Category Archives: Sermons

A Sermon on Sunday – Matthew 1:18-25

ImmanuelToday, Monica and I are in Geraldton, joining Craig and Janelle Palmer and the good folk of Geraldton Baptist Church in worship. They have asked me to preach on this passage as the congregation prepares for Christmas. Whenever I think of the virgin birth, I am reminded of the way Karl Barth spoke of it as the miracle which testifies to the mystery.

Introduction…
Do any of you remember the 1995 song One of Us by one-hit-wonderJoan Osborne?

If God had a name, what would it be              
And would you call it to his face
If you were faced with him in all his glory     
What would you ask if you had just one question

What if God was one of us 
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus                                
Trying to make his way home

If God had a face what would it look like       
And would you want to see                                   
If seeing meant that you would have to believe                                                                               In things like heaven and in Jesus and the saints and all the prophets

And yeah, yeah, God is great
Yeah, yeah, God is good
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

What if God was one of us 
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus                                
Trying to make his way home
He’s trying to make his way home                  
Back up to heaven all alone
Nobody calling on the phone                           
Except for the pope maybe in Rome

Amazing lyrics, amazing questions! If God had a name what would it be? If God had a face what would it look like? What if God was one of us? The lyrics express a spiritual hunger but no idea of where to look for food; and maybe a bit cynical about the things Christians would generally say about God’s greatness and goodness? 

Matthew 1:18-25                                                                                        
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

 All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.” When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

The Miracle
Marriage in first century Palestine had two aspects. First the betrothal and then the marriage proper. The marriages were usually arranged by parents or professional match-makers. Betrothal was a legally binding arrangement that could only be set aside by divorce. The couple were understood as husband and wife although the woman remained in her parent’s home for one more year between betrothal and marriage. After the year had expired there was a formal ceremony and the marriage was consummated. Mary’s becoming pregnant during this period exposed her to public ridicule and shame, and possibly death. It also exposed Joseph to public ridicule, shame and humiliation. If he claimed the child as his own he would suffer the loss of his reputation and community standing. Who would believe the story? The idea of a virgin conception was just a ludicrous then as it is now. (‘You might think he’s an angel sweetheart, but I want a word or two with him!’)

  • A modern possibility? The marvellous birth in 1895 of my great grand-father, Peter O’Neil…

Matthew doesn’t tell us how the Virgin Birth took place—except that it was by the Holy Spirit. Luke gives a little more detail, the angel telling Mary that ‘the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.’ The Virgin Birth is a divine miracle in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew tells us two things about Jesus (Yeshua = “Yahweh Saves”): What he does: You shall call his name Jesus for he shall save his people from their sins. Many people looked forward to national, political and economic deliverance when the Son of David came in conquering power. But Matthew shows us a much deeper human need: he comes to save us from our sins—our spiritual needs far outweigh other needs.

The Mystery
The miracle of the Virgin Birth, though wonderful, is really the secondary matter in this passage, a sign of the far greater miracle and mystery of the Incarnation—the mystery of God becoming flesh and taking his place amongst us as one of us!

You see, God has become ‘one of us.’ This is one of the major differences between Christianity and Islam. For Islam, Allah is so high and so holy it is inconceivable that he could have contact with such as us—he remains aloof, untouchable and untouched by human contamination, suffering and need. He can send angels, prophets or messengers but he cannot come. Christianity is different: God didn’t just send angels, prophets and messengers—he came!  In Jesus, God has come close. God has taken human nature and human life to himself—he has joined human nature to his own divine being. This is all of grace, all of God who is a God who stoops to take us by the hand.

In this respect, Matthew quotes from the Old Testament: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him “Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”’ If the name Jesus is descriptive of what Jesus does, Immanuel is descriptive of who Jesus is—God with us.

  • Other texts: John 14:9; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3

The miracle of the Virgin Birth, then, points towards both the humanity and the deity of Jesus. He was a human person born in the normal way. He is also the eternal God who has come to us—the God-man. Jesus didn’t begin his existence at Christmas, but as eternal God, entered into time and space at Christmas. For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given… (Isaiah 9:6).

The Meaning
So many people are ‘in the dark’ about God and don’t see him clearly. If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Jesus Christ is the “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing…” That is, he is the revelation of the will, wisdom and person of God. He is God’s communication to us, both the promise and the command of God. His teaching is the instruction of God. His death is the death of God-for-us. His resurrection is the victory of God! The meaning of Christmas is first and foremost a message of amazing grace, of a God who comes near.

The second meaning of the miracle of the Virgin Birth is a new creation, the beginning of a whole new world—what we couldn’t do for ourselves, God has and is doing. Into a world of brokenness and sadness God has come by means of a supernatural birth in the power of the Holy Spirit. But what was begun there doesn’t end there: the same Spirit who hovered over Mary and brought about a miracle of new life and transformation in her can also do the same in us! You must be born again! Regardless of who you are or what you have done—you!—can be born again, can start a whole new life as part of the new world. Jesus is the answer to our deepest needs. He is God come among us in order to save us from our sins—rescue us from the deepest cause of our alienation and brokenness. When we start from the inside out we can have hope that the entirety of our life can experience the transformation he brings.

  • Philip Yancey analogy: the fish in the fish tank
  • If God had a name what would it be?
    If God had a face what would it look like?
    What if God was one of us?

A Sermon on Sundays – Matthew 13:53-58

Brown, Nathan & MelissaIt has been a pretty busy couple of weeks, so I apologise for the lack of posts. I have just had the privilege of preaching at Church at: Collective, a relatively new church plant in Hawthorn, Victoria. Although I had to suffer the indignity of going to Hawthorn (think Dockers 2014; Eagles 2015), it is a blessed church, with a wonderful sense of God’s presence in the worship and Lord’s Supper, and rich community amongst the folk there. Pastors Nathan and Melissa (pictured) and their team are providing rich and substantial ministry for the congregation and people in their district. The church has been working its way each Sunday through Matthew’s gospel, and so my appointed text was the little story of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth, at the end of the chapter on parables. Here is an outline of my  very first message in Melbourne…

1. Jesus Goes Home
The parables of Matthew 13 paint a vibrant picture of the coming and way of the kingdom. Its coming is inevitable, irresistible and progressive, but it is not necessarily easily. The kingdom faces resistance, opposition, and rejection.

Jesus’ reception in his hometown is surprising: those who know him best reject his ministry. In a series of seven questions bookended with “where does he get this stuff?” his friends and neighbours conclude he is no one special, perhaps even a fraud. And they were offended at him. Earlier in the gospel, Jesus has pronounced blessing upon those who are not offended with him (11:6). Why were they offended? Why did they refuse to believe? Perhaps their doubts arose when they started considering all these common-place questions, contrasting what they have heard about Jesus with the everyday “facts” of who they “knew” him to be.

