Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sermon for September 2nd: James 1:19-27

Faith and Action

Keith Miller was a well-known Anglican speaker and writer in the 1970s. After a number of years working in the oil industry he had written a best-selling book called ‘The Taste of New Wine’, a refreshingly honest account of how his life had been touched by the Christian gospel. I read that book as a young Christian and it made a great impression on my life.

Keith and a team of other lay people used to run regular ‘Faith at Work’ retreats at an Episcopal retreat centre called ‘Laity Lodge’. On one occasion a man came to attend one of those retreats whose life was in a real mess; his workaholism was out of control and his relationship with his wife and son was a shambles. But he heard a message at the retreat that touched him deeply, and during the weekend he did business with God, serious business. At the risk of using a tired old cliché, he went home a completely different person.

A few days after he went home, he was reading quietly in his den one evening when his teenage son knocked on his door and asked if he could come in. The man welcomed him gladly, and the boy sat down and was quiet for a few minutes. Then he asked, “Dad, what happened to you?”

“What do you mean?” the father said. “Well”, the boy said, “these last few days you’ve been really different – you’ve been more patient, and more peaceful, and more fun to be around. Something’s changed you”. The father replied, “Well, I went away for a weekend to find out more about Jesus. Someone told me that if I gave my life to Jesus he could help me to be a different person, and I really wanted that, so I did”.

After a moment’s quiet, the boy looked up and said, “Do you suppose I could give my life to Jesus, too?”

Obviously faith in Christ had made a real difference in that man’s life. The faith he had embraced was a faith that went into action right away and made a difference to the way he lived his life. And that’s the sort of faith James wants to teach us.

The Letter of James, that we’re going to be reading from over the next few weeks, is all about putting our faith in action. It may well have been written by James the brother of Jesus, who emerged as the leader of the Jerusalem church in the years after Jesus’ resurrection. Some Christians down through the centuries haven’t been very fond of it because it doesn’t mention Jesus very much, but I don’t agree with that. I think it does something even better than mentioning Jesus a lot: it quotes him. Not necessarily word-for-word, but over and over again, as we read through the letter, you’re going to catch yourself thinking, “That sounds familiar – didn’t Jesus say something like that?” And because it’s the teaching of Jesus, it’s radical: if we put it into practice, it will turn our lives upside down, and we may well find that people come up to us, like the boy in Keith Miller’s story, and ask, “What happened to you?”

What sort of changes are we talking about? If we read through the letter of James, we’ll notice that James seems to keep circling back to the same themes; at first glance it looks a little disorganized, but by the time we finish the letter, these themes will be well and truly fixed in our minds. Today’s reading picks up three of them; let me point them out to you.

The first theme is humility. Look at verses 19-21:

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

There’s a lovely cartoon that’s been circulating around the Internet for some time. A man is sitting at his computer desk, his fingers poised over the keyboard, looking intently at the screen with a frown on his face. Outside the picture frame his wife is calling him: ‘Come to bed!” He replies, “I can’t come yet; someone on the Internet is wrong!”

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I am actually a very opinionated person. I love my own opinions and I enjoy inflicting them on other people at every possible opportunity; that’s one of the reasons I write a blog! If other people don’t agree with me, and resist the excellent advice I’m giving them, my natural sinful reaction is to get frustrated and angry with them. “Can’t these people see that I’m only thinking of their own good? Don’t they understand that I know best on this point? If they just took my advice and did what I’m telling them, things would go so much better for them! Why are they being so stupid?”

Those of us who are the parents of young adult children are particularly prone to this sort of thing, because we’ve been giving excellent advice to our kids since they were barely out of the womb, and it’s easy for us to overlook the fact that they aren’t kids any more, and they haven’t exactly been asking for our advice! We might attempt to browbeat them into doing what we want, but we soon discover that that dark frown we used to terrify them when they were six isn’t so effective when they’re twenty-six! All we do is frustrate them, and then they get angry, and then we get angry, and then the whole thing goes south pretty fast.

Why? James tells us, ‘Your anger (literally ‘human anger’) does not produce God’s righteousness’ (v.20). Haven’t we heard this before somewhere? Didn’t Jesus warn us against anger too? Ah yes:
“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22).
As I said, James quotes his big brother a lot in this letter. Did Jesus ever say to him in private conversation, “James, human anger doesn’t achieve God’s righteousness?” We’ll never know, but I like to think he did.

