September 9, 2012
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE BEST WAY TO LIVE
What word combination is found most frequently at the beginning of a book’s title? What two words? “How to . . .” There are endless “how to” books in print. If you want to become a published author, a “how to” book is probably your best bet. Although you would find yourself in competition with some of the following more memorable books in this category: How to be Pope, How to Start Your Own Country, How to Defeat Your Own Clone, How to Speak Cat, and How to Survive a Robot Uprising.
We’re going to begin today a series on a “how to” book found in the Bible. It’s called James. They weren’t into marketing books back then to make people want to read them, but if they had been this little book might have been given the title, How to Live a Christian Life. It’s one of the most practical books in the Bible. It’s also one of the easiest to read. It won’t take you long. Depending on the way the print is laid out in your Bible, it can be as few as three and as many as six pages. President Obama’s acceptance speech was much longer.
The first thing I’m going to ask you to do before you come back next Sunday is to read the book of James. Even if you’ve read it before, read it again. I’m often asked, where’s the best place for a new Christian to begin to read the Bible? The book of James is an excellent place. It’s also an excellent place for those of us who have been Christians for a few years.
It’s possible that James was written by the brother of Jesus. There’s been a lively debate in scholarly circles about this for centuries. We can’t be sure, but it’s entirely possible that the author of this book was the same James who Paul refers to in Galatians as “the Lord’s brother” (1:19).
Now, just as an aside, can you imagine what it would have been like to have Jesus as your brother? Some of you have had a hard time living up to the accolades of an older brother or sister. Your teachers remembered how well they did and expected you to do the same. You think you had it bad. Poor James. No matter how hard he tried, he could never be Jesus.
You can trace in the Bible a remarkable transformation in the life of James. Early on, he doesn’t even believe his own brother’s claims. He’s on the side of those who thought his brother was crazy. But eventually he came around. He became one of the key leaders of the early church. We can’t be sure he wrote this book, but if he did it’s fascinating to think that here is one who knew Jesus as well as anyone possibly could have known him, telling us how to be a follower of Jesus. And in the very first verse, isn’t it interesting that if the author really was the brother of Jesus, he doesn’t wear that as a badge of honor? He simply identifies himself as, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1).
This practical book begins with the most practical of subjects. Every one of us can relate. He talks about trials. When things don’t go the way you want them to go in your life. Has that ever happened to you? Of course it has. As wonderful as life can be, no life comes without plenty of hard stuff we wish we didn’t have to face but we do. Everyone does. Even Christians. If you want to be a Christian because you think Christians don’t have any problems, you’d better find another reason to be a Christian.
What’s different about Christians is not the problems we face but the attitude we bring to those problems. James says, “Count it all joy when you meet various trials” (1:2). Maybe that’s the origin of our saying, “Oh joy”, when something bad happens. It’s a little counterintuitive to connect our trials and tribulations with joy. You might say it’s a little sick. “We enjoy the pain. Bring on more!”
But that’s not it at all. The attitude Christians bring to the hard things that face us in life is that hard as they are and much as we’d rather not face them, God is at work through these challenges to make us better people. There’s a silver lining in even the darkest cloud.
I had a kidney stone attack earlier this week. Mercifully, it didn’t last long, but while it lasted it was not much fun. I would not characterize it as a spiritual experience while it was happening. But afterwards I could look back and see some good things. Some God things. I was reminded through the ordeal of what a terrific wife I have as she took care of her big baby. I was more appreciative of the simple daily blessing of being pain free. Also, my sensitivity to those who face trials far worse than my little blip on the radar screen was heightened. And not only that, I was given a sermon illustration.
I don’t think God placed that kidney stone in my system to give me these things. I don’t think God is the one who orchestrates the problems that come into our lives each day. In fact, it says here specifically, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted of God’” (1:13). God doesn’t get off on poking us with a sharp stick to watch us squirm. But we tend to blame God. Or blame others. That one goes back as far as Adam and Eve. Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent.
Sometimes someone else is to blame, but not nearly as often as we like to tell ourselves. Most problems we face we bring on ourselves. We have no one to blame but ourselves. And those problems we didn’t bring on ourselves and that we can’t pin on others are not therefore God’s fault. Sometimes bad things just happen and it’s nobody’s fault. But the point is that it doesn’t matter whose fault it is. God can still bring good out of it. In fact, the only thing that can keep God from bringing good out of the bad is our attitude. So “count it all joy”. Look upon it with eyes that see God at work for good even when you find yourself in a situation that seems nothing but bad.
The first “how to” in this “How to Live a Christian Life” book:
(1) Face your trials with a positive, hopeful attitude.
We come next to a dominant theme that runs through all five chapters of James. “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (1:22). In other words, Christians are known by their actions. Actions speak louder than words. “They’ll know we are Christians by our love”.
That sounds obvious enough, but actually James beats this drum so hard and so loud that it almost kept this little book out of the Bible. There was a huge debate in the early church that we can see evidence of here and there through the pages of the New Testament. It was pretty well agreed that Jesus came to restore the relationship with God that our sin had destroyed. What the early Christians couldn’t agree on was how this happens. Is it by our being good people and doing good things? In other words, by earning it. Or is it by the grace of God? In other words, it’s a gift. We couldn’t possibly earn it. When Jesus died on that cross our sins died on that cross with him and all we have to do is accept that by faith.
This was the big faith vs. works debate. It was settled decidedly in the early church on the side of faith. The key verse is Ephesians 2:8-9. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest anyone should boast.” And yet James writes as if he didn’t get the memo that the debate was over. “Faith by itself, if it has no works is dead . . . You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:17, 24). Which is pretty much the opposite of what Paul said in Romans: “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (3:23-24).
