RSS Feed

08-23 - Ready for Something New?

        The more time I spend studying Scripture, the more dynamic, exciting, majestic, and breathtaking is my view of God and the more overwhelming is His love through Jesus Christ.  The more I spend time I spend serving others, the more delicate, exposed, and the more dignity deserving is my view of humanity.  The more time I spend hearing stories of evil perpetrated by words and deeds against people, the more acute, more horrid, and more malicious is my view of sin.  The more time I spend in ministry, the more momentous, more profound, and more innovative is my view of God’s creation of His church energized by the Holy Spirit to bring the good news of His hope to people otherwise surrounded by sin and the indifference of the world.  Think for a moment about the picture those views create.  God the Father, together with His Son, and the Holy Spirit are engaged in the radical transformation of one human life at a time moving them from death to life, from sin to holiness, and from despair to hope; and God chose that you and I would be the messengers of that hope to that one life.  Let that thought pour over you for a moment.  Both you and I are messengers of the greatest hope and joy another human being can experience, to know that no matter what, God loves them.  That, my friends, is how radical God intended church to be.  The message and the transformation of life is not one that contemplates wearing a cross and bringing our old life and old ways with us or putting a Band-Aid on the wounds of life and returning to the same old activities to be wounded again.  Following Christ is radical, it is exciting, and it is always relevant to those we meet because while Christ has conquered sin for those who believe in Him; evil, hurts, pains, and hopelessness still dominate the world’s stage.

        So are you ready to connect more with God and people?  I am. Are you ready to share God with someone who feels unloved?  I am. Are you ready to discover more about God and his plan for your life?  I am.  Are you ready to be part of a church that has a momentous, profound, and innovative role in God’s plan?  I am.  Are you ready for something new?  I am. If you are ready, let us turn to God’s Word and see where He is leading us today.

        We will begin this morning with a brief look in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 6.  This is the account of the life of Noah and his family.  Noah was a simple man, likely a farmer, who had found favor with God.  At verse 11, it says, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. 12 God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. 13 So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. 14 So make yourself an ark.”  How radical is this story?  God made the earth and all that is in it and said it was “good.”  He now surveys the earth and all that is in it and said, “It is filled with violence and is corrupt because of man.”  The world was violent, cruel, unjust, and wrong.  The world was corrupt, perverted, and full of ethical rot and decay.  It was no longer “good.”  Yet, there was a small remnant; Noah and his family who were acceptable to God. Because God loved Noah and his family, God was determined to save them.  How would God save them?  God essentially said to Noah, “Are you ready for something new?”  It was then that God transformed Noah, the farmer, into Noah, the shipbuilder; a task Noah was unqualified to perform except through grace and strength provided by God.  Noah would be the agent on earth to bring forward God’s message of hope and love for humanity and creation.  The flood was not about destruction; it was about saving life, which God said was “good.” God called Noah to do something new.

        About ten years ago, I served as Chairperson of the Board of Deacons of another Baptist church and I experienced on a small-scale God working through the question, “Are you ready for something new?”  One Saturday afternoon, I was making calls to set up visits for the next day to some of the shut-ins of the church.  I called Dr. Elizabeth Peck, who was around 95 at the time.  She answered the phone.  I introduced myself and asked her, “How are you Dr. Peck?”  She paused and then replied with her own question, “Why do you want to know?”  I quickly explained I was calling to set up a visit for Sunday and thought I would start by asking how she was.  Dr. Peck then replied, “Well, to tell you the truth, I need a man!”  This time, I paused.  Are you ready for something new?  Feeling certain, the Deacon’s Procedure Manual did not address this situation, I asked with some trepidation, why she needed a man.  She explained that she needed some minor repairs done at the house.  In the past, corrupt repair people had swindled her and she needed someone she could trust.  That short conversation led to the creation of a church ministry, called the Carpenter’s Apprentice, for the men to come together and address such needs within the church and the community.  It was something new; it was an innovation of the church to let the vulnerable and isolated know God love them.  God asked only once for the building an ark to show His love but He repeatedly calls on us to new ways to build relationships with others to show His love. It is always new and always exciting.

            If we move from Genesis to our New Testament reading in Mark, Chapter 2, we find today’s Scripture reading and instruction from Jesus.  This is a passage about something new.  We will start at verse 18.  “Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s [John the Baptist’s] disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”  Mark sets the scene.  The Pharisees, in particular, engaged in fasting; on the second and fifth days of the week – Monday and Thursday.  Fasting was not a private matter.  Fasting occurred in a public manner and some believed fasting put pressure on God to acquiesce to some demand by the person fasting.  In many cases, those fasting missed the moral or spiritual development point of fasting and instead were merely doing justice to the letter of the law.  Here some people observed the disciples of John and the Pharisees engaged in fasting; however, Jesus’ disciples were not fasting.  They wanted to know why Jesus was not enforcing the expected model of righteous behavior on your disciples.

            In verse 19, “Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. 20 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day, they will fast.’”  Jesus radically changed the point of view and the scene of fasting through self-denial of food to the complete opposite of feasting at a wedding banquet.  Almost in a humorous manner, Jesus asks, “Who fasts at a wedding banquet?” How many of us would go to a wedding and expect to fast?  We would not; doing so is ludicrous.  Jesus often compared the kingdom of God to a wedding banquet because there was so much joy and promise found in the weddings in the first century and that euphoric feeling extends into the present day weddings.  Jesus’ answer then in the form of a question is, “Why would His disciples fast to seek God’s favor when God incarnate was sitting next and fellowshipping with them?”  Mark does not record any response from those who asked the question.  I can imagine them looking at Jesus, perhaps a little confused, trying to understand how His point of view connects with their original question.  Jesus was hitting them with the question of today, “Are you ready for something new? The kingdom of heaven is at hand and it is exciting.”  Sometimes I wonder if we miss the point of how wonderful it is for us to be alive at this moment in history.  We are able to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus meaning all his words are true giving us the power to share his love with others and ask them, “Are you ready for something new?”  Too often Christians seem satisfied to sit motionless and emotionless as though they were at the wedding unaffected by the joy.

            After an appropriate pause, Jesus responded again to the original question about fasting in particular, or more generally, about ritual or traditional religious practices.  He did so with two parables.  In verse 21, Mark recorded Jesus’ words, “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth [new cloth] on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse.”  This is a plainly spoken parable in which the hearer would be in acknowledgement that putting a new piece of cloth over the tear of an old garment in the hopes of extending the life of the old garment would not work.  For a time the tear in the garment is covered, but once washed that new cloth would shrink tearing itself away from the garment causing even greater damage to the garment.  The message is, taking a small piece of what is new and stitching it to old ways is not why Jesus came; it does not reflect the radical nature of God’s love any more than a passing shower reflects the radical nature of God’s love through the flood.

On the street I grew up on was a family of unwed sisters, who when I was ten, were all in their fifties.  They devoutly practiced their Catholic faith by attended Mass together almost every day of the week; not just on Sunday mornings but every day.  However, the only time they were not bickering or badmouthing one another, or someone else on the street, was the one hour a day they were in church.  In some ways, church was the unshuken piece of cloth covering the tear in their garment; it did not change anything and the daily presence in the church only drew attention to how ugly the tear was in the fabric of their family life.  This is Band-Aid Christianity.  Jesus would later say to the Pharisees, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  You blind Pharisee!  First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” We have an immortal and imperishable soul that reflects who we really are.  We cannot repair the fabric of our soul with a patch on the outside or by simply washing the dirt of our lives off.  It requires something completely new. 

