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The Book of James Week 1
A Life of Integrity, Wisdom, and Joy
James 1:1-4; 12-16 Pastor Roger Barkley
August 29, 2021
I am excited that the Lectionary suggests passages from the Letter of James for the next several weeks.
First, because these are some of the first words put into writing by the earliest Christian communities and predating any of the canonical Gospels.
Largely uncontaminated by later church dogma and politics, this is an unfiltered voice of the early community of Christians.
And it was written while memories were still fresh about the essential, raw, message of Jesus.
James wrote this letter about the same time that Paul was writing to new churches in Greece and Asia, but this one originated from the Jerusalem church itself and was addressed to congregations everywhere.
James 1:1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.
Second, we are eavesdropping on the teachings of a leader whose word and authority were respected throughout these scattered communities.
Why was he so respected?
Because the most likely author was James, the brother of our Lord.
Matthew 13:55 lists him as the oldest of Jesus’ brothers.
Now let that sink in for a moment.
Reading this letter is like sitting across the table from someone who knew Jesus from the time he was a child, who played in the dirt with Jesus, who shared daily chores and meals with Jesus, who tattle tailed on Jesus as a kid – we don’t have anything else like that in scripture.
To be clear, some scholars argue that this is a different James – someone equally respected, and from the same Jerusalem church as Jesus’ brother – but even if they are correct, the essential meaning and credibility of this letter are the same.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 that after his resurrection, Jesus specifically appeared to James.
We know that there was family disapproval of Jesus’ ministry, but after this appearance his brother James changed course.
And finally, this letter is a down-to-earth, “How To” guide about daily life as a Christian.
James spends little time “theologizing” – he offers no Christology, no theories about why Jesus had to die, no explanations of what the Resurrection means.
Rather, it is like he is saying to us, “Look. I know Jesus … I grew up with him, and I now am experiencing a community filled with his living presence.
“I’ve learned from my brother about how to live a life filled with integrity and joy no matter what problems or temptations I face.”
Before we begin, we’ve got to understand three truths – assumptions – essential to James.
First is that God alone is the provider of all good and perfect gifts.
James 1:17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights,
We’ve done nothing to deserve this life or its many blessings, they all come from God, and God’s joy in giving us these blessings never wavers.
He concludes verse 17 who does not change like shifting shadows.
Kerstynn loves Wyatt even when he makes a mess of his room or throws food on the floor. She may get frustrated, but she always delights in him, just as God delights in you.
The third truth is that James understands that the universe is divided by competing claims of God’s realm above and the worldly realm below.
God’s realm is constantly challenged by the powers and principalities of the world with its alluring but deceiving promises.
James says that we have the knowledge and ability from God to choose where we will place our allegiance, but he warns that Satan himself is always trying to seduce us away.
James 4:7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
For James, the most urgent and pressing issue we face is whether to follow the wisdom of the world which inevitably leads to corruption, discord and violence; or the wisdom from above which puts us in harmony with God’s blessings and leads to a life of joy.
James presses that we have to choose because we cannot have divided loyalties.
You can’t be a “spiritual yoyo”, going to church and praying on Sundays, but pursuing wealth and status on Mondays.
James 3:11 Can both fresh water and saltwater flow from the same spring?
James says we perpetuate an atmosphere of discord and dissatisfaction within our own souls, and in our community as long as we waver back and forth.
Have you ever had something unexpectedly good come your way and you’re all, “Praise the Lord! Thank you, Jesus.”
But when bad comes along, you’re all “God has really let me down this time. I don’t even know why I read the Bible or waste my precious time going to church.”
Living that way, we are emotionally up or down depending on the circumstances that come our way.
But James says, “Say ‘yes’ to God unconditionally, and then you will find Him with you through things that feel good and through things that feel bad.”
God uses all our trials to help us persevere in our trust in God, which then matures our faith.
As a matter of fact, he opens his letter this way:
James 1:2-3 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any sort, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.
First, notice that James wrote whenever you face trials of any sort (he didn’t say “if” you face trials, but “when” you face trials.)
And see that he said, trials of any sort.
Lack of money; failing health; a troubled relationship; a personal betrayal – there is joy to be found in any situation.
Of course, it’s sometimes hard to find joy in a hardship.
You know that Vivienne and I recently had to push her son out of the shed that we’d provided for him during the COVID shut down.
Can you imagine how hard that is for parent to do to their son?
And it was made worse because after he left, we found that he’d left a disgusting, putrid mess behind, that he’d damaged several expensive things, and that he had stolen at least one valuable.
