Advent 2: The Word in the Wilderness

Luke 3:1-16; Malachi 3:1-6; Philippians 1:3-11

You can listen to this Sermon HERE

On this Second Sunday of Advent we hone in on Luke 3:1-6. Today my approach will be to move slowly through the Biblical text and just ask it four basic questions, through which we might learn a few truths that God will impress in our hearts today.

The first question is …

  1. WHO?

The Gospel writer, Luke, was an author with an eye for detail; especially in regard to the historical setting of the life of Jesus. He wants us, his readers, to know that what he is writing is an accurate history … something that truly happened in an actual historical, political and religious context.

This passage, relating the ministry of John the Baptist, begins with a list of the political and religious elite of the day.

If Luke was writing today, he might have said, “In the 1st year of the reign of President Ramaphosa, when Helen Zille was Premier of the Western Cape, and Dan Plato mayor of Cape Town – in the final days of the term of Bishop Michel Hansrod, and during the ministry of Dave Howard in Claremont …”

Of course, the people he actually names in order to locate this event in historical context were:

  • Tiberius – who was the Roman Emperor (who succeeded Augustus);
  • Pontius Pilate = who was Governor of the Roman Province of Judea;
  • Herod, Philip and Lysanias – who were appointed by the Romans as “Tetrarachs” – in reality Jewish “puppet kings” of various parts of Israel.
  • The high priests Annas and Caiaphas. These are interesting characters because Annas was actually the previous high-priest and he was succeeded by his son-in-law Caiaphas. However Annas remained the real political power behind the high-priesthood. That’s why, when Jesus was arrested, in John 18 we read that he was taken first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas the high priest.

So, back to Luke 3 … where, having just listed the who’s who of public life in Judea, Luke says, “The Word of the Lord came to…”

Who do we expect the Word of the Lord to come to?

To Annas? To Caiaphas? Maybe to the King or the Governor or the Emperor?

But no! The Word of the Lord came to John. John? Who the heck is John? Oh, sorry, John, son of Zechariah. Zechariah? Who the heck is Zechariah? John, son of Zechariah. He is on a list of the who’s who … but he is a totally obscure nobody!

Worse than that. If we cross-reference Matthew we learn that John used to dress in camel-hair clothing with a leather belt, and a diet of locusts and wild honey. John, son of Zechariah is an obscure, nobody, weirdo!

And yet … the Word of the Lord came to John, son of Zechariah.

Now I think God want us to see two things here, under the heading of “WHO?”.

  1. First thing: If you see yourself … or are considered by other people … to be an obscure nobody or a weirdo … you must know this: God LOVES to use the weird, the weak and the obscure … because while people look at the outward impression … God looks at the heart. Do not think for a moment that God cannot or will not use you because you feel like an outcast … a nobody … or a weirdo. You may, in fact, be JUST the kind of person God is longing to use.
  2. Second thing: When you and I see someone else who looks or sounds like they are just weird, obscure nobodies … we had better sit up and take notice of the content of their actions or speech … because the Word of God came to John the Baptist … NOT to Annas, Caiaphas, Herod, Pilate or Tiberius. Just because the messenger seems weird … obscure … or a nobody … does not automatically mean that they are to be ignored or side-lined. God LOVES to use the weird, the weak and the obscure.

So that is WHO … and those are some thoughts to ponder about John the weird, John the obscure, John the nobody … who later gained fame as John the Baptist.

  1. WHERE?

Now, of course this is closely related to the WHO. The Word of the Lord came to John, son of Zechariah. We would expect that the Word came to him in the Caesar’s Palace … or in the Temple … or in the Synagogue. But again, we are surprised to read, “The Word of the Lord came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (v.2)

The wilderness was a place of danger from the unyielding heat and lack of water … from the wild animals and bandits. It was a place of barrenness, it was somewhere the Israelites believed that demons roamed. It was a place for madmen and lepers.

And yet the wilderness was also a massively important place for the people of God. God met Moses in the burning bush in the wilderness. God led His people into the wilderness to prepare them for the Promised Land. God gave the Ten Commandments in the wilderness. David fled to the wilderness to escape Saul. Elijah fled from persecution by Ahab and Jezebel into the wilderness. And when Jesus was later to be prepared for His ministry, the Holy Spirit led Him into the wilderness.

You and I do not really want to be in the symbolic wildernesses of life … in the place of danger, fear, anxiety, and stress …the place of lack … of need. We avoid the wilderness places of life.

And yet there is something vital here we must not miss. In Luke 1:80 we read a very important fact about John the Baptist: “And the child grew, and became strong in the Spirit, and he lived in the wilderness … until he appeared publicly to Israel.”

John did not go out into the wilderness because he had a word to speak. He went out into the wilderness … and when he was there … God gave him a word to speak.

You see, the wilderness … the place of difficulty and danger … the place of attack and anxiety … the place of loneliness and lack … is precisely the place where God loves to be … to draw near to people … to meet with us and be with us.

So, again, I think the Lord wants us to see two things here under the heading of “WHERE?”:

  1. When you find yourself inadvertently in a wilderness experience that you wish with all your heart and soul you could avoid … know this … you are perfectly positioned for a divine encounter that could change your life and destiny forever. Look for it. Look for God in your wilderness. He is there! Listen for God in your wilderness. He is speaking!
  2. When you long for a Word from the Lord … go to the wilderness deliberately. Go to the place of solitude and silence. Don’t try to seek out God and His Word in the place of success and noise and busyness and popularity. Don’t turn to the tele-evangelist who will send you a prophetic word for the $100 donation. Don’t turn to the Christianised horoscope of your daily word from God on Facebook. NO! Go to the wilderness of solitude and silence and seeking. Seek God’s face and seek God’s heart.

So that is “WHERE” and those are some thoughts to ponder when the wilderness moments come your way. But then, what about WHAT?

  1. WHAT?

What was the Word of the Lord? Simple really: “John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

The Word from God to the people of John’s day and age was this:

  1. REPENT: In other words, turn away from your sinful behaviour and leave it behind so that you can turn to God.
  2. BE BAPTISED as a sign of your determination to start a brand new life of leaving sin behind and walking with God.
  3. YOU WILL BE FORGIVEN: John preached that if the people of his day would make that decision to REPENT … and cement that decision by BAPTISM … they would experience the washing of God’s forgiveness.

This is an age-old message that never loses its validity. This has always been God’s way. God who longs to be in an unhindered relationship with every human being, loves us too much to force us into that relationship. He loves us so much that he creates us with the freedom to choose.

All that John the Baptist’s Word from God was placing before the people of his day … and which it is still placing before us today is this: Make your choice today! Choose God! Choose Life!

God is not setting out loads of hoops for us to jump through. He is simply placing the choice before us: Here I am. I love you. I hold Life in all its abundance in My hand. But you have to choose to stop looking for Life in all the wrong places … and come to Me.

When Malachi prophesied the coming of John the Baptist 300 years before he arrived on the scene, Malachi highlighted some of the places the people of his day were looking for Life in all the wrong places. We read about them in the Daily Discipleship Readings on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

  • Some were looking for Life in sorcery … in magic that would manipulate the powers of the spiritual world in their favour.
  • Some were looking for Life in sexual immorality and adultery … thinking that sexual pleasure would give them abundance.
  • Some were looking for Life in wealth … and they were willing to lie, to underpay their workers, and to take advantage of the vulnerable widows, orphans and foreigners to enrich themselves.

John the Baptist came to call all people … us included … to no longer look for LIFE in these places … but to turn back to God and find true Life in Him and Him alone. How appropriate this call is in this day of:

  • widespread sorcery – where spiritual healers and horoscopes and manipulation abound;
  • immorality – where sexual indulgence is a mainstream form of entertainment;
  • lust for wealth and power – which is pursued through corruption, state capture, fake news, and the oppression of immigrants and asylum-seekers;
  • oppression of workers – where the payment of a minimum wage of R20 per hour is celebrated as some kind of victory for workers. Hello! R20 per hour. Who on earth can live on that?

