Sermon for July 16th, 2017
1James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.
2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
5If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.
9Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 11For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.
12Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. 13No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 16Do not be deceived, my beloved.
17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
James 1: Wisdom from Above
It was the first day of school, and the teacher was asking the new student about his family: "What does your father do for a living, young man?" "He's a magician, Ma'am." "That's very interesting! And what about your mother?" "She's my father's assistant." "A family act, I see! And what's their favorite magic trick?" "They saw people in half." "Oh my! And do you have any siblings?" "Yes Ma'am. Two half-brothers and one half-sister."
There's an episode in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 13, where Jesus comes to preach in his hometown, and people ask each other "Who does this guy think he is? Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother called Mary? Are not his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?"
The point of the story is the famous line that a prophet gets no respect in his own hometown, but what we also learn from the story is the interesting fact that Jesus came from a pretty big family. I'm not sure if you were keeping count, but that's four brothers, at least two sisters plus Jesus himself, so all in all Mary and Joseph had seven children, possibly more. Big family.
James is the first one mentioned in that list, indicating that he's probably the oldest among those named, and therefore the closest brother in age to Jesus (Mary and Joseph's firstborn son).
I imagine that if anyone in the world truly knew Jesus better than any other, watched him and followed him from the time they were children together to the very end, it was his brother, James. We know from many different sources that after the death of Jesus, James became the undisputed leader of the earliest followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, where he was known as "James the Just."
After three decades of his leadership, he became such a beloved and revered figure in Jerusalem that when he was finally killed by the religious authorities, the entire city rose up in revolt, causing the Romans to intervene and ultimately leading to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
Longstanding tradition holds that he is the author of the Epistle that bears his name, which we are studying for the next five weeks. Unlike the letters of Paul, James' letter is not addressed to a particular church or situation, but instead is addressed to the "twelve tribes in the dispersion" -- or in other words, to all of the children of Israel who are out there dispersed in the Roman Empire.
I mentioned the letters of Paul, which actually dominate most of the New Testament, and which have shaped the core theology of Christianity (especially Protestant theology) since the 2nd century. But as important as Paul the Apostle is, I find there is something really important missing from his letters and his theology: The life and teachings of Jesus.
That may sound harsh, but Paul rarely ever mentions any of Jesus' core teachings found in the gospels, or any events from his life. It's almost as if Paul was completely unaware of Jesus' parables, his beatitudes, his miracles and his message. Instead, Paul focuses almost exclusively on Jesus' birth, death and resurrection. This is reflected in the Apostle's Creed we say every Sunday: I believe that Jesus was "born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried." Wow. That's one big jump. He was born, and then he died. How would you like that for an obituary?
I mean no disrespect to Paul--death, resurrection, and salvation were his signature emphasis, and they have greatly shaped Christianity. But right there among all the volumes of Paul's writings stands this one, small letter, the letter from James, the brother of Jesus, who knew Jesus longer, better, and more completely than anyone else who set pen to paper.
What fascinates me most about this short book (and convinces me that it is indeed written by the brother of Jesus) is how much it tracks with the core teachings of Jesus in the gospels, embodying them without ever actually referring to them or quoting them. In fact, there are some scholars who believe that the letter of James represents the oldest, earliest written teachings in the New Testament--predating even the gospels by several decades, and perhaps even influencing them.
So if you really want to understand who this Jesus person was, before all the hype, before all the doctrines and dogmas that evolve in any movement; if you really want to understand what "Christianity" looked like in its earliest, simplest form...this brief letter (just five chapters which we will read in their entirety) from one who knew Jesus well, is a great place to start.
I have often thought that if (God forbid) anything ever happened to me--if I were to die, and my children someday wanted to know who their father was, what he was like, what he believed, how he might have changed through the years--the best place for them to start would be to get to know my two brothers, Jeff and Joe.
In the same way, I've often thought that James, writing this letter late in his life, after three decades of putting the teachings of his brother into practice in the life of a community, almost gives us a picture of what Jesus would have been like had he lived to the ripe old age of 60 or 70. It is a picture of profound wisdom, spiritual maturity, and unfailing love.
