As we leave behind our series on A New Church and look past the launch of our small groups we find that last week we began to deal with some very difficult material. It has to do with this idea of applying theology to our lives. Last week we dealt with Radical Faith. At some point good theology and Bible study just doesn’t cut it anymore. It is at this point that we find ourselves in the book of James. We’ll be spending the next four weeks on James, leading us into the Advent season, which I’m very excited about. That will take us through Christmas and then we’ll start a new series on The Least of These, which will take us through January.
As we begin with James, however, I’d like to spend a few moments in introduction. The author of this letter is James, the half-brother of Jesus. After Jesus was born to Mary, she and Joseph went on to lead a normal married life and had several other children. James was one of these, hence the term half-brother. He was also a leader in the church of Jerusalem. Paul called him a pillar. He was known as “James the Just” and “Camel-knees” presumably because he spent so much time on his knees in prayer. He was also martyred for his faith.
If you think about it, it’s really quite extraordinary. James was the brother of Jesus and a leader in the church. This means that at some point in his life he had to look his brother in the eye and say “Yes, you’re God.” You have to understand what that meant for a Jew. They had been waiting for the Messiah for thousands of years and to look at him standing there and to have to acknowledge that must have been something. Then, after Jesus ascended into Heaven, to be a leader of this new movement required great fortitude. “Yes, my brother is God.” Tradition tells us that the Sadducees, a sect of Judaism that was very involved in politics and also didn’t believe in the resurrection, took James to the top of the Temple to try to provoke him to recant. He wouldn’t do it. They threw him off the Temple wall, but he didn’t die. Then, lying on the ground they stoned him to death. Yes, it takes some strength of character not to give in when threatened with death, but James was Jesus’ brother. He spent his life around Jesus. He stood before the Sadducees and said “my brother is God.” That takes a lot. It says a lot about who James was.
As we look at the text of this letter we begin to see something a little bit unusual. In college I learned a very specific method of Biblical interpretation. There are different genres of literature just as there are different genres of music and to understand what someone is writing, we must seek to understand the genre from which it comes. For example, if I were reading Gulliver’s Travels and didn’t understand that it was satire, I would miss the whole point and just think of it as a fantasy tale about a particularly unlucky traveler named Gulliver. However, knowing it is satire helps me to understand how scathing an attack on England’s government it really is.
The book of James starts like a letter, similar even to how Paul began most of his epistles. However, it reads more like the Old Testament book of Proverbs. It is mostly short statements or paragraphs of practical truth. There is little or no connective narrative in most places and it is very choppy reading. When I sit down to study a particular book of the Bible, I try to always read the whole thing in one sitting. This generally helps me to understand the overarching themes the author is trying to convey. In wisdom literature, however, it is very difficult to find overarching themes. This is what James is like. It emphasizes practical, daily Christianity, simple truths to put faith into action. If there is an overriding theme, this is it: Faith into Action. That’s why we’re calling this series Applied Theology.
James is also one of the more controversial books in the New Testament. At first glance, it seems to be paradoxical to Paul’s works, seeming to contradict salvation by grace for a works-based faith. In fact, this book caused so much debate that some people wanted it removed from the canon completely. As we read it closer, however, we see that James clearly is not contradicting Paul, but is going into greater detail. It is possible that James was trying to combat those readers of Paul who took grace as license to live however they wanted. It is obvious that James is suggesting that faith is evidenced by works. Because we believe we will do.
This first section of text we are going to look at seems to deal with the testing of our faith. James says in verse 2 to “Count it all joy…when you meet trials of various kinds…” Consider it joy to face trials? Really? Why on earth would we be joyful about facing trials and tests? James goes on to say that they produce perseverance. Trials have a way of bringing out our character like nothing else. Happiness doesn’t change us. Difficult situations tell us more about ourselves than peace does. When we encounter pain how we react reveals who we are. Pain is never enjoyable. Difficult situations aren’t pleasurable. But growth comes from difficulty. Life itself comes from sacrifice and pain. Trials reveal who we are and help complete us, help us to grow in maturity.
I learned something very important whilst working with students. Middle school and High school students encounter a unique set of problems while they’re growing up. Their problems are different even from college students only a couple of years older than them. What I discovered was that no matter how young I was I couldn’t understand what was bothering them so much. As adults we forget what kind of angst students go through. We forget because we don’t want to remember what happened to us. I don’t really like to think about the struggles I had as a Middle and High school student. We forget.
