Monday, February 23, 2015
Sunday, February 22, 2015
Pleasant Pious Platitudes do not Provide for those in Poverty: Faith without works is Dead (James 2:15-24)
The latest New Zealand water safety advert about life jackets I think is very much like James argument about faith and works in the passage we had read out to us today…
The advert is designed to counter a false understanding about life jackets. That if you’ve got one in the boat with you, you’ll be OK. But the add asks ‘ what good does it do you if you just say you’ve got one on-board with you, if it do not take action and put it on you ? Will it save you?James is countering a false teaching that you can claim to have a saving faith in God and not have it change how you live. You can confess faith in God and not show the compassion of God. What good is it to claim to have faith if it doesn’t result in faith deeds? Can such a faith save you?
My friend Nick was a police officer, and he tells the story of going to a manufacturer’s demonstration for bullet proof vests. The officers were shown the science behind the vest, shown video of it being tested, shown testimony of police men whose lives had been saved by wearing the vest, they tried them on to see that they were wearable…and then they were taken to a shooting range and physically shown the vest stopping a bullet. I think they even got to shot off a few rounds at the vests. Then the person running the demonstration asked them if they believed the vest could stop a bullet? And they said yes, yes they did… The manufacturer then asked them again if they really believed it could stop a bullet were they convinced. Yes they were all convinced… he then asked who was going first who was going to be first to put on the vest on walk down the range and take a bullet. Nick said there was stone silence, no one moved, no one volunteered. Their faith had to go beyond the theoretical into the practical.
James tells a different story to illustrate this point, challenging the same issue he has focused on all the way through letter so far. Imagine if one of us comes to church, dressed in rags, cloths that are full of holes, ill-fitting and in need of a wash… and it’s not that they were a Punk rockers from way back… its winter and they are freezing in their thin threadbare garments. You can simply tell that they haven’t had a good meal, or any meal for that matter for a while, they are gaunt, and under nourished. After the service, as you are putting on your coat and heading home to a cooked lunch, you greet them with a God bless you, go in peace, have a good life… but they go away cold and hungry what good is it? Faith has to go beyond the theoretical into the practical, real living faith goes beyond the confession to compassion, or as James brutally puts it Faith without works is dead.
And that’s challenging stuff; it really gets down to the core of our Christian faith doesn’t it? It’s so challenging that this passage has been seen as one of the most controversial passages in the New Testament. Historically people have seen James as contradicting Paul’s assertion that we are justified by faith, apart from the law: That we are made right with God by faith alone not by our works. Does James say you can earn your salvation by good works? Historically it is the passage that caused Martin Luther to want to write the book of James out of the scriptures, writing it off as an epistle of straw. Something you couldn’t use to build the church. In my own life I find it challenging as well as I wonder if my faith causes me to be loving and compassionate or am I finding myself simply squeezed into the selfish consumer lifestyle so prevalent in our society, maybe just with a bit of Jesus sprinkles on top. You know how plain white bread used to get transformed into party food by having hundreds and thousands on top.
Firstly I need to affirm that we are saved by the grace of God. By the loving action of God in Jesus Christ, and putting our trust and faith in what Christ has done for us on the cross. A couple of weeks ago we looked at James teaching on temptation and we say in chapter 1 verse 17-18 that James tells us that even good gift comes from God, that it is God who chose to give us birth through the word of truth. Just like Paul James believes that it is because of Christ and what Christ has done for us that we are put right with God. But James does not stop there he goes on to say that God is at work in us to bring that new life to maturity and fullness as well. To make us the first fruit of all creation, that is why we can count it all joy as we face all kinds of trial because God is able to use it to make our faith mature. A living faith grows and bears fruit, has a harvest.
The nature of the New Testament epistles are that they are occasional, written to a particular context. One of the background factors for Paul is he is writing to a predominantly gentile audience and part of the back ground to this is that he has had to wrestle with a faction within the church who say to be followers of Jesus you must keep the Jewish Law… Be circumcised, offer sacrifices and Paul is writing to correct that. In Acts 15 James at the council of Jerusalem affirms that gentiles do not need to be circumcised to be Christian. But he also affirms that there is an ethical side to faith in Christ: They do need to care for the poor, avoid food sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality. What James is writing about seems to be another false understanding of faith. His audience is predominantly Jewish and as we saw with the idea of favouritism last week and in James encouragement that true religion is to show compassion and not to be polluted by this world, they maybe had gone the other way and thrown the baby out with the bath water. Done away with any ethical teaching…That it was simply all about holding to a certain doctrine or belief.
That to James is not faith. In fact he says what is different between you and the demons or evil spirits. They just like you, says James, believe that God is one. That was the Jewish confession the shema from Deuteronomy 5. ‘ Hear O Israel the Lord you God is one God’, that was to be nailed to the door of every Jewish household. For the Christian to believe that God is one or that there is one God is an affirmation of the deity of Jesus Christ, which would have differentiated them from Judaism. In fact he then has a real go at his opponents by saying that even the demons act their belief in God causes them to shudder. They are filled with fear. Some commentators wonder if this isn’t a reference to deliverance ministry and James is saying that the demons flee at the name of Jesus what do you do?
