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Monday, April 20, 2009

Friendship, Good and Bad (James 4, John 17.13-21)

April 19, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Today we are continuing in our study of James. Today we will look at a whole chapter, James 4. This chapter has a number of memorable verses and teachings. But particularly since we have been emphasizing at our Wednesday night “How to Read and Study the Bible” study the importance of reading individual verses in their larger context, I want to draw your attention to the broader theme flowing out of the previous chapter and running through this entire chapter.

So let’s review briefly since we were away from James for Easter Sunday. In the first half of chapter three, we talked about God as the source of wisdom, faith, and a faithful life. The master metaphor James lifted up was one of a stream of fresh water, which was God’s Spirit and Truth. Two key questions came from that metaphor and the first part of James 3.

First, Is God the pure source flowing in your life? In other words, do you believe in God through His Son, Jesus Christ, and trust Him with your life? And second, are you seeking ways to maximize the “pure water” in your life and minimize the pollution and contamination of sinful and worldly influences.

In the second half of James 3, we looked at that topic of influences and talked about how to discern, seek, and become godly influences, whether that be friends, teachers, coaches, or other significant relationships. One of the key features James noted for a godly influence is that the person or people would bring peace into your life. This, of course, is not telling you what you want to hear, but speaking words and providing encouragement and accountability for just what we talked about the previous week – increasing the pure water of God’s influence and reducing the pollution of ungodly influence.

I review all that because James 4 builds significantly on all those themes. Let’s look together at the text, for the link is right there in the first verse, and it is a question:

What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?

In that one question, with the use of “source” and “quarrels and conflicts,” James recalls all of chapter three. Is the source the pure water of God’s influence or the polluting influence of worldly influence? And based on the evident lack of peace and James’ previous assertion that godly influences produce a peace that leads to righteousness, the question signals an exploration of the kind of ungodly influences that James has been warning against.

And that is exactly where James goes. The broader theme that I want to focus on with you, however, is the question of our relationship to those ungodly influences, sometimes referred to as “the world.” Said most simply, do we withdraw, sell out, or something else?

Friend of the World, in a bad sense

Let’s look first at what I would call the “sell out” solution. It doesn’t take much to figure out this isn’t the right answer. James makes a direct link between the quarrels and conflicts and the influence of worldly influence. Linking to the metaphor of the water source, he sequentially names influences and their consequence, whether figurative or literal. Listen, from verses 2-3…

Your pleasures… that wage war in your members
You lust and do not have… so you commit murder
You are envious and cannot obtain… so you fight and quarrel

Interestingly enough, and this may be pressing the metaphor, James uses salt water as the contaminated contrast to God’s fresh water in chapter three. And these examples reflect what would happen if you drank salt water. If you are thirsty, it looks like what you need, but it only leaves you thirstier and more wanting than before!

Finally, James says even more bluntly, “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (v. 4)

I don’t think it could be stated any more plainly or directly than that. A friend of the world is an enemy of God. But hear clearly what is being said, for I do not want you to mistake a godly love for those all around us in this world with this phrase “friend of the world.” By “friend of the world,” James means someone who is drinking deeply or entirely from the contaminated or salt water of this world, of sin, of ungodly influence. He is continuing the imagery from chapter three. The questions are still, “Is God the source of faith, hope, and purpose in your life? Are you seeking God and godly influence in your life, or drinking from contaminated streams?”

Said another way, have you “sold out” to the ungodly influences of this world, or is your first allegiance and identity as one who believes in and follows Jesus Christ?

Friend of God

What is the alternative, then, to being a friend of the world in the wrong sense? Let’s look first at what James says, and then we’ll consider some of the answers Christians have tried over the ages.

In verses 5-6, James appeals to scriptural authority and teaching, saying first that God has purposefully placed His Spirit in the hearts of believers. More than that, God’s purpose in doing so is to demonstrate His grace and cause us to grow in humility.

In response to God’s action and purpose, James goes on to list a number of faithful human responses to God’s grace, contrasting the sequence of unfaithful responses at the beginning of the chapter. In contrast to that worldly source of quarrels and conflicts, now we have God’s Spirit, abiding in us as God’s purposed grace, as the source that results in the following:

Submission to God
Resisting the devil
Drawing near to God
Cleansing our hands
Purifying our hearts
Humbling ourselves in God’s presence

You might read verses 9-10 and think James is directly contradicting Scripture that elsewhere speaks of mourning being turned into rejoicing. Here he directs our laughter to be turned into mourning and our joy to gloom! (v. 9) Again, as we’ve studied on Wednesday nights, the context is crucial. He is directly contrasting the ungodly influences of verses 1-3, and the false laughter and joy of pursuing worldly things.

In other words, James is issuing a call to repentance for any whose source is the polluted or salt water of ungodly influences. As is most always the case, repentance involves humility, sorrow, and a kind of godly brokenness that recognizes how one has turned away from God in some way. That’s why all this is couched in the exhortations to “submit to God” and “draw near to God” (vv. 7-8).

So, a true friend of God is one who looks to God as the source of grace, hope, and purpose, through faith and trust in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, at work in our lives.

Selling Out or Withdrawing

It’s not too hard to see that selling out or yielding to the ungodly influences of this world are not God’s desire for His followers. The hard question is “What is the alternative?”

One conclusion that many often draw is that Christians must withdraw from the ungodly influences of this world. It’s a kind of variation on the “you cannot serve two Masters teaching.”