2. Reasons for Doubt
a) Some people doubt because they do not have sufficient background and simply cannot believe. They need first to be inducted into the life, knowledge and tradition of the community so they are prepared by the Holy Spirit to believe;

b) Some people doubt on account of the “family” of Jesus—just like in this passage. Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

c) Some people’s doubt is experiential—unanswered prayer, difficulties of life and unmet expectations have left them wounded or disillusioned.

d) Some people’s doubts are moral: they resist the call and the claim of the kingdom.

e) Some people’s doubts are intellectual: the enigma of evil challenges their confidence in the goodness or even existence of God; or the prevalence of scientific naturalism seems to provide explanation enough of the world with the result that God is not needed.

Moments or periods of doubt are quite normal in the Christian life, and may even be the proof of an underlying faith, that in one’s hearts of hearts, one actually believes. Nonetheless doubt is a serious threat for like a wound, doubt can fester into unbelief which is a hardness of heart and a refusal to trust God. In our text tonight, that is just what has happened.

3. Revelation (Matthew 11:25-28)

Although each kind of doubt may require a different response, in each case what is most required is an experience or deeper appropriation of revelation—something easier said than done. Revelation of God is not something we control but something we receive. It is, however, something for which we might pray, both for ourselves and for others. Earlier in his gospel Matthew speaks of the revelation of God given to those who are children (Matthew 11:25-28). This text shows first, that revelation has an aspect of divine sovereignty; it also insists that whosoever will respond to Jesus’ call may come. Unbelief is not inevitable: we may come. Second, the text also shows that God remains hidden, even in his revelation. The treasure of the gospel always comes clothed in an earthen vessel (Bruner). The glory of God was hidden in the humanity of Jesus. When the people of Nazareth stumbled over Jesus’ apparent humanity, they were not open to receive the knowledge of his divinity.

God’s revelation, whether in Christ, Scripture or the proclamation of the church, works in a similar way: it comes clothed in the weakness of humanity. If we stumble or become offended at this human weakness, we will miss the revelation God gives of himself to us.

4. Faith
And Jesus did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief (cf. Mark 6:6). According to Frederick Bruner, “Faith is the ordinary way to Jesus’ help. When faith is not present…not much happens” (2:62). The corollary is also true: where faith is present, it just may be that we will see and experience the saving presence and power of God. Faith occurs in the hearts of those who hear the word of the kingdom, receive it gladly, and understand it. It is amongst those that the word of the kingdom brings forth fruit.

And so Jesus says, “Come.” Will you come? Will you trust? Will you trust on the authority and confidence of others who have gone before you? Will you open your heart to Christ?

A Sermon for Sunday – Psalm 77

hot-coffee & beansIntroduction 

Many years ago I was living in Geraldton and one weekend had to get down to Perth. A friend flew up to Geraldton, picked me up in a light aircraft to fly me back to Perth. During the flight he turned the autopilot off and handed the controls over to me. One of the dials I had to keep an eye on was the attitude meter – which measures the orientation of the aircraft in relation to the horizon. Keep the nose up or you’ll crash and burn! Keep your attitude up! How?

Easier said than done, especially for an introvert! An introvert is someone who lives inside their own head. The busy brain is always at work, observing, hearing, seeing, processing, thoughts whirling around and around. And all this is okay as long as everything is on the up-and-up. But of course, real life has its downs as well as its ups…

Lament

Psalm 77:1-3
I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted. I remembered you O God, and I groaned; I mused, and my spirit grew faint.  Selah

Psalm 77 begins as a psalm of lament, the cry of the people of God in days of darkness and distress, despair and desolation. Here the psalmist is recounting his story: urgent, persistent, prolonged prayer, and yet the prayer seems to go unanswered. And the more he thinks, the lower he gets: I mused, and my spirit grew faint. Sometimes all you can see is darkness…

Psalm 77:4-6
You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak. I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; I remembered my songs in the night. My heart mused and my spirit inquired.

Notice how much mental energy is going into this. The brain is busy, the mind consumed. I remembered, I mused, I enquired. So much so that he cannot sleep and cannot speak.

Psalm 77:7-9                                                             
‘Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favour again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?         
Has his promise failed for all time?     
Has God forgotten to be merciful?      
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?’

Six heart-aching, heart-breaking rhetorical questions. The psalmist has fallen into a pit of despair, distress and depression. The psalmist is filled with doubts, sleepless and weary. The very thought of God is painful. This is not simply one bad circumstance that caused this sorrow: his whole life has been defined by anguish. He longs for days gone by when life was a praise and God seemed so close. Now, it seems that God has rejected him; his unfailing love has failed; his limitless compassion has exhausted itself and found its limit; his promise has fallen to the ground, empty and broken. As he surveys all this evidence he comes to a conclusion:

Psalm 77:10 (NASB)
Then I said, ‘It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.’

The psalmist is in the midst of spiritual depression. The tide has gone out; life is empty, emotions are flat and days are endless. Notice the amount of energy turned inward – how the focus is only upon himself. How will he ever find any hope if he believes that even God is against him, has forsaken him?

Hope

But as so often in the psalms, lament turns to hope and praise.

Psalm 77:10-15
Then I thought, ‘To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.’ I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds. Your ways, O God, are holy. What god is so great as our God? You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.           (NIV)

The great change of mood in this psalm comes when the psalmist begins to remember, to meditate and consider the works and goodness and power of God. He has lifted his eyes from himself to the Lord. He is still musing and meditating, but the direction of his meditation is different. Our life tends in the direction of our dominant thoughts. His distress is still real, but the sting of his grief has been pulled—the sense that he is alone, alienated and abandoned. In the midst of his distress and without denying the reality and pain of his circumstances, he turns his attention toward God, towards God’s faithfulness, towards God’s goodness, towards God’s power. The holy God is also a mighty God, and the holy, mighty God is also a faithful God: faithful to his people! He redeems the descendants of Jacob—including the psalmist! We are drawn towards that upon which we meditate; we are drawn in the direction of our dominant thoughts. This is why we must praise and pray and meditate: so that we might be drawn more deeply into God, into God’s purposes and promises, God’s plans and priorities, God’s power, peace and provision.

What is the content of the psalmist’s meditation? Obviously he is recalling previous blessings. But more than that, he is meditating on the Scriptures, the Bible, the Word of God. More specifically, he is meditating on the story of God’s redemption of his people from slavery in Egypt and the power of Pharaoh.