Both Paul and James believe that real genuine faith results in loving action. In Galatians 5;6 Paul finishes a discussion about salvation and the law by saying that being circumcised or not in accordance to the law has no value it is only faith in Jesus Christ. Then he goes on to say, ‘The only thing that counts is faith being expressed in love’. Last week we saw James talking about the royal law, the fact that Jesus had summed up the whole law in the two commandments love the lord your God and love your neighbour as yourself, and in this passage he is saying that this royal law should be a natural outworking in our lives. In the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus says ‘not every one who calls me Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of God, but if you do this for these little ones you do it for me… To have faith in Jesus, to put your trust in the compassion of Jesus is to show that compassion to others. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had said “by your fruit you will know them”, and here James says well without fruit I guess we can see that the tree is dead. It is not that our works earn us God’s favour or we must do them to please God but they come out of the love we have known, the mercy we have received, in Christ.
Then James gives two examples from the Old Testament of people of faith and shows how that faith was demonstrated in their deeds: Abraham and Rahab. In choosing these two, James, includes all his listeners, men and women, Jew and Gentile, esteemed patriarch who had believed and trusted God for all his life, and the prostitute who comes to believe in God.
It is easy in the Abraham example to think that James is associating Abraham’s offering his son Isaac on the altar as the reason he was declared righteous. But the quote from scripture here ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to his as righteousness’ come from genesis 15 not the story of the offering Isaac in Genesis 18. In Genesis 15God makes a covenant with Abraham, saying he will have a son even in his old age. Abraham’s faith was that he believed in the promise of God even before Isaac was born and then was prepared to live trusting God to keep his covenant faithfulness, even to the point that he was willing to offer his son Isaac up as an offering. Jews consider this act as the last great test of Abraham’s faith.
Likewise Rahab the prostitute who is counted as one of Jesus and thus James ancestors in Matthew gospel is seen as an example of faith. She believed the message of the spies who came to Jericho that Israel’s God was the true God, and because of that she was willing to show hospitality to the Israelite spies and protected them from death and helped them escape. She is then saved from being killed in Jericho and welcomed into the family of Israel.
How do we apply all this to our lives today?
I think it is easy to fall into one of two traps.
The trap of legalism and feel that you must do good things to earn God’s favour, if that is how you feel and think, it is good to hear again the words of James who calls the gospel ‘the law that brings freedom’. God loves you, God sent his son Jesus Christ into this world for you, and invites you to come to him and be made new, to find love and wholeness in knowing and serving him, it is a free gift. A gift to be shared in loving other people out of the abundance of what God has done for us.
The second trap is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls ‘cheap grace’ to simply see faith in Christ as a confession of belief in a set of facts or a system or a family or cultural tradition. Maybe even to go forward at an altar call or be confirmed without realising that it is a costly call to follow Christ. It is not simply a get out of jail free card to be squirreled away under the board till you need it. But an invitation to a life following and imitating Christ. Cheap grace is grace without the cross… Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the faith that James was talking about ‘costly grace’, for him it was a go to jail card. He learned the joy of following Jesus by loving and caring for others, including his captures, in a Nazi prison.
Lastly it is a call to action. Maybe it’s as simple as taking the life jacket off the hanger and putting it on… Faith is knowing the grace and the love of God in Jesus Christ and showing the grace and love of God in Jesus Christ by caring for the least and the lost…is not about Pleasant Pious Platitudes and cosy confessions and creeds, It is more about Practical provision for the poor and care and compassion for those who need consolation. Seeing the needs around us and going and meeting those needs trusting in God to take care of us and to provide what is needed. Our faith calls us out into our community city and world with the love and compassion of Jesus to be about meeting real needs in Christ.
Sunday, February 15, 2015
'For those of you in the cheap seats I'd like ya to clap your hands to this one; the rest of you can just rattle your jewellery!': Equality in the Church'-James 2: 1-13
The title for today’s message is a quote from John Lennon So I thought you’d like to hear it from him in the original setting… The 1963 Royal Gala Performance...
“for those of you in the cheap seats I’d like ya to clap your hands to this one… the rest of you can just rattle your jewellery.” It might be a cheeky joke a clever dig at the class structure of England that if you’re John Lennon you can get away with at a royal gala performance but says James it should never be like that in the church which is all about the royal law... love your neighbour as yourself.
Last week we saw that James had finished his introduction by talking about true religion. That true religion was caring for widows and orphans and keeping one’s self from being polluted by the world. Now he turns to deal with those two things in terms of a practical issue… showing favouritism to the rich and powerful and discriminating against the poor. As Dan McCartney puts it ‘the very class distinctions that Christian faith is supposed to transcend had insinuated their way into the worship services and into the social fabric of the church.”
He gives a hypothetical illustration. Two visitors come to church. One is dressed in fancy cloths, and he has a large gold ring on his figure. In James day these were indicators of wealth and importance and status. Maybe today it would like coming to church in a top of the line Amani suit, and designer Italian leather shoes, flashing your bling, a Rolex watch, gold chains and cuff links, the latest iPhone pressed to the ear, all this designed to impress. And people were impressed they show this visitor to the place of honour, the good seat up the front, or maybe closer to the back in our Presbyterian way of thinking.
