May 31, 2020
Series: “Faith that Makes a Difference”
Faith that Perseveres
100,000. It’s a pretty big number, one we’re hearing a lot in these days. It represents the number of deaths we’ve experienced in this country as a result of the coronavirus, a number that is still growing, a number that if we made a memorial wall today, before any more died, it would stretch to nearly twice the length of the Vietnam War Memorial. 100,000 represents the number of small businesses that have closed since the virus began to escalate back in early March. 100,000 is also the number of dollars we still hope to raise in order for the renovations on our steeple to be fully paid for.
Now, let me take that large number and make it larger. If you add three zeroes, you jump up to 100 million. This is the number of people in the United States that have no contact with the church (The Barna Group). Even in you back out the estimated 15 million in this number who express a commitment to Christ, but not his church, that still leaves a very big number: 85 million, or 25% of our total population, who are not going to hear anything about the goodness and truth and beauty of Jesus just because we’ve rung our bell or opened (or reopened) our doors on a Sunday morning. Among other things, this means that making the good news known is not a matter of having an attractive product that people come to experience, but growing an attractive community of people who are rubbing shoulders (appropriately distanced!) in everyday life with those 1 in 4 Americans who would never come into our building on a Sunday.
Creating and nurturing this attractive community is what the letter of James is all about. James has written about what faith should look like, if it’s real and vibrant and attractive. It is not a faith of mental assent that we’re called as Christians to have, but faith that makes a difference in the world in which we live, a faith that impacts the lives of those around us, a faith that helps us to love God with our whole heart and our neighbor as ourselves. If faith is to make a difference, it must first be able to stand up to, to persevere through, the various trials that life can throw at us. This is where James begins. [READ]
I. Who Is James?
A. Let’s think for a minute about who this James fellow is. The best evidence we have points to James as both the leader of the early church in Jerusalem, as well as one of the half-brothers of Jesus. Now, the first one means that he was well-known and widely acknowledged and so probably saw no need to assert his authority as he began his letter. He merely and simply identified himself as a servant: “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The second one is, well, kind of interesting to ponder!
I recall visiting my dad in NC a number of years ago when my nephews, my sisters two boys, were much younger – somewhere around 10 and 12. On the day I’m thinking about, they came into my dad’s apartment, said a quick hello to me, and then promptly got down on his large floor and started to wrestle. Actually, they started beating each other up, and the more pain they each inflicted the funnier they thought it was! Having neither grown up with a brother, nor parented sons, I’m always a bit taken aback when brothers interact in this way. So picture Jesus, as a little boy, wrestling with his brothers! (Matthew identifies 4 of them, James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas, as well as some sisters—Ma. 13:55).
B. More to the point, not only did Jesus’ brothers want to beat him up and his sisters want to tease him, but for quite a while his entire family thought he was out of his mind (Mk. 3:20-21; Ma. 13:53-58; Jn. 7:1-5). Remember when, in the earliest record we have of him as a young boy (age 12), Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem and had several days of conversations with the religious leaders? When his family finally went back to find him, he responded, “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Lk. 2:41-50). Can’t you just hear James, “Oh, there he goes again, thinking he’s God!” How exasperating must it have been to have grown up as his brother!
C. But then we have what must have been an amazingly poignant moment, that moment when Jesus, risen from the dead, appeared to James. We read about it toward the end of list Paul makes for the Corinthian church about the various post-resurrection appearances of Jesus: “Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me…” (1 Cor. 15:7f). What do you suppose that reunion with little brother James was like, the one who had wrestled with Jesus as a kid, rolled his eyes at him as a teenager, and thought him to be a lunatic when an adult? I imagine it was private, very tender, and certainly incredibly life transforming. His letter, as we will see, is saturated with the teaching of Jesus, brotherly wisdom, if you will, and filled with the teaching the church needs to be fully devoted follower of this Jesus and a community that is attractive to others. James came to love his brother deeply, and he wants his readers to as well.
