This is the oldest recording I have of a sermon I have done, and is actually of the second sermon I ever did. It was preached at All Saints Necton on the 2nd September 2012.
Now James was the leader of the early church in Jerusalem and is often considered to have been the half-brother of Jesus. At the start of the epistle, or letter, he addresses it to ‘the twelve tribes of the diaspora’ or as your Bibles have translated it ‘to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations’. This actually enables us to place the letter in the context of Acts 11.19 where many believers had scattered in response to the persecution in which Stephen died. His letter is written to these people who had scattered and were being persecuted, to those whose way of living marked them out as obvious strangers in the cultures around them. In such situations as those it is important to keep your faith safe and to trust in God for your protection and needs rather than in your own abilities. After all, we know what happened back in the Book of Judges where the Israelites were surrounded by other cultures and began to worship false gods, with disastrous consequences until God sent yet another judge to rescue and lead Israel.
So James writes this letter to encourage those Christians that were being persecuted and his primary focus wasn’t ‘try and blend in, keep your head down, hang in there, keep your mouth shut and hope no one notices you’. In fact his advice wasn’t about how to fit in but rather about how to stand apart. Not as rebels or trouble makers but as part of a Holy People called by God. In short, in this letter James is calling upon all Christians, everywhere in any culture that is dominated by values that aren’t their own to be Holy and Proud.
Now Holiness is a word that is often used of Christians and sometimes not favourably with Christians being accused of acting all ‘holier than thou’. We often use it in connection with other Christian’s good behaviour, ‘That guy lives such a holy lifestyle’, but whilst Holiness does include behaviour, it has a much greater focus: God. In the Old Testament God is constantly present and often acting and we can learn a huge amount about what he is like but he is incredibly hard to visualise, to define. It’s easier in the New Testament where we read in John 1.14 that the word became Flesh and the introductory verses of that chapter equate the Word with God, the Word is God. So in the New Testament we can visualise God as Jesus because Jesus is God. Yet back in Exodus when Moses is confronted by the burning bush God reveals himself simply as ‘I AM that I AM’ haha, simply! Well what does that statement mean? To explain, God says that he is what he is whereas the false gods of the time, such as the Egyptian gods, were quite specific things. There was a god of the Dead called Anubis that was a man with a jackals head, there was a God of the Sun called Ra that was a man with a hawks head and a fancy red hat to represent the sun, these gods have specific attributes, specific limitations, these gods are shown to be false by their definability. The God of the Israelites is not limited like these are, he is higher than creation, he is above labels and limitations and in some ways higher than our own understanding for as the teacher points out in Ecclesiastes ‘God is in heaven and you are on earth’. And so what we find is that for God to be God he has to be different from what we know on earth, he is by his very nature himself within himself and distinct from creation.
He is set apart,
he is Holy.
If God is so ‘other’ from us then how can we know him? Well that would be a huge sermon in its own right but the short and true answer is because he loves us, he wants us to know him. This is shown through the covenants that start with Noah in genesis 6 through to Abraham in Genesis 12 all the way through to Jesus who presents the new covenant at the last supper. That’s why early on in Leviticus we get the first call to holiness. God says to Moses ‘Tell the people “Be Holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy”’.
Be Holy, because I am Holy.
God is saying to the Israelites that as he is different from the other gods of the land, so they must be different from the cultures that worship those gods. I am Different, so you must be different. It is precisely this theme of God related Holiness that James is writing about in today’s passage.
Just like the Christians that James wrote to, we live in a society where God is not the main focus, at worst Christians are marginalised by not being allowed to wear crosses in the workplace or by the prohibition of prayers at council meetings that was in the papers a few months ago. Fortunately for us we don’t run the risk of dying for our faith unlike some Christians such as Muslim converts in Saudi Arabia or anyone found with a Bible in their possession in North Korea, however the issue we face is completely different, that of general apathy.
The culture around us, on the whole, doesn’t know if there is a god but more importantly it doesn’t particularly care if there is a god. As such it is reminiscent of the cultures surrounding the Israelites when Judges says ‘In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit’. This seems remarkably similar to our modern day culture where something can be ‘right for you but not for me’, a culture where morality has become subjective. So what James wrote to the early Christians, could well have been written for us right here, right now.
The first thing he says is ‘My Brothers, take note of this’. This is a particularly important point he’s about to make, ‘everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry for a man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that god desires.’
‘Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak.’
So… are… you… listening… faster… than… I… am… talking? That’s not what he’s trying to say, luckily for us or this sermon really would take forever! No, James is pointing out that humans have a tendency to jump to conclusions and hasty action on those conclusions can be mistaken and not what God wants. James highlights throughout this small passage the consequences of living by the standards of the world.
