17 June 2012
When I was in high school I remember going to a Bible study where the discussion starter question was, “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
I don’t remember how the discussion went but I do remember the question and I ask it to us this morning because that’s what James seems to be asking his readers.
And he’s not asking whether you carry around a Bible or whether you have a fish on the back of your car -- or better yet a MasterPiece Church window sticker! -- not that there is something wrong with that. It just wouldn’t be the kind of evidence that God is looking for.
More to the point, is there enough evidence in how you run your life to get a conviction? Does your faith make enough difference in your life that it could be held as evidence against you?
Apparently this was an issue in the early church. We tend to idealize -- even romanticize -- the early church and think how wonderful it was. But apparently there were a lot of people struggling to be genuine in their faith.
They were meeting with the assembly of believers – joining in the worship – praying, singing the songs, shouting AMEN at the preacher. They knew the Bible stories and how to find their way around the Bible. They were enthusiastic and passionate -- but as soon the same people were out in the community there wasn’t much evidence that the word they heard and applauded was having an impact.
In our passage this morning, the Apostle James identifies two areas where believers need to be especially attentive.
Now, he doesn’t come right out and say that there are two things you guys need to get straight. The passage is a little more complex than that. As a matter of fact, it almost appears that this is a small collection of proverbs – or wise sayings -- and at first glance it is not always clear that they are related.
For the sake of convenience, though, I’ve boiled it all down to two critical thoughts – two wise nuggets. And the first is this: A GENUINE INTEGRATED FAITH IS CHARACTERIZED BY LISTENING WITH HUMILITY.
And by the way, I think that this really is about integration – integrating faith into our everyday lives – allowing what we’ve been given to become so much a part of who we are and what we do – that we, well, stand out. And a starting point is LISTENING WITH HUMILITY.
Verse 19 (NLT) --
“Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.”Quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger... The book of Proverbs is full of advice regarding shooting off your mouth. For Example, Proverbs 29:20 (ESV) --
“Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”You know, it takes a lot of work to keep your mouth shut –- at least for me –- especially when I know more than the other person who is talking. I want to respond to every little thing with which I disagree. I want to set everyone straight. I want people to know the way it really is – the world according to Brad -- master curator of reality.
And frankly, it takes a lot of work to bite my tongue and listen -- which is humbling because in doing so you have to listen to a lot of idiots.
Some of you know Tom Gibbs (he’s not an idiot) -- he’s here with us off and on. These days he’s having to work on Sunday mornings. But a few years ago his family was robbed -- a very traumatic home invasion robbery. They were all tied up by a gang of robbers. As the family’s pastor I was called to the scene. When I got there the whole area was cordoned off with yellow police line tape. I tried to get the attention of the closest deputy sheriff on duty but he was so busy yapping at someone that it was impossible. So finally I went under the tape and walked up to him. At that point he saw me and went ballistic and started yelling at me for crossing the line and telling me that he was going to arrest me and that...
He was making a total fool of himself. But instead of escalating the situation by arguing with him or even trying to explain myself I let him talk on and on.
Finally, I don’t know how many minutes later, he stopped to catch his breath. And I gently explained who I was and that they had called me.
At that point he was all embarrassed and took me right to where I needed to go without a word.
I suppose he thought it was his job to explode like that. I couldn’t say.
Now, I was in the right and I could have argued with him but it would have gotten me nowhere. And I could have gotten angry with him for being a jerk. But it was too early in the morning to get all worked up so I just let him talk – and by doing that I eventually got my way.
My job was to bite my tongue and in doing so I accomplished more than if I didn’t get into an argument with a sub-intelligent cop.
Now, I’m always so wise. It wasn’t so easy to come up with a personal success story. I hd to dig back a few years for one that worked.
Usually I get annoyed when something like that happens and I flare my frustrated nostrils and roll my eyes – and occasionally even try to argue with people like that.
But when we do that we’re shifting out of our humble servant mode.
If you are an argumentative person – someone who gets angry easily-- someone who shoots off too quickly – you haven’t yet let your faith work its way into your emotions.
You’re more concerned about your reputation and your own position -- about getting your own way -- or making sure that you are treated fairly. This is why we get angry – because someone has offended us – has dared to cross MY line.
One of the guys at our Tuesday morning Bible study said something last week that i think is pretty profound -- “When we get angry it throws our ability to listen off kilter.”
