‘We Are Going To Be More Than Okay’ – James 5:9-20 – March 10th, 2019

If you’ll turn in your Bibles to James chapter 5, verses 9 through 20, James says:

Brothers, do not complain about one another, so that you will not be judged. Look, the judge stands at the door!

Brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the Lord’s name as an example of suffering and patience. See, we count as blessed those who have endured. You have heard of Job’s endurance and have seen the outcome from the Lord. The Lord is very compassionate and merciful.

Now above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. Your “yes” must be “yes,” and your “no” must be “no,” so that you won’t fall under judgment.

Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone cheerful? He should sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? He should call for the elders of the church, and they should pray over him after anointing him with olive oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will restore him to health; if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The urgent request of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours; yet he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the land. Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land produced its fruit.

My brothers, if any among you strays from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his life from death and cover a multitude of sins.

Let’s pray.

*

So, I have titled this sermon, “We Are Going To Be More Than Okay,” and I brought the receipts to back up that claim. If you’ve been here for the last five sermons, it won’t surprise you when I say that the reason “we are going to be more than okay” is because, in James’s words, “We have been given a new birth by the message of truth, so that we might become the firstfruits of God’s ‘new creation’” – that’s chapter 1, verse 18.

But that process, of being “More Than Okay,” is going to be grueling. In verse 10, James says, “Brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the Lord’s name as an example of suffering and patience.” That’s a very ominous piece of reassurance. He says, “We count as blessed those who have endured great suffering.” I don’t know what that’s going to look like.

We’re fortunate, because we’re not dealing with anything like with the earliest Christians were dealing with. We don’t have an emperor Caligula, we don’t have a Nero. No one in the United States of America is using us as “human candles.” Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, it wasn’t uncommon for whole groups of Christians to have their churches lit on fire and their pastors tied up and drug across a gravel road by Klansmen and city councilmen, but that was usually persecution of Christians by Christians. That was uniquely horrifying situation, and we don’t have that.

But there’ll always be something to endure.

If what you endure seems small in comparison to getting eaten by lions, that’s fine. It might be. Your trials might be comparatively small, but they don’t not matter. All of your suffering is suffering. All of your pain is pain. There’s an old hymn that says “The Lord collects our tears in bottles,” and it’s true. God sees your pain. It doesn’t have to be like other people’s pain. God sees it because it’s yours. And he cares.

Like we’ve talked about before, when we are suffering “in Christ,” our suffering changes. It becomes one way that God molds us into the image of his Son. Our suffering becomes a tool that God uses to sanctify us, to heal us from our sin, to turn us into “vessels that please him.”

But that doesn’t mean God enjoys our suffering. That doesn’t mean your suffering is good. That doesn’t mean our suffering is something we should “just shut up and take.” It means God cares about your suffering. And he will help you to endure.

So your sickness, your poverty, your medical bills, your lost children – your sufferings are sufferings, and you can look to the people who suffered before you. Because even if their suffering was “bigger,” their suffering was suffering, and you have that in common. And so the prophets have gone before you. Job has gone before you. And Christ has gone before you. James says “The Lord is very compassionate and merciful,” and his compassion and mercy take shape when he joins us in our sufferings.

So the displaced Jewish Christians under James didn’t suffer alone, and they didn’t suffer for nothing. Because their suffering was a vehicle God used to mold them more deeply into the image of James’s brother, Jesus. So James says, “You have heard of Job’s endurance and have seen the outcome from the Lord,” because we know from the story of Job that our suffering is different under a God who is “compassionate and merciful.”

And the Book of Job is actually more relevant to James’s point than it seems up front. Like we keep coming back to throughout the series, James is easier to understand if you keep the things that James is assuming in the back of your mind. I think the King James Version puts the passage the best, in Job 19:25-27, Job says: “I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the Earth, And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God, Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes Shall Behold, and not another, Though my reins be consumed within me.”

Job is speaking two or three thousand years before the birth of Jesus, and his great hope, that sustains him through his suffering, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because the resurrection of Jesus Christ means his own resurrection, too. Job will be raised up with Jesus on the third day just like you and I were raised up with Jesus on the third day. And that changes our sufferings.

