Forgiveness and Peace

Preached on: Sunday 28th February 2021
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. there is no PowerPoint PDF accompanying this sermon.
Bible references: Philippians 4:2-9
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Let us join together in a moment’s prayer. Let us pray

Loving and faithful God as we quiet our minds and hearts before You we ask that You will come upon us by Your Holy Spirit. We praise You that You are the Living Word and we ask that You will make Your word live to us, and all to the glory of Your great name

Amen.

In our reading this morning Paul is preparing to bring his letter to the Philippians to a close and as he does so he gives to them in verses 4 to 9. Some short, pithy, but vitally important instructions to govern their future walk as followers of their Lord. We might say he was underlining to them that it wasn’t sufficient to talk the talk, it was vitally important that they put his advice into practice and walk the walk.

But before he gets there he deals with an ongoing situation in the church, a situation that sadly can be all too common in the church in any day, a situation that tarnishes our witness as children of God and robs us of blessing as individuals and potentially as a congregation.

There had been a serious falling out between two members of the congregation, two of the ladies there who had hitherto been front line workers for the Gospel. They weren’t on speaking terms and it seems that this was having a much more far-reaching effect than merely between the two of them but was impinging on the witness of the church.

in the previous chapters Paul has been hinting that there’s division in the ranks.

Chapter 1 verse 27 “whatever happens conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ”
Chapter 2 verse 2 “make my joy complete by being like-minded” verse 3 “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit but in humility consider others better than yourselves”

It shows how seriously Paul was alarmed by the situation when in a general letter to the congregation he named the two ladies involved Eurodia and Syntyche.

I wonder how they felt when their names were read out? Did they cringe? Did they wish they could disappear through the floor? Or indeed did they take offense at Paul – how dare he?

But Paul is not seeking to humiliate them, he is seeking to help them get back to the place where they had formerly been, that place of spiritual vitality, the place of sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, the place of effectiveness in Christ’s service.

In verse 3 we learn that these women were no slouches. Paul tells us that they’d contended at his side in the cause of the Gospel. Some translations render this. They had labored with him and he goes on to say that their names are in the book of life. That was a traditional title of honour often used for people of God who’d suffered persecution but remained faithful. But human nature being what it is they’d had a serious fallout and it would seem that the church was possibly in danger of taking sides and thus causing division.

It’s not just sad when that happens in the church, it is an inroad for Satan to so discard, eventually nullify, the witness not only of those directly concerned but of the congregation as a whole and leave a trail of hurt and discord that is very difficult to heal – and so often the cause of the initial problem is comparatively trivial. But someone’s feelings have been hurt and they seek to bolster their situation by appealing to others to agree with them that they’ve been hard done by and so the ball rolls on and on gathering momentum as it goes and Satan rubs his hands in glee.

Paul asks them to overcome their dispute with one another and put into practice the qualities he’s previously mentioned in chapter 2 verses 1 to 4. To be like-minded; to be one and spirit and purpose; do nothing out of selfishness or conceit; be humble; love each other – the attitude of Jesus Himself.

Paul is so concerned he doesn’t just leave it to the combatants to get themselves sorted out, we might say he appointed an arbitrator, an unnamed person, but obviously a mature Christian whom Paul trusted, to help sort out the situation for the good not just of Eurodia and Syntyche but the church as a whole.

I don’t know about you, but I’d love to know what happened. Was Paul’s advice heeded? Did the two women have the grace to acknowledge their sin and be reconciled to each other, unto the Savior they loved, the savior for whom they’d previously been effective witnesses?

let’s not kid ourselves that we can carry on being effective witnesses for Christ if we’re harboring resentment against another in our hearts. The two are incompatible. Jesus was a well aware of that. In Matthew 5 he first tells us in verse 23 if we’re wanting to serve God but have a grievance against someone the first thing we’ve got to do is go to that person and make our peace with them, and then in verse 43 he goes even further and tells us to love our enemies. We cannot at one and the same time truly love someone and hold a grudge against them. Holding a grudge is the sure way to lose our peace of mind and heart and Paul tells us in verse 4 to rejoice in the Lord always.

Rejoice in the Lord when we’re harboring the acid of resentment and bitterness even of hate?

I read about one Christian man who had been terribly hurt by another. It was a really bad situation. Unfortunately, the first man found it impossible to forgive. Instead, the incident took over his whole life. He could neither think nor talk about anything else, Several people including his wife and even his doctor advised him to forgive the other person but he refused. He preferred to hold on to his hurt. He developed all sorts of physical problems, all caused by his attitude of mind and heart.

He died while still a comparatively young man and the doctor remarked to the widow that it was a pity the death certificate couldn’t show the real cause of death – death by unforgiveness.