It is as though John is reminding us that when we pursue LIFE through human means we end up on the road to DEATH instead … and he is issuing a LOUD call to turn back from that road and instead to turn to God so that we can truly be on the road to LIFE. And the good news is that God is ready and waiting to forgive us for our sins.

Through John the Baptist, God was holding out to His people the olive branch of peace.

  1. WHY?

The last question I want to ask of this passage is WHY?

The answer is found, I believe, in the passage Luke quotes from Isaiah 40:3-5. Why did John need to come proclaiming this message? Answer: To prepare the way for the coming of Messiah, Jesus.

It is not that Jesus needed the way prepared for Him … it is that people need the way prepared to RECEIVE HIM. A bit like the hymn “Joy to the World” says: “Let every heart prepare Him room.”

Because of God’s refusal to overpower our free will, the message of repentance will always precede what Isaiah calls the “salvation of the Lord”.

Repentance prepares the way for the Lord to come into our lives … it fills in the valleys and levels the mountains and straightens the paths so that Messiah can come and do His ministry in our lives unhindered! By repentance we offer Jesus free reign.

I love polishing silver. It was one of my chores as a child. Repentance is like applying the Silvo. Without is, you can rub all you like, the tarnish won’t come off. But apply that Silvo … leave it to stand for a bit … and suddenly the polishing rag does its magic!

When we repent and turn to the Lord He has free reign to save us from our sin and set us firmly on the path to LIFE … to refine us and purify us of all that destroys life … to purify us of all that tarnishes the image of God in our lives.

Repentance opens the door for Jesus to begin His work in our lives … and that work is a lifelong work. As Paul declared in Philippians 1:6 “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ” and he prayed that they “may be pure and blameless until the day of Jesus Christ”(v.11) But it all starts here with John’s message! Repent. Turn to God!

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Advent 1 HOPE

Luke 21:25-36; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Jeremiah 33:14-17

Today marks the first Sunday of Advent. If you have been doing the devotions in  your “Daily Discipleship” Booklet, you would have started on Thursday already … but officially today is the start of Advent.

Advent is a season observed in many Christian churches. It is a time of expectant waiting and preparation for our Christmas celebration of the birth of Jesus. The word “Advent” is a version of the Latin word “adventus” meaning “coming”. Adventus in itself is a translation of the New Testament Greek word parousia, which is commonly used by scholars to specifically refer to the Second Coming of Christ.

Bernard of Clairvaux (d.1153) suggested that Christians should recognise three comings of Christ:

  1. in the flesh in Bethlehem,
  2. in our hearts daily, and
  3. in glory at the end of time.

Advent offers us the opportunity to deliberately focus on … and increase in our own hearts … the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah … and to be alert for his Second Coming.

And so it is always part of the tradition that on the first Sunday of Advent we read a Gospel passage in which Jesus predicted His return in glory – His 2nd Coming. This year our reading is from Luke 21.

The part of Luke 21 we read is situated at the end of a long response Jesus was giving to His disciples. They were in Jerusalem and the disciples marveled at the enormous stones in the Temple walls. Jesus replied that a time was coming when not one of those stones would remain on top of another. They would all be torn down. The disciples … quite naturally … ask when that will come to pass … and what would be the signs that these things were about to happen.

In the context of that question Jesus speaks … and it becomes evident that He is mixing together a prophesy about the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (which in fact happened in AD 66-70) with a prophecy of His 2nd Coming. Both of these cataclysmic events, it would appear, would be foreshadowed by:

  • wars
  • natural disasters like earthquakes, famines and diseases, and
  • cosmic signs

But here is the heart of the matter in Luke 21 for us as 21st Century observers of Advent … more importantly, as 21st Century disciples longing for Jesus to come … here is the heart of the matter:

Jesus who came in the flesh, lived, died and rose again from the dead … IS COMING AGAIN to the earth in great power and great glory.

In His first coming, He gave up the glory and power that was His as God the Son … and He came in weakness and fragility as a baby born to the virgin Mary.

When He returns it will be in the glory and power that He reclaimed when He was raised from the dead and glorified to the Father’s right hand in heaven again.

AWESOME! So how should this affect us today? AI want to highlight two things I believe Jesus indicates in the passage:

  1. CONFIDENT HOPE

In this world of darkness, it is easy to lose hope. When we see footage of wars in Syria, famine in Yemen, bombs exploding on the streets of Mogadishu, an Ebola epidemic in the DRC, radical Islamic militant attacks in Mozambique, earthquakes and tsunami horror in the Pacific Rim, drug resistant super-bacteria and all manner of other horrors … it is easy to lose heart.

The very same signs which Jesus mentioned as being signs that His return was coming closer, can cause us to lose hope.

Yet, Jesus says: “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (v.28)

It is as though Jesus is encouraging us … you can choose which way you see this. You can choose to look at these events with despair … or with hope.

Human sin has thrown the world into a state of brokenness from which it will NOT recover until Christ returns and God makes all things new.

The brokenness of the world will only intensify as the end draws nearer. Like birth-pains when a woman is in labour … the groaning of the natural world … the pains and horrors of its falleness will only grow more intense as time goes by.

So, instead of looking at that with horror … we are invited by Jesus to see it as a sign of HOPE … that Christ’s return is nearer now than ever before.

Jesus says: Stand up … lift up your heads … look to me in the midst of the raging and turmoil of this world … and have HOPE!! Cultivate in your heart a JOYFUL EXPECTATION that my coming is nearer now than ever before!

As Advent people, we are called to be a people of CONFIDENT HOPE!

We are also called by Jesus, in this passage, to be a people of CAREFUL HOLINESS!

  1. CAREFUL HOLINESS

In the Biblical sense, to be holy means to be different … to be separated and set apart for God.

Every Christian believer … every disciple of Jesus … is therefore already holy.

When we make the decision to place our faith in Jesus Christ and to entrust our lives in their entirety to Him as Saviour and Master … we are set apart as the adopted children of God … and we therefore have the status of holiness … “set-apartness”.

We are different in status and position.

And for the rest of our lives as believing disciples of Jesus we are simply called to live out that new status of holiness. We are called to live up to who we already are in Christ … the set-apart, holy children of God.

Now, in a word to both the 1st and 21st century Christians, Jesus says, in Luke 21: 34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will come upon you unexpectedly.”

In other words, if we are not careful to choose to live out our HOPE in Jesus through holy lifestyles … we will drift down … pulled by the gravity of the sinful brokenness of the world … into lifestyles of … 3 things:

  1. dissipation: “an overindulgence in sensual pleasures”
  2. drunkenness: “intoxication”
  3. distractions: the word translated by the NIV as anxieties can also be translated as “distractions”

Now I think that reveals the heart of the problem. If we are not facing the tremendous brokenness of this world with our HOPE and faith in Jesus .. .we will turn to all sorts of other methods of escape … ways to distract ourselves from the truth of the brokenness of our world. It may be that we distract ourselves by indulging in physical pleasure … or intoxicating substances … thereby forgetting for a time about the reality of the pain of our world … but they are merely , ultimately, distractions.

Rather than choosing to live like this, Jesus invites us in v. 36, “Be always on the watch, and pray … so that you will be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”

Now my understanding is that here Jesus has a word of instruction for all His followers throughout time … along with a specific promise to the 1st Century Christians … followed by a promise for us all … including us 21st Century Christians.

Jesus’ invitation is to a lifestyle of holy fellowship with God through watchful prayer.

And His PROMISES were:

  1. To His 1st Century followers: If you live watchfully and prayerfully, you will recognise the signs that Jerusalem is about to be destroyed and you will flee in time and “escape all that is about to happen.” Now history proves that this is what happened. The early Christian historians Eusebius and Epiphanius report that, prior to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70, the Jerusalem Christians fled to the Decapolis city of Pella. They saw the signs that Jesus had spoken of and they obeyed His instruction that when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies you will know that its destruction is near, then “FLEE to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the countryside not enter the city.” (Luke 21:20-21) The Christians were watchful … they obeyed the word of Jesus … and they escaped all that was about to happen. Just as Jesus prophesied.
  2. To us all 1st and 21st Century believers … Jesus promises … if you live watchful, prayerful lives … you will be able to stand before the Son of Man. The day is certainly approaching, for ALL of us, when we will meet out Maker face to face. For some of us, it will be through death … for others it may possibly be through the 2nd Coming of Christ during our lifetime … we do not know. But what we know is that the only foundation upon which we may confidently stand before God on that day is our faith in Jesus Christ and what He has done for us on the cross.

