October 12, 2014
Putting Word into Action
Last week we began our study of the book of James. This book is considered the earliest book in the New Testament. It was written by James the brother of Jesus and has been called a string of pearls because it contains practical truths like a series of proverbs. However, there is more than mere proverbs in this book. James is addressing believers who are like refugees, who were compelled to flee Jerusalem because of persecution. He wants them to remain strong despite their trials, and to grow in faith and wisdom with the end goal of finding joy.
You and I don’t expect to be happy in the midst of some problem. The car starts acting up, and the mechanic says it’s going to cost five hundred dollars to get it fixed. Or a major appliance breaks down. Or a family member suffers a broken bone or unexpected hospitalization. Mark’s family did not begin last week having any idea they would be spending time at Rainbow by the end of the week. Problems come when we least expect them. Problems don’t make us happy.
James is saying, however, that problems have a purpose. Problems stop us in our tracks. Problems keep us from thinking we can rely on ourselves and forces us to begin to trust more in God. Problems stretch the limits of our paltry faith and compel us to grow in character. Rick Warren compares believers to tea bags. We won’t know what’s inside us until we’re dropped in hot water. Through the problems we face we develop perseverance, find wisdom, and grow to maturity. That’s the joy, developing a stronger, more Christ-centered character.
James has clear reasons for writing, reasons that still make sense for us today. We too want to see the end result of joy despite current difficulties we face. We too need God’s wisdom to keep from giving up. We want to be thankful for ways God is using us for good purposes.
Anyone can be tempted to be discouraged in the face of trials, or feel compelled to give up. Perhaps you heard about the young woman who was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. She has made the decision to ingest a lethal medication on November 1, an action that is legal in Oregon where she now lives. She feels strongly that a person should be able to die with dignity and choose to end the pain and suffering that a terminal disease brings. I have a hard time with her decision, because though it may seem right given her circumstances, I think it could be easy to cross the line into suicide or playing God.
When we have a problem, we try to find a way past it – some coping mechanisms are helpful and others are harmful. One may abuse alcohol to dull the pain, go shopping to get a momentary lift, or get away on a vacation. James tells us that there is another solution. Seek the good and perfect gifts that come from God, because God’s foundation is solid, not like shifting shadows or passing light. God reveals these gifts through his word of truth, to shape us into becoming a model whereby others may be blessed. We can’t go through life without problems, so the wisdom we receive from God can be a help for others going through similar situations.
I say this by way of introduction, so we may see this morning’s scripture within the context of why he was writing. James is aware of the difficult circumstances of those being persecuted. He wants them to respond to instruction from God’s word, to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. Let us also see his words from the perspective of learning and applying scripture in our daily lives.
Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. What is this but that we should approach God’s word with a teachable spirit? When you open your Bible, be ready to receive whatever instruction God is wanting to give. Come eager to find some new nugget of truth that you may apply in your life. Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Last week we honored a number of members who have been a part of this church for fifty years or more. Then there are those of you who were a part of other churches before coming to this church, who have longevity of faith even if you worshiped in another church. But I think that this longevity can pose a problem. We can get too comfortable with what faith we have received and believe we have heard it all. For me, this is one reason I do not use lectionary scripture readings on a regular basis, lest we hear the parable of the prodigal son one more time and stop listening.
The truth is, you could read the same passage of scripture multiple times, and each time God would have a new insight for you if you were prepared to receive it. The problem is that too often we glaze over when reading the Bible. We have a dull spirit; we are not expecting anything from it so we receive nothing. Even worse is to leave the Bible gathering dust on the shelf! To be quick to listen is to be eager to hear what God has to say, to consider how it fits with what is going on in our lives, and being ready to apply these truths today. This what Jesus called hungering and thirsting for righteousness.
Remember that James is writing to encourage those going through difficult trials. He writes, “Be slow to anger.” Stop a minute and consider, who has not wanted to blame God when bad things happen? If you are a God of love, how could you let this tragedy happen? Anger closes our minds, shuts us out from hearing another perspective, and keeps us from receiving God’s word. It’s okay to tell God you’re upset about something, as long as you can also shut up and allow God some space to speak to you. Be slow to anger; cultivate calm in tough situations.
In verse 21 James uses some strong words when he advises his readers to come clean before God. He says to get rid of moral filth. It’s like doing a little gardening – if you are going to plant a seed, you have to do some weeding first. Get rid of the stuff that blocks you from receiving God’s truth, sort of like cleaning earwax out of your ears so you can hear better. It takes some courage and humility to admit your faults before God, but you will feel so much better afterwards. It’s like one of my Jewish friends who told me about Yom Kippur, their day of repentance and atonement. They spend the whole day not eating, so it is a tough day, but by the end of the day devoted to prayer and confession, he said how he feels refreshed and clean.
The word of God is alive and active, as it is written in Hebrews 4. It is sharper than any double-edge sword, penetrating to the deepest recesses of our being and exposing our innermost thoughts and desires. In the same way, Jeremiah writes of the Lord saying, “Is not my word like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” Isaiah says of the word of the Lord, that “It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Paul said in 1 Thessalonians that God’s word is at work in those who believe.
The picture scripture presents to us again and again is that God’s word is at work – in us, changing and molding us into God’s image. It is active and moving in the lives of those who are prepared to receive what God has to give. James says that God’s word cannot be like those who glance in a mirror, check out their reflection, and go merrily on their way. God’s word has no impact if it is easily forgotten. It cannot be active and moving in one who ignores it.
Think about it: the purpose of a mirror is to give us a picture of ourselves. How does my hair look? Do I have a piece of lettuce stuck in my teeth, or a smudge of mascara on my cheek? If we see something we don’t like, we fix it. In the same way that a mirror reflects what we’re like on the outside, God’s word is the mirror that reflects what is going on inside.
James is aware of the dangers of listening to the Word but failing to live it out. He reminds us to look intently at God’s word. Continue to do this. Don’t forget what you have heard, but keep doing it, because then you will be blessed in all you do. Don’t be afraid to tell God when you have messed up – confession is good for the soul. Clean it out, then fill it with what God has to say in scripture. Come to God in humility and submission to hear and obey his word. But then, don’t leave what you learned on the shelf – use it and live it. Be a reflection of the Lord in all you do and say. Maintain some control, because it is easier than we think to stray away from active and vibrant faith.
Read the Bible, James tells us, but then go out and live the Bible. Put God’s word in action. Amen.