Spiritual Maturity (James 5:10-20)

Preached on: Sunday 8th March 2020
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 20-03-08-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon-morning.
Bible references: James 5:10-20
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the
meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight,
O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Parenthood is a funny thing. My daughter Hope’s
favourite TV programme is Peter Rabbit, and there’s only
so much of that which any sane adult can watch, so I
thought this past week that I might expand her horizons
and put on a kids Bible TV programme, which I found on
Amazon Prime. Hope has watched a few episodes now
and is thankfully asking for it not just Peter Rabbit, so at
least there’s a bit variety! I guess there’s a bit of me that
also thought a Bible programme might be a little
educational as it might help her learn more about God, so
after each episode I’ve tried to chat with her about the
content, to see what she has gleaned.

But I guess I keep forgetting that Hope is only three years
old and so she misses things or doesn’t understand much
of what is said – instead she often focuses upon
something else completely or some little detail that isn’t
really part of the lesson being taught.

That experience with Hope, this past week, has reminded
me that when we are young we can easily miss the
deeper things. It is as we mature that we begin to
understand things on a deeper level, whether it be a TV
programme, or a story or even what is being taught about
God in church. It’s with maturity that we begin to have
the ability to see beyond the surface of things and see
past the distracting things.

So, what does this look like in the spiritual side of life?
What does it mean to be spiritually mature? There could
be several answers to that question but in relation to our
passage today, and the letter of James as a whole, I think
John chapter 5, has something for us to be mindful of in
relation to spiritual maturity: ‘Jesus [said]: ‘Very truly I
tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only
what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the
Father does the Son also does.’’ (John 5:19)

It’s a startling and somewhat bewildering line from Jesus
– after all, He is God in the flesh, so what does He mean?
Likely, there are multiple ways of correctly understanding
these words from Jesus, and one such idea is this: that the
Father defined Jesus’ reality. The Father’s works,…
the Father’s purposes, the Father’s very existence
defined and guided Jesus’ life and ministry. It was the
love of the Father who said, ‘This is my son, whom I love;
with Him I am well pleased’ (Mark 3:17) – it was such love
that saw Jesus through the temptations. It was the
purpose of the Father that allowed Jesus to say in the
Garden of Gethsemane, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this
cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ (Luke 22:42)
The Father defined Jesus’ reality. Jesus lived in such close
relationship with the Father that He could say: ‘…[the
Son] can do only what he sees his Father doing, because
whatever the Father does the Son also does.’

Now, let’s remember that Jesus is our example, He is our
teacher, our Lord, so He is the one we model ourselves
upon, we should seek to become more like Jesus…

So, if Jesus allows His life to be defined by the Father, if it
is the Father who defines reality for Jesus, then that
should be the case for us as well. This means that spiritual
maturity is equal to the degree that we allow Father God
to define our lives; defining how we see the world, how
we respond to issues, and what choices we make.
Spiritual maturity is the degree to which God defines our
reality.

And it’s this idea of spiritual maturity that seems to
underpin the letter of James as a whole. James began his
letter this way: ‘James, a servant of God and of the Lord
Jesus Christ…’ (James 1:1) For James, his whole life is
wrapped up with Jesus; it is God who defines his identity
and what James is about.

Then later in the letter, he writes: ‘My brothers and
sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must
not show favouritism.’ (James 2:1) Here he wants them
to understand who they are in Christ and live that out.
Again, James sees spiritual maturity as the degree to
which God defines our lives: defining our choices, our
priories, the things we give our time to, defining how we
understand ourselves and understand the world.

Again and again, James has to take them back to this core
understanding, because it’s all too easy to make God
abstract and distant; it’s all too easy to forget God, as easy
as forgetting the air we breath – we forget His priorities, we
forget His ways, and when we do that we focus on the
wrongs things or see things the wrong way.

It’s like with Hope – because of her immaturity she
focuses on the thing which gets her attention, rather than
what the programme is trying to tell her about God.
Likewise, spiritual maturity is the degree to which God
defines our reality so that we are aware of Him and
partner with Him, focusing on what truly matters.

One way of gauging this is to ask ourselves: do I really
believe the Scriptures? Do I really believe this stuff about
Jesus? Am I confident about the Christian faith? If you’re
not, then one idea be might for you to come along to the
Breathing In event this Saturday. You can sign up today
on the sheets at either door. The focus of input at the
event is how we can be confident in our faith, and coming
along to that event might give us some ideas. So, sign up!

But coming back to James, throughout this letter he has
been taking this principle, modelled by Jesus, taught by
the Scriptures, that part of spiritual maturity is the degree
to which God defines our reality. This maturity is not
dependent on age, it is not dependent on how long
you’ve been a church member or even the length of time
as a Christian, and to finish off his letter, James now gives
a final flurry of input on what this would look like in
practice. He touches on suffering, on honouring God, on
prayer and on sin, and we’ll briefly look at each of these,
though they all could do with a sermon each.

So, first off, patience in suffering and James exhorts us to
this, referencing the prophets and Job as examples. He
draws on these personal, often difficult, stories because
they all showed patience and perseverance because God
defined their reality.

The prophets knew they were called by God, often with a
difficult message, and so even when hard times came and
opposition rose against them, they persevered in their
task; God defined their reality.

The story of Job is a bit different, it’s about personal
suffering, about suffering when we don’t know why, and
not because of our choices or the task God has called us
to. What we see in the account of Job is a man whose life
is defined by the reality of God and when tragedy strikes
his picture of God is shaken, he’s faced with questions he
never asked before. On the surface, it can look like Job’s
faith withers and dies, but in actual fact, his complaint to
God was a complaint born out of faith – God defined his
reality and to that God he called out…

Job never gets the answers that he wishes for, but he
reaches a place where he can still hold on to faith. God is
still defining his reality at the end of Job’s story.

James raises the issue of suffering because he is well
aware that life, including for the Christian, is one in which
we experience trouble – and in such a way that we may
feel tempted to call into question the goodness of God.
James is asking, even in the midst of suffering, will we
allow God to define reality? Will we hold on to Him and
what the Scriptures teach of Him? Or will we allow the
difficult times to drive a wedge between us and God? Will
we allow the whispers of the enemy to sow lies about God
into our hearts and minds, such that we push God away to
the periphery of our lives? James wants us to be mature,
such that God defines reality even in the midst of suffering.

James then, in verse 12, seems to shift topic abruptly
once more. But as we’ve seen, speech is very important
to James, because our speech reveals what we hold in our
hearts, including about the reality of God. James here
may be referencing rash or unrealistic vows that were
most likely going to be broken and so to make an oath
with God’s name would be to involve God in falsehood,
and as such it would discredit rather than honour the
person of God, because a name was symbolic of the
person.

I suspect that few of us are making any vows, particularly
involving God or heaven, so what relevance is this verse for
us today? Well, how about that underlying principle, that if
God is defining our reality, then we should seek to honour
the person and name of God in all we do. The application of
this principle is so very broad, but for a moment, let us stick with speech. Are any of us ever
using God’s name in vain? Are we using O.M.G. even
accidentally? Or, let’s remember that the Scriptures
forbid any swearing or course language – are such words
heard from our tongues? Because if God is truly defining
our reality and we are taking onboard what He says in the
Scriptures, then we are not honouring the person of God
when we take His name in vain or when we swear. We
are choosing at those times to use language that
dishonours Him, because He has said not to do so.

We could take examples beyond speech: do we get drunk?
Do we dishonour God by not honouring Him enough to have
devotional time in the Bible and in prayer during our week?
If God defines our reality, it is seen in how we honour the
person of God, both in speech and in action.

The third and largest issue in this final portion of the
letter is with regard to prayer, and prayer in all
circumstances. I wonder if any of our elders got a bit
twitchy as we read through these verses because
obviously elders are meant to have a particular task
based upon the words of James. But we’ll come to that in
a moment as we work through these verses line by line.

Verse 13 read: ‘Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them
pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.’
(James 5:13) This verse is directed to anyone, to
everyone – we are meant to be a people of prayer, and
prayer in all the circumstances of life, the bad times but
also the good. Because if God defines our reality then when
times are hard we turn to Him, and when we are thankful
for something, we are quick to give Him the honour,
because as James reminded us earlier: ‘Every good and
perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father
of the heavenly lights…’ (James 1:17)

In my preparation this week, I came across a really
striking line from one commentator: ‘We should view
prayer as [a] revolutionary tactic, not a passive
resignation to a situation. In prayer, we enlist the aid and
ear of “the Lord of Hosts” [“the Lord Almighty”] (if we
recall James 5:4)…’ (Craig Blomberg, James)
What is your view of prayer? Is it like this? Or, do you see
it as something ineffectual? Do you see it as simply
speaking to the four walls, or only a moment of quiet
inner reflection? Because James, along with the rest of
Scripture, calls us to understand God as revealed
in His Word, and His Word reveals Him to be the Lord of
Hosts, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the Lord Almighty. To
engage in prayer, is not passive resignation, but
approaching the throne of Almighty God.

So, are we allowing God to define our reality such that we
approach Him in prayer? Are we a praying people? Now,
if you would like to grow in your prayer life, then why not
come along to one of our many opportunities for prayer:
Thursday evening or Sunday morning prayer times; the
monthly evening service which has a focus on prayer; or
join a Fellowship Group where you can pray for one
another and hopefully the life of the church as well; or for
elders and deacons, come along to the prayer times
before our monthly meetings. We should all be praying
and in all circumstances.

James then raises the issue of praying for those who are
ill. He says such persons should call the elders and they
will come to ‘…pray over them and anoint them with oil
in the name of the Lord.’ (James 5:14)

The anointing of oil is symbolic in the Scriptures of a
person being set apart for God’s special attention and
care, as well as a symbol of God’s presence with that
individual.

Should we always pray with anointing? Not necessarily –
the overall teaching in the New Testament does not
consistently pair healing prayer with anointing, and so we
should not see this one verse as mandating oil to
accompany all prayers for the sick. A number of
commentators highlight that the words…
‘…the Lord will raise them up’ (James 5:15) could signify
people who are lying down, restricted to bed because
they are so ill, maybe with a chronic or life-threatening
illness.

And that matches reality, does it not, because a number
of us here do have stories about God healing where no oil
was involved. Just last year, one of our congregation
members shared with me after the service that they had
considerable pain in their shoulder, so I offered to pray
with them. I laid a hand on their shoulder and prayed
quite simply and succinctly.

At the time I wasn’t really aware that anything had
happened, because I forgot to ask what I would usually
ask, “has there been any change?”

So, it wasn’t until some months later, when I was
speaking with this individual at the Alpha Course that
they shared with me of the warmth they felt, not just of
my hand but in a much stronger manner, a warmth
working through their shoulder and of their shoulder
then becoming better.

