Monday, March 2, 2009

Joy that Lasts (James 1.1-18)

March 1, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Today we are beginning a series on the book of James that will take us through Easter to the end of April. James is a fitting book to study during Lent, because it challenges us to faithful obedience in the midst of trial and temptation. This parallels the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, where he was tried and tempted as he prepared for his public ministry and mission. Lent traditionally parallels those 40 days, and we will likewise search God’s Word in James for resources to obediently endure that we, too, may be prepared for ministry and mission as we follow Jesus Christ.

James is believed to be one of the earliest New Testament books written, possibly as early as the 40s AD, only a few years after the crucifixion. The writer is James, the brother of Jesus, and the head of the Jerusalem Council and the early church. Some commentators identify the dispersed Jewish Christians in James 1:1 and the Jewish Christians dispersed under persecution in Jerusalem, as described in Acts 11:19. In any event, James is writing an early letter to the first believers, and encouraging them to endure in faith in a time when persecution was widespread.

This first chapter touches on a number of themes that will resurface as we move through James, but verse two is a key verse for the chapter and the whole book. If you can wrap your mind and heart around verse two, then you’ll get what James is trying to communicate. Listen to it again:

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials…

He goes on immediately to give that statement some context: trials are a test of faith that can produce endurance; endurance isn’t the end result, but leads to a perfecting and completing of our faith. The picture James paints is that our lives are headed somewhere. We are on a journey. It is a journey that may well be marked by serious trials and serious temptations, but they are not the point of life. Rather, we are headed somewhere and that somewhere is designed by God so that we might be complete as human beings made by him. James will also make clear that God is not the source of temptation, but is the One who gives us resources to get through temptation and trial. James is very honest about the challenges we face and the objections you and I raise. Let’s look at some that he names in these verses.

“I Don’t Know What to Do”

Do you remember the first time you rode a two-wheeler? Maybe your experience was different than mine, but I was terrified. I was on grass, but it was downhill, bumpy, and I thought I was going to die. To say I didn’t know what to do is an understatement.

I remember when I was twelve and my little friend’s sister almost died in the night. As I kept vigil at my church with hundreds of others and alternately prayed and tried to make deals with God, I remember clear as day thinking and praying, “God, I don’t know what to do.”

I remember messing up on tests in college, forgetting assignments or not giving my best. But that was nothing compared with the first time I really messed up at my first job. My forgetting to do something my boss asked me to do cost the company more than my year’s worth of intern salary. I probably could have covered it up or shared the blame. I remember those temptations and thinking, “I don’t know what to do.”

Our lives are full of temptations, dilemmas, tragedies, obstacles, and many, many other things that we might call a “trial.” These are the things that test us and put us through the ringer. And one of the reasons we struggle so is that we just don’t know what to do. It may be something we don’t know how to cure or a mess we don’t know how to clean up or a question we don’t begin to know how to answer.

And James says, “Consider it all joy!” When you encounter such things, consider it all joy! How can that be?! For me joy is being in control, knowing the answer, having a handle on it all, and not being hurt in the process. What is James talking about?

James says that trials like these are an opportunity for faith to shine. That’s what he means by the “testing of your faith.” It’s not like God is up there grading you. I know we think that sometime, but that’s not what he’s saying. “Tested faith” is faith that shines. It’s like batteries that have been tested – we can count on them when we need the flashlight to shine in the dark. And James says that when our faith shines during trials, it builds endurance which leads to “perfection.” Again, lots of opportunity to misinterpret words. We don’t become perfect people, but rather more and more complete. As our faith shines through life, enduring the most difficult challenges, we become more and more completely what God created us to be.

Playing off the word choice of “perfect” and “lacking in nothing,” James goes on to explore two of the real objections that come to mind when we face real trials.

The first is this objection I have already raised: “God, I don’t know what to do!” In response to that, James says, “Ask God for wisdom.” If there is something we are lacking, it is wisdom, says James. And God delights to give wisdom. In fact, James says, you can ask God for wisdom with all faith that He will deliver. To doubt God on what He has promised to give us is to come completely unmoored from faith and reality. Don’t go there! Rather, if you find yourself facing the plunge down a grassy hill without your childhood training wheels… if you find yourself wrestling with untimely disease and death… if you face an ethical dilemma and have to take the blame… ask God for wisdom to know what to do.

