A Sermon on Politics – “Quick to Hear”, James 1:19-20

Delivered on August 26, 2012, on the eve of the election season.

Quick to Hear

How should we be able to identify a Christian voter?

We could have several answers.  You can tell by their bumper stickers and yard signs.  You can tell by their side comments when they hear a news cast or a political commercial.  You can tell if they hold all the correct positions on the political issues.

I want to suggest that there is a better mark.  A Christian citizen who votes and who cares for this country should be marked by a way of thinking, acting and speaking….

James – last thoughts

We are ending the sermon series on James this week.  here are some last thoughts.

It is to me inescapable that James needs to be read as wisdom literature because

  • It is practical. Everyone notices this and even says that it is the “Proverbs” of the New Testament.
  • It is not primarily about salvation or sacrifice – as most of the Wisdom Books do not take  Sacrificial system of the OT as their main focus, neither does James speak much of the Cross.  One wonders where there is mercy in Proverbs, full of choices and consequences at it is.  Where is any word of the covenant, the temple, the law, etc. in the OT Wis Lit?  It is because the focus is different.  Now, how should we live.
  • Thus it presents a challenge to “bring the Gospel into every message.”  But it is not hard to bring Jesus in, see below.
  • It is organized with typical Wisdom literary techniques.  So look for catch phrases, loose links in general, juxtapositions without phases such as “so that” and “because”, repetition, inclusio and so forth.  I find it remarkable how often commentators will talk about the lack of cohesion to James, because they are looking for linear sequentiality.
  • It is preaching, and it preaches.
  • The gospel is embedded in verses such as 1: 18, 21 but is not explicit.
  • James sounds like the teaching of Jesus recast – and those who don’t like the “legalism” of the Sermon on the Mount say the same about James.
  • The best work for useful study and application that I have found is J. A. Motyer’s, The Message of James, in the Bible Speaks Today series, IVP.   His outline (Keying the topics of chapters 2-5 to 1:26-27 makes a lot of sense.)

James 4:4 – A story too funny to be invented

Years ago, at a bible study in our home in New York, we were looking at the text of James 4.  I asked the question, “What does ‘adulterous’ mean?”  (James 4:4 “You adulterous people!  Don’t you know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?”)

A student from Japan heard the question and said, “Adulterous” means mature.”

An immigrant from Egypt heard that and said, “No, it means when you worship images made of stone or wood.”

So we had a good laugh (because English is an awful language to have to learn) and a spontaneous vocabulary lesson on the difference between adultery, idolatry and being an adult.


Speaking of illustrations – James 3

I count 10 illustrations in 12 verses from James 3:1-12

  1. Teacher
  2. Stumbling
  3. Horses’ bit
  4. Ship’s rudder
  5. Boasting
  6. Forest Fire
  7. Animal Tamers
  8. Poison
  9. Springs of water
  10. Fruits and vines

And a bonus

11.  “Gehenna” or hell, is a place of constant burning, both the description of Hell and the place outside of Jerusalem where they burned their trash, and false idols.

It’s a preachers potluck!

On Rocks, Windows and the Law

This sermonic riff is based on a comment by J. A. Motyer

“For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” James 2:10

The Word of God is more like a glass window than it is like a pile of rocks. Suppose I find a large pile of rocks.  It is a big pile with many hundreds of rocks in it.  There I find one rock I do not like.  I don’t like its color or its shape.  So I go, take the rock out of the pile and throw it away as far as I can.  I think, “Now it looks better. No one will miss that one stone.”

Now imagine a window.  I take a stone and strike the glass.  A crack develops and spreads through the whole window and destroys it completely.  I cannot treat the window like a pile of rocks.  The Word of God is like a window.  We must take all of it, not just some part.  If we break one part, we have broken the whole.  So then if I practice favoritism, I have broken the entirety of the Law.

Read first; Debate later – James 2

What do we do when we get to James 2?  Usually get into a discussion of how what James says compares to what Paul said in Romans 4.  James says “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his on Isaac on the altar?” (2:22) and Paul said, “If in fact Abraham was justified by works he had something to boast about — but not before God…” (Romans 4:2).  So there is a long scholarly debate – it involves whether James wrote in response to Paul, or to those who misunderstood Paul, or was Paul writing over people like James?  It revolves around whether, despite the words being similar, if the two are really talking about the same thing.

For the Record Paul says that his goal is “…to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.” (Romans 1:5). And there is a lot in  Romans 5-8 on a new way of life, no longer giving our bodies over to sin, but to God, not sinning so that grace multiplies, not being in death but in our resurrection (about Baptism) and living in the Spirit.  James has previously to chapter 2 talked about birth by the word of truth (James 1:18) and the word which is able to save our souls (1:21).