Paul tells us to be anxious about nothing rather to be faithful in prayer, and assures us that when that’s the case we’ll enjoy the peace of God that passes understanding. The peace of God, but when our hearts are filled with self-pity, with anger, with spitefulness, I don’t think so! To be like Jesus.

We sing “all I ask to be like Him”. What was he like?

Well, he prayed for those who nailed Him to His cross and asked His Father to forgive them. That means only one thing – if someone has hurt us even and especially when they’ve hurt us badly, there’s only one thing that we as Christians can do to be obedient to the Savior we say we love, and that is in the power of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us, to love that person, really love them, pray for them, forgive them, no matter how hard that is and nobody least of all Jesus said it would be easy.

and every time after that when the familiar negative feelings resurface, as they will, stop forgive, all over again and pray for them and for yourself, hard.

When we live like that we will be able to follow Paul’s advice in these verses when he said in verse 8 “whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.”

I pray that all of us will know the reality of the peace of God within our hearts and lives as we live for Him and know His love and His grace filling us and flowing through us. Then we will indeed be faithful and effective servants of our Father God and His Son Christ Jesus.

Amen.

Growth

Preached on: Sunday 7th February 2021

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 21-02-07 Message PPT slides full slides.
Bible references: Philippians 2:19-30
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Let us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s Word.

Come Holy Spirit, reveal Jesus to us. Come Holy Spirit, lead us in the way of Jesus. Come, Holy Spirit, with power and deep conviction, for we ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.

This past week, not only have we said farewell to some of our church family, but as a nation we said farewell to Captain Sir Tom Moore. I think we all can remember the valiant effort he put in to fundraising for the NHS and how the nation got behind him, helping to raise £33million to pay for every day small things – not protective clothing, actually – but small, important things nonetheless, things that made a big difference, in particular, to NHS staff amidst this pandemic.
For a brief period of time, Captain Tom’s life was an example and we rallied behind him, and for a brief period of time we also did Clap for Carers last year and we rallied behind that. Yet eventually, it seems, our enthusiasm does wane, we lose interest in each new initiative, and we go back to “normal”, huddling down and turning in. It’s good to have these individuals, these and campaigns, that help us turn out again but part of me wonders: how do we nurture long-term change? Not only within society, but within the church as well?

Last week, Jim gave such a powerful and encouraging sermon on “becoming”, on growing in the way of Jesus. So, how do we grow in the way of Jesus such that it becomes core to our identity and we walk in it all the days of our life? Because Jesus, as we’ve seen earlier in the book of Philippians, is the most powerful example of someone giving away their life for others, and yet,… after 5 weeks in Philippians, where can you say your life has changed, where have you grown in the way of Jesus? Or, what about our children? We tell them of the love and death of Jesus, which was for them as much as for us, and yet, how many walk away from the faith and have nothing to do with the way and the community of Jesus? I wonder, do you wonder about these things, in you, ever? Do you long for things to change? I hope you do. I hope there are many of us that wrestle and wonder and question these things; and, Yes, long for change, both in your own lives and in the lives of our world and community, that together we might pursue our core purpose of ‘inviting, encouraging and enabling all ages to follow Jesus Christ’.

So, what has all this got to do with our passage this morning? Well, in Philippians today we’re introduced to Timothy and Epaphroditus, two individuals who served alongside Paul, and he highly commends them both.

He says of Timothy:
‘I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel.’ (Philippians 2:20-22)

Timothy has grown in the way of Jesus; Timothy is not only looking to his own interests, but to the welfare of others and to the cause of Christ.

Epaphroditus also walks in the way of Jesus, and is described by Paul as:
‘…my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier…he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. Indeed he was ill, and almost died…he almost died for the work of Christ.’ (Philippians 2:25-30)

In Timothy and Epaphroditus, in the life of Paul as well,… we see individuals who have grown in the way of Jesus, and part of what grabs my attention here, is that in the pairing of Paul and Timothy we see growth across the generations; we see that the way of Jesus is relevant for all the generations and that the generations need one another. Equally, in the pairing of Paul and Epaphroditus we see something else: we see that no matter your background, the way of Jesus can change your life for the better and also bring great unity, even to two people who would have written one another off normally – Paul the strict Jew, Epaphroditus the Gentile – two completely different backgrounds, two completely different ways of life, and yet brought into unity because of Jesus.

In these three individuals, I see a deep and lasting change that led them to give away their lives for the sake of others…
and for the sake of Jesus, and it leads me to ask : how? How did this happen, Lord? And what can your church today learn that we might not simply turn up to church here in this sanctuary or at home, and never change, or simply share the faith with children and young people and yet never see them grow-up and own that faith themselves? How, Lord? How can this be?

