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07-05 - James - The Power of the Tongue

James 3:1-12

This past week, I received a box in the mail.  It was just an ordinary cardboard box.  My name and address were handwritten on the box as was the sender’s name and return address.  Some postage was placed on this box.  That was all that was needed for one postal employee after another to move the box hundreds of miles.  Those postal employees did not question themselves as to what was in the box; they simply moved it along.  All that was required to cause people to move the box along were some silent words handwritten on the outside of a cardboard box.  Words, simple words, have enormous power.

The box I received was from my brother.  He is four years older than me.  Inside the box was a very package carefully wrapped in thick white paper.  The wrapped item containing something soft and yet substantial.  Taped to the top of that wrapped package was a single sheet of paper.  It too had words on it.  The words were neatly typed into a letter.  Here are a few things my brother said.  “I’ve been meaning to send this flag to you from Dad’s funeral service for quite a while.”  My brother’s words immediately caused me to pause and not be in a hurry to remove the wrappings.  I still have not unwrapped the flag; I am not sure if I will.  My brother continued, “Honestly, just looking at this flag makes me get emotional.  All I can think about is a little boy with immigrant parents, who then loses his dad at a young age.  He grows up in a house where the other brothers and sisters all chip in to make ends meet.  He meets Mom, gets married in a catholic-episcopal merger (that must have been interesting) and soon after, he gets drafted and shipped off to fight for our country in a faraway place.  No email, no Instagram, no way to communicate back home while gone except for writing a letter, which could take a month or probably longer to receive.”  I will not now share with you other things my brother said because the sentiments in those words are just too personal and just too strong.  It felt good to receive what my brother had to say.  It reminded me of things about my father and taught me again that an ordinary cardboard box and an ordinary piece of paper with a few words have enormous power.  Some of you have been emotionally affected by what I have shared even though you never met my father or brother, or have seen that cardboard box, the neatly typed letter, or carefully wrapped flag.  You are affected because you have heard my words.  I think you will agree with me, words are enormously powerful and revealing.

בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים בְּרֵאשִׁית, (re'shiyth bara’ ‘elohiym):  “In the beginning, God created.”  With these powerful words, God began to reveal himself to us.  So important were God’s words that He caused humanity to memorialize what He said into what we now call the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament.  The words contained in those texts are unlike any other.  They are deep and rich with emotion, joy, sadness, struggle, and triumph. God’s words shaped people, nations, and destinies.  And as rich as the words of the Old Testament are, God sought to reveal Himself a more intimate way.  We read about His new revelation start this way, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.”  The He referred to here was Jesus and Jesus was called the Word because the words of Hebrew Scriptures that revealed the character of God were literally lifted off the page and made alive in the flesh.  The words of Scripture became flesh in Jesus. For this reason, at birth, Jesus’ was called Immanuel, God among us.

Jesus spoke and His words caused people to be healed of illness, blindness, deafness, and paralysis.  Jesus spoke and His words caused people to be raised from the dead. Jesus spoke and His words gave eternal life to those who would follow Him.  We are so impressed by the words Jesus spoke that many of us have Bibles in which the words of Jesus are shown in red lettering.  We recognize words are enormously powerful.

Jesus spoke to his disciples and cautioned them about the power of their words.  Jesus said, “21You 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 was term used by Jewish people to convey the person was emptyheaded or senseless.  Jesus’ point was to insult another was to murder their reputation and it was sinful.  Jesus knew the words of His disciples would speak in their day were enormously powerful. It remains true that the words we speak today as disciples of Jesus matter.

If fact, one of the things we should keep in mind is that those who accept Jesus as Lord and Savior are largely indistinguishable from their neighbors in the way they dress and their mannerisms except for one thing, the way we speak.  What made the early Christians different and what makes them different today was and is the understanding that their words about life are different than their non-believing neighbors.  Or at least, that is the way the words of a Christian should be.  It is that difference of Christians being guided by Christ that Jesus’ brother James went after in our New Testament reading today. James was not concerned about the way people dressed but he was concerned about the way they spoke to each other.  James was concerned about the power his readers had given to their tongues.

Listen to how James describes the effect of the tongue, the instrument of speech.  James wrote, “We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.  When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:2-6).  Many of you may have heard James’ words before.  I have.  But this time, the words that stood out to me and ring so true were the words that the tongue, “sets the whole course of one’s life on fire and is itself set on fire by hell.”  I have known and know some people who have or are presently setting their whole life on fire by what they say.  They are systematically destroying the very people and ideals they claim to love by what they are saying.  That is very sad.  And more than the destruction of their own mortal life to the distress of those that love them, they are, as James says, creating the conditions for eternity in which their tongues will be set on fire by hell.  James’ words may have their origins in a story Jesus once told of a rich man and a beggar.  In that story, the rich man is unnamed.  The beggar’s name was Lazarus.  Jesus said, “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 [In Hell], where he [the rich man] was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he [the rich man] called to him [Abraham], ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire’” (Luke 16:22-24).  The rich man’s eternal life and his tongue were in agony through the fire of hell ignited by words he chose to live by.  Words are enormously powerful in the present and for eternity.

James continued to get his readers to recognize the harm that comes from ungracious speech.  Verse 9, James wrote, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and saltwater flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water” (James 3:9-12). The ending James gave to his words were consistent with the tone of his entire letter.  “Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.”  James point was that if what comes out of the mouths of his readers was curses, then that reflects what is what spring within can produce.  If we curse others, then any praises we may utter to the Lord, to God, are as worthless as handing a cup of saltwater would be to a thirst person in need of fresh water. In Chapter 1, James said, “26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.”  In Chapter 2, James said, “ If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” In Chapter 2, James also said, “15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”  James is repeatedly hitting the point that our words matter and should distinguish us and reflect the holiness of Jesus.

James’ thoughts are not original to him.  James drew his understandings from the teachings of his brother, Jesus.  One day, Jesus was engaged in conversation with the religious leaders of the day who fought Jesus at every turn.  Jesus said, “33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 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 12:33-37).  Jesus was making plain, that our words reveal our inner convictions and that we will be held to account for the idle or unkindness words we speak. 

There are consequences to what we say.  In the book Through the Looking Glass, Alice found herself in Wonderland speaking with the Red Queen.  When Alice misspoke and tried to take back her words, the Red Queen said to Alice, “'It's too late to correct it, when you've once said a thing, that fixes it, and you must take the consequences.”  How many of us are living with scars from the things we have said that could never be fully taken back?  We know from personal experiences that words are enormously powerful, and we must use care in what we say.

What then are we to do with James’ words?  James said use your mouth and your words to praise our Lord and Father.  The apostle Paul said, “Bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:14).  Paul said, “Let your speech always be gracious” (Colossians 4:6).  “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up” (Ephesians 4:29).  “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1).  James’ point, echoed by Paul, who gathered their strength from Jesus was simple, “In the name of Christ, stop.”  Stop speaking curses upon one another, like the world does.  Instead, be different in your speech because you are different. Become quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.  Let this approach allow the Spirit of Christ living within you come and produce the fruit of blessings and not curses.  Let the Spirit of Christ living within you produce praise and not division.  Let the Spirit of Christ living within us steer our entire life away from the fire found in hell and toward the peace found in heaven.  James said, “no human being can tame the tongue” (James 3:7).  But the Spirit of Christ living within you can.

As Christians, your words and my words are enormously powerful, if we allow them to be powered by the Spirit of Christ.  If we do not allow Christ to power them, then they are at best worthless and in the worst case, powerfully destructive towards those we claim to love and to ourselves.  Today, let us begin a life spent with words that praise, bless, and enrich.  Amen and Amen.