What does James mean by this word ‘righteousness’? We tend to think of it in individual terms – an individual living a good and holy and righteous life – and it certainly includes that, but in the Old Testament it’s primarily a community thing: very close to the word ‘justice’. James is saying, ‘You’re not going to achieve justice – that is, a better world for everyone – by spraying the universe with good advice and then getting angry with those who disagree with you. No - your first responsibility is to listen to the Word of God yourself: ‘Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls’ (v.21).

And, as the saying goes, ‘Everyone thinks of changing the world; no one thinks of changing themselves’. Curious, since the only person we can really change is ourselves.  Our focus must be on rooting out our own sinfulness, receiving the word of God, and putting it into practice in our lives. And this leads to the next part. If the first theme was humility – giving up the need to fix others and concentrating on fixing ourselves – the second theme is putting the word of God into practice. Look at verses 22-25:

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

Nowadays, of course, there are mirrors all over the place. Not only that, but everyone has a digital camera and is snapping photographs by the dozen, posting them online; some of my friends have dozens of alternative ‘profile pictures’ on Facebook! It’s hard for us to imagine a world where you could literally forget what you look like. But in contrast, in New Testament times mirrors were quite rare; only the richest houses would possess them. Glass windows, too, were almost unheard of. Most people only saw their own reflection if they happened to be on the shore of a lake on a day when the surface of the water was very still. In that society, it was very possible that a person might forget what they looked like!

In the same way, James says, it’s possible to forget what the Word of God tells us about our own spiritual state. We might listen to the Word of God and recognize what it says to us about what God wants from us, and our own shortcomings. We might even feel really bad about our own spiritual state and cry out to God to forgive us and help us to be different. But none of this is of any use whatsoever unless we actually do something about it.

Here, of course, James is once again reflecting the teaching of his big brother.

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’ (Matthew 7:24-27).

So as we hear the Bible read and preached on Sundays, and as we read it at home during the week, the question for us is this: ‘What am I actually going to do differently in my life as a result of what I’ve heard today?’ James is teaching us that this is the way to true freedom. ‘But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing’ (v. 25).
We might find it hard to use the words ‘law’ and ‘freedom’ in the same sentence, but a moment’s thought will make it plain to us. Here in Canada we have a law that says you drive on the right hand side of the road. If we didn’t have that law, driving would be chaos. But having that law in place and doing what it says gives us the freedom to reach our destination – if not in perfect safety, at least much more safely than if we had no idea what direction the other cars were going to be coming from! And in the same way, putting the teaching of Jesus into practice is a way of discovering the life that God intended for us in the first place – and that truly is the way of freedom.

So the first theme we discovered was humility, and the second was putting the Word of God into practice. The third one is holding your tongue. Look at verses 26-27:

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Do you hear an echo of big brother Jesus again in James words? I do:

“I tell you, on the day of judgement you will have to give account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).

So we’re back to speaking again, and our tendency to spray the universe with words – often angry, hurtful, unhelpful words. Perhaps when you were young you defended yourself against them by saying ‘Sticks and stone may break my bones but nicknames never hurt me”. But words do hurt us – they go down into our memory and get stored there, and try as we might, we can’t get rid of them. I’m sure all of you here today have secret sore spots: memories going back years of particularly hurtful things that were said to you. Perhaps the person who said them had no idea how hurtful they were being. Perhaps they knew, but they had lost their temper and out came this horrible thing. ‘Careless words’, says Jesus; on the day of judgement we will have to answer for them.

Careless words – thoughtless words, words that hurt and wound and sting and condemn – are here contrasted with care-full actions: caring for orphans and widows, reaching out to the needy and doing what we can to make their lives better.  True religion is not just about words – rituals, and liturgies, and elaborate church buildings with impressive services; it’s about what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. What does that look like? Surely it looks like a world where everyone has enough and no one has too much, a world where everyone gets a fair deal, a world where words are used to love and cherish people rather than to cut and wound them. You want to know what sort of religion God likes? James has an answer for you: it’s the sort of religion that cares for the poor and needy and doesn’t follow the example of the selfishness and greed it sees in the media.

So let’s go round this one last time. Jesus is out to radically change our lives, and he’s enlisted the help of his little brother James to teach us what some of those radical changes will be. There’s more to come in the weeks ahead, but this week there are three things he particularly wants to draw to our attention.

First, he wants us to turn from anger at other people, and focus instead on listening to God’s word ourselves: ‘Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for human anger does not produce God’s justice’.

Second, he wants us not just to hear the Word of God and let it wash over us without taking any notice of it, but to actually put it into practice: ‘But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves’.

Third, he wants us to hold our tongues and get our hands dirty instead. ‘Put a bridle on your tongues…religion that is pure…is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Do you think that’s enough for us to work on this week?!

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