            Jesus moved his audience to the “something completely new idea” with his next parable in verse 22.  He said, “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”  Jesus begins with a point of common knowledge to his listeners; “no one pours new wine into old wineskins.”  New wine is wine that has not fully fermented.  A byproduct of fermentation is the release of gas, which requires the wineskin to expand.  Old wineskins are wineskins that are hard, rigid, and unyielding.  Jesus said, if you do put new wine in old wineskins, the wineskin will burst and the wine lost.  The vessel for new wine must be proper.  Many people do not understand this simple principle.  They do not recognize following Jesus requires us to be new and accept new ways of thinking, behaving, and speaking.  Too many just want to hold onto to their old ways. The result is sad.  Consider our Old Testament reading today, the Gibeonites gathered all of their old possessions, shoes, clothing, and wineskins to suggest they had come a long way to give honor to Joshua and Israel because of the power of God.  However, they were deceptive.  They did not travel a long distance, they were neighbors of the Israelites seeking to avoid Israel’s wrath.  Later, Joshua uncovered their deception and the Gibeonites a price paid.  They did not come to honor God.  Deceptiveness is all throughout the society in which we live and in some churches.  We know that what comes out of the mouth is not necessarily what’s in the heart.  Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Some claim Christ, but they live their old lifestyle believing an old wineskin can hold the new wine of the Gospel.  Jesus said, you must put new wine in a new wineskin.  The apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”  If you are in Christ, you are in essence a new wineskin, with the Holy Spirit filling your life.

            Are you, personally, ready for something new? Then connect with God through Christ. Discover what it means to be a new creation; no longer bound by your own traditions.  It is an exciting and rich life today and a blessed life for all time. Jesus is waiting for you at the wedding feast.  If you accept his invitation to join him, it is the beginning of greatest joy for you than you can now realize.  Are we, this church, ready for something new?  If we are people new in Christ gather, then we have a constantly refreshing, renewing, and innovating church congregation looking at the dynamic, exciting, majestic, and breathtaking view of God and overwhelming love found in Jesus Christ and sharing it with people that He loves who are delicate, exposed, and deserving dignity.  We cannot do what God wants in our personal life or as a church with a patch of cloth or by following the ways of our old lives.  We must be ready for something new.  If we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and with authenticity and love reach out to those around us, we can become the powerful messengers of hope God intended.  Are you ready for something new? I am.  Amen.

08-16 - Christian Character

            There is a quotation often cited in the business world that shares some meaningful truth for Christians.  It goes like this.  “Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character. Character is everything.”  Our character, the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual, matters greatly.  As Christians, we must exhibit the character of the one we claim to follow, Jesus Christ.  It begins with our thoughts, then our words, followed by our actions, which become our habits, which then define our character.  Today, I want us to see Christian character through the life of a blind man named in Scripture as Bartimaeus.

            Let’s begin by looking at our New Testament reading in the Gospel of Mark; Chapter 10, beginning at verse 46.  Please open your Bibles to that passage.  If you are using a pew Bibles that passage starts on page 47 of the New Testament section. We are reading from Gospel according to Mark, which scholars’ credit to a young man named John Mark, a protégé of the Apostle Peter.  Mark’s approach was to move his readers quickly through the story of Jesus’ life and ministry.  The first half of the Gospel, chapters 1 through 8, answers the question, “Who is Jesus?”  The answer is brief.   He is the Son of God; the one the prophets foretold would come to heal and make right humanity’s relationship with God.  The second half of the Gospel, chapter 9 through 16, answer the question, “How will Jesus, Son of God, accomplish God’s mission?”  The answer is disturbing; 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again (8:31).”

            Our text today comes from the second half of the Gospel and occurs as Jesus briefly passes through the city of Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. To fully appreciate the character lesson of Bartimaeus, we need to briefly look at the scenes before the text and then after the text. 

Immediately prior to this scene, Jesus and his disciples came through some difficult and tense moments.  The apostles James and John, giants in our understanding of the Christian character, had approach Jesus in secret. They had been thinking about something, undoubtedly talked to each other about it, and now it was time to take action. James and John asked Jesus, ““Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  James and John believed that Jesus would soon assume a position of great power in the land and they wanted to be Jesus’ principal deputies.  If Jesus was to be number 1 in the land, then James and John wanted to be number 2 and number 3.  They wanted power to decide who would (or would not) do what, when, where, and how. Thoughts led to words and words led to actions.  James and John displayed a character that sought power and dominion over others. They did not seek authority from Jesus for the ministry in his name; they sought authority for personal standing and control of others. 

John Mark, our gospel writer, recorded these words and reaction by the other apostles when James’ and John’s secret plan became known, “41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.”  The ten were angry because someone else was trying to get one over on them and prevent them from becoming number 2 or number 3 in Jesus’ power structure.  “42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” 

Christian character is not about power for oneself, it is about empowering others. It is about following the example of giving others hope by serving them.  Jesus said, “45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  Jesus was correcting the thinking of the disciples, so that they words would not be self-centered but gracious.  With gracious words comes a servant’s heart with deeds of care for others.  Done often enough those acts become habitual; meaning it is done almost without conscious decision, or even compulsory.  When our behavior is such, then it defines our character as that of Christ for we came to serve not be served.  That is the character model Christ wants but is not exhibited by James and John through their secret quest for power.

With the stage set, we turn to verse 46.  “46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.”  In the ancient language, the prefix, “bar,” means “son of.”  This man, Bartimaeus, sat, blind, an outcast from society.  His life was reduced to begging for money or food; making him dependent upon others for his very survival.  This was how people saw Bartimaeus; the character of Bartimaeus was thought to be that of a blind beggar, a drain on society and unable to contribute.  How often are our thoughts about the character traits of a person formed by their external appearance or circumstances?  If we think that way, our words, deeds, habits will inform our character will act accordingly.  Christ wants us to look at the heart of the person and serve the external needs of others.

  In verse 47, as the crowd moved passed Bartimaeus, ”He [Bartimaeus] heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he [Bartimaeus] began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’”  Think about the scene for a moment.  Jesus, Son of God to some, to many just a miracle worker, was passing by the very road in which Bartimaeus sat as an outcast.  He realized Jesus caused the commotion but he could not see in front of him.  Two things happened.  First, everyone who knew the power of Christ and knew Bartimaeus or could observe his condition chose not to ask Jesus to serve Bartimaeus.  No one seemed to think Bartimaeus worth to be introduced to Jesus. Apparently, Jesus’ lessons on being a servant to others sink in slowly or not at all.  Are we like those of that crowd?  We know Jesus, we follow him, we study the Bible, we do acts of charity but we are unwilling to set any of those things aside to spend the time to introduce the outcast to Christ?  Ponder that question this week. 

The second thing that happened was Bartimaeus spoke loudly calling to Jesus as his sole source of grace.   “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Bartimaeus, the outcast, the blind beggar saw something almost no one else saw; the promise of God’s love right before him.  He praised Jesus as the rightful heir of King David’s throne and the giver of grace through healing.  These were Bartimaeus’ thoughts.  His thoughts led to him speaking.

Verse 48 provides the reaction, “48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet.” “Stop being such a bother and be quiet. No one wants to hear from you and certainly do not be speaking about Jesus as some Messiah!”  However, “Bartimaeus cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”  Bartimaeus’ thoughts could not be silenced so he acted again repeating his call to Jesus as the savior from God and the only source of grace.  If you speak out as a believer in Jesus as the Christ, many will sternly tell you to be quiet.  If we have a genuine Christian character, then it will be impossible to silence us. Do not be silenced in your love for Christ.

