St Michael’s and St Barnabas 28th August 2011
How many people like a good read? This morning I thought I’d bring along a few books to show you – probably a bit late to qualify for holiday reading, but if you have some spare time, well worth dipping into…
When I was growing up, I used to read a lot of Christian biography. I still remember, for example, the story of Jerzy Popieluszko, the Roman Catholic priest who took on the government in Poland and was martyred for his faith. Or again, Archbishop Luwum who stood up to Idi Amin’s brutal dictatorship in Uganda, and paid for his life. It seems that in our modern Internet age one thing we as Christians seem not to do so often is read about the lives of other believers in other places and other times, partly I think because the overall market for Christian books is itself shrinking at an alarmingly rapid rate.
And this, I believe, is a great shame. Because there is so much we can learn from other brothers and sisters across the world. Not only so we gain information about how we pray for and support churches in particularly difficult situations. Or that we learn about something of the history of our own faith, and the way God has led His people across the ages. But also because by looking at the lives of fellow believers, we can learn lessons for ourselves about what it means to heed Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:24 where He says: If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
For, let’s be clear, these words of Jesus are deliberately designed to challenge us. You may remember last week how Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. But instead of congratulating Peter on his brilliant response, Jesus began to teach how he had to go to Jerusalem, to suffer many things, to be killed and on the third day rise again. And this was all too much for Peter. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” (verse 22).
Peter, you see, hadn’t fully grasped that being a Christian involves more than saying the right things about Jesus, or even about taking positive steps to put our faith into action. He had to understand that following Jesus involved nothing less than becoming like Jesus, by denying the old self, by being made new in the power and grace of the Holy Spirit.
And, dare I say it, I think there’s a bit of Peter in each and every one of us. We are on the whole happy to say that we believe in Jesus. We may even take positive steps to put our faith into action, and I know how many of you seek to obey Jesus faithfully day by day. But have we, I wonder, really heeded Jesus’ call to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him?
That’s why I want to talk this morning about the whole subject of developing a Christian character. It’s not something that we tend to talk about much, it may sound like a rather old-fashioned kind of subject. But it is a hugely important one. Because how is the world going to see Jesus in us? By the different values we live by, by the different attitudes we adopt, by a heart and a mind which is set on Jesus and His kingdom lifestyle. That’s how these great people we read about showed their love for Jesus. That’s how we live out Jesus’ challenge to become salt and light in our local community, our workplace, our home. Not just by saying or doing the right things, but by being, by having a character that little by little becomes more like Jesus, less focused on self, and more focused on Him.
So turn with me, if you will, to our reading from James. For it seems to me that in this short passage James sets out four essential elements of the Christian character that we would all do well to adopt, that are all part of this process of denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Jesus.
The first one, in verses 7-8, is patience.
Who here like’s being patient? On a long car journey we were recently listening as a family to Queen’s greatest hits, and I was struck by the words of one of the songs, “I want it all, I want it now”. Isn’t that really an anthem for our age? We live in an age where it seems we want everything now.
We want instant fame – look at programmes like the X-Factor and Pop Idol and Britain (hasn’t) got talent. We want instant satisfaction – look at the supermarket shelves stacked with ready meals and processed food. We want instant results – look at the number of managers sacked within the first few weeks of the season. And sad to say, as Christians, we can sometimes be infected with the same spirit. We want instant church growth – so we chase after the latest spiritual experience. We want instant answers to prayer – so we give God great long lists of what we want, and expect immediate blessing.
But James tells us that we should live with a different perspective. When he writes in verse 7: Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming he is doing far more than telling us simply to wait. He is reminding us that God works according to His own timescale according to His own purposes and plans. In Israel, where of course James was writing, there isn’t a constant supply of rain throughout the year. There are two times of the year when it rains – autumn and spring. So what happens to seed planted in one of those rainy seasons? The answer is, it grows slowly, often unseen, below ground. The farmer, of course, doesn’t know exactly when the plants will emerge and ripen, but if he is to stay in business, he has to believe there will be a harvest.
And that’s the perspective James is calling us to adopt. One day there will be a full harvest when men and women from every race and tribe and nation will bow before the throne of God. We don’t know exactly when. But this day should form a fixed point on the horizon and we should wait patiently for God to work out His good will and purpose. Sometimes indeed God may lead us into a season of blessing, and we may, for example, see great church growth or huge answers to prayer. But even then we mustn’t lose sight these are merely foretastes and signs of the greater age to come. In an age where people want it all and want it now, we are called to remain patient, whatever the circumstances.
And patience is closely tied up with the next virtue we get from our reading, which is contentment.
I mentioned the weather in Israel just now. Of course in England the weather is very different. We don’t know what it’s going to do from one day to the next. This summer we seemed at times to have all four seasons in a single week. The changeable nature of our weather probably explains why we spend so much time talking about it, and grumbling when it’s not what we want. We grumble when it’s dry ‘cos the plants need the water. We grumble when it’s wet ‘cos the kids can’t go outside. Grumbling about the weather is almost a national pastime. It’s part of who we are.
