St Michael’s and St Barnabas 3rd July 2011
Reading – James 1:1-15
How many people here have ever taken part in some kind of endurance event? Do we have anyone here who has run a marathon, maybe, or been involved in a long-distance cycle ride? I understand that one of the biggest dangers a marathon runner faces is something called “hitting the wall”. You are about 20 miles into the race when your body burns up its last supply of energy. The reserves you have built up in your liver and your muscles run out, and suddenly you are overwhelmed with fatigue, and sheer exhaustion. Unless you immediately take on more calories, the chances are you will no longer be able to complete the race. It’s a serious issue which, if not recognised, can damage your health long term, and it’s one of the reasons why runners and cyclists prepare for races so thoroughly and so professionally.
Now today we are starting a new sermon series on the book of James and although there is some disagreement over the date, it seems most likely it was written about 20 years after Jesus’ death to various groups of Jewish Christians who were in spiritual terms in danger of hitting the wall. There is no evidence that there was any heresy or false teaching that was undermining their faith. They had been faithful followers of Jesus even in the most difficult of circumstances. But their spiritual reserves were drying up in the face of severe pressures that were threatening to overwhelm them.
For a start as we read in verse 1 they were scattered among the nations. If you know the story of the book of Acts you may remember that all the believers except the apostles had to flee Jerusalem after Stephen had been put to death. We have to imagine the letter of James written not to a single church but to small groups of Christians in communication with each other, but all of them vulnerable, isolated and fearful.
And there were stresses within these groups as well. Because at this time the economy was not going well, and as we know from our own experience, this only serves to increase the gap between rich and poor. Many of the church members were struggling, and yet it seems that there was also a minority of believers who making the most of the misfortune of others to prosper and get rich quick. It’s not too surprising then that other themes we will find in the book of James include bridging the gap between faith and action, keeping a tight rein on what we say, and praying with the right motives.
These small Christian groups were being undermined by pressures both from outside and from within. So it falls to James, the brother of the Lord Jesus and then leader of the Jerusalem church, to give them practical advice and encourage them to keep going. Now if you were in his situation, if you had to write to fellow believers going through a time of testing, what is the first thing that you would say?
I suspect that few, if any of us, would write what James writes in verse 2: Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds. I don’t know exactly what you are going through this morning, but I think I can safely say not many of you are facing life’s difficulties at the moment with pure joy. It seems at first glance an extraordinary thing to say, as if maybe James didn’t fully appreciate everything these followers of Jesus were going through. Yet if we look at the book of Acts we can see that, as someone who had remained in Jerusalem throughout the persecution, James clearly did know what they had experienced. So maybe we have to ask ourselves what James meant by joy. I’m not going to answer that at the moment, but we’ll come back to this point at the end.
At least James gives us a reason for this remarkable statement. Verse 3: because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. That word “testing” used here is also the one which describes the process of refining metals. Although I’m no geologist, I know you test a piece of iron ore by heating it up, removing the impurities and seeing how much pure metal emerges. Without the heat and the crushing and burning that piece of iron ore would remain just a lump of shiny rock.
And James uses that imagery to explain something of the purpose of the many trials that we face. Because if they have a purpose – and as Christians we must believe they ultimately have one – it is to help us see just how important and precious is our faith, and to encourage us to keep going. Sadly there are all too many fairweather Christians who say all the right things and claim to believe all the right things but when the going gets tough just melt away. They lack the power to endure because their faith is, when push comes to shove, not the most important thing to them. They hit the wall spiritually and fall out of the race.
Of course it’s easy to criticise other people who fall by the wayside, but what about us? It’s all very well knowing in theory that the testing of our faith is supposed to produce endurance. But when we are actually up against it, when we are faced with a situation beyond our control that seems too hard to deal with, how exactly are we meant to cope?
Let’s look at three particular issues that James deals with in this passage – with guidance (vv.5-8), with financial hardship (vv.9-11), with temptation (vv.13-15).
So, to begin with, guidance. This, I recognise, is a big issue for many Christians. Because one of the greatest challenges we face applying our faith day by day to the real world is knowing how what we believe about Jesus can impact on the decisions we have to make. So, to take a very relevant example, there may be some uncertainty about your work and it’s not clear what might be the best option for yourself or your family. Or you may be in a position where you are so busy it’s sometimes difficult to decide what is the most important thing to do first. How does the fact you believe and trust in Jesus as your Lord and Saviour make a difference?
James’ answer comes in verse 5: If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. For the one thing that the good news of Jesus teaches us above all else about God is that He is an overwhelmingly generous God. And because God is God, and does not change, His generosity and His goodness does not stop at the church door, or at the entrance to our place of work. He is still the same God wherever we go, whatever we do.
This does not necessarily mean we can stop in the heat of the day and wait for guidance before we make a decision – although I believe there’s always time for a brief, unspoken prayer. But we can go forward in the faith and trust that the Lord is there with us leading and guiding us, even if it may only be later when the dust has settled that we can look back and see why things have turned out as they have.
Of course, the trouble is that at times like these it can far be easier to focus on our immediate plight than on our loving Heavenly Father. So instead of recognising God’s goodness, we start to believe God has abandoned us, instead of remembering God’s grace and mercy to us, we think about all the times when it appears He has let us down. Now if that’s how you are feeling this morning, then you need to take seriously James’ warning in verse 6: But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.
