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The Book of James Week 3
Life in A Time of Drought
James 1:19-27 September 26, 2021
As you well know, the Western US is in the midst of a drought that has left millions of acres vulnerable, and we’ve seen how a small spark can ignite massive destruction of forests, homes, and lives.
We’re also in a spiritual drought – leaving our world parched and vulnerable to destruction sparked by our reaction to today’s anxiety and fear.
By every conceivable measure, participation in faith communities has plummeted over the past twenty years.
Mainline churches have been in a steady decline since the 1960s, but now even evangelical churches – once thought immune to attendance decline – are losing members.
There are many reasons for this decline – one of which is that churches have lost credibility among former churchgoers by fanning social conflict, attacking LGBTQ people, and facing a long series of abuse and scandals.
Who would think of turning to a church to find authenticity, peace, or spiritual guidance?
So, for the first time in American history, when asked about religious affiliation, the most common answer given is “none”.
To put that in perspective, at the turn of the century “none, or no religious affiliation” was 8%, 13% in 2010, 21% in 2020, and some are estimating as high as 30% today.
What has replaced faith communities that teach morality and hold some measure of accountability is a mishmash of unmoored spirituality with no tested, transcendent truth, leaving each of us to discover our own truth and navigate our own way through life.
That’s a lonely place to be, so no surprise that most of us have attached ourselves to one social/political tribe or another that gives us an identity along with simplistic answers to the growing complexities of life.
Our land is spiritually parched and a small spark could set it all ablaze … and we see those blazes in marriages, among friends, on airplanes, and in demonizing our neighbors who hold different views from our own.
The Letter of James gives us two warnings for times like these … it’s a short, direct letter about how to conduct ourselves as Christians.
You remember that this letter was written by Jesus’ brother years before the gospels.
By the way – a little trivia test: What is the other book in the Bible attributed to another brother of Jesus?
James didn’t care much about the kind of theological debates that would later consume the church.
Rather, he was blunt and direct about how to live as Christians.
Reading James, I can’t help but remember Mark Twain’s famous words, “I am not as disturbed by those passages of the Bible that I don’t understand as I am by those that I do understand.”
James warns that we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are being faithful while actually acting out of integrity with the ways of Christ.
The world is full of deceivers and con artists who take advantage of our pride and our spiritual doubts … we want to believe, to have hope, to follow someone who seems so sure of their faith.
Televangelist Jim Bakker is still at it.
He and his televangelist wife Tammy Fay were at the center of several frauds, tax evasion, and sex scandals.
But we want to believe, and so when people saw his successful PTL TV enterprise and got swept up by the prophesies, testimonies and supposed miracles of his ministries, they believed in him.
Among other things, he sold $1,000 “lifetime memberships” in his Christian theme park, Heritage USA.
He promised tens of thousands of these members an annual three-night stay at the park’s luxury hotel, but he only built one 500-room hotel.
In addition, Bakker sold “exclusive partnerships” to investors, raising more than twice the money needed to build the hotel.
Bakker pocketed $3.4-million.
For years he dodged indictments, but eventually, he was convicted of multiple felonies but got his 45-year sentence reduced to eight years, after which he launched a new ministry.
Now 81-years old, through his Morningside Church platform Bakker was marketing colloidal silver supplements that he promised are a panacea for the treatment of COVID-19.
He was forced to stop such claims and refund tens of thousands of dollars in a settlement with the Missouri Attorney General a few months ago.
To those not caught up in the con, flimflam artists like Jim Bakker are easy to spot.
But James warns us that we can become victims of a more insidious con – a deception we play on ourselves.
To make his point, James used an illustration that needs a little explanation.
At the time, there was a spiritual practice of using a reflective surface to stare at our own image thinking that we could see into our own soul.
James 1:23-24 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.
So, James is saying that if we feel the Holy Spirit during a worship service, get an insight during prayer, or sense God speaking to us through scripture, but we don’t respond then we are like someone who caught a glimpse of their soul – their true self – but walked away unchanged.
He’s saying that feeling spiritual without changing our hearts, our attitudes, and our actions is merely conning ourselves into thinking we are faithful.
James 1:22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.
In today’s world of spiritual drought, we are especially on-edge and defensive and so our words, actions, and attitudes are magnified and multiplied as they ripple among our family and friends.
Let’s say you’ve attended worship and we’ve talked about forgiveness … forgiving yourself for ways you’ve messed up, and forgiving someone else for a wrong they did you.
Jesus talked a lot about forgiveness – it’s a core value – and so you learned that forgiveness is setting yourself free from regrets and resentments.
