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Monday, May 6, 2024

Impartial Love - A Sermon for Graduates (and Everyone) from James 2:1-13

Introduction
Today, we gather to celebrate a significant milestone in the lives of our graduates—the completion of their high school or college journey. As we send them off to their next chapters, it’s crucial to reflect on the kind of journey they—and indeed, all of us—are called to embark upon as followers of Christ.

In the Book of James, chapter 2, verses 1 to 13, we find a powerful message about how our faith should be lived out daily. James challenges us to look at our hearts, at our actions, and at the way we treat others.  

We learned last week in James 1:19-27 that Christians must listen to God’s word and then DO IT.  
If we only listen but don’t live it out, we’re only fooling ourselves.  Today, James shares one of the simple ways people will either live out or fail to live out genuine faith.  Let's read these verses, understanding their relevance, not just for our graduates, but for all of us as part of God’s family.

James 2:1-13
1 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Slide – Why is Favoritism So Bad?
Most people can see favoritism is unfair.  Suppose Hank and Jackson are both hired to do the same exact job and both have no experience.  It would be unfair if Jackson got paid twice as much just because the boss was friends with Jackson’s dad.

But favoritism is not just a social faux pas in business; it is fundamentally at odds with the way the Kingdom of God works.  In the family of God, all stand as equals—we are all sinners saved by God’s grace.  If you favor one person over another in the Church because of how much money someone has or how they dress or their connections, you are living by the world’s standards and not God’s standards.  And remember what James said last week, we can’t just hear God’s Word; we must live God’s Word.  So it is absolutely necessary that we put away the old worldly thoughts and attitudes that say:  this person is more valuable, or more desirable because they are esteemed by the worldly standards or wealth, possessions, status, and influence.

 

Who Do You Look Up To?
I want to challenge our graduates (and all of us) to think about who you value and why.  Who do you want to be like as grow and mature?  Who will you model your life after?

Some might be tempted to measure their life after someone who, by outward appearances, seems to be very wealthy and successful.  But I would challenge you to look beyond external measures of success.  People can easily  fool you with outward appearances.

One man has $80,000 in the bank and a paid-off $1,000 work truck.   People may assume that guy is broke because of what he drives and how he looks.  Another man has a no money in the bank and an $80,000 financed truck he can barely afford.  He is deep in debt and barely making it, but people assume that man is doing great.  It's important not to let material possessions fool you into judging someone. 

James reminds us, God chooses the poor in the world to be rich in faith.  In my 50 years on this earth, here’s what I have observed:  In general, those who are poor are required to have more faith than those who rich.  Let me explain.  The poor often have nowhere else to turn, but to God.  They have very little money to buy their way out of their troubles. 
All they have is God and prayer.  Suppose their car breaks down.  It may be a huge crisis for them.  They cannot afford a big bill with the mechanic to repair their car nor can they just buy another one to replace it.

The rich, on the other hand, often feel like they don’t really need God.  After all, they have their own resources if they run into trouble.  They might not say that out loud or even consciously think it.  But subconsciously, they are aware they have the resources to handle their problems.  If their car breaks down, it is an inconvenience.  However, they can afford to have the car fixed or may just decide to buy a new car.  So they aren't required to trust God since they can trust their own resources.

The world often teaches us to value people for their apparent wealth, influence, and outward appearances—attributes that can be easily misrepresented.  God says value people’s faith and commitment to God and their character.  In fact, you must or else you are not doing God’s Word; you are only pretending to be a Christian.

James 2:8
The royal law of love, first put forth by God in the Old Testament and later affirmed by Jesus in the New Testament is "Love your neighbor as yourself."  And Jesus showed us how to practice this kind of love when He died for us on the cross.  Jesus didn’t love us because we are loveable (for we were sinners who rebelled against God).  Jesus loved us sacrificially because that’s what real love does.

So, we are called to love others this same way.  That means treating all people fairly, avoiding discrimination, showing kindness to all, and working for justice.  I want to encourage our graduates to apply this law everywhere you go—whether at college, in the workplace, or in you community.  And this is how every Christian should live—not just our graduates.

James 2:12-13
In conclusion, let me read again verses 12-13, this time from the New Living Translation.

12 So whatever you say or whatever you do, remember that you will be judged by the law that sets you free. 13 There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you.

Khepri, the Truth Telling Bettle

I wrote a fictional short story, drawing inspiration from recent developments within the United Methodist Church. My story explores the timeless theme of truth challenging authority. Over the past year, thousands, including myself, chose to disaffiliate from the UMC due to essential differences the denomination's direction. In North Georgia, our efforts were almost thwarted by staunch resistance from conference leadership. Despite insurmountable odds, over 260 churches miraculously exited the UMC in North Georgia. This struggle and eventual liberation drew clear parallels for many of us to the Biblical exodus of the Israelites from
Egypt.

