious problem. That is why James uses more strong language and says, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.  Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us?

James is using language here that speaks the same way the prophets of old spoke to the nation of Israel. So, his Jewish brothers and sisters would hear alarm bells going off to remind them that the Jews in the Old Testament were called adulterous when they followed after other Gods as idol worshipers. The Christians would say to themselves, “But we don’t follow idols we follow Jesus!” James is sounding this warning to teach his followers that idolatry, spiritual adultery is not just found in pagan rituals, but is found in any form of friendship with the world that takes the place of friendship with God.

This is not about being afraid to interact with people of the world. If that were the case Jesus would never have come down to be with us. But this is about the ways we live in this world. Paul, in 2 Timothy 3:4 warned Christians against being lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. And John was addressing the same problem also in 1 John 2:15. “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” We must live in this world in the same way that Jesus lived in the world, as sent by God and knowing who we are in him, as humble and sacrificing much to give ourselves to the mission, as a servant of God and loving him, a seeker of the lost and loving them, as an ambassador for Christ and faithful to the task, as a messenger of the gospel and joyful as we bear the good news to this sad and broken world.

God has put his spirit in us and James says he jealously desires to maintain the relationship he has begun with us. Can God be jealous? We usually think of jealousy as a bad thing. But in the Bible jealousy just means eagerly desiring with emotional passion. That only gets you into trouble when you are coveting the wrong thing, or using sinful means to get what you want. Eagerly desiring is not bad. Humans sin, but not God.

So now straining out the negatives feelings we may have about the word jealousy. Think about this. What does it mean to you to ponder the idea that God loves you so much that his passionate desire is to be with you? I was recently remembering my own conversion experience in these terms. I come from a family that wasn’t very good at loving each other, and that was true long before it ended in my parent’s divorce when I was 15. And after the divorce it was more true than ever that I felt alone in the world. Besides the family difficulties, I was not popular in school, socially awkward, fending for myself. Even the friends I had never called me. I called in them and there were times I felt they were only tolerating me.

Then when I had gone my own way, taking care of myself and ended up failing at that, I was in utter despair. I was so desperate, I decided to even give God a try, even though I had decided years ago that he was probably a myth. But when I opened the door to that possibility, God rushed in! He showed up! And he demonstrated his love for me! Imagine what a change I felt from having no one to love me, on the day that I discovered that of all people, God himself loves me with a great, great love! And he hadn’t waited for me to call on him. God demonstrated his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us! To me, in a moment, in the second I realized this, the difference he made was like stepping out of pitch blackness into broad daylight.

And God loves you just the same, with an intense, but righteous, jealousy that longs for you to be with him. That’s why James goes on to speak of God’s grace. “But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”

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.  Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

In these words James again is using language his Jewish friends will remember as belonging to the God given religion of the old Testament, the means by which the people could demonstrate their own repentance and desire to be with God. It is important to realize that they would wash their hands IN the religious ceremonies and not before them. This was God’s way of teaching them that they come to him to get pure, not after they already are pure. The offerings they brought had to be clean and pure because they were going to be used to cleanse and purify the people who brought them. God wanted all to understand that they were welcome to come to him to get clean, not because they already are clean. That’s grace!

To submit yourself to God is to acknowledge that you are dirty and you can only get clean by doing things his way. The world’s way is to say, “God will give me what I want because I am a worthy person and I bring this worthy offering to impress God.” That’s totally the opposite of what God wants. And it doesn’t impress him one bit. He laughs at such foolishness.

It is far better when we are impressed by what God has done for us in Christ. When James says, “Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.” He is not saying that we must live the rest of our lives in that condition of mournful self- pity. He is only saying, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” He is bringing his audience to the point of the conversion experience. It is when we stop being proud of ourselves for how often we go to church or anything else that we can point at as good. It is when we see ourselves as sinners, it is when we agree with God that we need the salvation he offers, that is when we are humbling ourselves and presenting ourselves to him as needy people, that is when we are seeing things God’s way, in the truth, and accepting his help, that is when we will be greatly impressed by the value of Christ on the cross.

And so, my friends it is at this point that we can come to the table of grace and enjoy the deep meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Here is a constant and regular reminder of God’s grace to us. It is good to come to this table with thanksgiving, for God’s grace has lifted us up into the very presence of God where we find that he loves us with his love that makes us happy, much more happy than we deserve to be. And in that love, any and all compromise with the world’s ways ought to just slough off of us and drift away forgotten. We don’t remove it. God’s love does. We are cleansed of it by his grace. His amazing love changes everything about us.

Let us pray.

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Is it Disney or is it Divine?

James 3:13-18

James is talking about two kinds of wisdom here. And the contrast is really stark in the words he uses. But, when you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, does it show up and look that bad on the outside? So, I humorously entitled my message, is it Disney or is it Divine. Because the Disney stories actually exemplify this worldly wisdom. Take for example poor little Ariel, Disney’s Little Mermaid, feeling abused by her father and misunderstood just because she thinks she loves a human from above the waves. She is portrayed sympathetically as someone who ought to be allowed to follow her dreams, it is only her frustration and her determined ambition to get what she wants, no matter what, that has led to the tragic choice of taking advice from a sea witch because her father refused to help or even listen.

Everything turns out all right in the end, but not because Ariel truly repents. Rather, she wins the battle against evil once she realizes she has been deceived. And then her impressed father relents, and grants her request once he thinks he has been a fool for not listening to her earlier. Almost all of Disney’s plot lines go like that.

Another one is Thumbelina. There is a song in that movie that has these words. “You can do impossible things if you follow your heart.” That contrasts sharply with Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. And Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

In Aladdin, the young man decides that if he wants to marry the princess, he can’t be himself but must pretend to be a prince. How lucky for him that he has a magic lamp and a genie to grant his wish! His selfish ambition in that regard results in a royal mess. But everything turns out all right in the end, even though he only repented of his ruse after he was caught. Besides that, his wits and ingenuity show him to be good and wise at heart, in a worldly sort of way. So he deserved to win and the evil vizier got what he deserved too.