Therefore even now … this very day … this very hour … make it your top priority to keep your relationship with Jesus Christ firm and steadfast.

Do not be careless … be careful! Be careful to live in step with the Spirit of Jesus … who is leading us into all holiness.

Do now be prayerless … be prayerful! Be prayerfully attentive to the Spirit of Jesus … who is leading us into all holiness!

CONCLUSION

Jesus who came in the flesh, lived, died and rose again from the dead … IS COMING AGAIN to the earth in great power and great glory.

In His first coming, He gave up the glory and power that was His as God the Son … and He came in weakness and fragility as a baby born to the virgin Mary.

When He returns it will be in the glory and power that He reclaimed when He was raised from the dead and glorified to the Father’s right hand in heaven again.

AWESOME! So how should this affect us today? It should cause us to live lives of:

CONFIDENT HOPE and CAREFUL HOLINESS

What kind of Church?

James 5:13-20

For the next few weeks you’ll be able to listen to this sermon HERE

What kind of Church are we called to be? This is a key question for any local Church.

Here, right at the end of his letter it feels as though James is offering a powerful vision of what the local church of scattered and persecuted Jewish Christians ought to be like. To me, it is also a magnificent vision of what any and every local church should be aspiring to be.

As we think through this passage today, the focus will be on us corporately as a body of believers. In that case, what should each of us as individuals be listening for? We should ALL be listening to hear the gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit about what part each of us is called to play in us all together becoming the kind of Church James describes.

A Church does NOT exist apart from its individual members. If anything is to be done by the local church in its surrounding community … or if anything is to be done within the local church … it will be done by individual members working either alone or together. Today the Lord is calling you to listen for His voice. As we speak about what kind of Church we are called to be … may the Lord speak to each of us about what we are called to do to make it that kind of Church. Agreed? Amen!

So here we go. Let’s jump right in. Let’s be full of faith and take this as a direct word to Claremont Methodist Church for 2019. What kind of Church must we be? James 5 says that that CMC must be:

  1. A Praying Church

Prayer runs like a golden thread through every other characteristic James will name. But it is right at the very start of this passage, in verse 13, that he lays down the marker: Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray! The word used here “kakopathei” refers to suffering evil of any kind; it means to be afflicted by sickness, bereavement, disappointment, persecutions, loss of health or property. If any of those things are happening … PRAY!

Then he carries on:

  • In v.14-15 he says, if someone is sick … pray.
  • In v.16 he says “Pray for each other”; and
  • In verse 18-19 he holds up Elijah as an example to make his point that by prayer a mere human being can change the course of a nation.
  • He says in v.16, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

Aha … but are any of us righteous. Brother … sister … if you have accepted Jesus Christ you are righteous no matter how much you still fall into sin. To be righteous is not to be sinless. To be righteous is to have been restored to a right relationship with God. By the grace of God and through our faith in Jesus Christ we have been made righteous. Romans 3:22 says that “this righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”

If you are in Christ you have been made righteous. Together we are a community of the righteous … not because we are without in … far from it … but because we have a perfect Saviour and a gracious and forgiving God.

So our prayers are powerful and effective … and James leaves us in no doubt that one major characteristic of any local Church should be that we are a praying Church … a Church where prayer is central to everything we are and everything we do.

Claremont Methodist Church is NOT yet a praying Church.

  • Sure, a LOT of us pray very faithfully as individuals.
  • Sure, a number of us respond whenever there is a call to a special day of prayer for a particular need, and a few of us respond when there’s a prayer walk on a Saturday afternoon.
  • Yes, we send out prayer pointers monthly in the calendar and daily via our Prayer Blog and Facebook Page.

But when Claremont Methodist has truly become a praying Church we will:

  • not have one prayer meeting attended by literally 1% of our membership but many prayer meetings attended by MANY
  • find MANY people coming to Church early (of their own accord) not to chat but to pray fervently to the Lord for His power to be made manifest in the worship service
  • find our members praying spontaneously for each other before and after Church; and according to James we will
  • find ourselves astounded by the powerful effectiveness of our prayers as a Church.

What kind of Church must we be? A Praying Church!

  1. A Singing Church

“Is any one of you happy? Let them sing songs of praise,” says James 5:13

James is really just adding his voice to the loud New Testament chorus calling for the local Church, the weekly gathering of Christ-followers to be a people of SONG! Listen to some other voices in that chorus:

  • 1 Corinthians 14:15: “I will sing with my spirit and with my understanding!”
  • 1 Cor. 14:26: “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a tongue or an interpretation.”
  • Ephesians 5:18-19: “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.”
  • Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”

Now it’s not just that the old saying goes, “Methodism was born in song.” The Church of Jesus Christ has always been a singing people. When Pliny, the governor of Bithynia wrote to Emperor Trajan of Rome in AD111 to tell him about this new group called the Christians, he said: “They are in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day of the week before it is light, when they sing in alternate verses a hymn to Christ as God.”

The hearts of us Christians are meant to be so filled with wonder at the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ that we cannot help but burst into song when we are together.

Now, it’s true that we sing every time we gather on a Sunday at CMC. But I feel we can give ourselves so much more fully to each and every song we sing … to applying our minds with absolute focus to the beautiful meaning of the words we utter … to emptying our lungs with abandon … to raising the roof with the outpouring of praise to our glorious, magnificent, wondrous God and King! And I long for the day when there are more singers in the worship team than there are microphones.

What kind of Church must we be? A Singing Church!

  1. A Healing Church

James 5:14 says: “Is anyone among you ill? Let them call the elders of the Church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the ill person well; the Lord will raise them up.”

Now, we know by experience and by every testimony of Church history that NOT EVERY sick person a Christian elder prays for IS healed physically in this lifetime. And that is a source of great wrestling and deep heartache for many. But we also know by experience that EVERY single person for whom we pray will be touched by the Lord in some way which the LORD has decided. And ultimately we know that for the one who fully trusts in the Lord Jesus to whom we pray will be healed for eternity.

So I can’t get too side-tracked by that today. Remember the question is what kind of Church are we called to be. This 3rd answer is: A Healing Church. And James makes it very clear where the onus lies. If YOU are ill and in need of healing YOU are to call the elders of the CHURCH to come and pray over you and anoint you with oil in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Friends if any, I repeat, any one of you … no matter where you live or what your life situation is … calls or emails the Church office and says: “I am not well and I desire the elders to come and pray over me and anoint me with oil in the name of the Lord Jesus in accordance with James 5:14” … I will personally make sure that that happens.

If you are ever in the worship service and you come forward and say: “I am not well and I desire the elders to pray over me and anoint me with oil in the name of the Lord Jesus in accordance with James 5:14” … I will personally make sure that that happens … no matter whether I am rushing off to preach somewhere else or not. If I cannot do it myself I will appoint some of the other elders to pray with you.

But James also says in v.16: “Pray for each other so that you may be healed.” It is not ONLY the elders who are to pray for healing. Pray for each other. Oh for the day when those drinking coffee at the back after the service are outnumbered by those huddled together in the chairs or at the rail praying for each other!

Glory hallelujah! Revival will have come!

What kind of Church must we be? A Healing Church!

  1. A Forgiving Church

Remember, when we read James 5:16, that he is writing to Jewish Christians, who had grown up with the fundamental belief that my sickness was caused by my sin. Healing and forgiveness went hand in hand.

He says, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

Now both they and we know full well that Jesus Himself in John 9:3 undid this connection … when he said that the blind man was not born blind because of either his sin or his parents’ sin.  There is no such connection to be made in many, many instances.