There once was a man named Polycarp who became a disciple of the Apostle John.  Polycarp served in the Christian Church and rose to some prominence.  In 155 A.D., Roman soldiers arrived at Polycarp’s home to arrest him because he refused to burn incense in honor of the emperor.  Polycarp provided the soldiers supper then he prayed with such devotion that several of them were converted.  Despite his hospitality, the soldiers brought Polycarp to an arena filled with local people looking for a good show.  The Roman authority said he would set Polycarp free if and only if Polycarp would denounce Jesus.  Polycarp responded this way, “How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.” Polycarp could only show hospitality toward those sent to arrest him and could only speak about Christ and his message.  This was his character.  In that arena, he met the character of the crowd.  They bound Polycarp and burned at the stake because he would not remain silent.

 Bartimaeus understood that remaining silent with Jesus present in your life was impossible. Bartimaeus called out, ““Son of David, have mercy on me!” “49 Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ 52 Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately Bartimaeus regained his sight.”

James and John had approached Jesus in secret and Jesus asked them, “What do you want me to do for you?”  They asked for power over others.   They left unfulfilled.  Bartimaeus approached Jesus in public and Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Bartimaeus said, “Heal me.”  Bartimaeus received sight and was satisfied.  Mark presented such a contrast in the stories between those seeking Christ.  Jesus healed Bartimaeus in response to Bartimaeus’ faith and as a means of showing others, including us, the power of God. Have you thought about the question, “What do you want from Jesus?”  Have you thought about as though you were James and John or as one like Bartimaeus?

Jesus said to Bartimaeus, “Go; your faith has made you well.”  Bartimaeus did not go.  He left behind is beggar’s cloak and followed Jesus on the way.  Bartimaeus was not interested in returning to his old life or even his old garment.  He was interested in only one thing; following Jesus on the way.  Is that how we think, speak, and act?  Do we genuinely move from our old life and old ways and follow a new way with Christ?

We might ask, Bartimaeus was on the way but where was Jesus going?  Mark said Jesus next stop was Jerusalem for a triumphal entry. As far as we know, Bartimaeus was there no singing and crying out, ““Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  Jesus was going to the cross and Bartimaeus was following him.  That was Bartimaeus’ new character.

            What is your character? What is the inner nature of your thinking and how does it surface to others?  Do you act as James and John working in secret, seeking advantages in life and ignoring the outcasts that surround you as you profess your devotion to Christ?  Think about what you do or do not do on a daily basis.  Those things are your habits which define your character. Alternatively, are you like Bartimaeus who understood that your life could not reach its potential without a healing by Jesus and by following him?  What occupies your thoughts?  God knows because He hears what you say.  Others know because they receive your words and see your actions.  We might like to think others are blind but they are not.  What are you doing habitually and does it represent Christ in you? The character of Bartimaeus was a simple one.  He looked for grace in Jesus and would not be silenced once he found it.  What is your character? 

08-09 - James - Prayer & Praise

James 5:13-20

We have come to the end of ten weeks of exploration of a letter from the brother of Jesus, a man named James.  The teachings of James at times contained harsh, rigid, and blunt warnings to the first followers of Jesus.  At other times, James’ teaching offered encouragement to those who were trying to live faithfully.  Overall, James was addressing real problems being experienced by real people as they came together in the collective of the institution, we call church.  We need James’ teachings today because James was calling on the Christians to recognize that a key element of life was to live with a new sense of community founded in God’s victory over sin and death evidenced by the life, death, burial, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus.  In living out that life, James made clear Christianity is not a “go it alone” life.  Christianity is a community lifestyle.  Honoring God is not done in secret.  Honoring God occurs in living our lives in a new family setting of brothers and sisters in Christ.  And one of things we come to realize, and James focused very much on this point, is that siblings, brothers and sisters, do not always naturally get along. Afterall, we see that the very first sibling relationship of Cain and Abel ended in Abel’s murder.  The idea of a Christian community does not come naturally to us.  It comes to us supernaturally through Jesus.

So as James concluded his letter, it appears James wanted his readers to take on the best sense of community as possible, the sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that Jesus came to establish, gave his life for, and arose from the dead to give hope to.  Now, James was not trying to paint a picture that following Jesus meant everything would be easy and joyful all the time.  That is not real.  James was saying that life even for the follower of Jesus will have its difficulties. There will be times of suffering and times of joy.  And the boundary that separates joy and suffering can be terrifyingly thin.  Last week, Becky and I sat with some parents who have lost children to death.  One mother shared that she had been with her adult son on a Thursday.   It was a good day.  At the end of the day, she and her son went to their respective homes.  They had made plans for Friday and Saturday. Sadly, Friday did not come for her son. He died peacefully seated on the couch watching television.  This is reality of life.  It is a mixture of suffering and joy often with a very thin boundary between them.

James began to confront the reality of life in the Christian community and the thin boundaries we face.  James wrote, “13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.”  James’ understanding of following Jesus in this life was simple. His formula was: in trouble, pray; in joy, praise.  Prayer and praise were and are the appropriate response to trouble and joy.  Prayer and praise are two forms of communication with God. Prayer is our way of setting out our dependence upon God for compassion and mercy to be extended in our times of trouble.  Praise is our expression of joy in knowing our God will listen and has been and will be present in our life. 

Prayer and praise say a lot about our relationship with God.  If either prayer or praise or both are missing in our life, it would suggest our relationship with God needs repair. James said earlier in his letter, “You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives” (James 4:2b-3a).  James was expressing that his readers’ relationship with God was in need of repair because genuine prayer and praise were absent.

Now there can be a temptation by some to make prayer too complicated or too formal and mechanical.  I read an article the other day stating that there are nine different types of prayer. There is prayer of intercession, supplication, faith, corporate, in the spirit, thanksgiving, confession, dedication, and imprecation or curing someone.  The article said each prayer had its own format.  I would find it exhausting to remember the details of each form of prayer and a source of concern as to whether I had used the “proper” format for the purpose.  Jesus said pray.  James said pray.  The Gospel message is simple; just talk to God and if you ask for anything, do so with right motives regardless of the specific reason you are praying.  Do not make it complicated.  Just pray.  In case you were wondering, I read another article on the seven forms of praise.  Each again reason for praise carried with it a specific purpose and format.  Jesus said praise.  James said praise.  The Gospel message again is simple; just praise God for his compassion, mercy, and provision.  Do not make it complicated.  Just offer praise.

Now James suggested that when we pray to God, we need not go it alone. Prayer can and should be a corporate exercise as well.  James wrote, “14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.”  James encouraged his readers, now you and me, to make use of the community of brothers and sisters and invite them into our prayers for our troubles.  James said we should bring the elders in when someone is not well.  The term “elders” here means the leaders of the church. Inviting the leadership of the church is intended to bring the full weight of the church to support those who are sick.  Involving the elders means people who have the strength to pray can do so.  Involving the elders also means the answer to the prayer may have already been provided through the community of brothers and sisters called church.

Allow me to offer an illustration.  Tony Campolo is a well-known American preacher. Some years ago, Tony was invited by a Christian group to speak at their annual conference.  On the day of the conference, the master of ceremony gave Tony a glowing introduction and then asked Tony to lead the group in a prayer that God would provide the funds for the orphanage this group financially supported. Tony made his way to the pulpit and considered how best to pray.  Tony looked around and realized the people in this group were financially stable, with a few appearing to be wealthy.  When Tony arrived at the microphone, he paused for a moment, and then said, “I will not lead this group in prayer.”  Tony continued, “I will not pray that God would make the funds available for this orphanage because God has already answered that prayer.  In this very room is enough money for the orphanage and before I begin speaking we are going to take a collection.”  A few people chuckled at this amusing thought.  Tony said, “I am not kidding.”  Taking a breadbasket from the table, Tony said, “I am taking all the money out of my wallet and donating it to the orphanage. I am now going table by table and asking each of you to do the same; empty your wallets of all cash into the basket.”  Tony went table to table and took up an offering.  When it was counted, there was more money than the orphanage needed for the year.  Tony then gave his prepared remarks to the group.  That group never invited Tony to return.