Psalm 77:16-19a
The waters saw, O God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed. The clouds poured down water, the skies resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked. Your path led through the sea…

The psalmist had turned to the Scripture and from the Scripture was drawing a new hope. He was a descendent of Jacob! He was a member of God’s people.

  • Here we see a difference between Christian meditation and other forms of meditation which encourage us to empty our minds, to centre ourselves deeply within ourselves. Christian meditation fills the mind with Scripture and rises up out of ourselves towards God. The great spiritual masters of the Christian tradition agree that there is no real depth of spirituality or spiritual maturity without the practice of meditation in God’s word.
  • See also Psalm 1; Joshua 1:8; Isaiah 26:3; John 8:31-32; John 15:7; Colossians 3:16;
  • Spiritual transformation—two analogies: The coffee analogy – the water runs through the beans absorbing the colour, flavour, aroma and taste of the beans. So, too, we allow the Word to run through our minds over and over again until we take on its aroma and character. The ‘engrafted’ word (James 1:21, KJV) – a farmer friend grafted four kinds of citrus onto one plant, so the one tree bore four different fruits! Engraft forgiveness, courage, love for and confidence in God into your life through meditation in the Scriptures. Meditate on the person and work of Christ and allow Christlikeness to grow in your life.

Psalm 77:19-20
Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Israel was in a hopeless situation and filled with despair. Hemmed in by the desert on each side, the sea in front and the Egyptian army approaching behind. They had no hope, no escape, no resources, no future. But God’s footprints are ‘in the sea’ – where there is no possibility of footprints. His way is often hidden from us, and when we cannot see the path we must trust the shepherd. God shepherded his people in the days of Moses and brought them through the sea. Is that what Asaph grasped when meditating the Word? That he too was a descendent of Jacob? That he too was a member of the covenant people? That God would be faithful to him too? That as God had shepherded the people then, so he would also shepherd Asaph now?

And what about us? We, too, have a shepherd – Jesus is the good shepherd who gave his life for the sheep. He is the great shepherd of the sheep who will shepherd us all the days of this life and into all eternity.

Revelation 7:9-10, 13-17
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb…And they cried out with a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ …

 Then one of the elders asked me, ‘Who are they and where did they come from?’ I answered, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said,

 ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

My point today is not to make light of the terrible heartache and grief that we sometimes feel: this is real. But friends, God is a God of hope, and he wants to give his people a future filled with hope. One of the means by which he will cause that hope to arise is through his word. Will you take it up and read, meditate? Will you resist spiritual depression and go forward?

Scripture on Sunday – Mark 10:51

BlindBartimaeusMark 10:51
And answering, Jesus said, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Aside from all the literary and symbolic significance of this little story within Mark’s overarching narrative, this is a wonderful miracle story, as well as an amazing statement from the lips of Jesus.

Bartimaeus was a hopeless case: blind, poverty-stricken, socially isolated. But he had obviously heard of Jesus and cried out for mercy, ignoring and resisting all attempts to silence him. He pushed through the crowd and gained the ear of Jesus who called for him and asked this amazing question: What do you want me to do for you? After healing him, Jesus said, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.”

In fact, it was God’s power operative in and through Jesus that made him well. But Jesus said it was his faith that made him well. His faith.

This verse, like many others in the gospel of Mark, is a great challenge and a great encouragement. For Mark, faith is the fruit of hopelessness and desperation, a turning to Jesus as to one’s only hope. Yet faith has a potential far beyond what we could ever imagine: Fear not! Believe only!

What is the character of Bartimaeus’ faith, at least as it is presented to us in this story? By far the most important feature is the object of his faith: Jesus. We could, however, speak also of his single-minded focus and determination, and his persistence. The nature of his faith is also indicated in his action once healed. Whereas Jesus told him to “go his way,” Bartimaeus “followed him on the way.” He chose Jesus’ way rather than his own way. Jesus was “on the way” to Jerusalem, to Calvary, and to death; and Bartimaeus followed. Some people want faith in the same way they want a tool: to get a particular job done and then put the tool away. Bartimaeus’ faith drew him into a life of following Jesus in the way of the cross.

For me, the astonishing feature of the story is Jesus’ incredible question: What do you want me to do for you? Is this question only for Bartimaeus? Might it also be for those who cry out to Jesus in their need and determine in their hearts to “follow him on the way”? Nevertheless the question is too big for me: what could I possibly ask? And yet, Jesus asked it as a simple question and Bartimaeus gave him a simple and very specific answer.

What do you want me to do for you?
How might you answer?

A Sermon on Sunday – James 1

Saint_James_the_JustToday I have been asked to preach at Mt Hawthorn Community Church on James chapter 1 – the whole chapter in twenty minutes! I have decided to focus on the last three verses of the chapter and have titled the message “Real Religion, Genuine Faith.”

I don’t know if Pastor Peter has been following my posts on James or not, but I am very much looking forward to this opportunity to share this chapter with God’s people. Though twenty minutes? That would be a miracle! Add to that, that I have not preached since June last year… Please God, let it not be rubbish!

*****

Introduction

Roof story – looked okay but was not. The roof structure lacked integrity, being flawed, internally compromised. Integrity refers the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished; a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition. What you see is what you get: it is honest, it is true.

James, too, is concerned with that which is true. He is very concerned with true Christianity, genuine religion, authentic spirituality, a faith which has integrity.

As I understand matters, the letter of James derives directly from James the Just, James the brother of Jesus, James, leader of the early Jerusalem community of Jesus-followers, James who identifies himself as a servant of God, James the martyr. If he did not directly pen the letter, perhaps his words were collected and edited after his death and formed into the letter we now read. I think, however, that a good case can be made that James did write the letter, and did so to members of his community who had been scattered by the persecution that arose after Stephen’s martyrdom, suffering poverty and alienation as refugees in an unfamiliar environment, especially perhaps, at the hands of other Jews who will not accept these followers of a ‘false messiah.’ If this is true, then we have in this letter a link to earliest Jewish Christianity, as well as a very early understanding and adaptation of the teaching of Jesus, which suffuses this letter from start to finish.

True Religion

James, then, was writing as a faithful pastor to a scattered, poor and distressed Jewish-Christian community. We can see something of his concern for true religion and authentic spirituality in 1:25-27.

But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

What, essentially, is James about? He is concerned about real religion, genuine faith and authentic spirituality. That is, he is concerned about the kind of faith that is expressed in doing, in action, and not simply in customary religious practices. For James, religious devotion which does not issue in practical holiness is worthless. Love of God which does not issue in love of neighbour is worthless. Religious faith which does not trust in God or persevere under trial is worthless. Real religion does has devotional and doctrinal dimensions, undoubtedly. But it is also communal and ethical.

