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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Help, My Tongue is On Fire (James 3.1-12)

March 29, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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There are some real zingers in the scripture lesson for today! Did any of them grab your attention? I bet the teachers are nervous: "Let not many of you become teachers… [you] will incur a stricter judgment." How about the verse that inspired my title: "The tongue… is set on fire by hell." Or, the tongue is "a restless evil and full of deadly poison." Then there is the true and unsettling observation: "With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men…. From the same mouth comes both blessing and cursing." No wonder the monks took vows of silence! These things can get us into big trouble.

Today's lesson has several distinct parts to it, but each relates to the tongue and the importance of what we SAY. This is a crucial section in James' letter, then, because it signals a new topic. James has been interested in the interaction between FAITH and WORKS, concerned that what we believe be integrated with what we do. In this chapter, James focuses in on the seemingly thin line between the two, and pries open a wedge – another area somewhere between faith and works. In this area of SPEECH, he shines the light of truth and declares again the need for consistency through and through.

What's the Deal With Teachers?

First, James zeroes in on teachers. Why do they get picked on? Maybe it is because teachers tell others what they should do or think. They stand in that gap between FAITH and WORKS, touching peoples' lives in both directions. I once asked some students how a teacher might be judged more strictly. They said the teacher was responsible both for themselves and the student. As an example, they described the (hypothetical) influence of seeing a driving instructor running a red light. If a teacher's behavior conflicts with the teaching, it undermines the whole process.

James makes the connection between SPEECH and WORKS by saying that the person who speaks without fault is "perfect," able to control all the body. What we say is the bridge between our FAITH and WORKS. Our words will usually line up with one or the other, but the struggle is integrating all three. James highlights teachers because the interrelation of FAITH-SPEECH-WORKS is readily seen in what they do. The teacher who doesn't love and believe in the merits of the subject is most always ineffective. So also, the teacher who demonstrates mistrust and betrayal of the principles being taught (e.g. the red-light-running driving instructor) will prove to be ineffective.

Easy enough… we can well imagine the need for consistency in thought, word, and deed as we think back to a teacher whose name will never fade from memory. But don't point the finger too soon. I also once asked a room full of adults of varying professions (and only one professional teacher), "How many of you are teachers?" All of them indicated that they were teachers of some sort. Some coached, many were fathers or mothers, some taught Sunday School or youth group, some taught employees or employers. Each of them could think of someone whom they were teaching or could teach something. So we are all caught in the net of these verses.

We are all accountable to God for the way in which we hold faith, speak truth, and demonstrate love. James' words here tell us to be careful when others are being affected by what we say. From here, James goes on to illustrate the power of the tongue to affect ourselves and others.

Picture This!

James gives three illustrations, in sequence, to show the power of the tongue. The first two demonstrate the tongue's power to affect ourselves. A bit in the mouth of a horse has the power to turn a very large and strong animal with only the smallest of motions. Likewise, a small word can set us on the path of truth or on the path of lies. "Did you do all your homework?" A false "Yes" can gain a night of freedom, but a semester of struggle.

The tongue is like the rudder of a ship, steering a large vessel even in the face of a mighty wind. A word of decision can chart our course even in the face of pressure or temptation. "Come on out and party with us… your family can do without you for one night." A firm "No, I haven't been home one night this week – I'm going to stay in" can lead to strengthening a commitment made years ago. Our words have the power to back up our actions… or undermine them.

A third illustration shows how the tongue can affect others as well as ourselves. James compares the tongue to a spark that sets a whole forest on fire. A tiny piece of gossip, "Haven't you heard about the Jones family?" can start a raging fire of hurt and damage. So also, a tiny word, "I forgive you" can start a holy fire of cleansing grace.

James then says the tongue is itself a fire. It has the power to corrupt our whole bodies. How often do we find ourselves having to follow through on a commitment or boast made without really thinking through the consequences?

The three illustrations James gives contain an implicit message along with the obvious teaching about the power of the tongue. In each illustration, the tongue is only a "tool." The questions arise, "Who rides the horse? Who steers the ship? Who lights the fire?" Yes, the tongue is a powerful force, but it is only a tool of the will. The tongue can be used for good or evil, depending on the one that uses it.