Bringing the elders into our prayers brings the weight and power of the living body of Christ to bear down upon our sickness, whatever form that may be expressed.  God can use the living body of Christ to lift the sick but only if the body is willing and engaged in moving.

James then went on to say that in community, we need to be honest with one another and seek accountability from one another. James said, “If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:15b-16).  Sin causes wounds within families, churches, and nations.  Sin is a wound that at best will leave scar tissue and at the worst will allow infection into the spiritual body.  Confession, disclosure of sin, frees us, cleans out the wound, and opens the possibility of reconciliation with others.  When we confess our sins, we open ourselves up to God and to restoration with others so that we can have a new future. Confession is to be about building the future.

Confession is hard because we must trust in the person to whom we are confessing, and we must confess with proper motives.  Often our motives for sinning get in the way of our confessing.  A learned pastor wrote, “We sinners are so backwards that we try to justify ourselves by some condition which preceded the sin. Motives console us.”[1]  What does this pastor mean by that?  Ever hear the words come out of your mouth or have someone say to you, “I am sorry that I yelled at you, but you made me angry when you said…”  We have confessed with improper motives by justifying our actions as a natural response to the actions of the person to whom we are confessing.  The confession then becomes an instrument to accuse.  That learned pastor completed his though this way, “It isn’t some preliminary cause, some motive before sin that justifies me, but rather the forgiveness of Christ which meets my repentance after the sin.”[2]  Forgiveness comes, reconciliation comes, healing comes after we repent.


James then concluded with this touching thought, “19 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”  If we wander from the truth we are at risk.  The term wander means to aimlessly move from place to place or in this case, from one belief to another.  James knew something about being aimless.  James lived many years with Jesus and did not see who Jesus was. James listened to Jesus and thought he was insane.  James tried to get Jesus to do things that we either not proper in time or place. James was aimless in his pursuit of God. Then something remarkable happened. Jesus was killed on the cross and buried.  I do not doubt that James grieved his brother’s death.  Sorrow had entered James’ life.  Then just days later came the word, “Jesus had risen from the grave. Jesus was alive.”  Sorrow gave way to joy.  While the boundary between joy and sorrow is thin so too is the boundary between sorrow and joy.  The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate act of joy for all humanity and reshapes our understanding of sorrow and joy.  The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate act of creating new individuals for a new community.

You and I are part of that new community.  We need to pray for one another.  We need to bring the full weight of the church community down upon the problems we face and to be used by God to lift one another up.  This is the will of God.  Jesus said, ““Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”  Let us live in a community peace as brothers and sister.  Amen and Amen.

[1] Wagerin, Walter, Reliving the Passion, (Grand Rapids, MI; Zondervan, 1992), 46.

[2] Ibid.

08-02 - James - Corruption & Patience

James 5:1-11

There have been many writers who have taken on the charge to describe the conditions of the world around them and to give their readers insight into the need for change.  Our own Declaration of Independence used most of its space to describe the tyranny of King George against the American Colonies and the consequence of those abuses; namely, the need for the American Colonies to abolish the established relationship with the King and his government.  The ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence was that governments were instituted to protect and defend God given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  In a like manner, James, the author of our New Testament reading, took on the charge to describe some conditions that were of concern to him and the consequences of those abuses.  James said that his letter was written to the Twelve Tribes scatter among the nations. This has been taken to mean that James is writing to early Christians who had been raised as Jews and then came to accept Jesus as Lord.  As such, we should view James’ writing as to Christians describing conditions within the Church.  Those conditions were not all peaches and cream. 

James described tyranny and corruption within in the early Church, particularly among the people with money.  James warned those with money of the severe consequences of abusing those without money.  Then, James described the need for the faithful of the early Church to hold fast to the life and to the freedom granted by God through Christ who was uncorruptible, faithful, merciful, and compassionate.  Though James wrote his letter centuries ago, the issues of wealth inequalities and abuse continue to exist today, even within the contemporary Christian Church.

James began describing the conditions most concerning to him with broadside of verbal cannon fire much like a fighting ship of days bygone days.  James wrote, “1Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.”  In literature, writers are encouraged to begin their work with what is called a “hook” sentence.  A “hook” sentence is one that grabs the reader’s attention and gives them a reason to keep on reading.  “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.” That is an A+ “hook” sentence because everyone, rich and poor alike, will want to read on.  The idea that rich people would weep and wail in misery is the opposite of the conventional wisdom for rich people.  The expectation for those who are rich is a carefree and comfortable lives, not lives marked by misery.  James’ words destroy the Jewish conception that the possession of wealth was an indication of God’s favor.  Instead of favor, the rich would face misery or God’s wrath.

James, the brother of Jesus, was sharing spiritual insights with the early believers and followers of Jesus and revealed here that the rich will face misery.  In James’ day, there was no real middle class.  For the most part, people were either rich or they were poor.  The poor worked daily for the resources to eat that day. The rich, of course, stockpiled not just the necessities of life but also the luxuries of life.  Now, we might ask ourselves, “Am I hooked to what James said because I consider myself rich or because I consider myself poor?”  The answer to that question depends on our understanding of wealth.  In the United States, our perceptions of wealth and poverty may be askew compared to the world at large.  Consider for a moment that if you woke up this morning and you had food in your refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep.  If so, then you are richer than 75% of the people in the world.  If you have money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish someplace, you are among the top 8% of the world's wealthy. 

With those statistics in mind, we can ask ourselves, “Am I rich or am I poor?” as we read again James’ opening sentences, “1Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.  Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.”  James was pointing out that the rich had material goods and clothing in abundance such that some of it was beginning to rot and be eaten by inserts.  Their goods and clothing were rotting and spoiling because it was not needed to meet their own needs and not being shared with those who were in need.  The rich had secreted money and even it had sat unneeded for so long that the coins were beginning to corrode.  James said the rot, spoiled, and corroded excess unused wealth will be the evidence to testify against the rich of their love of money and their indifference toward the poor.  That evidence would convict them of their lack of genuine love for God and for their neighbors.  James was making clear that hoarding wealth is a sin of omission; the act of not acting. We will recall that last week James spoke about the sin of omission when he wrote, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” (James 4:17).  That is the sin of omission; the act of not acting, the act of knowing what ought to be done and not doing it.

Now James was not done with those who had saved up resources to the point of rot, spoilage, and rust.  James went after those who were involved in the sin of commission; that is, they acted against the poor.  The sin of commission is the act of knowing what ought not be done and doing it. James wrote, “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.”  James was citing that the corruption within the early Church was so complete that love, friendship, compassion, humility, and empathy was lacking by the rich.

James’ words are an extension of those Jesus taught his disciples about the love of money.  Jesus taught, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely” (Mark 12:38-40).  The Apostle Paul expressed Jesus’ teaching this way, “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Timothy 6:9-10).  The love of money is a serious problem for the Christian life because we can only have one first love: God or money, but not both.  James was warning the rich that their love of money was evil and unchristian.  The rich were reflecting the progressive wisdom of the world which James described as earthly, then unspiritual, and finally demonic.  We, individually and as a local church, must examine our love. Is it for possessions, fine things, and money or is it for God? 