06-28 - Faith & Deeds

James 2:14-26

We have been exploring the words of Jesus’ brother, James, through a letter James sent “to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (James 1:1b).  James’ letter referencing the “twelve tribes” suggests that the original readers of this letter were Jewish people, the twelve tribes, dispersed among the various nations of the Roman world who had come to believe in the message of hope that Jesus was the Messiah promised by God.  This was a wonderful development in God’s plan; people coming to faith.  And as wonderful as it was that people were coming to faith, James was concerned that these people were not saved.  How can that be?  Does not faith in Jesus as the Son of God mean that we are forgiven, made free, and saved?  Why “Yes” it does and “No” it does not.  Yes, having faith in Jesus as our Lord and Savior grants us salvation and eternal life. But James was concerned that the people had only accepted Jesus as an act of intellectual assent.  James was concerned the people of these churches only thought about Jesus as a fulfilment of God’s promises in Scripture and had not received Jesus as Lord of their life.  Let me offer an oversimplistic illustration.  I can believe that 4 plus 4 equals 8.  I know that in my mind but knowing that fact changes nothing about my character, my ethics, my relationships with other people, my desire to express compassion, my soul, or my destiny.  I simply believe 4 plus 4 equals 8.  If I treat my belief in Jesus in a similar manner, that is I only believe Jesus was a historical figure, even sent by God, to teach and perform miraculous signs as the Messiah until he was killed, then nothing changes about my character, my ethics, and my destiny.  I have not believed in the Biblical sense of believing.  The Biblical sense of believing encompasses and changes my  mind, body, and spirit.

If I only ever mentally accept Jesus, or his teachings, then “No” that sort of belief, that sort of faith, does not lead to salvation.  C. S. Lewis, a 20th century Christian writer once observed, “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him [Jesus]: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to” (Mere Christianity).

James was addressing the same issue C. S. Lewis talked about. James was concerned that some people in these congregations were living out their beliefs of mental acceptance of Jesus, an intellectual faith, which was in other words “practical atheism.”  Practical atheism is a faith in Jesus that does not transform the person and thus they are not saved.

James offered a test of sorts for these people, his readers, to take so that they could gauge for themselves whether their faith in Jesus was just intellectual or genuine leading to salvation.  He started at Chapter 2, verse 14.  James wrote, “14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?”  James offered that intellectual faith cannot save anyone.  Only a genuine faith that encompassed the mind, body, and spirit could save someone and that there would be easily identifiable evidence of that faith expressed through deeds.  An intellectual faith could be secretive and hidden but a genuine faith cannot be hidden. A genuine faith would be evident through the deeds and actions.  And so, James asked, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?”  This is a rhetorical question in which the answer is such faith is not going to save anyone.

Where did James acquire such thoughts?  James’ source was, of course, his brother, Jesus.  One day, crowds were coming toward Jesus.  Jesus gathered his disciples and they, together with the crowds, moved up on the hillside.  There Jesus sat down and began to teach.  Among the things Jesus said were these words, “14 You are the light of the world.  A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.  Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).  Jesus’ point was that genuine faith is like a light in the darkness.  The darkness cannot hide the light and that everyone can see it.  In the same way, our faith expressed through the performance of good deeds lets others know that God is part of us, and they see that God is glorified through our actions. In this sermon on the hillside, Jesus offered his disciples and the crowds a positive expression of how deeds reveals our faith.

We learn the same lesson about deeds in a completely opposite way at the scene of the crucifixion.  Jesus was crucified with two criminals, one on each side of him.  One of the criminals hurled insults at Jesus.  “40 But the other criminal rebuked him [the insulter].  ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’”  This criminal was making clear that his deeds expressed an outworking of his beliefs and that his own deeds were deserving of death.  The criminal saw that Jesus expressed an outworking of his beliefs and that Jesus’ deeds were deserving of life.  Biblical belief in Jesus, that is believing in mind, body, and spirit will cause us to express an outworking of our beliefs with deeds that are deserving of life.  With an active faith, we move from death to life, which is the very meaning of salvation.

So James had a good foundation from which to open this topic of faith and deeds when he wrote, “14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?  15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:14-17).  James gave us this painful example of dead faith.  He supposed an encounter with another believer in Christ who is without clothes and without food.  And the response is, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed.”  This is a response empty of heart.  It is shocking and cruel.  James minces no words.  Faith expressed in such a manner is dead.  When we think of something as dead, we think of it as no longer having life.  The sense James was conveying is slightly different.  Faith without action was dead in that it was “never alive.”  It is not that the light has gone out, it is that the light was never lit. We might think to ourselves, “I would never be so cold and heartless to a member of my church who is without food or clothing.  I would give them something to wear and something to eat.”  But what about the member whose love one dies, do we do more than send a card or offer a “I’m sorry?”  What about the member who cares for a sick family member at home and is now rarely seen? Do we bring a meal to make to burden lighter?  My point is not to compile a long list of things we could be doing for one another.  My point is that we should not assume James’ specific illustration of a heatless response to the needs of another does not more generally apply to us.

The Apostle John expressed this idea in this manner, “If we claim to have fellowship with him [If we claim to believe in Jesus] and yet walk in the darkness [without his light within us], we lie and do not live out the truth” (1 John 1:6).  John’s point was that faith in Jesus, genuine belief in Jesus, must be lived out in a manner like Jesus not because we are obligated to do so but because we must.  We must because John could not imagine a life lived in another way.  Moreover, John and James wanted their readers to know that consistent Christian living has the power to draw others towards the kingdom of God and that an inconsistent Christian life repels people from the kingdom.  We become a stumbling block to others.

As we return to James, we see that James was no one’s fool.  He knew his words would spark some disagreement.  Beginning in verse 18, James dealt with the disagreement.  “18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”  Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.  20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?”  James then offers two examples of faith and deeds together as a unity.  James’ first example is that of Abraham, the founder of the Hebrew people and for the Jews a man of unquestioned and unquestionable character.  James asked, “21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions [deeds] were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”  For the Jewish people, now believers in Jesus, at least intellectually, seeing the example of Abraham combining faith and actions would be compelling.  Jews would welcome having their life favorable comparison to the likes of Abraham.

For James’ second example, James goes a completely different direction from the faith of Abraham.  James selected a woman named Rahab.  When we first meet Rehab (Joshua 2:1) in the Bible, we see she is a woman of questionable reputation because she was a prostitute.  Rahab was living in the city of Jericho, a city under the control of the Canaanites.  Rahab was not Hebrew.  Yet, she offered comfort, protection, mercy, hospitality, and faith to Hebrew spies sent to Jericho in advance of an attack by the Hebrew armies.  Rahab gave testimony to the goodness and greatness of God with her words and the strength of her faith through her actions to safeguard the Hebrew spies.  James used Rahab in his second example of the unity of faith and deeds.  He wrote, “25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?” James 2:25).  Rahab was faithful in her words and actions.  And so, James offered two seemingly unmatched bookends with Abraham and Rahab as model examples of the unity of faith and action. Yet, as different as Abraham and Rahab appeared, they were similar because their faith informed their actions and they demonstrated their faith.  In using unmatched bookends for his examples, James made clear that we can all find ourselves somewhere in that spectrum between prostitute and patriarch.  Thus, James’ message of faith applies to us.

James then concluded, “26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”  The spirit, the very breath giving life, must be present to energize and show evidence the body is alive.  No breath, no life.  So too, are deeds the evidence of a body alive in Christ.  No deeds, no life.

