Current Live Weather

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Mercy Triumphs

 A sermon based upon James 2: 1-13

By Charles J. Tomlin, DMin;

September 19th, 2021, Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Series: The Book of James, 4/12

 

James 2:1–13 (NRSV)

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

 

During a weekend revival meeting, as the service was starting, a young man with long, unkempt hair and worn-out clothing came into the sanctuary.  As he walked to the front to take his seat you could practically hear people mumbling about either his hair in particular, or his dress in general.

      Not long after the service began, people where shocked when the worship leader called the young man forward to play the piano.  For the next several minutes the entire congregation was mesmerized by his musical gifts and talents.  After the service concluded, people were crowding him and praising him.  No one seemed to notice his hair or his choice of clothing any longer.  It was now all about his talent. 

What happened in that church service is common in human communities and churches too.   We humans are quick to make judgments or become prejudiced.    It was so obvious in James situation that he felt he had to address the matter.   In fact, James comes close to questioning the validity of their Christian faith.

           

DO YOU REALLY BELIEVE?

     James picks up where he left off earlier writing about those who deceive themselves by hearing the word without doing it (1: 22).   When faith does not lead to action, he says, you end up with a religion that is worthless (26).   This is why James questioned so intensely: Is your faith real?  Do you really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? Are we worshipping the same Jesus?  James seldom invoke the name of Jesus but he does here.   

     What disturbed James so much were certain acts of favoritism that were taking place in the church.   He saw this as a distinct violation of the royal law of Scripture.  By royal law James means a part of the law that holds the rest of the law together.   If you fail to follow the law in this one point, he explains, you have failed in every other part of it too (vs. 10).   That is a profoundly serious charge, is it not?

         This royal law James refers to is expressed most clearly in the book of Leviticus.   Although Leviticus is filled with ancient rules and regulations intended for priests, we also find there some critical teachings that go straight to the heart of who the people of God are supposed to be.   As Leviticus 19 opens,  the people are called to be holy, as the LORD God is holy.   This call to holiness dominates the details of Leviticus 19 and some scholars suggest that James was holding the Leviticus scroll open before him when he referred what he named royal law which Jesus named part of the greatest commandment that says you shall love your neighbor, as yourself (vs18).   Just before this law above all other laws, it also says:   You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor (19:15-16).         

What Leviticus forbade is what James saw happening around him.    As he graphically describes in our text, the people were showing favoritism to the rich and well-dressed in a way that they were putting the poor among them at a great disadvantage.  Seeing this grave discrimination, James questions Do you really believe in our glorious Lord?’

In the New Testament, such questioning of the authenticity of faith often happens in conjunction with economic injustice.  It was that way in the teaching of Jesus. Just recall Jesus scorching parable in Luke 16 about the rich man who died and went to hell and the poor man Lazarus, who also died and was resting in the bosom of Abraham.  In the same spirit Jesus warned how hard it is for those who are wealthy and rich to enter the kingdom (Matt. 19:23).  When it comes to Paul, who can forget the most quoted warning of Paul, where he wrote to Timothy saying: For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil; it is through their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains (1 Tim. 6:10).   

As we consider series warnings like this, we immediately understand where James was coming from.    It is through the eagerness to be rich that not only are the rich preferred, but the poor are misjudged and discriminated against.   In other words, following the logic of Paul, James knows that the desire and love for money corrupts human love and relationships.    When we crave riches, we fail to learn contentment (Phil. 4:11) and without contentment, we do not desire godliness (1 Tim. 6:6ff.) and without a desire to for godliness, we can succumb to temptation and become trapped in the snare of senseless and hurtful desires which can bring ruin and destruction (1 Tim. 6:9).      

The late pastor, Ray Stedman said that the proof that riches are deceiving is in the truth ‘that we came into the world with nothing, and we can take nothing out of it.  Think about it.  What do we have when we are born?  Nothing. We come into the world a little red-faced, squally, naked baby. We do not have anything; even our diaper has to be furnished. What do we have when we leave this world?  Nothing. We leave it all behind.  We take nothing with us in death, not even our bodies.    Pastor Stedman went on to describe how he once picked up a young hitchhiker.  As he was telling about himself, the Hitchhicker said, "My uncle died a millionaire."