To the faithful of the early church, James said, “Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

10 Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about” (James 5:7-11).  James was encouraging the faithful, particularly those who were poor, to be patient and hold fast to the Lord, Jesus Christ, who would set things right.  In and through Christ, eternal judgement would be brought upon the rich or anyone who lived by earthly, unspiritual, and demonic wisdom and the faithful would be rewarded eternally.  James may have had in mind the story Jesus told of such a judgement.  “19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.  22 The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he [the rich man] was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side” (Luke 16:19-23). Abraham speaking to the rich man said, “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” (Luke 16:25).  Jesus was revealing to us the fate of those who love their money more than God and more than their neighbors.  Coldness, indifference, and cruelty in this life will not go unpunished and misfortune, difficulties, and struggles of the faithful will not go unrewarded.

            How do we know God will act to reverse the fortunes of this world?  James concluded this section of his letter with the truth, “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:11).  God will make things right because he is compassionate and merciful.  But the faithful must be patient.  James cites the need for patience four times in this passage.  Patience is difficult for us, especially in our culture of instantaneous living.  We can communicate with people on the other side of the world as quickly as we can with the person next to us.  We can cook food with microwave ovens in a small fraction of the time earlier generations ever thought imaginable.  We can travel at 500 miles per hour in aircraft to destinations that 50 years ago may not even be reached in a lifetime.  If Jesus is going to set things right, then we want and even feel entitled that he does so now.  We want our vindication in the certainty of today not in the uncertainty of tomorrow.

            Jesus understood our need for assurance that God was compassionate and merciful.  That is why he gave the faithful a sign and reminder of compassion in the present and mercy in the future.  On the night when Jesus was betrayed for a mere 30 silver coins, Jesus shared a meal with his faithful followers.  At this meal, Jesus took the daily bread, the sustenance of life.  He blessed the bread, giving thanks to God for his provision of their needs.  Then Jesus broke the bread into smaller pieces and gave it to his followers. Jesus said, “Take and eat, this is my body.”  In the certainty of the present moment, Jesus reassured his followers that God saw them, heard them, loved them, and was compassionate upon them.

            Jesus then took a cup of wine.  Again, Jesus blessed the wine, giving thanks to God for the fruit of the fields.  Then Jesus gave the cup to his followers and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20).  The covenant was an unbreakable agreement established by God that His mercy would be on the followers of Jesus.  The blood of Jesus represented in the cup was a seal giving certainty to the mercy of God for eternity.  What was required of Jesus followers?  They must take and eat of the bread and drink from the cup and follower Jesus.  In following Jesus, God, not money becomes the love of life.  God given wisdom and not earthly wisdom guides and instructs lives of Jesus’ followers.  In following Jesus, compassion and mercy found in God is found in abundance in the lives of his followers and the distinction between rich and poor is to melt. The rich shall use their resources to meet the needs of the poor.  James said earlier in his letter, ”Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5)

            Let us come to the table of the Lord as his followers, patient in the present, and assured of the future.  In taking the bread and the cup, let us be renewed in our faith and in our desire to share the riches of Christ and the riches of this world as an expression of our first love for God.  Amen and Amen.

07-26 - Thy Will

James 4:11-17

We have been looking at the writings of James, the brother of Jesus. James was a man who it appears throughout Jesus public ministry did not believe what Jesus’ said about himself. And yet, James listened to what Jesus said.  At one point in Jesus ministry throughout Galilee, James thought Jesus was out of his mind and came to seize control over Jesus and bring Jesus home.  And yet, James paid attention to Jesus’ teachings and remembered them.  James’ separation from his brother Jesus’ ministry seemed so complete that upon Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus appointed his own disciple, John, as the caretaker of Mary, mother of Jesus and mother of James.  And yet, James would come to honor his brother Jesus as Lord and Savior and did so even to the point of his own death by the hands of a mob who stoned and clubbed James to death.  What accounts for the transformation of James from doubter and skeptic to disciplined believer?  The apostle Paul revealed to us the reason James’ transformation in the letter Paul wrote to the church at Corinth.

For what I [Paul] received I passed on to you [the believers in Corinth] as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve. After that, he [Jesus] appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me [Paul] also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

Jesus, risen from the dead, first appeared to those who believed in him and who grieved so terribly after Jesus’ crucifixion. Paul said Jesus appeared to Peter, a man broken by his own denials of Jesus.  Then Jesus appeared to the other apostles.  Jesus then to 500 people who believed in him, men and women alike. Only after resurrecting the faith and spirit of those who had believed in Jesus, did Jesus then appear to those who had not believed in him.  Paul lists only two such appearances to non-believers: James and Paul.  Jesus first appeared to his brother James, a man who thought Jesus was insane.  We do not know when or where Jesus appeared to James.  We know when Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, Jesus spoke her name, “Mary,” and at Jesus’ calling, Mary threw herself to the ground and wrapped her arms around Jesus’ feet and cried out “Rabboni,” a term of endearment.  Did Jesus do likewise when he appeared to his brother and simply say, “James?”  And did James fall to Jesus’ feet knees calling Jesus by some pet name?  Or did Jesus just appear, standing before his brother, James and say nothing?  And in that silence did all the words James said about Jesus, about being insane or a fraud, come pouring into James’ mind, reminding James of the judgments he had made against his brother, Jesus?  And in that silence, did Jesus who was and is perfectly innocent judge his accuser James? Innocence accuses its accuser. And after those few moments of terrifying silent reflection by James of what he said to and about Jesus, did those words depart from James’ mind and replaced by forgiveness and words of Jesus? We do not know.

            But we do know two important things about James from that encounter with his brother, Jesus.  First, James believed in Jesus.  The resurrection changed and transformed the entirety of James’ life.  The resurrection of Jesus was and is the defining event for James, for you, and for me.  Today, people chant, “No justice, no peace.”  For the Christian, the statement should be “No resurrection, no peace.” The apostle Paul said, “17 If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19).  James believed and so after becoming a witness to the resurrection, James called himself, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1).   James called his brother, the “glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (James 2:1). James believed in Jesus without reservation and, instead of being a detractor of Jesus, became a servant of his brother.

            The second thing we learn about James after the resurrection appearance by his brother is that James was concerned about what came out of his mouth and the mouth of Jesus followers.  James’ letter is not long and yet he speaks numerous times about what we say to one another.  Let me give you just a few examples.

  • Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (James 1:19).
  • Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless (James 1:26).
  • Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law (James 2:12).
  • 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 (James 3:6)
  • 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 (James 3:9-10).

James was concerned about what people said, perhaps because what James said before the resurrection of Jesus about Jesus was unkind, unworthy, and earthly leaving James open to judgment by the Son of God. James seeing his brother, Jesus, appear before him, resurrected from the dead, must have been a terrifying moment. The final words of James’ letter may give us some insight into what those brothers shared in that moment. James wrote, “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:20). In that moment of the resurrection appearance of Jesus to James, it seems clear that Jesus turned James from James’ error and rather than judgment into eternal death, Jesus covered a multitude of James’ sin and brought him into eternal life.  That is the promise we too share with James.

