James Chapter 1
James, chapter 1
Today we start a new sermon series on the Letter to James. The lectionary gives us a bit of each of it’s 5 chapters through the Sundays in September, and it’s not a book that we look at very often, so we’re going to work our way through it, chapter by chapter, for the next few weeks.
And we’ve called the series ‘Living Faith’ - for two reasons. First, because the Letter of James is a call to faith; to a wholehearted, whole life commitment to trusting God. And second because it is very practical - it’s all about how to live that faith out in everyday life. It’s about living faith, not theorising about it.
And today I want to start by giving a brief introduction to the letter; to set the context and give us a bit of background, and then to explore one of the big themes of the first chapter - a theme which is going to be played out in the rest of the letter.
So, first of all, some background.
The author of the letter is almost certainly James, the brother of Jesus. And if that is the case - and it seems very likely that it is - it gives these words extra poignancy. After all they were written by someone who grew up with Jesus; who saw him playing as a child, who worked, perhaps at the carpenters table alongside him, who watched him grow into his ministry and who must have suffered a particular heartbreak at his death and joy at his resurrection. This is written by someone who really knew Jesus.
Surprisingly however, James wasn’t always a fan. In John’s gospel, as Jesus’ mission becomes clearer we’re told that ‘not even his brothers believed in him’. That changed at some point, and after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, James goes on to be one of the key leaders of the early church, together with Paul and Peter. Paul is the great missionary who travels around the Mediterranean planting new churches, and Peter, after a period in Jerusalem also sets out to spread the good news, but James, it seems, stayed put in Jerusalem, where he became the key leader of the church in that city.
And although it’s impossible to date precisely, it’s likely that James wrote this letter some time in 50’s or early 60’s of the first century - 20 years or so after Jesus’ death.
That means this short, very practical letter gives us access - give us a direct taste - of the life and priorities of the very earliest Christians living in Jerusalem.
And it is very practical. There is none of the great sweeping theology that Paul’s letters give us - this is the kind of thing that someone leading a Christian community and wanting to share his wisdom and experience, might write to people that he longs to see grow into everything he knows Jesus offers.
So, in the weeks to come we’ll hear advice about how to talk to one another and about one another, how to live well in a Christian community where there are differences in wealth and background, how to deal with temptation, how to pray for people who are sick and how to build up a strong and healthy fellowship. It’s great stuff.
It’s also a very Jewish letter. Not surprisingly. James was entirely Jewish - remember what we said during the recent sermon series on the Old Testament? Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion called Christianity, that was meant to supplant the old one called Judaism. Jesus was Jewish and he came to say he was the fulfilment and the completion of everything that God had been doing for millennia - and was still doing - with his (Jewish) People. And the early Christians in Jerusalem - all of them Jewish - are figuring what that means in everyday life - what it means to believe that Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of the promises made by God; and what does that mean they have to hang on to from what they had previously learnt as Jews and what must they now let go of. What does it mean to see the world and to live life through the lens of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. And I’ll come back to that in a minute.
Ok. I want to pause for a second now and ask you to do something.
Does anyone know these books - or the Magic Eye images that they contain?
To see the hidden image, you have to unfocus your eyes and then let them re-focus on something else - on what was there all along, but which was hidden because you were seeing what you always see - you were seeing the surface, rather than the depth. And often, when you first do them, you can’t see anything - you might even think someone is fooling you or having you on. But then, as you learn how to see in a different way you can often start to see the outline of the other image, and sometimes it pops into view and you can see it clearly in 3D, before it disappears again and you’ve lost it. But then, when you figure it out - and for some people it takes ages, for others it’s immediate - you’ve got it and you can see exactly what’s going on in the depths of the picture and you can see it as clearly - clearer perhaps - than the obvious surface picture.
And faith is like that - faith is learning to see God’s deep down picture, which is always there, but is often hidden by the more obvious surface stuff. And James, in his letter, wants to help us do that. The way he talks about it is in the language of ‘maturity’ and ‘completion’. Chapter 1, verse 4 - ‘be mature and complete, lacking nothing’. See the world through Jesus’ eyes; go deep; live life as ‘complete and mature’ disciples.
Because James knows well that there are plenty of other ways to see the world - many of them more obvious and, initially, more attractive. And it’s easy to get a glimpse of the deeper truth and then to lose sight of it again as the stuff of life, and the whisperings of temptation and doubt draw us away again.
But James wants his readers to be ‘complete and mature’ And the word translated ‘complete’ has a rich meaning. It’s to do with how things are going to be at the end - like a perfect work of art when the painter has finished it; it has the sense of something being everything it was designed to be. It means ‘be what God has ultimately made you to be, and be it now.’ Bring what things will be like when they are perfect into the present. Be whole, we might say.
So how do we do that? How do we learn to ‘be complete’, to see the world in the way Jesus sees the world. And how do we learn to do that all the time, and to see through the shiny external stuff to the depths below?
In Chapter one of his letter, James has three suggestions for us. Three ways for us to get to God’s rich, multi dimensional life that lies beneath the surface. Three ways for us to become whole; to become complete:
Be doers of the word, not just hearers
Be aware of self deception
Rely on what is consistent and unchanging.
First, verse 22 - ‘be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.’
And that’s pretty clear and obvious advice. There’s no point in reading your bible, coming to church and praying, and kidding yourself that you’re doing it all just fine, if you don’t actually live like a follower of Jesus. After all there’s no such thing as a ‘theoretical Christian’ - someone who knows all the right words and ideas, but does nothing about it.