Everyone experiences these things because they shape us. How we learn to deal with conflict when we’re 13 will affect how we deal with it when we’re 30. Pain shapes us. It makes us complete. It’s part of the growing process, so don’t run from trials. Don’t shrink from persecution because it helps define you. It helps you discover yourself.
Another thing that pain reminds me of is that life isn’t fair. Life isn’t objective. Your faith isn’t a true/false test. As humans, possibly just as Americans, we’ve been driven to expect fairness. We like multiple-choice tests because there’s a definite right and wrong. Life, however, isn’t so kind. Each situation requires our attention because we can’t simply mark “a” all the time on our sheet. We can’t always find the answer hidden in a book, sometimes we simply have to guess. We want objective faith, but faith is so much more subjective.
I had students who could say all the right answers and give all the proper responses when I queried them about their faith, but you could tell there was something missing. That’s what following Jesus is like. Just knowing the facts doesn’t help you pass the test. You have to live what you say you believe. Just because someone else’s life went a particular way doesn’t mean that mine will too. Tying in to last week, we all want to be Bill Gates who goes to Heaven. Faith isn’t like that, however. We might have to endure more trials than someone else. Our faith might have to face more than some others’ does. It’s in the testing, though, that our faith is made complete. It’s in the struggle that we discover God’s love and his peace. You can’t really experience peace that goes beyond understanding until you need it.
There’s a method of purifying metal that I think is applicable to us. If you want the purest silver, the purest gold, you have to heat it beyond its melting point. You get it incredibly hot and what happens is that in the molten metal that glows you find dark spots that are of a different substance. These are impurities in the metal. Then you have to strain out the impurities so you have a perfect metal. The process of perfecting us is similar. We have to go through incredible trials, immense heat to draw the impurities to the surface. Then we get to strain out the impurities, correct where there needs to be correction; but they don’t show up until we go through trial. So be joyful about trials, because they lead to purification and perfection.
The next paragraph deals with wisdom. James says that if we lack wisdom we should ask for it. God wants us to be wise. He wants us to know truth. He doesn’t want us wandering around in the dark hoping to stumble upon the answer. He wants to illumine us, so he tells us to ask for wisdom, but to ask believing. When we pray without faith we might as well be talking to the air. We must pray believing that God is going to give us the wisdom to handle the questions we have. Our problem most of the time, though, is that we’re not looking for wisdom, we’re looking for the answers. Instead of praying for the ability to make good decisions, we want God to give us the answer right away. How many times do we pray for answers but not the wisdom to discover the answer? I know I’m guilty of this. “God give us your blessing, but not you because you’re a bit too scary.” Again, this is part of the perseverance. God will give us what we need, but often we think we know our needs better than God so we’re not satisfied with what he gives us. Perhaps God just wants to show us how to make better decisions.
James also gives us wisdom for how to deal with wealth or poverty. To the poor man he says “boast in (your) exultation.” The poor man is exalted? That sounds backwards. Likewise the rich man should boast “in his humiliation.” The poor man is perhaps closer to God because he is able to recognize his need and the supernatural requirement that it be fulfilled. The rich man, however, should rejoice in his humiliation because he understands that material wealth is fleeting and he needs God too. While this may not sound like wisdom to us, James is simply trying to put wealth in its proper perspective. All that is earthly will fade. God, however, remains.
Remain steadfast, James says in verses 12-15. Be faithful even in temptation because temptation, though not from God, can still lead to perseverance and greater faithfulness. Do not give in to desire because desire when it gives birth becomes wicked sin that draws us away from the Father. However, we should remain steadfast and pure.
James closes this passage out with a reminder that only good and perfect things come from the Father. This has led us to believe that God only blesses with material possessions and only curses with the removal of those possessions. We’ve become a people who think that wealth equals blessing. I would remind us of Job, though. Job was faithful, yet he lost everything. He even made the statement “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Good and perfect, generous and loving…these things can still allow for discipline and poverty. What father doesn’t discipline his child when they disobey? Why would God not do the same? God has a design for us and is shaping us to become something perfect. Don’t get caught thinking that God only gives material wealth. Perhaps what we need is poverty. Perhaps what we need is discipline to shape us into the perfect vessel of God’s light. Perhaps we must experience loss and heartache. James goes on to say that in God “there is no variation or shadow due to change.” If God is good and perfect and gives us good and perfect things, then the shaping of our life through trials and pain is also good and perfect.