Reflecting on last week's General Conference of the United Methodist denomination and its significant decisions to redefine traditional Christian views on marriage and human sexuality, I was struck by how leaders throughout history have often reframed difficult moments in a favorable light, similar to how Pharaoh might have portrayed the Exodus of the Israelites. After enduring ten devastating plagues, witnessing his entire army drown in the Red Sea, and losing the empire’s slave labor force, Egypt was left broken and in severe decline. Yet, it's likely that the hard-hearted Pharaoh spun these calamities positively to his people. Born from deep contemplation, "The Tale of Khepri" aims to provide a thoughtful exploration of the nature of truth and leadership.

"The Tale of Khepri, the Truth-Telling Beetle"
In ancient Egypt, beneath the towering shadows of the great Pharaoh’s palace, where the golden sands of the desert met the lush, verdant banks of the Nile, there lived a humble dung beetle named Khepri. Named for the Egyptian myth about the rising of the sun, this small creature was destined for a task as real and inevitable as the dawn itself. Each day, Khepri rolled his ball of dung across the sand, a daily ritual observed by all beetles of his kind. However, Khepri was no ordinary beetle.

Khepri overheard the truths Pharaoh wanted buried in the sand—the true tales of despair from the disaster at the Red Sea, the voices of the people’s suffering, and the silent tears of a kingdom burdened by heavy loss. So Yahweh, who always stands for truth, imbued Khepri with supernatural power to be His witness: with each roll of his dung ball, Khepri etched the truth into the sand in patterns and symbols, clear to those with eyes to see.

Every morning, as the sun took its place, Khepri began his laborious journey near the entrance to the palace gates. The guards, amused by the little bug’s determination, paid no attention. But soon, they noticed the patterns drawn upon the ground by his little ball of dung. It told the true story of the Pharaoh’s misdeeds and the divine intervention of Yahweh the rulers tried to erase.

Word spread among the people about a dung beetle who revealed the truths Pharaoh's words swept away. Each day, more gathered to see Khepri’s daily revelations, written in hieroglyphs upon the sand traced by Khepri's rolling sphere.

Troubled by the growing attention Khepri attracted, Pharaoh commanded his sorcerers to stop the beetle. Spells were cast, but none could deter the crawling creature's work, for his mission was protected by Yahweh Himself. The beetle simply wrote the truth and a messenger of God is not easily silenced.

As days turned to months, Khepri became a symbol of persistence and truth. People saw the beetle was of the earth but also a messenger from God. He rolled the truth before them everyday to remind them that no power, not even that of the Pharaoh, can bury the truth forever.

As the tale of the truth-telling dung beetle spread across the land, it was a poignant reminder of the kingdom's declining fortunes. The departure of the Israelites, under divinely dramatic circumstances, marked the beginning of the empire's downward spiral. Not only had the Israelites left a significant void in the workforce and economy, but the catastrophic events that facilitated their exodus—the ten plagues and the loss of Egypt's finest soldiers at the Red Sea—had left an indelible scar on the land and its people. No amount of propaganda by the people in power could change the real condition of their “kin-dom.”

In the years that followed, Khepri continued to roll his ball of truth across the land. The decline of Egypt became more and more apparent. The story of Khepri is not only about the triumph of truth over distortion; it also exposes the vulnerability of a people who, despite monumental achievements, cannot escape the consequences of their hubris in trying to defy God. Pharaoh is gone with his ancient empire. It once appeared strong, but vanished like the trail of a dung beetle amidst the wind in the desert sands. But the Word of God remains forever.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

7 Tips For a Safe Spiritual Fast

Introduction
Fasting is a spiritual discipline where people abstain from eating food (or something else) for a period of time in order to help them focus on spiritual growth.  Fasting is an ancient practice found throughout the Bible.  Abraham, Moses, David, and Elijah all fasted in the Old Testament (among many others).  In the New Testament, Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness to prepare for his public ministry (see Matthew 4:2).  

In Matthew 6:16, Jesus said, "And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get."  Jesus assumed his followers would fast and wanted them to do it the right way.  Proper fasting is neither a test of our willpower nor a way for us to prove our spiritual fortitude.  Fasting should be a private matter between you and God.  And rather than being a reason to boast about your deep devotion, fasting should reveal your deep spiritual need.