The other visitor comes in and they smell him before they see him. His clothes reek of garbage strewn alleyways and sweat. They tell him he’ll have to stand at the back or sit out in the foyer, so he doesn’t stink up the place. James finishes this illustration by liken such behaviour to the judges legislated against in our Old Testament reading from Leviticus, who side with the rich against the poor.
It’s an extreme illustration. It’s almost absurd, would we really act like that? Would good Christian people discriminate like that?
These seats and counter in the picture behind me take pride of place in the Smithsonian museum in Washington DC. They are not there because they are the epitome of 1950’s decor or designed by a famous designer. They are just ordinary seats, they don’t look that comfortable. They come right from the middle of what is known as the Bible belt in America, where every street corner has a church. They are seats from the Woolworths lunch bar in Greensboro, North Carolina.
On February 1 1960 four Black students had had enough of the injustice and inequality that only white people could be served at this lunch counter so they started a sit in to change things. To make James words about equality in the kingdom of God a reality in their world. We brothers and sisters, believers in the glorious Lord Jesus Christ Must Not show favouritism.
James goes about providing a good theological argument for not showing favouritism.
In the church we are all brothers and sisters.
James could easily claim to speak to his readers as their leader or their spiritual father or even as the brother of the Lord, but he chooses to show the egalitarian nature of the church by addressing us as Brothers and sisters… WE are all family because we have all been born into the family of God most high by faith in Jesus Christ. Not by any human endeavour or advantage.
God does not show favouritism.
In his opening remark James talks of believing in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ and contrasts that with showing favouritism, because the two are incompatible. In calling Jesus glorious James is identifying Jesus with the very real presence of God, with the Glory of God. We should not show favouritism because Jesus does not show favouritism. All through his ministry Jesus had open arms for all who would come. We should not show favouritism because God does not show favouritism. He make the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the righteous and the wicked, on all people equally, Jesus had used that as the basis of us showing that same perfect unbiased love even to our enemies. The Hebrew word for favouritism literally means ‘to lift up the face’ to take things on face value. But the Old Testament tells us that God does not look on the face but rather on the heart. We don’t discriminate on face value because God does not. Christian values for James are about reflecting the character of God.
To show such favouritism does not reflect God unconventional wisdom, in fact it does not really make much sense at all.
The illustration of the two visitors that James uses reminds me of the parable of the two men who went up to the temple to pray that Jesus tells. The Pharisee, who had all his I dotted and t’s crossed when it came to keeping the law and looked every bit the righteous man, and the tax collector, who had never done anything right but was looking for God’s forgiveness. On the surface maybe we’d treat them like the rich and poor visitor, but Jesus said it was the tax collector that went away justified. We can make wrong calls based on face value.
In verse 5 James tells us that God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith. Jesus had started his beatitudes by saying blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of God. It is only as we are aware of our own poverty and need for God that we turn to him. In the Old Testament Israel is reminded again and again that God did not chose them to be his people, because they were the biggest or the best, the brightest or the most beautiful, the best dress or because of the bulge of money in their pockets but because they were the least amongst the nations. In Jewish thought here is the idea of the righteous poor, that the poor trust God totally because they have no other resources. They are not double-minded conflicted between God and mammon.
In fact by discriminating against the poor we might miss the very glory and presence of God. In his parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus says that one of the ways he is present with us is in the poor, the hungry, those in need of clothing, and shelter, strangers and refugees the sick and those in prison. In the least, and it is in serving them that we serve Jesus. In discriminating against them we find ourselves discriminating against Christ.
But also because in siding with the rich and powerful we actually side with the ones who oppress and exploit people or as John Calvin put it “ It is to honour ones executioner and meantime to injure your friends.” In James day it was the rich and powerful who dragged Christians into court and spoke against Christ. When you look through the book of Acts you see many examples of this. It was the Sadducees the religious elite who dragged Peter and John into prison, it was the wealthy slave owner who had Paul and Silas arrested for delivering their slave girl from an evil spirit, it was the prominent merchants in Ephesus who caused a riot because they feared their idol industry would suffer because of the Christian message. WE need to be careful we don’t end up siding with those who have so much invested in this system and realm that they oppose the kingdom of God.
WE are not to discriminate because it is against the law of the kingdom.
James had already alluded to favouritism being like the old testament law against judges showing bias for the rich. Now James says that to keep the royal law of loving your neighbour as yourself calls us to not show favouritism. In Jesus day this law was seen to be simply about loving fellow Righteous Jews, I guess into days society it would be seen as to love “people like us”. But in the parable of the Good Samaritan about a man who had been robbed and beaten and left for dead, Jesus showed us that our neighbour was anyone in need. James says that if we do not keep any single aspect of the law then we are guilty of all the law. He uses two extreme examples, we may keep the law of not committing adultery, but we kill someone, then what good is it. Both these sins actually show extreme disrespect for their victims and so help make James point about disrespecting the poor. If James stopped here I think I would find myself devastated but he doesn’t
Finally and thankfully James says we are not to discriminate because mercy triumphs over judgement.