The Perfect Law

James begins this climactic section of his chapter with a reference to “the perfect law of liberty.” In verse 18 James has told his listeners that they have been “born again,” “brought forth” by the Father of lights, the good and generous and gracious God, giver of good and perfect gifts. The word James uses is astounding, a word used only of pregnant women. No doubt God’s gift of birth stands in contrast to that birth seen in verse 15. Sin “gives birth” to death, but God gives us life. God’s people are brought forth as the first fruits of a new creation by the Word of truth. This phrase is used in Ephesians and Colossians as an expression to mean the gospel. Through the gospel we have heard the story of Jesus, of his life and death and resurrection; we have believed, and believing, we have been “born anew.” Born into a new life so much so that the old has passed and the new has come.

Therefore James continues in verse 21, “Receive with meekness the implanted Word, which is able to save your souls.” Not only do Christians commence with the Word of God, they continue by it. “One shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word which proceeds from the mouth of God.” According to Jesus, believers are to live by the Word of God. Not only are we to hear and receive the Word, but we are to become doers of the Word of God (v. 22), allowing God’s Word to speak to us, counsel us and guide us, direct us and shape us, and orient our lives toward the presence, the purpose and promises of God. The “forgetful hearer” simply “goes his way,” the word having no enduring impact or effect on his daily life.

And so we come again to verse 25: “But the one who looks into the perfect law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts (or, a doer of the work), he shall be blessed in his doing.” James, in this verse, shifts his language from Word to “law,” and from being “doers of the Word” to “doers of the work.” What do these shifts mean? Quite simply, James emphasises the call and the demand of the gospel. In chapter two he will bring this out with great clarity: “faith without works is dead.” The gospel is not simply the promise of salvation in and through Jesus, but also the call to follow him. Many commentators believe that James considers that Jesus’ teaching constituted the law made new, that the “law” here refers to Jesus’ ethical teaching.

James’ own letter reflects this: his first chapter is full of imperatives (13-15 in all; see v. 19):

  • Count it all joy (v. 2)
  • Let endurance have its perfect work (v. 4)
  • Ask God! (v. 5)
  • Ask in faith! (v. 6)
  • The lowly are to rejoice in their exaltation (v. 9)
  • The rich in their humiliation (v. 10, assumed)
  • Let no one say (v. 13)
  • Do not be deceived (v. 16)
  • Be sure you know this! (v. 19)
  • Be: quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger (v.19)
  • Put off! (actually a participle, but imperatival; v. 21)
  • Receive! (v. 21)
  • Be doers! (v. 22)

It is clear that for James, real religion, authentic spirituality, is a matter of obedience to the Word of truth, the gospel, the teaching of Jesus, the Word of God, and that such obedience is crowned with blessing, both now “in the doing,” and with a crown of life in the age to come (v. 12).

Playing the Long Game

Notice too, that James speaks of persevering in the Word. This kind of steadfastness and endurance is also commended in verses 3-4 and 12, where the steadfast person is declared blessed. James knows that life is tough, especially for his readers. Even so, he counsels them to find their joy in God, to stand firm under trial, to seek God in faith-filled prayer, remain steadfast in the face of temptation, refuse to blame God for their troubles, and most of all, become a fully Christian community, the firstfruits of the new creation, devoted to God’s Word.

In verse 4 James commands: “let endurance have its perfect work, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

To persevere is to take another step, go another round, to keep plugging away, to plod on, putting one step in front of another. It does not require any special talent to persevere, but it does require character; it does require a community. The “you” James is addressing is “all of you, together.” When the people of God form a community of acceptance, encouragement and care, those in it are strengthened and enabled to persevere. They still must persevere themselves, of course, but do so in the context of support, affirmation and accountability. They do so also, in light of God’s promise: “for when they have stood the test they shall receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”

Notice two things:

  1. The tests can be external or internal, and possibly, the internal tests are the most difficult;
  2. That in front of perseverance is hope, and underneath it is love for God. We stand fast, stand firm and stand together because we love God and trust in God’s promise. James is convinced that God is trustworthy, good, gracious and generous, single-minded in his goodness. It is on account of God’s goodness that we can have faith.

Real Religion Revisited

Finally, James identifies three characteristics of “real religion” —the kind which goes beyond the performance of a few religious practices that do not have any enduring impact on our daily existence. These three characteristics are his major concerns and will be picked up in the rest of the letter.

Community

James does not have an abstract interest in the tongue: one scholar has noted that there are 29 imperatives in this letter directly addressing speech ethics. This is a primary concern of James,’ and will occupy the main part of chapter 3, as well as re-appearing in chapters 4 and 5. But again, James’ interest is not abstract; he is concerned about the use of the tongue because of power to destroy the community of God’s people. Verses 19-20 are not just the kind of homely advice one finds in Readers Digest! They are directed against those in the community who are at war with one another, expressing anger and malice toward one another, quarrelling and fighting with one another, and as Paul says, biting and devouring one another. Sins of the mouth tear down the people of God. Failure to bridle the tongue, to speak wisely and with respect and care undermines genuine spirituality.

Compassion

James’ second characteristic of real religion is compassion—love in action, hands-on, sleeves-rolled-up care for the vulnerable in our midst. Just as God visited his old covenant people in order to rescue them, so God’s people are to visit and care for those in need. Widows and orphans were amongst the most powerless groups in the ancient world. It is, of course, legitimate to extend the metaphor in our age and location to those who are in need, though they may not be widows and orphans. I have been greatly challenged by Eugene Peterson’s rendering of this verse:

Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.

He will deal with this issue at length in chapter 2, and it, too, will re-appear in his final chapter.

Clean

Finally James zeroes in on our own moral purity and personal holiness. He calls his listeners to keep themselves “unstained from the world.” James is not a dualist; he believes that this is God’s world. God the “Father of Lights” in verse 17, is the universal creator and father. Nevertheless, the “world” is here seen in its fallenness, in its organisation against the will, the ways and the wisdom of God. In verses 13-18 James warns his listeners against the perils of temptation and sin: sin is a hunter out to capture its prey; sin is conceived and grows up and brings forth death. “Be not deceived,” says James, but rather, “put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness.” It is clear that James envisaged a decisive turning away from sin, sinful patterns of life, and concrete sinful practices. What kind of sins? Some commentators suggest he is focusing on sexual sins in vv. 14-15, but this is probably to over-interpret the verses. No doubt he would include these too. But his emphasis in the letter focuses on interpersonal sins, especially those of the tongue, selfish ambition in the community, and those which oppress or fail to give due heed to the poor. There is a real engagement in the world and yet at the same time a genuine separation from its values, commitments and practices.