But forgiveness does bring healing every time. How so? Every time one person forgives another, the relationship is healed. When I ask your forgiveness and you forgive me and you pray for me – like James said we should do – there is surely a beautiful healing of our relationship.

Equally, if I come to you and confess my sins against God … and you hear me and remind me of the awesome promises of the Word that when I repent and confess my sins, God always forgives … and then you pray for me for the assurance of the Holy Spirit that I have been forgiven … MAN I will leave that encounter feeling deeply spiritually cleansed and healed.

So whether James meant us to confess to each other our sins which we have committed against each other … or … to confess to each other our sins which we have committed against God … makes no difference. Either way we will receive deep healing.

One thing is clear … What kind of Church must we be? A Forgiving Church! A Church where we have the kind of relationships in which we can be honest with one another about our failures … and rather than judging and condemning one another … we extend the forgiveness and gracious acceptance of God to each other.

What kind of Church must we be? A Forgiving Church!

  1. A Saving Church

I suspect that when James wrote verses 19-20 he might have been thinking of his brother Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep. “My brothers and sisters,” said James, “if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way WILL save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”

When last did you look around this church and say to yourself, “I wonder where so-and-so is?”

What kind of church should we be? A Church where we all care enough and love enough that our immediate response to wondering where someone is, is NOT:

  • to wonder judgmentally why they are backsliding …
  • to express our scandal at their absence to others …
  • to ask our neighbour in the chair next to ours if they have heard any gossip that might inform us …
  • to ask the minister if he has been to see them …

BUT INSTEAD:

  • to take the responsibility upon ourselves to go to them and
  • to express that we miss them and
  • to invite them back and
  • to pray with them (if they will allow us) and for them (whether they allow us to or not)

We are called to be a Saving Church!

Conclusion

James has been an amazing book to study from start to finish. Now we have finished. But it will only have had value if we have been transformed by it. If nothing else, I pray that today all of us will find a fresh determination rising up within ourselves to do everything within our power to cause CMC to become the Church we are called to be:

  1. A Praying Church
  2. A Singing Church
  3. A Healing Church
  4. A Forgiving Church; and
  5. A Saving Church.

When Suffering Arrives

James 5:7-12

You can listen to the audio of this sermon HERE

In praying through this passage, I was really asking the Lord to help me to see how it is a word for US today. So our approach to it is not going to be as much a “verse-by-verse” commentary on the passage (as some of the James Sermons have been).  Rather, let us look at the general approach it teaches to take when suffering arrives.

James’ letter is written to 1st century Christian facing persecution and the disruption and horror and poverty that it unleashed on them. James wrote this part of his letter to them.

But by the grace of God and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit we realise today that God also wrote this for us!

So, what direction does James give to us, his 21st century readers, when we enter those “if only” seasons of our lives. By that I mean those seasons of life when suffering and difficulties have arrived in our lives uninvited and unexpected. We find ourselves wishing:

  • if only life could be the way it used to be
  • if only this wasn’t happening
  • if only life could just be normal again
  • if only the pain would go away
  • if only the suffering of the one I love could disappear
  • if only people could get on and stop fighting with one another
  • if only my marriage could be happy

When suffering of any kind arrives, our basic human reaction is “IF ONLY”. Life becomes uncomfortable and unpleasant and often downright horrible. What instruction or direction does this passage give us?

I would like to frame my presentation of James’ answer with three phrases. I see in these verse that James answered: When suffering arrives:

  • LOOK IN
  • LOOK AHEAD
  • STAND FIRM
  1. LOOK IN

Around about this time last year I had a beautiful prayer encounter with the Lord, as I took an early morning walk reflecting on Psalm 46. Having read it in a few different versions, I decided that my favourite was the NASB. So I spent time memorising the opening verses and then recited them aloud as I walked. Soon I found myself praying those verses into the lives of the 6 particular people on my prayer list who at that moment in time were all battling cancer. I prayed into the lives of these people, that they would experience the reality of what I am about to share with you; viz. Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change
And though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea;
Though its waters roar and foam,
Though the mountains quake at its swelling pride.                     Selah.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
The holy dwelling places of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her, she will not be moved;
God will help her [f]when morning dawns.
The [g]nations made an uproar, the kingdoms tottered;
He [h]raised His voice, the earth melted.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our stronghold. Selah.

Psalm 46:1-7 is, I believe, poetically inspiring us for those moments when suffering comes and our world is turned upside down.

I believe it is saying what James is saying here: LOOK IN

LOOK IN … not because you are human and you are strong and the answers to all your problems lie with in you. NO. That is a satanic twisting of the glorious truth. Look IN not because of you.

LOOK IN because, believer, God is in the midst of YOU. There is a river in the heart of every believer … the river of life, the Holy Spirit … just like there is a river in the heavenly city of God. That city of God is the holy dwelling place of the Most High … but believer … YOU are the holy dwelling place of the Most High. God is in the midst of YOU. YOU will not be moved. God will help YOU. When YOUR life falls apart and the earth collapses beneath YOUR feet and everything YOU once thought was so safe and secure has collapsed all around YOU … like the mountains falling into the heart of the sea … GOD IS STILL IN THE MIDST OF YOU and if you will only LOOK IN and realise that then YOU WILL NOT BE MOVED.

James says, “Be patient … because the Lord’s coming is near.” In fact, he says, the Judge is standing at the door. In times of suffering he is pointing us to the presence of the Lord … right there with us. But most importantly of all, he says that “the Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

The Lord who is with us … the Lord who is within us … (friends) He feels our suffering with us. That is compassion. He feels it with us … HOW? … because He is within us. Every suffering we endure, HE ENDURES within us. We are never alone in our suffering as children of God through faith in Jesus.

But even more glorious (friends) … is that He is full of mercy. Does that ring a bell. It should. Because in James 4 when James taught us that heavenly wisdom is full of mercy we learned that mercy is the practical outworking of compassion. It is compassion in action. The Holy Spirit … the Spirit of Jesus within us … is not only feeling our pain with us but He is at work to strengthen us in the midst of that pain … to endure it. He is full of mercy towards us!

So when suffering arrives LOOK IN … LOOK IN to find within you the indwelling Holy Spirit of Jesus who will walk with you through the suffering and empower you to endure it.

 

  1. LOOK AHEAD

James also makes it clear that a key to making it through the season of suffering is LOOKING AHEAD. He wants his readers to remember that their current reality is not the end of the story.

So he says:

  • 7 Be patient until the Lord’s coming
  • 8 Be patient and stand firm because the Lord’s coming is near
  • 11 Remember that when Job persevered in faith, God brought about a 7-fold blessing after the suffering.

What is his point? In seasons of suffering it is important to remember that the God who is with you and within you and full of compassion and mercy towards you is also the Lord who ultimately writes the ending to the story!

The God who is with you now is the God will bring you through.

Friends, let’s be honest about this:

  • God brought Job through the season of suffering and the blessing came in this lifetime. We can hold on to that in our own season of suffering, looking ahead to a coming season of our lives when God will have moved in power in this world and given us back our “normal”. In our season of suffering, we can hold on to hope and look ahead to that possibility … and pray fervently for it to come.
  • But in Christ we can also hold on to what James calls, “the Lord’s coming.” When Job was at the depths of his despair, he too prophetically held on to a truth he could not fully have understood. He said: “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth.” (Job 19:25) We know because Jesus has promised us that He will return to establish His perfect Kingdom where there is no more suffering. And so we LOOK AHEAD knowing that even if there is no deliverance in this lifetime and our suffering should end in death … that is not the end. There is eternal glory awaiting us at the coming of the Lord!

