Two great theologians, Luther and Wesley, walk into a pub. The one says to the other: "Let's talk about James" ... as some of you might know, this joke doesn't have a funny ending! For Luther, brilliant reformation theologian, James is nothing more than an epistle of straw which he didn't believe even belongs in the Bible, for Wesley, brilliant revivalist theologian, this epistle "reproves that antinomian (we don't have to keep the law anymore) spirit, which had even then infected many, who had perverted the glorious doctrine of justification by faith into an occasion of licentiousness (ie lacking moral or legal restraint)."
This week saw me having our car worked over by a car professional, as well as a trip to a medical professional to have my body worked over.
Professionals like your mechanic and your doctor know what they are looking for. They have a list of things to check and assess. A spiritual check-up may not be quite so neatly documented, yet the main components are very similar. God's Word has very clear guidelines for maintaining spiritual health. The next few weeks have us journeying through James and my experience of this little letter, written perhaps by the brother of Jesus, is that it is very useful for using as a spiritual check-up. It is very useful as a guide to living life God's way. In fact, some people call the letter of James: A Guide to Practical Christianity and just as the doctor prods and pushes and sometimes hurts, so too does James.
James certainly doesn't hold back: he says what he thinks, with no regard to who might be offended in the process. James requires of us a willingness to put down our defensive barriers, our excuses for our behaviour, to stop deceiving ourselves regarding our particular way of living the Christian life, and look honestly at how we conduct ourselves in life.
We Christians can be quite good at deceiving ourselves particularly when it comes to defending the particular way that we choose to live our Christian lives. “It's okay for me to behave this way because………” is a way we often think.
Perhaps this morning we consider ourselves to be progressing well on the Christian pilgrimage which I refer to in my Pastoral letter: we always go to worship, give our tithe, and read our Bibles every day…… and yet perhaps we like the odd bit of gossip…… perhaps we can be argumentative……. perhaps we sometimes think we don't have to be bothered with other people's needs, especially the poor. We might even deceive ourselves into believing that because our church has programs that care for the poor, we don't need to care for them. If any of these words ring true for us, we know we have some work to do in response to James’ instructions.
Or maybe this morning we are all too aware of our failings and long to learn how to persevere in swimming against the strong currents of our society. If that describes us, then James has encouraging words.
So, let's work through the reading, allow God's Word to soothe us, caress us, comfort us,…… allow it also to prod and to push and to probe where perhaps we don't want to be prodded and pushed and probed.
Do not be deceived, my dear friends!
James here is pointing out to us that it is possible to deceive ourselves. The first step in overcoming self-deception is to realise the ways in which we might be deceiving ourselves.
Every good gift and every perfect present comes from heaven; it comes down from God, the Creator of the heavenly lights, who does not change or cause darkness by turning.
God doesn't change…… his expectations of you and me are the same as the expectations and requirements that he had of Abraham, Moses, David, the disciples, Paul the apostle, and James who wrote this letter.
God doesn't change…….. that is actually very good news, isn't it?
Let us not deceive ourselves into believing that God has a different standard for us compared to the standard he had for previous generations. He doesn't! Cultures may change over the centuries … God does not!
By his own will he brought us into being through the word of truth, so that we should have first place among all his creatures.
We, you and I, are God’s special creation.
A common way in which we deceive ourselves is that we believe we are not special to God. This verse reminds us that we are! Don't be deceived into thinking that your role in the Kingdom of God, and in this church, is not that important.
Remember this, my dear friends! Everyone must be quick to listen, but slow to speak and slow to become angry.
Here is the first prod in the examination. Does it hurt if I push here? Remember this, my dear friends! Everyone must be quick to listen, but slow to speak and slow to become angry. Does that cause an ouch?
Someone has said we have two ears and one mouth for a reason: to listen at least twice as much as we talk!
Now James moves on and pushes somewhere else: be slow to become angry.
Human anger does not achieve God's righteous purpose.
Did you hear that?
Let us not deceive ourselves into believing that it is okay to flip your lid. To freak out! It's not!
James moves on and carries on prodding:
So get rid of every filthy habit and all wicked conduct.
No need to discuss that, is there? It is quite self-explanatory.
Stop thinking it's OK.
Submit to God and accept the word that he plants in your hearts, which is able to save you.
The word that God has planted in our hearts is this: you are saved by faith, filled with the Holy Spirit, and are therefore able to do all things in Him who strengthens you…. all things….. even overcome habits and addictions.
Do not deceive yourselves by just listening to his word; instead, put it into practice.
Now James begins to get to his real point.
If you believe the Bible is the word of God, then put it into practice.
How?…. we often ask.
Jesus taught that we put the word of God into practice in very simple ways: by loving our neighbour, by loving our enemy, by feeding the poor, etc, etc, etc.
If you listen to the word, but do not put it into practice you are like people who look in a mirror and see themselves as they are. They take a good look at themselves and then go away and at once forget what they look like.
The picture we have here is someone who is a mess, hair all over the place, a big piece of mud on the cheek, last night’s supper stuck between the teeth….. and he looks in the mirror, but immediately forgets what he looks like and goes off…… to worship…… to work….. to school.
But if you look closely into the perfect law that sets people free, and keep on paying attention to it and do not simply listen and then forget it, but put it into practice---you will be blessed by God in what you do.
James is saying here….. the Bible, and especially the Law as fulfilled by Jesus, is a mirror image of what you and I are meant to look like.
In the Bible, and especially in Jesus, we are meant to see ourselves. As I look into this “mirror” I see myself as I am meant to be: someone who loves my neighbour, someone who loves my enemy, someone who feeds the poor, someone who forgives, and so on and so on. But if we read the Bible and then go out into the world and do not love our neighbour, love our enemy, feed the poor, forgive, and so on, we are like the person who looks in the mirror and forgets what he looks like!
Let us not be deceived into believing that the world determines what we should look like. Let us not allow the world to conform us but rather let us be conformed by the word of God.
Do any of you think you are religious? If you do not control your tongue, your religion is worthless and you deceive yourself.
This verse just needs repeating, and no further explanation: Do any of you think you are religious? If you do not control your tongue, your religion is worthless and you deceive yourself.
What God the Father considers to be pure and genuine religion is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their suffering and to keep oneself from being corrupted by the world.
God wants you and me to have pure and genuine religion.
Is the religion you and I practice, that is, the religion that everybody else sees when they look at us,…. is it….. pure….. and.... genuine?
Is it a religion that is deeply concerned about others?
Or is it a religion that is corrupted by the world, a religion which says: Hey, look after yourself and don't be too concerned about others. James is saying that true religion is other centered, rather than self centered.
Let us not be deceived into thinking that any other kind of religion other than the one that James describes for us in our reading today, is acceptable before God.
I started off by asking about your car and your physical health.
Often when you take your car into the garage, or yourself to the doctor, there is more work to be done. You have to go back, we have to buy medicine.
It is like that with spiritual health as well.
There is always more work to be done, and sometimes strong medicine in the form of changed behaviour is prescribed by the Great Physician.
God has placed James before us for the next few weeks….. can I encourage you to go home and read it and let God speak to you and, in the comfort of your own home, (yes, God does make house calls), let God examine you and prescribe to you through His Word.
Even if James is an epistle of straw (which it isn't!!!) ... many go to a lot of trouble to harvest and save straw, and many of God's creation, are well fed by straw.