St Michael’s and St Barnabas 14th August 2011
Reading – James 4:1-12
It’s amazing how fast headlines change. When I wrote this sermon nearly three weeks ago, the major news story of the day was the phone hacking scandal at News International. The affair had dominated the headlines for a good few months already, and there seemed no reason to believe this situation would change. Then of course came the unprecedented riots which have shifted the focus away totally from this story – at least for now.
But I want to return to the News International story because there’s something Rupert Murdoch said which I think provides a suitable introduction to our theme this morning. Concerning his appearance before a parliamentary select committee he said, and I quote, “This is the most humble day of my life”.
Ever since Mr Murdoch uttered that sentence I’ve been thinking about his use of the word “humble”. Indeed, if you’ve visited the church website, you’ll know I’ve already blogged on this subject. Because it seems to me that he chose the wrong word to use. After all, we can talk about a person being humble. We can talk about someone living in humble circumstances. But can a day be humble? I’m not sure it can, and I suspect that Mr Murdoch meant to say, “humiliating” rather than “humble”
But then perhaps we ought not to be too harsh. After all, the word “humble” is widely misunderstood. It tends to be associated with Uriah Heap who despite what he said was not ever so ‘umble. It’s a rather old-fashioned word which smacks of someone doffing their cap to their master – for example when a junior clerk would close his letter with the phrase “your humble and obedient servant”. And even today when we talk about someone eating “humble pie”, there is a sense of shame and yes, humiliation, about the word.
So my mission today is to resurrect the word “humble” and help us understand what it really means. Because if James is right and if as he says in verse 6 God…gives grace to the humble then we need to know what it means to be humble so that we can experience more of God’s grace.
Now one thing I don’t like doing in my sermons is blinding people with my knowledge of Biblical languages. If you want to find out more about the original text and what it says, you can always ask me later, and I’d be happy to answer your questions. But it is worth thinking a little about the origin of the word “humble” and how it came to be such an important word for believers.
So briefly, then: in Hebrew the word “humble” is closely connected with the word for “poor”, just as in English, for example, a place where a poor person lives is sometimes called their humble abode. However what started out as a simple description of someone’s economic situation developed into a whole complex of ideas, indicating poverty of spirit, recognition of God’s faithfulness, and a reliance on His provision.
To put it another way, the word “humble” came to describe a positive state of mind towards God which the prophets in particular encouraged the whole people of ancient Israel to adopt. In the prophecy of Zephaniah, for example, the faithful remnant of Israel is encouraged to seek righteousness, seek humility before the Lord visits the nation in judgement (Zeph 2:3). And later on, in that same prophecy, the Lord promises that after His judgement I will leave within you the meek and the humble, who trust in the name of the Lord (Zeph 3:12).
Although I have quoted from Zephaniah, I could easily have quoted from almost any other prophet. The message they brought was that if you want to escape God’s judgement, and enjoy His favour, you need to be humble. And this message was carried on into the New Testament. We read in Luke’s gospel how Jesus saw His mission to preach goodnews to the poor (Luke 4:18) and how, when looking at His disciples, He said “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Humility, poverty of spirit, as both Jesus and the Old Testaments prophets define it, is what you need if you are to experience life in God’s kingdom.
So what does it mean in practical terms to be humble? Let’s look rather more closely at our passage from James and if you have a church Bible, please do turn to the relevant page.
First of all, what humble isn’t:
Humble isn’t fighting and quarrelling for what you can’t have (vv.1-3).
Now I reckon when you read verses 1-3 it’s easy to say that it doesn’t apply to me. Yes, we used to fight and quarrel for things when we were children. We might even still remember the playground scraps and the tantrums at birthday parties when we realised we couldn’t get what we wanted. But we behave better than that, now we’re grown-up, don’t we?
Well, whether or not you still fight or quarrel, James here is challenging us to consider the attitude of our heart. I’m sure that at this point he was reminding his hearers of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount where he says You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder’ … But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. (Matt 5:21-22). At least that’s how I understand James’ words when he tells his hearers in verse 2: you kill and covet. James wasn’t writing to groups of murderers, at least as far we can gather, but to people who envied and resented other people for what they had, who secretly desired to have what they wanted, who made their feelings known by the odd sharp word and barbed comment. And when you consider James’ words in that light, then, yes, they become uncomfortably relevant to us.
Being humble involves being content with what we have. Unfortunately even as believers we so often are not content. We can wish all too easily that we had someone else’s lifestyle, or family circumstances, or even their faith. And this discontentment can feed into, and affect, our prayers. Verse 3: When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. Let’s be honest, when was the last time we prayed we might have more so that we could give it away or use it for somebody else’s advantage? When prayer becomes a shopping list of what we want, rather than a seeking after God’s will, we mustn’t be surprised if the answer is “no”.
Secondly, and related to this, humble isn’t friendship with the world. (vv.4-5)
What does James mean by this? There are some Christian groups who would interpret this as meaning we should not have any dealings with the world, that we should seek friendship only from our fellow-believers, and cut ourselves off from those who do not believe in Jesus. Such groups, it has to be said, tend to remain small and usually die out within a few generations.