            James, perhaps like few other people, understood the significance of brother speaking against brother and the power of forgiveness found in one brother forgiving the other.  James wanted his readers, he wanted you and me, to understand that what we say matters in this life and what we say carries eternal significance.  From today’s reading, James wrote, “11 Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another.  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. 12 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?” (James 4:11-12).  James’ words showed the eternal significance of our words. “Do not slander one another.”  The King James Version of this verse is more pointed, “Speak not evil one of another.”  These words are as old as one the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Exodus 5:12).  Slander is the act of making a false statement against someone else.  James made this connection.  To slander is to violate the law of God.  To violate the law of God is to set yourself as judge of the law.  To judge the law is to judge the lawgiver, God.  Slander thus hurts the person we speak against and places us in the position of judging God.  James said, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy” (James 4:12).  James’ words here reflect that he understood what Jesus said on this very matter and in many ways applied to the way James treated Jesus.

            Jesus said, “21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22). “Raca,” meant the person was considered emptyheaded or a fool.  Makes you wonder if James felt he had called his brother Jesus, ”Raca,” when James believed Jesus was out of his mind.  James had judged Jesus and quite wrongly.  To judge another is not a small matter. Jesus said, “28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).  James must have remembered his brother, Jesus’ words, when James wrote, “12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy” (James 4:12).  James, standing before his resurrected brother Jesus, stood the risk of being judged for eternity but instead James was saved by Jesus whom James saw as his Lord.  James, the new person saved by his brother, the Son of God, said, “Who are you to judge?” (James 4:12).  Indeed, who am I and who are you to judge another and slander the reputation of a brother or sister?  James’ question and his words of admonishment are powerful and should call us to check our words.  Jesus said, “36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).

            James finished up this chapter by continuing to address the impact of what we say.  We pick things up again at verse 13, “13 Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’  14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  15 Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’  16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes.  All such boasting is evil.”  James’ point here was that his readers, believers in Jesus, were using the gift of language and testimony to boast that they would use their lives, also a gift, to make money – lots of money.  The boasting represented a desire to set their own plans in motion for the purpose of amassing wealth for themselves.  Wealth itself is not necessarily a problem.  The problem James was pointing out was that God was absent from the plan.  The boasts of James’ readers were strictly earthly centered and that the objective was to amass wealth such that these people would become even more self-reliant. The boast means James’ readers saw no dependence on God at all for their lives.  James brought his readers up short and said, “What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14).  We are a mist.  A mist appears for a while and then vanishes, and no one remembers anything about the mist. That is a sobering thought and a hard truth.  Now we could be discouraged or even depressed by the idea that we are seemingly so inconsequential.  But that was not James’ desire.  His point was that we must not see our lives through the lens of earthly living alone. We must have an eternal view. James was reflecting the teaching of Jesus who said, “19Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). Jesus point, James’ point, was that the treasure of life will not be found here in the pursuit of wealth.  The treasure will be found in doing what God desires.  James said we must approach God in humility and in dependence to him.  From that posture, James wrote, “15 You ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:15).  Our posture ought to be found in seeking God and in seeking God’s will.

            James knew something about the power of words and thoughts expressed about life. James knew something about the power of words and thoughts expressed to God and about God.  James shared the same living space as God lived among us in the person of Jesus.  James had plenty of time to know Jesus, his brother, and to speak with his brother. James thought his brother was insane. James thought his brother was not genuine.  James thought his brother was wrong in his thinking.  James was not quiet about his thoughts and his words were hurtful. Then something happened.  James’ brother Jesus was killed and buried. Then came the terribly wonderful and terribly frightening news.  Jesus was alive.  He had been raised from the dead.  Jesus was who he claimed to be, the son of God.  The wonder and terror of that news came to a peak when James stood before Jesus. All of James’ idle and unkind words flooded James’ mind.  James must have thought to himself, “I am doomed.”  Then Jesus spoke to James in a reassuring tone that James’ sins were forgiven; that is why Jesus came and died.  James shared with us that we need to be thoughtful about what we say and to use our words not to judge our neighbors but to seek the will of God; God’s good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:2).  That is the good we can do.  With that in mind, James concluded, “17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”

            This week, let’s restore our language with our brothers, sister, parents, children, and neighbors because we know what is good and seek to just do it. “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).  Amen and Amen.

07-19 - James - Draw Near to God

James 3:18 & 4:1-10

“Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.  What [then] causes fights and quarrels among you?” (James 3:18; 4:1) The opening statement and the question appear back-to-back in the New Testament Book of James.  James, the brother of Jesus, wrote these words to the people of the early Christian churches.  James’ statement is comforting.  “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18).  We like to hear words about peacemakers, peace, and righteousness.  To James’ readers peace was embodied by the word Shalom, which means wholeness and complete in every regard.  We are content when we feel complete and settled.  When we are at peace, we do not tense up nor are we easily startled. When we are at peace, we breath easier because we feel safe.  People who can usher a sense of peace, peacemakers James calls them, are a true blessing to our lives.  But James’ comforting statement about peacemakers, peace, and righteousness is abruptly changed by a harsh sounding question to his readers, “What [then] causes fights and quarrels among you?” (James 4:1) James’ question makes clear that James does not consider his readers to be peacemakers.  They are instead peace-breakers.  James’ readers are engaged in fights and quarrels; shouting and screaming at one another.  It seems their behavior is not a just an occasional sort of thing, it is persistent and pervasive.  Fights and quarrels are part of the lives of James’ readers.  James asks his readers, “Why are you behaving this way? What is going on inside of you to choose to behave in such a way as to oppose peacemaking, peace, and righteousness?” James’ questions were an extension of his thoughts we talked about last week.  Namely, that fighting and quarreling come from using the wisdom of the world which is earthly (self-centered).  Such wisdom progresses to being unspiritual (peace-breaking), and it culminates in demonic behavior (it outright opposes God).

James asked, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they [these fights and quarrels] come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet [jealously envy others] but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have [peace] because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask [God for something], you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:1-3).  James wasted no words laying into his readers and putting the responsibility for the fighting squarely onto the individual.  James does not allow for lame excuses for the situation.  James does not allow his readers to say, “I am only responding to the way I am treated by others.  I would not have to fight if others would listen to me the first time.  There would not be any quarrels if people just agreed with me.”  James said to each, you are responsible for the fighting and quarrelling because of two reasons.  First, you desire control, authority, and power believing that they are the means to bring you wholeness, joy, and peace.  I remember when I was a kid, we enjoyed playing a game called King of the Hill.  The object was to stand on top of hill or mound of dirt while all the other kids came at you from every side of that hill to wrestle you to the ground and throw you off that hill so they could become king of the hill.  As king, you had to fend off the attacks of others and try to throw them down the hill.  As king of the hill you were considered in control, you had the authority, and you had the power, but you never had any peace.  It was a fun kids’ game.  It is a terrible game for adult Christians to play with one another’s life.  James point was you fight because first you desire to be king of the hill believing that brings you peace and you know that it does not.

Second, you fight and quarrel because you do not ask God.  You do not ask God for what?  James previous said people lacked wisdom from heaven.  James said in Chapter 1, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5).  In Chapter 3, James wrote, “17 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” (James 3:17). James point was that his readers are not asking for wisdom from heaven to put an end to the fighting and quarreling. Instead, James’ readers were asking God to intervene on their side in the dispute and give them the victory over their battles with other Christians.  The motives behind their prayers were all wrong.  James said God was not answering such prayers because those prayers were earthly, unspiritual, and demonic.