Have I hyped this letter enough yet? Okay, then let's dive into the first chapter. In this opening chapter, James lays out the three themes that we'll encounter again and again in the weeks and chapters to come. For that reason, (and because I spent the first half of the sermon setting the stage for the letter) I'm not going to go into great detail about any of them--I'm just going to point them out.
The first theme is patience in the face of adversity. Immediately after his greeting, James speaks of trials, testing, and temptation. These were real and pressing concerns for James' community: As Jerusalem Jews living in the shadow of Roman occupation, AND as followers of Jesus facing opposition from the Jewish religious leadership, AND as poor, working class, Galileans living in the wealthy capital city of Jerusalem--James' community literally faced challenges on all sides.
For some Jews, the solution to the Roman occupation was violent rebellion. For some followers of Jesus (like Paul) the solution to opposition from Jewish leadership was to leave Jerusalem and preach elsewhere. And for some early Christians (again like Paul) the solution to economic hardship was to seek out wealthy, Greek patrons.
James' answer to all of these dilemmas is completely different, and remarkably consistent: "My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing."
In other words, be patient. Be cheerful. Play the long game, because the Lord has promised the crown of life to all who love him.
That brings us to theme number two: All good things, all things truly worth having in this world ultimately come from above, not from below.
The example, in verses 5-11 is between wealth and wisdom. The world values wealth, which comes from...the world (below). There's a limited supply of it. You get it by taking it from others, and in turn your wealth can be taken from you. So it's fleeting.
But wisdom comes from God (above). There's an unlimited supply. Verse 5: "If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you." And wisdom, once gained, can never be taken away. It's permanent.
All good things come from above, but they also have a purpose: God gives us good things in order that we might share them with others, making others as blessed as we are, and making the whole world better off in the end.
Theme number three is what I call the Kenny Rogers principle. You remember the song, "You got to know when to hold em', know when to fold em', know when to walk away, know when to run?"
James puts it this way: You got to know when to listen, know when to speak (or not speak), know when to believe, and know when to put your beliefs into action.
Over and over again, James warns his audience to put these things in the right order. Verse 19: "Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger." Verse 22: "Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves."
Words, beliefs, and actions are particularly important when it comes to religion. Again, consider the context in which James writes: On one side of him are the Jewish Pharisees, the traditional religious leaders in Jerusalem who teach that observing the correct rituals and following the right rules is the essence of religion.
If you think that notion died out with the Pharisees, guess again. How many people in our world today think that religion means showing up for an hour on Sunday morning, singing the correct songs in the correct style with the correct instruments, standing up or sitting down at the correct time, saying the right words at the right time, and being a basically good person, following the laws of the land, paying your taxes, mowing your yard, and stopping at traffic lights?
On the other side of James is Paul, and the growing influence of non-Jewish Christians, who say that believing the right things is the essence of religion. Once again, this school of thought is alive and well today:
How many Christians in our world today think that religion means going to the right church, saying the "magic words" to accept Jesus into your heart, believing the right interpretation of the Bible, believing all the right doctrines and teachings and condemning all the wrong ones and anyone who doesn't believe what you believe (which of course, is what God believes!)?
And right into the middle of this tension comes James, who says practice whatever rituals you want, believe what you want, but "religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."
Or to put it another way, you can follow all the rules, you can believe all the right things, but if you aren't taking care of the people who need it most, if instead you're chasing all the things the world values most, that's not religion. It's just self-deceit.
So to recap the message of James:
- In adversity, in challenges, in trials and temptations...be patient, and if you can, be joyful.
- All truly good things come from above...and are meant to be shared.
- Ultimately, you will be known NOT for the things you say, and not even for the things you believe...but for the things you actually DO.
I want to close with a story, an old parable that I think brings together all of these things in a way that is, perhaps, easier to remember.
A wise woman who was traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation.
The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime.
But, a few days later, he came back to return the stone to the wise woman. I’ve been thinking, he said. I know how valuable this stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me this stone.
People of First Presbyterian Church, may this wisdom--the wisdom of James and of his brother, Jesus; the wisdom from above--be yours in the days and weeks to come...and like the most precious of gifts, may you always be willing to give it away.