 

During the week we read from Hebrews 11, this long list of faithful people who endured incredible suffering, because they were looking AHEAD. It is striking that there … both of the “endings” to which we might look ahead are represented:

  • Of some of them, Hebrews 11 says: “Through faith they conquered kingdoms, administered justice and gained what was promised; they shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames and escaped the edge of the sword; their weakness was turned to strength and they became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. They received back their dead, raised to life again.” (v.33-35” That is the JOB kind of ending to the season of suffering … a suffering that is compensated in THIS world.
  • But of others, Hebrews 11 says: “There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning;[a]they were sawn in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and ill-treated – 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. 39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” These people did NOT receive the promised deliverance IN THIS LIFE … they will receive it with us all … after death … in the coming Kingdom of Christ.

Notice both forms of “ending” right there.

3.STAND FIRM

It would be unfaithful to our passage not to end with this.

In our season of suffering … LOOKING IN and finding there the compassionate presence and merciful power of the Holy Spirit … and LOOKING AHEAD to the promised restoration and compensation of the Lord’s coming … is not something we are to do as an end in itself. James calls us to do these things so that we will be able to STAND FIRM in our faith and in the way we live … even in suffering!

Therefore, interspersed with grand concepts of Christ’s presence and promised return, are two typically down-to-earth instruction:

  1. Don’t grumble against each other. When the pressure is on, it is easy for us to turn on each other. Stressful situations have a way of bringing out the worst in people. We feel the pain of our suffering and take it out on each other. Don’t do this, James says. Stand firm! Stand together, supporting each other in love and stand firm!
  2. Don’t compromise truth – let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no. When the pressure is on it is also a great temptation to compromise … to at least make life a little easier by maybe sacrificing our integrity. Those people in Hebrews 11, we are told, “refused to be released so that they might gain a better resurrection.” Why would they do that? Because, history teaches us, they were being offered release if they would just deny Christ. I’m sure the temptation within them was: “Just lie. Just say you don’t believe in Jesus to save your life … and you can be released.” But they stood firm and they refused to compromise the truth. James says to us too: Do not compromise when the pressure is on – Stand firm.

 

Conclusion

It’s very practical… but let us not lose our main focus today … that practical faithfulness to each other and to Jesus even in the midst of suffering … standing firm in the face of seasons of suffering is only possible when we:

  • LOOK IN and find there the compassionate presence and merciful power of the Holy Spirit … and
  • LOOK AHEAD to the promised restoration and compensation of the Lord’s coming to find within you the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, and

When you do this you will have the power to STAND FIRM, PATIENTLY ENDURING EVEN THE HARSHEST SEASON OF SUFFERING.

Perhaps a good way to end is with a quote from Victor Frankl, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps who said in reflecting on his experiences there:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

What attitude will you choose? Which ‘way’ will you choose? James 5:7-12 would plead: Choose the way of looking in and looking ahead and standing firm.

A Warning Cry

James 5:1-6

As James’ first readers listened to his letter being read to them by the leaders of their Church one Lord’s Day, this paragraph must have come as a huge shock.

Here they are sitting together as Christians. Most of them (as we have repeatedly been told) were Jewish Christians who had fled persecution in Jerusalem. Some however would have been new converts … mostly Jews and maybe some Gentiles who had heard the word of Christ through this scattered community of Christians.

As their leader reads the letter he comes to this paragraph. It starts just like last week’s passage did with the word: “Listen”. In the Greek its two words which, literally translated, would mean: “Go to”. It was a phrase much like our “Come now” … or “Listen up” … “Hey wena!” It is an attention grabbing phrase. It’s meant to arrest their attention and get them to listen very closely. It indicates that this is a very urgent message. It was like typing with your caps lock on.

So today we will also pay close attention. My intention is to interrogate this passage with some questions which will hopefully enable us to dig into it deeply and “suck the marrow” out of it. Those questions will be Who, What, Why, How and When. Let’s jump right in.

  1. WHO?

The first question is “WHO” … or in this case TO WHOM is James talking?

Of course the whole community is listening … and James would have known that this was the most likely setting. So he makes it clear immediately that what he is about to say is directed specifically at some of them. Who?

The answer is found right there in verse 1: Now listen you rich people.

James is talking to people he calls “rich people”.

Now we already know that not many of them were rich. Most were poor because of their status as religious refugees. But clearly some had already begun to rebuild their wealth through trade. We saw last week how James had rebuked them for their eagerness to expand their businesses without consulting the will of God. So they had businesses. They were entrepreneurial. They had made a living for themselves all their lives and although they had lost a lot, it seems some of them had busied themselves rebuilding their lives and their wealth quite quickly.

As we read further and get to some of James’ accusations, we can surmise that he also knows that some of those who had been converted through the witness of the refugees were landowning farmers in the region where the Christians had settled. And in those days landowners were wealthy, almost without exception.

Now we must hasten to add that not all of the wealthy Christians would have been guilty of the sins James describes in his accusations. But you can be sure that he wanted all the wealthy Christians to listen up!

  • Those who were rich and guilty needed to hear the warning … for sure … before it was too late!
  • Those who were rich and innocent also needed to hear the warning before they slipped into the same sinful behaviour as their brothers.
  • And on top of that, knowing our human nature, James knew for sure that all the poor people would be listening very closely too. Possibly they were themselves victims of the kinds of sins James is about to describe … and they would be listening with great eagerness to hear what God had to say about their situation through the apostle James.

So today this is a word for all of us:

  • For some because we are wealthy now …
  • for others because we will be wealthy one day.
  • For some because we are poor now …
  • for others because we will be poor one day … and
  • for all of us because at its very heart it really is about how all of us as human beings ought NOT to relate to wealth.

 

  1. WHAT?

WHAT is James’ warning to the wealthy?

In plain and simple English his warning is this: You are going to face judgment and harsh punishment for your current relationship to wealth.

He says in v.1 that there is “misery coming upon you”. Misery.

More harshly, he speaks in v.3 of their flesh being “eaten as if by fire.” Let’s call that Destruction.

Worst of all he speaks in v.5 of “the day of slaughter”. Death.

Note this: James is warning these people because he loves them. This is not the hateful condemnation of a self-righteous Pharisee. This is the heart-broken warning of a father in the faith who has observed from an enforced distance how people he loves and feels responsible for have taken a course which is leading them to misery, death and destruction.

If someone is rushing headlong down a road towards the edge of a cliff and are about to plunge to their death … and if you love that person … then you warn them … and you do so urgently!

James loves his listeners. He sees that their attitude towards wealth and their behaviour in relation to acquiring and using possessions is going to bring them to a place of misery, destruction, and death. They are not only missing out on true abundance of life in this world because they are too focussed on wealth and possessions … but they are proving by their relationship to wealth that they are not truly in a relationship with Jesus as their Saviour and Lord and are hence in danger of the judgment of God.

Like a prophet of old, James has seen where their current lifestyle is leading them and he MUST warn them. Like Amos crying out that if God’s people did not turn back from their ways of oppression and injustice there would come a day of disaster and destruction, James calls out to his people too … a cry of warning.

  1. WHY?

Why is this warning for the them? Why are they so at risk of God’s judgment?

Here James gives three reasons.

Reason #1: Useless Hoarding (v.3)

There were three main forms of wealth in those days. Grain or corn (i.e. crops of the field), clothing / garments; and precious metals.

James says in v.2-3 that they have “hoarded” all these forms of wealth. The Greek word is “thesauridzo”. Sound familiar. Yes, it is the root of our English word “thesaurus” which is a book that lists words in groups of synonyms and related concepts. The word means a “storehouse” or a “treasure trove”. So a thesaurus in English is a treasure trove of words.

The thing about a thesaurus is that you will never need all these words. They are stored up in this book and will never actually be used. THAT is hoarding. It is to store up possessions simply for the sake of having them. You don’t need them. You’re not using them. But you will not let go of them.

What examples can we suggest of hoarding today? Yes there is the compulsive hoarding of “stuff”. But more importantly there is the compulsive pursuit of wealth for the sake of wealth. Riches for riches sake and because somehow we always think that we will finally feel complete and satisfied and safe for the future if we have that little bit more than we already have.

And what is that? It is idolatry. It is trusting in wealth rather than in God! This is why hoarding wealth is so dangerous, because it is an expression of where one’s faith actually lies. Remember there is a faith in God that does not save (James 2:14-26). These wealthy hoarders may have claimed to be Christians / followers of Jesus with faith in Him … but their hoarding spoke volumes about their claim and where their faith actually lay.

