‘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.

‘Be Patient Until The Lord’s Coming’ – James 4:13-5:8 – February 24th, 2019

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.

Let’s pray.

*

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.

Let’s pray.

‘The Wisdom from Above’ – James 3:13-4:12 – February 24th, 2019

Who is wise and has understanding among you? He should show his works by good conduct with wisdom’s gentleness. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t brag and deny the truth. Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where envy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every kind of evil. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace.

What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from the cravings that are at war within you? You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your evil desires.

Adulteresses! Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? So whoever wants to be the world’s friend becomes God’s enemy. Or do you think it’s without reason the Scripture says that the Spirit who lives in us yearns jealously?

But He gives greater grace. Therefore He says:

“God resists the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.”


Therefore, submit to God. But resist the Devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, sinners, and purify your hearts, double-minded people! Be miserable and mourn and weep. Your laughter must change to mourning and your joy to sorrow. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you.

Don’t criticize one another, brothers. He who criticizes a brother or judges his brother criticizes the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

Let’s pray.

*

To paraphrase the eminent theologian, “Larry the Cable Guy”: Sin is like “having a dream that you’re drinking the world’s biggest Margarita” – which none of us would ever do, I know – “and then waking up to find salt around the edges of the toilet lid.” Sin is exhausting long after it’s thrilling. Because the “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” that James talks about might “come naturally to us,” but it’s also painful.

James says, “Whoever is wise and understanding among you should show his works by good conduct with wisdom’s gentleness.” And that’s an interesting phrase: You should show your works by “good conduct” and “wisdom’s gentleness.” I think somewhere, deep in ourselves, we’re desperate to be wise, and to be around people who are wise. There’s something in us that’s just desperate for “wisdom’s gentleness.”

It reminds me of a man I lived down the street from growing up, named Rick Carey. He was my physics teacher as a junior, and he’d gone to my church my entire life. He played Jesus in every single “Passion Play” we’d ever done, so everyone and their mom knew about Rick Carey.

But I didn’t get to know him until I was a senior. Because that year, my friend Seth Borkowski – which is a fake name I made up to protect the not so innocent – told me his parents were getting a divorce. His mom had discovered that his dad, Jeff, was having an affair, and when she confronted him about it, instead of doing any of the groveling, and excuse-making that you see in TV shows, he said, “The reason I’ve been cheating on you is that you aren’t young enough, or pretty enough, or thin enough, and she is.”

So Jeff moved in with his mistress, and the rest was history. Except it wasn’t, because the next time I saw him, he was sitting alone at his Seth’s wedding. Because the “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” that used to thrill him had nothing for him in the long run. To quote the eminent theologian, Taylor Swift, “Sin is a nightmare dressed like a daydream.”

But after Seth’s dad left, Rick Carey, who had just retired as the physics teacher, essentially adopted him. He said, “Why don’t you start coming with me to the gym every morning.” So my friend started getting up at the crack of dawn and heading to meet Rick Carey to work out for hours on end. And then he started going to his house after school. And then they started reading books together, and studying the Bible together; and then Seth started going to more and more family gatherings with the Careys, so he started to become a part of Rick’s family. Nothing in the world will replace the family that you’re born into, that you hope holds together, but Rick became a kind of surrogate father when Seth’s biological father couldn’t see past his own “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition.”

And it made a universe of difference, because the presence of somebody driven towards “good conduct” by “wisdom’s gentleness” gave Seth an anchor. And that’s one of the reasons that this Seth and I are no longer members in a particularly vulgar metal band called “Cannibal Catfish” – that was a thing that happened at one point; there are recordings, I might show them to you – and instead, today, Seth’s a deacon at his church, he just got married, and he’s discipling other young men who are going through the same sort of things he went through, with that same “gentleness” and “wisdom” that Rick Carey once poured into him.

Because James says that “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy.” And like James says in chapter 1, “Any of us who are lacking this wisdom can ask God, who gives generously to all without criticizing, and it will be given to us.”

Because almost nobody is like Rick Carey. The people “whose works can be seen in their good conduct working through wisdom’s gentleness” are rare. But they don’t have to be. God’s not watching from on high, wincing at our lack of wisdom. He’s not “tallying up” each instance of ungentleness, just waiting to “call us to account” for each one.

James says it’s quite the opposite; that “God gives to all generously and without criticizing”; He’s eager to “sew the fruit of righteousness” and “peaceableness” in us, that we would “reap wisdom’s gentleness.”