Now, I can also share the other end of the spectrum,
because in this past year I have also prayed for another
individual’s shoulder and nothing seemed to happen on
that occasion. But too often, too often, we let the
negative define reality – and so somehow, we need to
need to find a balance within our prayers: of never
expecting God to heal and on the flip side, requiring God
to heal on demand, rather than remembering He chooses
how and when He heals….

Because complete healing never occurs in this life; any
healing is only temporary, our bodies will fail us, and it is
only in the new heaven and new earth that we will have
a fully perfect body.

But still, will we allow God to define reality? He is the God
who says that He heals, and that all healing – natural,
supernatural, medical, physical, psychological or spiritual
– is of His hand.

Now, I’m not saying we implement this straight away –
healing prayer is something we grow into, but we should
grow into it with intentionality, rather than putting if off
or giving excuses.

One idea might be for you to go through the Alpha Course
after the summer break, where one of the weeks is on
healing and it is an excellent week in particular. But
equally, I am willing to pray for healing and pray with the
anointing of oil – all you have to do is ask.

Often we do not think we can pray such a prayer,
probably because we do not feel up to the task. But as the
passage reminds us, it is ‘in the name of the Lord’ (James
5:14) that healing comes, it is not upon our own merit or
the eloquence of our words which achieve such an
outcome. As such, James reminds us that ‘the prayer of a
righteous person is powerful and effective…’ (James
5:16) and then he goes on to speak of Elijah, who James
says was ‘…a human being, even as we are.’ (James 5:17)
Elijah was that Old Testament prophet who could rise to
the heights of faith, and then fall into the depths of
despair. He could be brave and resolute sometimes, and
then fly for his life at the whiff of danger. He was an
ordinary person, but what set him apart for James, is that
Elijah was right with God.

Elijah was in right relationship with God, he was a
righteous person, because of his faith. For us, we come
into a right relationship with God by putting our faith in
Jesus, it is by Him we are made righteous. And so, if you
have done that, if you are in right standing with God then
James says your prayer is powerful and effective, because
your prayer is coming before the throne of God in the
name of Jesus, because You are in Jesus, Jesus is in You,
and through Jesus you stand rightly before Almighty God.

So, let’s not make excuses, that we can’t pray or that our
prayers aren’t good enough. Instead let us allow the
reality of what God has done for us in Jesus to define our
lives, because if we do we will then be a praying people,
praying in all the circumstances of life, both the bad and
the good.

The final example of spiritual maturity that James
highlights is the peril of sin. James actually mentions sin
in verses 15 to 16, with regard to prayer and healing, and
the reference there is not suggesting all illness is related
to sin, because Jesus debunked that theory Himself.
Instead, in verse 15, there is that simple assurance that
any known sin can be forgiven and then in verse 16
the encouragement to own up to our faults and failings
by practicing vulnerability with one another. By engaging
in vulnerability through confession and prayer, James
again seeks to help us live in the reality of God.
In my own life, I have a friend that I meet up with once a
month, and we’ll not only talk about how things are
going, we’ll also ask the hard questions: how’s your walk
with God, how’s your purity? I also know I can message
him if I’m struggling with something and often reaching
out to him, being vulnerable, is enough to break the
power of temptation and enable me to keep living in the
reality of God by honouring God with my choices.

James also points out the peril of sin in the final two
verses, where a person is wandering away from the truth.

Now, truth for James is more than just right beliefs, it also
includes right practice, because as he’s shown again and
again, the truths of the faith should impact our living. So,
to wander here could include both wrong belief and
wrong practice and for such individuals, James exhorts us
to get alongside them, to enter that place of vulnerability
and seek to draw them away from the peril of sin.

Friends, I think the letter of James has brought a timely
message for us, for along the way his writing has given us
principles, ideas and concrete actions to take onboard
both individually and collectively so that we might have a
faith which is more than mere words.

Key to this is the degree to which we model ourselves
upon Jesus, particularly the degree to which
we live in the reality of God, and perceive the deeper
things of God. This will be seen in the type of wisdom we
exercise, in the way we treat one another and speak to
one another, it will be seen in both our actions and in our
prayers.

My prayer is that this timely word from God might help
us all to mature in faith and in character.
To God be the glory, now and forever, amen.

God the Judge? (James 4:11-5:9)

Preached on Sunday 1 March 2020
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 20-03-01-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon-morning.
Text: James 4:11-5:9
Sunday 1st March 2020
Brightons Parish Church

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

In 2019, we welcomed 13 people into membership here as part of Brightons Parish Church. We are unique in these numbers compared to our sister churches across the Braes area, for only one other congregation welcomed any new members, and that congregation only welcomed one new member all year. It’s my hope that in a few weeks’ time we may see another person come into membership here and I know of at least one other young mum who wants to explore membership with us by attending the “Open Door” course in the summer term, and so if anyone else would be interested in finding out about membership, then please do come and speak with me.
When someone comes into membership, I discuss with them the foundations of our faith, and when we formally welcome them during the service, we collectively affirm the Christian faith. Often we do this by saying together the Apostles Creed, which summarises the core beliefs we are taught in the Scriptures. The creed reads:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father… I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy universal Church,
the communion of the saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
Hopefully we’re familiar with these words and beliefs, and to stray from any of this is to stray from Christianity. But did you notice that there’s a line missing? It reads: ‘He [Jesus] will come again to judge the living and the dead.’
Of all the lines in that creed, I suspect this is the one which raises within us the greatest concerns and questions. We like the idea of the forgiveness of sins and resurrection of the body; we like the idea of a Saviour and a Father that loves us. But the idea of there being a Judge and of all people being judged, well that’s an idea we’d rather not think about too often; we’d rather skip those passages, like in James today, which speak of God being the sole Judge…
After all, isn’t this idea just antiquated, relevant for a darker age? And anyway, what gives God the right to stand in judgment of us at all?
It’s fitting that we consider such matters on the very day that we celebrate Communion. I would like to read you a short fictional story, which engages with some of these issues. I’m not sure of the original author but I remember reading this in a Christian book at some stage in my early faith journey and being very moved by it. So, let us imagine the scene…
At the end of time, billions of people were standing on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back… from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly, not cringing with shame – but with belligerence.
“Can God judge us? How can He know about suffering?”, snapped a young woman. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror…beatings…torture…death!”
In another group a Negro boy lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched, for no crime but being black!”
Far out across the plain were hundreds of such people. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering He had permitted in His world.
How lucky God was to live in Heaven, they said, where all was sweetness and light. Where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that man had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.
So, each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because they had suffered the most. A Jew, a negro, a person from Hiroshima, other individuals horribly deformed by ill health. In the centre of the vast plain, they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.
Before God could be qualified to be their judge, He must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth as a man.
Let that man be born a Jew, to know the meaning of unjust discrimination. And let him be born into a poor family, in suspicious circumstances, so that the world sniggers behind his back about who his real father is.
Give him an almost impossible job – a task so difficult that even his family will think he is out of his mind when he tries to do it. A task that turns the authorities of the country against him so that they seek his life and hunt him down.
Let him live as a wanderer with no real income and no real way to make money. Let him live off the charity of others.
Let him be betrayed by one of his closest friends and brought with false charges before a cowardly judge. Let him be tried by a prejudiced jury, convicted on false evidence, and sentenced to death… by the cruellest means of punishment devised by man.
But first let him be tortured, while all his friends desert him, and no-one puts out a hand to save him. Let even his father turn his back on him and disown him. Then he will know what it is to be truly alone.
Only then let him die. Publicly. Stripped, beaten, and in full view of a hostile crowd. A long, slow, agonizing death that spares him none of the pain that misused men and women have suffered at the hands of tyrants and oppressors through countless centuries. May he taste the full depth of it.
As each leader announced their portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled.
As the last word was spoken, a hush fell upon the crowd. Across all this vast multitude there was not a sound. A silence fell, so deep it seemed as if the entire universe was holding its breath…For at that moment, all realised…that God had already served his sentence.
In the person of Jesus, the Lamb that was slain, the Holy One who was crucified, God served His sentence. But not because He had done anything wrong, rather He came to give His life that we may know eternal life; He came that the evil of the world would not go unpunished, and the suffering of this world would not go unnoticed or unending. Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, showed on the cross the holiness, the justice, the righteousness of God.
James speaks of these matters in the beginning of chapter five, highlighting the abysmal treatment of the poor by the rich, such that the injustice shown by the rich likely lead to the death of the poor, and as such James can say that their selfishness was a form of condemnation and murder of innocent people.
To both parties, rich and poor, the judgement of God brings a message. Wrongs will be righted. Evil will be punished. The cries of the poor have been heard. As such, James exhorts us: ‘Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming…be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!” (James 5:7-9)
Knowing Jesus will return and that when He does He will judge the world, ushering in God’s Kingdom, well that’s supposed to help us persevere, to wait patiently, and in our waiting show grace to one another.
Friends, God is Judge, He alone is qualified to be Judge, and in His righteousness, He will set the world right, evil will be punished, suffering does not go unrecognised. The idea of God as Judge is not some antiquated idea, but a truth as relevant now, as for any time. Thank God He is our righteous, holy Judge!
Based on this view of God, we might be a little more open to that line from the creed: ‘He [Jesus] will come again to judge the living and the dead.’ It almost sounds like good news now – evil punished, wrongs righted, suffering
recognised and eradicated for the glorious new heaven and new earth will be ushered in upon the return of Jesus as Judge.
But the first part of our reading from James issues another reminder – we are temporal, like a mist that is here one day and gone tomorrow. As such, God alone is the one Lawgiver and Judge, and so we should humble ourselves under His authority, we should submit to His Word, the teaching contained in the Bible.
In verses 11-12, James raises the idea that to speak ill of another is to speak against the law, God’s word. For in the Scriptures God forbids speaking in slanderous ways and to do so then is to break the law or speak against it, and when we break the law, when we speak against it,…
we are in effect judging the law, we are saying this bit of God’s law ought to be obeyed and this other bit can be ignored, rather than allowing the whole of God’s law to shape us.
The central issue is: will we humble ourselves under God’s Word? Will we see that He alone has ultimate authority, He alone is Lawgiver and Judge?
James wants us to have a right understanding of God and of ourselves, and in that place of humility, find freedom, because when we appreciate something of the glory of God, including His rightful place as Judge of us all, then we can then more fully heed the words of Jesus, who said: ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’ (Mt. 7:1-2)
So, once again, thank God He is our righteous, holy Judge! He will come again and set the world aright, and that can give us perseverance. But knowing He will come again as Judge, upon our own lives, means we are free to stop judging, it means we are free to live in humility.
Yet, we need not fear God as Judge, because knowing Him as Judge is simply meant to cultivate perseverance and humility, not fear, because as Paul reminds us: ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1). He reaches this affirmation because of what he understands God has done through Jesus. Earlier he wrote: ‘For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood…God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.’
(Romans 3:25-26, New Living Translation)
Friends, God our Judge has made a way for us to be forgiven, a way for us to be set free from condemnation and come into right relationship with Himself: all we need to do is trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And in that moment of humility, in that split second of decision, all fear of judgment goes, all fear of God being Judge goes, for we appreciate that it was because of His love He sent Jesus, because of His love He calls us to humble ourselves, and when we appreciate His love, all fear goes.
Brothers and sisters, on this day when we remember, when we celebrate and make known the death of Jesus through bread and wine, we affirm these truths – that, in righteousness, God will judge sin and He must, His holiness will not allow Him to overlook the slightest blot or stain.
But equally, equally, in love, God paid the price of our sin, He wants all of us to be forgiven, all of us to be in right relationship with Himself, and so He gave His life for us.
All that remains, is for you and I to humble ourselves, to come near to God, asking for His forgiveness, and trusting in His great promise to do so.
I pray we all will come before Him with such humility, knowing then that we are welcomed into His family and welcomed to the table which reminds us that God is Judge and God is love.
May it be so. Amen.