Now here's the frustrating news… no one can tame the tongue. While we may manage a good word here or there, our wills are subject to emotions like anger, jealousy, and fear. Our wills are subject to biological forces like adrenaline, estrogen, and fatigue. And ultimately, our wills are imperfect because of sin. So the bottom line is this: our tongues are powerful instruments, able to steer lives as large as ours, but we are not qualified to steer!

James highlights the crux of the problem for us. Even with something as pure as worship, we praise God one moment and curse someone the next. We can sing hymns of joy at 11:50 Sunday morning, and tear down our family over lunch. Our tongues are fickle instruments because we try to control them with fickle hearts. And so, James goes to the heart of the problem. Or, using his language, to the source of the problem.

Can I Get Bottled Water?

James says we must look to the Source. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. How can it be? He asks, "Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?" No… of course not. Our problem must be that our source is impure – and it is. If our will is the source of all we believe, say, and do, our "water" is impure. Only with God's will and Word as our source can the water of our lives be pure.

And so, James has again raised the question of FAITH. In whom do you have faith. Is it only in yourself? Or is it in God? Who is the Source of your faith and life? James says to check and see – it must be God if there is to be any hope of purity in word and deed.

But that's just the beginning! Water can also be contaminated after the source. Fresh water and salt water cannot flow from the same source, but if someone dumps garbage in the water near the source, all the water downstream will be contaminated. Likewise sin has a secondary contaminating effect on our lives. Even with God as the Source, we must contend with issues of purity and freshness in our lives.

"But can't I just have some bottled water?" I wish it were that easy… but it's just not. In this life, we must struggle with the consequences of sin, and the best we can do is grow in purity and faithfulness.

So, in practical terms, what does this look like? How can we base our lives on a faith that is increasingly pure, so that as we integrate faith, word, and deed, God will be glorified? How can we use our tongues for good, not evil?

First, and essential, is to realize God as Source of all we are and all that we do. There can be no confusion on this issue. Scripture says that no one of us is righteous – no one of us is qualified to steer the course of our lives. Only Christ is perfect; only Christ is righteous; only Christ is the pure source of living water. So first, ask this question: "Do I trust in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior?" Do not leave that question until the question makes sense and the answer is "Yes."

Second, realizing that God is the Source of life, seek to maximize the fresh water and minimize the salt water in the flow of your life. We can maximize the fresh water by opening ourselves more and more fully to God's will and Word found in scripture, worship, serving others, and experiencing God's Spirit. So read and study scripture. Be in worship and seek times and places to worship God. Pray and communicate with God. Help other people – serve those in need and love the lovable and the unlovable. Listen for God's Spirit and try to be sensitive to God's leading and direction in your life.

How do we minimize the contaminating force of sin? This is the area in which we grow as Christians. Scripture promises that if we confess our sin, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sin and cleanse us from unrighteousness. It is that cleansing effect that causes us to grow. One of the defining characteristics of sin is focus on self. Don't wait for sinful behavior to contaminate your life, seek out areas where you claim control and find self-preoccupation and ask God for help in relinquishing that area to God's control.

As an example of this, take finances. I have found myself anxious about having enough money for the future and for my family. At some point, if I try to seize control of my finances, I will work longer hours, seek extra income, and become controlled by this "need" in my life. Yes, I need to be responsible about finances, but trusting God for my family's future sets me on a completely different course than my trying to be the rock upon which my family stands.

Our Source

When it comes to faith, word, and deeds, our only hope for the integrity and consistency James calls for comes from having God as our Source and from growing in personal purity and holiness. The first is a recognition of God's sovereignty by grace through faith. The second is a lifelong process brought about by an ever-deepening relationship with God through Jesus Christ in the power of God's Spirit.

Let us close by singing together the first verse of a familiar hymn as our heart's prayer:

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing, Tune my heart to sing Thy grace; Streams of mercy, never ceasing, Call for songs of loudest praise. Teach me some melodious sonnet, Sung by flaming tongues above; Praise the mount! I'm fixed upon it, Mount of God's unchanging love!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Faith Plus Works Equals Faithfulness (James 2.14-26)

March 22, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Last week we talked about Christian behavior, focusing in with James on the sin of favoritism. We defined that as trying to make faith about our favorite things and favorite people rather than singularly and exclusively about following and obeying Jesus Christ. The key question coming out of that – for individual Christians and for churches – was “What is God doing and how can I be a part of that?”

