‘We Have Been Given a New Birth’ – James 1:1-27 – January 27th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to James chapter 1, verses 1 through 27:

James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ: To the 12 tribes in the Dispersion. Greetings.

Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.

Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith without doubting. For the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. An indecisive man is unstable in all his ways.

The brother of humble circumstances should boast in his exaltation, but the one who is rich should boast in his humiliation because he will pass away like a flower of the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and dries up the grass; its flower falls off, and its beautiful appearance is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will wither away while pursuing his activities.

A man who endures trials is blessed, because when he passes the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him.

No one undergoing a trial should say, “I am being tempted by God.” For God is not tempted by evil, and He Himself doesn’t tempt anyone. But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death.

Don’t be deceived, my dearly loved brothers. Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights; with Him there is no variation or shadow cast by turning. By His own choice, He gave us a new birth by the message of truth so that we would be the firstfruits of His creatures.

My dearly loved brothers, understand this: Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for man’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and evil, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save you.

But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror. For he looks at himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but one who does good works—this person will be blessed in what he does.

If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, then his religion is useless and he deceives himself. Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Let’s pray.

*

So, there’s a little bit of “scholarly debate” about this, but the best evidence seems to suggest that the author of James was one Jesus’s brothers, like we hear about in the gospel of Mark, and the Gospel of John – the ones who didn’t believe in him. But something happened between that first Passover celebration, when James and the others called him a fraud, and A.D. 45 or so, when this letter was written and James was calling himself a “slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

So in John chapter 7, James and the other brothers mocked Jesus. But by Acts 1:14, after the resurrection, Luke says they were in the upper room with the other disciples, praying for the Holy Spirit, and eventually James was murdered by the religious leaders in Jerusalem, because he had become a prominent teacher and evangelist among the Jewish Christians in Palestine. Everybody comes to Christ from their own place in life, and some places in life are harder than others to convert from. But James and Jude came from the hardest. They grew up with him. They watched him learn to ride a bike. They watched him learn to tend to the family farm, and they watched him learn to build tables. That’s a hard place to “Come To Jesus” from.

According to longstanding tradition, Joseph was a widower, and James might have been a step brother from Joseph’s previous marriage. So James was Jesus’s older brother, which in that time would have meant that James had “familial authority” over Jesus. But he took off that authority that comes with being the older brother, and he put on “submission” to Christ, calling himself a slave. So James used to call him names, but now he calls him Lord. The resurrection of Jesus turned their relationship right-side-up.

And according to verse 18, we’re like James: Jesus “gave us a new birth by the message of truth so that we would be the ‘firstfruits’ of his creatures. Some translations put it a little bit more clearly for those of us who aren’t from agricultural backgrounds, they say “so that we would be the ‘firstfruits’ of his ‘new creation’.” Like James, the Holy Spirit drew us to faith in Jesus, and then the Father made us into his children. So James was Jesus’s brother through either blood or marriage, but after Jesus appeared to everyone in his resurrection, James and Jesus became brothers in an even deeper sense than before. And when we come to a shared faith in Jesus, we become brothers and sister in a deeper sense, even, than we are with our flesh-and-blood brothers and sisters. We’re adopted into God’s family.

So when we were meeting with families this past Christmas, we met a family who had signed up to receive some help in buying gifts for their children. And we found out that several of the children living with them weren’t their children by birth; they were children who didn’t have a safe place to sleep or eat or do their homework, so they’d taken them in and let them live under their own roof. And when you adopt a child, you’re doing something like what God does with us. We are children without a safe place to sleep or eat or rest, and he adopts us into his own family. And if you’re visiting, or you’ve been coming for a while, but you don’t know Jesus, God wants to adopt you. And so I’ll be at the front at the end of this service, and I’ll just be kind of awkwardly standing there while we sing, waiting for you to come talk to me. Because God wants to adopt you, and I’d love to be the one who introduces you.

But verse 18 says that when God adopts us into his family, we become the “firstfruits of his creatures,” of his “new creation.” So we don’t just take on a new title, or the family name. Something fundamental about us changes. Like we’ve talked about before, we were born into a broken creation. I don’t think I have to convince you of that. There’s something deeply wrong with the world. There’s a crack in the asphalt of everything. And we’re victims of that. We were born into a radically broken world and it batters you. Whether you’re never quite sure if you’ll make rent this month or you’re a trust-fund kid, the world still some way to give you two black eyes. There’s something wronger-than-wrong with the world.

