Sunday, November 18, 2012

November 18 - Snippet from Sunday - The Heart of James

Friendship with the world is enmity with God (4.4). That is a bold statement. It’s the kind of statement that doesn’t leave much room for discussion. It casts everything as either black or white, good or bad. Either your God’s friend, or your the world’s friend.

This statement--“You can be God’s friend or the world’s, but not both”--is the heart of James’ letter. It’s the pulse that gives life to all his other instructions about what we do with our prejudice and our money and our tongues. If you surgically remove this pronouncement, James’ whole letter falls to the ground, lifeless.

And we might want to cut out this part of James’ letter. Frankly, it doesn’t sound friendly. Most of us want to get along with everybody, to be friends with everybody. Honestly, if one of our other friends gave us this kind of “It’s me or them” ultimatum, they might not be our friends for long. What gives God the right to inspire James to write this kind of demand? Why would God ask us to make this kind of choice?

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump. . .) =================================================================

Friendship with the world is enmity with God. That is a bold statement. It’s the kind of statement that doesn’t leave much room for discussion. It casts everything as either black or white, good or bad. Either your God’s friend, or your the world’s friend.

This statement--“You can be God’s friend or the world’s, but not both”--is the heart of James’ letter. It’s the pulse that gives life to all his other instructions about what we do with our prejudice and our money and our tongues. If you surgically remove this pronouncement, James’ whole letter falls to the ground, lifeless.

And we might want to cut out this part of James’ letter. Frankly, it doesn’t sound friendly. Most of us want to get along with everybody, to be friends with everybody. Honestly, if one of our other friends gave us this kind of “It’s me or them” ultimatum, they might not be our friends for long. What gives God the right to inspire James to write this kind of demand? Why would God ask us to make this kind of choice?

To answer these questions, we need to ask a more fundamental question: What precisely is God asking of us through this statement in James’ letter? This is an important question. Too often preachers and theologians have picked up this verse and used it to make believers become bad, angry neighbors to the world living next door, or to make them fearful of the world around them, obsessive about keeping a safe distance from all those people infected with sin. Not being “the world’s friend” has often been interpreted to promote separation and suspicion toward everyone who doesn’t claim the name of Jesus. But these sort of responses are not what James hoped for; these responses are not what God wants from us.

To discover what God does want from us, how we can be good friends to God, I want to talk a bit about science. I am not a scientist. Most of us aren’t scientists. I did wear a lab coat for a few years while I worked filling prescriptions in a retail pharmacy, but please don’t ask me to solve complicated chemical equations or explain physics or biochemistry. I wouldn’t be able to. Once at a social event with some of C’s colleagues, I did sit across the table from a real scientist. He was graduate student doing research with the Synchrotron. He tried to explain his research on electrons to me, but I was thoroughly confused pretty quickly. He is a real scientist; I am not.

Still, I tend to think in scientific ways. We all do. Whether we took biology and chemistry in high school or if we’ve never opened a science textbook in our lives, the way we look at the world around us is shaped by science. When we get sick, we think about viruses and bacteria, analgesics and antibiotics. When we see a car slide off an icy road, we think about speed and inertia, gravity and friction. When we think about how to get a better yield from our fields, we don’t consult a shaman or a wizard. No, we look into scientifically-improved seeds and scientifically-refined agricultural techniques. We are science people! We live in a scientific world! We are friends of science!

Science isn’t the only force in our culture that shapes our minds. When we’re watching the evening newscast or hearing advertisements on the radio or meeting for a coffee with the folks at the cafe, our minds are busy learning new habits and reinforcing old ones. Everyday we’re learning how to think. The newscaster tells us about war in Syria and rockets over Gaza, and our minds get positive reinforcement for their fear of outsiders and their instinct to respond to violence with violence. We hear a radio voice announce a limited time offer, and our impulse to act quickly to get all we can for ourselves grows stronger. When we know a friend chooses not to talk about troubles in his family, we learn the lesson again that privacy is to be guarded at all costs. Moment by moment, interaction by interaction, our minds and hearts take on the habits and instincts of the world around us. We think like the world. We are friends of the world.