The pastor answered, "No, he didn't."

"What do you mean?" the young Hitchhiker asked. "You don't know my uncle."  

Dr Stedman countered: "Well, who's got the million now?"  

"Oh," the Hitchhiker said, "I see what you mean."   

The pastor was right.  Nobody dies a millionaire. We all die paupers; we leave it all behind.

So, if riches are so deceiving, why are so many people fooled?   Why do we feel drawn to the rich and famous in ways that can cause us to favor the wealthy who don’t need us and to overlook our human and Christian responsibilities toward the poor who do?   

 

YOU HAVE DISHONORED THE POOR

     This favoritism toward the rich and total disregard for the poor makes no sense in a church that claims to follow a Jesus who had no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58).   James reminds his readers that since it is the rich who oppress them, who hold all the power, and who have almost no reverence for God, the rich do not deserve to be favored at church.   This would only reveal that now, the church itself is negating the riches of faith which God freely gives to the poor (2:5).  

Where did James get an idea like this, that God gives most freely to the poor?   Interestingly, James was not only getting his perspective about this sin of economic and spiritual partiality (v. 9) from Leviticus, but he is also getting it from Jesus.  James is echoing a statement Jesus once gave to his dinner host:

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14: 12-14).

In this advice, Jesus revealed why God favors the poor.  It is not because God loves the poor more than the rich, but it is because the rich, through their love for money, exclude themselves from the riches God has to give   This is clarified further in the parable Jesus tells next about a man who gave a great dinner and invited lots of people in the town.   Unfortunately, most everyone declined his invitation because they were already preoccupied. 

However, since the dinner was already prepared the host sent his servant to go out on the streets to invite the crippled, the blind and the lame.  Those are the ones who come because they were in need of the attention and were free to accept his invitation.  After these guests arrived and since there was still room at the table, the host of the banquet sent his servants out once again, but this time they are told to go out on the roads and lanes and to compel even more people to come and fill his house (Lk 14:23).   The point that Jesus is making is simple:  God has so much to offer and gives freely and abundantly to anyone, but it is only those who are open to the invitation who actually receive the offer.  Unfortunately, the healthy and the wealthy often miss the banquet of love because their hearts are already preoccupied as they think they have something better to do.

         This parable from Jesus helps us understand the problem James saw in his church.   By preferring and distinguishing the rich, the people of God were missing the party of faith, hope, and love, because they dishonored and neglected the poor.  While no one knows the exact economic situation of that time, what James saw happening can still happen.   Not only are the poor still being dishonored and neglected, the rich and wealthy, along with those still being lured by the riches of this world, still miss sharing in the kingdom of love that is rich in faith (2:5).

         Back in 1987, Teresa and I visited the Mounte Horbe Brazilian church, located in one of the poorest areas of Sao Paulo.  While visiting many of the members and exploring the city, we encountered a kind of poverty we had never experienced in our lives.   We found people living in one room concrete structures.   We visited a school where sewage ran in the middle of the street.  We even stepped over orphaned children, sleeping on newspaper lying on sidewalks of city streets.   We were even offered a child to bring home ourselves, but laws made it an impossible task.   But in that most impoverished city, the atmosphere of worship and fellowship in the church and the Christian community was electrifying and captivating.  They were a church filled with the crippled, the blind, and the lame, and they had surely accepted the invitation to the table of faith, hope, and love.  

 

MERCY ...OVER JUDGEMENT

         When it comes to being rich in faith (v. 5), fulfilling the royal law of love (v.8), especially when it comes to honoring (v. 8) and showing mercy (v.13) to the poor in the world (v. 5), James concludes his warning about unjust partiality and playing favorites at church with a reminder of our human accountability to both the written and to the unwritten law of God.  