But what if these characters had been led by godly wisdom? Would it still make a good story? Let’s see. Ariel accepts her father’s limits and does not selfishly seek out the sea witch. Nothing happens? No story? Well. What if Ariel and her father continue to have conversations about humans and mermaids. Ariel learns why her father has a deep-seated prejudice against the humans. Along the way, King Titan begins to wonder if his prejudice needs some rethinking.

As for the action, the sea witch still makes her bid to take over the kingdom and her effort is thwarted by the intervention of the human Prince Eric. King Titan realizes that his people have long misunderstood the humans and feared them all, when only some were evil in an event long past. You could still get a great story out of that!

How about Thumbelina? That’s an easy one, change the song to seek after God’s heart. Use this verse, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Then let the events of the story unfold in pretty much the same way as in the movie, but giving the glory to God for the rescue of the prince and the happy ending.

As for Aladdin, we turn him into an honest young man who’s first wish is to set the genie free and ask for no more. The genie, out of profound gratitude, is moved to inquire about the young man’s reasons and hears a proclamation of the gospel. Then they work together to remove the evil vizier. This success legitimately opens the door for him to marry the princess and his actions have opened her heart to him. You could make a great story out of that!

Now I am not saying don’t watch the Disney movies. They are funny and there are still some good moral points in them. Just not the full gospel. But what can you expect? And now, what about your life and mine? We are each living in a drama that unfolds as our own wills interact with circumstances and God’s sovereignty. Is the gospel at work there? There might not be magic. But prayers work wonders. And Godly wisdom leads to better things than earthly wisdom ever can.

Just think of an incident in your own life where you got really angry about what was going on. What if you could have a redo? Would that make a good story? I’m thinking of one of my own that could have turned out a whole lot better. This was quite a few years ago now when my youngest was still just around ten years old. It was night and it was time for bed. He had been told lights out. From upstairs I looked out the back window and it looked like the light from his bedroom window was still shining into the yard.

I snuck down the stairs to catch him. But he must have heard me coming because by the time I got there his light was out. Oh well. But when I went back upstairs and looked out the window again, his light was on again! This time I stormed down the stairs all furious about his rebellion. I’m sorry to have to confess that I really yelled at him for that. But he acted like I was totally out of my mind, that his light had been off for a while already and he complained that I woke him out of a dead sleep! Well, such lies didn’t help the situation. In my angry tone of voice, I shared a few more wise words about his disrespect and the likely consequences.

I was already a little embarrassed that I hadn’t maintained better control, but what do you think happened when I looked out the upstairs window again, saw the light on again and was just about to turn and go back down and really lay into that boy, when my daughter walked out of the upstairs bathroom and turned that light off, and the light went out on the back lawn at the same exact moment? Everything Caleb had said to me was true! I may have seriously traumatized him. I immediately went back downstairs in a much more humble manner to apologize. But as I said last week, smoothing it over takes a lot more work and effort.

I’m not proud of that story. But I do believe it is a common sort of experience among us humans when we jump to our own conclusions too quickly and don’t pray for wisdom. Anybody else here ever embarrassed themselves like that? You don’t have to share now. I shared me story only to emphasize how much we all need God’s grace and none of us should have to pretend that we never make mistakes or have to always wear a mask of perfection. In fact, I believe it is that selfish ambition kind of thinking that leads us to conclude that it is wiser to maintain the appearance of perfection, rather than be honest and confessional with each other.

In another story, I recently listened to a grieving father tell his story about how he lost his son in a tragic motorcycle accident. This father really wasn’t into church and the loss of his son did not make him turn to the Lord, rather away. What’s more, he was divorced and knew that God does not approve of such things. He turned away from God. And yet as time went on, the man fell in love again and this particular woman, his new wife, encouraged him to return to church. He did, probably mostly for her.

Ten years after the loss of his son, the pastor of the church he is now attending overhears this man in a conversation about how he lost his son, and how the way things were between them, he did not know whether his son went to heaven as a believer. That wondering was a great sorrow. A couple of days later, the pastor had a chance to speak with the man and asked a few more details about the location and date of the accident.

Now these two men had been acquainted for a very long time, but the man rarely spoke of his son. It was too painful for him. But as the pastor got additional details, he suddenly announced, “I was there! I saw the accident and I pulled over to see if I could help the young man. He was too severely injured to survive long, but we talked and I prayed with him. I can tell you that he professed his faith in Christ and is in heaven. I never did find out who he was. But when I heard you talking about him, it finally connected.”

So, after ten years, the man is comforted by that knowledge. Isn’t that a great story? But it is a great story because the man who lost his son also found his Heavenly Father, who put him in the right place, at the right time so that he could learn about his son’s fate and be comforted. The man didn’t earn that or accomplish it by his own wisdom, but it was done for him by the wisdom that comes from above in the grace of God.

All of us are in the middle of the stories of our lives. But that doesn’t mean we are the center of the universe, except that God treats each one if us as if we are in fact the center of his universe. You are the apple of his eye. You are not some no account, unnoticed, nobody who would not be missed much if you simply disappeared. God is crazy about you and you mean the world to him. He loves you so much that he would literally die for you even if you were the only one who needed it. And that’s exactly what he did do! He died for each and every individual who needed it. And that means everybody who ever lived! He didn’t die for a principle or for religious reasons or for an impersonal cause. He died for you. And, of course, for me.

The result is that each and every one of us is given an opportunity to respond to God by loving him back and believing that he can be with you personally and wants to have you for his very own. Faith in that is what keeps you in the Bible and in prayer. It is not religious duty. It is only to be with him! Our Christian life is lived out of a genuine response to experiencing that grace for yourself. There’s a song I really like in which some of the words are about becoming a Christian. He says, “It’s more like falling in love than something to believe in. It’s more like losing my heart than giving my allegiance.”