When James talks about friendship with the world, he’s talking about thinking, hoping, understanding, and desiring just like the world does. He means taking the world’s side with your habits and with your heart.

When I was eight years old, I had two best friends. One was from school and one was from down the road in my neighborhood. Whenever I was with one or the other of them, things were great. We’d be on the same team, whether we were playing soccer or baseball or imagining some adventure for ourselves. But when all three of us got together, things didn’t go so well. My two best friends would demand that I choose between them, that one or the other had to be my best friend, that two of us be on a team against the other, that two of us share secrets and leave the third one out. I hated those days. I always imagined we’d all get along, that my friend from school and my friend from next door would get along with each other just fine and we have great adventures together. But that never happened.

Remember Jesus’ words: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Wealth” (Lk 16.13). Maybe James, too, remembered Jesus saying this as he wrote, Don’t you know that friendship with the world is enmity with God. Both Jesus and James set a choice before us. Put most simply, it’s a choice about whose side we’re going to take. Is God our dearest friend? Or is our closest friend the world around us, that world still enslaved at its very heart by fear and sin and death?

Put a bit more robustly, this decision is between two worlds, two ways of understanding the world we live in and two ways of living in it. One is a world where God is our good provider, ruler, and protector. It’s a world where we can trust God to look out for us. The other is a world where God is forgotten, a world where we have to look out for ourselves, a world where we refuse to look beyond the horizons of the self and where this eye-for-an-eye lifestyle is slowing making all of us blind.

One of you showed me a video this week of talk given at a conference in Toronto. In the video a speaker said that if you change someone’s perspective on the world, you change the whole world for them. If we truly have received the soul-saving gospel word about God’s reign, then, for us, the whole world has changed. Global political crises on the news might tell us violence is the only legitimate response. But our God has shown us in Jesus that the way peace is paved by rejecting violence and accepting suffering. Financial advisors may tell us to save every penny we can, but our God has shown us in Jesus that the best way to invest our money is by providing for those in need, orphans and widows. Life with God as Savior and Friend opens up possibilities that a godless world cannot even begin to imagine.

The Jewish Christians to whom James originally addressed this letter had every reason to give up on God, to go back to fearing and dreading, desiring and dreaming just like the rest of the world. They were poor and persecuted. Jesus may have said that God would look out for them--that the poor and persecuted were blessed and would receive God’s kingdom. Everyday experience, however, gave every indication that they’d best look out for themselves, just like everyone else in the world. Jesus’ amazing life and obedient death and glorious resurrection didn’t seem to make any difference at all when it came to putting bread on the table or buying themselves into a better social position. The world’s methods--courting powerful, rich friends--seemed much more effective than refusing to pick and choose among desirable and undesirable, useful and useless friends. It paid to be a friend of the world, to do things the world’s way. What was the reward for being God’s friend?

Not much, by worldly standards. More often than not, the poor stayed poor. Those who were slaves remained slaves. Jewish Christians were still persecuted both by their Jewish and Gentile neighbors for their strange messianic faith. Choosing to trust that Jesus tells the truth, that he is really the way to the Father and that in him, in fact, his God and Father comes to us--it didn’t do those Jewish Christians two thousand years ago a lot of immediate good.

Our hearts are at home in culture that expects immediate results. When we have a cold or a headache, we reach for the drug with the quickest effects. Tablets aren’t good enough for us; they’re too slow. We want liqui-gels because they’re faster-acting. If we take antibiotics for our bronchitis or statins for our cholesterol, we expect our next doctor’s appointment to show our condition has made an improvement. Shouldn’t faith in Jesus have the same kind of turn-around time? Shouldn’t following this Savior have some kind of quick return in our lives?