         As to the law of God, James says whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point, has become accountable for all of it (v. 10).  Now that sounds like a very stiff, strict, and seemingly unjust enforcement of law, does it not?  How can God hold a person accountable for breaking all the law when they have only broken one law?   Is this fair? 

Well, it would not be fair if the law were just about laws, but that is certainly not the case.   In the Bible, the law is never only about the law itself, but it is about fulfilling the intent of the law.   This is how a single law is always related ever other law.   All the laws of God are always connected to the greatest law, which James refers to as the royal law—the law (or should we say the spirit of the law) that holds all the rest of the law together.   To clarify this, James renames this royal law (v.8) as the law of liberty (v. 12); a law that liberates.  This royal law of love is now expressed as the law that can both holds us accountable but also frees and liberates us for life and living too.  

 Following this progression of law to love and liberation, we should now understand even more fully how the royal law of love holds us all accountable.   The law of God holds us all accountable in how we show mercy to others (v. 13).  By showing mercy, especially as we show mercy toward those who need it most, we are being accountable to all the law. 

Everything James has against showing favoritism is remedied in how we show mercy---in how mercy triumphs; mercy wins!   Do you see it?  James ends in a most typical Hebrew way of expressing wisdom with both a warning and a blessing--two sides of the same coin of liberating love. 

As a warning James reminds us that if we pass judgement in ways that goes against or neglects others, we are only hurting ourselves.  In other words, when we show no mercy, we receive no mercy.   The unwritten law we live by is the law that judges us. 

On the other hand, James offers a blessing to anyone who would show mercy.  To those who are merciful; God will be merciful.   This is implied throughout Scripture and is most simply expressed as what you give is what you get.   In this James echoes Jesus in Luke 6: 37 "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back." (Lk. 6:37-38 NRS).

Again, when we show mercy, we are being judged by the law of liberty (v.12).   That sounds strange, but by overcoming our human tendency to play favorites and express negative prejudice against others, everyone wins---the poor win, the rich win---the law wins, and of course, mercy wins.   And because mercy wins, everyone is winner!   Do you like the sound of that?   

Surprisingly, however, some people still do not like to hear about mercy.  Some people take joy in a world where some lose and others win; were a few have everything, and many are left with too little.   But in the coming kingdom of God—a kingdom that is still coming—this kind favoritism or partiality will not work. 

Years ago, in the West Indies, what now is known as the United States territory of the Virgin Islands, Lutheran Missionaries ministered to the Danish landlords who ruled the islands.  One of the missionary pastors saw that the Danish were only serving the white people.  The missionary pastor asked, "What of the Negro slaves in the fields?  Who ministers to them?"  He was told, "If you want to preach to them, go out into the fields where they work.  We don't want them in our church."  The pastor did so, and today large Lutheran congregations in the Virgin Islands testify to the pioneer missionary pastor who went into the fields and into the slaves quarters to preach the freedom and hope that Christ brings. 

In this story we see judgement at its worst—in prejudice, oppression and slavery.  But we also see mercy at its best—with promise, justice and liberation.  Life fills up every day with countless opportunities to have mercy on others. Sometimes we may be challenged to take a stand on an issue of social justice.  We all have opportunities to encourage someone who has been dealt a raw deal in life.   The grace of God shown toward us should enable us to share and show grace to others and to have mercy on our neighbor.

Dr. Paul Brand,  a former missionary surgeon wrote: “During my life as a missionary surgeon in India and now as a member of the tiny chapel on the grounds of the Carville leprosy hospital, I have seen my share of unlikely seekers after God.  And I must admit that most of my worship in the last thirty years has not taken place among people who have shared my tastes in music, speech, or even thought.  But over those years I have been profoundly -- and humbly -- impressed that I find God in the faces of my fellow worshipers by sharing with people who are shockingly different from each other and from me.”