So true religion is a life in Christian community, compassion for the vulnerable, and personal holiness, all arising from a persistent practice of the Word of God, and grounded in faith in God and love for God.

What about You?

  • Have you accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ?
  • Are you a “doer who acts,” a “doer of the work,” one who perseveres in the “perfect law of liberty”?
  • Could you use James’ three categories of real religion to do a quick check-up on the state of your own spirituality? Is it authentic? Is it the kind of religion that is pure and undefiled before God? Does one of the categories require your serious attention? What can you do about that this week?

A Sermon on Sunday – James 1:12-18

 

Saint_James_the_JustI have not preached this sermon, but prepared it to see how I might approach this passage if I were called upon to preach it in a congregational context. Moving from exegesis to exposition is not always easy, and I am not overly happy with this sermon as it presently stands. Hopefully it would be developed and improved as I prepared it with a specific audience in mind. Perhaps its focus would be sharpened, and story, illustration and application would bring this somewhat cerebral text to life.

*****

The Two Loves

I am not sure I agree with the way Monica tells the story, but here goes…

We had been married a little under two years, had recently returned home from a six-month short-term mission experience in Indonesia, had our first baby, and were preparing to move to rural WA for our first pastoral appointment. I was obviously tired and had gone to bed earlier than Monica—after working hard all day, and then preparing sermons into the evening, I might add! When Monica came in I was asleep, but apparently half sat-up, turned, looked at her, eyes open and asked, “What’s the password?”

“What password? What do you mean?”

“What’s the password?”

Realising that I was still asleep even though sitting half upright and talking (it had happened before, unfortunately, and to my everlasting shame!), she said again, “I don’t know what the password is. You’ll have to tell me the password.” To which I replied—apparently in a deep, husky voice, “Desire!

For some reason, Monica still thinks that’s a funny story and loves to re-tell it, even thirty years later! She leaves out, of course, the most important point: the reason the word desire was so prominent in my mind…

Desire. What kinds of things do you desire? Do your desires run in good directions? No doubt some of them do. But our desires, typically, are a mixed bag of good and not-so-good. Our passions can shape the direction of our life for extraordinary achievement or they can run amuck. James turns his attention to these things in our passage this week.

Read the text: James 1:12-18

 Human Passions

In verse 13 James takes aim at an attitude that was evidently a problem amongst his listeners, who were blaming God for the troubles and temptations they were experiencing. Instead of “the devil made me do it” they were saying, “God is making me do it!”

It is convenient to attribute our temptations to God. If God is tempting us, we can hardly be blamed for giving in to the temptation. No, in fact, we would be doing God’s will by giving in! Although we might think this is all a bit silly, it is not all that uncommon for someone to justify their behaviour—sometimes even unconscionable behaviour—by claiming God had led them into it, that God has a higher purpose for them, and this activity is part of a bigger plan, that God has spoken to them, that God is love and surely he would not want them “suffer” any longer. Actually, it is amazing how easy it is to justify even sinful behaviour by attributing some blame to God.

In our text, however, the situation is probably a little different. James’ hearers are undergoing real suffering and hardship, very possibly economic oppression and marginalisation, and they are angry. Perhaps they want to take matters into their own hands, and strike out at those who are oppressing them. With bitterness of spirit they are blaming God for their troubles, and perhaps even suggesting that God wants them to rise up against their oppressors.

“Let no one say when he tempted, ‘I am tempted by God.’” James rejects this position out of hand, because God is always and only good, and he never changes. God cannot be tempted with evil for in himself, God’s goodness is his holiness and he is beyond temptation. Further, God’s will is that his people also be holy, so why would he tempt them to evil? For James, the very idea is ridiculous. Perhaps we are tempted, then, by the devil? But no, in this case James does not go there either, but lays the responsibility squarely at our own feet. We are responsible: “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.”

Desire in and of itself is not necessarily wrong. We can desire good things, both for ourselves and for others. Our passions can be noble. This weekend in Perth we have seen the results of noble passions, with the “giants” who have visited our city to open this year’s Perth International Arts Festival. A passion for art, creativity and excellence resulted in a series of street festivals as hundreds of thousands of people turned out to enjoy the spectacle of the giants. This week in Perth we have also seen the results of ignoble passion, again in the arts, with the opening of Fifty Shades of Grey in the cinemas, exploiting prurient interests and celebrating dominance and power.

James is familiar with the dual nature of our passions and draws on ancient Hebrew concepts to set forth his understanding of the nature of sin. The Hebrews believed that two impulses are at work in the human person, the yetzer hara‘ and the yetzer hatov. The first yetzer is the evil impulse, and the second is the good impulse. Our impulses, desires and passions can run in either direction, and when they run with the yetzer hara‘ we are lured into sin, enticed by a particular kind of bait, and snared in the trap of sin. Our own desires lead us into a trap. One commentator says that we are “hooked by own bait.”

James gives a biological analogy of the birth and development of sin: desire “conceives” and “gives birth” to sin. But sin is not the end of the story. The sin develops and grows and comes to maturity and eventually “gives birth” to death. We could probably push this analogy too far, and turn it into some kind of “mechanics of sin.” Paul refers to “the mystery of iniquity” which highlights the incomprehensible nature of sin. Nevertheless, if we add intention and action to illegitimate desire, sin results, and if we pursue and persevere in sin “the child grows up” exerting an increasing dominion over our lives. “Make no mistake!” says James: sin is deadly and death-dealing. What appears as a harmless little desire here may grow into a destructive habit or devouring addiction.

Divine Purpose

“Make no mistake!” says James. Illegitimate desire leads to sin, and sin leads to death. We are wrong if we think that this is God’s will for us. God is the lord and giver of life, not the lord and ruler of death! “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above,” says James, “coming down from the Father of lights.” God is only and always good, insists James¸ and he never changes in this his character and temperament, but only wills and does that which is good. He cannot will evil and does not will evil, and so cannot tempt us with respect to evil. Even God’s judgement, ultimately, is for the good.

James calls God “the Father of lights” which is almost certainly a reference to God as the creator of the heavenly lights—the sun, moon and stars—and so a reference to God’s universal sovereignty and goodness. But God is unlike the heavenly lights that he has created. Whereas they change, even in the midst of their regularity, due to lunar phases and solar eclipses, God never varies in his basic character of goodness, his good intent and purpose. God intends good for his creation, and is kind to the just and to the unjust (Matthew 5:45; Acts 14:17). God intends good for you and for me, which is why he warns us concerning the destructive nature of sin. Even in its fallen and alienated state, God wills the restoration of his creation, rather than its destruction. Yes, God is judge and he will judge the wickedness of humanity as James clearly declares in other passages. But destruction is not God’s purpose. Not only is God creator, he is also the redeemer.