James continues in chapter two with the verses we are looking at today. And he is continuing to make a similar point: faith is not just an internal belief, but is expressed outwardly through godly behavior. Not playing favorites is just one example. In today’s text James will give several more examples, pointing us towards one of his primary teachings: true faith cannot be separated from godly behavior.

James is often characterized as being about “works” in contrast to Paul’s emphasis on “faith alone.” James makes clear in today’s text that there is no either/or, but a both/and for the follower of Jesus Christ.

Opening Questions

In verse 14, James begins this set of verses with two questions that introduce the topic:

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?

The first question kind of gives away his point – he’s going to say that kind of so-called “faith” is no faith at all and is of no use. Nonetheless, one answer someone might give to the first question is that faith does save us for heaven – that’s it’s usefulness. But then James’ second question gets right at that: is the kind of faith that is “useless” on earth the kind of faith that saves us for Heaven? He then follows with a number of illustrations and a hypothetical argument to speak to these questions.

Dead Faith

His first illustration is grounded in the here and now, and is one to which we can readily relate.

If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?”

I’ll go ahead and translate it into our modern setting. At Good Shepherd we have several wonderful mercy ministries – caring for people who are in this kind of need. What James warns against would be a church policy where we say, “Let social services provide food and clothes – we are only here for spiritual needs because those are most important.” So if someone came to us who needed financial help and we said, “We can’t help you with money, but will pray for you,” James would say to us, “What use is that?”

Now the illustration is a little more complex than is immediately apparent. There are times we say ‘no’ to people – if they refuse to sit down with deacons and talk about the broader financial picture… if there is repeated physical need without effort to work on improving the situation… if someone calls me from 50 min. away asking for the church to mail rent money just on a phone call. But in none of those cases is our attitude that material help is unimportant. We recognize the need for accountability and wisdom and seek to work with people. Neither do our deacons simply provide materially without ALSO offering spiritual resources.

James’ point is that Christian faith has an impact in the material and present world. We are not just about prayers, heaven, and holy huddling, but are hands and hearts plunged into the world around us.

His conclusion after this illustration is in verse 17: “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” A “faith” that doesn’t engage the world is dead faith, no faith at all. A living faith is vitally interested in the world because God is vitally interested in the world.

“Maybe That’s Your Thing…”

In verse 18, James introduces a hypothetical argument:

But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

You might have been expecting the hypothetical argument to be against James’ strong teaching on works, but instead it is just the kind of statement you might hear today. It goes something like this: “Well, maybe that’s your thing… we all have different gifts and strengths.” “Your thing” may be evangelism, prayer, feeding the hungry, being in front of people, or any number of things. There is a legitimate and biblical point to that – we do all have gifts to be used as we follow Jesus. But what is not allowed is to separate out belief in God and obedience to God, as if basic faith or obedience aren’t your thing.

James tightens the screws on the faith-without-obedience side of things by noting that even the demons of Hell believe God is God. But they do not have saving faith because they refuse to obey and serve that God. At that point, James is probably kind in saying that holding the view that there is a faith without works is only “foolish” and “useless.” (He could have gone for idolatrous and sinful!)

Some Classic Examples

He goes on from there to offer two historic and classic examples of faith-filled people from Israel’s history. And his point is to demonstrate that these giants of the faith were known precisely for their extraordinary obedience to God – in other words, their faith is known because of their works.

He mentions Abraham, particularly the severe obedience of preparing to offer Isaac, his son, to God as a sacrifice. Many are thrown off by the phrase in verse 21 – “justified by works.” But James uses the word differently than Paul who writes of being “justified by faith.” For James, “justification” is proven faith. For James, faith is untested until proven in the real world. So, Abraham, who was full of faith, was shown to be so in his obedience to the Lord’s command. Again, James’ point here is not that works save us, but that real faith is faith-in-action or faith-filled obedience. It’s kind of like saying little Johnny is honest, but not really knowing he is until he tells the truth or refuses to lie. His conclusion, after citing Abraham, is in verse 24: “You see that a man is justified (shown or proven just) by works and not by faith alone.”