When done properly and with the right attitude, fasting can help you grow closer to God.  It can teach you to endure suffering with joy.  It reminds you to be thankful for blessing you take for granted.  It helps you rely more on God's providence.  It can provide spiritual clarity.  Fasting enables the Holy Spirit to reveal your true spiritual condition, resulting in brokenness, repentance, and a transformed life.

For centuries, fasting was a common practice among Christians throughout the world.  Unfortunately, few Christians in 21st century America fast as a spiritual discipline.  Many people today have forgotten how to fast safely as a means of spiritual growth.  Here’s are 6 tips for a safe spiritually fast.

6 Tips For A Safe Spiritual Fast

1.   If you are sick or have a health condition like diabetes, it may be unsafe to fast from food.  Talk to your physician.  It may be better for you to choose something else besides food for your fast, like abstaining from TV or the use of social media or from drinking coffee.  There are many are great alternatives that can be just as effective as fasting from food.

2.   If you fast from food, please drink plenty of water.  It is dangerous to go without drinking water for more than a few hours.  You could choose to drink juice while you fast. (called a “juice fast”).  A juice fast is milder than going completely without food.  You still feel hungry, but it’s not as overwhelming and you may have more energy. 

3.   Don’t fast for too long.  If you are new to fasting from food, you could start out by just skipping one meal you usually eat or fast from sunrise to sunset.  Don’t overdo it with your fast if you are new to fasting.

4.   Pray as much as you can while you fast.  Fasting reminds us how weak we are and how much we need God’s help.  Our weakness and desires while we fast remind us to pray and seek God’s help.

5.   Focus on what you are gaining instead of what you are giving up.  When we fast, we trade temporary, earthly sustenance like food for something that nourishes us on a much deeper level—closer intimacy with Christ.  Focus on the joyous anticipation of being with Jesus and experiencing the joy, peace, and grace of Christ's tangible presence.   

6.   Fasting is something between you and God.  Jesus makes it clear we should never use fasting to impress people with how spiritual we are.  The whole point of fasting is to recognize our helplessness without God.  So, don’t brag about it.  Just do it and keep your focus on God.

7.   End your fast gently.  If you’ve gone without food, you will be hungry and may be tempted to gorge yourself.  Don’t.  Your stomach may be sensitive and eating too much can make you sick.  It is better to eat a small amount of light food for your first meal after your fast.  A modest bowl of mild soup is a good choice.

Never abstain from drinking water or other fluids for long periods, unless instructed by a medical doctor.  It is crucial that you continue to drink plenty of water.  For especially long fasts, I recommend you also drink fruit juice.  You will still feel hungry, but your body will stay hydrated and receive enough calories from the juice to sustain your energy.

Take care when you stand up while fasting.  Do not stand up too quickly as you may experience dizziness.  This is only temporary.  If you feel light-headed, simply sit down and wait for it to pass, which usually happens in just a few moments.  Move more slowly next time.  Understand that you may have less energy while fasting.  The more experience you have, the more you will understand how your body reacts to fasting.  If your fast makes you truly ill or becomes unbearable, go ahead and end it with a light meal.  Don’t gorge yourself; it may make you sick.

Do not make your fast into a survival contest. If you want to see how far you can push your body before it gives out, you have lost the spiritual focus that needs to be first and foremost on your mind when you practice spiritual fasting.

Make sure you spend a lot of time in prayer while you fast.  It is also helpful to read your Bible and devotions, and to meditate on God’s Word.

When you are ready to end your fast, do it slowly and carefully.  It may be tempting to gorge yourself, but don’t because it could make you sick.  Start with something light like broth or a soup.  Then, slowly work yourself back up to regular food.  You may be surprised to find you are full after eating only a small amount of food.  Thank God that He has filled you and you needed less food.

Do not fast again until your body has a chance to rest and recover.

 A Simple 24-Hour Fast

I invite you to try a simple fast.

Here's what you do.

Choose 24-hour period to devote to prayer and fasting.  To fast, eat dinner on at night.  Then, skip breakfast and lunch on the next day.  Also refrain from any other solid foods during your fast, but please do drink plenty of water.  (You may also drink coffee or fruit juices during the fast if you choose.)  Then, eat dinner after the sun goes down the next day.

Alternatives

If you are not sure if you can go that long without food (or if it is not healthy for you), consider an alternative.  You could only skip one meal you normally eat.  Another idea is to give up coffee (or something else), or to fast from a non-food item like social media, using your cell phone, or watching TV. 

Is Fasting Safe?

Fasting for short periods is safe for healthy individuals when done properly.  It is not recommended for those who are ill or have certain conditions like diabetes.  Please ask your medical doctor if you are unsure whether fasting is safe for you.  Please be sure to drink plenty of water (or juice) while fasting. 

But Won’t I Be Hungry?