When James lays out these two kinds of wisdom, he doesn’t mean that we can just choose for ourselves the one we like better and that one of the two comes with his recommendation as the better choice. He is really talking about the difference between living as a saved Christian filled with the Holy Spirit and living as an unsaved religious person doing the best you can to earn God’s favor. That’s the ultimate selfish ambition!

Let’s go back through the text to see what he means. “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.” This is reflecting on the section we looked at last week. Your faith is shown by what you do. Your wisdom also is displayed in what you do. So, live a good life of good deeds done in humility and everyone will know that you are wise and understanding. But that kind of life is really only possible for those who know Jesus Christ personally by faith in him that is based on his word, in line with his word, and experienced by the personal encounter with Christ in whatever form, that leads to your rebirth in Christ and being baptized in the Holy Spirit.

James warns us, that no matter how religious you think you are, “if you harbor 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.” And James is really saying that that kind of motivation is really not wise at all! It is evil.

One might think of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They were the religious leaders who carefully studied God’s Laws and the Prophets and diligently sought to live according to what they learned there. They thought they were wise! But Jesus is the one who said to them many things about how they were getting it wrong. They weren’t just misunderstanding it either. They were determined to believe that they got it right, and by keeping to their own thinking instead of letting God correct them through the words of Jesus, they ended up crucifying him as a blasphemer, when he was there to be their Savior!

But this trap is oh so subtle. Let me take you to the parable of the prodigal son. There is a story in which two young men were playing out the stories of their lives. The prodigal son, the one who squandered his inheritance in wild living, is obviously our portrayal of selfish ambition, right? He didn’t care about his father. He wanted his inheritance, which usually comes after the father dies. But this boy wanted it now. He basically said to his father, “I wish you were already dead.” And he went his own way, hit that dead-end road, repented and came home. He really experienced grace when his father ran to hug him and give him the best clothes and the big celebration of return and forgiveness, right? But had he earned that?

James says, “The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive..” This repentant man coming home was first of all submissive. He decided to go and be a slave of his father. He became peace loving. He was not at peace in the distant land and he wasn’t going to go home and argue with his father to get more money. He was going to try to make peace with his father. But his life really changed once he learned how much his father loved him just for coming home! He never got a chance to show how sorry he was.

The loving Father just embraced his son as if he was coming home from a successful missionary trip and hadn’t done anything wrong at all. Really, the father just loved his son in a tremendous display of grace and mercy! What effect do you think that would have on the boy? I bet he would be more sorry than ever that he had ever left as it dawned on him that he had a much greater treasure in his living father than in any dead pile of money, no matter how large.

But then we turn to the older brother, the one who looks submissive because he stayed home, the one who looks peace loving because he didn’t argue with his father. And yet, this older brother is very angry with is dad and even puts it in terms of who gets his dad’s stuff. “He said, “I’ve worked for you all these years but you never gave me a party like this rebel is getting just for showing up!”

We get a look into his heart there. No peace. But the trap of selfish ambition has been holding him too. He was only working as a slave for his father so that he could earn his father’s inheritance more legitimately than just asking to take it, like his younger brother did. It would seem that he was on the better path to glory, but really it was just as selfish! He wasn’t doing it because he loved his Father or understood how much his father loved him. He was doing it to get what he wanted and did not believe that it was all his already as a gift from a loving Father!

And so it is with each of us. If we see ourselves as trying our best to be a good Christian because that is the way of salvation, then we are following Disney wisdom. We are like the older brother and likely to be full of resentment and bitterly angry when God seems to be doing great things in unfair generosity for other people who have wasted their lives in sin. But we have to hide that because we already know that James has said that “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.” And we want to look good.

But what truly makes a good Christian is the God who has acted to shower his grace upon you, and you believe that, and all you are doing with the rest of your life is responding to such love. Those who have experienced such mercy find that they are truly able to show mercy to other people who don’t otherwise deserve it. They don’t earn your mercy, you are just full of mercy, just like God is. And the other characteristics of godly wisdom show up likewise. You don’t really choose them. They just kind of flow out of you, or through you.

As God fills you up with his good Spirit, the character of the Spirit, Godly character, shows up in your attitudes toward others and that shapes how you treat them. Selfish ambition disappears because you don’t have anything to strive for. Bitter envy disappears because you know that as a beloved child of God there is nothing more to envy. You already own everything that anyone could ever want because your Heavenly Father has it in store for you.

It is my prayer that every time I preach this gospel, it is not that I convince someone’s mind that it is better to act like a Christian. My goal is to touch someone’s heart so that they have an experience of God’s grace to respond to. Let everyone come to faith via the path of the prodigal son. Even if you have been a very nice religious person, please see that all of your righteousness is as filthy rags if you’re trying to be good enough. Turn and look at Christ on the cross. That horrible death is what you have earned. You didn’t earn Jesus taking your place. And Jesus didn’t earn or deserve that death. Your sins put him there!

And he stayed there because he loves you and you need his gift of salvation that is yours through believing that your sins are in fact that bad and horrible and that God in fact loves you enough to have died for you, and that Jesus died on that cross for your sins too.

Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation, experience his grace as the loving embrace of God who meets you on the road home and clothes you in the robe of his righteousness, though you are not even worthy to be his slave. By faith in Jesus, let the Holy Spirit fill you with the wisdom that comes from above. That is how you become a “Peacemaker who sows in peace to reap a harvest of righteousness.” What is that harvest? It is all the good works that God will do through you when you let him control your life by his wisdom as you love him back for his love for you. It is also all the people that you will play a role in leading to Christ as you follow Christ. Rejoice and believe the good news of the gospel of salvation!

The world’s false wisdom is expressed in just about any story or movie that is not written by a Christian. That’s why I chose Disney, those kid’s movies are not really just innocent stories teaching kids about the consequences of poor choices so that they make better choices. They are really saying, “Follow your heart and everything will turn our ok if you’re basically a good person.” That’s false! But that’s the best Disney can do.

The divine truth is quite the opposite. The Bible says, even to religious Pharisees and hypocrites, please realize and acknowledge that your sins are just as bad as everyone else’s. Nobody is basically good. Everybody is basically selfish and nothing is going to turn out ok unless you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation and live in response to God’s grace. So, look at your life again in this moment. Is it Disney or is it divine? Let us pray.