I’m afraid I don’t have the answers. I don’t have a 2- or 3-point sermon to give us a nice easy solution by the end of this morning. Because these are huge seismic issues in our church, not just at Brightons, not just in the Braes not just the Church of Scotland, but the church across our land, Yet, I do want to highlight a few things, because for me they raise more questions than answers.

Firstly, we know that core to growth in the way of Jesus, is to know Jesus for yourself; to have met with Jesus and to keep meeting with Him. I think that’s why Huddle, that I talked about earlier, excites me, because the core question within Huddle each week is:
“what is God saying to you?” and then, “what are you going to do about it?” Imagine the growth we might see in ourselves, and in our young people, if we all could answer those questions and then go and help other people answer those questions for themselves as well. But how do we nurture that? How do we facilitate that kind of learning? Because clearly, what we were doing before the pandemic, even what we’ve been doing these past 12 months, isn’t fully nurturing this yet? How Lord? How can this be?

Secondly, it’s true that Paul, Timothy and Epaphroditus knew Jesus, but none of us learns within a vacuum and none of us thrives within in a vacuum as we’ve been finding these past 12 months; we all need community, we need one another, and much recent research suggests that for the generations to thrive need one another, both in the church and outside. Clearly, this is limited in our present circumstances, but it’s been great to see the church launch this intergenerational penpals idea ,…
and it’s been encouraging to hear of Pastoral Groupings being in touch with one another and maybe even meeting together, even by Zoom or for outdoor recreation within the restrictions. What else could we do just now? It’s only limited by our imagination and willingness. You don’t necessarily have to add more activity. What are you doing that you could just do with someone else? You’re going for a walk, could you invite someone else to join with you? And when that great day comes and we can at last all be together again, what can, or should, our life be like together then? Are we just going to return to “normal”? Because remember what the Moderator of the General Assembly said, returning to normal is returning to a church that is declining, and that’s true for Brightons as much as for anywhere, that our membership numbers are dropping and in five, ten years time we might end up going off a cliff and not being able to continue doing what we do just now, even in this lockdown. How might we create the means for all generations, and peoples of all backgrounds, to experience a degree of community, a degree of family, that truly nurtures them in the way of Jesus?
How, Lord? How can it be?

Friends, as I said in Tuesday night’s video, there is more change ahead, that we are called to tack, and if you don’t what I mean by that go and look at Tuesday’s video recording. I do realise that we probably want more messages of comfort and encouragement at this time and those will come. But the message of Philippians calls us to walk in the ways of Jesus, to grow in the ways of Jesus, maybe especially in difficult times both individually and as a community, sure we could leave these questions and the wrestling it produces till later in the year, till beyond pandemic, but that’s not the Lord’s call for just now, and I think that’s strategic so that when we come out of the pandemic we go forward. So, let us all lean in to this, I invite you to lean into this to where He is leading us just now, to engage with the questions, to engage with the process, that together we might chart a way forward so that one
and all, all generations, might grow, truly grow…
in the way of Jesus, in this place, and across the Braes, for generations to come. May it be so. Amen.

Worthy of the Gospel: Unity and Trust

Preached on: Sunday 17th January 2021
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 21-01-17 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Philippians 1:27-2:4
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Text: Philippians 1:27-2:4
Sunday 17th January 2021
Brightons Parish Church

Let us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s Word.

Come Holy Spirit, draw near in this time wherever we may be. Come in power. Come, take the word of God and change our hearts and minds. Come Holy Spirit and make Jesus real to us help us to hear His voice today for we ask this in His name, Amen.

I’ve appreciated the way in which Gordon and Ian have helped us start our new series in Philippians, this very special letter within the New Testament, for they’ve helped us see its relevance for our lives today. We’ve seen how crucial it is to know that we, “you”, are a good work, to remember that God has done – and is doing – something within us and among us, such that we are to pray for one another and live with a perspective shaped by Jesus and the gospel, even in hard times.
Before the Christmas break, I was contacted by the Communications Department for the Church of Scotland because they are doing a series of articles this year about people coming into ministry. The questions they asked made me think about my faith journey and other events, moments that defined, shaped, my life. To help us get into today’s passage, I’ve a question for you to think about at home: what have been the defining moments of your life? Has there even been a defining moment? I’ll give you 30 seconds to think about that at home. (PAUSE)

I wonder what you came up with – feel free to share it in the Live Chat. The man who authored this letter was the apostle Paul and before he became a Christian he persecuted the early church, dragging those early disciples of Jesus to prison and even to death.
But then we know from his story, recorded in the book of Acts, that he had a powerful conversion – an event that radically redefined his life, such that he put his trust in Jesus and gave his life away for the sake of Jesus, the sake of the gospel and the well-being of the church. His coming to faith, his coming into relationship with Jesus, defined Paul’s life because in that process of coming to trust Jesus Paul met with the love and grace of God and as such he sought to live his life in light of that.