And that’s not something I would ever think to ask for. Right? It’s not even on my radar. Like, when I first became a Christian, I would pray for things like “boldness,” I’d pray for “The Courage to ‘Stand Up for Jesus’,” or I’d pray for the ability to recite large sections of scripture from memory (which is good), or I’d pray that God would make me into someone who can “turn every single conversation into a gospel conversation.”

Because those are the kinds of things that are held up as virtuous in our particular cultural moment. And those things are virtuous. Those are important. But we need more than that. According to James, the gentleness into which “the wisdom from above” will shape us is the thing that will set us free from our addiction to “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition.”

So James says “Why are there wars and strife among you? Because of the cravings at war within you. Because you desire and do not have, so you murder and covet but cannot obtain.” And I don’t think that James is wearing the “anti-war activist” hat, here; I don’t think he’d object to liberating the concentration camps.

Because almost everyone agrees there’s a difference between a just war and an unjust war. Except for the Roman empire, under whom James and the Jewish Christians he was writing to were “occupied subjects.” For Rome, there really wasn’t a difference between a “just war” and an “unjust war.”

Rome had exactly one criterion regarding what separated justifiable and unjustifiable war, and that was profitability: What did they gain? When you laid it out in an Excel spreadsheet, did the math bode well for you? Most of our high school history text books were filled with limp euphemisms that blunt the really horrifying realities of what it was like to live as a resident of the empire if you weren’t “wealthy” or “well-connected.”

The Empire paid for itself on the backs of subsistence farmers.” It wasn’t taxing “surplus,” it was taxing livelihood. They weren’t taking food out of your “storehouse,” they were taking it out of your mouth.

So when Rome needed money, they conquered one of the loosely-confederated nation-states nearby, or they’d put out a “census” of all the people at a fee that would annoy the average citizen and eviscerate the average sharecropper, or subsistence farmer, or merchant, or carpenter.

And those were realities James and his audience of Jewish Christians couldn’t ignore, because they woke up to them every day. They were staring them in the face at all times, because among those vanquished by Rome’s “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” were the Jewish people.

Rome was not the first Empire to conquer them, but they were the ones currently occupying them, and so every aspect of your life, as a Jewish Christian in the first century, was shaped by the “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” of the Roman empire, and it was illustrated most vividly by the fact that you couldn’t turn a street corner without running into a soldier whose one job was to make sure you stay in your place.

But James says “What causes wars and strife among you?” And it’s a rhetorical question, because he immediately follows it up with “Isn’t it the cravings ‘at war within you’?” And that’s another way of saying “The call is coming from inside the house.”

So the Jewish Christians are victims of an empire that does not care about them, will not let them go, is not going to help them, and only values them t the extent that they can use them as a “human grocery store” from whom to draft soldiers and exact unbearably high taxes.

So if you posed the question to a group of first century Jews or Christians, “What causes wars and strife among you?” an eager fella from the back row might raise his hands and say, “Rome!” and James would say, “Wrong, mostly.”

Because Rome was a serious problem, but James is going for a different “jugular,” here. He says “Isn’t your primary problem that your own cravings are at war within yourselves?” “So you want, but you don’t have, so you kill for it.” That’s like saying, “The empire is inside you, just as much as it’s outside you.” It’s like saying, “There’s an evil empire in your heart-of-hearts, and it plunders everybody around it because it wants and doesn’t have.”

That’s about the most cold-blooded thing you could say to a Jewish Christian living in the empire: That you are like your oppressors in ways you haven’t noticed, because you didn’t want to notice, because you share something terrifying with them –   

That same “upside-down-ness” that makes your oppressor oppress you will make you do things that terrify you – or should terrify you – and maybe it already has, and if you don’t repent of your “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition,” you will forever occupy what amounts to a lower rung on the same ladder that Rome occupies.

And you don’t want to. Because God’s dousing that ladder with gasoline and then tossing a pack of Ohio Blue Tip matches onto it. And he should. Because that’s not a ladder that ought to exist. 

And in a situation like that, it could be tempting to resist the world by using the world’s methods. And it’s important that you don’t do that. Because if Satan can’t bait you into joining into the evils around you, the next best thing is to radicalize you against the evils of the world in a way that makes you every bit as worldly as they are.