Paul’s opponents were those who wanted to add works to faith for the purpose of achieving salvation.  James is teaching against he idea that we can just listen but not do what the word says.  So I conclude that there is not final conflict.

Yet, here is my point.  Before we debate with Paul and James together, we should read and “listen” to them separately.  Let James speak, read him as a whole and in context.  See how what he says in chapter 2 fits into his overall flow of thought.  Then do that for Paul in Romans.  Only THEN are we ready to put the two in the boxing ring to let them go a few rounds.

Too often we flit about like bees or hummingbirds among the flowers – a little sip here and little sip there.  When we need to rest at the feet of the teacher and let the whole lesson sink in.

“Has not God chosen the poor…” James 2:5

James certainly has a preference for the poor.  In the rich brother/poor brother discussion in 1:9-11 the poor are elevated and the rich are taken down a few pegs.  In the rich visitor/poor visitor event (2:1-4), he is not against the rich, but against us if we prefer the rich to the poor.  In 4:13ff he warns the businessman to remember God in his plans and in 5:1-6 he has harsh words for rich oppressors, who do not pay the promised wages to their workers.

In addition, he mentions the major categories of groups that are given special concern in the OT prophetic, legal and wisdom literature. For example: Deuteronomy 10:17-19 –

17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18  He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19  Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.  (ESV)

The widow and the orphan are mentioned in 1:27, the laborer in 5;4 and the poor in chapter 2 extensively.  One of the marks of true religion is how we treat others who can not give us advantages.

So is James against the rich?  Not per se, but as James is writing in the wisdom style, as we find in the book of Proverbs, his observations are generally true, but not always true.  (Diligence does not always lead to wealth, even though many proverbs say there is a link.)

It is in this light that I add three more comments by J. A. Motyer.

“…we see that he is expressing a general rather than an invariable truth.  The Lord does not choose only the poor; it is not only the rich who persecute the believers and blaspheme the name of Jesus.  Yet, in general, this is not only true but overwhelmingly true.  The preponderance of the Lord’s concern is shown for those who are towards the bottom of the world’s heap.  This appeared in the Old Testament’s fundamental historical event, the Exodus…” p. 88

“We can so easily excuse ourselves from facing the bluntness of James’ words by allowing that (after all!) he is expressing a general rather than an exclusive truth. Yet the infrequency with which the Bibles makes comparisons in this way — by allowing one side of the comparison to swamp the other — should alert us to the fact that we are not permitted to find an escape hatch for ourselves…” p. 89

“Money still does the talking far too loudly in Christian circles, and where and when it does, the glory of Christ departs.” p. 90

The Message of James, J. A. Motyer, IVP, 1985

James, the Word & J. A. Motyer

“We might wonder why the ever-practical James does not proceed to outline schemes of daily Bible reading or the like, for surely these are the ways in which we offer a willing ear to the voice of God.  But he does not help us in this way.  Rather, he goes deeper, for there is little point in schemes and times if we have not got an attentive spirit.  It is possible to be unfailingly regular in bible reading, but to achieve no more than to have moved the book-mark forward; this is reading unrelated to an attentive spirit.”

J. A. Motyer, The Message of James, 1985, IVP

The Gospel in James – James 1:18

James is described as a practical book. It seems to be guidance for the converted – preaching for the choir.  Some, including Luther, have had difficulty with James and specifically where we find the Gospel.

J. A. Motyer has the insight that the first chapter of the book is aimed at the individual (see the pronouns) and then later he deals with issues of life in community: wealth, words, favoritism, the needy.

With that in mind, the first chapter is preparation for the wisdom journey he wants us to travel. It includes a reminder of the Gospel – without spelling it out.

“He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created.”  If this were merely about natural birth in the world, then who are the “we” and are they distinct as first-fruits?  He is speaking of the redeemed  – those who have heard and received the “word of truth”.  So we are saying the word of truth is the Gospel.

Is it not reasonable to think that James, speaking to believers does not spell out the “word of truth” because his audience knows it.

Isn’t it this below, my take on John 3:16?   Yes the verse Tebow had on his football eyeshadow at U of Florida and which the rainbow wig guy held up in the end zone for years:

God, the creator of all things, including the heavenly lights, so loved the world, even though it is sick with sin, and all the people in it, even though we argue, rebel and ignore him, that he sent his only begotten son, Jesus, who was with him at the creation of all things, and was born to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem in Judea.  He did this so that whoever believes in him, that is to say, whoever trusts in him, knows that he is the Son of God and Savior and relies on him totally for the ability to receive Gods life, will not perish, as a consequence of our sin and stubbornness, but will have eternal life, which starts at the moment of faith and lives on beyond the projected 5 billion life span of our solar system into the light of eternity.