Out of much the same kind of experience of  appreciating and trying to understand, C. S. Lewis recounted that when he first started going to church he disliked the hymns, which he considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.   But as he continued going to church, he said, "I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren't fit to clean those boots.  That gets you out of your solitary conceit”

Folks, our scripture text is clear.   As believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, we will not show favoritism or remain prejudiced against others.  True faith in Jesus Christ leaves no room for favoritism, partiality or discrimination.  The only way God works among humans in this world is when everyone gets a chance to win.   This means you and will get a chance to win too.  When we live in in liberating love of mercy, we will win and cannot lose.  We win because the mercy that flows out of the royal law can save us all.      Amen.

 

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Doers of the Word...

 A sermon based upon James 1: 19-27

By Charles J. Tomlin, DMin;

September 12th, 2021, Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Series: The Book of James, 3/12

 

James 1:19–27 (NRSV): You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 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.

22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 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.

26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

 

     There is an old joke about five men in an airplane: the pilot, a lawyer, the smartest man in the world, a pastor, and a Boy Scout. They were flying along when the plane started to lose power. Noticing that there were only four parachutes, the pilot grabbed a parachute and jumped out.

     Now with only three left, the lawyer said, “Without me, the world would be dull.” So he grabs a parachute and jumps out.

      Then the smartest man in the world stood up and said, “I can’t imagine what the world would be like without me.” So he grabs a parachute and jumps out.

     The pastor turns to the Boy Scout and says, “Son, I’ve lived my life and I know where I’m going, so you go ahead and take the last parachute.”

     The Boy Scout replied, “No, we can both go. The smartest man in the world took my backpack!”

      The moral of that story, I guess, is that just because you think you are smart, doesn’t mean you know everything.

     Our text from James is concerned about believers who think they are ‘smart’ in being Christians, but they are missing something very important.  In fact, just like in the funny story, they have ‘jumped’ into life but are still missing ‘the power’ that can ‘save their souls’ (v.21).

 

YOU MUST UNDERSTAND THIS…

     James begins by declaring what his readers are missing and must understand.  It’s is a specific form of moral righteousness.  This righteousness is should being growing out of their faith, but it’s evidently not.  Instead they are growing in wickedness.  He describes this wickedness as a verbal, outspoken anger.  Instead of being humble in their faith and having patience with others, God’s people have become overbearing, prideful, and even downright filthy in their attitude and talk.   We will see later that this was a growing favoritism toward the rich which prejudiced some against the poor among them.    

     To James this apparent flaw in their personal ethics proved how they have ‘grabbed’ the wrong understanding of faith.  Recently I received an advertisement about a book entitled, The Unsaved Christian.  Sounds contradictory and oxymoronic, doesn’t it?  How can you be a Christian, if you aren’t saved?  Well, as most of us know, this isn’t a new warning.  Its been around ever since Jesus also warned,  Not every one who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will ‘enter the kingdom’ (Matthew 7:21). 

Through the centuries, Christians have constantly been warned not to confuse religiosity for salvation.  In the book about the UNSAVED CHRISTIANS, the author was particularly discussing the difference between a being a cultural Christian and a committed Christian—between a person who believes in Jesus, goes to church and who does few good deeds, with a disciple who denies themselves,  who follows Jesus daily, and takes up their cross to allow the message and mission of Jesus to change, challenge and reshape their own attitudes and actions in ways that bring saving hope and help into their world. 

     This is the tricky part about having a spiritual, religious faith, isn’t it?   Does your understanding of faith really save, and if it does how can you know?   In James, his own example of this question is how you can look in a mirror, can yourself, then quickly forget what you look like.  The problem he is describing is that not only do you forget what you look like, you also fail to realize how you might look to others too.  While you think you are a Christians, others clearly see how you’re not or how you forgot.  

      This failure to remember what we are supposed to look like and be like is a unique blind spot for those of us who seek spiritual salvation?  Just like it was a challenge for God’s people, Moses said, that they could forget their true God who choose them.  Just like the greatest problem Jesus faced was the hypocrisy of the already religious.  Now, in James day too, even after Paul’s incredible preaching about God’s righteousness coming down from heaven through faith in Jesus Christ, some were still picking up the wrong bag and thinking they were ‘saved’, but others saw differently.   In other words, they heard the word, they knew all the words, they thought they understood the word, but they still failed to see the righteousness growing in them that’s the implanted, saving word should produce.  

