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:
- Their frailty, and
- 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.
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