Now, not all of us will have had Paul’s experience, but what he received, is what every person who calls themself a “Christian” has received as well: the grace, the love, the welcome and invitation of Jesus; your sin has been forgiven, you no longer stand in condemnation, you will no longer pay the penalty of your sin – you are free,… you are redeemed, you stand in right relationship with God and He adores you. All this and so much more is the inheritance of every person who claims to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus. As such, what Paul says in verse 27 applies to one and all of us: ‘Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…’ This verse shapes Paul’s life and his letter, and it is there in his other letters as well: if you claim faith in Jesus, then live in a manner worthy of the love and grace you have received from God.

In our portion today, what does it mean to live in a worthy manner? I want to give us two points to take away and put into practice. Firstly, being ‘worthy of the gospel through unity’.

Paul says, ‘Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then…I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel…Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.’ (1:27; 2:1-2)

Paul’s not calling into question their status as followers of Jesus here – the “if” is more like a “since”: ‘since you have been united with Christ…since you have known His love…since you share in the Spirit’ then be worthy of the gospel, and for any group of Christians, being worthy of the gospel includes a concrete expression of unity.
Now unity is much more than acquiescence, it is more than mere consent or approval, it is more than turning up to church or having the status of a member – unity involves the heart, such that there is an overflow of love, the love of God nonetheless, through us to others, and so it must involve action, it must involve the weaving of our lives together. This unity also involves the mind, not that we have uniformity in all things, but there must still be a shared understanding, a shared understanding of the gospel, such that we are collectively motivated with a deep conviction to be worthy of the gospel, so that our lives together might point to Jesus. In both heart and mind, in word and in deed, Paul longs for these dear followers of Jesus to be worthy of the grace and love they have experienced from God.

What this looks like in concrete actions is spelled out for us by Paul: ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.’ (2:3-4)

When we know the love and grace of God, then our motives change and so our lives change as well: we look beyond ourselves, we look beyond self. So, when Paul speaks of ‘vain conceit’, literally in the Greek this means ‘empty glory’, a chasing after ambitions that are unworthy of anyone who has tasted God’s love and grace.

In some ways, our recently adopted values seek to remind us of this and prompt us to live this out: that we are ‘family’, a community who journey together, and… we seek to share ‘share’, to share our lives and share the good news of God’s love in word and deed. Last Tuesday’s video, about hopes for 2021, gives some ideas of what this could look like, and I’d encourage you to go listen.

Yet even just now, let us each ask ourselves: do we look beyond our own interests to those within our church family? Could it be said that the love of God is seen in and through us? Do we seek to serve others – are you serving in some way within and through this congregation? As one person said on Tuesday evening – it’s easy to sit back, to keep to ourselves, but as Paul says here, we need to intentionally look out for ‘the other’, and demonstrating love in that way will help us move towards a way of life that is increasingly worthy of the gospel, worthy of what we have received from God.
But this is a tall order, is it not? An impossible calling, surely? Well of course, it is; it is beyond our own human ability – the human soul is so broken, fractured, sinful, that more often than not we look out for self than for others, we are more prone to factions and division than unity, and we clamour for status, wealth, comfort, power – the empty glory of such things – much more than the way of self-sacrifice and humility. How can Paul call us to such a way of life? Well, he also says that we are to be worthy of the gospel through trust.

He began by saying: ‘Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you…

For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.’ (1:27-30)

Let’s be clear, Paul is not talking about all suffering in these verses. The suffering in mind here is that of persecution, of suffering because of your faith. So, let’s not jump to conclusions. But let us also admit there are many ways that our believing, or in the literal Greek, our ‘trusting’ may bring suffering into our lives. Believing here, is not intellectual assent to some doctrines; to believe, is to entrust ourselves to Jesus, to commit ourselves to Him. Paul is saying, that to be worthy of the gospel also includes trust; trusting in the hard times, trusting through sacrificial choices.
Now, in our society, the degree of persecution we face is minimal whilst many in our world literally face death for their faith. There are 10 Christians a day dying in Nigeria because of persecution against them. Yet even here, there is opposition, that are voices, forces, events that can undermine our trusting in Jesus, they can seek to rob us of our peace and joy. So, as one commentator said, ‘where is it important for you and your church to hold your nerve & remain unafraid in the face of opposition?’