We are often hasty to jump to conclusions, we are guilty of listening to sermons and not acting on them, of doing a devotional in the morning and then mentally putting a tick in the god box for the day. James says in verse 23 – 24 , New living translation, For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away and forget what you look like. Or to change his metaphor slightly, I wake up and look at myself in the mirror, hair all over the place like this if I look in the mirror and just walk away my hair is still a mess right? What I should do is look in the mirror and sort my hair out. It’s like that with the Word of God. It isn’t enough to hear it, we should act on it. Verse 22 Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Verse 25 then goes on to say ‘The man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does.’ This verse seems simple, do what God wants and he’ll be happy with me.
Actually this verse sums up the relationship that God has with his people all the way through the Bible. Covenants are special promises between two parties that detail their obligations to each other, we have to keep to the terms and conditions and so does God. When we live by the standard of holiness as revealed in the law, God meets with us and as we glorify him, he glorifies us.
So what should we do? How can we live this life of holiness? James says verse 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’. The Greek for ‘planted’ is εμφυτον which suggests a permanent placing; one commentator suggests that a better translation would be ‘engraved’. So accept the word which is engraved in you. Let the Word actively do something to you, to who you are.
How can we know what moral filth is? How can a word save us? Change us? As I said earlier, we can picture God as Jesus because at the start of John he makes it clear that Jesus is the Word of God. As Christians we say the creed and we say that we believe in God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, that is what we call the Trinity. Now according to John, we can use the name Jesus or the name the Word. So it is perfectly correct to say we believe in God the Father, The Word and the Holy Spirit. Now, one way to look at this is that God the Father is the one who created and sustains the world, The Word is the part of God that interacts with us through the prophets and scripture and, most importantly, by becoming human in the person of Jesus and the Holy Spirit is the presence of God that we are aware of when we pray or when people are healed or when miracles happen. So if Jesus is the Word, what is moral evil? Simply put it is sin, which is living and behaving in a manner that is orientated away from God as King. God gave the Israelites the Law to give them a structure, a mechanism as an aid to help them focus on him and to avoid Sin. The law is designed to help people to live in holiness, in relationship with God. That’s why the longest psalm, 119, talks in depth about how precious the word is to the psalmist.
Now, I know this isn’t a school class but if anyone would like to do some homework may I suggest that after the service you go away and read psalm 119? At least the first 24 verses as it shows a very similar train of thought to what James was saying.
The problem with the law is that it is almost impossible to keep. The Word of God has revealed that to live in relationship with God we must complete all the terms and conditions, yet we keep on sinning, we fail to match up to the criteria that God demands. So, because he loves us, God sent his only son Jesus Christ to live as a human being and Jesus fulfilled the law, he met all the requirements. As man he was able to live the perfect life and to be the perfect sacrifice as required by the law to atone for sin, as God he was able to reach out to humanity and offer us a love that was so strong that it took him to the cross and to die for us. Failure to fulfil the law ultimately equals death, yet when death was confronted with the one who had fulfilled the law it lost its power and could not restrain him any longer. By Jesus dying for us as a perfect human, when he is resurrected he is resurrected for us. He takes us from the realm of sin and ungodly desires, carries us through the death that we should have had and delivers us into the life that God desires to give us.
As the Word of God, Jesus is the perfect person to ask the question: ‘How should we live our lives? What do we need to do to avoid this moral evil?’ Well fortunately Jesus was once asked a very similar question. In Matthew 22:36 ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ He replied ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment, the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.’ This is what God expects of us, this is his standard that, if we claim to love him, we are expected to live by. James supports this by saying ‘Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongue deceive themselves and their religion is worthless.’ Throughout Hebrew literature the tongue is seen as a symbol for both what people say and what they do, so if you claim one thing but do another then your religion is worthless. If we live as hypocrites, then we live in vain. James concludes by saying Verse 27 NLT ‘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.’
The message of James for us today is that when we live in a culture where Self is King, where pleasure is the motivator, where the orientation of people’s lives is away from God what counts is standing up and being counted.We should live our lives not by our standards, but by the standard of righteousness that God desires. We should focus on others, and not ourselves. Just as our God is different from the gods of the cultures around us, whether they be half man half wolf or drugs or money, so we should live our lives differently than those who follow false gods. This is not to say we should antagonise them or act opposite to them because then you’re still measuring your life by their standards but in reverse rather than by measuring your lives by the standard that God desires.
We are called to enter into relationship with God through Christ’s death and having entered into that relationship we are called to carry on with it. What God wants from us today is for us to use our ears and to hear his word speaking into our lives and to let that word reside in our hearts, shaping what we do.
In our passage, James said ‘Listen to the Word and Do’.
Jesus, the Word of God, Said ‘Love God and Love your neighbour.’ Amen.