PRACTICAL WISDOM FOR (EXTRA) ORDINARY TIME
James 1:1-27–“Not Just Hearers”
July 19, 2020
During this summer, we have explored Practical Wisdom for an Extra-ordinary Time.
Over the past six weeks, we have delved into the Book of Proverbs
and rediscovered ancient nuggets of wisdom, so contemporary in their affect.
Hopefully, we have rediscovered along the way that God’s Wisdom from Holy Scripture
strengthens our human lives and encourages faithful relationships with God and our neighbors.
Our series shifts this week from the Old Testament Book of Proverbs
to the New Testament Letter of James.
The Letter of James almost did not make it into “ta biblios”, “the books”, what we call “the Bible”.
Had it not been for an extremely outspoken early church father named Origen,
the Letter of James may have been set aside along with a host of other first century writings,
like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Peter.
As a child, I had no idea of the history of the biblical canon, how the books of the Bible came together.
What I did know is that this particular book of the Bible had my name on it, my first name—James.
When I was in middle school,
the Bible that my parents gave me when I was eleven years old sat on my bedside table.
Before going to sleep, I would often pick up the Bible to read, not necessarily knowing where to start.
But since this one letter towards the back of the Bible had my name on it, I would often turn to James.
And what I discovered is how practical is this letter for today’s church.
I discovered how relevant it was to my daily life.
I began to understand, even at a young age,
that the Letter of James focused on how I was supposed to live my daily life.
The letter encouraged me to live Monday through Saturday
the beliefs that we stand in church and profess on Sunday.
Hear now selected verses from the first chapter of the Letter of James…
Read James 1 – selected verses
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudging, and it will be given you…
Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him…
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep one’s self unstained by the world.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
This summer of 2020, for me, has been challenging.
I was really hoping that, by now, we would be talking about re-opening the sanctuary
and being able to gather again in person, in Christian fellowship,
being able to spend time with our families of all ages, with no worries.
But the infection rates are rising, the death rates persisting, the hospitals beginning to fill.
We are suffering through a grueling, long term, worldwide pandemic, with no end in sight.
Just when we thought we were seeing light at the end of the tunnel, the tunnel was extended.
But that’s not all.
Our nation is facing one of the most important challenges to our body politic in my lifetime.
Our unity and equanimity as a nation are being sorely tested.
And in this election year, we are as divided in this nation as we ever have been.
I have real concerns about the future.
I have concerns about school children and families, and the disruptions they are facing.
I have concerns about how many will ultimately suffer from this disease.
I have grave concerns about the short and long term impacts upon our economy.
I have concerns about what this time will mean for our churches and their ministries.
These concerns weighing heavy upon my heart,
and upon the hearts and souls of most everyone with whom I talk.
Even so, as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus, we do not grieve as though who have no hope.
As the Scripture says, we are “not destined for wrath”, but destined “for obtaining salvation,
(obtaining healing) through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Thessalonians 5:9)
And the Church, the people of the Church, are called to be salt, and light, and hope for all,
especially in dark times.
We are called to be clay vessels through whom the Spirit of Christ may be shared
with a world in need.
In my lifetime, the world has never needed for Christians to be more “Christ-like” than now,
to be more caring and compassionate than now, to be more selfless and self-giving than now.
I am not sure that the ministry of Church people in their own neighborhoods and communities
has even been as important as now.
James writes: consider various trials you face in life nothing buy joy,
because this testing of your faith will produce endurance and maturity.
If any of you lack wisdom about how to go forward, ask God, who gives to all generously,
for the “wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield,
full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” (James 3:17)
When you relate to one another and to the world,
be quick to listen, be slow to speak, be even slower to anger,
because your anger will not produce what God intends.
Be ye doers of God’s Word, James encourages, and not merely hearers.
Act on God’s Word, live God’s Word, breathe God’s Word into our hurting and needful world.
And as you do so, keep yourself unstained by the trappings of this world,
remembering always that pure religion will involve the care for orphans and for widows.
In the first century, the radical ways of Jesus were new to the world.
In the first century, church people were called “Followers of the Way”.
People like James, the brother of Jesus, who became a leader in the Jerusalem church,
sought to show the world a different way to live, a better way to live.
James and the early believers lived with a different set of values than the world around them.