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Watch Your Mouth

James 3:1-12

We all know that words have power. We all know the little rhyme is false. It says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Well, physical wounds can heal. But, the emotional wounds created by unkind or abusive words can damage a life for years to come and with much less effort than the physical force required to really hurt someone with sticks or stones. In fact, a mere slip of the tongue, taking no effort at all, can do far more damage than we even anticipate.

Sometimes our words can harm others, sometimes we do ourselves no favors. I remember once while I was very young, about 20 maybe, and working as a retail clerk at a hardware store in New York. A lady came in and asked me for help. She said, “’Cues me, do you spic span?” I thought I understood her perfectly and lead her to the cleaning products aisle. I confidently handed her an orange box of spic and span. She looked a little flustered and saw that she had to try again. She said, “No. No. No.” And pronouncing very carefully she said, “Do you spik Span-ish?”

Well, that was just embarrassing, but there was another occasion I’ll share. It was even earlier, while I was still in high school. This was a large school in New Rochelle, NY. Three teenagers, quite a bit larger than me, were entertaining themselves as they walked down the hallway coming toward me. The tallest had his hand up, dragging his fingers along the ceiling. It was only a seven-foot ceiling, but still. After they had passed me the one with his hand up blurted out to no one in particular, “Don’t mind me. I’m retarded.”

Hearing the great humor in this statement, I, for some strange reason decided to join the fun. We must have been at least ten feet apart by the time I retorted, “I believe it.” Instantly I saw my mistake as I heard their footsteps rushing back to me. This was just the type of provocation they were fishing for. I had a vain and fleeting hope that maybe they wouldn’t be able to figure out I was the one who had spoken in the crowd of students. But in a moment, they had me backed up against a pillar in the hallway. Actually, they were quite forgiving once they saw they had me terrified. Thankfully I did not get a beating. But I sure learned a lesson about controlling my tongue. Not that I didn’t ever need any more lessons.

One reason I give thanks for this teaching in James is the comfort I derive from knowing I am not the only one who has ever failed to control my tongue with wisdom. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s a nearly universal affliction.

James begins with, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

These words played a role in my sense of call to the ministry. Mostly they kept me humble and cautious. I heeded this advice. I did not become a pastor just because I felt like it or thought I had some good stuff that the world needed to hear. I did not enter seminary until after I had been a Christian for about 10 years and the church around me kept encouraging me. They saw the gifts that might make me suitable to be a pastor.

But what really tipped the scales and confirmed God’s will for me was an actual phone call. That’s right, I felt the call of the Lord when the phone rang. Well, not really just because it rang, but because the person on the other end was saying, “If Greg still would like to go to seminary, we want to support him.” The speaker was a deacon in the church where we attended through college and where we got married. But we had moved away and hadn’t been in that church for about 8 years. We kept in touch with friends there though. So, they knew what was going in on with us and kept us in their prayers. So, in God’s timing, at the right time, in fact on the perfect day, the call of the Lord came through my telephone.

Heed the warning to be careful about whether or not God wants you to be an official teacher in the church. But do not think this lets you off the hook if you decide you’re not cut out to be a teacher. Do not let this scare you away from any form of leadership. Whether you like it or not you are already a leader anyway. The very life you live leads people, either closer to a walk with Jesus or farther away, depending on which way you’re going. J. Vernon McGee used to tell a story about an alcoholic who was brought to his office for a talking to.

The drunken man expected to be called all kinds of names like irresponsible, bad example, pox on society, or worthless. He humbly accepted all those charges. So, it seemed as if the good pastor wasn’t getting through to the man. Then McGee told the drunken man that he was a preacher and a poor one at that. The man jumped out of his chair. He was infuriated. “Nobody calls me a preacher. I ain’t never been and I never will stoop so low as to tell any other man how to live his life!”

But McGee held forth. “You are, by your actions and by your excuses, preaching a message that it’s ok to be a drunken alcoholic. You are telling every man, woman and child that sees you that you think you’re fine just the way you are and everybody else should let you be. By your example, you are telling every other person how to live a good life, at least what you think is a good life.

And yet you know down deep in your heart that the life you have chosen is not a good one. That’s why you don’t get angry with everyone who calls you worthless and all those other judgmental names. You agree with them. But now I am telling you that you may be responsible for leasing others astray and of course you don’t want to be guilty of that. So now you’re mad. But you can’t avoid this responsibility unless you repent in faith and strive to set a better example. Let Jesus help you.”

I think that did the trick. McGee was a great pastor. James who wrote this book was also a great pastor. When he said, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” He was talking about being humble about what one thinks he knows rather than an arrogant, self-appointed spiritual lecturer. He was warning his audience that the greater weight we give to our own words the greater the trouble we get into when we have to eat crow. He was warning young Christians and developing disciples that the fact there is only one truth is accompanied by the enormous significance of the additional fact that there are many, many ways to go wrong and stray from the one truth and say the wrong things about the gospel.

You only need to scan your own memory of how many cults there are, how many books there are that say the gospel means something other than what the Bible says about it. In fact, you better not just trust me as if you can have absolute confidence that I’ve got my head on straight. I can assure you that I am trying to tell the truth. But every charlatan has said the same thing. The proof is in whether what they say agrees with Scripture. But if you don’t know Scripture, you have nothing to go by to make sure I’m telling the truth. You also have to know your Bible well enough to correct me and hold me accountable for everything I say. Don’t just wait for God in the end to be the one who judges me more strictly. You’ve got to read your Bible so you can be the judge and make sure I’m not leading you astray, even if by accident.

This is very serious business. Jesus said, in Matthew 12:36-37, “But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

The rest of the passage we are looking at reveals just how serious this issue is. It gives several illustrations about the powers of the tongue and the evils of the untamed tongue.

“We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.” Are there any perfect people in this room? Thank God for grace and mercy!

“When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.  Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.  Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.”