      Some time ago, I stumbled upon a documentary about the Old Order Amish in America, entitled ‘Breaking the Silence’.  What made this documentary interesting is that it was an honest and constructive, being put together by some who had either left or been forced out of the Amish community. 

Now, most interestingly, they weren’t forced out for doing wrong, but they were forced out because they questioned whether their communities were really following the Bible, or just creating and living by their own versions of righteousness.  In one example, a woman told how her community refused to accept her baptism simply because she didn’t put a certain pin in her clothes in a particular way demanded by her community, This was never explained to her until they rejected and embarrassed her.  This was just the beginning.  In many other ways, she found so much pain and hurt, not because she didn’t love being Amish, but because it proved to be built more on traditions, culture and community rules rather than being based on biblical faith, hope and loving actions.

     Now, of course, this isn’t only true for old-order Amish, but it’s true of any faith tradition or religious belief.  Since religious belief is a matter and ‘habit of the heart’ and can be very personal for us,  we must all hear the concern James has about God’s righteousness as the implanted word that saves our souls.   We don’t want to be left, literally, holding ‘the wrong bag’.

 

LOOK INTO THE PERFECT LAW

In contrast to the person who looks at themselves in the mirror and then forgets what they are supposed to look like,  James challenges his readers to be  doers of the word’ and not only hearers.   This deception of hearing without doing, of believing without becoming, and of seeing without acting out God’s way is corrected by looking into the perfect law of liberty.  Now, that’s certainly an interesting way to find salvation— in the law of Liberty.  Isn’t the law more restrictive rather than releasing?   

      Part of the answer lies in what James means by the perfect law.  This perfect law refers us back to Jesus’ greatest commandment, which is one ‘even greater than Moses’.  Once, a lawyer asked Jesus: How does one enter the kingdom?  Basically Jesus answered with a trinity of love : Love God in a way that you love your neighbor just like you love yourself (Mat. 22:35).   On another occasion Jesus informed his own disciples the same lesson, but more intimately, ‘This is my commandment that you love one another, as I have loved you (John 15:12).   The perfect law, which means the law that fulfills all the law because love reveals the laws true intention: love.  

      Unpacking what James means by looking into the perfect law of liberty can take a lifetime, but begins by understanding just how  demanding love can be----even more demanding than any other kind of law or rule.  Remember, Jesus told the lawyer that the greatest commandment is to ‘love the Lord your God with ALL your heart’.   Love is the most demanding way because love also demands ACTS OF LOVE flowing from sincere hearts of love.

      Again, this kind of sincere, demanding, and active love isn’t easy or simple meaning anything goes.  Back in the 1960s, Anglican professor Joseph Fletcher taught that acts of love must be at the center of any Christian decision about what is right and what is wrong.  Love is what guides our interpretation of the Bible. 

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?   Just love people.  Do the loving thing.   All you need is love.  For some people it sounds too simple and if there is anything Jesus taught us about ‘God so loved the world’ is that love isn’t easy for the person who loves.  Love is what put Jesus on the cross.   Remember how Jesus put it:  ‘No greater love is there than this, that one lay down their life for their friends’.  This kind of love is anything but simple, but how is it perfect?  

 

RELIGION THAT IS PURE

Now, we come to the final part:  James says this perfect law of God’s love is also a law of liberty.    How does this perfect, highest, greatest and most important and demanding law become a way of liberty and freedom rather than a way that restrains and confines us in our lives?  

