St Michael’s, July 10th 2011
Did you ever have a kaleidoscope as a child? One of those tubes you look through, which as you turn it makes ever changing shapes and colours? I loved mine – and I could never find one quite the same when my girls were small. Mine was like a telescope and had two sections that you could twist and turn. And it looked as if it had a thousand pieces in it … but if you look at a kaleidoscope the wrong way, you can see there are actually only a few, perhaps as few as four. And those four pieces make up a million different patterns according to the angle and the light …
It seems to me that this letter of James is just like that. Every time I read it, and we’ve done it in some detail in GIFT groups in the past, I see something new – it was always there, but this time I’m looking at it from a different angle or in a different light or from a different set of circumstances. The book of James has something to contribute in every situation.
There are three, four or perhaps five major themes in James, which he introduces briefly and to which he returns, sometimes more than once. So this morning I’m going to give you a quick overview of those themes, before looking in detail at today’s reading in James which gives us the foundation on which he builds the rest of his teaching.
So let’s get a move on …
Last week Tim kicked off our studies in James by looking at the need for endurance or perseverance as a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. And the need for our faith to be our first priority so that we will be patient and prayerful when our faith is tested to the limit. So there’s a bundle of points beginning with p to be going on with …
and our memory verse was James 1:12, a key verse for the whole letter,
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.
And it’s those three themes that recur as James’ concludes his letter – if you have your bibles to hand, turn with me to chapter 5 … you can see there … verse 7, patience … verse 13, prayer … and verse 11, perseverance.
It’s as if James wants to set and then remind us of the context in which he wants us to read the body of his letter. That everything we read needs to be surrounded by prayer, that it may be difficult so we need patience, and that we need to persevere in spite of any opposition – I think that’s the difference between patience and perseverance here, that patience is about our personal and inward attitudes, while perseverance is about simply keeping going through thick and thin for as long as it takes – or until Jesus comes again.
And then at the beginning of next week’s reading James introduces three themes which he goes on to cover in detail in the chapters that follow.
If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:26-27)
So we have …
- control of the tongue (1:26 and then 3:1-12)
- care of the needy (1:26-27 and then 2:1-26)
- personal purity (1:27 and then 3:13 – 5:6)
I hope as we work through James together in the coming weeks, you’ll discover the link between perseverance, patience and prayer and these three areas of self-discipline. And also why they are so significant that James focusses on them as the most important teaching he has to impart to his readers.
Having given us a context – prayer, patience and perseverance – in today’s reading James gives us a foundation … you know that unless we build on solid ground, anything we build can collapse in a puff of wind or a minor earth tremor. Think of the wise man who built his house on the rock …
And we heard in our reading from Matthew, these words about the parable of the sower …
The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. (Matthew 13:20b-22)
So James establishes for us a fertile and secure foundation … turn back to our reading in James chapter one and look at verse 18,
He (God) chose to give us birth through the word of truth …
And then at how often James refers to that same word (of truth) in the few short verses that follow …
humbly accept the word planted in you (v21)
listen to the word (v22, 23)
do what it says (v22)
or more precisely …
- Hear the word
- Receive the word
- Obey the word
James saw the word of God as the source of our new life in Christ, and as the foundation of the life we now live as a result. Let’s read again 1:22-25 …
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does.
Contrast the two men …
The man with the mirror
looks at, goes away, forgets
The believer with the word
looks intently, continues to look, does what it says
How many of us, when we get up in the morning, look in the mirror, perhaps comb our hair and then we carry on with the rest of our day without another thought about how we look all day? You’ve heard me talk about the bible many times, and about our need to not only read, but to study it, learn it, live with it on our minds and in our hearts … that’s exactly what James is saying here.
But today I want to turn the kaleidoscope for you to see another point that he’s making … James uses the word ‘word’ to refer to the scriptures – at this time, of course, meaning the Jewish scriptures, our Old Testament, since most of the New Testament hadn’t yet been written. And that itself points to another truth … John in the opening verses of his gospel introduces us to ‘the word’ as the source of life and salvation, slowly unveiling Jesus as the word, God himself in human form. John took a term that was in common usage – it meant communication and wisdom – John took that term and used it to reveal the ultimate truth and wisdom, that Jesus is God himself, come to earth as a man to call and enable men to enter a new relationship with God for ever.
So by using that same word here, James makes the important point that to us as believers, the law isn’t simply about obedience to God, but about a relationship with God, and that communication with God is the heart of that relationship … so we’re back, aren’t we, at one of our priorities beginning with p … prayer. And just as any relationship needs time to grow, so we need to persevere in prayer, patiently building on the foundation of the word – God’s law and God’s son – until we understand how James can describe God’s law as …
the perfect law that gives freedom (1:25)
I wonder what’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear the word ‘law’ … someone saying, ‘I’ll have the law on you!’, or an image of a judge in a courtroom, or a blue light and a policeman looking cross pulling up behind you on the road … I’m almost certain that it’s a negative image.
But James calls God’s law, the perfect law that gives freedom …
Because when we …
- Hear the word
- Receive the word
- Obey the word
then through perseverance, patience and prayer we will discover that the judgement of the law can also declare a man to be righteous, justified before God, forgiven and free … and that is what we will celebrate shortly as we share in communion together.