Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” You don’t even know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be! For you are like smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes.
Instead, you should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So it is a sin for the person who knows to do what is good and doesn’t do it.
Come now, you rich people! Weep and wail over the miseries that are coming on you. Your wealth is ruined and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your silver and gold are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You stored up treasure in the last days! Look! The pay that you withheld from the workers who reaped your fields cries out, and the outcry of the harvesters has reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts. You have lived luxuriously on the land and have indulged yourselves. You have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter. You have condemned—you have murdered—the righteous man; he does not resist you.
Therefore, brothers, be patient until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth and is patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, because the Lord’s coming is near.
So, my grandma has the text picked out for her funeral sermon. She doesn’t want a traditional eulogy. She wants a “Revival Service.” When Mary Foster passes away, she wants an “old time, fire and brimstone” revival sermon, out of a passage in Joshua, complete with a “call to repentance and faith” and an “altar call,” which will be interesting.
I haven’t written it yet, because I really don’t want to think too hard about Mary Foster’s eventual death right now, but she’s got none of the qualms that I have about it. She’s at ease with the reality that she is going to die one day.
And for her, it’s not about “going up to heaven where she doesn’t get sick anymore,” and she “never has to watch another golf game with my grandpa.” The thing she wants is to “see Jesus face-to-face.”
She wants to sit with him and rest, with a rest that we can’t have when we aren’t with him, with that rest that comes with “sitting on God’s couch,” with God himself, and just having a good cry, because everything you went through on Earth was leading to this, and now you’re here, and God’s here, with you, and he isn’t leaving, and you’ll never be apart from him again. That’s the thing she’s looking forward to.
And so those books you see on all the bestseller lists – the ones you can buy at airport book stores, about kids who went to heaven and came back to tell us all about it – are usually about 20 or 30 degrees off in the way they describe the afterlife.
Because they talk a whole lot about being reunited with your family, about the “great, big mansion” you get, about seeing your childhood dog, and eating all your favorite foods and singing all your favorite songs from the Baptist Hymnal – but those things will be secondary, at best, when the day comes.
Because when I cross over the other side of death the thing that will capture my attention and my affections will be God himself. In the final resurrection, we will glorify God together by enjoying him together.
The thing that will bring us joy and pleasure and happiness will be God himself. Just being with him will satisfy us in the way that all the things we currently use to satisfy ourselves can’t. God will be the source of our joy, and our happiness, and our satisfaction, and so the way that we relate to each other will happen out of the overflow of our overwhelming satisfaction in God.
God created us to multiply his own joy and satisfaction into other creatures that weren’t himself, and on the other side of death, when we’re reunited with him, face-to-face, we will be joyful with the joyfulness that is in Jesus Christ.
We will be satisfied with the satisfaction that is in Jesus Christ. And that will make us more intimate with one another – not less – because our “intimacy with one another” and our “intimacy with God” have become somehow the same thing.
And Mary Foster knows that however painful and terrifying her eventual death will be, that’s the thing that’s on the other side of it, because she has been saved by God’s grace, through the death and resurrection of Jesus for her sins.
So she has the text for her funeral sermon picked out, and she has instructed me to preach a revival sermon instead of a eulogy, because she wants everyone she knows well enough to invite to her funeral to be clearly presented with the gospel.
She wants to share an intimacy with them that is beyond the bounds of what’s even possible on this side of death, and she wants them to join her in worshipping Jesus together and enjoying him forever. And when you have that eternity in view, that changes the way you spend this temporary period.
But I really don’t think Americans understand that they’re going to die. You know what I’m talking about? James says, “We don’t even know what tomorrow will bring, or what our lives will be. Because we’re like a smoke that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
One of the side-effects of living at this particular point in history, in this particular part of the world, is that we have temporarily escaped the uncertainty that used to surround our sustenance. Not that long ago, a bad winter meant you didn’t have a harvest, which meant that your family died of starvation. That was just a fact of life.
Since the “Industrial Revolution,” the invention of the Steam Engine, the rapid influx of new technologies has temporarily put us in a place in which we can make abundant quantities of food, and then store them for long periods of time without spoiling. And it’s made life unfathomably easier for those of us who are fortunate enough to exist at this particular moment in time.