Yes.  You will probably be hungry while you fast.  This is normal.  Let your discomfort remind you to pray.  Every time you feel hungry, focus on God and pray.  Ask God to reveal anything you need to change about your attitude and character.  Ask God to fulfill you in ways that food never can. 

What If It Makes Me Sick?

It is normal to feel hungry and uncomfortable and have less energy while you fast.  However, if you feel ill or unable to continue for any reason, please be safe and end your fast.  God will still honor your spiritual work.

Monday, April 29, 2024

Listen and DO - James 1:19-27

Introduction
We are studying the Epistle of James.  James is a short letter packed full of powerful wisdom.  It was written by Jesus’ half-brother.  We say that James is Jesus’ “half-brother” because Jesus and James both shared a biological mother—Mary.  But Jesus was the biological son of God while James was the biological son of Joseph.

Did you even know Jesus had a brother?  He did.  Matthew13:55-56 says Jesus had 4 brothers and that he had sisters too (but doesn’t tell how many).  And James was probably the oldest of Jesus’ younger brothers.  And James was the author of the Epistle of James.

Last week, James wrote that we should not seek so much to be saved from our trials and temptations, but that we pray to be saved through our trials and temptations, because God uses them to teach us enduring faith that refines our character.  But James has a new lesson for us today; listen to what he says.  Let’s read it together in our pew Bibles on page 1721.

James 1:19-27 (NIV)
19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Listen and DO
James says, “My brothers and sister take note of this:  be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…”  To whom is James writing?  He’s not talking about his biological brothers and sisters.  He’s talking about believers, fellow followers of Christ.  Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 12:50?  He said, “Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother!” 

It's important to note that James is not writing to unbelievers; he’s writing to Christians who are already following Jesus.  You cannot be saved and become a Christian by doing good deeds.  We are saved by faith alone.  We must trust Jesus and decide to follow Him.  But once we are saved, we should respond to the saving grace of God by doing something.  And James writes to remind Christians what we should do and how we should live.

And what should we do?  We should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.  Now this is great wisdom.  God gave us two ears and only one mouth.  That’s a great reminder God has design right into your face to listen at least twice as much as you speak.  Every time you see your face in the mirror, remind yourself, “Today, I’m going to listen twice as much as I speak.”  And don’t just say it.  DO it.  Really listen.  Don’t just hear.  Listen and try to understand people.

Sometimes that means listening to more than just the words they're saying.  It means understanding them as a person, what’s motivating them to say the things they say.  Ask for God’s wisdom every day to really listen to and understand people and where they’re coming from.  And the Holy Spirit of God who lives in all believers can reveal people’s heart to you so you really understand them.

And be slow to anger.  There are times for righteous anger.  Remember, Jesus got angry when He saw the money changers in the Temple desecrating His Father’s House while cheating people out of their hard earned money.  However, we need to be slow to anger, because our anger is rarely as righteous as Jesus’.  And human anger does not bear good fruit like God desires.  Instead, it creates wounds and dissention and damages relationships.  It clouds our judgment and can even damage our health.  So put away anger and learn grace to be patient and stay calm so you can listen and understand people and be quick to forgive.  This is what followers of Jesus do.

James 1:22-24 (NLT)
22 
But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. 23 For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. 24 You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like.

When we look into the mirror, what do we see?  I don’t know about you, but I see a sinner saved by the grace of God.  God’s Word says we are saved by God’s grace.  It’s not because of the good things we do.  It’s a free gift from God through Jesus Christ.  We don’t deserve to be forgive and saved from Hell, but—in God’s loving grace—He sent Jesus to save us anyway. 

So when we look in the mirror, we should see someone that God loved so much He sent His Son to save us—to even die on the cross for us.  So we see someone who is precious to God, but who also has some serious flaws who needs saving and it is a salvation that cost God dearly.  So don’t forget that face—the face of a precious child of God bought by the blood of Jesus.

And don’t forget how you still have some things to work on—not to earn God’s love, but because of God’s love.  God already loves you completely and unconditionally, but we know we have some flaws we want God to heal in us.  So listen to God’s Word in the Scripture and let the Holy Spirit empower you to do it.

There are so many ways I fall short of God’s Word it can be overwhelming where I should start.  Thankfully, James gives us a couple places to start—some things everyone can work on.  First of all, he says:

Slide – James 1:26 (NLT)
26 
If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless.

I love how straight forward James is.  He puts it so well.  Controlling your tongue—learning when to be quiet, when to speak, and what to say and how to say it—is something we all need to learn and something we all can learn.  It’s harder for some than others, but it is something we can learn and should learn.  You see, a lot of time in church, people want to worry over some deep theological question or some mysterious and obscure story in the Bible.  When what we really need to do, most of the time, is pretty simple.  Learn how to control your tongue.  