When we get angry we stop listening -- we shift out of our humble mode and into our defensive or even offensive mode. And then, once you get that angry, it is easy to justify all kinds of other wrong. This is why James adds: vs. 21 (NLT) --
“So get rid of (literally -- strip off...) all the filth and evil in your lives (think of the farmer stripping off his sweaty clothes on the back porch and dumping them directly into the washer before entering his house), and humbly accept the word (“the message”) God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls.”The “word” or the message here is the gospel – the good news of Christ -- who instead of throwing a cosmic hissy fit -- going all ballistic over the injustice and evil in the world -- overcame the devil -- and death itself by humbly submitting to death on the cross.
And when we receive this good news – it is planted in our hearts and from there like yeast it begins to grow – creating a bloated feeling because there is not room for it and the inborn wickedness with which we all start out to co-exist.
So we have to repent of that wickedness – we have to get rid of it – strip it off – and in the process of letting go of the garbage in our lives the word continues to grow... and we grow in wisdom and maturity – with an integrated faith.
But it all comes back to listening with humility -- even when people are treating you unfairly -- that’s the starting point that James identifies.
The second wise nugget this morning is that A GENUINE INTEGRATED FAITH IS CHARACTERIZED BY LOVINGLY DOING.
I know, it’s kind of wordy -- clunky – but you get the point. Real faith has a strong action component. Faith is not just an emotion or a decision but it is action. Believing in something so much that you stake your life on it – that you act on it -- it has an outlet.
Something has to happen to that faith or it becomes toxic.
Think of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The water running out of the beautiful Wasatch mountains is crisp and clean and clear. But as it dumps into the Great Salt Lake it stagnates.
You see, there is no outlet to the lake. It is a dead lake with only evaporation -- which makes the remaining water eight times more salty than the ocean. So there is little wildlife in the lake itself. It’s relatively barren.
Without an outlet faith becomes toxic, too.
James 1:22 (NLT) --
“But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves.”The CEB is good here, too.
“You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves.”How many people are fooling themselves -- misleading themselves -- thinking that they are real and genuine followers of Jesus -- but in fact they’ve never done more than have a good feeling about God’s love for them – and they think that the sacrifice of Jesus is an admirable and noble thing.
But that is not genuine faith in the biblical sense of the word. Such people are only fooling themselves, says James.
James 1:23-24 (NLT) --
“For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. 24 You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like.”The first edition of the NLT was a little more dynamic:
“For if you just listen and don't obey, it is like looking at your face in a mirror but doing nothing to improve your appearance. 24 You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like.”What if you got up in the morning, looked in the mirror, saw how messy your hair was –- how unpresentable you are without makeup... And then just walked away and did nothing about it? UGLY!!!
Why bother looking in the mirror in the first place? Why bother looking at reality if you’re not going to make adjustments?
If you’ve really seen yourself you have got to do something. You’ve got to act. You’ve got to get up off the couch -- flex the muscles.
When I was a boy we used to go to Evangelical Release Time. One afternoon a week they let us out of school an hour early and we all walked to a church lady’s house near the school.
She was a wonderful woman who taught us Bible stories. I never met her family. But I heard from some adults that she had a 22 year old son – but his body never grew. They said, and I don’t know how true it is, that he had the head of an adult but the body of an infant.
Now, his problem was probably caused by a genetic medical condition. But there are a lot of professing Christians who are similarly distorted.
We pour all kinds of biblical knowledge into our heads – but without translating it into lifestyle. And then if we look in the mirror occasionally we’re so startled about what we look like – heads overgrown in proportion to our little bodies -- that we quickly put the whole experience out of our minds.
James wants us to get past that stage and to become actual doers of the word – do the message. James 1:25 (NLT) --
“But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it.”Why are we feeling dried out and stagnate – unblessed? It’s because we haven’t fully acted on what we’ve heard. We’ve been fooling ourselves.
In verse 26 James loops back to the whole listening vs. speaking thing again:
“If you claim to be religious but don't control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless.”Wooo – that’s a scary thought -- that our religion -- our devtion is worthless if we’re into talking too much. Or how about vs. 27?
“Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress...”Eugene Peterson’s Message paraphrase is great here: James 1:27 (MSG)
“Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight...”Now this is not new. James is really just saying the same thing that all the ancient prophets had said.
“Since God is a father of the fatherless and a protector of widows...” according to Psalm 68:5... “If we ignore the fatherless and the widows – the poor, the victims of oppression, the strangers – then, we don’t really know God.”Because if we really knew God those things would be pressing on our hearts and we’d be doing something about it.