The tragedy for James’ readers / listeners … and for modern-day hoarders of wealth … is what Jesus says in his parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:16-21. This man hoarded so much wealth that he had to build bigger and bigger barns … not knowing that the same night he would die … and then what good would any of that hoarded wealth do him? Nothing.

Hoarded wealth is meaningless. Crops will rot in the barns … moths will eat the clothing … and even (he says) the gold will rust. Now while pure gold and silver cannot rust, in those days gold and silver coins were not entirely pure. They were alloyed. Which means that with enough time, they could rust / corrode.  So this again indicates just how much the rich person in James’ word-picture must have been hoarding. Their pile of gold and silver was so extensive that some coins lay there for decades without ever being used.

In this world, wealth can be gone in an instant in a stock-exchange crash or a run on a bank or an uninsured house burning down. And what’s more in eternity our hoarded wealth will be a witness against us that we did not truly trust our Saviour. So James says: “The corrosion of your gold and silver (hoarded and unspent) will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire.”

Hoarding is senseless … it is life-destroying … and it is faith-destroying!

Reason #2: Unjust and Ruthless Acquisition of Wealth (v.4 and 6)

For James it appears that it wasn’t only the fact that these so-called Christians were hoarding their wealth and thereby showing their lack of true faith in Christ. It was also about HOW they had acquired that wealth.

They had essentially oppressed and exploited others and built their wealth on the back of other people’s suffering. They had withheld the wages of those who worked for them. They had underpaid their harvesters. And James even says that they condemned and murdered innocent men. Does he mean they literally killed people to gain money? Well probably not intentionally.

But … here’s the reality. In those days, all workers who mowed fields and all harvesters (the kinds of workers James mentions) were day labourers. They basically worked for a pittance. They queued in the marketplace in the morning and hoped to be called by one of the local landowners to come and work for the day in his fields. If they worked they got paid and took food home to their families. If they did not work, they and their families either ate on the charity of neighbours or they went to bed hungry.

When you underpay (or worse yet, withhold the pay) of a man who works as a day labourer … you are stealing food out of his children’s mouths. When you do this long enough or harshly enough … lives can literally be lost.

And this is what James is accusing them of. He is charging that they have been so unjust towards their workers … that they have essentially built their wealth at the expense of human lives. They have become wealthy on the back of the blood, sweat, tears and even the very lives of others.

Now, none of us is a farmer as far as I know … but if we employ anyone at all to work for us at any level whatsoever, we need to be seriously examining how much we pay them and how faithfully we ensure that they are treated justly … and that we are not taking advantage of others in order to unfairly advantage ourselves.

 

Reason #3: Self-indulgent Spending (v.5)

“You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.”

The wealthy to whom James writes his warning have lived to gratify their love of the easy and comfortable life, and to indulge themselves in luxurious living.

There is no doubt that the sin condemned here, in His Word, by God Himself (through James) is that these “so-called Christians” had made an idol of their own comfort and luxury and the money which made it possible. As Jesus said: “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6:21) Their heart was filled with selfish desire and it was proved by the way they applied their wealth.

How might we see this same sin of self-indulgence manifested today? Well we live in the southern suburbs of Cape Town, I don’t think we need too much revelation from God to see that the majority of those who HAVE many possessions spend an enormous percentage of their finances on opulent luxury.

But let’s be careful now. The warning here is not for the unbeliever who does this. It is specifically for the person who wants to follow Jesus. That’s us. For us the question should be simply whether the way we spend the money in our possession is a good reflection of the character and behaviour of the Lord Jesus Christ.

So that is the WHY:

  • Useless Hoarding
  • Ruthless Exploitation
  • Self-indulgent Spending

Now for the HOW!

4.HOW

How should we respond to this warning?

James actually starts this section of his letter with the answer. Look at verse 1 where he calls out to the unjust, self-indulgent, hoarding wealthy people:

“Weep and wail!”

This is simply a call to repentance. It is a call to look at oneself in the mirror … like he said in James 1:23-25 … and if one sees in the mirror a reflection of a hoarding, unjust, self-indulgent rich person … reel back from the mirror in horror and with a broken heart and then … for heaven’s sake … repent. Turn away from that behaviour immediately … run to God for His gracious and merciful forgiveness … and then change your ways. I mean … there can be no doubt that this is what James wants the Christians to do. Stop your evil behaviour … turn around … and start to live a live that is radically different because it is centred around King Jesus and the priorities of His Kingdom.

When you earn money:

  • Earn your wealth by honest and righteous means …
  • Do not oppress or exploit others to gain wealth.
  • Work hard and earn your pay or your profit.
  • Pay all your labourers a fair and living wage on time.
  • Do not cheat at the market by selling things for more than they are worth.
  • Be a righteous person … like Boaz in the book of Ruth for example who was both a righteous man and a wealthy landowner.

When you spend the money you have earned by hard work and wisdom, spend it knowing that the follower of Jesus has the responsibility not only to care for themselves and their family and other dependents to the best of their ability … but also to spend themselves and their wealth on behalf of the Kingdom of God and of others.

I considered dumping a long list of Scriptures in here which would make this point stick. But in the end and in the interest of time I only want to quote from 1 Timothy 6, where Paul (another apostle) wrote to his young disciple Timothy who was pastoring a Church and said the following. I think it speaks for itself, so I will end with it. But just before that … I said there was another final question to answer: WHEN? When must we repent? Answer NOW!

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

James 4:13-17

 Doing Life God’s Way

In the week that one of contemporary Christianity’s greatest authors, Eugene Petersen, died, it feels only appropriate to start today’s Sermon by reading his paraphrase of our text from The Message. This paraphrase of the entire Bible took Petersen 12 years to complete. It started with him paraphrasing the book of Galatians into modern, colloquial English for the sake of his congregation. After that he paraphrased a few of his favourite Psalms. After sharing these Psalms with a few friends over dinner, the author Harold Fickett said to him,

“Eugene, I think you’ve found your calling. Stop whatever else you’re doing and paraphrase the entire Bible.”

Petersen responded with a chuckle. But 12 years later The Message was completed.

Personally, I think this true story of the origins of an amazing “version” of the Bible is highly appropriate to today’s passage … and specially to the way it is phrased in The Message. So let’s listen to it now:

Nothing but a Wisp of Fog

13-15 And now I have a word for you who brashly announce, “Today—at the latest, tomorrow—we’re off to such and such a city for the year. We’re going to start a business and make a lot of money.” You don’t know the first thing about tomorrow. You’re nothing but a wisp of fog, catching a brief bit of sun before disappearing. Instead, make it a habit to say, “If the Master wills it and (if) we’re still alive, we’ll do this or that.”

16-17 As it is, you are full of your grandiose selves. All such vaunting self-importance is evil. In fact, if you know the right thing to do and don’t do it, that, for you, is evil.

In this brief section of James, he speaks lovingly and very firmly into an attitude which is very familiar to us. In very simple, easy-to-understand terms, James lays out a right and wrong way to “do life”. Each of us as human beings will have to choose one of these ways to live. For a Jesus-follower, it is very clear what our choice is meant to be. But we will still need to choose.

As we have seen often in the last 8 weeks, James is writing to extremely committed Christians … people who were persecuted for their faithfulness to Jesus Christ. And yet they were young in their faith, and they needed his instruction and guidance on how to live.

As James wrote his letter, some of them were getting it wrong. So first he calls them out and rebukes them. And then he corrects them by laying out the right way to do life. We’ll stick to that framework for our message today.

The REBUKE (v.13-14)

The value of a VISION for the future is something which most good organisations, companies, business people, and even churches and church leaders understand very well. Life coach John Graham says (https://www.johngraham.org/coach/5-the-importance-of-vision):

“A vision inspires action. A powerful vision pulls in ideas, people and other resources. It creates the energy and will to make change happen. It inspires individuals and organizations to commit, to persist and to give their best.”