In verse 18 God’s redemptive purpose comes more clearly into focus. “Of his own will,” says James, “he brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” God, the Father of lights, has given us birth! In a daring image, James applies the image of pregnancy and birth to God. God himself has conceived us, carried us and brought us to birth through the “word of truth”—the gospel of our salvation (Ephesians 1:13; Colossians 1:5). Of all God’s “good and perfect gifts,” this is the very best: the redemption and regeneration we have in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit so that we have actually become God’s own children! Notice that the whole emphasis is on God’s purpose and God’s activity, and so on grace. James is not teaching a theology of works, but like Paul, is a theologian of grace.

The contrast between God’s will here and human desire in verse 15 is unmistakable. Whereas human desire gives birth to sin and death, God’s will gives birth to life and new creation: we are “born again.” This is language used by Jesus, Peter and John to portray the new life believers have in Christ. Something marvellous, something miraculous occurs when someone becomes a Christian: we are actually, really born … a second time! We are born into God’s kingdom, born into God’s family, born spiritually. This is new life, a new hope, a new beginning, a fresh start, a new creation. You are not who you used to be. I am not who I used to be be. We are not who we used to be.

Scot McKnight, however, reminds us that the new birth is not simply personal. The “us” is corporate, the messianic community, the church. This is a helpful reminder that while salvation is personal, it is neither private nor simply individual, but has a corporate intention and public aspect. Indeed, McKnight goes on to say that,

The “new birth” of James is both intensely personal and structurally ecclesial: God’s intent is to restore individuals in the context of a community that has a missional focus on the rest of the world (131).

God’s ultimate purpose is finally seen in the final phrase of the verse: “that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” God’s redemptive vision is as large as creation itself. Because God has his eye on the whole of creation, he has brought forth the community of God’s people. The Father of lights has not abandoned his creation but is leading it towards its consummation. Just as God called Abram because he had his eye on “all the families of the world,” so God has brought forth the church, not simply to be the sole recipient of his goodness and blessing, but that through the church, his every good and perfect gift might also be directed to every creature. Such a gracious God is not leading people to fall as some in the community seem to be asserting (v. 13). Rather, the good and gracious God is one who strengthens them to endure the test that God’s purposes for them and for the entirety of the creation might be realised

Our Perseverance

So, make no mistake! Sin is deadly, but God is good. And God has a divine purpose for his creation, including us. Nevertheless, in this life we face troubles without and temptations within. Pressure on the outside, pressure on the inside. But whether without or within, James’ admonition is the same: persevere, hold fast, stand firm, resist!

Every believer is confronted with this choice, whether to give play to their sinful desires or stand firm against them. But James also has a final—and surprising—word of wisdom for us. Standing fast is not a matter of will power or gritted teeth determination. Just as the root of sin is found in desire rather than the will, so the secret of perseverance is found in our desire, in this case, in our desire and love for God.

In verse 12 James reiterates the advice he gave earlier, encouraging his hearers that those who do stand firm will be blessed, and indeed, will receive “the crown of life.” If desire leads to sin which gives birth to death, testing met with perseverance leads to life. In this verse, the crown of life is the final eschatological victory, the hope of eternal life in the kingdom of God. Blessed, not only in time but in eternity. Blessed not only as individuals, but as the community of God’s kingdom in the midst of a renewed creation. This blessing is given, according to James, “to those who love God.” In the final analysis, the Christian life is about who or what we will love. Will we love God, or will we turn our love inward and love ourselves? Augustine and Luther have famously defined sin as homo incurvatus in se—the human being turned in on themselves. But God calls us to a higher love, to love God with all our heart and soul and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

What does it mean to love God? In broader biblical perspective we see that love for God involves keeping his commandments (John 14:15). It means to keep his word in our hearts (Deuteronomy 6:4-6). In this context, however, it might best be understood in terms of loyalty to God and to God’s will in the face of pressure to compromise and capitulate. It means to look to God, to hope in God, to approach God in prayer, and to trust in God. It means to rejoice in God and find our boasting, joy and life in him. The Christian life is neither a cynical quest for reward nor a fearful avoidance of hell. It is not simply a stoic endurance of affliction or a herculean withstanding of temptation. It is a life of joy rather than gritted teeth, of hope rather than fear, of faith rather than despair, of generosity rather than selfishness, and supremely, of love.

A Sermon for Sunday: James 1:2-8

Saint_James_the_JustSorry for the inordinate length of this post. Having spent a number of weeks on the exegesis of this passage, I wanted to prepare a sermon based on the passage, moving from exegesis to exposition. I have not preached the sermon, and it would change somewhat according to the audience and context, and as story, illustration and application are added and focused. It could be shortened if time was limited, or extended to two sermons to allow for more extensive exposition of the supporting texts and ideas. I have tried to avoid moralising and to use the passage to preach the gospel, though with faithfulness to James’ idiom. Let me know if you think it works.

*****

“FAITH UNDER FIRE”

A common experience is misconception: we read the data wrongly and get the wrong impression; we have false hopes and unrealistic expectations. Perhaps we think we will get married and live happily ever after: never the slightest spat; this one person will delight me, nurture me, inspire me—til death do us part! Maybe we start a new job or join a new church with high hopes that soon come crashing down. We go to a reputation restaurant and leave disappointed. We think the Dockers will win the Grand Final…

Many believers tend to have misconceptions and unrealistic expectations about the Christian life. Sometimes, having experienced something of the good and gracious God, having received answers to prayer, and the blessings of Christian acceptance and fellowship, having been taught about the victory we have in Christ, some believers may gain the impression that the Christian life is one of continual blessing and endless triumph, praise, thanksgiving and victory. If only that were true! Generally it does not take too long to be disabused of these misconceptions because, simply speaking—you’ve seen the bumper stickers: “stuff” happens.

From the very first words of his letter, James wants to set us straight, but also give us a fresh perspective concerning the nature of Christian life.

     Read the Text: James 1:2-8

James’ words are almost incomprehensible: rejoice when the tough times come! I like J.B. Phillips’ rendition of this verse: When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives, my friends, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! What was James thinking? Welcome trouble? Invite it in like a long-lost friend? Rejoice in trials? The worse it gets the better we like it? At least he is not telling us to go looking for trouble! He doesn’t have to, because you know as well as I do that trouble comes, “ready or not.” Troubles and trials come to everybody. Is there anyone here who has not faced some kind of test even this week? For some, the trials may have been a minor inconvenience or a momentary frustration. For others, the trials are far more serious, perhaps even a matter of life and death, of major stress or life-change. For others still, the whole course of their life is a continual trial and hardship: unrelenting pain, physical or emotional; the grief of loved ones gone and never returning, of dreams which can never be fulfilled, of reversals from which it seems there is no return.