Way back in the 5th century, early Christian thinker named Augustine made a statement about what it means for a Christian to do good.  It still grabs your attention when you first hear it.  Augustine said the most basic rule, calling, or way of a Christian is to ‘love God and do what you want.’  Now that’s it---that’s liberty.  When you truly love God you can live and do what you want in life.    Now, you can do ‘what you want’ because you’re ‘want to’ is being guided by your love for God.   Because you love God you want to do what pleases God.  Isn’t that what you do for someone you love---you ask them what they want?   Teresa and I have had an argument that has never gotten better over 41 years of marriage; in fact sometimes it still gets worse.   It’s the question she asks me, then I turn and ask her, and then she asks me again, and then turn it back to her again.  It’s the question ‘What do you want to eat’?, then I ask, ‘It doesn’t matter, what do you want?’   That’s one argument neither of us wins, or loses.  It’s only gets better now because we eat at home more.  She controls the fork.

         This is exactly where James has been headed with his discussion.  He goes from speaking of how sin is conceived (16) to showing how God’s word gives us a new spiritual birth (18).   This new spiritual birth is proven because we look into the mirror of God’s truth and remember who we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do.   We only keep remembering who we are when we look into this prefect law and freely do what we know we are supposed to do, not because we have to, but because we want to.   God’s perfect law of love is what now guides, leads and liberates our lives from living in wickedness to living in God’s righteousness.  

So, finally, what is this righteousness and religion in its most perfect, purest form?   What James reminds his readers is that true faith is a righteousness of action—of both doing and being, being and becoming, which is based upon our seeing and remembering.   This kind of religion isn’t worthless, but is based on a liberating love that liberates us to love.   This kind of religion guides our speech, it protects us a sinful world, and motivates us to love and to care for our most helpless neighbors as God has used others to love and care for us in our own helplessness. 

As we all remember, during the Coronavirus Outbreak, one of the most difficult challenges in our United States was to get people ‘wear masks’ for the sake of the most vulnerable.  Many misunderstood that their own individual or religious liberties were being threatened.   But when we ‘look’ into perfect law of liberty, as James says, and we care for those most vulnerable, we are indeed practicing liberty, just like we are also practicing pure religion.   It’s a faith and a liberty for all of us, not just some of us.   Amen.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

When Tempted...

 A sermon based upon James 1: 12-18

By Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv., DMin;

September 5th, 2021, Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Series: The Book of James, 2/12

 

 

James 1:12–18 (NRSV): 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. 13 No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14 But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15 then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved.

17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

 

Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, a hugely successful comedian named Flip Wilson had an Emmy Award-winning network TV show in 1970’s.  During one of his most famous routines, Wilson would do something outrageous in plain sight, then grin into the camera and say, “The Devil made me do it.”   The audience would howl because everyone was in on the joke.   

The joke was this idea that someone could acknowledge that they had just done something terrible, but then dodge responsibility by making it the devil’s fault.   But is it really ‘the devil who MADE us do it?   If it is ‘the devil’s fault’, then it should follow that we are off the hook—either with our parents, our boss, our teachers, with our spouse, and even with God too?    Blaming the ‘DEVIL’ is like claiming a “Get out of Jail Free” card.  Now, we can be excused for our worst behavior, right? 

Interestingly, in James’ day it wasn’t the devil who most often got blamed, it was God.   Early Christians, who were also Jews, believed that God is ultimately in control of everything, so some people, even some Christians too, were saying that God sends the devil to tempt us.  Still today we can hear people excusing their own irresponsible behavior by saying:  “I can’t help it.  God made me this way.”  Even if God doesn’t make us do bad things, life can feel like ‘set up’ for the devil to trip us up.  Remember Job.

 

BLESSED…TEST

James, however, has a completely different view of trials and temptation.  When it comes to the issue of temptation, James does not start with the negative, but with a positive—a very big positive.  James sees a value in temptation because he believes we can resist and must overcome.  Just like trials can be a joy because they develop our character, James is suggesting that temptation can end up being a blessing of empowerment to us too. 

      Temptation becomes a blessing, James suggests, when we pass the test, which is how we positively face temptation—as a test.  When confronted as a test, overcoming temptation proves who we are and who we can become.  This development in our Christian identity becomes the value of a test.  When we pass or stand the test, James says we will receive the crown of life which God has promised those who love him.   