Maybe James has in mind some of the things Jesus said about the Pharisees, who knew all the law about not healing on the Sabbath, and were content to let someone suffer as a result. Be doers, not merely hearers.
But this more than just a warning against hypocrisy, this is really helpful practical advice for the followers of Jesus. If you want to get good at seeing the Magic Eye images, you need to practice. You need to do them. If you want to be whole and complete in Christ, you need to get on and take some risks with faith - to live it. To do it.
How many of us, at some point have done one or other of these things:
Sat in church, or at some Christian event and heard someone say something that really strikes us, convicts us of what we need to do; perhaps we’re encouraged to share our faith with someone, and as we hear it we think ‘yes, I’ll do that’. And then we go home, and lunch is ready, and then there’s the dog to walk and suddenly it’s Monday and …..you just don't get round to it.
Or, we’ve been walking down the street and had a sense that we should say something to someone, or we feel we should phone someone who’s on their own, or send a message - or whatever; we just have a sense that we should do something - but then we worry we might look stupid, or we remember the 10,000 other things we have to do, or we realise we don’t really want to……. and so we don’t. We just carry on and the opportunity, that whisper of the spirit and all the potential it carries is gone.
Anyone recognise that - or something like it? ‘Be doers of the word, not just hearers who deceive themselves’.
So how about this week you make a commitment. When you get a nudge, act on it. That thing you’ve thinking you should try out for God - try it. That step of faith you’ve been holding back from because you're not sure, take a step. That person you’ve been avoiding, go and see them. Be a doer of the word this week.
Second, be very aware of self deception. Three times, in verses 16, 22 and 26, James warns his listeners against deceiving themselves.
That is hard and precious wisdom. How much of our time is spent deceiving ourselves? Just try listening to your own inner voice for a while. It might be a literal voice or a metaphorical one. You’ll know it - it’s the voice that nobody else ever hears and which shapes how you interact in the world. It’s like the story you tell yourself, the narrative of your life.
Hear what it says. Probably it will be a mixture. At times it will persuade you that things you’re doing are ok, even though they’re really not. It’ll persuade you that it was fine when you were really rude to that person, because they’re awful and anyway, you were tired. Or that it’s fine not to be as generous as you could be because it’s been a hard week and anyway, it’s your money, and they probably don’t need it.
And at other times it will deceive you in the opposite way - it will tell you that you’ll never be good enough to do that thing you’d like to try; or that you’ve always been a failure and always will be; or that you’re just as useless as your Mum always said you were.
This is all self deception. ‘Do not be deceived my beloved’ says James. Tell the truth. Face up to the facts. Be honest in front of God. Let Him show you how things really are. Let Him point out to you the lies that live in your head and your heart; that person you hurt - you hurt them and it needs to be dealt with. That habit you have which is destructive but which you so easily justify has to stop. Sin matters. Messing up and hurting people and failing God has consequences. Don’t let the world tell you that it’s all ok. Don’t be deceived.
And that voice you hear which tells you that you’re unlovable; it’s a lie. And the story you tell yourself about how you’re always a failure, it’s just not true. Don’t be deceived.
And the way to deal with this stuff is to let God in - to ask God to show you the self deceptions, and then, as you notice them, to be honest and to acknowledge them before Him. His pure light will burn away the lies and the deception. His truth will set you free. And maybe you need to try that this week.
How do we get to the rich, multi dimensional life that lies beneath the surface? We become doers of the word, not just hearers; we deal with self deception and third, we rely on what is consistent and unchanging. Or rather, we rely on the One who is consistent and unchanging.
James unpacks and explains that using three different metaphors. First he says that we are often like waves in the sea - which wash up and down, in and out. We’re never quite sure which way we’re going or what we believe. Don’t be like that, says James. Then you’re like a child’s toy boat that’s been thrown into the sea and which keeps coming back towards the shore, where it could be picked up by its owner, but as soon as it gets close, is pulled away by the current and the wave and is destined to bob, insecure and unsure of its destination.
And then he says, we’re also flowers in a field. We think that, that just because we’re well off and have a nice house, that we’re sorted. Like a lovely flower which thinks it will be there forever, but quickly fades and falls in the heat - all our wealth and achievement will pass. If you rely on things that are temporary, don’t expect to get far into the depths of life because temporary things are temporary.
Instead he says, using another image, rely on the Father of lights - the one who was there before the stars existed. The One who put the galaxies in their place. The one in whom there is no shadow of change. And there’s no shadow because there is no light bigger than God’s light. It’s a powerful image isn’t it. It is His light which shines over every other light. Nothing comes before Him; nothing changes him. He doesn’t blow in the wind and shake and change according to his mood, or how work went, or whether the kids are playing up. He’s the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So rely on Him. Put your trust in Him.
Don’t be a boat, bobbing on the waves. Don’t be a flower, beautiful today, but gone tomorrow. Be a child of the Father of lights who shone before the stars were lit, and will shine after every other light fades.
And if that’s speaking to you, this week you could work with that. Try to live knowing that everything around you is contingent, that everything is passing - except the love and light of God. Ask God to help you let go of the things that you cling on to, which you think make you ‘you’ and cling only to God.
Faith isn’t a theory. Following Jesus isn’t an idea. It’s a way of life, it’s a way of seeing the world, it’s how to live deep, how to be complete.
Be doers of the word, not just hearers
Be aware of self deception
Rely on what is consistent and unchanging.