What then do we do with James’ teaching?  James’ words should make us free and make us alive.  James’ words should reinforce to us that Jesus did not say to us, “Pick up your cross and sit right there!”  Jesus said, “Follow me!”  To be in Christ, to be saved by Christ is to be free, alive, and as active in following him as our mind, body, and spirit are capable.  If you are a believer in Jesus, then you want to be obedient to Him. If you are obedient to Him, then you are a believer.  Belief and obedience are two sides of the same coin.  As far as I know, there is no one sided coin.  Obedience precedes faith and obedience is a consequence of faith. Each of us should examine our lives in view of James’ words and immediately look for those opportunities to express our faith in action and service in the name of Jesus, our Savior and giver of life. Amen and Amen. 


06-21 - James on Favoritism

James 2:1-13

The past few weeks we have been exploring the Book of James and how the words of the New Testament guide and inform us how to live amid the chaos and churn of our present day.  We learned that we cannot be doubleminded in our thinking; that is, we cannot lean on our own understanding and human wisdom.  James said that we need to turn to God and ask for His wisdom to deal with the trials of life and that in doing so our experiences are changed because we are changed.  With God’s wisdom, trying experiences do not defeat or deplete us because through them we are made more and more into the image and likeness of Jesus.  James said to be more like Jesus is pure joy. Secondly, we learned that joy comes to us when we take that image, that reflection of Jesus within us, and live out God’s Word by our actions.  To do that, we must be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.  In our calmness and self-control, the very image of Jesus, then our efforts to serve those who are most vulnerable is seen properly as God working through us.  Our actions with God then appear as light in the darkness, mercy for those in need, and is strikingly seen as love amid the swirling winds of hate.   That sort of “religion,” James said God accepts as sees as pure and faultless.

Today, we want to continue to explore James’ practical teachings for a Christian life with an understanding of favoritism.  The subject of favoritism is literally burning across our country today.  Favoritism, according to the dictionary, is “the practice of giving unfair preferential treatment to one person or group at the expense of another.”  Favoritism when practiced by an individual can be a painful experience for the person disadvantaged.  In my work with abused and neglected children, I saw firsthand the destructive power of favoritism expressed by parents toward one child at the expense of the wellbeing of another.  The neglected child always struggled for acceptance, to feel unloved, and often sought validation of their worth in harmful ways such as alcohol, drugs, or risky sexual activities.  Favoritism is not enhancing, it is destructive.  James wrote in Chapter 2, verse 1, “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.”  Christians should have no part of personal favoritism.

Now, in the collective, favoritism is indistinguishable from prejudice where one group is favored over another group.  Prejudice or systemic favoritism is part of the national shouting match that is going on right now.  I call it a shouting match and not a dialogue because it appears that everyone is speaking as loud as they can, and no one is listening.  The media is doing its part to foster division among us because keeping people outraged makes for good news.  For example, hardly a day goes by that there are not several incendiary stories about the Black Lives Matter movement or organization.  I am not going to comment on Black Lives Matter except to note that the media tends to present stories about that group in such a way as to almost add a word to the group’s name.  Instead of “Black Lives Matter,” the media fosters a sense of “Only Black Lives Matter.”  This sense exclusivity, of course, leads to others openly saying, “All Lives Matter,” and the shouting begins.  If the media felt compelled to add a word to Black Lives Matter, perhaps it would be better to foster the sense that “Black Lives Matter Too.”  With the addition of this sense of disparity, it becomes clear our dialogue ought to be about the fact that under God all of us are equal and that there must not be favoritism.

The early Christian Church was not stranger to favoritism and wrestled with disparity within the church.  The apostles saw the destructive nature of favoritism and promptly addressed it.  In the Book of Acts, Chapter 6, we read, “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. [There was favoritism and one group of Christians complained that their widows mattered too.] 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together.”  The church met and acknowledged the disparity and put together a plan that resolved the issue.  What was the result of ending the favoritism?  We see in verse 7 of Chapter 6, “7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”  When we are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger and with God’s wisdom we end favoritism, great things can happen.

James was addressing a similar issue of favoritism in the early church outside of the confines of Jerusalem.  James wrote, “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.”  A more accurate translation of the sense James was conveying might sound like, “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must [STOP SHOWING} favoritism.”  James was confronting a real issue not a hypothetical problem.  James confronted the matter head on starting in verse 2.  “2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in.”  I want to pause here just for a moment to make sure we do not read past an important word.  James set the stage for this story by making the scene a meeting among Christians who are gathered to share in the good news of the gospel, to enjoy the love feast of the Lord’s Supper, and fellowship with one another.  We call this church.  It is in this setting and this set of expectations that two men enter.  One wearing gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes.  In that setting, James continued, “3 If you show special attention [during this time of worship and fellowship] to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” James was pointing out the historic favoritism given to people of wealth over the poor by all organizations including, in this case, the early Christian Church.  Moreover, the affront is committed in full view of all who are gathered for the expressed purpose of hearing the gospel message and experiencing fellowship.  If Christians will openly show favoritism toward the rich in worship, then what would be their response when in a private setting?  A few verses earlier, James cautioned Christians, “26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:26-27).  We think of controlling our tongues as not speaking in anger alone.  Here, James’ example was the tongue of this host at a time of worship had made the “religion” worthless by showing favoritism toward the wealthy man.

Compare for a moment the scene James painted of favoritism of the rich with the earliest example of church we have from the Book of Acts.  “42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 4:42-47).  There was no favoritism and God prospered the church.

Over a short period of time, the church experienced favoritism at least toward the rich that James was seeking to correct.  Why would the host of this meeting give favor the rich?  Because the rich can contribute significant amounts of money. The poor cannot.  Because the rich can contribute more we equate their greater giving with greater faith, greater depth of commitment, and greater standing before God than the poor.  One day, “41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.  43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on’” (Mark 12:41-44).  Jesus saw the purity of the heart in the giving and declared the small offering greater than all the riches giving by the wealthy people because the widow gave to the depth of her existence and she saw her giving as joyful.

James picked up on Jesus’ theme in verse 5.  “5 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? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?” The point of James’ letter was that we dishonor people when we show favoritism.  It is wrong.  It is destructive and as we will see, favoritism within or by a Christian or within the Christian community is a sin before God.  That is how significant favoritism is to God.

James made the point of favoritism and sin this way beginning in verse 8, “8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right.  [So far so good.] 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” Favoritism necessarily breaks the law of loving your neighbor because to show favoritism means you love one and you do not love the other.

 Now James hits this subject of sin hard.  He wanted his readers to understand that they cannot see breaking the law in this one regard, favoritism, and keeping it elsewhere, as acceptable.  James said, “10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker” (James 2:10-11). Here is a practical way to think about what James was saying.  Suppose you are cutting the grass at your home.  As the lawnmower blades are whirling at highspeed, the blades strike a small stone sending it out the grass shoot and straight at your neighbor’s oversized window.  You flinch. Then you heard a loud “crack” sound, a noise you hoped you would not hear.  You shutoff your mower and go over and see that the stone hit that beautiful window and put a hole in the bottom corner of the window, about the size of a dime. You ring the doorbell and inform your neighbor what has happened, and you offer to compensate your neighbor for the damage.  Your neighbor informs you it is a specially made window and it will cost you $1,000. You tell your neighbor to hold on. You only put a small hole in the window the size of a dime, perhaps 1% of the total area of the window.  The cost of 1% of the window would be only $10 but you are willing to be generous and pay double that amount, $20.  Your neighbor points out, you did not break 1% of the window.  You broke the window.  This is the point James was making.  James was saying we cannot say we broke only 1% of the law.  When we sin, we break the whole law because the law is singular, like a window.  The law is not made up of 100 - 1% pieces; it is made up of one single unbroken piece.