It changes a lot of things: Because we have been “given a new birth,” therefore James says in verse 9, “Brothers, do not complain about one another.” And that tends to go down rougher than most of the other sins that James warns us against. Because what passes for wisdom here in our part of the world just assumes that you’ll be at odds with your neighbor for the “long haul.” Right? There’s not a sitcom currently airing that doesn’t have at least one character whose entire role is to be obnoxious for a minute or two, then leave so that the main characters can humorously complain about them for a few minutes. The result is that we’re just kind of born into the assumption that there are some folks we’ll never be on good terms with, so we might as well just complain about them.

Because complaining is a social lubricant, you know what I mean? The other night I was at dinner with some old friends, and we spent a solid half-hour complaining about some folks we’d known in college, not because that was edifying, or even particularly enjoyable, but because it’s easy, and it comes naturally. We’re just “soft-wired” to complain about one another.

The problem is that complaints are kind of like sermons. At least in the sense that our complaints reveal a little bit about what we expect from one another. Our constant complaints about certain people tend to be a subtle concession that we never really plan or hope to be reconciled to them. That we never really hope to be friends with them. That we’re really not hoping to share a life together with them on the other side of the final resurrection.

When I complain about my neighbors, or former roommates, or distant family members, I am preaching a rather eloquent sermon about how little interest I have in relating to them as sisters or brothers in God’s family. And James’ advice is really intricate: He says “Stop complaining about each other.”

The problem for me, though, is that I don’t want to. I don’t want to stop complaining about the Annoying Guy At The Office. What I want is a scapegoat. I want somebody, who isn’t me, that I can pour out my fury and dissatisfaction onto.

Complaining about one another gives us an outlet where we can focus our unhappiness and then fire away, right? It gives us somebody that we can take a metaphorical bat to until we feel just a little bit better about our own lives. But James says, “Brothers, stop complaining about one another because the judge is standing at the door.”

So, what we desperately need is to see our neighbors differently, to see one another differently. Not Complaining About Our Neighbors requires us to want different things than we currently want. And the good news is that we’ve been “given a new birth together by the message of truth,” and it turns our relationships right-side-up

So the Holy Spirit will change our hearts towards each other. He will move in us so that we stop complaining about each other and instead become invested in one another’s well-being. We are going to be More Than Okay because God is going to turn our hearts from hearts that do not love one another into hearts that love one another more than we love ourselves. It’s coming. Prepare yourself for it. Prepare your heart to be changed by the Holy Spirit, because you’re going to be more than okay.

And that changes our relationships, so we no longer have to “complain” about each other but instead “build each other up,” and like we talked about a few weeks back, it changes our speech.

In verse 12, James says, “Now above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath.” A lot of commentaries think he’s jumping from topic to topic, just trying to cram everything he can into the last few verses of the letter, but you have to see this along the lines of what James has been saying.

Think back to chapter three; think back to “The Sermon on the Mount,” when his brother, Jesus, told us not to make “oaths,” not to “swear by heaven or by earth.” Some Christians have taken that to mean that you literally shouldn’t make promises, or that you literally shouldn’t sign “contracts,” but that’s a little off the rails – obviously.

Because James and Jesus are telling us that because of the resurrection of Jesus – because we were “raised up with Christ” into “new lives,” as “new people,” with the Holy Spirit “living inside us” and “changing our nature” over the course of our lives – we really can become “honest folks” in a way that we couldn’t beforehand.

That same resurrection that changes our suffering into something different than it was; that resurrection turns us into people who can be trusted. And the obvious application to that would be that our neighbors should be able to trust us. We should be well known for being honest-by-default. So the Holy Spirit will spend the rest of our lives purging the dishonesty from us

And so we shouldn’t need oaths. We shouldn’t need promises. For so much of history, “oaths” and “promises” and “covenants” and “contracts” existed because they knew that you couldn’t count on a person to keep his word if you didn’t “get it in writing,” with penalties in place if he broke it. But we have been “raised up with Christ.” The dishonest men and women that we used to be are “buried in a tomb in Palestine.” But we’ve been brought up out of that tomb with Jesus.

And so, obviously, we’ll make contracts – for a phone plan, etc. But we submit to the Holy Spirit as he molds us into people for whom oaths and promises are redundant. We allow the resurrection of Jesus to turn us into people who embody the trustworthiness that oaths are meant to artificially enforce. Every corner of our lives are brought together under ministry of the Holy Spirit. Christ heals us from what we were, and then knits us together.