They had professed belief in Jesus and they had taken to heart his teachings,
and thus these beliefs led them down a different road.
On the road they left behind, the old road of the “ways of the world”,
people would speak without considering the consequences of their words.
People would become angry in a moment due to their pride.
People would live according to the world’s standards of what is right and good,
and would be seduced by moral filth and unrighteous deeds.
On that old road, people would judge others by how much wealth they had.
The rich were exalted and the poor were looked down upon.
On that old road, people lived with a view of scarcity, that there wasn’t enough to go around,
that you must anxiously grasp your material possessions, and hold them tightly, and refuse to share.
That old road was full of envy and strife, of discord and disunity.
James and the others had lived on that road, but in Jesus had found a still, more excellent way.
James, who was probably the brother of Jesus, addressed his letter to “the twelve tribes of the dispserion”,
to Jewish believers who had spread throughout the Mediterranean basin in the first century.
He encouraged these early believers – do not go back to that old road. That road will lead to death.
James sought to lead them further down a new road, a new Way, a pathway of peace and unity,
an ethic of hopefulness and love.
This new road would lead toward the completion of the faith they have received.
Along this new road, they would endure trials, they would face temptations,
even as they sought to live a life of good works.
But on that new road, they could live confidently, day by day, with a view of abundance.
On this new road, they would trust God to give to all simply and ungrudging,
looking to God as the giver of every good and perfect gift.
On this new road, they would live with gratitude, fully aware of their own faults,
fully aware of their dependence upon the grace of God.
And on this new road, the lowly would be lifted up, the poor would be given aid.
The widows and orphans would no longer be in distress,
and all would be one, and all would be blessed.
This new road would not lead to spiritual death, but towards genuine humanity as God intended it,
towards the fulfillment of all that God has created.
Though the name “Jesus” is only mentioned twice in his letter,
the brother of Jesus’ words lie squarely within the tradition of what Jesus said.
Many of James’ key points are derived directly from sayings of Jesus.
Sometimes, churches seem to have forgotten that Jesus of Nazareth was a radical.
Jesus became extremely unpopular with the powers that be.
Some churches seem to have forgotten that Jesus was killed because he proclaimed judgment
on that old road, on that old worldly pathway that eventually leads to spiritual death for all.
Sometimes, churches seem to have forgotten that Jesus was killed
because his ministry threatened to overturn long held assumptions
about who was included and who was not,
about who could hold power and who could not,
about who would be facing God’s judgment over their treatment of the least and the lost.
Squarely in the tradition of Jesus, the Letter of James became unpopular in many circles.
Jose Miquez-Bonino, a theologian of the 20th century from Chile,
wrote that once during the violent reign of Pinochet,
the Letter of James was read from the pulpit of a wealthy congregation.
Miguez-Bonino reported half of the congregation was offended by the Letter, got up and walked out!
The Letter of James has been called “strong medicine”.
The Letter of James has rattled many a cage because it reveals the spiritual dangers
of a complacent Christianity.
James, the brother of Jesus, was not a complacent Christian.
Not surprisingly, like many important leaders in the early church, James was martyred.
Probably not more than a few years after this letter was written,
James was killed because he knew that the new way, the new road, the Way of Jesus,
was worth dying for.
Many in the early Church gave their lives because they would not renounce their new life in Jesus Christ.
They were willing to die because they could no longer worship the empire or the emperor.
They could no longer worship the trappings of their economy or their Jewish or Roman ethnicity.
Faith without works is dead, James wrote.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but not have works?” (James 2:14)
Perhaps these prophetic words are sorely needed in today’s church.
Yes, we all have heavy and real concerns.
Yes, this pandemic and national disunity can seem disabling and disheartening.
But our communities and our nation need for us, the people of the church,
to speak up and to act out,
to live the practical and faithful wisdom we have been taught,
to share the compassionate and selfless love we have received,
to walk and act in the manner we have been taught by Jesus and his brother James.
The world is in need of a Savior, and those who live by the Savior’s Word.
Friends, you have been implanted with this Word.
This Word holds the power to save souls, this Word holds the authority to alter the course of history.
This Word will endure long after this nation and every current nation is gone.
So may the people of today’s Church be not merely hearers of God’s Word, but doers as well,
for Christ’s sake and for the sake of the world. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church