Holding onto resentments is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
But forgiveness is letting go of angry and destructive feelings that eat at you.
Anger is like an acid: the first thing it destroys is its container.
So, you forgive so that you can be free of what’s eating you – and along the way, those attitude changes show in all your other relationships as well.
Conversations with resentment might sound like this:
“He’s a rotten liar, I will never forgive him!”
“He is a cheating SOB and I will never trust again.”
“Look what he did to me? I can never forgive him!”
Repeating such messages over time creates a toxic internal reality that then spills over onto all your relationships.
Forgiveness can be tough, even beyond our ability … so Christ is standing by to give you guidance, strength and encouragement.
You learned this about Jesus’ teachings, but after church, you see a Facebook post from someone you haven’t spoken to because of a conflict you had a couple of years ago.
Here’s an opportunity to reach out to them, but instead you re-play your hurt, lick your wounds, rehearse your side of the story and so re-kindle your anger.
This is where James gets right in our face with his no-nonsense message.
Just like people were conned into believing in Jim Bakker’s many schemes, you are conning yourself into thinking you’re a faithful follower of Jesus – and James calls you out on it.
Maybe you can think of some hurt you have been holding onto.
Some harm was done to you, some gossip that wounded you.
You’ve got a choice.
Begin the process of letting go and forgiving, or allowing the resentment to fester; being burdened with anger, or living free from further harm from that person.
You know, that other person has moved on and may not even remember the harm they did you.
Maybe that person is even dead now.
But holding onto your anger – even if you are right to feel wronged – continues to give them power over you.
James insists that we be authentic and consistent with Jesus’ teaching … believing is doing.
James’ second warning is about the power of our words.
James 1:26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.
Maybe James was watching how even in these new Christian communities the same tongues that said “Hallelujah” during worship were later cutting down brothers and sisters out on the street.
Imagine for a moment what it must have been like for James, growing up with Jesus and having to imagine the torment of his brother’s execution, but then finding some converts living like none of that mattered.
They broke bread together, but then went off bragging about themselves, putting others down behind their backs, bullying people around, or spreading rumors.
This is what he wrote:
James 3:9-10 With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women He made in His image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth! My friends, this can’t go on.
Blunt as always, James is saying: If you can’t keep control of your tongue, then your religion is totally worthless … if you think otherwise, you’ve just conned yourself again.
There is not a calculator powerful enough to track all the families, businesses, churches, synagogues, and marriages that have been wounded or destroyed because someone said hurtful things.
And this is especially true today when so many of us are frustrated, afraid, and on edge.
James 3:5-6 A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!
It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.
God wants our voice for praise, and also to encourage others.
You’ll never build someone up by putting them down.
Max Lucado has given a lot of thought to this topic and the kinds of environments that our words create.
He vividly experienced this during a half-Ironman triathlon.
After his 1.2-mile swim and the 56-mile bike ride, he didn’t have much energy left for the 13.1-mile run, nor did the young man jogging next to him.
Lucado asked him how he was doing and soon regretted posing the question.
“This stinks. This race is the dumbest decision I’ve ever made.”
Lucado says he had more complaints than a taxpayer at the IRS.
He writes, “I know if I listened too long, I’d start agreeing with him.”
As he pushed on, he caught up with a 66-year-old grandmother.
As she noticed his fatigue, her tone was just the opposite.
“You’ll finish this,” she encouraged.
“It’s hot, but at least it’s not raining. One step at a time…don’t forget to hydrate…stay in there.”
He says he ran next to her until his heart was lifted and his legs were aching, but he finally had to slow down. “No problem,” she called as she waved and kept going.
Our words are powerful … they can create peace among others, and an inner world of peace within ourselves as well.
James says that a sure sign of a person maturing in their faith is that they can hold their tongue when tempted to slander, gossip or attack, and the use their tongue when called to care, encourage, and comfort.
We aren’t perfect, but what happens is that as strive for holiness we grow by God’s grace.
The polarized, COVID world we find ourselves in has raised all of our stress levels … which puts a special call on us to act and speak as people transformed by our faith.
One day, each of us is going to stand before God and give an account of our lives.
We’re not going to be judged by our successes or our failures, by how often we attended church or how many Bible verses we memorized.
We will be judged how we grew in love – how we grew in caring for others, encouraging others, giving sacrificially to others … and how we overcame the regrets, shame, and resentments of life.
As James would say, we will be accountable for not just being hearers of the Word, but for being doers of the word as well.
As your pastor, I want all of us to stand before God and hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”