As so, since James was so out of step with the majority view, his book almost didn’t make the cut. It almost ended up on the cutting room floor along with books like Thomas and Polycarp and The Shepherd of Hermas. But I believe the Holy Spirit was at work in these decisions long ago. The emphasis on actions that we find in James more than anywhere else was needed to make the Bible complete. It’s good to know we don’t have to do a thing for God’s love to come into our lives. But it’s important to know that once God’s love has come into our lives we don’t just sit back and enjoy that wonderful feeling. We get up and we put our faith into action.
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like” (1:22-24).
This little passage from James inspired a Michael Jackson song. It inspired a series of discipleship books for men. Man in the Mirror. Woman in the Mirror. Who do you see when you stand in front of a mirror? Some of us like to dim the light because otherwise we see more evidence than we want to see that we are getting older. Mirrors don’t lie. Mirrors tell us what we really look like, not what we wish we looked like. But that face we see in the mirror is not the whole truth about who we are. It’s only the flesh and blood person that the Bible tells us is passing away. The Bible tells us that we’re more than that flesh and blood. So when we look in the mirror, are we seeing our true selves? Well, yes and no. There’s a deeper self, a more real self, a self that will survive after your body is gone, that you can’t see by look in a mirror.
Is it even possible to see this inner spiritual self? Yes it is. But we don’t see it in a mirror. We see it in a book. We see it in the Bible. We see it in the “perfect law” or the “implanted word”, as James puts it. What that means is that as we see in the Bible God’s ideal for what our lives might be, we see also what our lives look like in comparison. It’s not a very flattering picture. As we look at the life of Jesus as he comes alive for in the pages of the Bible, we see how far we fall short. Kind of like James who had the misfortune of being born into a family with an older brother who could do no wrong. Here’s how the hymn puts it: “Dear Jesus, in whose life I see all that I would but fail to be, let thy clear light forever shine, to shame and guide this life of mine.”
Here’s what James says happens to us all too often when we see the spiritual truth about ourselves in the Bible. We turn away and pretend we didn’t see what we just saw. We wouldn’t do that with a physical mirror. We wouldn’t see a smudge across our face and then walk away and go about our day without cleaning it off. But that’s just what we do when we see ourselves in God’s Word. We close the book and go about our lives and try not to think about that smudge God says is all over our spiritual faces.
God’s Word tells us there is spiritual cleansing just as surely as there is physical cleansing when you stand at your sink in front of your mirror. God’s Word shows us how far we fall short of God’s ideal. But that’s just half of the story. God’s Word also shows us what is possible. Because as we see in Christ “all that we would but fail to be”, we see also in Christ the remedy for that. Christ doesn’t just shame us. Christ also heals us and empowers us. “If anyone be in Christ, he or she is a new creation. The old has passed away. All things have become new” (II Cor 5:17). We are sinners. The Bible makes that abundantly clear. But we aren’t condemned to be stuck forever in those sins. The Bible is just as clear about that. When Jesus Christ comes into a life and lives in that life and reigns over that life, the possibilities for what might be are endless.
You look in the mirror. You see the same face you saw yesterday except one day older. But that’s not all there is to see. Our outer nature may be wasting away, as Paul reminds us. Thanks Paul. But Paul continues: “our inner nature is being renewed every day” (II Cor 4:16). That face in the mirror isn’t just getting older. It is getting more Christlike. It is getting more Christlike to the degree you are letting Christ in and giving Christ control over your life. “So it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
We can put the mirror down now and ask ourselves what this new life in Christ looks like. And James gives us a very clear, very simple picture. The new life in Christ is love in action. It is being a doer of the Word and not a hearer only. It may seem close to that heresy of works righteousness that almost kept James out of the Bible. But it really isn’t close at all. For it is no longer I doing these good works. It is Christ who lives in me. To him be the glory.
And so, we have the second and third “how to’s” in this “How to Live a Christian Life” book: (2) Receive Christ into your heart by faith. And, (3) Put your faith into action.
This is the best way to live. This is what new life in Christ looks like. Love in action. And then James gets a little more specific as he closes this chapter. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (1:27).
That’s James 1:27, by the way. There’s a pastor inDenverwho has organized what he calls Project 1:27. His name is Robert Gelinas. He delivered a challenge to the 1,500 churches in theDenverarea. There were 875 children at the time who were needing homes in theColoradofoster care system. His challenge was that these churches commit to legally adopting 10% of these. Just under 90 orphans. That these churches respond in love according to that verse of scripture, James 1:27.
One obvious obstacle was the ability of families who might want to adopt to be able to afford to adopt. So Project 1:27 called for three to five families to come alongside every one family willing to adopt.
The challenge was accepted and amazing things began to happen. One family who couldn’t adopt pledged to buy bunk beds for every family that did. Someone else said he would finish basements at no cost. Another person started college funds. Not everyone could adopt, but everyone could help. And a whole lot of Christians inDenverdid.
Since Project 1:27 started, 136 children have been adopted. An additional 71 have been placed in families where the adoption process is underway. And there are 163 more families lined up and waiting to be part of this project. Some Christian people inDenverhad read what James had written about “How to Live a Christian Life”. And they weren’t hearers of the word only. They were doers.
Let’s close with a short video that tells the story of Project 1:27.
Dear God, we pray for widows and for orphans. We pray for all those who are carrying more than their share of the trials and tribulations of life. And we pray for those who are stepping forward to respond in love. This “Project 1:27” inColorado, may you continue to bless it and bless each life it is touching. And God, open our hearts to opportunities all around us to put love into action. Not because we’re great people but because you’re a great God. Keep working on those spiritual smudges that we all wear, so one day, we can look in the mirror and see in that mirror a reflection of you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.