These illustrations are pretty obvious and only serve to magnify James point that this tiny little muscle in here, the strongest muscle in the human body by the way, has far more power and influence as a speaking tool than as an eating tool.

“Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” Your words can get you in so much trouble and lead you down paths of assent and temptation that you never would have taken seriously if someone hadn’t dared you into saying, “Oh yeah? Watch this!”

Out of the mouth proceeds the thoughts of a man’s heart. In modern culture, we have many expressions that agree with James. There’s the slip of the tongue that means we said something we didn’t mean to say. There’s the Freudian slip too, which indicates… well, I think you all know what that refers to. You can ask me later if you need to.

We’ve all had to eat crow from time to time too. People sometimes say they started talking before they put their brain in gear.

“All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” And we often say things that we wish we could take back, almost right after we said it. This reminds me of the story of the young man who had a temper and said a lot of angry words over the course of time. His grandpa wanted to help him control his tongue and so he suggested that instead of saying anything the next time he was angry, he ought to just go pound a nail in a particular fence post that Grandpa pointed at in the back yard. That way he would have a visible record of just how often anger was tempting him to say some things he would regret saying.

After a few weeks, the young man talked to Grandpa about how well that plan worked. He had gotten pretty good at controlling his tongue. But he noted sadly that there were quite a few nails in the post. Grandpa said, “That’s all right. Lesson learned. Go pull those nails out.”

Grandpa went out there with him to watch. When all the nails were out, Grandpa asked his grandson how the post looked. Now the boy saw lots of nail holes that marred and splintered the otherwise smooth wood. Grandpa said, “There’s another lesson there, son. If you lose control and speak angry words, you pierce the souls of those you love. It’s easy to lose control and say angry words. It takes a lot more effort to smooth things over, just like all the work it would take to smooth out this wood again. It’s always better to not do the damage in the first place.”

Then there’s the dandelion as an illustration of how hard it is to take back eth words we speak. Pick it when it’s gone-to-seed fluffy. One little puff and off they go far and wide into the world. But just try to gather them all back up again!

In an article about speaking truth in politics, from Religion News Network, Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb said, “Words matter profoundly in a tradition that says God created the entire world through speech. We are told in Genesis Chapter 1 that we who are created in the divine image should strive to be divine in our use of speech. That means every word we utter should reflect our values, and one of the highest of those values is truth.”

Now James mentions another problem with the tongue. “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.  Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?  My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.”

In the physical world, you will never have a salty spring give you fresh water. And every plant gives only one kind of fruit. There are no grapes growing on fig trees. But in our hearts, it seems like we can have both good and evil, and it flows out of our mouths too, sometimes sweet, sometimes sour. Except that one wrong or evil word can ruin a years-long reputation of good character. Thank God for his grace and mercy by which we can be forgiven! There is no other way we can solve this problem. We should just admit that without God’s help we will always at some time or another lose control of our tongue and are likely to start a fire of backlash, hurt feelings or regret.

On the positive side, we have Ephesians 4:29. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

Now remember, while James is talking here about the good and bad uses of the tongue, and pointing out how difficult it is to reign it in so that we do not sin, his primary concern is not to convince us that we can manage this on our own. He wants his audience to be impressed by their great need of placing their faith and trust in the one who can change them in to people of more godly character who have greater control of their tongues.

“My friend, you and I are lost sinners and we come to Jesus Christ bringing nothing and receiving everything from Him. And if you’re able to give, if you’re able to serve, if you’re able to witness, if you’re able to control your tongue properly — that all comes from Him. You can’t do anything for Him without being filled by the Holy Spirit. If God has saved you, He has saved you by faith–plus nothing. God is not accepting any kind of good works for salvation. But after you are saved, God talks to you about your works.” [i]

God loves you. He is not scolding anybody. He does want us to understand our very great need of his forgiveness and mercy. He does want us to see how sinful we are and deserving of death and hell, not so that we’re filled with shame, but so that we turn to him and receive his mercy and grace. He has no anger toward you. He is the great rescuer. He knows you are in a predicament that you can’t fix on your own. He loves you and offers his amazing grace, a great help in a time of great need. He loves you! He wants to help! That’s why Jesus came into this world. By his Word, we were created. By our words, we condemn ourselves to death. But by God’s Word we can be made alive again in Christ! Believe the pure and perfect word of the gospel and feel how much he loves you!

Showed “Words” by Hawk Nelson
[i] ― J. Vernon McGee, Genesis through Revelation

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Where There’s Fire, There’s Smoke!

James 2:14-26

I want to start by telling you a story about my granddaughter. She was talking to her mom about heaven and mom was answering a lot of questions! Then at one point, my little five-year old granddaughter said something significant. “Mom, I don’t think I’m ready to go to heaven. I would miss my friends.” What I am really proud of is that my daughter said back, “Well, if you tell your friends about Jesus and heaven, then they can all be there with you one day.”

That’s really a great reason to do evangelism. If your concerned that being a Christian might mean losing some friends who might think Christianity isn’t cool, try to actually lead them to Christ so they will get to be in heaven with you one day! If they become Christians, they will be for your friends forever, literally forever, not just for this brief life. And one more thought, you don’t want your friends to ever have to say anything like, “Why didn’t you tell me I could be saved from sin and forgiven by God’s grace?”

Those thoughts connect with James’ message in this part of his letter in which he says, “Faith without works is dead.” James launches into this section because he has just been talking about the behavior of favoritism and he doesn’t want to leave people thinking it’s all about behavior. It’s really all about genuine faith that generates more Christ-like behavior.

The passage links faith with works very closely. This is why so many people think that James’ letter is all about works so that it goes against Paul’s teachings on grace. In reality, Paul and James believe exactly the same thing about grace and works. They just each have their own inspired ways of talking about the same subject, from their own vantage points, addressing different audiences for different reasons. Taken together, we are guarded against two extremes. That’s why the Bible has letters from both people, to put the two perspectives together. With Paul, we are firmly grounded in God’s grace for salvation. There is nothing we can do. Jesus did all the work on the cross. In this we are saved from the extremes of legalism and works righteousness that say we are not saved unless we do more than believe by adding our good works in to the mix.