Now, some will say they just can’t do it.  But you can if you really focus on it.  And you can if you will invite the Holy Spirit of God to come in and take control of your tongue for you.  If God can creae stars that are trillions of light years away, He can control your tongue.  However, a lot of people just don't want to submit their speech to the Lord.  But James says, that's what we need to do.

And James gives another simple thing we can do—show compassion.  He says:

James 1:27 (NLT)
27 Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.

In New Testament times, orphans and widows were the most helpless and vulnerable people in the world.  They had almost no way to make it in the world—no way to earn a living, support themselves, or protect themselves—aside from the compassion of people willing to help them.  So what James is talking about here are the most helpless and vulnerable people.

When we look around today, who do you see who are the most helpless and vulnerable people?  Widows and orphans are still on that list, but there are many others too--the elderly, the foreigner among us, and anyone else who is vulnerable who will not be able to make it if someone does not sacrificially step in to help them.  James says, pure and genuine religion in the sight of God is caring for them.  And you don’t have to be a Bible scholar to do that.  You don’t have to have all the answers.  You just have to have compassion in your heart and a willingness to do something.

Summary
So let me summarize everything for you.  And I want you to practice these things this week.
What can you do this week to practice these, because we want to be doers¸ and not just hearers.

  1. Listen More, Speak Less - Will you practice listening more and speaking less this week?
  2. Control Your Tongue - Will you invite the Holy Spirit in to start taming your tongue?
  3. Practice Compassion - What can you do this week to help the helpless, give hope to the hopeless, and protect the unprotected?
I challenge you this week to be doers of the Word, and not hearers only who deceive themselves.
I

Monday, April 22, 2024

Trials and Temptations

Introduction
We’re working our way through a study of the Epistle of James—lesson by lesson.  Last week, we discovered the writer of James was the brother of the Lord Jesus.  He was the biological son of Mary and Joseph and grew up in the same household as Jesus.  At first, he didn’t believe in Jesus.  But after Jesus died and rose from the grave, James believed and became one of the leaders of the early Christian church. 

The Epistle of James is short—only 5 chapters—but it is packed full of powerful, practical wisdom.  The reading today is a perfect example.  In just these few verses, we have several words of advice.  Let’s go back through each of them.

James 1:2-4
Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.

Joy is not the emotion most of us would associate with trials.  Yet, James suggests that trials are not just obstacles but opportunities—opportunities to grow in faith and endurance.  These difficulties test our faith, and through perseverance, our character is refined and strengthened. And a mature faith equips us to handle life's challenges with a steadier hand and a more hopeful heart. 

James is not suggesting we become masochists—who seek out and derive pleasure from painful ordeals.  We’re not happy about the trials, but can be overjoyed about the fruit we gain when we trust God in the midst of our trials.  James says they make us perfect, complete, needing nothing.

And consider this:  You will never get to go through the trials of life ever again in eternity.  We often talk about how great eternity in the Kingdom of Heaven witll be, where there will be no more sickness or suffering or pain.  But we often forget, God put us on this earth for a reason.  And we only get to experience life in this way (broken as it is) one time for maybe 80-90 years.  We never get to do this again.  Let's not miss this once in an eternity opportunity to learn and grow from the struggles we face.

Slides – James 1:5-8
If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you.  He will not rebuke you for asking.  But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind.  Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.  Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do.

2 Points
James gives two points of practical advice here.  First of all, when you’re going through trials:  ask for God’s wisdom.  That’s not what we normally do.  We may ask for God to take away the challenge; heal us; make the problem go away; etc.  But James says, “Ask for wisdom.”  Proverbs 3:14 says wisdom is better than silver and gold.  In other words, it one of the most precious things you can gain in life.  Don’t miss the precious chance to gain wisdom through your trials just because you want God to make your life easy.

The second point James makes is a warning.  Make sure you’re putting your faith in Jesus alone and not the world.  People have a tendency to want to hedge their bets.  Let’s take an example:  suppose you are facing a huge trial—maybe you have cancer.  So you pray for Jesus to heal you.  But while you’re at it, you decide it can’t hurt to pray to the Muslim god, Allah.  And you figure, you might as well pray to the Hindu gods of India and the native America gods and African gods of animism.  You figure, “I’ll take all the help I can get.”  James says, a person like that shouldn’t expect to “receive anything from the Lord.  Their loyalty is divided between God and the world…”  And he says, “They’re unstable.”  Let us never forget, there is only One True and Living God.  And He will not share you with any other supposed god.  You must be loyal to Him and Him alone.  You are either all in with Jesus Christ—who is Lord of all—or you are not in at all.

