Sunday, August 16, 2015


James 1:17-27
August 16, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

School starts tomorrow here in Sterling; every household that contains children or teachers is acutely aware of that. I predict that in some classroom on Monday, somebody will say,
“You have two ears and one mouth, so you should listen twice as much as you speak.”

That saying was coined by Epictetus, about two thousand years ago. James picked up on it for this first chapter of this wise book. Even though we officially concluded our study of wisdom literature last week, we are actually continuing with wisdom literature this week as we begin a short series on the New Testament book of James. The book of James is one of the “general epistles” or letters, it is not actually a letter in any true sense of the word. There is no particular addressee other than “the twelve tribes in the dispersion” which is pretty much everybody at the time.

There are no personal greetings or comments about particular issues, no location of a congregation. It may be useful to think of this letter as an open letter to Christians, addressed to all of us, and to each one of us— kind of like a newsletter. But this newsletter contains very specific teachings, like “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.” These teachings are not like the Apostle Paul’s letters about doctrine. Those tell us how we ought to believe, how we ought to be. The teaching in James are about what we ought to do. In fact, James uses the imperative voice – DO IT! – about sixty times! This book is more like the list of chores hung on your refrigerator than it is the daily devotional on your coffee table.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us today in James 1:17-27

James 1:17-27 Common English Bible
17 Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all. 18 He chose to give us birth by his true word, and here is the result: we are like the first crop from the harvest of everything he created.

19 Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. 20 This is because an angry person doesn't produce God's righteousness. 21 Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you. 22 You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. 23 Those who hear but don't do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. 24 They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. 25 But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don't listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do.

26 If those who claim devotion to God don't control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless. 27 True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

The book of James is historically a controversial book of the Bible – it almost didn’t make it into the Bible. Martin Luther hated it, and called it “an epistle of straw.” But it is packed with wisdom – it is like a little vitamin pill with 100 percent of our daily required wisdom.

It is a little book crammed with a lot of truth about living the Christian life, in practical, daily ways. There is very little in this book that would call an unbeliever to follow Jesus; the epistle of James was clearly written to the baptized community.

This reading today is bookended by verses about giving.
That may not be obvious, but keep in mind that verse 17 tells us where all good gifts come from, and verse 27 tells us what we should do in grateful response to those gifts. The part that is in between tells us that our Christian life is about more than belief, more than just being baptized or talking about Jesus. True devotion to God, to following Jesus, is not just hearing God’s word; it is about what we DO.

That’s a tricky thing to say, which is why Martin Luther didn’t like James. We rely, as reformed and Protestant Christians, on the promise of grace, on the assurance that God’s love for us does not depend on our good works. However, the evidence of our commitment to God becomes visible in our good works.

The old saying, “actions speak louder than words” rings true here. There are a hundred ways to say that, and it has been said over and over again over the centuries. Jesus told a story to highlight this truth, a story about a man with two sons. Here’s what he said in Matthew 21:

28 “What do you think?
A man had two sons; he went to the first and said,
‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’
29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.
30 The father went to the second and said the same;
and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.
31 Which of the two did the will of his father?”

You don’t have to be a Biblical scholar to know the answer to that question.

As obvious as it is, we Christians are all too often guilty of the glib talk that is not supported by our action. It is up to each one of us to take a good look in the mirror, and to make sure that our actions match our stated beliefs. Hardly anything brings more shame to the gospel of Christ than Christians who shout loudly about their good friend Jesus and act as if they never heard a word of what he said.

It is serious business, to commit our lives to Jesus of Nazareth, and to live the way he taught us. It sounds simple, but it is never easy. And our neighbors are watching us, to see if our actions match our words.

You’ve probably heard this story, but it is such a good illustration that I had to share it:

An honest man was being tailgated by a stressed out woman on a busy boulevard.
Suddenly, the light turned yellow in front of him. He did the right thing, stopping at the crosswalk, even though he could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection. The tailgating woman hit the brakes, and then she hit the roof, and the horn, screaming in frustration and cursing the man because she missed her chance to get through the intersection.

While she was still in mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the serious face of a police officer. The officer ordered her to get out of her car with her hands up. He took her to the police station where she was searched, finger-printed, and photographed, and then placed in a holding cell.

After a couple of hours, a policeman approached the cell and opened the door. She was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with her personal effects.

He said, "I'm very sorry for this mistake.
You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping off the guy in front of you, and cussing a blue streak at him.
I noticed the 'Choose Life' license plate holder,
the 'What Would Jesus Do?' bumper sticker,
the 'Follow Me to Sunday School' bumper sticker,
and the chrome-plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk.

Naturally, I assumed you must have stolen the car!"

The crucial point here though, is not that others are making judgments about Christianity based on our behavior, although that is probably the case, and it is worthwhile to remember it. But even though that is really important, the crucial point here in James is that God is watching us. And while God cares very much about our hearts, about our thoughts and feelings and moral principles, it would seem that God cares JUST as much about our actions.

The mirror into which we are to look, then, is God’s law, the law of love of God and neighbor that shows us our failings and directs us in right paths. The great Scottish preacher and writer George MacDonald, whose novels had a profound effect on C.S. Lewis, put it better than anyone I know of.

He said that if you want to be a disciple of Jesus,
“Get up, and do something the master tells you; so make yourself his disciple at once.
Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because he said, Do it, or once abstained because he said, Do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe in him, if you do not anything he tells you. If you can think of nothing he ever said as having had an atom of influence on your doing or not doing, you have too good ground to consider yourself no disciple of his.”
“[Jesus]knows that you can try, and that in your trying and failing he will be able to help you, until at length you shall do the will of God even as he does it himself. “The doing of the will of God is the way to oneness with God, which alone is salvation.”[1]

Sometimes, according to James, doing the will of God means keeping our mouths shut.
Sometimes it means listening without answering back –
even when we have the perfect snappy comeback.
Sometimes it means keeping control of our tempers.
Sometimes it means not pointing out that someone else is wrong.
Sometimes, our actions may be what we choose NOT to do,
rather than some positive choice of a good deed.

And many times, it may mean just that –
choosing to do something that is good and right and just,
for no other reason than that Jesus told us to!
Always, that choice of action should be directed toward those who are in need,
toward those who are poor,
toward those who are lonely,
toward those who are hurting.
It isn’t an either/or proposition –
to do Christ’s work or to be Christ’s disciples,
to be Christians or to do Christ’s work,
we are called to both hear AND do God’s word,
to do-be-do-be-do-be-do! 



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