The problem is, we aren’t just victims of the world. We were born into a world that batters us, but we grew up into people who find ways to keep the brokenness of the world on life support. That’s why in 1910, G.K. Chesterton was hired to write a book called What’s Wrong with The World, and since G.K. Chesterton is kind of a prankster, he spends about 250 pages saying “The Thing That’s Wrong With The World Is Me.” I’m what’s wrong with the world, and so are you. Some of us are worse than others – Charlie Manson was worse than your cousin Charlie, who’s just kind of a bully – but we’re all part perpetuating the cruelty of the world. We’re all what’s wrong with the world.

So we’re born into a “bad crop.” I’m not gonna try anymore agricultural language because I know jack. But when we grow up out of the ground, we’re already spoilt. But according to verse 18, the Holy Spirit “gives us a new birth by the word of truth” so that the Father can mold us into the “firstfruits” of his new harvest. God is un-breaking the world. In the words of one song that I like, “God’s making right what we made wrong.”

And about halfway through the book of Acts, a bunch of Synagogue leaders drag the pastor of a house church before the city officials and say “These men have turned the world upside down, and they’re trying to do the same thing here.” And there’s a hint of irony in the way that Luke writes the story, because from the Synagogue leaders’ perspective, they are turning everything upside down. Because the Synagogue leaders had grown comfortable in the darkness. They’d learned how to work the brokenness of the world to their advantage.

But the world was already upside down, because when you’re banished from the Garden, when you’re not communing with God, everything is upside down, already. And the Synagogue leaders were at home in the upside down-ness of the world. So when this group of house churches in their city started evangelizing and serving the city, it was like shoving their fingers in an open wound: they were turning the world right-side-up again, and was disorienting. Because the members of these house churches had been “given a new birth by the message of truth,” and as the “firstfruits” of God’s new harvest, they were faithfully carrying out the work of turning the world right-side-up again, and to the Synagogue leaders, it felt like everything was turning “upside down.”

And at his second coming, Jesus will complete the work that he started when he “gave us a new birth.” He’s turning our relationships right-side-up, in kind of a contagious way, so as the Holy Spirit turns us right-side-up, we inevitably start to influence the world around us, and people battered by the upside-down-ness of the world are drawn in, because they can see that there’s a safe place to sleep and eat and lay their heads here in God’s family. And the rest of the book of James is basically a long list of applications for this one statement that James makes, that God has “given us a new birth by the message of truth so that we would be the firstfruits of his creatures.” So our text today is kind of the “table of contents” for the book of James.

*

And the first thing James highlights is how our “new birth by the message of truth” changes our relationship with trials. James says “consider it great joy when you experience trials,” and that’s not really my go-to reaction. But James says that “the testing of your faith produces endurance.” And we need that. Because it isn’t hard “start well.” All you’ve gotta do is hear a revival message that’s finely tuned to pull at your heartstrings and you’ll have all the fuel you need to “Obnoxiously Christian On Facebook” for the next 3 weeks. You know what I’m talking about?

That was a big thing with my generation. We’d go to Christian summer camp, get converted for the seventeenth time, go home and post eleven Bible verses a day on our social media and three weeks later bump into each other at the Discount Condom Outlet. Anybody can stoke our emotions for a while, and that’s good, but what we need is the kind of endurance that’ll carry us through to the end of our lives. James says “endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” Trials change when you’re going through them as someone who’s been “given a new birth by the message of truth so that we would become the firstfruits of God’s creatures.”

Because it’s no longer just an “interruption” to your plans. Trials become something God uses to mold you into the image of his son, Jesus. That’s why, in verse 12, James says “The one who endures trials is blessed, because when he passes the test he will receive the crown of life God has promised to those who love him. And that’s not James saying, “Hey, I know this sucks but you get to go to heaven at the end of it.” Heaven is a place. It’s as real as any other place, like Milwaukee, or something. But that’s not the end-goal. The finish line we’re running toward is that one day, when we’ve endured all of the trials that we’re faced with, we’ll get to be with Jesus, and we’ll be like Jesus. And when that’s our endgame, trials are different.

Because to imitate Jesus is its own reward, and as redeemed people, God uses every trial in our lives to mold us into people who imitate Jesus on reflex. So one day, it’ll be “second nature” to us. Like, I don’t know how heaven works; I don’t know, exactly, how God sustains a world where everybody’s free but nobody sins. But I do know that it’s outside the realm of anything we’ve seen, because the “new heavens and the new earth” are a place where everybody imitates Jesus on reflex, and that’ll change our “life together.” That’ll change the way we act and think and talk to each other. That’s the kind of world where everybody’s free and nobody sins. And although we won’t see that in its fullness until Jesus returns to finish what he started at the resurrection and what he’s working out through us, James would have us live in a way that “images” that future for each other and the rest of the world.