But that isn’t really what James is talking about here. Our calling as Christians is be in the world, but not of the world. That means continuing to show the love of Christ to all we meet, and taking seriously the command to love our neighbour as ourselves, even when our neighbour may hate us because of what we believe. Which in theory is fine. But what the world has become very good at doing is bombarding us with all kinds of messages to adopt its values and its attitudes. Sometimes obviously, through advertising, and news headlines. Sometimes more subtly, through government policies or the stuff taught in schools.
And it’s very easy – unless we are in a living, growing relationship with Jesus – to end up going along with the flow. To exchange the radical love of Jesus for tolerance which makes excuses for every sort of behaviour. To turn the love of God for all into a form of inclusivity where there is no longer any right or wrong kind of behaviour. And there are certainly parts of the church of Jesus Christ which have gone down this route. They have, in the words of James, become friends with the world.
But before I start pointing the finger at anyone else, I ought to make a note to myself that humble isn’t about slandering other people (vv.11-12)
Now as I said earlier James was almost certainly familiar with the Sermon on the Mount, and if there’s one verse folk know from Jesus’ sermon it’s: Do not judge, or you too will be judged (Matt 7:1). It’s often quoted as if Jesus is telling us never to make judgements about other people, that any disapproval of what other people do is harsh or condemnatory and will in turn invite God’s judgement. It’s worth noticing, however, that Jesus tells us that once we have taken the plank out of our own eye we should then remove the speck from our brother’s eye.
And here when James says in verse 11: Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it,his words follow the command: Brothers, do not slander one another. Both Jesus and his brother James are speaking out against the attitude where we think we are better than someone else, when we believe we have the right to stand in judgement over them. And the moment we do that, we ourselves run into the danger of hypocrisy. That was the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees which Jesus warns the disciples about in our gospel reading, Matthew 16.
Yet if we truly love our neighbour as ourselves then there will be times when we will have to tell him that what he is doing is wrong. There will be occasions when we have to speak out about issues in the nation which are of grave concern. How then do we do this? This is where humility comes in. Not to set ourselves up as “holier than thou” or, in the words of James, sit in judgement on the law of God. But to point lovingly yet firmly to the grace of Jesus and the price He paid for all our sins.
How exactly, then, do we do this? Well, this is where James tells us what humble is, in verses 6-10, which really forms the heart of the passage.
We’ll come back to verse 6 at the end. For now, let’s look at verses 7-8 where he teaches us humble is submitting to God. What James mean by this? After all, if the word “humble” has a bad press, so has the word “submission”. We think of submission as defeat, as giving in, as resigning ourselves to our circumstances. But James has a far more positive view of submission. Because submission to God simply involves recognising his right to be Lord over our lives. He is the one who has all the power and authority and glory and might.
And if we want to enjoy life in His kingdom, if we want to experience His love and truth and goodness, then we ought to give Him the place that is His due – right at the very centre of all we think and say and do. Yet I know as well as you that there is a world of difference between saying “Jesus is Lord!” and actually letting His will be done in my life. Submission to God’s will challenges our hopes, our dreams, our plans and asks us to consider if He is really the most important part of our life.
Submission sounds like hard work, doesn’t it? But it is in fact the best possible thing any of us can do. For first of all, when we submit to God, then the evil one has no hold over our life. James gives us this wonderful assurance in verse 7: Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Because when we let Jesus become Lord over our life, He will give us a share of His victory over sin and death and evil. We will find in Him a power and a strength to live a new way of life, where it is possible to defeat temptation and to come under God’s protection. How? Because Jesus is a generous Lord who fills all who ask with His Holy Spirit, and blesses us more abundantly than we can ever imagine.
And particularly if you’re struggling with your faith this morning, if you feel that God has become somewhat distant recently, then let me invite you to claim verse 8 as your own this morning: Come near to God and he will come near to you. That’s not a verse written just for experienced church members, or maybe for church leaders. It’s a verse written for you, providing that you are willing to submit to Jesus and let Him be Lord over your life.
But note this: humble is also about repenting of our own sin and impurity. James goes on to say in verse 8: Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. If you were here at the beginning of the sermon series, you may remember we came across the same word “double-minded” in chapter 1, verse 8. The double-minded man is the one who doubts that God really can make a difference, who is easily swayed by the currents and tides of popular opinion.
We often think of repentance as saying sorry for specific things, and yes, sometimes, there are things we definitely need to confess before the Lord. But it goes a lot deeper than that. It involves not only the washing of our hands, but the purifying of our hearts. For I suspect deep within all of us we have buried the attitude that God cannot really change this or that situation, that He isn’t able to bring about real transformation where it matters most. And maybe today God is calling us to be humble and in the words of the old hymn, “Ponder anew, all the Almighty can do“.
For finally, being humble is the only way we can truly experience God’s grace. We won’t experience God’s grace if we are fighting and quarrelling for what we can’t have. We won’t experience God’s grace if we are living by the values of this world. We won’t experience God’s grace if we are being judgemental towards other people. But if we are willing to submit to His will, if we are genuinely sorry for our failure to believe and trust in Him, and if we are willing to make Him the very centre of our lives – well, then, there is no limit to what He can do in us and through us.
God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. So let me ask, are you humble before God this morning? If not, then consider – what attitude of the heart is preventing you from receiving His grace?