For Paul, justification was like innocence or guilt in a courtroom. Either you are or you aren’t. Paul says, because of Christ’s work, all who trust in him are innocent.

For James, justification is proven innocence or guilt in a courtroom. In order to be judged innocent or guilty, there must be some evidence! And with Paul, James would say that because of Christ’s work, all who trust in him are innocent. How do you know who that is – it’s by one’s fruit or works.

James gives a second illustration from history with Rahab. She was also a famous figure in Israel’s history – the citizen of Jericho who hid the Israelite spies and helped them escape. She and her family later joined Israel and became part of God’s people. She was known for her faith in the God of Israel and James is pointing out that she demonstrated that faith – made it known – precisely through her obedience and good works. From this illustration, James concludes in verse 26, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” Obedience and good works are the “guts” of faith. Without them, faith is an empty (and meaningless) shell.

What Do We Make of All This?

So what do we do with all this theology, illustration, and teaching?

James is simply reminding us of something we need to hear. Faith, like love, is not an intellectual construct. Each has its life in the real world. Without hands and feet and breath, there is no faith or love.

I’ve said before that we can take the greatest and godliest good thing and mess it up. It is true that our works don’t save us. But even the great truth of “grace by faith alone” can be twisted and distorted into an excuse not to live obediently in service to Christ.

James is a good corrective to that distortion, reminding us that there is only one kind of faith, the kind that is engaged in the world around us that God loves. Maybe one way to help remember that is to realize that to be full of faith is to be faithful. Rather than only think about faith and works as if they are two different things, James challenges us to think of faithfulness, the true combination of belief and obedience that is the sign of a real relationship with God.

So, ponder what faithfulness means in your life. Consider how your belief in God intersects the world that God loves. I talk often of a personal ministry and mission for each one of us. Come talk to me or one of the elders about plugging in and experiencing God’s purpose for you in ministry. Come study scripture with us in Sunday school and on Wednesday nights, for that is where God speaks His Word to you. Pray for God to put you into play, that you might know what it means to be “a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.”

And hear this: this is why you are here! You are here, saved by God’s hand, that your life might honor and glorify God in all you do. You are here to love God and reflect that love to those around you in thought, word, and deed. You are here as a rescued wanderer, a student and disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.

As you believe in this God who saves, be diligent to do His work in the world. It will honor God and fulfill your eternal purpose in the here and now. Amen.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Sin of Favoritism (James 2.1-13)

March 15, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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8:30 Full Sermon (23 min)

11:00 Short Sermon (15 min)

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Service Music: "Friend of Sinners"

Service Music: "Pie Jesu"

Translation: Merciful Jesus, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest everlasting.

Sermon Text

Today we continue in a series from the New Testament book of James, written by Jesus’ brother and one of the first New Testament books written.

We are going to look at the first half of chapter two, which takes up the topic of “favoritism” among Christians. That may seem like a peripheral issue, but I’m going to talk about the ideas here using some contemporary examples that I hope will show this to be a very relevant passage to what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

In fact, by way of this mini-sermon on favoritism, James teaches us something about the character of God and hopefully something about what it means for us here and now to be faithful followers of God.

What’s Favoritism and What’s the Big Deal?

Basically, favoritism is what it sounds like. It’s playing favorites. It’s liking some people better than others. And I suppose to a degree that’s human and normal. But it’s more than that. Favoritism is treating some people better than others, and that’s where James starts to have a problem, particularly when the ones showing favoritism claim to be followers of Jesus.

There are two reasons this was a problem in the church around James and continues to be today. The first is that it’s just human nature to boost our own position by belittling someone else’s. We start doing that in grade school and only grow more sophisticated as adults. “At least I’m not the worst one on the team… well, you should hear what SHE did over the weekend!... Wow, those kids were out of control; mine looked awesome in comparison!”

And there’s a spiritual dimension that goes all the way back to the original temptation in the Garden of Eden. James opens these verses by talking about “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” If anyone was gifted, special, and worthy of favor, it was Jesus. He is God in the flesh, the glory of the one and only God. Do you remember, too, that the word “Christian” means “little Christs?” Maybe that’s at the root of the issue here. It’s so easy for us to think of ourselves as God’s special favorites. After all, Christians are the ones who have believed in God. It’s only natural to think that we could bask in God’s pleasure. If we do the right thing and show up at the right place and differentiate ourselves from others, maybe we can be a little like God… that’s what the serpent offered to Eve!