So the “trials and temptations” we go through become a gift instead of a curse, because they’re tools in God’s hands to sand us down into people who reflect his glory. So James writes that “nobody undergoing a trial should say, ‘I am being tempted by God.’” We can let our sin nature turn our trials into excuses to give in to temptation, or we can accept our trials as, kind of, a vehicle by which “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow cast by turning,” turns our natures right-side-up.

*

And the same goes for wisdom. And that’s a word you’ve gotta be careful with. Because most of what passes for “wisdom” in our culture is cynicism painted up like conscientiousness. Wisdom isn’t very marketable, but if you appeal to people’s baser instincts and slap kind of a folksy charm onto it, you can beat out all the other late-night news pundits. You can bait people into tuning into your talk-show nightly by finding subtle ways to tell them that there’s no God so they don’t owe their neighbors anything so their only loyalty is to their own sense of security. You know what I’m talking about?

So we are always, all the time, digesting messages that are antithetical to the good news of the gospel, from the political left and the political right, from the cultural elites and the self-proclaimed advocates for “Old Time Family Values,” from secularists and religious fanatics, because we’re all just born into it. There’s an unbelief that haunts the very thoughts of our hearts like a ghost.

And that’s an unbelief that works itself out in every corner of your life, when God’s not allowed to tell you who can and can’t have sex with, or what you can and can’t do with your money, when he’s not allowed to tell you what does and doesn’t count as a human being, and what you are and aren’t allowed to do with your body, or it can work itself out by convincing you that some people aren’t you neighbors because they’re politically problematic, or because their presence makes you feel less safe in your own country, or because some of what they do makes you uncomfortable.

So our culture is constantly catechizing us toward varying forms of unbelief, so we need a wisdom that comes from above. And James says that “If any of us lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him.” And that’s good news, at least for people like me. Because I am what wisdom isn’t.

But God gives “generously and without criticizing.” He’s not waiting for you to mess up, tallying up our foolishness. Instead he “gave us a new birth by the message of truth and made us a kind of firstfruits of his creatures,” so he’s turning our foolishness into wisdom. He’s making us into something different than we were. He’s turning us right-side-up. But for God to turn our foolishness into wisdom means submitting to the wisdom that he gives us.

Because James says “the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind.” And doubt’s not the opposite of “certitude,” it’s the opposite of “faithfulness.” No one on planet earth is positive that they’re right about God – right? Like, you don’t have to lie to me. The opposite of doubt, the way James is using it here, is obedience. It’s believing a gospel you don’t always feel. It’s like staying in a marriage that isn’t always thrilling like it was on the honeymoon. Don’t expect God to give you wisdom you’re not gonna submit to. Because James says, “a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.”

*

And there’s nowhere that’s more pronounced than when it comes to money. James says that “the brother of humble circumstances should boast in his exaltation, but the one who is rich should boast in his humiliation,” and a lot of folks think James has a chip on his shoulder toward the rich, here. I promise that I’ll never sugar-coat the Bible for you, but I assure that is not the case. We’re reading the book of James, not a Soviet Manifesto. So James’s point is not that that Wealth is Bad and You Should Feel Bad. His point is that “we were given a new birth by the message of truth,” so God is turning our lives right-side-up, and that changes your relationship with money.

Because “the sun rises with its scorching heat and dries up the grass,” and James says, “in the same way the rich man will wither away while pursuing his activities.” James doesn’t want you to burn all your money and take a vow of poverty, he wants you to use the wisdom you asked God for to shape how you use it. It’s like when the Rich Young Ruler comes to James’s brother Jesus and says “How can I be saved?” and Jesus says, “You’ve kept all my Dad’s commands, huh?” And the Rich Young Ruler says, “Yeah.” And Jesus says, “Okay. Liquidate your assets and give the money to the poor.”

Our culture says “Hoard your money because Money Is Power,” but God’s turning the world right-side-up by turning us right-side-up. And so, unlike the world, we see our stuff as God’s Stuff, and we look for ways that God can use us to share God’s Stuff with other people. But the Rich Young Ruler doesn’t see it that way. James says, “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourself.” Because when you deceive yourself you’ll go home disappointed, like the Rich Young Ruler. Since he was a “hearer of the word and not a doer” he was “like a man looking at his face in a mirror.” The Rich Young Rulers of the world “look at themselves, go away, and immediately forget what kind of person they are.”