That being said, maybe we can see where it would lead if James had not written his letter. With James, we are prevented from moving to the other extreme of an easy believeism that the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” All you have to do is believe and nothing else matters. It results in the kind of thing I have seen on a bumper sticker: “Jesus paid for all my sins and I’m going to get his money’s worth. I’m going to sin all I want to.” Now, every Christian I know laughs at that and they are pretty shocked that anyone would say it, much less put it in print. But I think a lot of people actually do live that way. There are books written on the topic of “functional atheism.” It’s about people who say they believe in God, but don’t really live like it.

They are glad they are saved by grace through faith. But they don’t really do what Jesus asks in return, “Take up your cross and follow me.” They are Sunday only Christians, the kind of hypocrites that unbelievers complain about most correctly. They are the Sunday restaurant lunch crowd that waiters and waitresses don’t enjoy because they don’t tip well. They are not doing the works that go with faith.

There are also a lot of churches these days that are failing in the great commission. They are not “going” as Jesus commanded, to reach the next generation of young people. They are not making new disciples. They are not baptizing anyone because there is no one to be baptized. And they are not teaching them to obey everything that Jesus has commanded. They are not doing the works that go with faith.

Oh, they want to, as long as it doesn’t make them uncomfortable. They know that they are supposed to. But they tend to think that’s what they hired the pastor for. And since they continue to have worship services every Sunday, they really think they are trying to. But they are really only doing things the way they like them and are not willing to make the sacrifices it would take to do what would really work to reach the next generation.

Now I am not pointing any fingers. I’m talking in general terms about what the church of America is struggling with all over this nation. But if it sounds familiar or convicting, then the Holy Spirit is doing His work. And believe me, in my prayers I wonder about this stuff and wonder what’s wrong with me too. And trust me, I’m going to tell you about the hope we have in Christ too. There is hope. He is our only hope!

Now let’s get in to the text and look at it from James’ point of view. He says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” What James is saying is that if you really have the faith that saves, deeds will follow. It’s practically a necessity! You can’t believe in God without responding. Here’s an illustration. If you believe that the stock market is a good way to get rich, then you’re going to put your money there. What good is it to say you believe in the stock market, if you don’t invest in it? Such faith is worthless! You see the connection?

Next James begins to talk about the kind of deeds that faith generates in the believer, works of compassion and mercy. He uses this example: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

Words without deeds, “Go in peace. Keep warm and well fed.” Sounds like a prayer. Sounds like a blessing. But it’s just empty words if you could be of substantial help but are not willing to be the answer to the prayer!

“Someone will say, “You have faith. I have deeds.” The point is trying to show that deeds and faith can be separated out. Then one might argue that there is a faith that saves even though there are no deeds. You could even point to the thief on the cross as everybody’s favorite example of saving faith without any deeds at all because he died on the cross shortly after Jesus promised a place in eternity.

But James says, “Even the demons act on the faith that they have, not that is saves them, for they cannot repent. But that might look like a real faith in God that is definitely distinct from any good works of faith. It’s sort of making a philosophical logical point that faith can be separate from works. James says, “That’s ridiculous. You foolish man. Faith and deeds cannot be separated out like that. You want proof?”

Now before we get to James proof, I have a few comments of my own about the faith of the thief on the cross and the faith of the demons. I think it is wrong to say that the thief on the cross had no works of faith to prove his faith did save him. I can tell you the works of faith that the thief did. His faith in Jesus resulted in first, the work of repentance. Second, this repentant thief rebuked the other criminal who was mocking Jesus. His third work of faith is the greatest of all! He asked that Jesus, who was dying beside him on a cross, would remember him when he comes in to his kingdom. Can’t you see what great faith it took for one dying man to say to another dying man, “I believe you are the King of Heaven and that we will both go on living after they take our dead bodies off these crosses! Please remember me.”

The demons also had a faith that resulted in a work. They shuddered! They did not repent, but they knew they were in trouble. So, it shows that we always act in response to what we actually do believe. They can’t be separated out.

Now for the proof, James gives two historical examples of how faith resulted in works.  First Abraham. James says, “Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?  You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.  And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.  You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

How could Abraham be said to have faith in God if he had not in fact trusted God and obeyed the command to sacrifice his own son on the altar? If Abraham had not taken Isaac to the mountain top, we would all know that Abraham didn’t believe, either that God had asked him to do that or, that God would provide for him anyway, to keep God’s covenantal promise, in spite of this great sacrifice of the child through whom the promise should be kept. Hebrews 11:19 says, “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” That’s faith in God that enabled him to obey the command.

In addition, we know that Abraham did not act out of his own sense of righteousness. It was not his own idea to sacrifice Isaac. No, he believed God and so he acted and because he acted out his faith it gets credited to him as righteousness. That’s faith at work! This example is even more interesting because the Jews all know that their God does not want human sacrifice. So, there is no way that Abraham sacrificing Isaac could be credited to him as righteousness because it would have been a very unrighteous thing for Abraham to do unless God had really asked him to do it.

James’ next case for proof is Rahab. (See Joshua 2.) He said, “In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?” Rahab had absolutely no good reason to put her own life in danger by protecting the spies unless she deeply believed something about the God who was with them. As a prostitute in a pagan city she also had absolutely no way that anyone would call her a good person or righteous, in any sense of the word.

All she had was a new faith in the Holy God of Israel. And because she acted on faith that she could be saved from the judgment that would fall upon the rest of the citizens of Jericho, she gets called righteous. In fact, one of the rewards for her faith is that she gets to be one of the ancestors of our blessed Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Her faith has saved her, but not without the work of protecting the spies. Her faith is what caused her to protect the spies. If she hadn’t protected the spies, that would have proven that she didn’t believe in their God at all. Whichever way she acted, it would be a demonstration of what she actually believed in.