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that leads to freedom may sound like we are to speak and act out of fear of judgment and out of a desire to be earn our salvation. To be shown mercy because we have shown mercy. But rather here James reminds us that we should act and speak because we know the mercy and the love of God shown to us in Christ The gospel is the law that leads to freedom. Judgement will be shown without mercy to anyone who has not been merciful is not a plea bargain before the judge, rather as James will go on to talk about when he talks of faith without works, that we’ll look at next week… Showing mercy is an expected outcome of those who have received mercy. It’s not to earn God’s favour but because we have known God’s undeserved favour. In the end mercy is to triumph over judgement, the compassion of Christ calls us not to judge. Not to discriminate but to treat all as equal.
WE are all equal in God’s sight, all called to be brothers and sisters in Christ. It speaks to us in a world that is obsessed with appearances, where we are obsessed with brands and consumer items as badges of status, and many will put themselves into debt to obtain the trappings of a wealthy lifestyle. It speaks to us today in a church wrestling with cultural differences, who has power and who has sway and who gets their way. It speaks to us today as a church in a society that is wrestling more and more with inequality. Where a growing number of people do not get the chance to sit at the table but rather told to simply stand over there and wait. In the church the table is always open and there is room for all equally. It speaks to us today in our society as we wrestle with what it means to do mission in an area where the borders are both the very rich and the very poor, where are we called to invest our energy and our resources. The challenge of this passage is that we speak and act in ways that reflect God’s Kingdom and Christ’s priorities, and over the next two weeks we are going to look at what James has to say about how we should then act towards the poor and how we should speak to one another.
Kris and I took the train into the city on Tuesday for dinner and on the way home I looked up and saw a sign that perhaps sums up the idea of equality and love in the church. It was a sign about priority seating.... I took a photo and was going to use it for this sermon but then I went online and found a better sign calling for courtesy seating using James illustration of the visitors at church may public transport points us to the right way to act and speak... to serve each other as equals.
Sunday, February 8, 2015
Mirror Mirror On The Wall... Looking intently into the Perfect Law that brings Freedom (James 1:19-27)... Shedding Light On The Epistle Of Straw: finding a Faith That Works In The Book Of James (Part 4)
You’ve gone to a shopping mall. It’s busy and as you walk along you catch a glimpse of someone in the crowd who looks vaguely familiar. It’s one of those embarrassing moments… Is it really someone you know…. You are not sure… so you double check by glancing over at them and they seem to be in the same boat as they are glancing over at you. You catch their eye for a moment and then you both turn away in indecision. What are you going to do now… You could wave and smile and they will return it with a blank stare. Who knows they may be looking at what’s behind you and you got in the way, and you’d look foolish, or you could simply walk away and risk that awkward encounter latter on when you meet again and they have you on for snubbing them.
So you turn and wave and smile… and Whew!! you’ve got it right you must know them because they wave and smile at you. You take a step towards them and they take a step towards you. You keep going and extend your hand to greet them as you approach and they do the same thing although it’s the wrong hand, this could be awkward. Then just as you get right up close bang your figures hit the glass and you realise that you’d seen your own reflection in a wall of mirrors and hadn’t recognised yourself.
Now I know it seems really silly. In our world where we are surrounded by mirrors and screens and fixated with taking selfies and posting them online and seeing ourselves is an everyday occurrence. We know what we look like; in fact our culture is almost obsessed with what we look like. I posted this picture on line as a joke or social comment… I call it being selfie conscious. But when James was writing mirrors were not an everyday item, they were rare precious items owned by the rich. They were also usually just polished metal not the silvered glass of modern mirrors. Glimpsing the occasional blurry distorted reflection was not enough to ensure people knew what they looked like. James uses this metaphor to talk about what it is like to be people who hear the word of God but do not put it into action. He implores his readers not to stare in the mirror but to look intently into the perfect law which brings freedom and to put it into action in their lives.
Scholars see the part of James we had read out to us today as an introduction to what is in the body of the book. He had already broached the main issue in verses 9-11 when talking of trials he had specifically mentioned poverty and wealth. The Christians communities James is writing to were dealing with the tension and challenge of being a mix of both rich and poor. Paul had to deal with the same issues in 1 Corinthians, where the rich and free would come to a church meeting eat in the dinning room and then the slaves would come when they could and find themselves seated in the outer courtyard. In the body of the book that we will be looking at over the next few weeks James deals with showing favouritism to the rich and important, not putting faith into action in terms of simply saying God bless you and letting people go away hungry and also the very real damage that the tongue and words could do to the Christian community. He also deals with how the church had allowed themselves to be conformed to the standards and behaviour of the society they found themselves in rather than the radically different way of being the Kingdom of God together. In this introduction James is holding up a mirror to the church to show them the issues that they are facing.
He starts here with a proverb about relationships. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. This is not unique to James or to scripture it is common wisdom. It is helpful about being a community together. One of the things I like about Waitangi day is that as well as celebrate people actually sit down and listen and talk about the issues facing Maori and Pakeha in this nation. We celebrate where we’ve come together but also acknowledge as a country we have made mistakes and we still have a way to go. It is also a good example of what James says about human anger not bring about the righteousness that God desires. Human anger cannot bring about real justice. It tends to drive people apart. James’ sage advice is that instead of speaking in anger we need to humbly listen to and receive the word that is planted within you. In terms of New Zealand that is the treaty of Waitangi as a living document, in terms of what James is saying to the church it is the gospel.