James then concluded his thought this way.  “12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:12-13).  James made two key points about our personal behavior.  He said we should speak and act always as though we were going to be judged in that very moment by God against the standard of breaking one part of the law breaks the entire law.  James said that with this attitude before God we have the freedom to always do the right thing because our motives would be those of God and not our own alone.  James understood this principle in a unique way. He was Jesus’ brother and repeated saw the peace and freedom Jesus had to speak and act in accordance with God’s will even when others, including James, were trying desperately for Jesus act in accordance with their will.  We must act in accordance with God’s will; that is a freeing experience.

James’ second point is that freedom to act in God’s presence will result in us extending mercy and not judgment.  James was reiterating Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the merciful [Congratulations are in order for the merciful], for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).  And twice Jesus reiterated words from the Old Testament passage, “I desire mercy” (Matthew 9:13, 12:7).  Mercy is a gift that binds and heals wounds.  Mercy is ours to give and receive in greater amounts.

Our role as Christians is to speak and act to create a sense of sanctuary wherever we are individually or as the collected church.  We should speak and act without favoritism and always towards the celebration of life.  We should speak and act with freedom knowing that it is God who will judge our conduct immediately in the moment and for eternity.  When faced with uncertainty, we should speak and act with mercy that restores and heals all wounds.  Our role as Christians may not be the easiest path to travel.  But then it was not easy for our Savior Jesus.  He has been down the road we travel; we need only follow Him. This week let’s remember each person we meet matters too, and we should reflect to them the love of Christ that resides within us. Amen and Amen.

06-14 - Listen and Doing

Psalm 123

James 1:13-27

            Last week, we spoke from the Book of James about doublemindedness; that condition of choosing to see the world through our own understand instead of seeking God’s wisdom.  James said that those who are doubleminded are unstable in all they do. James encouraged us to seek God, so that our minds would be made clear and we would become empowered to imitate Jesus in all we say and do.  With God’s wisdom, we can make the right choices because we are guided by the right reason. 

            Right reasoning seems missing today.  A poet once satirically observed the behavior of a society without belief in right reason followed this prescription.  He wrote:

“We believe that man is essentially good.  It’s only his behavior that lets him down.  This is the fault of society.  Society is the fault of conditions.  Conditions are the fault of society.

We believe that each man must find the truth that is right for him.  Reality will adapt accordingly.  The universe will readjust.  History will alter. 


We believe that there is no absolute truth excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth. We believe in the rejection of creeds, And the flowering of individual thought.”


And then the poet added this postscript reflecting the result of this thinking.  He wrote:


“If chance be the Father of all flesh, disaster is his rainbow in the sky and when you hear:  State of Emergency!  Sniper Kills Ten!  Troops on Rampage!  Mobs go Looting!  It is but the sound of man worshipping his maker.”


The postscript is the very definition of life lived without right reason and without the wisdom and presence of God.  From the Book of James, we heard James make this same point in this manner.  “13 When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:13-15).  Acts of evil do not come from God, they are simply an expression of man worshipping his maker.

The good news though is that with God, we are more able to see ourselves as part of the larger context of humanity stretching through the whole course of history.  With God, we can see that each person truly is made in the image of God.  With God, we understand better the destructiveness of sinful thinking and behaviors.  With God, we come to realize why Jesus, God coming in the flesh, was the decisive act of God in history and that only God is capable of freeing humanity from the effects of sin.  Redemption then from sin, is only possible with God.  Redemption is God’s decision for humanity to transform lives and the world to what was intended by God.  But that redemption is not just about an abundant and peaceful life on earth, it is about destiny with God now and forevermore.  And so, the resurrection of Jesus assures Christians that making the right choices now is meaningful not just in the present but for the immediate future and for all of time.  Creation, sin, incarnation, redemption, and the resurrection are themes God revealed through the Old Testament and Jesus fulfilled and are described in the New Testament.  Last week, James began his discussion of these themes by encouraging us to seek God first, then assess everything else in our life from the posture of being in God’s presence and surrounded by His love.  In this posture, we can find fulfilment and happiness.

I read the other day some words from Augustine, a brilliant Christian writer from the 4th century, whose words still shape much of the thinking of the western world believed that there were two conditions necessary for happiness, peace, and contentment. The first, is that whatever we pursue in life must be the highest good and be more complete than anything else. The second condition is that that highest good would have to be something that could not be lost or taken away. Augustine concluded only God through Jesus Christ met these two conditions.  Other things in life may be good, but they are not the highest good. Other things in life may be good to have, but they could all be taken away.  Augustine was affirming what Jesus said, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). This is first condition.  Jesus also said, “And this is the will of him [God] who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day” (John 6:33).  This is the second condition.  From our reading earlier today, James encouraged us all to see what happens when we follow these conditions.  James wrote, “16 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (James 1:16-18).  Everything good will come from God and in that, God never changes.  He has given us birth, new life, through his word of truth, which is the Bible and his living word, His son, Jesus.  Neither good nor God’s Word can be taken from us, and yet both can be thrown away if we wish.  James was saying that we must not be deceived into believing that humanity can go it alone and be successful.  Do not throw away God, otherwise you will end up worshipping your maker who is marked by violence, lies, division, and chaos.

Now, James’ words speak on a grand scale of God, Jesus, creation, sin, incarnation, redemption, and the destiny of the resurrection and seeking God first.  But how do we practically live in this manner? What steps must we take?  James turns his attention to those very questions.

James wrote, “19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:20-21).  Think about James’ words for a moment.  “Everyone should be quick to listen.”  We must be immediately ready to listen but not with the intention of responding but with the intention of listening.  First, we need to listen to God through his word.  If we do not read the Bible, if you do not hear God’s word proclaimed through the church, and if you do not pray, then how can we hear God? God once told the Apostles Peter, James, and John.  Jesus was His Son and that they must “Listen to him.”  We must listen first to God and then with God’s wisdom we can begin to properly listen to one another.  Listening is sorely needed today.  Then when we have listened, James said we should be slow to speak.  We should measure our words towards one another in view of our relationship to God.  We should be asking ourselves, “How will my words reflect on my relationship with God? Will my words reflect the love I have for God and for the person I am speaking with?”  We, Christians, should concentrate on expressing the distinctive truth that lets us stand apart from what everyone seems to believe to be true of human nature.  Finally, James said we need to keep our anger in check.  Anger is a secondary emotion; meaning anger is an expression of something else going on.  Anger may come because we are frustrated, hurt, or confused by a trial or a trying person.  An angry outburst, James said, does not reveal God within us and does not achieve what God desires. 

Being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger is necessary for our relationship with God.  What must we do to have this posture before God?  James said, “21 Get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent [worldliness] and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you [God’s wisdom].  [But] 22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do” (James 1:21-25). James moved from simply meditating on God’s word or reading the Bible or being in prayer.  Now, James gave rise to the Nike shoe branding, “Just Do It!”  We must act consistent with the thinking we have been given by God.  We are two beings in one.  We are spirit and flesh.  In the spirit, we can listen to God and in the flesh, we can still choose to do what we know is wrong.

The Apostle Paul shared with us the battle between spirit and the flesh. Paul wrote, “15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do… For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it” (Romans 7:15, 18b-20).