And so, it is for all of us. We all live by our faith. We all act according to what we really do believe, no matter what we say we believe. We really can’t help it. “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” There was a tight rope walker who really amazed the crowds with is ability. Back and forth, even dancing on the wire strung over the deep gorge. He was adored and applauded by a crowd of thousands of people. At one point, he took a hundred-pound sack of potatoes in a wheel barrow. Out on the wire and back again, perfect balance, perfect coordination.

Then he asked the crowd, “Do you believe that I could take an ordinary person out there with me and keep him safe?” The crowd went wild! Sure, they believed it and they wanted to see him do it too. So, he asked for a volunteer. Well virtually everybody had said they believed he could do it. But it turns out nobody was willing to act on that faith. So now we know what they really believed. Each one really believed, “If I got in that wheel barrow, I would surely die!” That’s the faith they acted on.

Faith without deeds is dead. Yes, we are saved by grace. There is nothing we could do to secure our salvation. But the only way we know that we are saved, the greatest assurance we have of salvation, is when that saving grace makes us alive in Christ so that we do the works he has prepared in advance for us to do.

Why do you suppose James even had to talk about the impossibility of faith without works? Why would his audience prefer that faith without works were possible? Let us remember again that James wrote his letter less than fifty years after the resurrection, to a very early church, that was suffering persecution. Why was that church struggling with this issue of faith and works? Because it was actually dangerous for true Christians to evangelize their friends and neighbors. Put yourself in their shoes. You would never know who might turn you in. So, you might go to the assemblies of believers and sing and worship and enjoy the benefits of Christian fellowship. But at home and at work, no one would ever know you were a Christian. Your faith has become a secret, private, personal matter, faith without works, faith that does not work to change the world.

Wait a minute, maybe that sounds familiar to us in today’s world. But how is it dangerous to evangelize your friends and neighbors? Maybe it’s just uncomfortable. Maybe there is a danger that they will mock you or shun you. That’s a form of persecution. But is that something that God wants us to be worried about? The message of James is to encourage the persecuted church to do the works anyway, even if you suffer trials of many kinds for doing it. And there is a persecuted church alive and well in our world today. They are winning souls by their courageous witness. They pray for the American church, for us to be stronger and bolder in our witness, where it is so much easier and not against the law.

So, what kind of faith is being worked out in your life? Do you believe Jesus loves you so much that he died on a cross for your sins so that you get a free trip to Heaven? Great. That is your only hope for salvation! Do you believe that Jesus gave the great commission to the whole church including you so that we are each all called to do the work of an evangelist and share our faith at every opportunity? You do? Wonderful! How’s that working out for you? Are you leading people to Christ? Are you inviting folks to church? Is your Spirit filled life showing up in your attitudes of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and self-control?

Do you really believe that God wants a personal relationship with you? Are you acting on that faith by spending time with him in his word and in prayer? Do you really believe God wants this little congregation to have an active ministry, building community relationships to bring others to Christ? How are you personally investing in that? What is your role in that? It has to be more than just coming to church on Sunday and giving a little money, or even a lot of money! Where do you put your hands in the ministry?

OK. It’s really ok if you haven’t been doing that or are not sure if you are. God always is ready to forgive our failures and encourage us to move on in new life. That’s the power of the gospel. What matters is you want to. And if you want to then what really matters is asking God for direction that you can and will follow. It’s never too late to start letting the faith that is in you work its way out more and more in to how you live your life. Rejoice! God is with you!

Works of righteousness are like the smoke that rises from a fire. The smoke does not start the fire. But it shows that there is a fire. The saying goes, “Where there is smoke there’s fire.” If the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, that you accept on faith in what you heard about the gospel has lit the fire of God in your heart, there is no way that your life won’t show it off! Where there is a real fire, there really ought to be smoke!

Let’s pray.

Then I played Ray Botlz’s “Thank You” for positive motivation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFrdJ2V3r7Y

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Love is the Main Thing

James 2: 1-13

This is issue is still very much alive today. I know from personal experience of looking for a job or buying a car it makes a difference when you’re in a suit. I’m sure also we have all heard the story of the church that was going to welcome its new pastor but on that particular Sunday there was a homeless man lying on the ground by their front door. He was even asking for money! Almost everybody very carefully avoided him. Only a few were openly disgusted at seeing him there. Then he walked in and went up to the pulpit to be introduced as the new pastor. He let them know how disappointed he was in their lack of compassion.

Let me tell you though, when I first looked at this section I thought to myself, how am I going to preach a sermon that you need to hear? You guys all seem to me to be pretty good at this ministry of being loving and accepting of all kinds of people. I don’t see you showing favoritism. I do see you loving everybody really well, at least in here and in my time with you. So, what are we to do with this text?

Well, let’s see if we can make any connection at all to the issues James is concerned about. Perhaps one way we can discover that we need this teaching is if we imagine that a long black limousine pulls into that parking lot out there. The chauffer gets out and opens the door for his passenger. Now, wouldn’t you be very interested in who that might be? And why’s he here? And what does he want? Or perhaps more significantly, what might he want to give? Wouldn’t that make you smile a lot? Wouldn’t we at least be tempted to be more gracious to an obviously wealthy person showing up here, without even knowing what is going on in his heart?

That’s the real key. What we are doing when we judge a person by the surface is ignoring what is going on in their heart, or assuming we already know. There are other kinds of wealth too, such as, a wealth of knowledge. Why do you think that whenever a pastor shows up at a Christian gathering somebody asks the pastor to do the prayer? Do they think he’s best at it? Or that he has a better connection with God by virtue of his or her studies or their official position in the ministry?

These are a couple of examples of how to fail at keeping oneself from being polluted by the world. Such favoritism mirrors the standards of the culture around us and forgets to see things in light of God’s wisdom. We need to be very careful about the broad generalizations we tend to make. It’s a useful tool for categorizing. But we must always remember that there is always an exception to the rule. And in truth there are probably more exceptions than we can count.