But the wisdom from above that James is talking about never joins into the world’s cruelty, or the world’s brutality. As usual, you can understand the things that James writes about best when you hold them up alongside the things his brother Jesus did.

For example – in what is now known as “The Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus preached to a group of occupied Jewish peasant farmers, and his audience was filled with people who, legally, any Roman soldier could grab, confiscate away from his farm, and then force to carry his “military gear” for up to a mile down the road.

By law, they could only make you carry their pack for a mile, and then they had to send you home. But that was not a “benevolent” law. It was basic economics: There’s no point in having an conquered nation of peasant farmers that you can confiscate for free labor if they all die of exhaustion within a few years.

So the law limited the distance they could carry your military gear to one mile so that the Jews wouldn’t just all die, thus rendering them of no economic value to the empire.

And so Jesus says “When someone makes you carry their pack a mile down the road, carry it two miles.” That’s not “pure benevolence,” either.

Because “Going The Extra Mile,” as a general rule, is a good thing, and you should do it. But when you “Go The Extra Mile” for someone, you’re trying to help them in ways they might not have had the courage to ask you. You’re trying to bless them.

But when Jesus said “Go The Extra Mile” for these Roman soldiers, it wasn’t exactly a “blessing.” Because Rome took their Free Labor Peasant Farmer Work Force so seriously that anyone who threatened to cause their labor force to dwindle could be punished with death.

That means that if any soldier forces, or even allows, you to carry their pack for more than a mile, they could land the death penalty. So by carrying their pack an extra mile, you’re putting their life in danger.

And if you’re a peasant farmer, and a Soldier confiscates you from your family farm and makes you carry his military gear for a mile, then at the end of the mile, instead of giving his pack back to him, Jesus says “Just keep on carrying it a second mile while you’re at it.”  

And it’s not because he wants the soldier to die – although you might want the soldier to die. It’s because now you’ve put the soldier in a situation in which he has to ask you for his gear back.

And when you ignore him and keep going, he has to demand his gear back.

And when you ignore him again and keep going, he has to chase after you – and he’s starting to look kind of stupid.

And then, when you ignore him yet again and keep going, he has to start begging you for his gear back.

Because now his life is in danger, because now his life is in the hands of somebody he confiscated from their field and forced to perform free labor. “Going The Extra Mile” turned the tables on Rome in ways that rioting in Jerusalem didn’t.

Because as more and more Jews began resisting their occupiers by “Going The Extra Mile,” eventually it became more trouble than it was worth to kidnap them and steal their labor. The “risk factor” began to outweigh even the “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” of the soldiers who used to steal them from their land and force them to carry their packs.

So this is a bit of that “Wisdom From Above” that James talks about, that fundamentally changed the situation in which his listeners found themselves.

While extremist groups like “the Zealots,” “the Sicarii” tried to resist Rome using the world’s methods – through violent retaliation, stockpiling weaponry and gathering up homegrown militias – the Jewish Christians under James would resist Rome without harming anyone.

And while the Zealots, and other extremist groups, dwindled as they lost more and more recruits in one violent uprising after another, the Jewish Christians under the influence of James put a spoke in the wheel of Rome’s economy by resisting them with a wisdom that was “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy, and good fruits,” in such a way that it became less and less “economically sound” to directly repress them.

The Zealots wanted to resist the oppression of the world by adapting themselves to the world’s methods, to the world’s cruelty, to the world’s brutality. But unlike the “Zealots,” the Jewish Christians refused to simply be a “lower rung” on the same ladder as Rome: James says, “friendship with the world is hostility towards God.” “Whoever wants to be the world’s friend becomes the Lord’s enemy.”

But the “wisdom from above” draws a “line in the sand” between the love of God and the cruelty of the world.

So you’ll draw a “line in the sand” between yourself and that “spirit of unbelief” that’s at work in our culture that says that “People are only as valuable as they are productive,” that says “The difference between a person and a non-person is in whether or not they’re wanted.”

And that’s obviously at work in the ‘live-birth abortion bills’ that were passed in New York, and narrowly struck-down in Virginia, but it’s not contained to that one issue. So we need a “wisdom from above” that “draws a hard line in the sand” between the cruelty that passes for wisdom in our culture and the true wisdom that comes from God, which is “first pure, and then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy.” Because according to James, “Whoever wants to be the world’s friend becomes God’s enemy.”

And there’s good news, because God is more merciful than we could ever have imagined.