A Taste of Grace (James 4:1-10)

Preached on: Sunday 23rd February 2020
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 20-02-23-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon-morning.
Bible references: James 4:1-10
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Text: James 4:1-10

Sunday 23 February 2020 Brightons Parish Church

Let us pray.  May  the  words   of  my   mouth,   and        the

meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

When my wife and I lived in Edinburgh, we had at that time a group of friends who were studying medicine and so from time to time Gill or I would be asked to help these medics prepare for their examination tests. This would usually involve us pretending to be a patient who had come in and needed examining and diagnosing. Thankfully it didn’t require anything invasive or something that would give me the shivers (because I’m not good with medical stuff), but the process helped them learn a structured way to identify symptoms, discern the underlying situation, and finally consider a solution.

 In his letter to these scattered congregations, James has

again and again been like a doctor – highlighting the signs, diagnosing the situation and offering solutions. In many ways his earlier material has been building to this portion of the letter; as someone needing to share some bad news, he has been gentle and affirming, often calling them “brothers and sisters”, but at the same time, James has wisely not dodged the issues either. Along the way, the good doctor has hinted at the underlying issues, building to our passage this morning, because today the good doctor has to break the hardest of news and once more, he begins with signs that something is wrong.

James writes: ‘What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.’ (James 4:1-3)

Here, James highlights horizontal signs and vertical signs that there is a deeper problem. On a horizontal level, James sees the disharmony within these scattered congregations, he sees fellow Christians fighting and quarrelling with one another. James even goes as far as to say that they ‘kill’ one another. There is precedent to suggest he could literally mean murder. But equally, the adultery that James speaks of in verse 4 is metaphorical, so it is also feasible that James is not being literal. As his brother and Lord had said: ‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and  anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment…’ (Matthew 5:21-22)

Whether James is being literal or figurative, there are horizontal signs that something is deeply wrong within all these congregations. As one commentator wrote: ‘it is a depressing commentary on church life that James can write to a scattered people (1:1) and make the same general comment on all alike.’ Similarly, one philosopher said: ‘I have often wondered that persons who make boast of professing the Christian religion – namely love, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men – should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than   the  virtues  which  they   profess,   is  the  readiest criteria of their faith.’ (17th century Jewish philosopher Spinoza)

 So, let me pause here, and ask: are there fights and quarrels between us here at Brightons? It would be naïve to assume there aren’t some issues – after all, James says that they arise because of the ‘desires that battle within you’ (4:1) – and all of us have desires. These desires that James speaks of are not necessarily bad desires, the word is neutral in the Greek. But, when coupled with our messed up, self-focused, sinful nature, these desires get twisted and it leads to the kind of things James has written about: self-interest, unhealthy words, false wisdom leading to cliques and disunity.

So, do we have underlying issues here at Brightons? We may appear to be well on the surface, even healthy, but is there anything going on underneath? Are we allowing anything to fester?…

What are the things that we are allowing to create distance between ourselves? James says that the horizontal sign of disunity may point to something unhealthy underneath.

But James also, in these early verses, speaks of a vertical sign of a deeper problem. He wrote: ‘…You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.’ (James 4:2-3)

Clearly, James is speaking about prayer, and what he is saying is that our twisted natures even impact our spiritual lives. Prayer could and should be a solution to receiving the desires of our hearts, as the Psalmist reminds us (Psalm 37:4), but even when these Christians do pray,…their prayers are going unanswered because they ask it with wrong motives, our sinful nature twists those desires into something that is all about ourselves and as such the answer from heaven is ‘no’ or ‘not yet’.

We know from the Lord’s Prayer what to pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ (Matthew 6:9-10)

Our prayers are to have a focus on God’s name, on God’s kingdom and His will, such that the motives for prayer and the things we ask for corporately in prayer, should seek the glorifying of God’s name and the extension of His kingdom upon the earth.

So, again, let’s pause and ask: where are our corporate prayers not being answered? Now, James is not giving a fully worked out reason for unanswered prayer, so please, please, if you are in a hard place at present and you are not seeing answer to prayer, do not automatically assume it is due to you asking for things out of wrong motives. James is simply highlighting that alongside very unhealthy dynamics within these congregations, they are also not seeing answered prayer as a gathering of God’s people. An example might help.

By and large, most congregations in the Church of Scotland are praying something like: “Lord, we long to see children and families back amongst our congregations.” On the surface, a very reasonable prayer; on the surface, surely a prayer God would want to answer, yes?

But are we asking this with unmixed motives? How much is that prayer being asked because we want to feel successful and healthy; or that we hope for our congregation or denomination to have a future; or simply because the place is less full than it used to be? But does God care about any of that? I know God cares for families coming to faith and finding life in all its fullness through Jesus, but I’m not sure I see anything in Scripture which supports those other prayer motives. So, maybe we don’t see answers to our corporate prayers because we’re asking them with wrong motives, we’re not necessarily asking them for the sake of God’s name and Kingdom.

James, the good doctor, has identified two signs, so now he breaks the bad news, now he brings the situation out into the light: ‘You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us?’ (James 4:4-5)

The situation that James highlights is a grievous disloyalty. Drawing upon the language of Scripture, which describes God’s people as His bride, James says their behaviour and twisted motives are adultery and friendship with the world. This temptation has always lurked at the door for the people of God and so God often sent prophets to His people, such as Jeremiah:

“‘…like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you, Israel, have been unfaithful to me,’ declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 3:20)

Like Jeremiah, James is warning these congregations that their flirtation with the world has consequences on their relationship with God and that God has no wish to settle for such disloyalty. As verse 5 reminds us, God loves with a jealous love, His desire is for His people to be wholly and unreservedly His.

Often, we think of jealousy as wrong, and for human beings it often is for it leads to the fights and quarrels that James mentions. But with God, who is perfect in nature, His jealousy does not stem from insecurity or selfishness. God’s jealousy is a secure jealousy, which seeks what is best for you and I by guarding our hearts from disloyalty. He is jealous for the affections of our hearts for we are the bride of Christ. He wants us to run from the things that lure us away from Jesus, and one of those things is friendship with the world.

 Now, to our ears, this sounds a bit extreme or a bit odd. But we need to remember that friendship in James’ day meant identifying with their standards and priorities. Friendship was a life-long pact between people, people with shared values and loyalties, and James is simply saying that such friendship with the world is incompatible for Christians.

He’s not alone is saying this, Paul said much the same, John too, and it was Jesus who said, ‘Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.’ (Mt. 10:37)

From James to Jesus, the point is not that it is wrong to love others, because Jesus clearly taught us to love our neighbour…

 The point, however, is about who and what has the ultimate authority in our lives – is it God and His Kingdom values, or is it the values of the world? James has been trying to make the point throughout his letter that there are substantial differences between the values of the world and the values of God: instead of favouritism of self, sacrificial love is the way of God’s Kingdom; instead of religion in words only, we’re expected to partner in God’s Kingdom purposes; instead of words that lead to death, we are to speak life.

Doctor James has diagnosed that the reason for the disorder and fractiousness within these congregations, is that at heart they have aligned themselves with the values of the world, rather than the values of God. They have acted in an adulterous manner, they have been grievously disloyal.

Now, it’s unlikely these congregations were aware of the issue, it’s unlikely they consciously choose to disown God and follow the world; more likely they identified as Christians and yet they got sucked into a dubious way of life.

And that’s a bit of a scary thought: that genuine “brothers and sisters” in Christ, have the potential of to twist our desires so selfishly that we end up committing a grievous disloyalty towards God, we end up grieving God and arousing His jealousy, because we turn our backs upon God, even unconsciously.

I wonder, friends, does this make us stop and take stock? In the areas where we have disagreement, in the ways that our desires are not being met, in our unanswered prayers,…

 is there the possibility that these things are happening because we do not have the priorities of God? And as such, are we then grieving God? It’s a scary thought, it’s a thought should make us sit up and take stock: are we showing grievous disloyalty to God?

James writes this way, not only because it’s true, but to help his readers wake up, rub the sleep from their eyes and take a long hard look in the mirror. Yet he doesn’t leave them there, for in verses 6 to 10, James shares with them his solution, the doctor proscribes the medicine, which is a grace-fuelled loyalty.

He begins by quoting from Proverbs, that God shows favour, His grace, to the humble. The point James takes from the Scripture, is that those who will humble themselves,…those who can face up to the truth, God will come close and raise them up with His grace. And so, James says, ‘but he [God] give us more grace.’ (James 6:1)

One commentator wrote: “What comfort there is in this verse! It tells us that God is tirelessly on our side. He never falters in respect of our needs, he always has more grace at hand for us. He is never less than sufficient, he always has more and yet more to give. Whatever we may forfeit when we put self first…there is always more grace. No matter what we do to him, he is never beaten.…His resources are never at an end, his patience is never exhausted, his initiative never stops, his generosity knows no limit: he gives more grace.” (Motyer, James)

 He gives more grace. To a bunch of infighting, self-centred proud Christians, God is waiting with more grace. But to receive that grace, as the Proverb says, we must humble ourselves – or as James puts it: ‘Submit yourselves, then, to God…Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.’ (James 4:7, 10)

James is calling for fresh loyalty to God, borne out humility and fuelled by grace. This loyalty to God includes: resisting the devil (v7) and coming near to God in repentance (v8-9).

We probably feel a bit unsettled or confused with the first idea, of resisting the devil – we might even wonder what it means? But James has repeatedly raised the idea that what can fuel our poor choices…is that dominion which is opposed to God. It’s just that now, James is being specific and explicit.

In calling us to resist the devil, James is calling us to resist anything that would make us act disloyally towards God. Ultimately, the question is: who is directing the path of our lives? Is it God, or is it something or someone else?

Of course, we get things wrong, and so James calls us to show loyalty to God by also coming near to God in repentance. He writes: ‘Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.’