Alana’s story: measles in infancy...

How can those who suffer in these ways ever make sense of James’ advice? Actually, it’s more than advice: it’s a command. Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind. How can we possibly obey so counter-intuitive a command? Where’s the joy in trials? How can we rejoice when life threatens, hurts and disappoints?

It is evident that James wants to reframe our understanding of life and its many and various trials. He wants God’s people to have new wisdom, godly wisdom, and a new perspective so that when the trials come, they may view them with new eyes, so that they may even become productive rather than destructive. What is James wants us to know?

1. Trials come, but they have a special meaning for Christians

Everyone faces all kinds of trials, and Christians are not exempt (1 Cor. 10:13). Trials arise simply on account of life in a fallen and broken world. These are the conditions of existence faced by all and sundry. Other trials emerge because of human sinfulness and foolishness—our own and that of others. Christians will face all kinds of trials because of these features of life, just as everyone else will. You don’t have to go looking for trouble…

But Christians also face trials specifically on account of their faith. Trials arise because we are Christians: persecution, the suffering which arises because we refuse to participate in the sinfulness of the world, the difficulties which may arise because we have chosen to do the good. We may be forced to wonder if it is really worth being Christian at all. But our faith is also tested even in the normal trials of life: we may wonder where is God when it hurts? Does God care, or have we been forsaken? Is God even real, or have we mistakenly believed in God? Would it not be easier if we simply gave up our belief? It is for this reason that James refers to trials as tests of our faith. No matter how practical an issue we face, in the end what is being tested, tried, probed, pressured and put to question, is our faith.

“These things are sent to try us…” Yes—and No. Another common misconception amongst Christians especially, is that God sends these trials for the purpose of perfecting us, maturing us, or teaching us some lesson. To say this, I believe, is to confuse purpose and effect. God may bring a positive effect out of our trials, but this is not to say that God purposed the trial for this effect. I want to affirm that God is sovereign over all things, that there is not one moment nor one millimetre of this world which is not subject to his vision and power. But to say this is not to suggest that God is the only actor in this world and in our lives. Indeed, James holds a vision of reality similar to other New Testament writers, and to that of his brother, Jesus.

See Ephesians 6:10-13; 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5; 1 Peter 5:8-9; Luke 22:21-32
The apostles Paul and Peter, and the Lord Jesus each warn us of the spiritual context in which the believer’s faith is tested. There is a spiritual enemy whose attack is directed against our faith. These tests do not come to build our faith, but to destroy it.

Why? Because our faith is precious (2 Peter 1:1), a precious gift by which we have been brought into a living relation to God and made heir of all his promises (Romans 5:1-2). Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), and indeed Jesus wondered whether, at his return, he would find faith on the earth (Luke 18:8). Thus, he gave the great assurance to Peter—and so also to us—that he prays for us that our faith would not fail (Luke 22:32; cf. Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25), for it is by faith that we overcome the world (1 John 5:4) and inherit eternal life (John 3:16; Hebrews 6:12). Indeed, we are preserved by the power of God through faith, and our faith will result in praise, glory and honour to God at the coming of Christ (1 Peter 1:5-6). How precious is our faith! No wonder the enemy of our souls directs his attack against this most precious gift of God.

Given what is at stake, James goes on to teach us how to stand in the midst of trial.

2. Rejoice in Hope

And so we are back where we began. James’ first instruction is that we rejoice in the face of testing and trials. We do not rejoice for the test—which intends our hurt—but in the midst of the test, trusting that God can provide a way of escape and deliverance (1 Corinthians 10:13; Psalm 34:19), and that regardless of what happens, our very lives and our every hope are in his hands. Many passages of Scripture instruct us to rejoice in God even in the midst of testing (e.g. Psalm 27:5-6; 50:23; Jonah 2:9; Matthew 5:11-12). We rejoice in God’s saving grace and promise. We rejoice in the hope which is laid up for us in heaven beyond the vicissitudes of this life.

It is only possible to have such joy, even in the midst of suffering, if we know these ways of God. Because you know, says James. Not only are we to know and believe the hope which awaits us beyond this life, the hope of eternal life and blessing and grace in Christ, but we are also to know that as we stand fast in the midst of the trial, as we persevere and endure, as we exercise the very faith that is under attack, and hold fast to it trusting God, then the trial intended to destroy our faith actually serves to strengthen it! Indeed, the trying of our faith develops patience, endurance and perseverance.

Hypomonē – replacing and strengthening the pillars under Garrett Road bridge. When faith is threatened and begins to sag or weaken, endurance is the strength that helps us stand and withstand. Instead of buckling and collapsing under the pressure, our faith is supported and strengthened.

3. Stand Fast Together

But, says James, adding a second command, let perseverance finish its work. In other words, we must stand fast until the end, as Jesus also taught, the one who endures to the end shall be saved (Matthew 10:23; 24:13). How could we ever do this? Only together, only in the company and with the encouragement of our brothers and sisters in Christ. James has addressed these commands not primarily to individuals, but to the community of the church, his brothers and sisters in the faith. We need one another more than we realise, and over the course of our lives together, we will have many opportunities to give and receive encouragement and care, and help one another stand firm in our faith. Those who are strong are to help bear the burden of the weak for tomorrow we may be the weak in need of their strength (see Romans 15:1-2).

But there is also something more at work here. We are to let perseverance have its perfect work so that [we] may be perfect—mature and complete—not lacking anything. For James, this is the way to maturity, to wholeness, to perfection. God is able to bring good out of that which was intended for evil! He is able to make all things—even the attacks designed to overcome us—work together for good, so that we might be conformed to the image of his Son Jesus (Romans 8:28-29). That you may be perfect!—what vision and confidence James has for his suffering people! James views Christian maturity in terms of mature and virtuous character, and this character is formed and refined as we stand fast together, encouraging and supporting each other, that we might grow, more and more, into the very image of Christ. This is what we were made for—to become a people of character, a truly human community!

4. Pray—and stay—in faith

James finishes his exhortation with two further commands and a very solemn warning. The two commands are let him ask of God and, let him ask in faith. In every trial we need the kind of wisdom that we have already been receiving from James. But we also need the particular wisdom required for the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves, so that we can respond wisely and appropriately. And so James commands any who lack wisdom to ask God for it, and he encourages us that it will be given to us.