James 1:9-11
Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. 10 And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. They will fade away like a little flower in the field. 11 The hot sun rises and the grass withers; the little flower droops and falls, and its beauty fades away. In the same way, the rich will fade away with all of their achievements.

Let Go of Worldly Concepts of Wealth and StatusVerses 9-11 reminds everyone, regardless of your social or economic status, put your hope in God alone. The poor are reminded to take pride in their high position—because the Lord Jesus Christ lifts them up.  The rich are reminded of their vulnerability—like a wildflower, their wealth will fade away.  They could lose it in the blink of an eye.  In fact, they will lose it all when they die.  For whatever wealth you have in this life will be gone forever in the next.  You cannot take your possessions with you.  In heaven, we will all be on equal social and economic footing. 

This passage calls us to embrace humility, recognizing that our true value comes from our relationship with God, not our earthly status or possessions.  It’s a liberating mindset—reminding us all to live authentically and with compassion, appreciating our blessings and empathizing with others regardless of their or our circumstances.

And then in verses 12-15, James tells us the blessings that will last forever actually come from the trials of this life.

James 1:12-15
12 
God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. 13 And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, “God is tempting me.” God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else. 14 Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. 15 These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.

Tests and Temptations
While our earthly wealth and treasures will fade away like flowers in a field, the blessings we inherit from testing and temptation will last forever.  These become a crown of life if we endure and are faithful. 

God is the giver of all good things.  God does not tempt us.  Temptation comes from the Devil and from our own selfish, internal desires.  God uses both the tests and temptations we face in life for our own good—to expose and root out the ungodly attitudes and characteristics inside us keep us from being all we are meant to be.  And when we endure trials, our faith grows stronger and we learn endurance.

Slides – James 1:16-18
16 
So don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow. 18 He chose to give birth to us by giving us his true word. And we, out of all creation, became his prized possession.

Summary
Today, we've explored how trials can be a source of joy, how wisdom from God is our priceless aid,
how humility guides our conduct, and how perseverance leads to divine rewards.

This week, I challenge each of you to reflect on the trials you are facing.  Can you see them as opportunities for growth?  Seek God's wisdom in prayer, approach life with humility, and strive to persevere.

We say we believe in Jesus.  We believe He faced the cruel cross of Calvary.
We believe He rose from the grave.  His death and ressurection won our freedom and eternal life.
Now, let’s do more than just say we believe.  Let’s put our faith into action.
Let's live out our faith, embracing each day with courage and hope,
counting all trials as joy, because they lead to eternal rewards that we will possess forever.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Hello. My Name Is James.

Introduction
Today, I'm begin a study through the Epistle of James.  James is a power packed letter filled with practical advice for living as a Christian in an unchristian world.  Therefore, we are going to take out time and work our way through the letter slowly, lesson by lesson so we don't miss anything, because everything in this letter is important.  I invite you to follow along each week as we learn everything we can from this short but important book in the New Testament.  Let's start at the very beginning.

James 1:1
This letter is from James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I am writing to the “twelve tribes”—Jewish believers scattered abroad.
Greetings!

Writing Letters
My wife and I wrote a lot of letters to each other when we were dating.  In high school, we would pass notes back and forth regularly.  Then I moved away for college and we wrote each other letters every week.  We still have those letters packed away in boxes somewhere in storage.

Much of the New Testament in the Bible is a collection of letters written by early church leaders.  Today, we may think of letters as out of date.  Few write letters anymore, other than for very official purposes.  Most chose to use email or instant messages.  But in New Testament times, writing letters was sort of a cutting edge new technology for common people.  It is true that people wrote letters way back into very ancient times--millennia before the New Testament.  But ancient letter writing was typically reserved for royal officials because writing materials were very expensive, few were literate to read and write, and there was no post service to send letters long distances.


But by New Testament times, several factors came together at just the right time to aid the spread of the Good News about Jesus Christ.  Writing materials became cheaper and available to common people.  More people could read using the common Greek language almost everyone spoke to some degree.  And due to the expansive Roman Empire with well maintained roads and shipping routes, mail could be sent from one end of the Empire the other.  The writers of the New Testament took full advantage of this to spread the message that Jesus, the Son of God, had been crucified and then rose from the grave.


You may have learned in school letters have a general structure.  First, a letter has a heading that tells who it's from and who it's to.  Then, there is the salutation where you say, "Dear So and So..."  Next comes the body of the letter that contains the main points, followed by the closing:  "Sincerely, Your Best Friend Chris."  We often find similar patterns in the letters from the New Testament, like James.