These people James is addressing had a vision. They saw their future. And it was a great one.

Remember they were Jewish Christians. William Barclay in his commentary on this passage says:

“The Jews were the great traders of the ancient world; and in many ways that world gave them every opportunity to practise their commercial abilities. This was an age of the founding of cities; and often when cities were founded and their founders were looking for citizens to occupy them, citizenship was offered freely to the Jews, for where the Jews came, money and trade followed.”

So here are some Jewish Christians. Under the devilish hand of persecution they had lost their hard-earned homes and been forced to flee as refugees. Now they’re in a strange place and life is tough. Then word reaches them of a certain city that has business opportunities. Awesome, a few of them think, we will relocate there, open a shop, and make great money. We’ll soon be on our feet again. Fantastic. But we have to strike while the iron’s hot. We need to move fast. So gather your things together and let’s get going … even tomorrow!

That sounds reasonable doesn’t it? It sounds like a responsible thing to do. Why does the Holy Spirit move James to rebuke them?

In a nutshell it is because, in all of their thinking and planning, they have forgotten two key things:

  1. Their frailty, and
  2. God’s sovereign purposes.

Like us, they were only frail human being. Like us, they did not KNOW what tomorrow would hold. Like us, they didn’t even know if they would be alive tomorrow. But they were not taking this into account. They were making their plans on the premise that they knew exactly what tomorrow would hold. So James corrects them: You do not even know what will happen tomorrow! In fact, you don’t even know if you’ll be alive tomorrow.” Who are you to wax lyrical, bragging about how you’ll make a success of your plans tomorrow?

And, as we so often do, they had also forgotten that God in His sovereignty has a divine plan and purpose for all of our lives … that Jesus Christ who is our LORD and Master, and to whom we have chosen to give the ultimate authority as the KING of our lives … intends that our lives be FIRST AND FOREMOST His instruments for the extension of His Kingdom.

Their bold declaration of their vision for tomorrow – for their future – made no reference to God! This was THEIR vision … not God’s vision. It was about THEIR profit and the extension of THEIR desires … not about GOD’s plan and the extension of HIS Kingdom.

They gave no thought to the fact that God might plan to use them right where they were!

They had not consulted God about His calling on their lives!

James describes them in verse 16, saying: “As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.”

Their vision was absolutely self-generated. They were absolutely self-confident. And what have we learned from James about the root of worldly wisdom which leads only to discord and evil of every kind? It is motivated by selfish ambition and desire! It’s no wonder James, in his love for these disciples, rebukes them so strongly!

The CORRECTION (V.16)

Remember I said, it’s not complicated.

James’ correction is very simple. He says: “Instead, you ought to say” … in other words let THIS be your attitude towards the future … “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this and that.”

OR, as in The Message: “Make it a habit to say, “If the Master wills it and (if) we’re still alive, we’ll do this or that.””

Now I want to hasten to say: This is not fatalism. This is not an attitude of “God is going to do whatever God is going to do anyway.” This is not about prefacing or concluding everything we say about the future with the almost superstitious: “God willing!”

This is a common habit of many cultures.

  • The Muslims will say: “Insh’allah”
  • The Jews would say: “Im yirtsé hashém(אם ירצה ה׳)” If God will want it so; or Be’ezrát hashém (בעזרת ה׳): “with the help of God”
  • The Romans would have said: “Deo Volente”

And it becomes sort of superstitious … as if saying it will somehow protect us from bad luck because in talking about the future we are tempting fate.

NO! The correct attitude – with which James is calling us to go through life – is the attitude which says:

My life is in God’s hands. If He grants me another day tomorrow, it will be an absolute gift from HIM … just as today is … and then my purpose and plan for that day will be exactly the same as my purpose and plan for THIS day. I will seek to KNOW and then to DO the Lord’s will. I will seek to bring God pleasure by obeying His will as closely as I can!

So if it is God’s will for me to go to Polokwane, I’ll go there. If it’s His will for me to remain here, I’ll remain here. If it is His will for me to work for a salary I’ll do it … but if it’s His will for me to freelance I’ll do that. If it’s His will for me to make money and produce wealth, I’ll do that. If it‘s His will for me to live in a community that lives off the land I’ll do that.

This is the right attitude for every follower of Jesus … not just for some … not just for itinerant Methodist Ministers. It’s for all of us.

And God’s will is not always obvious … it is very seldom a long straight road. It is far more exciting than that, with many twists and turns and blind rises where you’re not at all sure what tomorrow holds. So how do we know where to go and what to do?

Well, we make sure that we are walking in intimate fellowship with the LORD who said of Himself: “I am the WAY!” And we make sure that whatever we do we are honestly seeking to do it to bring Him pleasure.

If we are not certain what His will is for us, we spend time praying and seeking Him and seeking wise counsel, and then we do what our conscience tells us is most probably His will for us. But if our conscience is warning us not to do something … we listen.

When we know for sure … or are close to certain that God wants us to do something … we step out by faith and do it … because not to do it, says James, is sin. As The Message puts it: “In fact, if you know the right thing to do and don’t do it, that, for you, is evil.”

If we’re honest, our problem is often NOT that we don’t know what God wants us to do … it is that we don’t want to DO what God wants us to do. So don’t worry about all the situations where you’re not sure what God wants you to do. Focus instead on those where you DO already know … and JUST DO IT.

CONCLUSION

It’s probably appropriate to end with a Eugene Peterson quote:

“The way of Jesus cannot be imposed or mapped — it requires an active participation in following Jesus as he leads us through sometimes strange and unfamiliar territory, in circumstances that become clear only in the hesitations and questionings, in the pauses and reflections where we engage in prayerful conversation with one another and with him.”
― Eugene H. Peterson, The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way

 

Renewing our Lives in Christ

James 4:1-12

You can listen to this Message HERE .

In today’s passage from James this 1st Century pastor issues a very urgent call to the persecuted and scattered Jewish Christians to renew their walk with God. Yes, they are disciples of Jesus. Yes, they have paid a great cost for their faithfulness to Jesus as LORD. And yet, the warning signs are there in their common life as a faith community. Somehow a kind of “rot” has set in which needs urgent attention on their part. James has come to hear of behaviour in their relationships which simply does not belong in a community of the Christ, the King of Love.

Just as a good doctor will not just diagnose what is wrong with you physically by the symptoms, but also explain to you what is happening and why, and then prescribe a remedy, James writes this hard-hitting, jam-packed section of his letter to his fellow-Christians to:

  1. Diagnose the ROT
  2. Explain the REASON, and
  3. Prescribe the REMEDY

Why would this be of interest to us today, all these centuries after James wrote these words? Well frankly because their ROT constituted some timeless problems which rear their heads in our lives too. And also because, whether we share their specific rot or experience different kinds of rot in our lives, the REASONS are often very similar … and … the REMEDY he prescribes is spiritually like that “wonder drug” that medical researchers would love to discover. It works for every ROT.

So let’s open up the verses of James 4:1-12 and get going. I’m sure you’ll agree with me that they contain the timeless Word of God for anyone seeking renewal in our Christian lives.

The ROT (v.1-3; 11-12)

These verses do present both the rot in this group of Christians as well as aspects of the reasons, but for now let’s just focus on the kind of rot identified. Boy, this Church was in trouble. James describes:

  1. Fights and Quarrels: This was such a serious issue that James first diagnoses “fights and quarrels” in v.1 and then “quarrels and fights” in v. 2. There was conflict among the Christians. They were having quarrels with one another, and those quarrels were indicative of a longer-term general sense of conflict. Translated literally the words would be “battles” and “wars”. There were those uncomfortable one-off quarrels or “battles” between Christians … but there was also an ongoing general atmosphere of conflict (“war” if you like). How sad. James had offered teaching in James 1 about how persevering under trial will lead to spiritual maturity. It seems that perhaps he included that teaching right at the start of the letter precisely because the pressure cooker of persecution, rather than uniting these Christians, had contributed to conflict. They were not acting maturely … not even close!
  2. Killing: Now I don’t think there were Christians who were literally killing one another. I think James would have made more of it if that were the case. I think he is speaking metaphorically about the extremes to which the Christians were going, driven by their desires (which we’ll come to). They were destroying their relationships with one another. They were clearly destroying one another’s reputations – we see this in the way James speaks about slander in the final verses of our passage. (Read v.11-12) These believers were “cutting each other down”! They were clearly rejecting the Royal Law of Love! They were casting judgmental condemnation on one another by slandering one another – that is, pronouncing negative and even character assassinating things about each other. They were “killing” by their words.
  3. Powerless prayer: James says that these believers were not people of prayer. And what is more, on the odd occasion that these Christians did bother to pray, their prayers were remaining unanswered. They were prayerless and powerless.