James promised the Jewish Christians and promises us now that giving up the world’s ways for friendship with God makes a great difference for us. Listen to what he said back in v 12 of ch 1: Blessed are those who persevere under trial, because when they have stood the test, they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.

The world’s technologies and investment strategies all work to put-off or postpone the hard and unhappy bits of life. Death? We try to medicate or buy our way out of it--or, if we can’t afford those options, drug, drink, or distract ourselves from it. But we all know we’re only one clogged artery, one missed stoplight away from the grave. We all know that the telephone could ring at anytime with the news that our savings have disappeared in an economic downturn, that the company thanks us for our years but they’re cutting our position, that our friends or children just don’t want to be part of our lives anymore. Our world’s ways are so fragile. Everything we do to try to get ahead our own can disappear just like the grass flowers withered by a hot August sun that James describes in ch 1, v 11.

God doesn’t offer us a postponement, a deferral, or a time extension. God doesn’t offer diversions or distractions. Instead, God offers us a fresh start. God offers us life that does not end, happiness that is secure because its source is God who is the Giver of every good and perfect gift, who does not change like shifting shadows (1.17).

God’s plan from the very beginning has been to bring us all into God’s good life, the kind of life Jesus showed us in his parables and in the meals he shared with his followers, a life full of good friends and good food and good stories, laughter, satisfaction, and joy. We’ll unwrap and enjoy this gift that God gives his friends in the resurrection, when God breathes life into every dead part of our world. But already we get glimpses of it, moments when our life together as a church provides family for those who’ve lost theirs, when we give our resources so those who don’t have enough can get by, when we ignore the prejudices we’ve been taught and strike up a conversation with someone who otherwise makes us feel a bit uncomfortable, when we lift our voices together in song.

This has always been God’s plan, God’s great, long desire. Listen to what James says in vv 5 and 6 of ch 4:
Do you think that scripture speaks for no reason? Does the spirit which God made to dwell in us desire enviously? Rather, [God] gives a greater gift: because [scripture] says, “God opposes the arrogant, but he shows favor to the humble.”
The whole of the Bible witnesses to the fact that God lifts up the lowly who have no one to depend but God. At the same time, story after story in Scripture tells us that God resists those who take things into their own hands and play God.

Verse 5 is notoriously hard to interpret. If you look at five different Bible translations you might find five completely different understandings of what’s being said in the verse. Everyone agrees that in the first half of the verse James asks, “Do you think that scripture speaks in vain?” The next sentence is the troublesome bit. In Greek, it says something like, “enviously, the spirit made to dwell in us, it or he desires.” Some take this verse as talking about God longing jealously to be most-loved by our spirits. Others take this as referring to our human spirits’ fierce tendency to covet. Some take it as a statement, even a quotation or summary of some lost bit of scripture--as if this is the very thing that the Bible doesn’t say in vain. Others take it as a rhetorical question (Greek doesn’t have punctuation marks!).

That’s how I take it. I understand James to be asking a follow-up question, right on the heels of his first question about scripture. I understand James to ask, a bit sarcastically, “You don’t think Scripture speaks for nothing, do you? You don’t think that the Spirit God gave us is one that’s full of self-centered envy, do you?”

However we interpret this tricky verse, the point remains the same: Just as the Bible testifies, God didn’t create us and redeem us so we could go on fighting it out on our own just like the rest of the world. Our envy is never what God wants. Verse 5 pushes us forward to the “greater gift” James declares to us in v 6.

In contrast to our world-given tendency to scheme and plot to get things for ourselves, we see God acting with incredible generosity, extraordinary grace. Verse 6 says, God gives a greater gift. Then James quotes Prov 3.34 to tell us what sort of gift God has given us. The gift, the grace is that God opposes the arrogant, but shows favor to the humble.

When I was in kindergarten, my parents drove me to a Baptist church each week for AWANA. AWANA is a kids Bible memorization club. I’d join all the other kindergartners--Cubbies, we were called--for games and songs. Then we’d work on memorizing some verses. The very first verse in the Cubbie handbook was a pared-down version of John 3:16: God loved us and sent his Son. Twenty-five years later, I still remember those words, and they are a guide for my life.