Zechariah 7:4-10 (NLT)
4 The Lord of Heaven’s Armies sent me this message in reply:5 “Say to all your people and your priests, ‘During these seventy years of exile, when you fasted and mourned in the summer and in early autumn, was it really for me that you were fasting?6 And even now in your holy festivals, aren’t you eating and drinking just to please yourselves? 7 Isn’t this the same message the Lord proclaimed through the prophets in years past when Jerusalem and the towns of Judah were bustling with people, and the Negev and the foothills of Judah were well populated?’”IOW, quit thinking that your rich worship is going to make up for the fact that you’re giving the poor the shaft by neglecting them and their needs.
8 Then this message came to Zechariah from the Lord: 9 “This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: Judge fairly, and show mercy and kindness to one another. 10 Do not oppress widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor. And do not scheme against each other.
It doesn’t matter how good your worship is – how beautiful – how much you get into it as you sing the words over and over or if you’re of the prior generation – singing ALL the verses of the hymns. That’s not real worship – or at least real religion. Real religion, real faith is faith that has a loving heart for the less fortunate – the poor.
And by the way, James never talks about how they got to be poor – he’s not just talking about people who are poor because they were born into it.
Some people are poor because they have done dumb things in their lives. God’s heart breaks for those people, too. So should ours. And we need to love them by our actions. Take appropriate action.
And actually, things are not ALL bad these days. Perhaps we’re even doing a little bit better job than the early church – I don’t know. God is the judge.
In a recent Barna study they found that church-going Christians are twice as likely to volunteer in some way assisting the poor than does the general population. 27% of the Christians in his survey said that they had volunteered for at least an hour to help the less fortunate during the prior week – this was compared to the 15% of the general population which had done the same.
Of course, that means that 73% of us had not volunteered to help the poor. And certainly there are other ways of showing love to the less fortunate than volunteering in some program. I’d suggest that volunteering is actually a little contrived at times. You don’t need a program.
79% of the people who “went to church” reported that they had gone out of their way to encourage someone in need – while only 62% of the unchurched had done the same.
Now, statistics and studies are only a little helpful. I wouldn’t take these studies to be very precise – but they do offer some general insight.
We’re moving in the right direction -- perhaps -- especially when our faith becomes an active part of our lifestyle – the way we live.
Remember, too, that James is not just writing to individuals – his message is for the church as a group. If we were on trial for being a church would there be enough evidence to convict us? Is our common faith an active faith? Do we as a group of people care about the poor?
Most people out there think not. They think we’re about fundraising to pay our bills and have nice social activities for each other. I remember a conversation with my sister-in-law, before she became a Christian.
Somehow the topic of people hitting up churches looking for handouts came up. And she was so surprised that churches gave people food or helped them with gas when they were stranded -- or... That kind of thing was totally off her radar screen.
Things have totally changed for her since she became a follower of Jesus. Now she’s totally in the middle of it. One of the current projects that she and her husband, Cheryl’s brother, are involved in has to do with creating water filters for local wells in impoverished developing countries.
Here at MasterPiece we’ve been trying to make this care a part of our ethos -- our DNA. Religion that actively cares for orphans and widows... and likewise immigrants, and the sick, and the homeless, and the mentally ill -- as messy as all that is -- it is as essential as believing that Jesus rose from the dead and that people need to by faith receive Christ into their lives. It’s core.
We do a big World Relief offering in the fall. We have a Christmas project each year -- two years ago starting 30 family farms in the Congo. Last Christmas we built a house in Haiti. This fall I’m hoping that we’ll be big supporters of Covenant Kids Congo. Our reading club is aimed at children who are educationally and socially at risk because they aren’t up to speed. The heat relief water project for people on the streets is another way we’re involved. We teach English to immigrants through our conversation clubs. We help immigrants with job applications and connections. We are a relatively small church but our list goes on and on...
Is this enough evidence to convict us of having genuine faith? I don’t know. I think it would be a good start toward making a case but frankly, I’m not sure that the whole evidence question is legitimate.
You see, when our faith is characterized by lovingly doing – it’s not because we’re trying to prove anything to anyone – not the world, not ourselves, not even God.
Rather these things are the natural outgrowth of a genuine relationship with God. They happen because we’ve experienced God’s mercy and compassion – and through Christ we come into a relationship where our hearts begin to beat with God’s heart -- and God’s heart of mercy and compassion motivates us to the same kind of action he’s involved in. No, we’re not God but his Spirit lives in us!
Sure, both John the Baptist and Jesus told the religious people to prove their faith with the fruit of repentance. But they said those things because they knew that those people lacked genuine faith.
Genuine faith doesn’t need to be proved because it is naturally producing good fruit. And at least a part of that crop has to do with SELF-CONTROL -- being slow to speak and quick to act – in love.
As St Paul puts it:
Galatians 5:22-23 (NLT) -- “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,23 gentleness, and self-control.”