(James 4:8-9)

 On the surface, James sounds like a bit of a killjoy, he sounds pretty depressing! But later he will write, ‘Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.’ (James 5:13) So, we need to keep in mind the context here, for James is not against joy. Instead, James is calling us to repentance, that’s what he means by coming near to God and having our hands washed and our hearts purified. Washing our hands is a metaphor for cleaning up our outer life, our acts of wrong-doing.

And the idea of purifying our hearts is another metaphor but this time with regard to our inner life, our inner values, which is why he calls them “double-minded” for they have mixed motives, mixed loyalty.

In both the outer life and the inner life, James calls us to repentance, he calls us to take our sin and disloyalty seriously, which is why we are to grieve, mourn and wail. Once we realise how grievously disloyal we have been towards God, we ought to be upset, we ought to be repulsed by our sin and disloyalty.

Now, it’s possible to be so shocked and horrified by our sin that we think we should clean up our lives first and then draw near to God. But friends, that’s not what James says to do, because that’s the way of self-reliance, salvation by works, and pride.

James says, come near to God first, then wash and purify. We are to come into God’s presence, come under His holy influence, and in that place find His grace, His more grace, so that we are then fuelled, by grace, to live in loyalty towards God.

Brothers and sisters, I’ve spoken before of being a young man of 19 when I came to faith. I’ve spoken before of how selfish I was at that time. I think I’ve spoken about how my actions hurt others though I didn’t really care, and quite clearly then, God’s values were not anywhere near the top of my priorities, even though I was going to church every week.

But then, in a moment of unasked for grace, God showed up one morning. The morning after the worst choices of my life, God came close to me. He came with holy grace. He came as the uncompromising holy God who showed me the sins of my hands and the impurity of my heart…

 

He showed me a little of the vast darkness in my heart and that quite literally, I deserved hell because that’s who I was partnering with. But God didn’t just come in His holiness, He came in His grace, and with outstretched hand He welcomed me into His family because in humility I repented. His love has astounded and captivated me every day since that moment, 18 years ago, and I have never, and will never, turn my back on Him, or forsake His call, no matter the pummelling I get or the risks asked or the ways He calls me into greater likeness to His Son. I am committed to Him, because He has cultivated grace- fuelled loyalty in me, He gave me such grace as I did not deserve even when I had been so grievously disloyal to Him.

 Friends, do you know God’s grace? When did you last taste His grace?

God stands at the door of your heart this morning, He stands there calling you to come near to Him, to admit the error of your ways and find grace, more grace.

You may be a Christian even, like the folks James wrote to, and maybe you need to come back to the more grace of God, finding and remembering the basis upon which our faith, your faith, stands, the more grace of God.

My prayer is that in the depth of our being we will know that more grace and allow it to fuel the deepest of loyalty to God and the healthiest of dynamics amongst us. May it be so. Amen.

Wisdom & Intolerance (James 3:13-18)

Preached on: Sunday 16th February 2020
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 20-02-16-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon-morning.

Bible references: James 3:13-18

Location: Brightons Parish Church

Text: James 3:13-18
Sunday 16th February 2020
Brightons Parish Church
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.How would you define ‘wisdom’? I think it’s a lot harder than we first imagine. I suspect that we may come up with a number of possible answers and we could lean towards an answer like the Cambridge Dictionary: ‘the ability to use your knowledge and experience to make good decisions and judgments.’

So, when we read about true and false wisdom in these verses from James, it’s easy to get the wrong idea, because ‘wisdom’ for James is something quite different.

Let’s also take the word ‘peace’. How would you define ‘peace’? Looking again at the Cambridge Dictionary, it summarises peace as there being ‘no violence’ and having ‘calm’. But for James, ‘peace’ is a much richer word, because as a Christian from a Jewish background, saturated in the Scriptures of the Old Testament, he understood both peace and wisdom in a much fuller way, and in a moment we’ll get into that.

Because, in case you’re worrying that this is going to be like a lecture rather than a sermon, here are four pictures of recent events, potentially affected by false wisdom. You may have read about them or heard about them on the TV or radio. We have Kate Forbes, SNP minister; Franklin Graham, American evangelist; Israel Folau, rugby player; and Destiny Church, Edinburgh…

So, we will get to these situations, because as Christians we need to be aware of them, we need to be aware of what is happening within our society. But before we can engage with the issues appropriately, we need to first understand what James is getting at within these five verses, including the definitions behind his words.

We might first wonder though why James begins writing about wisdom at all, because again it seems like another blunt change of topic. But remembering this proverb might help:
‘The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.’
(Proverbs 15:2)

We see that the tongue and wisdom are closely linked in the Scriptures, and so for James it’s a natural progression to move from our words to speaking about wisdom.

He writes in verse 13: ‘Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.’

This is the overarching thought for these verses on wisdom. So, what is James saying here?

He asserts that someone with wisdom will show humility and good deeds in their life. But again, what does he mean by ‘wisdom’, or ‘humility’?

Let’s start with wisdom. Wisdom from a biblical
perspective is much more than the dictionary definition,

much more than an ability to make good decisions and it’s much more than pragmatic advice. From a biblical perspective, wisdom has a beginning and a goal, summarised by this verse in Proverbs:
‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.’
(Proverbs 9:10)

This expression is used 18 times in the book of Proverbs and there is similar language elsewhere in the Scriptures. Wisdom begins by having true reverence, ‘fear’, of the Lord. It is recognition of who is actually God, that there is a God, that that God is holy and almighty in character and nature. But wisdom is more than just having these ideas in our heads, wisdom includes knowledge and understanding which leads to a changed life…

The Scriptures speak in Genesis of Adam knowing Eve, knowing her in a way that changed both their lives forever. So, wisdom includes a knowledge that changes the course of our lives, it includes a reverence that leads to obedience.

But biblical wisdom is not only having this awareness of God and responding appropriately to Him, biblical wisdom is also understanding what God is up to in the world and living in response. The Apostle Paul speaks of such in first Corinthians:
‘Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ (1 Cor. 1:22-24)

What Paul is getting at is this: when Jesus was crucified, Jews thought it was weakness, Greeks (or Gentiles) thought it foolishness – for Jews knew that someone crucified was under the curse of God, and Gentiles knew that crucifixion was the most humiliating of deaths reserved for the worst of traitors. Both Jew and Gentile knew, they just knew, that Jesus could not be the promised Messiah, He could not be God in the flesh coming to save the world
– or so they thought.

But the Church for two thousand years has argued differently: that the Cross was the epitome of God’s wisdom and strength, because there He defeated death, there He conquered sin and the enemies of hell. Nevertheless, many Jews and Gentiles could not see what God was up to in Jesus, and so they could not live in response to God’s actions, they could not have wisdom in the biblical sense.

James said, ‘Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.’

To have wisdom includes reverence for God and an understanding of what God is up to in the world and then living in response. From this, from such true wisdom, comes humility; for wisdom creates a healthy perspective of ourselves before God. We realise that He is God, not ourselves; that the universe does not revolve around us. We realise the gift of life we have been given; we realise also our limitations. We realise how messed up and broken we are, how rebellious we are towards God and yet He still
loves us, that He loved us enough to die for us…

It’s no wonder that this should create humility, leaving no room for pride, no room for selfishness.

As a result, through humility created from true wisdom, a way of life should come about that is good and is seen in good deeds.

All this, all of this, James captures in one verse and then he springboards into a description of false wisdom and what it leads to. He writes:
‘But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.’ (James 3:14-16)

James speaks of false wisdom, which is empty of humility and so leads to envy and selfish ambition culminating in disorder and a deepening moral crisis. Again here, the words used by James are meaningful.

‘Bitter envy’ is a wishing for others to have less, or to be less. ‘Selfish ambition’ is power hungry and status- seeking, so much so, that it leads to feuds, to divisiveness. James wants to highlight for us the perils of selfish individualism, which he says, ‘does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.’

Again, meaningful words chosen here. ‘Earthly’, earthbound we might say, such that false wisdom shuts out God and focuses our eyes simply on the present, on the physical.

‘Unspiritual’ is used in the Scriptures when human feeling and human reason reign supreme in our lives. False wisdom unseats God from the throne of our hearts; there is no reverence, there is no fear of the Lord, and so false wisdom, unspiritual wisdom, is also ‘demonic’, because it is opposed to God.

Unsurprisingly, such false wisdom leads to ‘disorder and every evil practice’. This disorder is not only at the individual level, it is also at the level of communities, even societies. ‘Disorder’ here speaks of commotion, confusion, restlessness. The same root word is translated “uprisings” in Luke 21:9, where Jesus forewarned of restlessness and unsettled global affairs prior to His return, of society increasing in persecution, particularly of the church.

So, let me pause here, and return to those earlier pictures. Kate Forbes; Franklin Graham; Israel Folau; and Destiny Church. I’ve no idea if you’ll have heard of these incidents; but I’ve been directed to a number of helpful sources which highlight the issues around these four situations.

Kate Forbes, a committed Christian, delivered the Scottish government budget a few weeks’ ago at the age of 29, but is now being targeted by members of her own party. One such SNP member said of Kate Forbes: “the last thing our party needs is Kate Forbes climbing the ladder when she has such questionable views on equality.” As evidence of these “questionable” views, that individual linked to a letter published in The Scotsman last year, authored by fifteen female MSPs, who raised concerns over the Scottish government’s proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act. AS far as I know, only Kate Forbes seems to have been targeted but she is the one who is a Christian and attends church, and holds an orthodox view of human sexuality.

And then there are the cases of Franklin Graham, Israel Folau and Destiny Church and all have a degree of similarity in the issue they face, though there are nuances. Each one in turn has faced censure because they hold and have expressed orthodox Christian views on human sexuality.

Franklin Graham was booked to speak at the Hydro Centre in Glasgow as part of a UK tour. The venue is part- owned by Glasgow City Council, and Susan Aitken, the leader of the local authority, said allowing Graham to go ahead could have broken the law. Franklin Graham has not attacked anyone, he has not spoken any hate crime, but he appears to be penalised for what someone thinks he might say or that his views are simply not in alignment with the current popular position. To some commentators, this would appear to be discrimination based on religious beliefs and it may be that the council have to explain how their decision is not a breach of the Equalities Act.

A similar situation arose with Destiny Church, just two weeks’ ago, where their annual conference at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh was cancelled because the speakers held to orthodox Christian beliefs on human sexuality.

In the situation involving Glasgow City Council, one commentator wrote: ‘Ms Aitken is saying that because of ‘equality’ someone who holds a view, which is (for the moment) still legal…can be banned on the basis that it would be breaking the law to have him speak. Given that the Catholic church, the Church of England and most evangelical churches hold the view that sex outside marriage is wrong (and marriage is between a man and a woman), does this mean that the churches are against the law?’ The commentator goes on to speak about the ‘intolerance of tolerance’ within our society.