So we won the lottery. And that particular fortunate turn tends to obscure our thinking: Because as a result, it has never been easier to assume that our prosperity is purely the result of our hard work; it has never been easier to be an atheist; it has never been easier to stand up and declare, without a hint of irony, that we are “self-made,” that we don’t owe anything to anyone, that God’s “got nothing to do with it.”
So as a 21st century American, it’s easy to forget that you “appear for a while and then vanish.” James says, “We don’t even know what tomorrow will bring, or what our lives will be. Because we’re like a smoke that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” And for James that’s good news, not bad news.
When you’re thinking about what to spend your time, your money, your energy towards, you’ll make very different decisions based on whether you’re half-way hoping to live forever or you’re fully expecting to not wake up again one morning.
In a passage that sounds like it belongs in a Bernie Sanders stump speech, James says, “Come now, you rich people! Weep and wail over the miseries that are coming on you.” He says, “Your wealth is ruined and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your silver and gold are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire,” because “You stored up treasure in the last days!” So James was probably fun at parties.
But James’s issue isn’t “wealth, period.” James never tells us that we shouldn’t work hard for honest money, he never tells us that we shouldn’t save, he never tells us that we shouldn’t invest in our future. James takes issue with the way that the world teaches us to pursue wealth and then hoard it.
Some people think that since we’re gonna to die one way or another, “We might as well do what we want, because the good and the bad are both going in the ground.” James says, “The pay that you have withheld from the workers who reaped your fields cries out, and the outcry of the harvesters has reached the ears of the Lord,” and he wouldn’t bother to say that if it wasn’t an actual issue they were dealing with. The rich folks in James’s day figured they could exploit whoever they needed to because the rich and poor were both going in the ground at the end of everything.
And in a way, that’s true: Mother Teresa died, and Hugh Hefner died, and they have that in common. But Mother Teresa genuinely understood that we are “like a smoke that appears for a while and then vanishes.” So instead of pulling a Hugh Hefner, and saying, “Next month we will go into the city and we will multiply our riches,” she spent her life seeking out what is good, and then pursuing it alongside the body of Christ with however much time she had.
We get an image of what James is talking about in Luke chapter 12, when two brothers come to Jesus, and they’re arguing over their inheritance. Jesus tells a parable about a rich man who had a good harvest, and then another one, and then another one.
So he keeps building bigger barns, and he finds a way to store each new harvest without spoiling, and eventually he’s got all this capital just piling up in his barns. And he says, “I’m set. I can retire.” But one night, God comes to him and says, “You’re a fool. You’re dying tonight, and none of the wealth you’ve amassed will help you.”
Jesus says, “That’s how it is with those who store up treasure for themselves and are not ‘rich toward God’.” It looks conscientious from the outside. But it’s a bait-and-switch.
It stems from assuming that we’re “self-made.” But the truth is that whatever wealth we have or don’t have, is a gift from God. The “wisdom of the world” says “hoard your wealth, because you’ve earned it.” But James says to weaponize our industriousness, so that during the very short time period where we have a pulse, our industriousness benefits our neighbors and each other.
We get a glimpse of how this works in Matthew chapter 6 and Luke chapter 11, when the disciples ask Jesus how to pray, and he says, “Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sin, as we also forgive those who sin against us.”
And it helps us understand James a bit better, because the prayer that Jesus modelled for us says “Give us our daily bread.” And that’s the opposite of the old man with the storehouse. If you’re a first-century Jew listening to Jesus, the term “daily bread” is going to hit you differently than if you’re a twenty-first century American.
Because if you’re a first century Jew, living under a foreign empire, you’ll spend a lot of time rehearsing the story of the Exodus together, in the synagogues, at home, etc. You’re waiting for a day when God will bring about another Exodus to free you from your oppression.
So “Our Daily Bread” isn’t just a generic term that refers to the food we eat every day, although it does mean that. If the story that you’ve grown up hearing is the story of “The Exodus,” of Israel’s time wandering in the wilderness and waiting for the Promised Land, then you’ll be intimately familiar with the story of “The Manna that God provided” to Israel in the wilderness. During Israel’s 40 years wandering outside the Promised Land, God didn’t leave them to starve. He gave them, “each day, their daily bread.” Like, literally – it rained from the sky. It rained bread. That’s how they ate.