         The crown of life James refers is not a literal crown, but a rich, figurative symbol of personal and spiritual achievement.  James is referring to our God-given ability to overcome the negatives that may pull against us in life. Obtaining a crown may symbolize what the love of God should mean for us in life, here and now.  God wants us to conquer our lesser desires and inclinations so that we can become our best and be at our best by living in the wisdom and strength of God.    In the temptations that are accepted as tests which come, the empowering and redeeming love of God points us forward toward the purposes and promises God reveals to us.           

Now, this is quite a different perspective on temptation is it not?  The blessing of enduring and passing the test of temptation has a very big pay off.  This is a counter-intuitive perspective, is it not?  While Jesus taught us to pray not to be lead into temptation, James says enduring temptation can be beneficial.  Now, certainly James is not actually contradicting Jesus nor going as far as to say that we should want to be tempted, but James is still looking at things quite differently.  Why would James take such a positive, even seemingly outlandish view?

         Perhaps it will help us to reflect a moment on the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  Scripture says, in the gospel of Matthew, that Jesus was led by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil.  You remember the story how after fasting for over a month, Jesus was tempted in three different ways.  He was tempted to break his fast by turning stones into bread.  Jesus was then tempted to make a spectacular of himself by jumping off the top of the temple, forcing angels to save him.  Finally, the devil took Jesus on a high mountain offering Jesus rule over the world if he would bow down to the devil.  One thing you immediately notice is that these are not ordinary temptations to an ordinary person.  These are temptations to the vocation of the Son of God; tempting Jesus to abandon what the Father had sent him to do.  These are tests which prove whether of not Jesus is ready to answer his calling and fulfill his saving mission. 

     In a similar way, a recent modern writer reminded us in his very controversial novel, entitled The Last Temptation of Christ, that Jesus was probably not tempted only once but was constantly tested throughout his life and ministry.  Also, as his story suggested, Jesus was not just tempted in spiritual ways, but he also tested and tempted in very normal, everyday ways too.  What was so controversial about that novel was how the story  suggested Jesus was tempted to fall in love, get married, settle down and have a family.  What is a normal rite of passage for us, was a put up as a temptation to fail for Jesus. 

     The point both the gospel and the novel were both making is actually the same. At its core, temptation is about purpose.  God the Father sent  Jesus the Son to earth to fulfill a purpose.   For Jesus, and now, as James also suggests for us,  temptation assumes that God has purposes for us too.   That is what is can be positive about temptation.  Any kind of test that may or may not become a temptation for us to overcome, points to the purposes God has for us.

 

GOD…TEMPTS NO ONE.

     Perhaps we can now see how James is headed in opposite direction that comedian Flip Wilson was headed.  James does not blame the devil, nor does he blame God for failing the test.  In fact, James concisely declares that God tempts no one to fail.  He informs us that Temptation is actually a test to prove whether or not we are on the right track in fulfilling the purpose of God in our lives.  In other words, tests only become temptations when we allow our own desires to overrule the purpose of God for our lives.  It only because of our own wayward human desires that the tests that could prove to empower us to achieve personal victory, become temptations that might entice us to sin, and even lead us to premature death.  He makes this point to call us to resist and overcome.     

         It is this final warning about deception that is so crucial.   James wants his readers to realize just how easily our own desires can lure us in, deceive us and transform a test that would empower us into a temptation that could lead us to sin, destruction, or even death.  The deadly deception is not in the test itself, but in the deceptiveness  of human desires.

         There is a powerful scene in the Netflix series The Crown, which loosely follows the recent history of the British Royal family.  In this particular episode the conflictive relationship between Lady Di and Charles is being dramatized.  Lady Dina is wanting out of the loveless relationship but the Queens husband, the Prince of Edinburgh reminds her that by agreeing to marry royalty, her life is no longer about her own personal happiness, but it is now about pleasing and protecting the reputation of the queen.  In fact, what the Prince was saying is that by following her desire to marry the heir to the throne she now loses her right to her own life. 