It’s seen when we trust that God’s Word is true, and so that Jesus is alive, that He is Lord and God alone, that He is the way of salvation and the source life in all its fullness. This trusting is seen when we choose to obey God’s Word rather than go our own way. This trusting is put to the test in many ways, yes by persecution, but also in the hardships of life, or when God’s standards call us to live differently to the world’s ways.

Your answer to this question might be quite specific to your circumstances, yet nevertheless, in our day, in our society, one of the greatest fears for most Christians, is the fear of others, of what others might think of us, or how they might respond if we were to share our faith or admit our faith or prioritise our faith. Another kind of fear, that can undermine our trust, is a fear that Jesus seems to ask too much, that we are afraid to give over control of our lives to Him, and allow Him to reign over our choices and our priorities.

These two fears are probably two of the greatest ways we experience a measure of suffering for following Jesus and yet to be worthy of the gospel, we are called to trust – to trust for the first time and then to keep on trusting, to keep on following Jesus and His way, yielding to His call upon our lives, individually and collectively. And when we do that, when we yield, trust, orientate our lives around Jesus, He then gives us His Spirit individually, and as a community, to help us live in unity and for His glory.

This trusting happens at the beginning of our faith journey, but it’s also a daily part of following Jesus. Every day is a new opportunity, a new invitation, to keep trusting Jesus; every Sunday, every message, every time you read your Bible, is another opportunity to trust, by responding to what God is saying in His Word.

So, in light of that, I want to give you an opportunity to respond today. I want to invite you to respond in trust to Jesus, at home, right now. In a moment, I’m going to pray, and there will be a couple of different prayers.

First, I want to give an opportunity for you to trust Jesus for the first time and begin following Him by asking for His forgiveness and yielding to His way in your life.

Secondly, I’ll give space for each of us to respond to this message, the call to live lives worthy of the gospel in unity and at personal cost for the sake of Jesus.

Lastly, there will be space to pray a prayer of trust in the midst of trials, of suffering and hard times. So, let us pray.

So, for those that want to invite Jesus into their lives, today, this morning I invite you maybe even just to put out your hands in invitation to Jesus. You don’t have to but I find it helpful to embody my prayers and then repeat with me these words of a prayer. Speak them out yourselves, at home, right now if you can.

Lord Jesus Christ I am sorry for the things I’ve done wrong in my life. I take a few moments now to name this before You, to confess my sin, what I’ve done wrong.
Please forgive me Lord. I choose now to turn from everything that I know is wrong. Thank You that You died on the cross for me so that I could be forgiven and set free. Thank You that You offer me forgiveness and You promise to help change my life, to put it on a different path by the gift of Your Spirit living in me, and so I now receive that gift. Please come into my life by Your Holy Spirit to be with me forever.
Thank You Lord Jesus

To those of us who claim the title Christian, who claimed to follow Jesus, what has been the prompt this morning from the Lord? What has been the challenge?
Is He calling you to give your life away for Him in a new way or to renew that.
Is He maybe bringing someone to mind that you have to show the love of God. So come Holy Spirit. Speak to our hearts. I’m not going to give you words to pray this time just just speak to the Lord in quiet or out loud. Speak to Him about what is upon your heart, what you’ve been challenged by, how you’re going to respond, how you want to live worthy of the Gospel.

Admit your incapacity to do this yourself and invite the Holy Spirit to come and fill you in this time. Come Holy Spirit, fill us to overflowing, fill us with the love of God, fill us with power, fill us with power to walk in Your ways, to choose Your ways over ours. Come Holy Spirit.

And for those of us in the midst of trials of really hard times let me pray for you.

Lord I pray for these precious ones. I pray, Lord, that they would know You close. I pray that they would know that You’ll never leave them, nor forsake them. I pray that they know that You know the depth of their pain and their anguish, that You know what it’s like to suffer and, yes, there will be the questions and there will be deep anger sometimes Lord, and You’re ready to receive them. And there might not be answers this side of heaven but Lord may they know that You weep with them. May they know that You care and may You help them Lord to keep trusting keep trusting You this day in the next day and the next day, be their light in their darkness, be their light for the path ahead. Lord and help us to wrap the love of God around them in real tangible ways even amidst limitations. Lord, may we overflow with love for these dear precious ones. Lord may we be like Paul who, from a distance, sought to encourage and strengthen. May we see the ways that we can do that Lord for them, that they would know that they’re not alone in this journey, that You’re with them, we are with them. Oh Lord, help them trust You

Help them to keep trusting You Lord hear all our prayers this morning before we ask it in Jesus name, 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.