In a similar vein, on an episode of ‘Inside Track’ for BBC5 Live, dated 30th January 2020, Martin Bashir, the BBC Religious Editor, spoke about the situation around Israel Folau, and he referred to a term called ‘totalitolerance’, which is a worldview which says: “unless you agree with

every single view that I have and I embrace, I want
nothing to do with you and will run you out of town.”

Now, I’m aware that we are a mixed group of Christians and will have a range of opinions, but I would hope and affirm that we can all find a place of home here. Yet, in the four situations I’ve outlined, it feels like there’s something not quite right. That instead of having free speech, we may have a form of totalitolerance; that actually, in the name of tolerance we have a form of intolerance. All this brings to mind that famous line, probably misattributed to Voltaire: “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.”

It’s often been cited in support of free speech because whether we agree with the content or not, free speech is central to democracy, and freedom of speech is only worth something when it affirms the freedom of all people, including the ones we disagree with.

So, how does this connect with the writing we have in James today? Well I wonder if what we are seeing in the growing evidence of intolerance, of totalitolerance, I wonder if in this we are seeing something of the false wisdom spoken about by James. In that false wisdom, there is ‘bitter envy’, wherein people wish for others to have less or be less. James also spoke of disorder, of ambition that leads to divisiveness, and of a deepening moral crisis. Don’t we see something of this false wisdom in our society and in these situations?

I worry that we do, because a life, a society, a community of people who are marked by true wisdom display something quite different, as James makes clear. He says: ‘But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.’ (James: 3:17-18)

James says that true wisdom is pure, putting it first to show that it is a prerequisite for the other attributes. By purity, James is referring to an unmixed devotion to God, for the word has the same root as ‘holy’ and ‘hallowed’. A person can also be called pure when they partake of the character of God, when they walk in God’s ways.

With such purity, true wisdom, should be humble, it should have an appropriate understanding of self, giving true reverence to God, and as such it is also:
• Peace-loving: there is unity, at-one-ness, with good close relationships.
• Considerate – which is a way of grouping together gentleness, patience and kindness.
• Submissive – or we might say, teachable, willing to yield to the truth of God.
• Full of mercy and good fruit – such unity, kindness, humility will allow such persons to be conscious of the neediness and helplessness of others so that mercy and good fruit will be seen in practical action.
• Impartial – that practical action will not show favouritism, as James already highlighted. And finally…

• Sincere – because such humble gentleness, seeking after true unity, will not show hypocrisy or pretence, but rather favour only truth.

What is striking about all these attributes, is that they are all seen in God and in His way of relating to us. True wisdom is reflective of God:
• Peace-loving: God sought peace with us by dying on the cross; He gave His life for peace. (Col. 1:20)
• Considerate: Romans 2:4 speaks of the kindness and patience of God which seeks to lead us back into relationship with Himself.
• Submissive: Jesus Himself said, ‘I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’ (Matthew 11:29)

• Full of mercy and good fruit: a few weeks ago, we spoke of God’s mercy towards us on the cross. (Eph. 2:4)
• Impartial: similarly, we also spoke of God’s impartiality, that He has no favourites. (Deut. 10:17)
• Sincere: as James reminded us, there are no shifting shadows to God. (James 1:17)

As such, true wisdom puts to death envy, it eradicates selfish ambition, there would be no disorder, no propagation of base actions with true wisdom, and instead we would see peace and righteousness, which leads to James’ conclusion: ‘Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.’ (James 3:18)

The ‘peace’ that James speaks of is influenced by the Old Testament, where the word ‘peace’ is known as ‘shalom’, which is more than the absence of obvious tension. Shalom exists where things are whole, healthy, complete. The experience of shalom is meant to be multi- dimensional, for shalom is well-being physically, psychologically, spiritually and socially.

Tim Keller writes, that at a social level, ‘shalom would be seen in people sharing resources with each other and working together so that shared public services work, the environment is safe and beautiful, that schools educate, businesses flourish, and poverty and hunger are minimal.’ When shalom comes upon a community, even a society, there would be wholeness of relationships, with truth, righteousness and justice evident.

Because of such depth to shalom, even just social shalom, James speaks of ‘peacemakers’ rather than ‘peace- keepers’. A peacemaker must confront the problems which need addressed, sometimes disrupting a community (or a society) in order to deal with root problems. Peacemakers are to work peace, tilling the ground, rooting out the weeds and as they do so, from their labour comes a harvest of righteousness, a harvest that is reflective of God and thus true wisdom.

So, when voices raise up in our media, or amongst our politicians, or when public venues refuse a platform for voices that they disagree with, does this speak of true wisdom? Does it convey humility, gentleness, an openness to the other even amidst disagreement? Is it impartial and is it being honest about it motives?
Personally, I’m not so sure, I’m not so sure…

that the intolerance of tolerance, or the totalitolerance that is creeping into society, is true wisdom.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus calls us to be salt and light in the world, shining His light, His true wisdom that all might see more clearly and so find true life. We are also to bear His distinctive flavour, so that like salt, we might bring forth the best in the world, and flavour it with Jesus.

It has to begin first at home; we have to cultivate this in our own lives, in our families, and in our congregation. James says that such wisdom is from above, and that God gives wisdom if we but ask for it (James 1:5). So, here’s my question: for the sake of yourself, the church and indeed even for society, will we humble ourselves and seek God’s wisdom? Will we dig into His Word? Will we ask for His Spirit of wisdom and revelation?

Because God is ready to give true wisdom, that we might usher in a greater degree of shalom as peacemakers and so be known, as Jesus said in Matthew 5, as the children of God. I pray it may be so. Amen.

Life-giving Words (James 3:1-12)

Preached on: Sunday 9th February 2020
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 20-02-09-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon-morning.

Bible references: James 3:1-12

Location: Brightons Parish Church

Text: James 3:1-12
Sunday 9th February 2020 Brightons Parish ChurchLet us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the
meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

I read this past week that if we include scientific words, there are over one million words in the English language. Of all those words, the average person knows about 20,000, uses roughly 2,000 different words each week and speaks about 16,000 words a day, on average – though I guess the number goes up for ministers on a Sunday! The book of Proverbs reminds us that: ‘The tongue has the power of life and death’ (Pro. 18:21). So, our words matter, not so much the number of words we speak but the kind of words and the purpose for them.

Fourteen years into married life I can well affirm this
because I am still very much learning to speak in life- giving ways. One year into ministry here at Brightons, having spoken more words than in any other year in my life, and I am aware that my words have likely touched on both parts of that proverb.

So, we can likely resonate with the writing of James today because we know his assessment in verses 2 to be true: we all say wrong things, because (after all) who amongst us is perfect, who lives a perfect life? No one. So, if we stumble in our deeds, then we sure stumble in our words, we all say wrong things, and for this reason what James is about to detail is relevant for us all, even though he begins with teachers. For they must be especially careful, since the weight and quantity of their words will be greater.

In verses 3 to 5, James is seeking to quickly help us grasp
that our tongue is powerful by giving us three pictures. Firstly, of the bit in the horse’s mouth, able to turn such a powerful animal. Secondly, the lowly rudder, which the pilot can use to steer the largest of ships even amidst powerful winds. Thirdly, the small spark, which can set the greatest of forests aflame, laying low even the most powerful of trees. Across all three pictures, James highlights the disproportionate power of the tongue.

As a result, the tongue can boast. James says in verse 5: ‘the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.’ Boasting here is not in a negative sense, simply a neutral sense, that the tongue does have considerable influence for it does have great power.

Now in our digital age, it’s worth bearing in mind that if
James was writing today he’d probably include all forms of communication, both electronic or printed, because we utilise these to say things. So, let’s keep in mind every social media post, every electronic message, or the notes we send one another; they are all powerful means of speaking; it’s just that in James’ day the average person could only utilise the spoken word and so with a focus on the tongue James wants to help us see the destructive power of our words.

In verses 6 to 8, James speaks of the tongue being a fire, of it corrupting the whole body, setting the course of one’s life on fire, that it has at its disposal deadly poison. Again, this echoes the earlier Proverb ‘…of life and [of] death’ (Pro. 18:21).

God’s Word is full of examples where the tongue can lead
to death:
• Gossip and Slander – Proverbs 16:28
• Flattery – Proverbs 26:28
• Bragging – Proverbs 27:2
• Breaking Confidence – Proverbs 11:13
• Complaining – Philippians 2:14
• Lying – Proverbs 12:22
• Crude Humour and Language – Ephesians 5:3-4, Colossians 3:8
• Deceit, Cursing and Bitterness – Romans 3:13-14

So, our words are powerful, and all too often that power leads to death – because none of us are perfect, none of us, as James reminds us in verse 8, none of us can tame the tongue, it is a runaway fire, it is a viper waiting to strike with its poison.

But not only does it affect others’ lives, it affects our lives;
the words we use can have a powerful impact upon the course of our own lives, upon the actions we choose to take. That rash word, that flippant comment, which lead to that argument, which then shaped the months and years to follow. Truly the tongue, truly our ability to communicate has have power and too often that power etches wounds, scars, and unhealthy patterns of thought and behaviour into our lives and the lives of others’.

I’ve spoken at The Guild about my call into ministry, which came upon me at the age of 20, at that time into youth work, and so I left the study of chemical engineering. Fast forward six years, I’m was working as a youth pastor in a church and things seemed to be going well, though there were the usual challenges…

And one morning I’m called in to find out that my contract
is not going to be renewed at the end of the year. I’m being encouraged and “freed up” to explore a broader call, rather than singularly to young people. It’s meant to be supportive and done in a timely manner such that I can explore options, but sadly, for a variety of factors, those words, at that time, lead me to have a touch of depression, and I avoided youth ministry after that job for three years – I just couldn’t it, it was too painful.

Words have power and they can set the course of our lives and the lives of others, for our words, our tongues, have the power of life and death. I think we all know this to be true, I think we can all resonate with what James writes. So, I want to talk about two responses to this issue.

The first response, is: how should we use our tongues? Yes, it can lead to death, but it also has the potential to be life-giving, so how can we lean-in to that? What wisdom does God have for us that we and others might know life through our words as well?

We’ve seen in James in previous weeks, that he has some wisdom to pass on, wisdom that is quite easy to gloss over. He said earlier: ‘My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…’ (James 1:19)

We know this sentiment, we’ve probably heard it many times. At present, I’m working through some pre- marriage material with two couples…

who will be married in the coming months. What’s
striking so far in the material is that it really does try to put this verse into practice. It gives tools to the couples so that they can slow down their responding, whether it be anger, or defensiveness, so that their response does not lead to rash words nor block effective listening, listening that is full and deep. But it is easy to gloss over James’ encouragement here to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry; yet if we put them into practice they can be life-giving.