Did we say, “Oh thank you Jesus that he’s still using drugs”?
“Thank you, Jesus, that we are heartbroken that he didn’t take advantage of our gift to get clean and a job”
“Thank you, Jesus, that we were ripped off?”
No. It feels really rotten.
But because we’ve been looking for the joy in all that happened, we can say that we feel really good that we provided him a safe place, good meals and encouragement during the long COVID stay-at-home time.
And we feel good that we kept him safe for all those months.
He chose not to use those gifts, but that’s his sad choice.
But we feel good that we did the right thing.
And we find real joy in having our house back, too!
But James the brother of Jesus says look for the joy in any sort of trial.
James 1:12 Blessed is the person who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
Of course, this only makes sense as we understand that God has a bigger plan for us than our comfort.
God is more interested in developing our character than our comfort.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
A raw opal often starts out looking like a rough piece of sandstone, but as the hands of a craftsman work the surface with abrasives and polishing rags, a deep, multi-color luster emerges.
When we place God in charge of our life – He transforms us from a rough state to a person of spiritual beauty.
I think that if these lessons were offered by Tony Robbins or some other motivational speaker, that I might say, “Bull. It’s fine to see the glass half full, but you have no idea what I am going through.”
But as James was writing this, he and his whole community were under attack from Jewish authorities, the Romans and divisions within his own movement.
Yet because of his closeness with God, he was able to find joy in these trials.
You’ve heard me many times say, “God can use what He did not choose.”
If I trust Him, God will work with my trials transformatively for my good.
God never wastes a pain.
But the Bible also says that sometimes God actually brings us challenges for our own good.
Psalm 66:10 For You, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver.
That’s a hard one to accept, but sometimes God will take us where we don’t want to go so that we can grow.
Haven’t you had experiences that were so painful at the time that maybe you didn’t think you could get through them, but you look back and see the fingerprints of God all over the experience?
Maybe God needed to teach you how to love or forgive – maybe even for some plan He has for you down the road – and so He took you to hurtful experiences where you can learn the lessons you would need.
But regardless of the cause, if we don’t trust God is with us, then the devil will try to intervene and use these painful times to trip us up.
That’s when the devil plays with our head … he’ll tell us that we are not up to the task.
Like Job’s wife, he’ll tempt us to curse God.
Or he’ll tempt us to return to old habits or unhealthy behaviors that we thought we had outgrown a long time ago … in other words, he will try to derail us from what God is trying to do for our good.
Now, here’s another point James makes.
Trials may sometimes come from God for our own good, but never temptations.
James 1:13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone;
You feel tempted to have an affair, tempted to unleash anger at someone, tempted to cheat on your expense account … those temptations did not come from God because God will never guide you toward evil.
James 1:14-15 but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
I remember someone coming to my office to confess some lustful thoughts they were having about a colleague.
This person was married and became really bothered by the sexual temptation he was feeling.
I told this person that thoughts are not sins – they’re just thoughts.
As a matter of fact, it is recognizing the temptations that could lead to sin that shows the presence of God.
That’s a lesson I got from C.S. Lewis: “It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us; it is the very sign of His presence.”
This is really important: temptations are not sin.
How you respond to temptation can be sin – but thoughts of temptation are just thoughts.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t manage our thoughts, but sometimes angry, lustful, even violent thoughts may come to your mind.
You may wonder, “Where did that come from?”
You may think, “I thought I had come so far on my Christian journey and here I am thinking this vindictive thought.
“I thought I was at a Masters’s level of Christianity, but this is the fantasy of a kindergarten Christian.”
Well, don’t be discouraged.
Everyone is tempted by every conceivable sin.
1 Corinthians 10:13a No temptation has seized you except what is common to everyone.
You are no different from anyone else … but you choose whether to engage in your temptation and turn it into a sin.
Even Jesus was tempted:
Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.
If the devil would tempt the Son of God, why would we think he’d be particularly impressed by our credentials?
You know what is the best way to overcome temptation?
It is to praise God.
Try saying, “I know that this destructive or lustful impulse is not from God. I know my vindictive fantasy is not from God.”
Try saying, “I praise God for His promise to be faithful and to give me the strength to not give in to this temptation.
“I praise God for providing a way out.”
The devil hates it when you praise God.
So, look, trials will come – we just choose whether to bring God into the picture.
James 1:3-4 testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.am
And temptations of all sorts will bubble up within all of us at times,
but temptations are never from God who promises to give us the strength to overcome any temptation so that we can live lives of integrity and joy.