II. His Readers and Their Trials
A. Writing in the late-40’s, James’ identifies his immediate audience as “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” “Scattered” leads us to conclude that these were Jews who, because of their new faith in Jesus, had been forced to leave their homes in Jerusalem in the wake of a persecution that had broken out there against the church (Ac. 8:1). In addition to having lost their homes, in their new locations they were facing “trials of many kinds,” probably in large measure resulting from the poverty they were now experiencing. It’s a broad statement that enables us to insert the many trials we may find ourselves up against in these days, trials ranging from the poverty that is being caused by this pandemic, to the social ostracism we can face for following a crucified and risen Savior, to the challenge of working at home and raising small children at the same time, to caring for an aged parent, to having to go through the process of chemotherapy…the list is endless!
B. Whatever our trial at the moment, the important thing we need to know is that James isn’t simply writing a piece of theology disconnected to real life. James, with a pastoral heart, wanted to reach out to these folks who found themselves in the midst of trials through no fault of their own and make sure such trials were not going to throw their faith, and what God wanted to do in and through them, off its stride.
C. However, the way James begins to explain this may throw us off stride anyway! “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” Pure joy—really James? Now who is sounding just a little bit nuts?! But, while this might not be where you’d begin to encourage someone who is going through a trial, ultimately James wants us know that while trials are not joyful in and of themselves, trials are never outside of God’s control. He even accomplishes his purposes in our lives through them. James wants us to embrace trials not for what they are, but for what God can accomplish through them. He uses them to make us mature and complete, that is, more and more like Jesus. Such is where pure joy is found.
D. Let me just ask: What is your goal in life? Generally, I think we might answer that our goal is to be successful, to have a good job, to raise a nice family, to go on fun vacations, to achieve a certain standing in the world. The problem is that when trials hit in our home, in our church, or in our job, when circumstances seem to go against us, we can become devastated. We can begin to think that God is not for us. We can get frustrated because we think God somehow owes us because we’ve been so good. Or, the opposite: we can become depressed because we think we’re in a time of trial because we’ve been so bad! But what if our goal is being mature in Christ, growing in his likeness, becoming conformed more and more to his image?
Think of a trial in your life. If the goal is just to fix your circumstances, then you are setting yourself up for constant disappointment because circumstances will almost never get fixed the way you want them to. And if they do, then something else will eventually arise. You’ll live in a constant state of anxiety! But if your goal is not to fix your circumstances, but to know God and grow in God, to learn how to love sacrificially, to give generously, to forgive graciously, to live simply, to relate humbly, then you will be in the right space because that’s just what God desires and promises. Trials can teach us to know and love and trust and become more like him.
D. James realizes that this is not an easy space to enter, that trials can suck the life right out of us by making us angry or bitter or anxious or fearful. So he goes on to encourage his readers to pray for something that God loves to give generously: wisdom (v. 5). The implication is that we don’t have it and that we need it! When we walk through trials we don’t know all that is going on, or have a full perspective, or know what we should do next. But God has ultimate knowledge, he has an eternal perspective, and in Jesus has experienced every kind of test we face and has prevailed. James wants us to know that this is where we’ll discover God’s generosity; God loves to pass on to us these things as he walks with us through the valleys of the shadows.
E. There is one condition. We need to ask, not from a place of doubt, but from a place of trust. If we come to God thinking, “Gee, I guess I’ll give this prayer thing a try because what else have I go to lose,” James says we’ll be like a wave that is blown to and fro by the wind. We’ll remain in an unstable position. But if we approach God saying, “Lord, I have no clue why this is happening but show me how you are with me so that I might persevere through it and grow from it,” that is the prayer God loves to answer. It doesn’t mean we won’t have questions, challenges, and even frustrations. But if we come to God trusting that he is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in trouble, then he promises to meet us there, bringing, as one writer puts it, meaning to our misery and shaping us through our struggles.
It is worth noting that the word James uses, to “face” or “fall into” or “meet” trials, is used in two other places in the Bible. In one, Jesus uses it in the parable of the Good Samaritan to describe what happened to the man who got “attacked” by robbers and lost everything (Lk. 10:30). In the other, Luke uses it to describe a ship that “runs aground” on a sandbar and gets broken to pieces by the pounding surf (Ac. 27:41). James does not want trials to rob us of life or cause our faith to run aground and be broken apart. So, no matter what flavor of trial we may be experiencing in this time of pandemic, may we pray for God to meet us there with his love and with his wisdom, that we might grow in him, and in so doing, would become a more attractive and helpful community to those who are experiencing trials around us.