But while we may lack wisdom, we must not lack faith! Again we are alerted to the importance of faith in the Christian’s relation with God. Of the various virtues mentioned in this passage—faith, joy, perseverance, wisdom, mature character—faith is singled out as preeminent. We have already mentioned that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Without faith it is also impossible to receive the answers to our prayers. Let not that [doubt-filled] person think that they shall receive anything from the Lord.

Over against the steady trustingness of faith stands the unstable, wavering nature of doubt. To some extent we all doubt sometimes. To doubt is to stand wavering between two options, non-committal and undecided. However, Martin Luther has helpfully suggested that although we cannot stop the birds from flying over our heads, we can stop them from building a nest in our hair! Doubtful thoughts will come into our minds and when they do we must let perseverance finish its work! We can stand together and help one another to trust in God. This kind of doubt is normal and not what James assails in this text.

What James assails is the doubt which has become entrenched in a person’s life to such an extent that it now characterises them: they are a doubter. James graphically portrays this person in terms of the restless, ceaseless, shifting movement of the stormy sea, tossed and thrown hither and thither, driven this way and that: in other words, this person is precisely the opposite of the settled strength and confidence of those who have let perseverance finish its work. They are a double-minded, two-souled, unstable, indecisive, uncommitted kind of person. They cannot, will not and do not commit themselves unreservedly to God. They cannot, will not and do not entrust themselves to his promise and his care alone. They cannot, will not and do not depend rest their hope fully upon God. Let not that person expect to receive anything from the Lord—anything!

A great secret to answered prayer is to pray in faith and then to stay in faith. Nowhere in Scripture is this more clearly taught than in Jesus’ words in Mark 11:22-25, where Jesus teaches that when we pray we must “believe that you have received it, and you shall have it.” The believer believes the answer has been given when they pray, and before they ever actually receive the answer. They must believe first and then “you shall have it.” I once heard an elderly preacher with a whole life of experience say, “Between every prayer and its answer there is a wilderness, and what you do in that wilderness determines whether or not the prayer will be answered.” What was he saying? Pray in faith and then stay in faith. Continue to trust. Let perseverance finish its work!

How can we possibly have such unwavering faith? Here pastor James provides another piece of practical Christian wisdom: keep your eyes firmly fixed on the good and gracious God, rather than on yourself! Instead of worrying about whether or not our faith is sufficient, turn away from yourself and look solely toward the good and gracious God. In verse five James magnifies the generosity of the good and gracious God, who gives generously to all without finding fault. The Greek text is even stronger: God gives with single-minded generosity. Over against the double-minded person stands the single-minded God! God is single-minded in his grace and generosity toward us, and calls us to be single-minded in faith and trust toward him. He is the good and gracious God, the generous-hearted God who has promised to accompany us through every moment of this life, to hear and answer our prayers, and to bring us safely into his heavenly kingdom! This is the good and gracious God who holds our entire existence—past, present and future—in the palm of his hands; the God who will never leave or forsake us.

Trust in this good and gracious God!
Stand fast in the good and gracious God!
Rejoice in the good and gracious God … that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing!

Practise Resurrection – An Easter Sermon

Everyday ResurrectionMt Hawthorn Community Church are on Easter camp, and they have asked me to preach for them this morning. Here is an outline of what I intend to say…

The text is Colossians 3:1-17.

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

1. The central feature of this text, and indeed the whole central section of Colossians (i.e. 2:6 – 4:6) concerns our union with Christ and most specifically, our union with Christ in his death and resurrection. We have died with Christ, been buried with Christ, made alive with Christ, raised with Christ so that now our lives are hidden with Christ in God. Why this emphasis? What is going on at Colosse that Paul would write like this?

2. The Colossian church is a young church of young believers, under threat from false teachers who want to lead them into forms of spirituality beyond Christ and in addition to Christ. The false teaching is a curious mix of Jewish legalism, pagan philosophy and mysticism, and religious asceticism (see especially 2:8-23). Paul’s argument is simple: we are already united with Christ in his resurrection: there is nothing else to gain! Our lives are already hidden with Christ in God. We are the heirs of his glory – why, O why would we seek something else somewhere else? In him is all the fulness of the Godhead bodily – and you have been made complete in him (Colossians 2:9-10).

Does this mean, therefore, that Christians can be careless about the way they live, that there is nothing to the Christian life? God forbid! Although he does not say here, this is the kind of response Paul would make to this question. For Paul, the Christian life consists in learning to live more deeply from and into our union with Christ – in his death, and in his resurrection. What does it mean to practise resurrection?

3. Learning to Say NO!
Colossians 3:5-11 instruct us to “put off” the identity and ways of the old world.

What kinds of things are we to ‘put off’? Selfish, unrestrained sexuality, unfettered greed, anger and hatred, prejudice and violence. This is a spirituality of resistance to the ways of the world which are inherently idolatrous and destructive—to ourselves, to others, and to God’s good creation. These things afflict pain on people and destruction on community.

According to Ron Sider (The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, 97, 103),

God’s grand strategy of redemption does not focus on redeeming isolated individuals; it centers on the creation of a new people, a new community, a new social order that begins to live now the way the Creator intended….The church is a new, visible social order. It is a radical new community visibly living a challenge to the sexual insanity, the racial and social prejudice, and the economic injustice that pervade the rest of society.

4. Learning to say YES!
What of the positive content of Christian life, spirituality and ethics? Not only is the community a community of resistance to the ways of the world, but it is also called to positively exhibit the life and character of the coming kingdom. We are called to live the lifestyle of heaven here on earth, the life of the future now in the present. This involves learning what it means to be a community of character, a community of peace, and a community of worship.

Christian life is life-in-community bearing witness to the God’s kingdom of love, righteousness and peace. Thus, to practise resurrection involves:

  1. A spirituality of faith and rest, resting from our own works because we trust fully in the work of Christ on our behalf;
  2. A spirituality of resistance and nonconformity to the destructive and idolatrous ways and practices of this world;
  3. A spirituality of bearing witness to a radically new kind of life in community, where love of God and love of others is the foundation and goal of all we do.

*****

Well, the morning (not necessarily the sermon!) went well. Mt Hawthorn Community is not a conservative congregation, but they are intelligent and thoughtful and bring a good level of discussion, reflection and question to their faith. The sermon moved to discussion during point four above and the discussion continued for 20 minutes during the service, and then for a further 30 or 40 minutes afterwards. One of the things I appreciate at Mt Hawthorn is that every sermon is followed by a time of Q&A during which the congregation engage with the material. It helps keep preaching honest and grounded.