But when God “gives us a new birth by the message of truth,” the Holy Spirit begins to create an otherworldly generosity in us, and it changes our relationship with our money. So James says “the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, who is not a forgetful hearer but one who does good works, this person will be blessed indeed.” So we don’t need to be intimidated by that. Because if any of us lack that generosity that James talks about, he says “he should ask God, who gives generously to all without criticizing, and it will be given to him.” God shapes us into a people who confuse people, because they see us “looking after orphans and widows in their distress” and it slowly dons on them we live on the terms of a very different King and a very different Kingdom. So James doesn’t say we need to go take a vow of poverty. He doesn’t say we need to go retreat from the world. He says that we “keep ourselves unstained by the world.”

*

Right down to the way we talk. James says “My dearly loved brothers, understand this: Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for man’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness.” You’ll notice that most of the time when James or Solomon, or anyone, says something about “How You Talk,” they’re not just talking about how you talk. Especially in the Proverbs, when Solomon starts talking about how “the tongue can be a balm that heals you or a knife that guts you,” he’s not “talking about the vehicle,” he’s “talking about the pilot.”

So, a command to change how you use your tongue is a command to change you. Because what comes out of your mouth is you. So when you’re getting bad service at a restaurant, and you say something unnaturally cruel – the kind of thing that you can justify to yourself on account of how frustrated your server made you, but that you know fully well would make a mockery of the gospel if they knew you were “so-and-so from Mount Zion Baptist Church” – that unnaturally cruel thing you said wasn’t a “strange anomaly” that came from outer space and used you as a host body; it came from inside you. The things you say and do, you say and do because they’re the sort of things that you would say and do. There’s the old saying, “A cup can only spill what it contains. And when God rebukes you about the way you speak, it’s an invitation to let him change what you contain.

So imagine being the sort of person who’s “quick to hear” people, just because you want to hear them. Not waiting for your next chance to respond, you just want to hear them. Because you’re “slow to speak.” And when you’re “quick to hear” people, and you’re “slow to speak” in return, that usually means that the Holy Spirit’s working in you in a way that’ll also make you “slow to anger.” And that’s got consequences that kind of colonize the rest of your lifestyle.

Because James wants us to hear each other. He wants us to hear our neighbors. He wants us to hear our enemies. He wants us to hear them and be slow to anger.” That means he wants you to be “slow to anger” in ways that they won’t be. Right? James wants you to be slow to anger in a way that your adult children who’ve abandoned the faith probably won’t be in return.

He wants you to turn your ears towards other people in a way that doesn’t demand its due respect, that doesn’t demand to be talked to with the gentleness you’re owed. He wants you to turn your ear towards people to understand them. And for most of us, that means that we need to “contain” something different than we do. Because being “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” isn’t our default mode. It’s not what spills out of us. But James says, “If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, then his religion is useless and he deceives himself,” so we’ve been “given a new birth by the message of truth,” and God is molding us into the image of his son, right down to the way we talk. God is changing what “comes out” of our mouths” by changing what’s “inside” us. He fixing our souls by the Holy Spirit, and that’s reshaping the way we talk to each other and about each other.

*

So you’ve probably noticed a pattern – God is turning us right-side-up by healing the upside-down-ness that’s inside us. But that means you need more than just a change in behavior. James talks a lot about what you do, and what you do matters. But all the “changes in behavior” that James hammers into our heads by the end of his letter are the results of your getting the thing you actually need – we’re born into the upside-down-ness of the world; most of us grow comfortable in it, learn to use it to our advantage, and then die; you can do that – you can cling to your upside-down-ness till you face God in the judgment; most people do; I don’t want you to.

Because the opposite of Hell isn’t “Heaven,” it’s holiness. But it’s a holiness we’re given, not a holiness we earn, and not a holiness we build ourselves. James says that what we need is a “new birth by the message of truth,” and this is the message of truth. God is not out to get you. He’s out to un-get you. He’s out to turn you right-side-up because your upside-down-ness will kill you, and is already killing you, and you know that, so what you need is a “new birth.” And it’s yours. Take it. God himself came to earth, lived as a human, and then sacrificed his own life to rescue us from our upside-down-ness and make us into his children. So we are forgiven for everything and born into God’s family. Take it. Come home.

I’m gonna awkwardly stand at the front in a couple of minutes while we sing. If I’ve been describing you for the last forty minutes, if you need to be “given a new birth by the message of truth,” then come talk to me. If you don’t wanna meet me at the altar, that’s okay. It’s not a magic altar. You can flag me down, we can find a time to meet, and we can walk through the process of giving yourself to Christ, to be turned right-side-up, to be forgiven for your part in keeping the upside-down-ness of the world on life-support, to be “born into” God’s family, not as a wayward kid perpetually walking on thin ice, but as God’s beloved daughter, or son, welcomed without reservations by your Father, in heaven.

Let’s pray.

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