But James warns that we should not hold faith in the glorious Lord Jesus Christ together with any attitude of superiority or playing favorites. The two are incompatible. He goes on to give examples of rich and poor in the church and preference given to those who look more blessed, holy, and together. But then he continues and says that showing partiality based on wealth is sinful. It is not “loving your neighbor as yourself.” And those are problems that continue to plague Christians and the Church today.

Searchlight Mess

One of the things we like to talk about around here is the image of being a searchlight with God. Recognizing that Jesus came into the world to seek and to save the lost, we have recognized that the church doesn’t exist just to welcome people who wander in off the street; it exists to participate in God’s mission to the world. The news about Jesus is like a searchlight in the nighttime darkness, used to seek and to find people for God. God calls us to get up and get out of this church setting and get into the world where He still seeks and saves people today.

One of the things we have realized is that searchlight ministry can be messy. It can change the look of the neighborhood, the church, and the congregation. It means that we may reach out to people God loves who don’t look or talk or think like most of us. And that can be very unsettling.

On some level, all churches and Christians must deal with those kind of issues. But it’s also possible for a church to coast and remain comfortable and “neat” and avoid the kinds of mess that following Jesus can produce. It can be years before the consequences of coasting can become obvious.

Last Sunday I was out of town with several people from Good Shepherd and a team from all over the southeast, leading a renewal weekend – kind of a Presbyterian revival – at a church in South Carolina. Now let me say up front that this was a wonderful church that most of you would feel at home in. And there was lots of ministry and history to be legitimately proud of. And let me also say that I think God’s Spirit is stirring them up in a godly and productive way. So, knowing all that, don’t let my next words come across as a poor judgment on them in any way.

The church we went to has aged significantly. With only a handful of exceptions, the youngest members are in their 60s. Not the average age, but the youngest members. The pastor told me he has done something like 38 funerals in the last 12 months. They had four kids in the youth group and about as many elementary kids. The church wants renewal and revival. They want young people and new life. And they are faithful followers of God and students of the scripture.

We had a weekend full of preaching, worship, and testimonies… and lots of conversation with church members. Out the front of their church is a small college. Out the side door is a soup kitchen they started which now is the primary ministry to the hungry and homeless in the downtown of their city. Out their back door is a large neighborhood of urban poor that is struggling with crime, gangs, and drugs.

And where this congregation was struggling, particularly after the stirring of the Holy Spirit over the weekend, was exactly the place James is describing. Will faith in the glorious Lord Jesus Christ lead us and lead me wherever God wants me to go, or will I confuse my comfort and my preferences – my favorites – with God’s will.

What if God wants them to somehow transition from feeding the homeless to worshiping with the homeless? What if college students or youth means changing the very high art and classical music program that church enjoys? (One older member asked if introducing new worship music could wait until after he dies.) What if God wants them to somehow make inroads into the crime-ridden community behind them. They are THE church bordering that neighborhood. Who will be God’s light if not them?

And here’s the real bottom line, the real question James would have us ask. He says it in verse 8 – it’s about who our neighbor is and what it means to love them. And like bedrock even beneath that reality is the reality that God loves the college students. God loves the hungry homeless. God loves the kids in the gangs and the people frequenting the crackhouses.

And despite the tendency of some of the visiting renewal team to diagnose the aging church’s problems and suggest new programs and ministries to try, I pressed back on all of them with a question that should sound familiar to you by now.

What is God doing and how can you be a part?

That is a radically different question than the one favoritism demands: “What do I want to do and how can I get God to bless it?”

No, the question James would have us ask… the one that fixes our eyes on Jesus rather than playing favorites is this one:

What is God doing and how can you and I be a part?

The fact that you have heard me ask that question here before should point you to another conclusion: our church is not really any different than that church or any other. It is true that the South Carolina church is further along in its life cycle. Its issues and the pressing question of “What is God doing?” is cast in clearer shades of black and white. But it’s the same question we have to face as a church and each of us who follow Jesus must face individually.

Is our faith about doing what we want and being with those we like, and asking God to bless our favorite things? Or is our faith about following Jesus wherever he leads us.