I said at the start of today’s message that I’m one year into ministry here at Brightons, in fact one year into full- time ministry at all. That means I’ve got a lot to learn, it means I’m going to make mistakes. It likely means that I will communicate things, which in principle I stand by,

but which I also don’t communicate clearly enough or in
the best way. Personally, I appreciate that you have been slow to speak and slow to react, especially if you feel loss as things have changed in the past year. I hope you’ll continue to be like that and not jump to conclusions about my motives, about what I might be saying or might not be saying. Can I also encourage you, if you are struggling, to come talk with me – I’m not looking for you to lambast me, or pin me against a wall, but come asking, “I wonder…?” Questions. I promise to be quick to listen and slow to speak. I’ve had a number of such conversations with folks already and I believe those times have been of benefit to us both.

But, whether we feel that way or not, let’s heed this piece
of wisdom, that our words might be life-giving.

We could also turn to Ephesians chapter 4 and explore
the wisdom Paul shares there on the issue, for he says: ‘each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour…‘In your anger do not sin’: do not let the sun go down while you are still angry…Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs …Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other…’ (Eph. 4:25-32)

This passage is chock full of wisdom: to speak truth; to be careful of anger; to only speak what is wholesome, to speak what gives life, which builds others up, and meets their needs. As such, there should be no talk…

which is bitter, or disparaging, but only that which is kind
and compassionate, with a readiness to forgive, because none of us is perfect, we all stumble in many ways.

I suspect we’ve heard this many times, indeed the Church has apparently been teaching it for two thousand years, and yet folks like Henri Amiel, Swiss philosopher, poet, and critic of the 19th century said: ‘In order to see Christianity, one must forget almost all the Christians.’

How terribly sad, and all because of the power of the tongue which can cause such harm, rather than foster life. But what if we took God’s words more seriously? Might we see in our day a community where faith is vibrant and true, where there is an active love for neighbour, and where all experience the Kingdom of God

in our midst, such that the sceptics and the critics are
encouraged to wonder afresh about Jesus, to wonder that maybe His claim was true, that He came to give life and life in all its fullness? Our words have the power of life and death, so will we heed the wisdom of God that we might be a community who is life-giving in our words?

But here’s the rub my friends: even with all that wisdom, we cannot be that community in our own strength, and this is the second response we need to explore. Jesus said, ‘A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.’ (Luke 6:45)

The tongue has the power of life and death, and the extent to which we foster life or make way for death,

depends on our hearts. The mouth speaks what the heart
is full of. The heart in this verse is the real you, the core of who you are, your nature, your identity.

James said similarly in our passage today. He said that our tongue is ‘…a world of evil…set on fire by hell…It is a restless evil…’ (James 3:6, 8) Is that true?

Well, we’ve already seen in the words of Jesus, that the mouth speaks what the heart is full of – evil words, evil heart. The internal world of our soul, of our hearts, will flow into our words. So, James is 1 for 1 so far. What about James saying that the tongue is set on fire by hell?

Earlier I quoted from John chapter 10, where Jesus said that He came to give life in all its fullness. But earlier in that same verse, Jesus also said that ‘the thief comes only

to steal and kill and destroy’. He is speaking about the
powers of hell and any deed, any word which leans away from life, may in fact be a partnership with the dominion of darkness. Paul said: ‘‘In your anger do not sin’: do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.’ (Eph. 4:26-27) It is possible in our anger, as Christians, to give space, influence in our lives to the devil, and he has used such footholds and open doors to wreak havoc, like a fire, upon the Church. So, yes, the tongue can often be set on fire by hell, and indeed to call it a restless evil, as James does, ties in with this, because restlessness is a readiness to break out and cause harm, and that is characteristic of the demonic whereas peace is characteristic of God and His good kingdom.

It is under such influence that the tongue can be led into
duplicity as James outlined in his final verses today: of praising God yet cursing the one made in God’s image, thus maligning the Creator Himself. As James says, this should not be, for we are meant to be like a fresh spring, life-giving, and by our fruit we will be known. Where there are bitter words, there is a bitter heart. Where there are defamatory or unloving words, then there is a heart where the love of Jesus is absent.

The heart is the real you, the core of who you are. So, if we want our power-laden words to speak life rather than death, then the heart cannot be in league with evil and hell, instead it must have a different ruler – not ourselves, but Jesus, King Jesus. Because when Jesus comes into our lives,…

when He becomes our Lord and Saviour, then the heart
changes. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: ‘if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here.’ (2 Cor. 5:17)

It was such an understanding that lead Paul to say to the Ephesians, in the very same passage we looked at earlier, he said: ‘…we are all members of one body…do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption…[forgive] each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love…’ (Eph. 4: 25, 30, 32; 5:1-2)

When we become that new creation through Jesus, when we realise that we are members of His body,…

when we realise that God lives in us and can be grieved,
when we realise how greatly God loves us and such that it took Him to the Cross – well then, we truly are a new creation, we have a new identity within us which begins to change us from the inside out, for it begins to change our heart and from that changed heart comes a changed life both in word and deed.

Friends, our words have the power of life and death, and if we want to be a community who is life-giving in our words, if we want to be life-giving in our marriages and families and friendships, if we want to be life-giving in our places of work or leisure, then it begins with the heart, but you can’t change your heart on your own, you need Jesus. So, it’s good news that He’s ready to help.

He’s ready to step into your life, if you will but call upon
Him and let Him rule in Your heart. He promised long ago through the prophet Ezekiel: ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.’ (Ezek. 36:26)

The Lord has been faithful to His promise, for in these last days He has sent His Holy Spirit, not just to be around us but to be in us, as Paul said, to take up residence and make our hearts, our bodies, a temple of His presence. By that Spirit we are made new creations. By that Spirit we grow in the likeness of Jesus, bearing the fruit of love and joy and peace. Friends, if we want our words to have the power of life rather than death, then it’s time to humble ourselves, it’s time to call upon the Lord for mercy and grace, it’s time to be filled with His Spirit.

For Paul also exhorts the Ephesians: ‘…be filled with the
Spirit.’ (Ephesians 5:18) The idea behind this phrase is that we are to experience the receiving of the Holy Spirit so that (in time) every part of our lives is permeated and controlled by the Spirit. This is not a ‘once for all’ experience, of which the early chapters of the books of Acts make clear. This filling of the Spirit is repeated a number of times with the early disciples, for we reed: ‘All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.’
(Acts 2:4)
And then a little later on with the same people: ‘After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.’ (Acts 4:31)

The implication of Paul’s words in Ephesians is that Christians are to keep their lives open to the repeated filling by the Holy Spirit. Notice too here in Acts, that this filling of the Spirit then lead to speech that was holy.

So, how do we do this? Well, it’s just simple prayer. We don’t have to make it overly complex; we pray simply that ancient prayer, ‘Come, Holy Spirit.’ And then we wait upon Him. We might sense something, we might sense nothing, but we pray it in faith as the Church has done for centuries, and then leave the rest to God.

Friends, if we want to be a community of life-giving words, then we must let Jesus change our hearts, and He does that by His Spirit, filling us afresh day by day, as we pray, ‘Come, Holy Spirit, come.’ So, why don’t we do that just now. Let us
pray.

True Faith (James 2:14-26)

Preached on: Sunday 2nd February 2020
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 20-02-02-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon-morning.
Bible references: James 2:14-26
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Text: James 2:14-26
Sunday 2nd February 2020
Brightons Parish ChurchLet us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

This past week I was away in Perth for two nights at the Church of Scotland First Five Years’ Conference – and yes, we did get snow as well. The conference is open to any minister who is in their first five years and it gives us newbies time to be together for support and to get some input on the dynamics of modern day ministry. Of course, whilst we’re there we try our best to set the world aright, especially within the Church and maybe because I’ve been talking about the life of our denomination a lot this week, here’s a question I invite you to discuss with your neighbour: what one thing would you blame for the current predicament of our national church?
Now this isn’t a question we discussed at the conference, but it does do the rounds: what one thing would you blame for the current predicament of our national church?

So, if you’re willing, turn to your neighbour for one minute and have a quick discussion.
(PAUSE)
The reality is that in all likelihood, every answer we’ve aired has played its part, and many more could be added to the list.

In our passage today, the second half of James chapter 2 doesn’t offer us a silver bullet to our situation or an exact diagnosis of where it all went wrong. But I do think it poses us some questions and as we wrestle with them… there are likely many points of application we could derive from the passage, yet they all centre around one key issue, which James drives home with four
illustrations, and it is this: ‘faith without deeds is dead.’

This idea is repeated four times by James:
• ‘faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead’ (v17)
• ‘faith without deeds is useless’ (v20)
• ‘a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone’ (v24)
• ‘faith without deeds is dead’ (v26)

Yes, there is nuance a little there in the middle verses, but the point James is trying to get across remains the same:
‘faith without deeds is dead.’
He has one key issue and he has been building towards this from the outset of the letter, building his case that true faith is proven by the lives we live, and to make sure his readers are really clear on this, he now gives them four further illustrations.

Illustration 1 – in verses 14 to 17 here, James outlines a scenario wherein a fellow Christian is in need, due to lack of food or clothing. James probably begins with this illustration because he’s been speaking about the poor in the earlier part of the chapter. In the scenario, James imagines someone within the Christian community replying to such a poor and needy soul in this way: “‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs…” (James 2:16)

It would be like us saying, ‘off you go, try not to worry. Keep warm; eat plenty’. It’s an empty saying. In this situation, James asks: ‘…what good is it?’

Now, James’ point is not simply about ‘what good is it’ to the poor people, for obviously their needs are left wanting; to them there is no good, no benefit. But James is primarily highlighting the benefit of such faith to the individual spurning the poor believer, for James wrote:

‘What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?… faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.’ (James 2:14, 17)

And here is the predicament that James want his readers (and us) to grasp: if we claim to have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, if we claim to be a Christian, but then have no specific action, no distinctive lifestyle flowing from such faith, well then, that faith is dead, it is of no good, for it does not save you.

James probably still has the earlier thought from verses 12 to 13 in mind, of God’s judgment, which we explored last week. We saw last week that apart from the forgiveness and mercy available to us at the Cross of Jesus there is no escape from judgment; it’s only when we ask God in faith to forgive us, because of the death of Jesus on the Cross, it’s only then, that we come into right standing with God, forgiven of sin, the slate wiped clean.
It’s only then that we are saved.

But if we claim to have such faith and claim to have such a status before God through Jesus, then as we saw last week, it should leave its mark, our lives should display His mercy and love. Conversely, a faith which appears to make no impact on your life, may be no faith at all. You may claim to have faith, you may be able to confess true and right doctrine, you may be a church member – but if your faith shows no mercy, if it bears no fruit, then James says it is no good, you are potentially not saved, you remain under the judgment of God, for in all likelihood your claim to faith is as empty as saying to a poor man,
‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed.’

So, let me ask you this friends: do you claim to have faith? Do you claim to have faith? And if you do, what can you point to in your life where your faith makes a difference in your life and in the life of others? For example,…
let’s take James’ reference to the poor and not just gloss over that. Where is your faith costing you more than nice sentiment to the poor? It’s easy to become jaded to such needs; it’s easy to come up with excuses. Living in a manse that is right behind the church helps people know where your house is, and they then come asking for money and food and help with the electricity. So, every now and again, the questions arise: does my faith make a
difference here? Or is it, merely words?