One of the prerequisites for humble listening says James is that we get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and the word used for get rid of here is the word used of taking off a garment. In the book of Zechariah as the people have come back to Jerusalem and re-established the temple as a sign of a renewal of God’s covenant, the prophet says to Joshua that he should take of his old robe with its dirt and put on the new robe. In the New Testament it is picked up as an image of God giving us a new life a white garment to replace the garment soiled by all our wrong doing. It fits in with what James had been saying about resisting temptation, if we approach the word of God with our own self-interests and desires in mind then we will not allow the word to have its way in us.
One of the criticisms of the book of James is that it focuses on salvation by works but this is not the case, here we see that James is very aware that the word has been planted in us like a seed. Last week we saw James talk about Gods purpose for us was to be born by the word of truth and here it that is echoed in the gospel being like a seed that is planted within us that we need to look to and nurture so that it may do its work in us. David Nystrom says James deals with the central paradox of the faith: that God’s gift to us also lays upon us the responsibility of moral behaviour.
Then James turns to that wonderful metaphor of the mirror, and the person who looks at the word of God and does not put it into action is like someone who glances at the mirror and then goes away and forgets what they look like.
Rather, James says, we should look intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continue in that not forgetting it but putting it into action. One of the major issues in the New Testament is the relationship between the Old Testament law or Torah, the first five books of the bible and the gospel. We particularly think in terms of Paul talking of the law being there to show us our need for God and salvation in romans and also that Jesus was in conflict with the Pharisees about their ridged legalistic keeping of the law. It is usually summed up as them being about the letter of the law and not about the spirit of the law. We can tend to forget that Jesus actually said he did not come to do away with the law but rather to fulfil the law: That the law had to do with the compassion and mercy of God rather than ridged keeping of rules and regulations. Jesus summed up the law in the two commandments love the lord your god with all your heart, all your mind and all your strength and love your neighbour as yourself. When James talks of the perfect law that bring freedom he is talking of the gospel of Jesus Christ, how Jesus fulfilled the law.
Using the metaphor of the mirror the word of God is able to show us who we are. The limitations of a mirror in James day was that it showed a blurry distorted image of what we looked like and even in our day a mirror can only show what’s on the outside. But the word of God shows us what we are really like. Now can I say when I looked at this passage today it showed me something’s about myself I did not like. That goes beyond the fresh wrinkles round my eyes and the fact that more hair seems to grow in my ears and nose than on top of my head these days when I look in the bathroom mirror. The passage challenges me about anger and how I use words and what I say actually matters.
But the perfect law that gives freedom does not simply leave it there. It is better than any mirror because it also reveals to us the very character and love of God. It shows us that by the grace of God we have been put right with God through Jesus Christ and it shows us the image that God desires us to be conformed to.
There is a scene in the 1985 movie Mask that illustrates this. The movie tells the story of Rocky Dennis, Rocky’s background is pretty hard. His mother is part of a motorcycle gang. But his solo mum loves him dearly and he grows up being a loving and caring person. Rocky has a fatal disease commonly called Lionitis which meant that the bones in his skull continue to grow and his face is monstrously distorted, and the bone growth was slowly exerting pressure on his brain. In one scene the gang visit an amusement park and Rocky goes into the hall of mirrors and comes across one mirror that is curved in a way that when he stands in front of it his face appears normal. He calls his mother over to look. The word of God does that for us it invites us to see the image of what we can be in Christ and as we intently look at that the spirit can conform us to it.
James then ties that back to the issues he has been addressing by talking about what real religion is. WE can think it has to do with rites and rituals, what we do here on Sunday and outward appearances but James speaking to a church wrestling with division and problems of inequality and trying to differentiate their behaviour from the world around them. He says that it is about reigning ones tongue in. and the care of the least and the vulnerable in the community. And not being confirmed to the image of this world, but to be confirmed to the image of Christ that we see as we stare intently at the word of truth… One scholar sums this process up like this “true religion is not merely work but a humble receptivity to God’s word so that it can develop deep roots within us, shaping our character until the natural result is the sort of good that James extols. “
Our churches vision is that we may be an authentic, vibrant sustainable community, growing as followers of Jesus and inspiring others to join us on the journey.” I know to fulfil that goal we need to hear James word about looking intently at the perfect law that brings freedom. That is both and Individual thing, the discipline of personal bible reading, but also a community endeavor, for Christians to grow we need to part of a small group that focuses on studying the scripture and helping each other apply it to our lives. In the reading I’ve been doing about churches that have turned around stagnation and decline one of the key elements is the growth of the spiritual lives of their core members, as they grow in their relationship with Jesus through studying the word together they grow in their vibrancy and that can lead to energy needed for renewal, out reach, justice and growth.
“true religion is not merely work but a humble receptivity to God’s word so that it can develop deep roots within us, shaping our character until the natural result is the sort of good that James extols. “
Sunday, February 1, 2015
Tempted?... don't be decieved: God is good (James 1:13-18)... Shedding Light on the Epistle of Straw: Finding a faith that works in the book of James (part 3)
There is a scene in the film the Lord of The Rings: return of the King which I think graphically illustrates what James has to say about temptation. It even picks up the imagery that James uses of fishing and trapping and the serious way in which James views temptation. It is the story of how Sméagol came to get the ring of power by killing his friend Deagol. …
After this scene we see Sméagol who wanted to possess the ring become possessed by the ring: paranoid that he will lose his precious he turns away from the light and goes and hides in the deep caves under the misty mountains, In one sense Sméagol dies and changes into the creature we know as Gollum. This is the downward spiral that James says happens when we give into temptation: sinful desire, which gives birth to sinful deed, which when it come to fullness brings death.