For if you consider that your prayers aren’t going to make that much difference, if you’re simply going through the motions of being a Christian, then you mustn’t be surprised if you yourself blown and tossed about by the different directions in which you are being pulled. Yes, our Heavenly Father loves to hear our prayers, and yes, sometimes He will answer prayers in spite of the way we have prayed them, but if we don’t think they’ll give us the answer we’re looking for, then the chances are, we won’t see them being answered.
As James goes on to say in verses 7-8: That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does. So the question is: are we looking to God for guidance? Or do we in our heart of hearts don’t believe He really can make that much difference to our everyday lives?
Let’s go on to look at the whole question of hardship.
As I think is becoming quite clear James is not one to mince his words, and He is not afraid to say some pretty challenging things. Verses 9 and 10 are a case in point: The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. What exactly does James mean by this? How can we say that someone in humble circumstances is in a high position?
First of all, let’s be clear that the Bible is not in favour of poverty as something good in itself. There is verse after verse about helping practically with those in need, about making sure that wealth is shared amongst the church community, about giving generously in response to others’ misfortune. Yet, and it’s highly probable that James knew of this Scripture, we also know Jesus said: Blessed are the poor. So how we make sense of two apparently conflicting strands of teaching?
The basic issue is the effect riches can have on those who possess them. The danger is that wealth can become a kind of insulator, that when we are doing well we can lose sight of the fact that we dependent on God. When you have the nice house, and the new car on the drive, and a good education for the children, it can be tempting to think you don’t really need God’s help in your life. We often think it is hardship that drives people away from God. In fact the more real and yet far more subtle challenge to our faith comes when how much we have starts to become more important than our identity in Christ.
I think it is for this reason James says: The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. Because when you have relatively little, you are more reliant on God and more open to His working in your life. Your prayers become that much more real when you don’t know how are going to make the next mortgage payment, or put food on the table.
Now of course we should all have this total reliance on God all the time. But when you are cushioned from the real necessities of life, you tend look more to your bank balance than to Jesus. And the real problem, as we have all seen over the past couple of years, this kind of financial security in the end turns out to an illusion, a mirage. We need only look at the headlines to see how so many rich and prosperous people have faded away like a wild flower. As all those adverts say, the value of your investments can go down as well as up.
So, yes, I am not minimising the fact that hardship can be often a real trial. When you can’t make ends meet, then it’s easy to envious those who appear to have so much. But don’t let your circumstances lead you to believe that God has not blessed you. Even though the world might look down on you, you have a high position in His eyes, and He is still listening to your prayers. There is, after all, nothing that can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
So we’ve thought about guidance. And we’ve thought about hardship. There’s so much already in these verses, but we must move on and look at what James says about temptation in verses 13-15.
Because temptation is another real and very common trial we all face. I guess we can think of times when we made promises to ourselves at the start of the New Year or during Lent to give up chocolate. At first all seems to go well. But then you find you start thinking about chocolate at odd times of the day. You see how many other people around you are eating chocolate. You turn on the TV, and there before you is a programme about chocolate. Eventually it all becomes too much, and you just have to go out and buy yourself a slab.
Now of course chocolate isn’t itself a sin. But that kind of experience shows just pervasive temptation can be. Whatever it is that’s tempting us doesn’t leave us alone. It filters into our consciousness and distracts us from all kinds of more important things. Most importantly of all, it can distract us from our relationship with God. You sit down to read your Bible and to pray. And what are you thinking of? Chocolate. Or alcohol. Or the beautiful colleague that’s started working opposite you. Or the details of the company’s bank account you’ve discovered by accident.
In that kind of situation it’s worth remembering those words of James: When tempted, no-one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone. Because, sad to say, you come across believers who try to justify their actions by claiming God has led them. “I felt the Lord leading me to start this relationship”; “The Lord gave me this opportunity and I just had to take it”. Brothers and sisters, if the end result is contrary to God’s word, then it is evil, no matter how attractive it might seem at the time.
James moves on to look at the importance of God’s word in next week’s passage. But for now, let’s take heed of his warning in verses 14 and 15: but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. There is no Scriptural warrant for the phrase “A little of what you fancy does you good”. We need to resist the spirit of the age that says, “If it feels good, do it”. How? By unmasking temptation for what it is, by turning back to God and clinging to His promises even when the desire to sin sometimes seems overwhelming.
Now we’ve covered a lot of ground this morning. But it’s been important to look at this closely because I reckon there is not one person here today who hasn’t faced any of the trials James has outlined. Indeed some of you today are wrestling with questions of guidance, of financial hardship, of temptation. If so, then maybe you’d like to talk through some of the issues I’ve raised this morning, either with me, or an experienced Christian believer you know and trust well. Because, let’s not forget, James was writing to groups of believers, and he wasn’t expecting anybody to deal with this stuff on their own.
And finally, you’ve probably noticed a couple of verses I’ve missed out. I am not going to explain them in detail. But let me leave them with you, to remind you, that whatever you are going through, God loves you and He wants you to keep going. Verse 4: Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. And verse 12, a precious promise that we can all claim as our own: Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
If that’s not a reason to have joy in our hearts, a deep sense that God is with us always, then I don’t know what is.