God is not silent. It may seem that way; but He is not. He has spoken through scripture. Are you asking for wisdom? Then pore through the Bible to hear God speak. And as we allow ourselves to read and receive God’s Word, His Spirit speaks to our spirit and confirms His Word in our heart. Ask God for wisdom and He promises to provide it.

“I Don’t Have the Resources”

That leads right into the next objection. So fine, I knew what the right thing to do was when I really messed up at my first job. But doing the right thing… that was something else entirely. Even when I was learning to ride my bike, I heard my dad saying what I needed to know… but finding the courage to plunge down the hill was a very different obstacle.

The objection here is “I don’t have the resources.” “I could not possibly do that, God!”

“You see, this trial – it’s more than I can handle… I’m not strong enough, not smart enough, not courageous enough, not wealthy enough.”

Right here, in the discussion of things we lack, James introduces characters he will revisit several more times in the whole book: the rich man and the poor man. Here, he uses the two to make an important point about finding joy in trials and enduring in faith. Our ability to endure trials and discover godly joy is not a function of our earthly wealth, whether that be money, talents, or any other resource. In fact, the implication is that the pursuits of the rich may get in the way of the journey of joy. James reminds us that all those earthly pursuits will fade away as the grass before the hot sun.

It may well be that 500 bucks will address your immediate trial, if that is getting your rent check paid. It may well be that having health insurance may address your financial needs if you are hospitalized. But James’ point is that when we are really laid low by the trials of this life, we will need something far more substantial than money or insurance. In that sense, he sees the “brother of humble circumstances” as having an advantage over the rich one pursuing more wealth. Implicit in his teaching is that one of humble circumstances has come to grips with what really matters, trusting God for providing from day to day.

Now I know our modern experience of rich and poor, of poverty and provision and politics is much more complicated than this. So, I would best translate this idea to say that James finds it beneficial, for discovering joy in the journey, to first have a spiritual perspective on “resources” rather than an earthly one. Let our first thought in crisis be prayer and asking for God’s help. Said another way, the material resources of this world are limited and neither last forever nor solve every problem. On the other hand, the well of God’s spiritual resources never runs dry.

If you feel like you don’t have the resources for the deep trials of life, that’s a good thing, if that “lack” points you to God’s enduring resources.

“God, This is Your Fault”

In verse 12, James restates the theme of persevering under trial and holds out an image for finishing the journey well: the crown of life. Said another way, Christianity is not a point in time kind of thing – it’s not all about when you prayed the sinner’s prayer or walked the aisle. Rather, it is about just what James laid out in verse two: journeying through the challenges of human existence, trusting in God’s Word and resources. Those who do will know the blessing of joy along the way and experience the life God purposed.

In verse 13, James picks up a third obstacle or objection we have to life in this world. Faced with trial and temptation, it is so easy to turn and blame God, to say that God is causing it. Another way to say that is, “God, this is your fault!”

In response to that James says that God cannot tempt or be tempted, for that is evil. Rather, he says that temptation is related to sin… and that leads to death. More strongly, James writes in verse 16, “Do not be deceived.” What comes from God is not temptation and death, but “every good thing given and every perfect gift.” In sharpest contrast to temptation, sin, and death, God brings grace and life through Jesus Christ.

Set in the context of the previous verses, James would challenge us not to blame God, but ask God for wisdom and help in order to persevere through trials. It is precisely the humility of asking and not blaming that helps produce joy.

Joy that Lasts

A final word about joy – joy is not “happy.” It is not happiness that you are struggling with something. It is, rather, related to the peace of knowing that you are not struggling alone. It is the perspective of one who is resting on God’s strength and resources rather than human strength and resources. It is also much more durable and permanent than happiness. Joy is possible, even at the front-end of a trial, because we recognize that the God who has been faithful before will be faithful again (even if it looks different this time). Joy is possible in the midst of trial because we recognize that God is here, with us and for us.

Joy is possible throughout our journey because of what James writes in verse 18, describing the purpose of our creation:

In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.

God made us with a purpose, to be “first fruits” of creation – to display His image and bring glory to His name. God did not create us so that we would be battered around moment to moment by all that life throws at us, but has made a way for us from physical birth to spiritual rebirth in Christ to heavenly new birth in resurrection.

Today we are singing of rivers, journeys, and God’s provision. James likewise reminds us that there is joy in the journey, precisely because God has us in His hands and has provided all we need to survive and thrive.

Ask God for wisdom; seek God’s resources first over human resources; don’t blame God, but turn to God in repentance and humility. And you will discover a joy that not only lasts, but is there when you need it most. This is Good News! Amen.

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