This final passage in chapter 1 deals with three-fold obedience: hearing, receiving, and doing. He starts this section by exhorting us to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Have you ever known someone that you just couldn’t carry on a conversation with? This person was always interjecting their thoughts into yours and when you finally get a moment to speak they interrupt you halfway through your statement. I do that all the time myself. James says perhaps we should listen a little more, hear a little more, and be slow to offer our own thoughts. Perhaps our default should be to defer to other people and hear what they have to say. Perhaps in being slow to anger we might avoid unnecessary conflict. Maybe by hearing what others have to say we can understand them a little better.
Perhaps by listening to others more we develop an attitude of listening and we are able to hear God better when he speaks. Perhaps by putting our minds in a receptive mode we are able to understand more what God is asking of us and we can receive his word better. Maybe by receiving the word better we can be better prepared for trials when they come. Listening teaches us humility. Listening teaches us patience. These are two qualities necessary for a successful life in Christ.
After hearing and receiving the word, the only thing remaining is to do. This is where James becomes uncomfortable for us. He calls us to be doers of the word and not simply hearers. We can hear the truth spoken and reject it. We can receive the truth we hear but do nothing with it. Only in doing is the truth made complete. Only in doing do we accomplish the purposes of the Body of Christ. Only in acting on what we know do we become useful as followers of Christ. James goes further to say that if a man is not a doer of the word he is like one who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror and then goes away and at once forgets what he looks like. By not acting on the truth we are essentially saying that this thing we believe really isn’t that important. By not doing what it is Christ has called us to do we are telling him that we really don’t want him, just his blessing. “Thanks for the stuff, Jesus. I won’t be needing you anymore.” Faith is active. It requires motion. We hear and receive the truth, but then we must act on what we know. James says that pure and undefiled religion is to visit widows and orphans and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Faith is active.
James wastes very few words in calling us to action. James is a very short book, only five chapters. In these 5 chapters are 108 verses. Of the 108 verses in James, 54 of them contain commands. It’s almost as if he has something to say and he has to say it now, not wanting to wait in case something happened to him. The lack of a guiding narrative suggests that James wants to emphasize action above study, practice over theory. It’s also a very difficult book to read or hear because of its call to action. There is no time to waste; there is no cause for delay. This has been a rough couple of Sundays. Last week you heard, “sell all your stuff to buy the field” and this week it’s “be doers of the word and not just hearers.” It doesn’t get any better in James. Next week it’s “faith without works is dead; it’s no faith at all.”
Why is it that there is so much call to action?
Why did Jesus give us the Great Commission?
Why do we have to face persecution?
As to the call to action and the Great Commission, it seems that there was a shift after the Fall. In the Garden everything was perfect. The relationship with God was perfect and the setting was paradise. There was no need for anything. After the Fall paradise became corrupted. Toil and pain now exist where none did before. Life after the Garden is characterized by struggle and hardship followed by death. What happened at the Fall was the delay of perfection and paradise. We have to wait to experience what God intended from the start. Our perfect communion with God can only take place in a perfect location. Since earth has been corrupted by sin paradise has moved to Heaven. Our job is the ministry of reconciliation. Because of the Fall we have been separated from the one who gives us life. Because of the Fall we have been separated from what makes us perfect. Without a relationship with God we are destined to eternal torment separated from the Father. That is the state of the world. People need Jesus. The ones who know him are the only hope for the world. Our faith must be active so we can reconcile the lost to the one who can save them. Why is there a call to action? The world desperately needs to know Jesus.
Why must we face persecution? James (and Jesus, for that matter) warns us of persecution simply as a practical matter. If we are living out our faith we will face persecution. If we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, we will face trials. We must be prepared for what we will face.
We would love for you to join us in our mission here. We need people who are energetic and excited about What the Father is doing. There’s such a great need in our community for the love of Jesus. We can be a light in the darkness. We’ve spent the last several weeks casting vision for what we feel God leading us to do. We need you to be a part of it. We can’t hope to accomplish everything we want to do on our own. We need people who feel like God has called them to be a part of something bigger than themselves. We need you. You can help us fulfill God’s purposes for Kilgore, TX and the greater East Texas area. You can be a part of building a lasting community of faith. You have a part to play. God is calling your faith into action. How will you respond?