James’ good news, that God shows favor to the humble, offers a bit of a different perspective on the gospel. This is the same salvation--the same unmerited welcome for sinners back into God’s eternal family--but James sees it from alongside the poor, the sick, the lonely, the persecuted. Either because of a holy choice or because every one of the world’s distraction and postponement strategies have failed them, those who look to God as their only hope have special reason for joy when God finally comes through on his promises. It’s like when the States finally took its first steps to socialized healthcare two years ago. Those who already had easy access to healthcare didn’t shout or dance in the streets. Those of us who didn’t were a bit more excited.

The poor and the persecuted have special reason to rejoice in the good news: God is showing them favor. The arrogant and self-centered do not. That’s the bad news side of the good news. James states it plainly: God opposes the arrogant.

Many of us like the way things are; we’re on quite friendly terms with the ways things are. We’re familiar with this system, broken though it is, and we know how to get what we want from it. Put simply, we’re the world’s friends.

God’s gospel word comes as a bit of shock to us. Who’d have thought that a message about God’s love could be so unnerving, so confrontational. But listen to James’ advice to people in our shoes in vv 7-10:
Therefore, submit to God; but resist the devil and he will flee from you. Come near to God, and he will come near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners! Purify your hearts, you double-minded! Be miserable and mourn and wail! Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into shame. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
These are not easy words to hear. We want a gospel that inspires us to sing praise songs, not one that calls for mourning and repentance. We want a message that says, “Hey, don’t worry, things are only going to get better and better. You though things were good now? Jesus will make things even better!” Instead we get this instruction: Humble yourself! Become like one of the poor and persecuted--someone of humble means and humble position.

But thank God for these words! One of the most terrifying stories in the Bible is one Jesus told, about a beggar named Lazarus and rich man who ignored the beggar. They both die, and Lazarus the beggar goes to paradise while the rich man goes to hell. The rich man looks up to Abraham, apparently an important man in paradise, and asks him to show him mercy. Abraham responds, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus [the beggar] received bad things, but now he is comforted and you are in agony” (cf. Lk 16.19-31).

I have received many, many good things in my life. By global standards, I’m incredibly well off. I’ve had my share of blessings. If I were a character in Jesus’ story, God would have no reason to show me more mercy or grace. But God has! God has appealed to me through James, saying, “Josh, repent! Submit to me! Resist the devil! Draw near to me, and I will draw near to you! Humble yourself, and I will lift you up!” Thank God for these harsh words!

For those of us who are too much at home in a world that lives like God doesn’t exist or doesn’t care, these words are a lifeline. We must submit to God; that is, we must give up every hope, every strategy that isn’t depending on God to save us, to make life good for us. We need to resist the devil. Resist the lies of the devil--the one in the mouth of the snake in the garden that said we can play God and make of our lives whatever we want, the one whispered to the heart of Cain that said he had to fight for God’s blessings. We come near to our God who favors the poor and humble by putting ourselves in their place, by becoming poor and humble for the sake of love, just as our Savior did.

These are extreme measures. But they are the only ones that can save people like us, people with divided hearts and sinful hands. And, praise God, they offer us extraordinary hope: because God’s way is a good way, even when it makes no sense by the world’s standards, and because God will draw near to us when we draw near to him, will lift us up when we humble ourselves. Our hope is in a God who is faithful and true.

This will be our last Sunday with James for a while. Next Sunday is Memorial Sunday, and then we’re on into Advent. In some ways, I’m relieved. James talks directly to where we live. He calls us out on our dearest sins, our ingrown prejudices and desires. These words can be hard to hear. But the Savior whose coming we both remember and long for, he brought us this very gospel message, a message that asks for a decision: do we love God or do we love ourselves? Will we live like God is king or will we persist in worshiping only ourselves? James leaves us with that same decision this morning. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...