As we saw last week James had started his letter by commanding his readers to count it all joy when they face all kinds of trials. In the face of misfortune and troubles God is able to work a life giving process in us… it tests our faith: refining it… which leads to perseverance… which in turn leads to maturity and life as we put our hope and trust in God. But the Greek word translated trials in the first paragraph of James can also mean temptations, which is how it is translated in the reading we had today. We need to know the difference. Trials and misfortune are to be endured with joy … trials as temptation needs to be resisted. One is a path that leads to life the other can lead to death. In both we need to turn and to trust God.
We might be interested in ‘a step by step how to overcome temptation guide’ but James is more interested in the question “If testing is used by God for the perfecting of his people, does that mean that God is at the root of our temptation and sin?”
It’s a very human thing to want to avoid responsibility. When God confronts Adam and Eve after they had eaten from the tree God had told them not too they try and pass the blame on. Adam blames the women… ‘It’s her fault, she gave me the apple and I ate it’ in fact he even throws some of the blame on God… “The women you put here with me”. The woman blames the snake. How many times have we heard ‘the devil made me do it.’ James does not allow us to step away from taking personal responsibility for our own actions. Temptation he says does not come from God but from within our own lives, our desires. Yes like with the ring of power in the Lord of the rings Satan is able to try and use our desires for his evil purposes. In modern times we blame behaviour on environment, which is hard to do in the genesis narrative. In Romans Paul uses the illustration of wrestling to talk about what is happening in the human heart he says for the Christian there are two natures fighting within him and us. The old nature focused on self-gratification and the new nature in Christ focused on desiring to serve God: A very real human conflict.
James makes it very clear that God is not the source of temptation and evil. He argues it from the very character of God, that God cannot be tempted by evil because God is good. In verse 17 he uses the metaphor of God as the father of heavenly lights, who does not change or have shifting shadows. There is no shadow in God. The sun and the moon move and as they do they cast shadows at different times in different places, the stars seem to move across the heavens, but God is constant and does not change, there is no hook waiting to trap to ensnare us.
He says God does not tempt people. How could God who has no guile or darkside act in a way that was inconsistent with God’s character.. God has integrity.
The term ‘father of heavenly Lights’ that James uses in verse 17 is quite unique. People thought that their fate was controlled by the stars and the sun and moon and gods of fate. But James says that God is beyond and above those things, that they are simply created. We can get our idea of the sovereignty of God mixed up with fate with the idea that we are prisoners of a fixed and determined universe…With that are tempted to think in terms of a God who does good and bad things But the biblical picture as James says it is the sovereignty of God is ruled by his nature, his purposes and plans are for good not for harm. We are not to be deceived in to thinking otherwise. The universe is not fixed it is broken, it is not determined but God is determined to bring salvation and wholeness.
James says we are to realise every good and perfect gift comes from above. The sovereignty of God is shown in the providence of God. It is our attitude to those gifts that can lead us to God or astray. In his first section James had made special mention of poverty and wealth and in 1 Timothy 6 Paul gives an example of this attitude problem. He says that godliness with contentment is a good thing. God provides…If we have food and cloths we should be happy, after all we come into this world with nothing and we leave this world the same way. But there are some he says, who desire more wealth more money and this can lead to all kinds of evil things.. Doesn’t that speak volumes to our world with its obsession with more and more, bigger and better.
We also would like to be able to be the ones who define what is good. We like to think in terms of what’s good as what’s in in for me…in 1 Corinthians 12 Paul says God gives gifts for the common good. We might thing good means that we don’t face hardship, but James had just finished telling his readers they could count it joy when they faced all kinds of trials because in the end God is able to use them to bring us to maturity. WE see good as instant gratification God view is the eternal... We need to trust Isaiah 55… “God’s way are higher than our ways, his thoughts higher than ours.”
Then James says that the goodness of God is shown in his purpose for us. Like with the temptation giving birth to sin and death process James uses the illustration of birth and reproduction to express this . The father choses to give us birth through the word of truth , that we might be a kind of firstfruit of all he created. When we talk of the goodness of God we must always come back to the cross. This passage echoes the words of the prologue to John’s gospel that we heard again over Christmas. That the father sent the word into the world, his very son Jesus Christ, that to all who would receive him he gave the right to be the sons and daughters of the most high God. Not by human desire but by the will of our heavenly father. God’s purpose is in Christ, his life death and resurrection,t hat we might come to him: Be forgiven be born again and know eternal life.
Firstfruits were the portion of a harvest that were set aside as a sacrifice to God. It wasn’t just the first part of the crop or herd rather it was the best part. God’s purpose is that we not only come to him through Christ but that we grow and become people who grow up into maturity in God. In Romans 12 Paul speaks of presenting ourselves as a living sacrifice, and he talks of doing that by not being conformed to this world but allowing ourselves to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. This is the process James talks of here as well. The process not just of justification, which is through Christ and by faith alone, but sanctification: being made holy. That is God’s work and purpose, not to tempt us away.