James was saying we must let go of the past ways of doing things and be willing to embrace in action living that imitates Jesus.  Otherwise, we are no different than someone who looks in the mirror, gets a good look at themselves, walks away from the mirror and has no idea what they look like anymore.  There are a couple of ways to think about James’ analogy of the mirror.  The one I favor is James was saying, “We look in the mirror and we see the reflection of Jesus Christ.  We see that God’s Word has been received into our mind and we are at peace. We like that image and feel close to God.  Then we turn from the mirror and begin doing whatever we want whether in anger, or lust, or greed, or brutishness, or gossip, or sowing division. We have forgotten the image we once reflected, and we present Jesus as sinful and ugly.  What on earth are we doing?  James said though that congratulations are in order for those of us who do not forget the image of Christ present within us and have the desire and strength of character to present that image to others as we do the tasks of life, whether mundane or noble.  When we get in the habit of making the right and righteous choices based upon the word of God, based upon the completed work of Jesus, then we acquire congratulations from God.

James then completed his immediate thought on personal actions of being quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, and remembering that God within us has become our outward reflection.  He said, “26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.”  James will have more to say about our tongue or instrument of speech.  But it is important to distinguish what James was saying to religious people, like you and me.  He wasn’t saying, “When you are religious…” or “When you are preaching…” or “When you are assembled in church…” then it is important that you choose your words carefully.  James assumes that our “planned language,” will be suitable.  When we plan to be religious, then our speech generally is alright.  What James was getting at here was that we must not be deceived.  Our language, what we say and how we say it, in our unguarded moments, in our unplanned or unscripted conversations is more revealing about who we are and what we believe than our planned conversation.  We must recognize that the setting we find ourselves can alter what we say and how we say it.

A short illustration may help here.  To put James’ words into context, we need to think about the difference between a thermometer and a thermostat.  A thermometer we know is an instrument that measures temperature.  You can take a kitchen thermometer and place it in a hot oven and the thermometer will change to become the same temperature as the oven. Remove the instrument from the oven and place it in the refrigerator and the thermometer is happy to change again to the same temperature as the refrigerator.  James was warning us, religious people, not to allow our tongue to be like that thermometer by changing what we say to fit the environment in which we find ourselves; that is don’t change to locker room language just because you are in the locker room.  Do not allow yourself to adjust to the environment and adopt the standards of others.  Where does the thermostat come in?  A thermostat is useful instrument because a thermostat can change the temperature of the environment.  When a thermostat is engaged to change the temperature of an area guess what happens? All the thermometers in that environment will change to match the actions of the thermostat.  We can be a thermostat by our presence in any environment and cause the thermometers, that is other people, to change.  Meaning what we say in all conditions, guarded and unguarded will cause others to change to what we, as believers, set.  We would then be sharing the proper perspective as religious people.  James said that religion, “27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). Our language and our actions bring about peace and hope to others.  Our local missional activities to support the most vulnerable in our community cause others to see the God or at least righteousness.  Some people see that our words and behavior are congruent, and they seek God in their life.  Other just see our words and behaviors, still reject God, but they imitate us by joining efforts to help the vulnerable in our community.  Either way, all are changed by our words and behaviors just like all thermometers change at the action of the thermostat.  So, are you a thermometer or a thermostat?

James was calling his readers to listen carefully to the word of God.  Speak slowly and purely when words are needed and always to act with grace and not in anger.  James wanted his readers to understand that such a life is possible and peaceful when we put God first.  Our Old Testament psalmist today wrote, “1 I lift up my eyes to you, to you who sit enthroned in heaven” (Psalm 123). Keeping our eyes on God through Jesus Christ brings us into a peaceful understanding of our place in God’s creation, the destructiveness of sin, the grace revealed by God through Jesus, the redemption from sin that Jesus brought and bought, and the destiny of eternity. When we keep our eyes on God, then we no longer forget who we look like and we will be congratulated by God for sharing in his desires for humanity.  Let’s pray this week that our eyes remain focused and our words few and our actions righteous.  Amen and Amen.

06-07 - Doublemindedness

Proverbs 3:3-8

James 1:1-12

“Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.”[1] 

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”[2]

These are the words of the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  We need to hear Dr. King’s words today.  We need men like Dr. King today.  We need people with the singular mindset that Dr. King embodied in thoughts, words, and actions of peace dedicated to the proposition that all of us are created in the image of God and therefore are equals in all regard.  This past week, we have been witnesses, again, to dramatic violence across the country.  The violence from the first death in Minneapolis to the latest in other cities has been wrought by people who believe they have the right to inflict violence upon one another for no good reason at all or for reasons they may think as noble.  Those who initiated such violence and those who perpetuate it lack the single mindedness of Dr. King.  They who are violent are doubleminded people.  They who do violence are confused believing brute force is an instrument of justice and a weapon of peace.

At the heart of it all, this doublemindedness, particularly expressed through violence, is godlessness. Doublemindedness is an assumption that we understand the world better than does God and, therefore, God is rejected. You cannot love God and hate your neighbor.  That is a rejection of God.  God’s word from Proverbs today said to us, “5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; 6 in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.  7 Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil” (Proverbs 3:5-7).  God is saying even when your heart is pounding within you with strong emotions to set the world right as you see it, do not yield to those emotions.  Instead, trust in God.  Follow His ways through the chaos, pain, and confusion.  When we go our own way, we necessarily have rejected God in favor of our own understanding.  We are doubleminded when we choose to make our own mind to be different from God’s mind. Instead of seeking to conforming our mind to His and become one with His, we seek our own ways.

Our New Testament reading today comes from James, the brother of Jesus, a man who was once doubleminded.  At one time, James did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God.  In fact, in Chapter 3 of the Gospel of Mark we learn that James chose to believe that Jesus was delusional, out of his own mind.  James believed Jesus was mentally or emotionally disturbed in some manner. So, James, along with his other brothers and their mother Mary, sought to take Jesus into custody for Jesus’ own good. James was rejecting Jesus and Jesus’ claims and teachings.  Then one day, Jesus was killed on the cross and buried in a tomb.  James thought the life of his troubled brother was over. But then James was shocked into a new reality.  James encountered the resurrected Jesus and James believed.  James lay aside his doubleminded nature and became single minded. James believed in Jesus completely, and became a strong advocate for the Gospel message.  So, James knows what he is talking about when he speaks of being doubleminded and single minded.  To the person who is doubleminded, James said they are “unstable in all they do” (James 1:9).

            We can learn much from James’ experience for living life in the current days amid COVID-19, the offenses of the Minneapolis police officers, the rioting, and the chaos.  James began sharing his experience through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit with these words from Chapter 1, verse 2.  “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).  James started his conversation in a difficult spot calling his readers to see trials, unwelcomed and unexpected hardships, as a joyful experience.  James’ words seem absurd and cannot be lived out in our own thinking.  None of us natural welcome trails and ordeals of life as an opportunity for joy.  Our own thinking is that we will do most anything to live pain free.  Consider the example of a headache.  We do not want to experience that pain, so we take Tylenol or Advil to make the pain go away.  If we encounter some who tries our patience by being argumentative, so we stop talking to them.  We make the pain go away.  Avoidance of pain and trails and difficulties is the nature of our culture and we do not call even the easiest of trials a joyful experience.  James’ point though is that trials, rather than being something to avoid are to be embraced not for having them, but for the change they will make within us.  James saw the trails of his brother Jesus, including rejection, humiliation, betrayal, desertion, flogging, and crucifixion.  And through all these trials, Jesus remained single minded and steadfast in the will of God and Jesus experienced the joy of union with His Father.  Jesus’ union with God, that single mindedness, introduced hope into each hardship and difficult experience. James was saying that the joy found in embracing trials of life is that in the process of going through them, we are brought closer to God and come more like Jesus.  Coming closer to God colors our life with hope even into the darkest of moments.  If we truly desire to be more like Jesus, then suffering and trials cannot be avoided because they are the undesired but necessary part of shaping us into the image of Christ.