And so if you’re an Israelite, wandering in the wilderness with Moses, you’d pray, again, each night, “Give us our daily bread again tomorrow. You brought us out of Egypt, don’t abandon us to starve in the wilderness.” So when Jesus tells us to pray that God would “Give us each day our daily bread,” God is doing something like what he did in the wilderness. He is providing “Our Daily Bread,” one day at a time.
That kind of rages against what we’re used to. But even today, in the middle of the abnormal prosperity that we’re temporarily able to enjoy, “Our Daily Bread” is still a gift from God: The non-perishable items that Elyse and I have stocked in the far drawer of our kitchen – leftovers from Hurricane Florence – those are “a gift from God.” I paid for it, with money, from my job, and that makes it easier to sustain the illusion that I’m somehow “self-sufficient.”
But the truth is that no one on planet Earth is self-sufficient. We are all sustained for a time by God’s blessing. We all live on “Daily Bread,” given to us “each day,” by “our Father in Heaven,” and then we die. That’s the timeline. And for James, that changes the way that we use our “abundance.” It changes the way that we think about what we have.
I am “like a smoke that appears for a while and then vanishes,” so during my short time on earth my job is to steward my resources toward the mission that God has given us. And that’s a long-winded way of saying, “I’m going to die, so the inviting people into the kingdom of God is the things that my life is about.”
That means that whatever our jobs are, whatever we do for fun, whatever our income, we are all “local missionaries.” And as local missionaries, God “walks alongside us,” giving us “each day, our daily bread” to sustain us as we plough forward with “the Great Commission.” That’s why, in the same prayer, Jesus tells us to petition God, that “His kingdom come,” that “His will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
And that’s a clever thing to tell us to pray for, because by petitioning God to see his will done “on earth as it is in heaven,” we are volunteering for the role of being his agents in bringing that about. We are “opting in” to the Great Commission simply by praying for it.
So James says “Be patient until the Lord’s coming.” And that’s a strange way to summarize everything we’ve talked about. Because when I think about being “patient,” leveraging my time, energy, and resources to bring about the spread of the gospel to every corner of the earth, and every corner of Louisburg, North Carolina – is not exactly what comes to mind. But James says, “Strengthen your hearts, because the Lord’s coming is near.”
Maybe in the old days “being patient until the Lord’s coming” meant sitting down, trying to “ride out the waves” that would splash up against us as life battered us.
But James is writing after seeing his adopted brother crucified by Rome, and then raised from the dead three days later, to tell everyone that “The wreckage brought about by our Fall is being undone.” That “We can be reconciled to God.” That “The world is being turned right-side-up.”
And so for James, “Be patient until the Lord’s coming” means something different than it would have beforehand. To “Be patient until the Lord’s coming” means to take the reality of our temporariness, and turn that into urgency in spreading the gospel. That’s why Mary Foster wants a revival service instead of a funeral. Because even in death, she wants to “make disciples of all nations.”
We are “like a smoke that appears for a while and then vanishes.” In between now and when we vanish, we will “patiently wait for the Lord’s coming” by inviting everyone we know to join the family of God. We pray that “God’s will be done on Earth as it is in heaven,” volunteering ourselves as people who will surrender our time, energy, and resources to pursuing God’s will in Louisburg, North Carolina.
But, as always, I want to address the folks who haven’t thrown yourselves on the mercy of Jesus. We want to invite everyone we know, and don’t know, to join the family of God. We want invite everyone who hasn’t become God’s beloved son or daughter to be adopted into God’s family alongside us. And if you haven’t thrown yourself on the mercy of Jesus, then that’s you.
We do something called the “altar call,” here. That means that while we sing, I’m gonna stand at the front waiting for you. The altar call is a symbol. Walking from your pew to the altar will not do anything. The altar isn’t magic. Walking down the aisle isn’t a ritual you perform the earn God’s approval. What happens when you come down to the altar is that we have a conversation. I’ll walk you through the process of surrendering yourself to the mercy that Jesus holds out to you. We want to spread the gospel into every corner of Louisburg, North Carolina, and it’s entirely possible that you are one of the corners we want to spread the gospel into. If that’s you, come down to the altar and talk to me.