James says that “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” And on the face of it, that might sound like bad news for the “proud,” right? We just talked about how God “resisted the pride [of Rome]” by “giving grace to the humble” in the person of Jesus Christ, who climbed on top of the “Mount” and told a crowd of disaffected Jewish farmers exactly how to resist Rome like God resisted Rome – and over the long-haul it toppled Rome’s economy.

But when “God resists the proud,” that can also be good news for the proud. Last time I saw Jeff Borkowski, he was sitting at a table alone at his son’s wedding while his ex-wife and his children ate together at the “family table,” but that doesn’t have to be the way that Jeff Borkowski’s story ends.

A few months ago, I read a “human interest” article about a guy who gave a sermon at his church. He was a “layman,” but it was a special occasion – because it was the 10-year anniversary of the day he remarried his wife in that same sanctuary after having divorced her for one of her friends. So he opened his Bible to the book of Hosea and introduced himself to anyone who didn’t already know him.

He walked through the story of how God told the prophet Hosea to go “marry a loose woman” named Gomer, and then to “stick with her throughout her years of unfaithfulness.”

So after Hosea married her, things go exactly the way that you’d expect, and every time Hosea comes home from working the field, he finds her with a different man than the day before.

And she starts to gamble all his money away and neglect their children. And eventually he comes home and he doesn’t find her at all because she’s gone so deeply into debt that her “loan sharks” threw her in the back of their van and put her to work at the brothel as an indentured servant. So Hosea goes home, gathers up every cent he’s got, and buys her. And he brings her home, and puts her to bed, and says, “You safe, now, and you’re home.”

And after this guy finished the story of Hosea, he talked about how after his own divorce, the Lord worked in both of them, sanding down their pride and softening their hearts toward himself and towards each other.

So one day his wife asked him to meet for coffee, so they met for coffee. And then she invited him again, and then again. And “coffee” started turning into fully-fledged dates. And then “dating” turned into going to church together. And after learning to trust each other again over the course of a few very slow, very deliberate years, they married each other all over again.

Because “God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble,” and the God we meet in Jesus Christ is eager to transform the proud into the humble. So James says, “Submit to God, but resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” “Drawing near to God, and He will draw near to you.”

Like James says in chapter 1, “If any of us lacks ‘the wisdom that comes from above,’ we should ask God, who gives generously to all without criticizing, and it will be given to us.” So Jeff Borkowski doesn’t have to spend the rest of his life sitting with his head in his hands because he threw his family to the dogs; the “wisdom of the world” will make you a victim of your own foolishness, but “the God who gives generously to all without criticizing” is eager to give generously to you, and to me, and to Jeff Borkowski.

He’s eager to “soften our hearts toward himself and each other” with “a wisdom that comes from above.” And that wisdom will cut through our foolishness, and our cruelty, and our selfishness, and our unbelief. And it’s usually a painful process – where James says “our laughter turns into mourning and our joy turns into sorrow” – but it’s also a fruitful process, in which James says we “humble ourselves before the Lord and He exalts us.” God will make Rick Careys out of Jeff Borkowskis.

And as always, I want to speak directly to anyone who hasn’t thrown themselves on the mercy of Jesus: James says that “there is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and destroy,” and God is going to do one of those things to you. A few weeks back, we said “The opposite of hell isn’t heaven, it’s holiness.” Jeff Borkowski’s hell is being Jeff Borkowski. And he’s either going to be rescued from the fire of his own unholiness by responding in faith to the mercy we find in Jesus Christ, or he’s going to spend an eternity locked up with all the cruelest, coldest parts of himself.

But the “lawgiver and judge” that James is talking about is out to save, not destroy. Like John 3:17, Jesus says, “I didn’t come to condemn the world but to save it,” God gives generously to all without even criticizing. When you surrender yourself to Jesus, he doesn’t flog you for the years you spent as a scoundrel.

He invites you into his house to take off your shoes and sit at his table. So if you recognized yourself in Jeff Borkowski, if you’ve been stumbling around, drunk on the wisdom of the world, I’ll be waiting for you at the altar. It’s not magic. It’s just an altar. But you can come talk to me while we’re singing. Or you can flag me down afterward. I’d love to walk you through the process of throwing yourself on the mercy of God, to be adopted into God’s family, forgiven of your sins, and given a “wisdom that comes from above.”

Let’s pray.