Let me just finish with five very practical thoughts about how to deal with temptation that comes from this part of James.
We start a bit like where the twelve steps programme does … don’t be deceived. We actually need to acknowledge and confess temptation for what it is. Sinful desire. We are human and our characters are not perfect and we have sinful desires.
Secondly, because we know that temptation does not come from God and that God s purposes for us are good we need to turn to him and ask for his forgiveness, aid and help. As we saw last week James invites us to turn to God and ask him for his wisdom: Ask for the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, the spirit of wisdom.
Thirdly, an attitude of thanksgiving can keep us focused on the goodness of God. It helps us focus on what God provides not what we want. Part of the Joy we can have when facing trials is that God is at work on perfecting our character seeing that we lack in nothing. While we don't rejoice in temptations is it also good to give thanks that God is at work within us to bring transformation.
Fourthly, like with physical health spiritual health is a process of right diet and exercise.... James talks of God giving us birth through the word of truth and Psalm 1 tells us the difference between the wicked and the righteous is that the righteous focus and dwell on the word of God. They are like a tree with a permanent water source. It seems a bit trite but using Paul’s analogy of the two natures wrestling within us, which nature will be stronger is dependent on which nature we feed. Jesus response to temptation was to turn to the word of truth to combat it.
Lastly, As well see next week, James says that it is which nature we exercise as well. Like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount he says… don’t just be hearers of the word put it into action as well.
Monday, January 26, 2015
Finding real Joy, in real Trials, in the Person, Presence and Purposes of a Real God (James 1:2-12): Shedding Light On THe Epislte Of Straw (part 2)
My life has been dominated by an ear infection this week… So I found it rather hard to be reflecting on the command James starts his letter with… “Count it all Joy, bothers and sisters, when you face all kinds of trials”. I found it rather ear-otating and yes even ear-onic to be looking at Joy in the face of suffering. I mean in the scope of things an ear infection isn’t that much of a big deal, it just hurts and makes you feel miserable but I needed the encouragement to look beyond that. I know many of you are facing much greater trials than that and in all difficult situations it’s easy to get tunnel vision to focus on the issue the trial and forget the big picture forget that God is good and that God is at work… James dives straight in to that at the beginning of his letter and invites us not to focus simply on the situations but rather to find joy as we face all kinds of trials in the person, presence and purposes of God.
James calls us to look at life through the lens of faith… as Dan McCartney says ‘ A large part of the life of faith is ones attitude towards things in life and ones response to events. We often can do little to control our environment and the things that happen to us, but we can control the way we think about them and how we react to them. Knowing how to interpret events and actions is a large part of wisdom and the faithful attitude of the Christian is one of Joy.”
James is straight up about life, that we face trials and difficulties. He addresses his readers as the twelve tribes scattered throughout the nations, as we saw last week he is writing to a predominantly Jewish audience and that scattering was a result of historic suffering and being conquered by different nations. They knew what it were like to be sojourners in strange cities, longing for home, subject to prejudice. He is speaking to a group of fellow believers who would have been scattered because of persecution. Down through the ages Jewish wisdom literature had wrestled with the issue of suffering, why do bad things happen to good people, the psalms are full of people lamenting and wrestling with these things. It’s what Philip Yancy calls the question that will not go away. It won’t go away because its real and it comes and it touches our lives again and again. in this life said Jesus there will be trouble but do not fear for I have overcome the world.’ There is trouble and trial but also great joy.
The first thing I need to say is that there is a difference between enjoying trials and finding joy in trials. James is not telling his readers that they should be like some modern day adrenaline junkie who seeks to go and find something dangerous and challenging to do. I mean it is good to push ourselves and set goals and challenges in our very safe and bland modern society… I wish more of it was tackling real pressing social issues and needs rather than back flips and unscaled mountain faces. Nor is this saying that we are to be masochistic, to enjoy pain. Neither is it being Pollyanna and diminishing the suffering or pain and difficulty of life. Hanging on the cross whistling and singing “always look on the Brightside of life” is Monty Python not Jesus Christ. We are talking about real trials and in them James invites us to find real joy by looking beyond our circumstance to God.
He takes us through a raft of reasons for Joy.
The first is that when we face trials our faith is able to be tested. This does not mean it is stress tested to see if it can be broken... The metaphor associated with testing is the idea of purification or smelting metals to get rid of the dross…Refining it. One cancer suffer talked of the biggest change in her life was a change of priorities, suddenly relationships because of paramount importance to her, she said “it was strange how it took something so serious to make her realise that’. James says that as we face trials and continue to put our hope and our trust in God our faith grows. A lot of the time our false hopes get stripped away and we are left with what is really real. In the laments in the psalms this is often put in terms of coming to realise that the important thing is not the trappings of life or the benefits of being God’s people but the abiding presence and goodness of God.