Well, grumbling about the weather may just about be OK, but the Bible constantly makes it clear that grumbling about other people, let alone against God, is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. It was the sin of the Israelites in the desert that they constantly grumbled against their leaders, Moses and Aaron. The people of the Judea grumbled when Jesus declared I am the bread of life. And in the churches James was writing to, there was much grumbling between the rich and poor. People were being judged by what they wore, how much they did, what they did with their money.
Of course, as in most churches, there weren’t, as far as we can tell, stand-up rows and blazing arguments. That would be most un-Christian, wouldn’t it? Instead little groups of like-minded people were muttering among themselves, passing remarks about “those people over there”, forming little factions.
James issues this warning in verse 9: Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door! You see, even though other people may not hear what you are saying about them, God does. He knows the inmost thoughts of our hearts, and everything lies open before him. And our grumbling often reveals our own discontentment with who we are and what we have. After all, it’s hard to thank God for all His many blessings when you are focused on the faults of other people. Grumbling shows a lack of gratitude, that we are not content with what we have been given. It’s an attitude that should have no place in a truly converted Christian character.
Now in verses 10 and 11 James at first returns to the issue of patience, but then he develops the theme from a slightly difference angle as he moves on the whole subject of perseverance.
Verse 11: You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. What, I wonder, do you know about Job? Can anyone tell me anything they know about him?
That’s right. He’s a rich man who lost everything, except a nagging wife who told him to curse God. He was comforted – if that’s the right word – by his friends, who told him everything was his fault. He met God in a storm, and afterwards was restored to prosperity. But the most important thing about Job was that he clung on to God even in the most difficult of circumstances. Yes, he was angry with God, yes he wondered why everything had gone wrong. But he still maintained his faith. Some of the most remarkable verses in the Old Testament, that you may remember from Handel’s Messiah, come from Job chapter 19, verses 25-26: I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God. That’s quite a statement, isn’t it, for someone who has lost his home, his family, his possessions.
Later on in the Old Testament the prophet Habakkuk contemplating the awesome prospect of a foreign army sweeping through the land uttered these words: Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. (Hab 3:17-18).
That’s perseverance. It’s a completely different attitude from that which the world has, where happiness and good fortune are measured in how much you have or how much you earn. Perseverance recognises that our greatest treasure comes from a relationship with Jesus Christ and a realisation that nothing can separate us from the love of God. The trouble is, that even as Christians we are not always that good at perseverance. We can envy churches which seem to have large budgets and slick, professional programmes. We do, if we’re honest. make judgements about fellow church members based on how much they have, rather than how well they are walking with the Lord.
A persevering heart, however, sees things differently. Like Job, like Habakkuk we carry on with the Lord, knowing that whatever happens, God is good. We don’t walk out on Jesus just because our church is small and struggling, or we don’t have lots of material blessings. We keep going, step by step, claiming the promise James makes here that the Lord is full of compassion and mercy. And indeed one of the most effective testimonies to the truth of the gospel are men and women who have carried on living their faith even in the most trying of circumstances. Like leading a church in Baghdad, or working amongst young people in Manchester. Our perseverance shows how precious Jesus is to us.
But all this leads on to final point. To be patient, to be content, to be persevering we need to have a big vision of God. An advertising slogan local companies often use is Big enough to cope, small enough to care. Well, what the Bible tells us that God is both big enough to deal with any situation and yet gentle enough to deal with each one of us as His children, to care for us just as we are, in spite of all our sin and all our weakness.
Which is why the final aspect of Christian character James highlights here is reverence. As he goes on to say in verse 12 – Above all, my brothers, do not swear – not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Why above all? Well, if you think about it, the world has a pretty small view of God. If folk think about God at all, they tend to think of Him as rather a feeble old man sitting on a cloud, which some simple people happen to worship. So taking God’s name in vain is not an issue. Indeed, an abbreviation like OMG has become a pretty standard part of text speak. And even in a court of law people generally think nothing of swearing on a Bible – it’s seen just as a quaint custom left over from a bygone era.
Of course it’s easy to criticise the attitude of other people, but I wonder – how big is your view of God? To put it another way, when you hear Jesus’ call to take up your cross and follow Him, what is your image of Jesus? Of course, our immediate thought – and quite rightly so – is of a man broken and pierced upon the cross. But Jesus is much more than that. He is the eternal Word of God, the one through all things were made, the one who sustains all things by His powerful word, the one under whose authority everything in heaven and earth is placed. If we are serious about developing a Christian character, if we want to become like Jesus, then we need to spend time getting grips with all that Jesus is.
For finally our distinctive character as Christians has to come from a living, growing relationship with Jesus. After all, it goes against our basic human instinct to be patient, to be contented, to be persevering. We can only truly change when we allow Jesus to have all power and authority over our lives and let His Holy Spirit do a deep and lasting work within us.
So how big a picture do you have of Jesus? That’s not a purely theoretical question. It goes right to the heart of what it means to follow Jesus, whether indeed we will engage with these words of James and let them mould and shape our lives as they ought.
With that thought in mind, let us pray…