            Let me share with you a power illustration of this type of thinking. The other day, my wife and I watched an episode of Family Feud with host Steve Harvey.  On the show that day was a contestant named Wesley Hamilton.  Wesley was confined to a wheelchair.  In a brief conversation between Wesley and Mr. Harvey, Wesley commented about being in a wheelchair.  He began paralyzed from the waist down after being shot.  Wesley said that he had the occasion to meet the man who had shot him resulting in Wesley’s inability to walk.  Wesley said in his conversation with this man, Wesley thanked the man.  Mr. Harvey was taken aback and said, “Why would you thank the man who shot you?” Wesley’s reply was, “Unless I had been shot, I would not be the man I have become.”  Pause and let that sink in for a moment.  The continuing trial of having been shot and now paralyzed, opened doors to Wesley’s life that would have remained closed if not for being shot. The most notable door opened to him was the power of forgiveness.  Wesley had chosen to embrace his difficulties with joy for the single mindedness he was now experiencing.  I think everyone would agree Wesley’s thinking is not natural.  Some would say his thinking is delusional, but James would say Wesley’s thinking is supernatural and colored with hope.

            Wesley discovered that the wisdom from God, wisdom, the mind of God, is necessary to make it through trying experiences.  James continued in his letter and said, “If any of you lacks wisdom [on how to get through such trials], you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.  But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.  That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.  Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do” (James 1:5-8).  We can only get through the trials of life by choosing to bring our situation to God and ask for His wisdom, that is to have the mind of God, so that we can proceeding through our trials.  If we try to go through difficulties on our own, then we are but a piece of driftwood upon the ocean that is tossed and blown about by the wind and waves.  Without God’s wisdom we would be a person who is perpetually restless and wandering from event to event seeking relief from our discomfort, often in self-destructive ways.  Without God’s wisdom, we would be a person who allows themselves to be driven by forces other than the Holy Spirit.  Without God’s wisdom, we would be that person who cannot maintain a direction in life and towards life.  This is what it means to be doubleminded.

            James continued and brought in some additional contrasts between single minded people with the wisdom of God and those who are doubleminded.  James wrote in verse 9, “Believers [those who claim Christ] in humble circumstances [meaning those going through trials] ought to take pride in their high position [the elevation of your life to being brought closer to Jesus].  But the rich [non-believer focused on the world] should take pride in their humiliation [their future without God] — since they will pass away like a wildflower.  For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.  [But] Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him”  (James 1:9-12).  James was drawing a contrast that pursuing God in amid difficulties with a single-minded determination leads to perseverance and preservation of your spirit and to life.  But being doubleminded and separated from God leads to humiliation, withering, fading, and eventually destruction.  James concluded with the words, “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him”  (James 1:12).  James’ language makes clear that perseverance in a trial leads to a reversal of circumstances.  Trials are expected to deplete our life.  James said trials, taken with the wisdom of God, does not deplete us but brings us the crown of life.  James’ language also makes us think about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where Jesus used the word “Blessed.”  Blessed here is an expression of happiness, almost a congratulatory expression.  In that vein, James was saying, “Congratulations is in order for the one who perseveres under trial because they have received life with the Lord.”  Listen to how James’ words of joy and reversal of trial find their origin in Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Do you hear the congratulations in those words and the reversal of expected outcomes?  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:5-10). Congratulations to those who follow God, for you shall be richly rewarded and the ordeal of your trials is reversed.

            How do we make all this fit into our lives today and the circumstances that confront us?  On the large scale of life, we are surrounded in an ocean of strong emotions each seeking to pull and push others to achieve their own purposes.  Those who inflict violence on others regardless of their motives have done so without seeking God.  They are like that driftwood upon the sea being tossed about by the strongest emotion they encounter.  We are free to join them and float along for the ride.  On a more intimate level, we are all experiencing personal trials and hardships.  You know the ones that are affecting you the most.  In many ways, those challenges of life can make us feel as powerless as driftwood upon the sea.  We might feel as though at this moment we are simply being blown along by the strongest force, the strongest personality, that is working against us.  We feel powerless because we are trying to experience this difficulty in our own strength, with our own mind.  We are free to do that and float along for the ride.

            But James said there is another way for believers. He said cast aside our doublemindedness because it will only lead to us being unstable in all we do.  Instead, take these hardships whether they are the circumstances of the nation or of our own personal life and expose them to the wisdom of God.  Go to God with honesty that we may present ourselves to God without fear of condemnation for what we have been thinking or experiencing.  Allow God to make His mind, his wisdom, known to you and see how through theses experiences He will make you more like his Son, Jesus.  Let God become your anchor in the stormy seas that surround you and hear and experience the congratulations He will send your way.  What James calls for is not delusional thinking, but it is supernatural thinking. Reverend King tried it and a nation moved.  Less than 24 hours before his death, Dr. King said, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop … I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”  Dr. King was anchored to the wisdom of God and so was blessed and happy to know the love and light of God.  We too can know God and be equally blessed.  Amen and Amen.

[1] Struggle for Equality: Quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr.                 

[2]  Martin Luther King Jr. (1967). Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?. p. 67.


05-31 - Meaning Amid COVID

2 Samuel 12:15-20

Romans 8:31-39

We are now completing about three months of a pause in the normal rhythms of life because of the impact of the COVID-19 virus. The most significant impact of the virus has been measured in a mixture of emotions: sadness and gratitude.  Sadly, 100,000 of our fellow citizens have died from this virus and gratefully, that number was only 100,000 and not the 2 million or more deaths as initially projected.  There have been an abundant number of additional lesser impacts to our life.  The very fact that we are using our website and Zoom to meet is just further evidence of the existence of this virus and changes it has made in the way we interact with one another.  Today, I wanted us to spend time exploring the meaning we can find for our lives amid the many challenges of COVID-19.

            I wanted to start us off today with just a few thoughts to set the scene.  All of us have been talking and listening to conversation about the COVID-19 virus with ever greater intensity for the last five months.  We have all watched a daily press briefing by the President or the Governor as well as the seemingly endless number of “experts” sharing their predictions and insights into this virus.  And despite all the words, all the charts, and all the graphs there remains for most ordinary people some simple truths that have not changed in these last 5 months. The simple truths include that a virus is circulating among us.  The truth is that virus is invisible to our eye, it is odorless, and it is tasteless. The virus makes no sound at its coming and we cannot feel the virus should it be on our skin.  The truth is this virus is beyond our sensory perceptions. And yet, despite our inability to sense this virus on our own, we believe it exists.  We do so because of the testimony of others and the evidence of virus’ effect on others.

            Because we do believe in the existence of this unsensed virus, we necessarily assign meaning to it within our life.  Think about that statement for a moment.  We have been assigning meaning to this virus within the context of our lives. You might be thinking, I do not think I have assigned meaning to this virus.  I can assure you that we both have.  Why am I so confident we have done so?  I am confident because we assign meaning to everything in our life.  We are always putting an interpretation onto events and the things people say to us and then we assigning meaning. 

Let me offer a trivial example.  Let us say we wake up in the morning and it is raining. If we were a farmer, and it was rainy, we would say, “It’s a nice day.”  If we had a picnic planned for the day, we see the rain, and we would say, “It’s a lousy day.”  We put an interpretation onto events and those interpretations give rise to our reactions to those events.  Allow me, if you will to say that again.  We interpret events in our life and our interpretations give rise to our reactions to those events.  We are always interpreting, always reacting, always assigning meaning.