In that first sermon, I said the whole letter of James is basically a laundry-list of applications for chapter 1, verse 18, and now we’ve walked through the whole letter and you know what I’m talking about. It says, “We have been given a new birth by the message of truth so that we might become kind of firstfruits of God’s new creation,” and therefore in verse 13, James says, “Is anyone suffering? He should pray.” That’s what we do at the church every Wednesday, and it’s what we do in our homes every day of the week. Because Christ heals us through his death and resurrection, but that’s a different sort of “healing” than we probably asked for.

Now and then, we get a glimpse of the way that Christ will heal our bodies in the “new heavens and the new earth,” but most of the time the “healing” that we experience on this side of our “final resurrection” means we still get sick; we still deteriorate as we age; there are still days where we can’t get out of bed.

Like Solomon says in Ecclesiastes, there’ll be days when you wake up and wish you hadn’t. All of those things are constant realities for us, and Jesus never promised to change that when we became his people. But James says, “Is anyone among you sick? He should call for the elders of the church, and they should pray over him after anointing him with olive oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will restore him to health.”

That tends to lead to confusion: it can feel like James is writing a check that the Holy Spirit won’t cash when he says that “The prayer of faith will save the sick person and the Lord will restore him to health.” But if you look back through history, you get a good idea of how this actually played out: Within a handful of decades after the resurrection of Jesus, the church became the place you’d want to be when you got sick.

The early Christians under James believed that they had been put to death with Jesus and raised up with him together – and as “resurrected people,” they determined that they weren’t afraid of disease the way they used to be.

So in densely populated cities where disease was constantly at the door, the Christians became famous because they kept pooling their money to build additions onto their houses to function as free hospitals for the sick.

So whenever an outbreak would hit, people would Naturally flee the city. And that included The priests of the “god of healing,” named Asclepius; they would just kind of pack up their bags and head for the countryside where it was safer. But the Christians under the influence of James and Paul, and Peter, and John, would stick around, man the hospitals, and care for the sick.

And that tends to have an effect on people – when last week they were cheering while your brother in Christ was getting torn up by a lion at the coliseum and this week you’re nursing them back to health because the government and the god of healing have both left them out to dry.

For James’s communities, “Pray for the sick” always carried the implication that your “prayers” included your concrete involvement in making sure they received the medical attention they needed. Kind of like James says, “Faith without works is dead,” in chapter 2, you could summarize him here by saying, “Prayers without action are usually meaningless.”

So divine intervention really happens. God really does heal people miraculously, sometimes. But unlike the old pagan cults, that has never been the norm. That’s never been the primary way that the God we meet in Jesus Christ works.

The old pagan gods, like Asclepius, thrived on sprawling promises about how they would “heal your diseases” and “keep your pigs from dying” and “make sure your crops never flooded,” and so on.

Because The old pagan cults were all exercises in “cozying up to the gods” to get them to “cast their vote in your favor,” to try and manipulate the supernatural forces of the universe into solving your problems. But the God we meet in Jesus is not like that.

Because rather than zap all of our problems away like the old gods promised to (and never actually did), this God worked more like “the hand inside a glove” that Miss Tanya Denton talked about a few weeks back in the children’s sermon: Occasionally, he would heal your sickness; now and then, he would part the Red Sea; but normally, he would do something much subtler, that got at the root of the problem in ways that simply “waving a magic wand” couldn’t.

So instead of simply healing everyone’s disease like Asclepius promised to (and never did), the Holy Spirit moved in the hearts of God’s people and possessed them to reach into their own pockets and find a way to provide what the people around them needed.

Benjamin Franklin liked to say that “God helps those who help themselves,” and that’s a clever way of saying that you should get a job, but the truth is that “God helps the helpless,” and the way that God helps the helpless, most of the time, is “by working in the hearts of the not helpless and possessing them to walk alongside the helpless and aid them in breaking out of the cycle of poverty.”

I know that there are some people, in some traditions, who will accuse me of “explaining away” what James says in this passage. There’s not much I can do about that. Some folks read this passage and the conclusion that they come to is that medical care is unimportant, that we can “pray our sickness away,” without fail – and that if God doesn’t “work a miracle for you” it’s because “you didn’t have enough faith.” If anyone has told you that, I’m sorry.

I want to be as clear as I possibly can: If your family member passed away, it wasn’t because you didn’t “pray hard enough”; it wasn’t because God looked down at you and said, “Ye of little faith.” It’s because the God we meet in Jesus Christ is not like the old pagan gods. When Jesus is talking to his disciples, he doesn’t say “Follow me and the bills will stop piling up.” He says the opposite. He says that “In this world, you will have trouble.” He says, “Things are going to get harder for you, not easier, if you follow me.” Expect that.