James reminds us, that a claim to faith which has no impact on your life, which stirs little mercy or compassion, that is dead faith, it is of no good, your faith is just empty words, and empty words do not save. So, what does your life reveal? Is your faith alive or dead?

James now moves on to his next illustration. In verses 18 to 20, he introduces an imaginary interrupter; someone’s got a question and they are jumping in. These verses have proved complex for interpreters and commentators to engage with because in the original Greek there is no punctuation and so we have to wrestle with the text to know where to put in English punctuation so that the text stays true to the flow of the argument but is also clear. I think the NIV does a good job here and its structure, shared by other translations, has led to several commentators pointing out that the interrupter here is probably not hostile towards James, but rather is simply seeking clarification about James’ argument.

We can well imagine someone saying, ‘You have faith; I have deeds. Both are equally valid methods…

of showing genuine Christianity, don’t you think James? We’re obviously not in favour of being unmerciful, it’s just that, some of us do the deeds of mercy, whilst others of us encourage those that do the acts of mercy. Surely both are equally valid James?’

To such an interrupter, to someone who wants to allow space for both, James holds fast, because faith without deeds is useless, it is dead. His first reply is very much like his earlier case: ‘Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.’ (James 2:18b) – because faith without action is just empty words, it’s just a claim, it cannot be demonstrated.

But then James takes it one stage further, for he says:
‘You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder. You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?’ (James 2:19-20)

Maybe James imagines the interrupter affirming that central truth about God, quoting from the Old Testament passage in Deuteronomy: ‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one…’ (Deut. 6:4)

And James responds with a quip that basically says: well, that’s all well and good, and very accurate, but even the demons believe that, they know that to be a truth. But here’s the thing, my friends, says James: the demons believe it, they know it to be true, and yet they still live in rebellion towards God, for the next verse after what you’ve quoted is this: ‘…Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength’ (Deut. 6:5) – and that is something a demon will never do, though at least they shudder, for at least they know the future that awaits them.

And so, James responds with: ‘You foolish person…’ (v20) You’re a fool because you’re like the demons, you’re no more saved than the demons, because your claim of faith is no more than what the demons have – it has not led you to loving the Lord your God with your whole being and so loving your neighbour as yourself. Your faith is useless, it is dead.

Friends, when faith is true, when faith is living, we each can face up to the reality that we are broken people, we are sinners, and as such we each deserve an eternity separate from God. But when faith is true,…
you don’t fear that anymore, you don’t shudder like the demons, instead you come into a place of forgiveness and peace. You come to know yourself as a child of God, reconciled to your heavenly Father, still aware that you’re imperfect, that it was your sin that led Jesus to be crucified, that He faced divine wrath because of us, because of me, because of you. But when you come in to living faith, you come to see the love of God at the cross, that for love He died for you, and so in response you love Him, and in that relationship of love all fear is gone, you don’t shudder likes the demons.

Friends, is your faith living? Can you face the reality that you are a sinner, deserving of judgment and wrath, but knowing that because of your living faith in Jesus,… you’re forgiven, you’re reconciled to God? Do the words of the old song echo true for you:
‘Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
There my burdened soul found liberty,
At Calvary.’

Does the cross of Calvary stir in you fear or joy? Is your faith living or dead?

It’s at this point that James switches tack and speaks of two positive examples to illustrate his point. Why he mentions Abraham is anyone’s guess – he is writing to Christians from a Jewish background, maybe that’s his reason. It could be that James is aware of how the early church based its argument for salvation by faith alone… on the passages from Genesis about Abraham. But for whatever reason, James switches tack.

It’s at this point also that some have wondered if James contradicts the teaching of the Apostle Paul, for James summaries his reference to Abraham with these words: ‘You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.’ (James 2:24)

But Paul said, ‘For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.’ (Romans 3:28)

It was because of such an apparent contradiction that Luther wanted to get rid of the book of James completely. So, which is it? Is there conflict here? Or is something else going on?
Well, what we need to realise is that James and Paul are writing at two different periods of history, James was likely first, and they are writing to deal with different issues. Paul was writing to argue against a false teaching which said deeds of the law in addition to faith lead to salvation; his opponents argued for reliance on something as well as faith to secure salvation, in particular circumcision.

But the scenario for James is quite different – he’s not saying we have to add something to faith to be saved, he’s not even saying that faith by itself is deficient when he says that Abraham’s faith had to be made complete.

All James is arguing for is that true living faith always – it always – results in good deeds, in a radical obedience…
to God. Which is what we see in Abraham’s life: his willingness to follow God’s command, to the letter, by being willing to offer Isaac in sacrifice that showed Abraham’s faith to be real, and by his obedience his faith matured, it was made complete, it was given fuller meaning, as it was put to the test of obedience.

And Paul is not against such an understanding of faith, for he himself wrote: ‘The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’ (Galatians 5:6)

Paul also argued for a changed life, a life that loved God and loved neighbour because of faith in God, of right relationship with God. Paul would affirm everything that James has said, it is simply that James looked at the experience of Abraham and saw there that the
willingness of Abraham to express his faith…
through obedience ratified his claim to a living faith. Because living faith should lead to radical obedience, or it is dead.

A similar point is brought home with Rahab – for though she was different in nearly every way from Abraham: him a man, she a woman; he respected, she unscrupulous; Abraham rich, Rahab poor; her a foreigner, him the father of Israel – but in both a living faith that was seen in how they lived, for their faith led to radical obedience.

The aid which Rahab gave to the Israelites would have risked her life, would have risked even her family. But living faith is more than a private transaction of the heart; it is a life of active, costly obedience to God, wherein… we share, at personal expense, we share in the purposes of God, holding nothing back from Him.

So, where might God be calling us to radical obedience? Where might God be calling us to costly risk-taking as we put our living faith into practice? Where is God calling you to share in His purposes today and not simply give a verbal claim to be a Christian?

The application of this could be as numerous as the people here, but if I may draw upon Rahab’s experience, in particular, can I ask: where are you serving the purposes of God?

Maybe this comes to mind for me because every month, if not nearly every week, I hear of the need we have…
for extra volunteers to sustain and develop our many ministries. At present those needing help especially include the Friends of Jesus group, the Sunday School, our uniformed organisations, but I’m pretty sure every group would welcome some new help.

Now this year we as a congregation have responded sacrificially towards the purposes of God with our finances; and I am blown away by how greatly you have increased your giving.

But we need to serve as well, within this congregation, and that might raise some queries in your mind. Firstly, you might say that you serve elsewhere already, and that’s great, but if you want this congregation to have a future, we all need to be involved in some way.
Secondly, you might say you’re too old, but being too old to do does not make you too old to pray. And if we could gather together 10, 20, 40 people who will commit to praying for the ministry of this church, and specifically give me their name so that I can give you updates and specific prayer needs, then you’d be putting your faith into practice and you’d be underpinning everything we do here. I have my friend, Dick Anderson, I’ve mentioned him before, now in his 80’s, still sharing his faith, but also praying for me and praying for us here at Brightons. If you’re too old to do, will you sign up to pray?

Thirdly, you might say: “I’m too busy, I’m too busy to do anything beyond work, family and coming here on a Sunday.” Now some people do have very severe circumstances and if that’s you, then this bit isn’t for you, so you can switch off. But for the rest of us, let’s remember Rahab, let’s remember Abraham – willing to count the cost so as to share in the purposes of God, putting their faith into practice. And that’s relevant for us because in our culture today, it seems like everything else comes first and God gets the leftovers – a few minutes here, a few minutes there. But Rahab and Abraham’s example, calls us to give of ourselves towards the purposes of God, to radical obedience, because that’s what living faith does.

Thinking back to my earlier question, there’s really no point in blaming the past; we can of course learn from it, but our focus should be on today. Because if a church, a congregation, could arise where all having a living faith accompanied with radical obedience, then…
that’s a body of people who could transform society, changing the lives of the poor, as well as raiding the dominion of darkness for great things would be seen in them and through them.

I wonder, if we are willing to resolve to be a people of living faith that we might then share in the purposes of God today. So, is our faith dead, or is it living?

Let us pray.

Favouritism (James 2:1-13)

Preached on: Sunday 26th January 2020
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 20-01-26-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon-morning (1).
Bible references: James 2:1-13
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Text: James 2:1-13
Sunday 26th January 2020
Brightons Parish ChurchLet us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Being the eldest child of three in my family gave me quite a different experience from my wife I suspect – in my family, my parents had to walk that fine line of never showing that they had a favourite child, though the same can never be said of my gran because I was her only grandson and so of course I was the favourite boy. And that’s probably quite like my wife’s experience, for being the only child, she’s naturally the favourite. I don’t remember my sisters and I ever accusing my parents of having favourites, but I came across this picture online:
‘My kids are always accusing me of having a favourite child, which is ridiculous because I don’t really like any of them.’

I’m sure no parent has ever said that! It’s easy to have a laugh at such silly examples of overt favouritism, or lack thereof, and I suspect that if we did a quick survey, none of us would be in favour of favouritism.

And so, when we read from James about favouritism in the early church, we probably think, “how could you be so silly?” and we likely feel that we’ve rooted out favouritism in our lives and in our church.

But I suspect that favouritism is deeply hidden in us, working unconsciously to undermine the life we live as a community of believers in the glorious Lord Jesus Christ, and it’s when we dig in to what is wrong with favouritism that we can then more clearly see where favouritism may lurk in our own lives.

So, what’s wrong with favouritism? Based on our passage I want to give you four things to take away.

Firstly, favouritism honours the wrong things. In verses 2 to 4, James describes a situation where two individuals are treated so very differently. There’s some debate in the commentaries about whether this scene is real or hypothetical, whether it’s a church service with individual Christians involved, or something else entirely.

The clearest description for me, was that these verses may describe two visitors who are unlikely to be Christian and they are coming to a Christian gathering where the general populace is also welcome to attend. They have to be shown where to be seated for example.

But whatever the case, what James describes here is realistic enough to maybe be drawn from personal experience, or maybe a report he has heard, and people could well imagine this type of thing happening: a rich man walks in and is treated so very differently from the poor man. Clearly one has rank and money, the other does not.

And to that rich man, special attention is given, and he is conducted politely to his seat. The poor man, on the other hand, is told to “stand there” or “sit on the floor by my feet”. For no other reason than rank, money and thus valuing people for no other reason than external features, one person is treated with honour, whilst another is not even welcomed, is in fact put into a place of subjection, where the message is quite clear about whom and what the church values.

This example makes complete sense of the word ‘favouritism’ because it literally means ‘to receive someone according to their face’ – according to what you see of them – and James says that to discriminate in such a manner, to judge in such a manner, is ‘evil’, it is wicked, which is some pretty strong language. But if God is good, and He Himself has no favourites, if He shows no partiality, then to do so, to discriminate is less than good and thus involves thoughts, words and actions which are evil.