            I have given a trivial example of a rainy day in which one person, the farmer, interpreted the experience as a nice day by seeing the rain and expressing gratitude.  The other person, desiring a picnic, interpreted the same rainy day as lousy, and became sad. Same event, same circumstances, with two interpretations and two different reactions.  On a most serious note, I said at the outset that our reaction to the worst news of the COVID-19 virus has been a mixture of sadness and gratitude. Why?  One hundred thousand people have died, and we sense sadness and yet we are grateful that number of 100,000 was not 2 million.  Same event, same circumstance, same number, with two different responses because of how we interpret that number.  Neither reaction is more proper than the other and neither interpretation is more proper than the other.  So, what makes the difference in our response to that number?  I am glad you asked.  Let us dig a little deeper.

            As we consider for a moment the more serious example of COVID-19, we come to realize that our reaction to the circumstances of this virus arise from our own interpretations.  Therefore, and here is the answer to your earlier question, our experience to COVID-19 is shaped by the thinking we bring into it.  My experience to COVID-19, your experience, is governed by our individual thinking.

            Let me illustrate.  For a time, I did a fair amount of thinking about COVID-19 in the negative.  I looked at the circumstances and took stock of what COVID-19 made missing in my life.  Just a couple of examples might help here.  Before COVID-19, my two youngest grandsons would spend one day a week with us. That ended in mid-March.  My wife and I missed those kids.  They were physically absent from our life.  Before COVID-19, we enjoyed worship services at two churches and weekly Bible studies with our friends.  That too ended in mid-March.  We have missed the community worship, singing, hugs, handshakes, and knowing people in an intimate manner.  Somewhat selfishly, we could no longer visit our favorite restaurants or get our hair cut and styled when we wanted.  We could not plan our vacations or backyard BBQ’s.  Those experiences all ended in mid-March, casualties of COVID-19. How I perceived the meaning of COVID-19 was through the negative effects.  The thinking I brought into the situation was focused on my losses and absences.  The thinking I brought into the circumstances gave rise to my interpretation of the experience, my reaction to those circumstances, and thus the meaning I assigned.  It was most notably sadness.

            With some addition thinking, I have come to realize that I cannot turn off the COVID-19 virus and the impact it has had on my life.  The simple truth is, I cannot alter this experience.  And neither can you.  But my experience is not just what I am experiencing.  My experience includes what I am doing with the experience and that is something I can change.  I am not trapped in this experience and therefore, I can be radically different in the middle of the circumstances.

            I found it helpful to reshape my thinking by placing my experience into context by looking at the account in the Old Testament of David’s reaction to the death of his first child with Bathsheba.  The child was conceived through an illicit relationship David forced upon Bathsheba that also ended with the murder of Bathsheba’s husband. There are many examples and illustrations that we could derive from the David and Bathsheba story, but today I want us to focus specifically on the circumstances following the birth of David’s first child.  The child had become serious ill.  This was not a surprise as the prophet Nathan had previously told David that David’s sinful nature would lead to the child’s illness.  The Scriptures tell us, “16 David pleaded with God for the child. He [David] fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground. 17 The elders of his [David’s] household stood beside him [David] to get him up from the ground, but he [David] refused, and he [David] would not eat any food with them. 18 On the seventh day the child died. David’s attendants were afraid to tell him [David] that the child was dead, for they thought, ‘While the child was still living, he wouldn’t listen to us when we spoke to him. How can we now tell him the child is dead? He may do something desperate.’  [The attendants were concerned about how David would interpret and respond to the child’s death.]  19 David noticed that his attendants were whispering among themselves, and he [David] realized the child was dead. ‘Is the child dead?’ he [David] asked.  ‘Yes,’ they replied, ‘he is dead.’  20 Then David got up from the ground. After he [David] had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he [David] went into the house of the Lord and worshiped” (2 Samuel 12:16-20).

            David experienced one of life’s most fearsome circumstances in the death of his child. Some of you listening today live David’s experience.  The rest of us hope never to do so.  What we all realize in this passage is that David could not alter the experience.  David’s son had died.  David himself could not change that fact.  David’s son was absent from him.  But in David’s response we see that David’s experience was not just what he experienced but it included what David did with the experience.  Amid this most difficult experience, David made a choice. David took his sadness with him and he chose to worship God and express gratitude.  David brought sadness and gratitude together.  David reshaped his experience by the thinking he brought into it. David was unquestionably sad at the death of his son and yet he was grateful that God was present in the middle of David’s experience. 

David could not see, hear, taste, smell, or touch the invisible God, but David believed God existed.  David saw that God, his Lord, was worthy of worship.  David related to God with an accurate picture of what he was experiencing, who God is, his trust that God is good, and that God was for him. David sought the invisible God and made God visible through worship and gratitude even amid the challenges of deep sadness.  To make God visible by our interpretation of events and our expression of gratitude is the highest honor we can have in this life.  I want to pause there for just a moment so we can consider that statement. To make God visible is the highest honor we can have in this life.  Think about David’s witness to his elders.  David’s elders were concerned that when David learned of the news of his son’s death, David might do something desperate, such as taking his own life.  Instead of something desperate and self-destructive, David worshipped God before others.  I can only imagine the profound impression David left on his elders as David made the invisible God visible.  When we worship before others, even now online, but particularly when we are together on Sunday mornings we are saying to others, “I believe in the presence of the invisible God and I am grateful for His presence in my life, for the love He makes evident in my life.”  When we worship, we are changing whatever our experience is by including in our experience how we respond.  David focused not solely on the absence in his life but on the permanent and unremovable presence of God in his life.  David blended sadness and gratitude from the same event into a different experience that made visible the invisible God, our highest honor in life.

            Centuries later, the Apostle Paul observed a similar sentiment in his letter to the Christians in Rome.  Paul wrote, “31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31-39, selected).  Paul was reminding his readers that Jesus Christ, God with us, achieved the highest honor by making visible the invisible God through the entirety of his days on earth.  And in Jesus’ death, the sadness of his death, Jesus gave us eternal access to the invisible God.  Paul was saying in the sadness of the cross express your gratitude for the unquenchable and unbreakable love of Jesus.

            David and Paul give us insight that our experience with hardship of the invisible virus pales in comparison to the steadfast love of God for us.  They invite us to interpret our circumstances not through the circumstances of our temporary losses but instead to find the better meaning in recognizing the permanent unshakable love of the invisible God.  We too can relate to God with an accurate picture of what we are experiencing, who God is, our trust that God is good, and that God was for us.  David and Paul’s words encourage us to respond to sadness of our experience, reshape the thinking we bring into it, and respond in a way that makes that God’s love real and visible.  Let us be the source of testimony of others and the evidence of God’s effect on our lives that they too may come and believe.  Amen and Amen.