         Can you see how Lady Di’s predicament is explained as a result the lure of marrying a prince?   What must have at first seemed to be fairytale ended up as a nightmare.  This is the primrose path of human desire.  What began as enticement ended up conceiving a life of death for Diana.   For James, this is how our own desires can work against us.   It is not God who tempts us, but our own desires that lead us astray.                 

 

EVERY PERFECT GIFT

After this warning concerning desires, we come to the most important point James makes.  This is what James has been preparing his readers for all along.  He wants them to understand clearly the part God plays in the tests of life.   God is not the tempter, but God is the gift-giver—-the source light and goodness.  Can you see?  Here we come to the purpose behind everything.  This purpose is the hope that truth will be born in us and that we can become who we have the potential to be.

When we realize the revelation of God as the giver of good gifts—this God is at work for our good, intending good purposes for--- we come to a faith no longer taken for granted in our very secular age.  How can we still trust in the good purposes of God in a world that is not always good, when even faith can seem disappointing and deficient in a world now dominated by science and reason?

After several school shootings, popular Christian writer Philip Yancey wrote a book telling of his visits to many of those schools and talking to students who kept asking him one question over and over.   These traumatized students were not largely doubting the existence of God, but they kept asking him over and over this haunting question: ‘What good is God?’That question haunted Yancey so much that it eventually became the title a book where he tells the story of asserting Gods goodness youth who could no longer could understand how God mattered.  In other words, if God does not stop bad things from happen, what good is this God?

      As we know, this same attitude of questioning the validity of having faith in God is growing today, even in some Christian circles.   I recently read about a church in Charlotte made up of people who come together to live good, moral, lives, but they no longer see any reality to God.  Jesus, along with Paul, Moses, Abraham, Mohammed, Ghandi and Buddha too, are understood by them as having been good, passionate, moral and religious leaders.  While they did good in their culture and understanding,  they did not have the vantage point we have and were mistaken about the existence of God or the need for religious faith.  Just like the Greeks projected their experiences upon mythical gods, religions, including Christianity too, project hopes and wishes onto an idea of deity which is impossible to maintain in our time.  All that really matters is the moral good we envision and practice.

While there are philosophical and theological responses to such questions, I think the place to start with this understanding of this God is revealed as the Father of Lights.  Yes, God is a Father, James affirms, but God is the spiritual source and giver of the light of spiritual and moral truth which continues to flow into our lives.   While there are so many amazing gadgets and gifts of human advancement we have in our high tech world, the issue we still face, perhaps more than ever, is will we use them to enhance our lives, or will we destroy ourselves with some of them?   

This is what James is reminding us with this entire discussion of temptation.   When left alone only with our own desires, James says, we can become our own worst enemies.  Without the goodness of God and the source of light and truth,  when human desires conceive and give birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, sin gives birth to death.   That is the unfolding chain reaction of a life that loses its moral foundation and source of spiritual light.

During the COVID pandemic, as you know, there were all kinds of confusion about the transmission and severity of the virus.  Especially in America, where we highly value individual belief and freedom, sometimes we end up preferring our own versions of the truth.  While there, of course, is great value in freedom, even freedom must be guided by truth.  But who finally decides what the truth is and what the truth means?  Here, I am reminded of some political wisdom, Teresa’s high school civics teacher once gave her class:  Your freedom ends where my freedom begins. His point was that true freedom includes other responsibilities.  In other words, true freedom must consider and respond to truth outside of our own personal perspectives. 

What James affirms here is that this God of Israel is calling us through our own God given freedoms to choose the good.   This good is revealed to us through the light, the truth and the purposes that God has revealed to us through his law, his love, his mercy and his grace.  How do we know this light is true?  How do we know this God still matters?  Well, you cannot know God unless God reveals himself.   We do not determine the truth of God through any kind of human reason or logic.   Since this God is from above--- or from beyond all human ideas or concepts, the true God can only be fully known by deciding, in our freedom, to live in the light of his love and truth.   His truth is proven in us when we endure temptation and stand the test our hearts open up to the promise of his love.   Amen.