And so it’s cheaper to hold a weekly “Healing Service” on Sunday night than it is to devote a portion of your income to caring for other people’s healthcare needs. But take a wild guess which of those things the Christians under James’s leadership actually did. So when James said, “Pray over those who are sick, and the Lord will heal them,” he and all of his readers are assuming that there’s a doctor involved, and that you might not come away healed at all.

And he also understands that a lot of people will not be satisfied with that. Some people are so not satisfied with the way that God approaches our suffering that they “call it quits” on the faith entirely.

I get that: I have probably suffered the least out of most of the folks that I know, but complain the most about it. The world batters everybody, regardless of whether you’re rich or poor, whether you live in the “first world” or the “third world,” whether you hit the “genetic Lottery” or your body started falling apart when you were 15. But I came out of the womb having been dealt a pretty favorable hand – and yet it takes so very little to rattle my faith.

It takes a minor inconvenience. You know? Whatever I sound like in the pulpit, I assure you it takes all of 10 seconds for me to revert back into an 8th grader lamenting to his youth pastor that “My Girlfriend Broke Up With Me Does God Even Exist.” Right? We are catastrophically easy to draw away from the good news of the Gospel.

And among other things, that means that your unbelieving family members are not your fault. They know you better than I do. They grew up with you. They’ve seen you from angles most other people don’t even know about. It’s very difficult to hide your jacked-up-ness from them. And if they lost their faith, it’s easy to torture yourself by playing the “Greatest Hits” reel of every mistake you’ve ever made in your head and finding a way to convince yourself that you are the reason they have abandoned the Lord.

An obvious disclaimer: if you abused your children, if you cheated on your spouse, if you were the pastor of a church and you embezzled church money on a weekend getaway in Vegas where you married a stripper and paid off seven members of the Russian mob – I’m just spit-balling here – then you might be partly responsible for somebody else’s loss of faith.

But if you made the very normal, baseline mistakes that everyone on planet earth makes when they try to raise a kid, or live with a spouse, or whatever, you are not responsible for your family member’s, or your friend’s loss of faith. They’ve made their decisions. You can have peace about that.

What you are responsible for is “drawing them back to the mercy of God.” You can’t change their hearts – you can’t cause them to repent and believe the gospel – but you are responsible for the folks in proximity to you.

Like Paul says in 1st Corinthians, the resurrection of Jesus changes what our life is about from this point onward. So whatever our old lives were about – where we used to complain about each other, where we used lie to each other – has been put to death, and our new lives in Jesus Christ are about bringing the gospel to every corner of the earth.

Our new lives are about inviting other people into the family we’ve been adopted into. And so those who fall away from the faith are our responsibility. As people who are going to be “More Than Okay” because of the “New Birth” that we receive in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is absolutely our responsibility to see to it that other people are also going to be more than okay.

So I want to address those who’ve “fallen away,” and I want to address those who have never thrown themselves on the mercy of God, like always. We believe that we are going to be more than okay because Jesus died on the cross for our sins and then raised us up with him on the third day.

We want to spread the gospel into every corner of Louisburg, North Carolina. And if you’ve never surrendered in faith to Jesus Christ, then you are one of the corners that we want to spread the gospel into. So we’d like to invite you to join the family of God. To be born again into the family that we’ve been born again into.

We’re about to do something called “Communion,” or “The Lord’s Supper.” What it means is that, like in Luke chapter 22, when Jesus broke bread with his disciples and said, “This is my body, and it’s going to be broken for you,” and then he shared his wine with them and said, “This is my blood, and it’s going to be spilled for you,” in the same way, today, we share bread and juice as an image of the communion that we have with God together because of the forgiveness and reconciliation that Jesus purchased for us through his broken body and spilt blood on the cross.

But If you haven’t thrown yourself on God’s mercy to have your sins nailed to his cross, then that is not true about you. And we want it to be.

And so before we share the bread and juice together, I’m going to stand at the front while we sing the invitation hymn. And you can come down the aisle and have a conversation with me. And I’ll walk you through the process where you can put your faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, to be born again into the family of God, to be More Than Okay. We want the story that we are about to remember together in Communion to be true about you.

So let’s Pray.

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