I think the right answer is clear, particularly after reading these verses from James. But doing it is a different challenge altogether!

I think we could make applications with our own neighborhoods and literal applications about differences in race, wealth, and education, as the examples in James 2. And those are correct and needed applications for us. But I’d like to end with a more extended application borne out of recent events in my own life and the life of the church.

Love Won Out

About three weeks ago, Heather and I attended a weekend conference in Charlotte by Focus on the Family. It was called “Love Won Out” and it was on the subject of ministering as Christians to people struggling with sexuality and related issues. Many of you will also recall that about four weeks ago the Presbyterian Church in Charlotte made headlines related to similar topics. Now I realize there are a number of younger children present today, so I will not talk explicitly about these issues. Rather, I want to talk generally about issues James raises about mercy and judgment.

You’ll see in verse 11 that James moves from the literal application of rich and poor to the spiritual application of… what shall we say? – sinners and saints? Interestingly, James also lifts out a similar type sin and says that showing favoritism or partiality is a form of murder – perhaps something akin to “character assassination” – and it is just as serious a sin.

Clearly, these topics could fill several sermons themselves. What I want to focus on is how the topic of people-as-sinful relates to the topic of following Jesus and (not) showing favoritism. And I think this is at least as big and scary a subject to chew on as whether to start following God in caring for gang members or drug addicts.

Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment

Starting in verse 12, James instructs us to speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. He continues in v. 13, “For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy…” This calls to mind the parable of Jesus in Matthew 18:21-35 in which a king settles accounts with a slave who owes him a HUGE sum by forgiving the debt. The slave then goes out and beats another who owes him a small sum. The point of the parable and vv. 12-13 in James is similar – show mercy as God has shown you mercy. Judgment belongs to God and God will judge humanity perfectly and sufficiently. As for us, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, including when our neighbor is a sinner. The further point is that Christians should know more than anyone just how much mercy God has shown us – we should be foremost in showing mercy to others who also need God’s forgiveness.

The hard path for us lies between two extremes. The first extreme is to deny sin. Mercy doesn’t cover its eyes and say, “No sin here!” Rather, it looks it full in the face, in the knowledge of what true grace and forgiveness means and feels like. Mercy means loving someone with full knowledge and recognition of the other person’s fallenness.

The second error is to exclude sinners from the church as if the church is only for perfect people. That is judgment, favoritism, and just plain wrong. Jesus himself said that he did not come to call the righteous, but (to call) sinners. (Matthew 9:13)

To chart the godly path between these extremes, I could use the same language I used in talking about the church in South Carolina. We need to not ask what makes us comfortable and who our favorites are and how God can bless that. Rather, we need to ask what God is doing, whom God seeks, and how we can be a part of that.

One of the resounding truths that came out of that “Love Won Out” conference is the reminder that God loves sinners. That’s the core of the Good News. The Bible says that ALL have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. And God so loved the world that He sent His Son, that whoever believes in him will not die, but live forever.

God loves sinful people – what other kind are there? James challenges us individually and as a church: will we be a part of what God is doing or will we stay in our comfort zones with our favorite things and favorite people?

God IS seeking sinful people, to show them mercy and grace through Jesus Christ. This is not mercy that pretends sin isn’t real or turns a blind eye, but mercy that looks us full in the face and says, “I know exactly who you are and what you’ve done, and I would give my life for you.” That’s what God has done and that’s what God calls us to do.

And God rescues sinful people. That’s my story and the story of a lot of people who are very different than I am. Will we be a part of what God is doing? Will you? Amen.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Word that Works (James 1.18-27)

March 8, 2009
Sermon by: Jeremiah Caughran
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Ex nihilo. Do you know what that means? It's a Latin phrase that describes how God created the universe. It means “out of nothing.” God created out of nothing. How did He do this? By the power of His word. He spoke and it came to be. He said, “Let there be light,” and the light was. He spoke for six days and created this whole universe and all that is in it. That is the power of God's word. He speaks and it is done. He calls into being that which is not. His very word upholds all that is as it continues to work today. His word does more work than just upholding the universe. His word also works recreation. He takes what is broken and renews it by the power of His word. This word is so powerful that it is able to save our very souls as it works. How does God do this? How does this word work such a wonderful thing as salvation? James tells us three things about God’s word and how it is able to save our souls:

James begins in verse 18: Of His own will he brought us forth by the word of truth. This word of truth is God's POWERFUL WORD. Just as with creation, God spoke and it was, so it is with our salvation. God speaks His word of redemption. And that redemption is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This powerful word is of God’s own will; it flows out the exercise of His will. James says that God brings us forth by the power of His word. This is a picture of birth occurring. And so, James is saying that it is by God's will that we have been regenerated and renewed. This is our being born again, our spiritual rebirth. How is this done, though? It is by God's powerful word, just as with creation. This word of truth has its origin in God. It comes from God Himself. Though God uses a preacher to proclaim the word of truth, the word itself comes from God. This is a beautiful picture of salvation for us to dwell upon. My will has nothing to do with my salvation. Is this not freeing for us? We don't have to earn God's favor, we don't have to position ourselves to gain something from God. It is God Who does the work, as John tells us in the first chapter of his Gospel: “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” We are renewed and regenerated, brought forth and born again by God’s gracious will! And this is all through a firm foundation, something that cannot be moved and that never changes. It is something that we can go back to, God's very POWERFUL WORD.

What is the purpose of God's POWERFUL WORD working regeneration in us? James tells us “that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.” God brings us forth that we might be totally His. The firstfruits were always the beginning of the harvest, the first and best that were given to God. They were sanctified and set apart for Him. These firstfruits were a representation of the rest of the harvest. Likewise, the believers that James is writing to were early believers who in this way represented the rest of God's work. They were the first to be set aside and were a promise that the rest would be made holy. This language that James is using is one of encouragement for these believers. They were but the first to believe, there will be many more after them. But this is also a picture of what God is doing to the rest of creation. Those who believe in Christ are the first to receive the renewal that will come upon all of creation. This is the promise of the new heavens and the new earth. All of creation is going to be renewed for we are the firstfruits of his creatures.

We have been drawn to God by the Holy Spirit through His word, the Gospel. This is a deep reminder that we do nothing for our salvation. We must now trust that God has accomplished all that needed to be done for us. We offer nothing to improve this working of God. We can only receive God’s gracious will toward us and rest in it.

James tells us even more though. He has told us, first of this POWERFUL WORD of God. What else does he say? James tells us of God’s POWERFUL WORK through His word.

He says “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” James is applying the truth of the regeneration that the word brings about. He wants his readers to be hearers of the word and be empowered to act according to that word that they hear. You see, it would be easy to hear what the word says, that all people are sinners and Christ died for sinners, and only focus on the word sinners. We hear that word “sinners” and we think of everyone else. We think “those sinners out there.” We become angry that they reject the Gospel and continue in sin. We condemn them, all the while neglecting that the word “sinner” applies to us equally. It reminds me of Jesus teaching about judging your brother with the plank in his eye while ignoring the log in your own. We easily point out planks, but are blind because we don’t fully hear the word. “All are sinners.” All of us are sinners. No matter how much human anger we have toward people who insist on living out their sin, we never quit being sinners ourselves! We need to be quick to hear what the word says to us first before we apply it to others. We don’t want to gloss over what the word says to us! We need to see that log that is in our eye before we point out the plank in another’s!

This anger of man that James speaks of is that sinful anger toward others. It will not, I dare say, it cannot produce the righteousness of God, that righteousness that He requires of us. This is why we need to be quick to hear, to understand what the word says about us, about you and me, so that that kind of anger won't come. This is because the word does a POWERFUL WORK in us. That regeneration that it produces allows us to hear the word and avoid quick words and quick anger toward others. This POWERFUL WORK is also seen in James' words that follow in verse 21: “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness...” Seeing the need to hear what the word says to us and actually hearing it, it POWERFULLY WORKS in us the ability to put away our filthiness and wickedness. James is saying, “Get rid of that unneeded anger. It will only produce hate of other people and more sin against them.” However, don't think that filthiness and wickedness is only our blatant sins, those times when we disobey God and do something like lying about or stealing from or hatred toward another. This filthiness and wickedness includes all of our self-righteousness, those times when we do tell the truth or don't steal for the wrong reasons. Maybe we think, “I am better than that,” or “This proves I am better than that other person.” Or we think deep down that our works are the real assurance of our salvation, that I am staying saved by doing these works.