Is this the kind of community that Jesus died to create? Heavens, NO!

  • Jesus said, “By this will all people know that you are my disciples – if you love one another.” (John 13:35)
  • Jesus prayed: “My prayer … for those who will believe in Me … is that they will be one, Father, just as You are in Me, and I am in You. may they also be in us so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.” (John 17:20-21)

Wow. James’ Christian community was in big, big trouble. They were miles away from what they were called to be.

Now, I am very happy to say that in my experience CMC is not like this. Sure like any community of human beings there will be individuals who will disagree from time to time … you’ll also never keep everyone happy all the time. BUT … as a general rule I think people here find a way to disagree with respect. Fights, quarrels, battles, wars and killing are not words that come to mind when I think of CMC.

So is this relevant to us? Absolutely. These troubles of James’ people are just one form of symptom of the root problem. And it is when we come to the REASON for the ROT that we will realise how all of us are in grave danger as human beings. What James described is a severe case of this ROT … at a community level … but the ROT is present in every human life and it carries the potential to destroy if we are not on our guard. So what exactly is the reason for this rot?

THE REASON (v.1, 4-6)

It is at this point that I want to remind you of last week’s passage.

Do you remember that in James 3:13-18 the issue was godly wisdom v worldly wisdom? Do you remember that Godly wisdom leads to peace and righteousness? What does worldly wisdom lead to according to James? Disorder and every evil practice? Does that sound familiar?

Yes! This community was experiencing the outcome of living in worldly wisdom rather than godly wisdom. That’s the connection to last week’s passage. This is not James randomly taking a new direction. He is diagnosing his community as being one in which ROT has set in … and that ROT is the inevitable outcome of living by worldly wisdom.

And what was the root of worldly wisdom? That’s right, James 3:14 says it is bitter envy and selfish ambition!

We saw that when a person’s driving motivation is to please God, this results in godly wisdom which in turn results in peace and righteousness … BUT when a person’s driving motivation is to please themselves and promote themselves, this results in worldly wisdom … which in turn results in disorder and every evil practice.

So it’s no surprise then when James diagnoses the REASONS FOR THE ROT in chapter 4 as this:

  • Selfish desiring and coveting (v.1-2). You are being controlled by your sensual desires. You want what you want, no matter what! You’re willing to pay any price and sacrifice any virtue to get what you desire.
  • Friendship with the world; i.e. you are worldly in your motivation. You are loving the world and the things of the world … this material world and it’s material pleasures and properties. (v.4) In a sense he is saying that you have far overvalued the world.
  • Hatred of God: At the same time, James says, you have turned your back on your love for God. You have chosen to love the world and the things of the world more than God. He says, “Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred towards God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” (v.4) James is using the same figure of speech that Jesus used when He said that whoever is not for us is against us … and that no-one can serve two Masters … money and God … he will love the one and hate the other. The more they had fallen in love with worldly things the more they had fallen out of love with God. In fact I would go so far as to say that James means that they had enthroned worldly property and pleasure in their hearts and they have dethroned Christ!
  • Spiritual Adultery: On top of it all he says that they are therefore “spiritual adulterers” (v.4). They had pledged themselves to Christ and entered a covenant relationship with Him as their King and God, their Saviour and Lord … They were Christ’s Bride and He the Groom … but now there was a different king in their hearts … their own desire!

So, in a nutshell … what was the REASON for the ROT?

Christ had been dethroned and SELF had been re-enthroned. They had exchanged the love of Christ for the love of the world.

So now I have to be faithful to my role as a preacher and ask us to measure for ourselves. That was them. What about ME? What about US? Our community may measure up reasonably well against the description of the ROT. But how about each of us individually? We can only answer for ourselves:

How do we measure up when it comes to the REASONS for that ROT … the ruling passion of one’s life? This is the DIAGNOSTIC QUESTION:

Do I love and desire Christ and the things of God MORE than I desire the world and the things of the world?

This is the heart of the matter. Failing this test would not mean that I have lost my salvation … but it would mean that I am in grave danger … that I am sliding downhill away from Christ and instead of growing into spiritual maturity … I am dying spiritually! And so if there is even a hint in our lives that we are leaning towards loving “self” more than God … or the things of this world more than God … or sensual pleasure more than God … we will need to pay incredibly close attention to what James says next about the REMEDY.

The REMEDY (v.7-10)

1.The Holy Spirit:

Verse 5-6 actually gives us our first hints of the remedy. It has the good news … the mind-blowing news in fact. The Holy Spirit who lives in you is zealous to fan into flame your love for God.

God loves you and me enough to die for us … and when we pledged ourselves to be His people through faith in Jesus Christ He “poured His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom He has given us.” (Rom. 5:5) John says that God has “lavished His love upon us” (1 John 3:1) so that we can be called children of God.

Now James adds that the Holy Spirit of God who lives in us not only ministers God’s love for us to us … but He is also within us to stir up the passion of our love for God. He is intense in His desire to see us loving the Lord.

That’s why James says that He will give grace to the humble.

2.Humble yourself

The remedy begins with us humbling ourselves and acknowledging that we are falling short. And when we do that, the Holy Spirit immediately goes to work to reignite and increase our passion for Jesus.

If we refuse to admit that we have a spiritual problem and are “double-hearted”, we are being proud and the Holy Spirit will battle within us against that pride.

But the moment we humble ourselves in honesty He will give us grace!

So what are we to do then in order to humble ourselves like this? James has a great answer for us:

3.Seek God in repentance of mind, heart and body!

Verses 8-9 are intense. James says: “Come near to God” … and that’s a wonderful instruction because it comes with the promise: “And He will come near to you.” But the seeking is hard work. It is a matter of:

Heart: He says we will need to purify our hearts! Does that ring a bell? Turn to God in love … dethrone your love for the things of the world. Ask the Holy Spirit to cleanse those other loves out of your heart … but also make that determination for yourself to love God with ALL of your heart! Practically what do you do? Well, Revelation 2:4-5 says that when we have lost our first love we should “repent and do the things we did at first”. If, in the flush of your first love for the Lord, you used to wake up at 4am to spend time with Him, do it again! If you used to listen to loud worship music in your car, do it again! If you used to read chapters of the Bible every day, do it again! Do everything you can to rekindle a pure, passionate love for God in your heart!

Body: Then James says we will need to “wash our hands”. This is about physical behaviour. If your love for the world has begun to take hold and there are physical things you are doing that are not God’s will for you … STOP … REPENT … and TURN BACK. Ask God’s forgiveness and do not go back to doing them! Simple as that. Throw that bottle down the drain. Delete that contact from your phone. Gently but decisively break off that relationship. Wash your heart and wash your hands.

Mind: Decide to pursue God! Make a decision in your mind that from now on you will pursue God with all your heart and reject sin with all your heart! (v.7) James says it like this: “Submit to God and resist the devil.” Make a decision to say NO to the temptation of the evil one to put yourself and your desires first … and re-surrender your life to Christ and His Lordship! In James’ words: “Purify your hearts you who are double-minded.” In other words … be single-minded … have ONE over-riding motivation in your mind … PLEASING GOD!

And when we do this … James’ promise is certain: God gives grace to the humble.

The CALL of God today is this: Humble yourselves before the Lord and HE WILL LIFT YOU UP!