Take any categories, even democrats and republicans. Members of each group seem to assume, in general, that the members of the other group must have something wrong with them. Members in either group talking about members of the other group will say, “Why can’t they understand the issues clearly the way we do.”

I recently had a conversation about that on Facebook, one of the primary means today of social polarization. Now for those of you who don’t use Facebook, bear with me. In the old days there was still plenty of polarization, and a lot of it was supported by isolation. For example, the worst racists in America didn’t see anything wrong with their behavior because everybody else around them, usually, was just as prejudiced as they were.

The comment I made on Facebook was more specific than what I will read to you now. To make my point, I have edited out any details that would tell you which party is being talked about: My Christian friend said: “Certain voters care about threat because they’ve been talked to about fear day and night. They will watch a president dismantle our country because they really think it’s warranted.”

I did not respond to the politics. But I did make this observation: “I’m not saying this as a supporter but it struck me that your comment sounds like you feel threatened that a certain president has or will dismantle this country. You seem to fear that person’s policies. I was just noticing the appearance of the same emotions you decry in others being displayed in you. Rather large generalizations too.”

Then I said, “What I mean by generalization is the lumping together of all people on one side of a debate as motivated by false fears. While at the same time you legitimize your own fear as correct.”

I also added, “I freely and humbly admit that I’m really not all that confident in anybody’s version of the truth, especially when it comes to politics. And how I “feel” about all this is supposed to have nothing to do with what I can pray about as I try to figure out which side to take, if any. I work harder at being a faithful Christian. And I bet you do too. That’s one of the reasons I find it disconcerting that there actually are sides to choose, even among Christians!  Differing viewpoints are the result of human frailty.” We need more godly wisdom. The problem is, we have a strong desire to be right, and have a hard time living with the tension of not knowing for sure.

Christianity comes with a very specific awareness and a very specific reason why Paul said that we should always think of others more highly than ourselves. Christianity is the real antidote to the common human malady of thinking we know best. Think back to my message a few weeks ago, about the delusion that so many people live in if they don’t wake up to the real world through faith in Christ that brings everything into the true light. Christianity has the power to disarm pride of its defensive postures that keep us from seeing the truth about ourselves. Then we can mature in Christ.

Another way of looking into this text is to remember that James is talking to Christians in many churches among whom many are experiencing persecution. In his words about the wealthy being the ones who drag them into court, James may be speaking about people who actually had the resources to pursue legal ways of persecuting Christians. An example of this is Demetrius, the silversmith in Acts 19, who felt his idol manufacturing business for the local shrine was threatened. He called everybody together and almost started a riot but was told, “If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly.”

Wealthy people, who felt threatened by the believers’ message and lifestyle would be real enemies of the church. And it is quite reasonable to imagine that individual Christians would be very tempted to avoid offending those wealthy people. They might even be tempted to show favor to them in order to also avoid the threat of persecution, the same way that certain middle management business people are often called “yes men” and everybody knows they do it just so they won’t get fired!

So, James’s warning against favoritism is probably concerned with much more than simply good behavior. James is very much a believer in salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ who died on the cross and rose again. And he wants to strengthen the faith of the believing church so that the disciples boldly continue to proclaim the gospel, even to the wealthy, even though the result might be trials of many kinds! He’s saying to them, “Don’t be afraid.” And here we may as well make note that trials happen in court. So back when James first mentioned “trials of many kinds” back in chapter one, he may have already been thinking of this legal kind of persecution that the wealthy can indulge in.

In the second half of this section, James introduces us to a central theme, the law of love. And he uses it to show that the kind of favoritism he is against, and that was so common in the culture around the church, must be resisted because it goes against the teaching of Scripture. If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.  But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.  For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.  For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

There is a logic there that makes the sin of favoritism just as bad as any other sin you could name. The logic is simple. Any sin is against the law. So, when you sin, you don’t break the sin; you break the law. James doesn’t mean that there is a law against favoritism. He means that there is a whole way of living that is defined by what you should do, rather than by what you should not do. So, we can make a list of all kinds of things that you should not do. But one can also put it very simple and very positively. You should love. That’s the law. So, anything you do that is not loving breaks the law of love. That’s the law you break when you commit any sin.

And we all sin! In fact a friend told me that on this subject, he remembers before he was a Christian, shunning the usually types of people that everybody shuns. But that after he was a Christian, though he still did that kind of shunning, he felt very differently about it, with more of a struggle because the Spirit in him was saying he shouldn’t do that. And so he learned. So, James tells us to “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

The law that gives freedom is the gospel message of God’s mercy and forgiveness! It is the best expression of God’s law of love too. Jesus’ death on the cross is the highest act of self-sacrifice, of loving others more than he loved himself. God’s mercy, when it is properly appreciated by us who believe and receive forgiveness must be responded to by a life that shows mercy in turn to others. You’ve heard the expression pay it forward? When it comes to responding to God’s mercy. All you can do is pay it forward, showing mercy, not favoritism, to your fellow human beings, because you surely can’t pay God back for his great gift of life to you. And God would be offended if you even tried to pay him back for what he wanted to give you as a gift.

Jesus’ death on the cross is also the demonstration and proof that mercy triumphs over judgement. Our sin is not excused. Its seriousness is acknowledged. The dire consequences of our sin are real and horrible and born by Jesus on the cross. The judgment against sin, the sentence for breaking the law, is carried out to the fullest extent. Jesus paid it all!

Poor as we were in terms of having any spiritual strength to obey God’s royal law, God looked upon us kindly, not favoring the strong, but treating all the same. Everyone gets exactly the same chance at salvation. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. Rich and poor alike stand in the same place, at the foot of the cross, with no advantage, only an equal opportunity to believe and receive.

The Lord’s Supper too, is something that can be taken and enjoyed by all sorts of persons, rich or poor, wise or simple, healthy or not. All bring the same thing to the table, nothing but a need, nothing but an appetite. And all receive the same blessing from God. Forgiveness and grace, mercy and peace, a brand new life for Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to live it. Come let us remember all that God has done for us, all that he is doing in us, and all that he will do when he comes again.

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