This self-righteousness is the kind of thing that James wants his readers to put away, because in that putting away, they can receive and take hold of the implanted word, which is able to save their souls. That is the fullness of the POWERFUL WORK of God's word in us. It is what saves our souls. When we cast down our unrighteous works, our self righteous actions and anger, we can receive the word more fully. It is already implanted in us by the Holy Spirit, but we need to always hear and take hold of it because it is what saves us! It is what the Spirit uses to work salvation in us continually. Not our works or deeds or our actions, but the word is what works salvation in us. We need it. We need to hear it. Receiving the implanted word lets us live that new life that God has given to us. The more we live with that implanted word, the more our faith and trust in Christ will grow and the more that faith will show up in our daily lives. This brings us back to James' point about the POWERFUL WORD. It is what saves our souls, so we must receive it with humility and meekness, for it is not our word, it is God's gracious word to us and it is able to save us.

James has told us about the POWERFUL WORD and its POWERFUL WORK in us. What does this lead to? It leads to a POWERFUL PROMISE.

James says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” James knows our hearts well. He knows the heart is deceitful and that it will convince us that all we need to do is hear. There is more to understand about God's word of truth. There is the doing of that word. Consider the illustration that James gives. He says: “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” He compares this word he has been speaking about to a mirror in which a man looks at his face. James opens our eyes to how this word operates. It shows us what we really are. It reveals that we are really sinners. The man, the one who hears it and simply walks away from it, has rejected that he is a true sinner. Though he may agree briefly with what the word says and consider what it means, he ultimately doesn't dwell upon it or persevere in it, he has not truly listened to it! In his natural self, he refuses to really see what he is because he simply walks away and forgets it!

“But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets, but a does who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” Here James reveals to us just what this mirror is. It is the perfect law, that is, the Law of God, that law that Paul speaks of as “holy, righteous, and good.” Yet, Paul also speaks of it as a law that condemns and reveals sin, a law that actually drives our flesh to want to sin! But James calls it “the law of liberty.” How though, can this law that reflects all that a man is and all that he fails to do be also a law of liberty?? It can do this because this mirror also points us to something. It points us to the POWERFUL PROMISE. That POWERFUL PROMISE is that though I am a sinner, though I am helpless in my sin, Christ died to take that sin away. This mirror is a law of liberty because it tells me that I can't earn my way to God, it tells me that I cannot please Him. This mirror is a law of liberty because it drives me to repentance, by driving me to see how I utterly fail to live up to what God demands! It drives me to Christ because it shows me that Christ has done all that needed to be done. This mirror when dwelt upon becomes my way to liberty. Persevering and receiving what this mirror reveals to me will drive me to repentance and to faith in Christ. And in that perseverance, the POWERFUL PROMISE that God's word works is the being blessed in one's doing, being blessed in salvation.

So what does James want us to do? First, he wants us to be driven to repentance and faith in Christ. And then he wants us to act out this true religion of repentance and faith. He tells us that pure and undefiled religion, a religion that that sees God's POWERFUL WORD doing a POWERFUL WORK and producing a POWERFUL PROMISE, will be responsive. When we find that we are helpless before the power of sin save only God's intervention in our lives, creating faith and repentance through regeneration, we respond by helping the helpless, by coming to the aid of widows and orphans, by having compassion on those that are not shown compassion! It also means keeping oneself unstained by the world. One does this by not believing the world’s lie that we are not really sinners. How do we do this? We must receive with meekness the implanted word. When we hear God's word, we let it convict us and let that ugly image that we see in the mirror drive us to Christ. We must stand firm and trust Christ's death in our place. In doing this, we will be blessed in our doing, both of responding in faith and repentance and in helping the helpless.

God's word is powerful and it works powerfully in us and it gives us a powerful promise. This word that drives us to repentance and trust in Christ is more powerful than the word that God spoke at creation! Consider the word spoken by Moses in Deuteronomy 30:14. He tells the Israelites a word that sums up what James has given to us today. He says, “The word is very near to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” Trust now this word that works and gives us the promise of blessing be not only a hearer of it, but a doer who perseveres. Amen.

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.