Most letters in the New Testament are written by the Apostle Paul.  Paul was a prolific letter writer and many of his letters have been preserves in the Bible.  however, the Epistle of James by a man named James, who had his own style or writing and his unique perspective on living as a faithful Christian.

Who is James?
Who is James?  In the letter, James says: "I am a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ."

What is a slave?  In 1st century Israel, a slave was typically considered property of the owner, lacking personal freedom and autonomy.  People entered slavery due to debt, poverty, as a penalty for crime, or possibly if conquered in battle.  While slaves sometimes had legal protections under various legal codes, they were still fundamentally bound to serve their masters' needs.  And since a slaves master was the one with all the power, abuse was rampant despite any laws on the books to protect slaves. 

We don't like the word slave is the 21st century.  Some Bible translations try to sanitize the word from the New Testament and change it to servant.  However, servant doesn't really capture the essence of the meaning the biblical writers were trying to convey.  Servant is too nice a word.  The Greek word the Bible uses is doulos, which  literally means bondservant, a person who sold themselves into slavery to repay a debt they had no means to repay.  A bondservant doesn't just work for their master; they are owned by their master.

Slavery is a dirty word to our ears for many reasons. People were never meant to be owned by other people.  It is an abomination.  Another reason against slavery is it creates a serious imbalance of power. Human masters cannot be trusted to hold so much power over another human being—even if that person willingly submits to being a slave.  People sometimes can't even be trusted to properly care for a dog or cat, let alone another human being.  Perhaps that is why it is such a fearful responsibility to become a parent.  A parent has nearly absolute power and authority over a fragile human life--their child.  And parents do not always know what to do nor do they always chose the best thing to do.  Yet this is the nature of human life.  Parents beget children and (hopefully) do their best to exercise benevolent authority over their children for nearly two decades until their children are old enough to become independent.

James self-identifies as a slave of--not another human being, but--God and the Lord Jesus Christ.  And based on Scripture, God is a good and worthy Master.  He always seeks the good of His slaves.  He doesn’t treat people like slaves.  In fact, Jesus (who is God) said in John 15:15, I no longer call you slaves, but friends…”  But James calls himself a slave. 

Who is this James?  Do we know anything about him?  We do!  And it is fascinating!
The Bible says Jesus had brothers and sisters.  Matthew 13:55 says His 4 brothers were James, Joseph, Simon, and Jude.  James is always listed first, which typically means he was the oldest of Jesus’ younger brothers.  After Jesus was crucified, James would be the eldest living brother of Christ, responsible for being the head of the household.  And according tradition and most scholars, the James who wrote the Epistle of James was Jesus' younger brother. 

As far as we know, Jesus never wrote anything down Himself; or if He did, none of it survived.  So we don't have anything written directly from Jesus.  But in this letter from James, we may have the closest thing to the hand of Jesus.  James grew up with Jesus, spent some 20-30 years with Him.  He knew him through all the years that the Scripture writes about as well as what the Scripture leaves unmentioned.  And as we read the letter of James, we're reading the thoughts of a man who knew Jesus deeply and personally the way only a brother sometimes can.

Now, James and his other brothers didn’t believe in Jesus at first.  Maybe it's hard to think of your brother in such divine terms as being "the Son of God".  Can you imagine growing up the brother of Jesus Christ?  I can imagine Mary getting upset with James from time to time over something stupid he did (mistakes all mortal people make).  Maybe, in frustration, she said something like, “Why can’t you be more like your brother Jesus!”  And maybe James smarted off to Mary with, “Oh!  Jesus is so perfect!  You act like he walks on water!”  Of course, I'm being facetious, but on a serious note, I guess it might have been hard to grow up in the shadow of "the Son of God" or to think of your older brother as the long awaited Messiah.

At any rate, Jesus' brothers did not believe in Him at first.  Mark 3:20 says Jesus’ brother thought He was out if his mind.  They came and tried to take Him away so He didn't stir up trouble.  But at some point, probably after Jesus actually died and rose from the grave as He said He would, James became a believer.  You might think James would trumpet his status as Jesus’ brother.  “Listen to me.  I’m Jesus’ brother!”  But James doesn’t do that at all.  Instead, he humbles himself and says,  “I’m a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

To Whom Was James Writing?
Letters are written from someone to someone.  To whom was James writing?  He says, “I’m writing to the “twelve tribes”—Jewish believers scattered abroad.”  What does that mean?  