The illustrations of this are many, and all around us. And before I start describing them, hear me now say that none of these are necessarily problematic or wrong taken alone – it is the cumulative and, in some cases, comprehensive application of the withdrawal strategy that I want you to ponder.

Just this past week at one of our girls’ soccer practices, Heather was talking to another parent about our enjoyment of the soccer league in which we participate. It is affiliated with Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church and the practices and games are notably marked by good sportsmanship, prayer, encouragement, and team devotions. Understanding it’s just a structure, we would nonetheless call it a “Christians soccer league.” Many of our families have participated in just such a league – either SOAR or CHAMP, or another; many others have also played in more competitive neighborhood and community leagues. Fine; that’s a family choice, no problem.

But that conversation at the soccer match then turned to other sisters and other activities. Our daughter, Abby, takes gymnastics at a local gym in Matthews. Well, the other woman didn’t know what she thought of that. Her daughters did Christian gymnastics at one place, Christian dance at another, and, of course, the Christian soccer we were watching.

Even that was an isolated conversation, but it was all too familiar, because I recognize a familiar pattern. We do those things and even as adults can go to Christian gyms and listen only to the Christian radio station. We spend all our time at church and soon, before you know it, we have nothing but Christian friends.

Why? Any one or two of those things are fine. Even all, if handled correctly, might be fine. After all, each might be a way to maximize the pure stream of godly influence in our life, and decrease the flow of polluting influence. But is God’s desire for us to withdraw from the world entirely?

James gives his own illustrations in verses 11-17. Let me focus on the one starting in verse 13, about engaging in business. These are verses that have been taken out of context in more than one way, missing the point in context altogether. He writes:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.”

Now the most common application of these verses that I run into are people who will never talk about the future without tacking on the words, “If the Lord wills.” It’s not that those words are in any way wrong to say, they just aren’t magic words that we’re supposed to wave over any future endeavor in order to satisfy this teaching of Scripture. The application is far richer than that.

I’ve also run into the interpretation that says these verses teach against engaging in business at all. Again, the impetus there is to withdraw into a Christian enclave so that we wouldn’t associate with worldly or ungodly influences at all. I’ll ask the question again: is it God’s desire for us to withdraw from the world entirely?

No, it is not. I’ll just say it flat out so you don’t miss it. It is not God’s desire for us to withdraw from the world!

The point in James’ example is to engage in business (if you are in business), but to do so in a godly way, rather than simply to look like every other businessman or woman in the world. Be distinct, be set apart; be set apart by God’s Word and Truth and Spirit.

As I’ll say often – we can take the best and truest of God’s teaching and distort it into something unrecognizable! Withdrawal is not the godly alternative to selling out to the world.

Let me give one more broad illustration. I have been reading lately about what is being called “The Big Sort.” It’s a kind of sociological observation (see www.thebigsort.com). The gist of it is related to the red state, blue state phenomenon, but is far more startling and comprehensive. The author looks at voting, religious preference, ethnicity, education, economics, and other factors at the county level across the nation, and the trend in almost every case is from a blended “melting pot” in these categories to an increasing withdrawal of like with like. There is much more that could be said there, but the point I want to make today is that evangelical Christians are participating whole-heartedly in the big sort, and baptizing the withdrawal into our all-Christian enclaves with Scriptural warrant where I don’t see any. In fact, this kind of withdrawal looks exactly like the American culture around us – our withdrawal is, in fact, a part of the world, not distinctly Christian behavior.

Let me say this again: it is not God’s desire for us to withdraw from the world!

Sent Into the World With Truth

Why can I say that so definitively? Listen again to our call to worship from the beginning of today’s service. It comes from Jesus’ prayer in John 17…

I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. (John 17:15-18)

And Jesus was praying, not just for his disciples, but for you and me – for all who would come to believe through the disciples’ teachings. Jesus’ prayer is entirely consistent with what James writes. Jesus declares that we are not of the world; but he prays for the Father to send us into the world, set apart (sanctified) by the Word and Spirit of truth.

So we are indeed to seek to maximize the pure water of God as source in our life. We are to minimize and resist and clean out the effects of ungodly pollution on our life. But we are not to withdraw! We are to resist the evil one and Jesus’ prayer is for the Father to guard and keep us from the evil one. We are to turn from sin and cleanse our hands and hearts on a regular basis. But we are supposed to get our hands dirty.

We are supposed to have friends who are not Christian – lots of them! We are supposed to leave our Christian enclaves and mix and mingle “out there.” We are supposed to be salt and light in the world, not a warehouse full of unused saltshakers and boxed light bulbs!

What about hot issues and thorny topics? While the exact strategy and words and tone will vary from situation to situation, I can tell you that we are supposed to be active, engaged, and plugged into the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. That is the commitment of our leadership and something of which I am convinced. We may be convinced of the Bible’s clarity on issues of morality and sexuality, but if we either give in to the world’s view or cut ourselves off from those struggling with those issues, we have missed God’s mission altogether.

This church is not a gathering place; it is a sending station. It is our charge to teach and preach the Truth so that you will be trained and set apart with that truth. It is our prayer that God guard and keep and defend you as you go, but the charge is the same one you have been hearing for several years now – go!

We know how to be a lighthouse – what to do when people seek out the church and seek out the Lord. But our great challenge and our great mission is to fully embrace our calling as a searchlight church – a sent church. God has given you all you need; Jesus has even prayed for that specific mission. Look again at James 4:15 – “As the Lord wills, we will live…” That is our prayer; that is our mission!

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