James says that as we face trials our faith is able to develop and produces perseverance. Now in English we tend to see this as a passive thing, that we have the ability to simply hold on and endure something. But the word here is an active one. It speaks of making head way moving forward. In fact the image that James uses to describe the two minded person in verse six helps us to understand that word. James talks of the person without faith as being like a wave on the sea blown about by the wind, not having a direction. But perseverance is keeping on to the goal staying on the journey focusing on the destination despite the wind direction and its changes. It was Martin Luther King Jr day in the US last Monday and many of his quotes appeared on social media… one that stuck me was where King calls for people to keep moving forward in the struggle for freedom despite the opposition.. if they can’t ride,” he said “well run, if they can’t run, well walk, if they can’t walk well crawl but keep moving forwards. That’s perseverance.
Perseverance leads to character development. God’s purpose for us is that we might grow and become mature, and complete and lacking nothing. We can find joy in the midst of the trials of life because God is shaping us and making us more like Christ. The Hebrew word for Peace is the word shalom and it has the idea not of a lack of difficulty and a life of leisure, like lying on a towel on an the idyllic summer beach or lounging in a deck chair beside the pool but of wholeness and being complete.
Again a Martin Luther King Jr quote from this week cuts right to the heart of what James is saying “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”
I found an amazing prayer this week from a Russian Oxthodox nun called Maria Skobtsova whose life sums up what James is aying. She helped hide Jews in France during the war and was arrested and was a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp, Ravensbruck in the midst of her suffering her prayer was “ I am thy message Lord. Throw me like a blazing torch into the night, so that all may see and understand what it means to be thy disciple.” On Easter Saturday 1945 Maria took the place of a Jewish women who was destined for the gas chamber and was killed.
Then James tells us that we can know Joy in the generosity and benevolence of God. That if we lack wisdom we should ask God who will give us wisdom. He gives it generously and without finding fault. This is more than an invitation to simply find understanding about why we are facing trials. It is an invitation to know and encounter and walk through those things with God. In the Old Testament there is a tradition of personifying wisdom, in proverbs 8 wisdom is seen as a woman. In Ephesians 1:17 Paul prays for the church at Ephesus and says he will ask the father to send the spirit of wisdom another name for the Holy Spirit and here James uses the idea of the wisdom of God as a way of talking about the presence of God’s spirit in our lives. We can know and have wisdom in our lives because we ask God for his presence. Again James as a letter is very reminiscent of the Sermon on the Mount this passage has the same feel as Jesus invitation to ask seek and to knock, that God is a generous father who know how to give good gifts to his children and will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. In the midst of our trials we can know joy because of the presence and wisdom of God.
You may remember from last week that one of the nick names for James is ‘old camel knees’ because of the calluses on his knees because of the amount of time he spent on them in prayer. It is not a coincidence that James should tell us that we can find joy in the midst of trials in turning to God in Prayer. Some of us may find what James has to say about prayer and doubt daunting. WE all wrestle with honest questions and difficulties, but it is not what James is talking about here, many of the great prayers of faith in the psalms and old testament contain people wrestling with understanding and with doubts about God’s goodness. But they do not stop people turning and trusting in God, when James talks about being double minded it has the idea of looking both ways. I wonder if in the face of trials it’s not kind of like how we view pain killers or anti-biotics. The double minded person turns to God for a quick fix, if it doesn’t come they are on to the next, rather than out of a genuine faith and trust despite the questions.
James then turns to address the issue of poverty and says that joy does not come because of wealth, but rather comes from our status not in society but before God. Those who are poor, says James, should find glory and hope and joy in the fact that they are loved by God, that they are rich in faith. Jesus had started the beatitudes blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of God. Our joy is not based on our circumstances or what we do or do not have but on the grace of God, on knowing his forgiveness and grace, knowing that as we trust Jesus as our Lord and saviour he has made us sons and daughter of the most high God. James invites his readers to look beyond the circumstances of the now to an eternal perspective, that in the kingdom of God there will be a great reversal. James also tells those who are rich that they too need to find their joy not in what they have or their status in the world but in the eternal, that they just like the poor need to realise that the important thing in life is relationship with God through Jesus Christ. That wealth and position and power are merely transitory. We holidayed down in the central Hawkes bay over New Year and it seemed that each day that we were there without rain the wonderful rolling hills around us became browner and browner it was an illustration of what James says here about life and wealth, it simply passes away like the grass. We can focus on what we don’t have and allow money worries to build up and drag us down, or we can build our identity on what we have and worry and be concerned by the foibles of markets and losing it all or vainly trying to get more…but in the end joy comes from a faith that finds identity in knowing the goodness of God, knowing the mercy of God in Jesus Christ.James usually finishes each section of his teaching with a pithy proverb a wise saying that sums up what he has been saying and here he finishes with a beatitude a blessing a saying about who is truly happy… here he says that the one who is blessed is the one who perseveres under trial, who stands the test, because the reward for that is the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. Now we might think that is talking about earning Gods favour and reward. But that endurance of faith is more responding with love to God who first loved us and gave his life for us. It is not winning eternal life or earning it, but finding life as a result of that perseverance of faith.
Carbon can be found in different natural states one is coal and another is diamond, the difference between the two is…(as I paused here for dramatic affect it was typical when I use science illustrations as two people in the church said ‘crystalline structure instead of my rather more mundane and non-scientific answer) pressure. I know I’m simplifying that, but in the end James is looking at trials and saying that in the midst of life’s real trials, real pressure, there is joy because a real God is at work in us to produce diamonds not coal. Diamonds reflect and sparkle they come alive in the presence of the light, the light of God.