James’ point on prayer is sobering.  Many people, Christians and non-Christians, can remember and recite Jesus’ words on prayer.  They remember Jesus said, “Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7).  Religious practices, even our own worship services, reinforce the idea of all prayers answered as we desire.  Jesus said, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13).  This gives rise to us concluding every prayer with the words, “In Jesus name we pray.”  People pray for all kinds of things that are not of God.  “God, please let me win the lottery.  I promise the money won’t change me and I’ll even give some of the money to the church.  In Jesus precious name I pray.”  We pray with wrong motives because we want to believe Jesus answers all prayers.  But the quote from Jesus was not, “Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you,” it was “ If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7).  To abide in Jesus and his words, means our motives in prayer will be proper because our prayers will be focused on the wisdom of God not on self-centered desires.  James’ point was his readers were not having their prayers answered because Christ was not abiding in them and they were not following Jesus words.  As a result, James’ readers were acting and thinking in an earthly, unspiritual, and even demonic manner and at the same time asking God to bless their mess.  God will not bless a mess.

James went so far as to say that acting earthly and praying heavenly is a form of adultery because his readers were trying to share in an intimate relationship with the world and with God.  That just cannot be.  James said, “4 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. 5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? 6 But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble’” (James 4:4-6).  Strong language.  “Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” You cannot love God and have the world as a secret lover.  A relationship with God means peace.  Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they are the children of God.”  James gave the other side of the same coin, “Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world [a peace-breaker], becomes an enemy of God.”  The language used by Jesus and James gives the impression that we face the ultimate coin toss.  Heads you’re a child of God.  Tails you’re an enemy of God.  Heads you will.  Tails you lose, and lose, and lose.

But here is the good news. Whether we want to be known as a child of God or an enemy of God is not a game of chance or a coin toss.  James in completing his thought set out a new set of ten commandments to be on the side of God, even if we are presently fighting, quarreling, and otherwise acting in an earthly, unspiritual, and demonic manner as an enemy of God.  James wrote these 10 commands:

  1.  7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. 
  2.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
  3.  8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. 
  4.  Wash your hands, you sinners, and 
  5.  purify your hearts, you double-minded. 
  6. 9 Grieve, 
  7.  mourn and 
  8.  wail. 
  9.  Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 
  10. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

Let’s see what James was talking about here.

James said the first commandment is to submit yourself to God.  Submitting to God is a recurring theme for James.  Submission means to let God be God of your life.  To submit means to accept what God’s word says and to obey it. In James’ language, we end the adulterous relationship with the world.

Second, James said to resist the devil and the devil will flee from you.  This is an important point. If we are submitted to God, then we can guarantee the devil will make his appearance.  We must resist his presence by drawing closer to God, not moving away from God.  When we feel that pull to leave our faith journey by praying less, going to church less, by following worldly thought, that is the precise moment we need to draw nearer to God.  The closer we draw to God the less influence the devil has over us because evil will not come into God’s presence.

This is notion of movement is affirmed in James’ third command to draw nearer to God.  The Apostle John put it this way, “5 This is the message we have heard from him [Jesus] and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him [God through Jesus] and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he [God] is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:5-7).  Draw near to God and the devil leaves.  Draw near to God, and we become purified.  Draw near to God and we stop fighting and quarreling and we have fellowship with one another.

Fourth, we need to cleanse our hands. We need to stop the actions that contaminate our life with sin.

Fifth, we need to purify our hearts. We need to stop taking into our life the things of this world that contaminate our thinking and emotions. We are both blessed and cursed to have access to so much information through newspapers, books, television, and the Internet.  But not all of what we can allow into our life is good.  Some of what we can receive is enriching and a lot of it is destructive, rude, and crude.  We need to purify our hearts and use the wisdom of heaven to bring into our lives what builds us up.

Commandments six through eight call us to grieve, mourn, and weep.  The object of these behaviors is the sin of our lives and making a public decision to turn from these behaviors.  Our grieving, mourning, and weeping expresses that our past life is done and over.  We have entered into a new relationship with God alone.

The ninth commandment is to transform our laughter and joy at sinning and the frailties of others.  The Apostle Paul said it this way, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).  We need to push the world out and let God in.

Finally, James said humble ourselves before God so that God can lift us up.  We need to stop trying to be the king of the hill by force and be a humble servant toward others.  In our servanthood, God will place us high as a righteous person; someone worthy of being called a child of God.

In a few words, James brought his readers from being confronted about the nature of their fighting and quarreling with each other that James equated to murder and adultery to being humble and lifted up by God. He gave ten things to do but at the very center of James’ words was the key.  James said the key is to draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Regardless of the issues and challenges we may face, the imperative action is to draw near to God so that we can be made right.  James’ command spoke of God’s character for God loves when his children return to him. Jesus shared this part of God in a story.  Jesus shared a story of a father who had two sons. The younger son asked for inheritance from his father, who granted his son's request. This son left home with his money and squandered his fortune on sinful living. The son eventually became destitute. As consequence, the son had to return home empty-handed,  He intended to beg his father to accept him back as a servant. To the son's surprise, he was not scorned by his father but instead his father welcomed back his son with celebration and a welcoming party.  The son drew near to the father and the father drew near to the son.  God stands ready for us to draw near to him and in doing so, he will draw near to us. In our drawing toward God, our fighting and quarreling nature will subside, our prayers will be answered because they will be consistent with God’s will, and will we exalted by God. The apostles of the New Testament said, “We proclaim [the gospel message of peace] to you what [because] we have seen and heard [it], [in sharing the message] so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3).

This week, let us draw near to God and feel Him draw near to us.  In that closeness, let the tension of life give way to the peace from God that surpasses all understanding surround us.  Amen and Amen.

07-12 - James - Which Wisdom

James 3:13-18

I have shared with some of you that later in September, I plan to begin teaching a ten-week course online called Christian Ethics.  What is Christian Ethics?  Christian Ethics is simply the way that people think about moral questions from a Christian perspective.  Christian Ethics is not about telling someone what they must think about a social issue. Although, some churches and denominations do prescribe what congregants are to think through a catechism.  If you are interested in reading a book on ethical responses to a variety of circumstances, you can borrow my copy of the catechism for the Roman Catholic Church.  Even with fine print, the catechism is 845 pages long.  Christian Ethics that I will present is more about helping to organize our thinking from a Christian perspective.  If we know how to think like a Christian, then we can apply that understanding to whatever circumstance or issue comes our way. There is no need for someone else to write a book telling us what must think about an issue.

Now what Christians and non-Christians believe should be done in a situation or on an issue is guided by three primary considerations.  First, what we decide to do can be dependent upon what goal we hope to achieve. Second, what we decide to do can be dependent upon what duty I feel I must fulfill.  Third, what we decide to do can be dependent upon what kind of person we should be.  So, let’s say that this afternoon, you are in your front yard just enjoying the moment. Across the street from you is your neighbor who is in their front yard also just enjoying the moment. You get along with your neighbor, even though they seem a little sketchy.  One thing you do know is that your neighbor is an atheist; they do not believe in God in any way, shape, or form.  As you are both enjoying the day, a car drives slowly down the street between your house and your “across the street” neighbor’s home. You recognize the car as belonging to someone who lives down the street.  The driver of the car is known to be a very disagreeable person, to everyone. As the car passes by, you notice something odd.  There are small pieces of paper coming off the roof of the car.  The pieces of paper look like money.  You see that your neighbor notices the paper coming from the car as well.  After the car has passed by, you and your neighbor calmly walk to the street and discover the paper coming from the car are $100 bills.  You collect 10, $100 bills and your neighbor collected 4, $100 bills.  That is $1400 between you.  Your neighbor says, “Why not give me all the money.  I will take care of this matter if you like.”  What you decide to do, and what your neighbor will decide to do, will be guided by ethics.  Your decision, and your neighbors, will be guided by a combination of goals, duties, and what type of person you want to be.  But here is the thing.  Although you will have the common ways of making a decision, that is goals, duties, and what type of person you each want to be, the Christian Ethics you will use is different from worldly ethics your neighbor will use.  Or at least it should be.