Favouritism honours the wrong things, in particular it honours external things, and we know that to be wrong because we know that God does not act in that way, we’re probably familiar with the words of the Lord to the prophet Samuel: ‘The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’ (1 Samuel 16:7) Favouritism honours the wrong things, especially external things. Do we do that, friends? I’m almost tempted to come along next Sunday in jeans – I’d probably still wear a shirt and jacket – but if I did that, if I wore jeans, if I wore what I’m more comfortable in, would you think differently of me? You might not treat me differently, because we’re good at hiding our feelings, but inside, would your estimation of me drop? Or could you look past the external and honour what matters most – someone’s heart as they come to worship the Lord?

It’s a silly example in many ways, but likely there are external things which we honour, and those things in the sight of God do not matter, and as such, we are honouring the wrong things, we are showing favouritism.

Another way that favouritism honours the wrong things is with a focus on what will benefit us most. In verses 5 to 7, James continues to build his case against favouritism. He points out in verse 5 that it is amongst the poor that the church has seen incredible growth, it is the poor who have responded in faith and love to God.

It is such people, ‘poor in the eyes of the world’, destitute, it is these folks who have become rich in faith and will inherit the kingdom of God; they are paupers in the eyes of the world with seemingly so little to give, but they are now rich beyond measure for they are heirs of Christ.

And what is so striking, going into verse 6, is that the church has dishonoured such people. The church of
James’ time has actively insulted, humiliated,…
even oppressed the poor, by favouring the rich. Yet, what is mind-boggling, is that it is the rich who are persecuting the church and ridiculing the name of Jesus, and yet the church is chasing their approval, is chasing the favour of such people. Favouritism honours the wrong things and does so here by focusing on what will most benefit us whilst rejecting that which seemingly offers us so little in return.

Once again, this may seem distant to our lives, for we’re probably not trying to curry favour with people who oppress us because thankfully we don’t live in a land of persecution where that temptation could be very real.

But favouritism honours the wrong things and it does so by focusing on who or what will benefit us most, what will profit us most, and in our time, I think the application of this principle is that we tend towards a favouritism of self.
If there is anyone we favour, we favour ourselves – we do things for our benefit and what will profit us – and in doing so we honour the wrong things, we show favouritism.

Within a church context, that flavour of favouritism, the favouritism of self, can by stirred up by just about anything. Whether we liked the hymns or not. Whether the children were quiet enough or not. Whether the intimations were short enough so that the children didn’t have to be quiet for too long.

And when a church operates with regard to the favouritism of self, do you know what gets pushed out? God and His purposes. I remember on once occasion, when I was a really young Christian, about 20 at the time, I remember being on a summer mission trip in Scotland and a group of us were running a holiday club for a church…

We duly went along to church on Sunday and everything within me reacted against the minister. I grumbled to my friend Laurie, both during and after the service, about how I didn’t get anything from the sermon, that this guy was talking rubbish. And Laurie, who is the same age as me, but had been a Christian for a bit longer, Laurie turns round and shows me the pages of notes that he took that morning and what he said will stay with me: “There’s always something there if we’re listening for God’s voice.”

Now Laurie and myself, even now, are in favour of good and right teaching, because God clearly emphasises in the Scriptures the importance of good and right teaching. But my point is this: I had turned Sunday worship into something that was all about me, and if it didn’t fit my flavour and tick my boxes, I wrote it off and I grumbled.
Rather than coming simply to worship God,…
in whatever form was on offer that day; rather than coming to give Him the honour that is His due by laying down my agenda, I actually made it about me. But what if I had laid down my agenda and favoured my self less? What might I have heard from God?

Friends, when it comes to church, too often what we do, what we decide, what we invest our time and our money in, what we make our priorities, is done for self, is done for our benefit, our profit, and so God and His purposes are pushed out. Favouritism focuses on self, but we are called to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength – that is a call which is not about self; and God also calls us to go make disciples of all the nations and that’s not about us either; what is more, Jesus said, ‘The greatest among you will be your servant’, He taught that,…
‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ – brothers and sisters, we are called to a costly way of life, to pick up our cross, to give of our lives for others and for the Lord. That’s why favouritism is so wrong, because it honours the wrong things – it focuses on the external and it focuses on self. I wonder where we might be doing these things?

But favouritism has another side as well – it not only honours the wrong things, it dishonours God.

In verses 8 to 11, James speaks of the ‘royal law found in Scripture’ and then quotes and illustrates from God’s law. Now, we might be tempted to think that the royal law is simply ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ and I think we do this because in our culture we often talk about there being a golden rule. So, we might make the easy mistake…
of thinking that ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ is the golden rule and so is the royal law.

But in speaking of the royal law, James is referring to the king’s law, to the commands, the way of life, given by the
King, and that King is Jesus, the Christ. For ‘Christ’ means, ‘the anointed one’, that promised Messiah, that King who would come to bring God’s Kingdom upon the earth.

So, James is referring to the whole of God’s commands but as Jesus Himself highlighted, the second greatest commandment is to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ for it is the basis for many other laws. As a result, James can then speak of these other laws in verse 11, of ‘you shall not commit adultery’, ‘you shall not murder’, for these are underpinned by the love we give to others, specifically the honour we bestow to other human beings…
Murder is a clear case of dishonouring the victim, but adultery is as well, because it demonstrates in unmistakable ways that personal gratification is more important than spouse or children or family, and so dishonours them.

By referencing these commands here, James is seeking to help us see that favouritism should be equated with these most horrific of sins because favouritism similarly breaks the command to love your neighbour as yourself.

And so, if you break one command, you’ve in effect broken the whole law, because it is indivisible, they are all the royal law, the law of the King, and to break just one is to disobey the King and render us guilty before Him. As a result, we end up breaking the greatest commandment, to love the Lord your God with every fibre of your being. Favouritism, not only honours the wrong things, it dishonours God,… because when we show favouritism, we not only fail to love our neighbour, we fail to love the Lord.

Rightly then, James says, ‘but if you show favouritism, you sin…’ (v9) – it truly is that serious, and as such it leads James to remind his readers of the divine judgment that awaits us all. He wrote: ‘Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.’ (James 2:12-13)

There will be a judgment, Jesus said so Himself too, and it will be against ‘the law that gives freedom’. But to describe the law that way may sound odd to us, because we may feel that God’s law is restricting, that it limits our choice.

But in saying that the law gives freedom, James is in accord with all of Scripture and the teaching of Jesus, that God’s Word, His law, is given, not to hinder life, but to protect and further life; it’s not a law of bondage, it’s a law of freedom; and when we heed God’s law it will bring us into greater freedom, greater blessing and fullness of life than we can ever know apart from it.

I’m sure many of us have known that experience, when we would rather have gone our own way, and maybe we did many times, yet it did not lead to the life we thought it would, instead it led to dissatisfaction, maybe greater brokenness, even to a form of bondage.

But I hope we’ve also known the reverse, of giving up our own way, of heeding God’s way,…
and so finding greater life, greater freedom because we’ve walked in obedience to Him and His royal law.

How we live our lives will be judged against this law, against God’s Word, including the favouritism we have shown, and as we’ve seen, that law of God exhorts us towards love and kindness, towards humility and the service of others. God’s Word exhorts such behaviour not to earn salvation, not to make ourselves worthy enough for God to accept us, because that’s not why God gave us His Word, it’s not even why He gave the law to Israel. God’s Word, His law, has always been secondary to His grace, His mercy. His law is given to help us live out the salvation we already have.

James opened in v1 with these words: ‘My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism.’ (James 2:1)

James is saying, that if you claim to be a Christian, if you claim to be part of the people of God, if you claim to have salvation in the name of Jesus, then it’s time to act like it, it’s time to live in accord with the law of the King, and it’s time to show love and kindness, to show humility and put others first, because after all that’s what Jesus did for us. The Apostle Paul put it this way: ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.’ (2 Cor. 8:9)

On the cross Jesus gave His life for you, He gave up the glory and honour of heaven, to be born…
amongst the muck of the stable and to be killed upon the humiliation of the cross, for love of you and love of me; He humbled Himself, taking the very nature of a servant and becoming obedient even to death itself.

Such love, such grace, if truly known, if personally accepted, must leave its impact upon us if our faith be genuine. And so, James echoes the teaching of Jesus in the parable of the merciful servant: ‘judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.’ (James 2:13)

It’s not that our mercy earns divine mercy, but that our mercy flows from the mercy we’ve received from God. As Jesus Himself said, ‘whoever has been forgiven little loves little’, and conversely, whoever loves much has been forgiven much.
Because when we come to realise that at the cross Jesus paid the penalty, He faced the judgment that we truly deserve, then it leaves its mark. For a holy, loving God cannot overlook any degree of wrongdoing, there must be justice, there must be judgment, for otherwise He violates His own nature, His own perfection. So in love, God sent Jesus, to ensure that justice was fully done, its claims were fully met, that there was judgment upon sin.

But in love God also sent Jesus to secure mercy wide and free. For upon Jesus, the sinless one, judgment came. He gave His life in sacrifice for many, that there might also now be forgiveness for many, the offer of salvation, for any who will accept it, allowing us to stand before the judgment seat of God not with our own record, our shabby worthless record,…
but now instead we can come before God with the righteousness of Jesus, completely forgiven, the slate wiped clean, all sin forgotten.

It’s when we come to own this, to know God’s love and grace for ourselves, to know in the core of our being that we are forgiven and reconciled to God, at the sacrifice of Himself, well then we know that at the cross mercy triumphed over judgment, because the one perfect life was given for an imperfect you and me. That sacrifice leaves its mark, a mark that points towards God’s grace and so gives Him the honour.

But favouritism dishonours God by mocking the triumph of the cross. Favouritism mocks mercy, it belittles the sacrifice of Jesus for it says His death has barely left a mark on us, that His death was insignificant.
Favouritism should have no place within the church, for it dishonours God and honours the wrong things.

In this early part of James chapter 2, we are called beyond the wisdom of the world, as Kenny reminded us in week 1. We are called to live according to the royal law, we are called to honour the triumph of the cross, to honour God first, and by dying to self, and fixing our eyes on the ways and values of God’s kingdom we may then come to know true life and true freedom.

May it be so, amen.

Spiritual Training (James 1:19-27)

Preached on: Sunday 19th January 2020
The sermon text is not available.
Bible references: James 1:19-27
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Trials and Temptations (James 1:9-18)

Preached on: Sunday 12th January 2020
The sermon text is not available.
Bible references: James 1:9-18; Psalm 90:9-17
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Wisdom (James 1:1-18)

Preached on: Sunday 5th January 2020
The sermon text is not available.
Bible references: James 1:1-18
Location: Brightons Parish Church