The term "Twelve Tribes" was a cultural term among Jewish people that recalled their tribal history.  They started out as twelve tribes and had often experienced trials and tribulations that scattered them abroad.  In fact, there were no longer 12 tribes.  10 of the tribes had been scattered into oblivion when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians.  All the inhabitants of the northern 10 tribes were carried away and never seen again as a distinct people group.  The 2 tribes that remained were Judah and Benjamin.  The Jewish people derive their name from the tribe of Judah.  And even they had experienced a great deal of "scattering" over the centuries.

At this stage in Christian history, almost all Christians were Jewish believers.  Scholars sometimes point out James was writing to Jewish Christians, not Gentiles Christians.  Some of you who are serious students of the Bible have probably heard that.  But that’s kind of a pointless argument.  Almost all Christians were “Jewish” at this point in Christian history.

The real point here is that believers (Christians) are being scattered because they are fleeing persecution.  The Jews who believed Jesus is the Messiah who rose from the grave are being kicked out of their churches (synagogues) by the Jews who didn't believe.  And at the same time, they are being ostracized in their communities, leading some to lose their livelihoods.  Others are being badly persecuted, some arrested.  Some are even being beaten or killed.  It was a difficult and dangerous time for Christians and many had to flee their homes and move away to new towns seeking safety.

God did not let these early Christians suffering go to waste.  As they are scatter, they go from town to town telling people about Jesus every where they go.  So Christianity is spreading, not being silenced.  And the Apostles, like Peter, James, and John as sending letters to these scattering Jewish Christians--creating a written record of the early Christian faith, which we have preserved in the New Testament of our Bibles.

Unfortunately, being scattered can make you feel lonely and really tests your faith.  You are tempted to just keep your mouth shut about Jesus, even though Jesus commanded His followers to speak up for Him.  And that’s one of the reasons James is writing—to encourage Christians who feel lost and lonely in a world that doesn’t have their same values.

Feel Like You Don’t Belong?
Do you ever feel like you don’t belong in a world where people seem so mean, angry, unloving, judgmental, and immoral?  I know I do sometimes.

The world around me right here in America is becoming foreign in many ways.  Sometimes it feels like common sense and common decency have been flipped upside down.  

But I know there are others around the world that have it even worse. I texted with a Christian friend who lives in Pakistan the morning I wrote this message.  He lives in a country that is 95% Muslim.  Many in that country who practice a very militant form of Islam think people like my Christian friend are crazy or guilty of blasphemy.  Christians are face discrimination, are frequently persecuted, mistreated, falsely accused, arrested, and even killed.  I know they often feel scattered, lonely, and discouraged.

If you ever feel like I do or like my friend in Pakistan, like a remnant of the faithful believers scattered in a lost and hostile world, James is a letter written to encourage you to be faithful and not give up.  But James is more than just clich├ęs and platitudes. James is a real talk.  In 5 short chapters, James shares powerful, practical wisdom about how to live as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. Whereas other writers often focus on philosophy and theology, James gets down to brass tacks and focuses how Christians live out faith in actions—not just beliefs.

Every paragraph in James is important.  So we’re going to take our time and work our way through James slowly, lesson by lesson.  And I hope you will come each week and pay close attention.  And I challenge you to go deeper in your walk with Jesus, deeper than just what you believe, as you learn to live out your Christian faith by what you do day to day.

Closing
James was Jesus’ brother.  But anyone who give their life to Christ and becomes a Christian is a brother of sister of Christ.  We are not alone.  We are part of a royal family—the family of God.  If you are a Christian, you are my brother, my sister.  You are not alone.  We are in this together. 

In the Old Testament, Jews inistiated their children into the people of God by circumcising their children on their 8th day.  For Christians, baptism is the sacred ceremony we use to initiate people into the family of God.  It is a sacrament Jesus told us to practice that God uses to pour out His grace upon us.  No one deserves God’s grace.  But He gives it freely to all who repent and seek His help.  

I want to close today by inviting your to become a Christian.  If you believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and Savior of the world who died on the cross and rose on the third day, then chose today to follow Him.  Turn away from your sin and turn to Jesus and He will save you.  You will become a child of God, my brother or sister.  And though you may sometimes feel alone in this hostile world, you will never actually be alone.  For you will be part of the family of God with brothers and sisters all over the world.  And even more important, Jesus will walk with you through everything you face by the Holy Spirit that lives inside you.  

And if you have if you have never been officially baptized and initiated into God's family, I invite you to schedule your baptism today.  If you live close to me, contact me and we will talk about how you can be baptized.  Or, find a faithful, Bible-believing church near you, and be baptized in obedience of Christ our Lord and in expectation of the grace baptism represents.

Finally, I challenge to read this blog each week as we work our way through the powerful letter of James.  I usually post my blogs each Monday.  I pray you will read and receive the blessings and guidance God wants to give through my feeble words.