This was the point James was making in this weeks’ reading from the book bearing his name.  James was concerned about how Christians make decisions.  Do Christians make decisions based upon the wisdom of the world with its goals, duties, and role models.  Or do Christians make decisions based upon the wisdom of God with its distinct and different goals, duties, and role models?  James asked in verse 13, “13 Who is wise and understanding among you?”  Being wise here has nothing to do with intelligence or education.  It has everything to do with being having a solid foundation, a solid relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Jesus explained being wise through the story of two builders found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  One person built a house by first digging down deep into the soil and laid a foundation for the house in the rock.  The other person built a house on the ground without a foundation.  Then the heavy rains came.  The house built on sand was washed away by flood waters but the one built on a good foundation could not be shaken by the flood.  Jesus said, “24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock” (Matthew 7:24-25).   To be wise then is to know the words of Jesus and to make Jesus words the foundation of their way through life.  James’ question focused on whether Jesus’ words formed the basis of his reader’s goals, duties, and type of person they were being called to be.  James asked, “13 Who is wise and understanding among you?  Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13).  Whoever has Christ in them, the very wisdom of God, then let that person show it by the way they live that life.  James wanted his readers to live life like Jesus lived his life.  James wanted his readers to do things in humility; that sense of wanting to serve others without a desire for status or ambition or repayment. In the New Testament, this type of love fueled desire is described by a Greek word for love, agape.  Agapeic love is not reciprocal.  You simply give requiring nothing in return.  Agapeic love was the type of love Jesus spoke about when he addressed the host of a banquet.  Jesus said, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14).  The purpose of giving was to express love leading to righteousness. 

A couple of weeks ago, Becky and I met with the parents of a young man who died at the end of April.  The parents shared about their son and his desire to help other people. Some of those this young man helped were kind and others were, quite frankly, dangerous people.  What struck me was that this young man was as humble with kind as he was with the dangerous.  This young man gave to each type of person knowing that those he gave to could not or would not ever return his love.  That is agapeic love moved by humility.  We cannot learn humility from a book or a course.  We can only learn about it through experience.  James wondered aloud if anyone who was reading his letter was wise and understanding of the ways of Jesus and had shown those qualities in humility through experience.  Living agapeic love is difficult.  Let me illustrate.  When Jesus was approaching Jerusalem just before his death, two of his disciples asked in secret for seats of honor; one on each side of Jesus.  When the other disciples heard of the secret request from the two disciples an argument sprang up among the Twelve each arguing they were greater than the other.  Jesus interrupted the argument and said, “11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12).  James was asking in his letter, “Who among you is the greatest servant of the others?”  If that is who you are, then that is wonderful, continue following your Lord, Jesus Christ.

However, James knew his readers and was aware that few if any of his readers were living a life of humility and agapeic love.  So, James offered an alternative view in verse 14.  James wrote, “14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.”  James had a simple view of life.  Either you were fully like Jesus or you were envious and selfish.  There was no middle ground.  James said of those who had envy and selfishness in their lives, “15 Such “wisdom” [such an attitude] does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”  I suspect he was called a lot of things in his time but the “life of the party” was probably not one of them.  James was blunt and James pointed out something we could easily miss.  James said that envy and selfishness, that type of wisdom or attitude, is earthly, unspiritual, and demonic.  James was not using three adjectives to describe the same condition.  James was describing the inevitable progression of envy and selfishness.  James’ point was that envy and selfishness is at first earthly, meaning we put on a façade, our relationships are superficial, we avoid people who offer conflict, we may be friendly but for the most part indifferent to the problems others face.  If left unchecked, uncorrected by God’s intervention, then our approach to life develops into that which is earthly and unspiritual.  We develop other priorities such as money.  We allow dishonesties to enter our life; small ones at first and then larger ones.  We avoid the truth.  We criticize the church and openly doubt the goodness of God.  If left unchecked, uncorrected by God’s intervention, then our approach to life that is earthly and unspiritual becomes demonic.  With demonic elements we want what we want when we want.  We seek attention, power, and greed.  We no longer care if we upset people; too bad, deal with it.  We are easily tempted.  We no longer even try to understand someone else view or experience. It does not matter.  They will just have to deal with us the way “God made us.”  Except God did not make us this way.  We chose this path and are following demonic leadings.  Envy and self-centeredness have a progression to them; earthly, unspiritual, and demonic.  To see that progression unfold in someone’s life is frightening and we want to intervene and change that person.  The truth is we cannot change someone who is on the progression toward demonic behavior. Only God can change that person.

This change away from earthliness, and unspiritual and demonic behaviors was James’ next point.  James wrote, “17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.”  James shows that wisdom from heaven, a transfusion from God, follows a progression and corrects what is earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. This progression and transformation occur when we first accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.  The transfusion of Christ, Jesus living within us, begins with purity, the very character of God.  The Apostle Paul said it this way, “17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18a).  With the purity of Jesus, we then become considerate meaning we want to just towards others and avoid being abusive.  We then become submissive toward the truth in God’s Word and we want to follow it.  We progress and acquire the desire to express mercy and to produce good fruit.  Our deeds are not self-centered, they are rich in agapeic love.  We care for those who are in need because doing so is good for them.  Finally, we understand the being impartial and sincere is the mark of a focused person.  We are no longer doubleminded being concerned about the things that concern God and being concerned about how the world see and respects us. We are devoted only to God and to a positive spiritual life from which flows a life lived like Christ.  The transfusion of Christ, the wisdom of God, brings us peace.

To be a peace with God, to be a peace with one another, to be a peacemaker is the Christian life.  Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Congratulations from God are in order for those who have taken God’s wisdom from heaven which is “first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17) for they shall be God’s children. James put Jesus words this way in the final verse of chapter 3 of the letter bearing James’ name.  “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18).  James’ final words form the basis for our Christian Ethics because peace and righteousness from God serve to inform our goals, duties, and the kind of person we want to be.

What do we do with James’ words which can be hard to hear? James’ words, like all of Scripture, are focused on life.  And because we can hear and read James’ words there is hope for renewal in our life.  Let me illustrate.  One time, two young men worshipped God.  One worshipped with purity and sincerity.  The other worshipped in an earthly and self-centered manner.  The one who worshipped with sincerity found peace with God.  His name was Abel.  The one who worshipped selfishly found no peace with God nor with Abel, who was his brother.  His name was Cain.  God could see the conflict within Cain.  God saw that Cain was acting in an earthly and unspiritual manner and so God intervened. God said to Cain, “Cain, why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:6-7).  God was offering to restore Cain and confirm upon Cain the acceptance of a loving father.  But Cain would have none of it.  Instead, Cain progressed from earthliness and being unspiritual to demonic.  Cain, in a rage of selfishness, lied to Abel and then murdered Abel.

God knows that each one of us is tempted to be earthly, unspiritual, and, yes, even demonic.  God offered to restore us and confirm upon us the acceptance of a loving father if we would just receive Jesus and live a life like Jesus lived; that is “first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere”  (James 3:17).  Jesus is the wisdom of God from heaven.  The questions then we need to ask ourselves is, “Have I received the wisdom of God through Jesus?”  If I have, am I using that wisdom to form my goals, determine my duties, and establish what kind of person I should be by living my life like Jesus lived?  If you have not received the wisdom of God through Jesus, then today is the day to ask God for that transfusion of Christ.  If you aren’t sure what that all means, let’s talk because I know that God wants each one of us here today to be known now and forever as children of God.  Let’s pray.