05-24 - Hallowed Ground

Psalm 147:5-6

Matthew 13:1-9

The fields were quiet, and earth was warm. Summer was being enjoyed in the countryside.  Then in the background there came a noise.  Distant at first; hard to know just what it was.  Then the noise grew louder and more clear and seemed to be coming from all around. It was the noise of men and horses. They began to arrive and rose to the tops of the hills of this pleasant land.  Only few could be seen at first, and then dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of men, and then tens of thousands of men.  The men came from different directions and they faced one another.  A short while later the actions of these men would literally cause the ground shake violently as they began launching cannon fire at one another.  The two groups of men represented the Union and Confederate armies.   The peaceful countryside was in Gettysburg, PA.  The year was 1863.  In July of that year, over the course of three days, more men would engage and die in mortal combat than any other battle in North America.    When it had ended, 51,000 Americans lay dead, dying, or wounded.  Four months later, on that land, President Lincoln addressed a small gathering of people to consecrate the battleground to those who had died.  Lincoln would say that those who perished consecrated and made the ground hallowed by the blood shed upon it and the lives given up in the battle.  It would be another two years before the war would end and more ground would be declared hallowed by sacrifice.  Another 184,000 Americans would be wounded or perish in battle.  At the end of the war, the wounds to the nation were deep and painful.

By 1868, the nation came together to honor those who had fallen.  The 30th day of May was designated for the purpose of strewing flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.  Flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers alike at Arlington National Cemetery. Memorial Day, born in a nation divided, had become an occasion for reconciliation.

We continue the tradition of honoring those who have sacrificed for us. But did their blood as Lincoln said make the ground hallowed?  Can man make ground hallowed and if not, what then should be considered hallowed ground?

Hallowed is a word we use each week as we pray the Lord’s Prayer.  The word means an acknowledgement that something or someone is sacred.  Within its full meaning, it is to make holy, signifying to set apart for God, to sanctify, to make a person or thing the opposite of common or unclean.

I believe we get some insight to this question of hallowed ground and into our walk as disciples from our New Testament reading today.  So let’s turn to our Bibles to the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 13, beginning at verse 1. 

Let’s look at the first verse.  It says, “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.”  This is a great verse to use to point the need for us to look at the context of Scripture.  We are beginning with the first verse of a new chapter and it starts with “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.”  We would want to pause for a moment and ask, “What day are we talking about?  What was significant about the house?  Why does it matter that he sat down?  As we look at the context for a moment as presented in the Gospel of Matthew, we would need to look back into Chapters 11 and 12. 

Turn just for a moment to Chapter 11, verse 1.  It says, “When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities.”  Jesus was on the move and he was determined to now speak to the people across the land.  As Jesus moved through the Galilean countryside, he shook people up by the denouncing the self-serving pride.  Yet, Jesus also offered hope.  He said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  While on one hand, Jesus’ message was shaking the people up and disturbing their pride and complacency, Jesus was also offering the good news that salvation and reconciliation with God was to be found through Him. 

Turn for a moment to Chapter 12, verse 1.  It starts with these words, “At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.  But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.’  After shaking up the people and calling them to follow him, now came the opposition from the Pharisees, the religious leaders. That opposition became intense and the tensions mounted.  As that day progressed, we learn from the balance of Chapter 12 that Jesus entered the synagogue and healed the man with a withered hand.  This incited the Pharisees that Jesus would do work on the Sabbath.  Later Jesus healed a demon-possessed man who was also blind and mute.  The Pharisees accused him of being a master of demons. Finally, while Jesus was in a house teaching, Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived to take charge of him believing Jesus had lost his mind.  Jesus’ family waited outside the house and asked that Jesus come and speak with them. But Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”  And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”  Jesus was redefining the kingdom of God on a very personal level making clear that one’s natural birth did not guarantee one standing in the kingdom.  It was only for those who submitted to God.

We then have the opening line to our text today, “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.”  That long day of opposition and miracles and discussion about his family, Jesus left the house he was teaching in and was met by a crowd along the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  He sat down, which is the position the Rabbi’s would take when teaching.  This day that had started out passing through a grain field would close with a grain field being used as the canvas for one of his greatest teaching, the parable of the sower.  Verse 2 tells us that great crowds gathered about Jesus, so that he got into a boat and sat down.  And the whole crowd stood on the beach.”   Jesus began teaching, “A sower went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them.  This he would later explain that “when anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart.”  He had faced those who did not believe his words all day long.  Verses 5 and 6 he said, “Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched.  And since they had no root, they withered away.  Here Jesus said, that as for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.   Jesus had among him those who enjoyed his miracles but could not abide by his teachings or feared the Pharisees would put them out of the synagogue for being his disciple.  In verse 7, Jesus continued, “Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.”  He would explain, “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”  There were some who followed Jesus until he confronted them to give up whatever they most cherished in life and they could not do so.  Finally, he said in verse 8, “Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” Jesus would later explain, “As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”   You could almost see him again stretching out his hand toward his disciples, saying here is the good soil in which the word of God has taken root because, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus emphasized in this parable three negative responses and only one positive to the word of God.  What could account for the differences in response to seed, God’s word?  Why was only one type of soil good enough to bring a harvest?  What was wrong with the other soil?  One was a pathway, hardened and unyielding.  This metaphor when representing people, we know them as self-centered and uninterested in anything that may alter the trail they are following. The word of God is a bother to them, and they just brush it aside.  Those comprised of rocky soil may be interested in the gospel but only for what they can get out of it.  They are practically atheists.  They may profess a belief in God but prefer they handle things their own way.  Those composed of soil rich in thorns may also believe in God, so long as doing so does not interfere with their life.  They are busy with things of this world, and always manage to find a reason why God is not high on their list.  Each of these soils, and thus the type of people Jesus was describing, share in common a lack of preparation.  They are unwilling to open their ears to genuinely hear the word of God.  They are resistant to allowing the Holy Spirit to change them.  They do not want their hard ways to be softened, or the rocks removed from them, or the weeds to be cleaned out.  They are content with themselves and define all that occurs as being for them.

The good soil, however, has been prepared to receive the seed.  It has been turned over and is receptive.  The focus of such people is not on themselves and their own lives for they are willing to be humble before God and man.  They want to do God’s will – not their own.  So what is it then that truly distinguishes the nature of our hearts to receive God’s word?  Missionary Andrew Murray called it “all-prevailing humility.”  He writes:  “Without this [humility] there can be no true abiding in God’s presence or experience of His favor and the power of His Spirit; without this [humility] no abiding faith or love or joy or strength.  Humility is the only soil in which virtue takes root; a lack of humility is the explanation of every defect and failure.  Humility is not so much a virtue along with others, but is the root of all, because it alone takes the right attitude before God and allows Him, as God, to do all.”

We would be wise to examine ourselves and contemplate the condition of our humility - our ground if you will.  Have we emptied ourselves of all and given our lives over to Jesus? Do we have a sense and attitude of “all-prevailing humility”?  If we do then we will be of good soil, the type of soil in which the seed - the word of God - can take root and produce the desired harvest.  If however we are prideful then our soil - our heart for the word of God - may be cluttered with weeds - the worries of this world; or rocky and shallow - not capable of perseverance; or hardened and unable to be penetrated.  You and God know what type of soil you possess.  And so it is that the seed must be received by the ground.  Are you allowing God to make you into “good soil”? If you are, then know that Jesus will reside there and you will be his disciple and he your God.  You will truly become hallowed soil.  You are to be set aside and noticeably different from all other types of people.  You are not to be common but are to be sacred.  You will bear much fruit and you are hallowed because of the blood Jesus shed for you and because he now lives within you. 

This week look carefully at a vacant and unused piece of ground.  Do you see the beautiful garden on that land?  Do you see the good soil?  Probably not because it is covered in weeds, stones, and is packed hard.  Effort will be required to clear away the past to make way for the new.  For each of us, we need to let the Holy Spirit clear away our past and make us receptive for God’s word.  Ask God to send his Spirit to you.  Submit to God that he might remove spiritual weeds, stone, and hardness.  Look for the transformation in your life like you will see in the land that will become that garden.  Allow Christ fully into your life that he may make you hallowed.  Amen.