Last Sunday I began a five part series of sermons on the Epistle of James. This is not a series in which one part will build on another, because James is rather scatter shot in his approach. He moves rapidly from one theme to another and sometimes returns to a previous theme later in the letter. Today, for instance, the sermon title only addresses one section of the reading, and other themes will be addressed as well. As I said last week, James is something of a contrary word in the New Testament and serves as a corrective to taking some of Paul’s teachings too far. Let me tell you what I mean by that.
Paul was the missionary apostle who opened the door wide open for the Gentiles. As Jews and Gentiles were merged into one body, one of the big questions was: will Gentiles be required to follow all the Jewish laws in order to be followers of Christ? Early Christians still thought of themselves as Jews, and rightly so, Jews who believed Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament hopes. So the natural expectation was that anyone who came into the faith would live by the same expectations. But Paul turned that on its ear, proclaiming the Gospel of Christian freedom from trying to be saved by obeying the law. He said we are saved by grace through faith alone, not by works. You could take that to an extreme and say, “Okay, it doesn’t really matter how we live as long as we believe and have faith,” though Paul never said that and would not agree with it.
So James is the Jewish Christian corrective to that, reminding us of the importance of how we live, how we talk, how we treat widows and orphans, how we view the role of money in our lives. As I said last week, James is not the whole Gospel but it is an important part to listen to and be challenged by.
In today’s reading there are three sections, and the first and third share a common theme. The first section is made up of verses 19-21. If we would all work harder to live this way we would be better people and much happier people. James states it bluntly, as he always does: “Let every one be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”
Be quick to hear – be a good listener, take it all in and process it. But be slow to speak, because words spoken quickly are often regretted, often hurtful, often wrong. It is difficult to undo the damage of words spoken too quickly, and such words can never be completely erased. And be slow to anger – anger benefits no one, certainly not the purposes of God.
If we would only discipline ourselves to live by these words! We all know they are true, but we are half-hearted in our desire to live by them. The philosopher Zeno said, “We have two ears, but only one mouth, that we may hear more and speak less.” William Barclay shares an anecdote that the tribute was once paid to a great linguist that he could be silent in seven different languages.” (The Daily Study Bible Series, The Letters of James and Peter, pp. 55-56) That is humorous when you first hear it, but as it sinks in there is something very profound there.
You hear different philsophies about anger. Some say you should keep it in, some say you need to express it or the resentment grows into something worse. Everybody needs to figure out the healthiest way for them to deal with it when they get angry. We quickly learn that there are unhappy consequences to being a hothead and popping off in anger regularly at those you love or work with. Only gradually do we learn the price we pay by holding anger in and letting it eat us up from inside.
Do you know that anger is listed as one of the seven deadly sins? Not only might it lead you to harm someone else physically, emotionally, or spiritually, but it will probably have a very detrimental effect on your physical, emotional, and spiritual health as well. Frederick Buechner writes, “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.” (Wishful Thinking, p. 2)
If you doubt the truth of this, consider the vast majority of killings that have dominated the news recently. Most are the result of untended anger and hatred, allowed to bloom into violent action. Whether it is road rage, “going postal” on people you work with or go to school with, or relationships gone bad violence, if your anger leads you to kill people, kill yourself, or put yourself in a position where you will be in prison for life, you have allowed your anger to become completely irrational. Video games, movies, politics, talk radio and news, and dependence on social media instead of learning how to have interpersonal relationships may all play a role in the growing number of tragedies we read about every day.
People sometimes say, “Well I have a quick temper, but that’s just the way I am. I can’t change it.” I disagree. It is not easy, but it can be done. Some of you know that when I was a teenager I had a bad habit of throwing my golf clubs when I got mad. I think I held the record in the putter toss event. One day my ball was in the woods, which didn’t have me in a good mood to begin with. I hit what I thought was a great shot to get out, but it hit the one, lone, last branch that it could have hit and went back in the woods. I threw the club, hit a tree (again), and it snapped in half. It sounds frivolous, but that was a turning point in my life. I was ashamed of that, I was ashamed to have to tell my father I did it, and I made up my mind I was going to do something about it since it affected way more than just my golf game. I realized what James said is true, that “anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” So I prayed about it and developed a strategy. It was something really simple like training myself to count to ten every time I got so mad I wanted to do something about it. Over the course of a couple of years it got easier and easier and I made a lot of progress. You’ve got to want to change a bad habit like that, pray about it, and develop a strategy to work on it. It can be done.
James concludes this section in an interesting manner. He says, “Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” You’d expect that sentence to come at the end of a warning about lying, cheating, stealing, and sexual immorality. But it comes at the end of a warning about anger. Remove those things which impede you from living for the Lord.
Two instructions here: “Rid yourselves of all sordidness.” One meaning of this Greek word refers to the dirt and grime which gets on our clothes or bodies and needs to be washed off. But it comes from a word which means wax in the ear, which is something that stops up our ears and keeps us from hearing what we need to hear. Anger can certainly play this role, keeping us from hearing the gracious words of our Savior. The second instruction is to “Rid yourselves of the rank growth of wickedness” in our lives. This is a term which refers to tangled underbrush which has to be cut away in order for us to get through, or to a cancerous growth on a body or a tree. Anger certainly overwhelms us to the point that we can see nothing else, and it becomes a cancer within us growing and growing and taking over our whole selves if not addressed. (some from Barclay)
The second section of today’s passage is an emphasis on the Christian’s need to live out faith by putting it into action. James writes, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”
This is the main topic of next week’s text and sermon, but James likes to teach by repetition, and wisely so. Simply going to Sunday School and worship is not enough if it has no impact on how you live your life between Sundays. Reading your Bible and praying every single morning is not enough if you get up from that activity and proceed to treat your spouse or children or parents like dirt and go to school or work and bully and cheat and lie. There has to be a consistency for it to be real.
James uses an odd analogy, but apt. He says if you just hear or read the word and don’t do it, you are like a person who looks in the mirror and completely forgets what you look like when you step away from the mirror. I confess that I frequently forget what I was going to do by the time I go from one room to the next. But the core values of Christianity need to be so deeply ingrained in us that we do not forget them. The way that happens is by doing them, by practicing them, by thinking about them.
When I lead worship with memory care patients, the most striking thing is that though they may not remember who I am, they remember the Lord’s Prayer and remember the words to beloved hymns. They spent their lives with worship as a major part of their lives and those core values are deeply ingrained.
The Hebrew word for “hear” also means obey. If you are not doing what you heard, then you did not truly hear it. Jesus frequently finished his teaching by saying, “Let those who have ears, hear.” That’s beyond just taking the words in – it is accepting and choosing to live by them.
Again, James is not the whole Gospel, but it is a part we’d better not neglect. You can have lots of knowledge about the problems of the poor and you can talk a good game about what needs to be done to help them, but until you get involved to do something about it there is something important missing. James is saying that to learn how to be a Christian you need to practice, you need to live it.
As the reading from the prophet Micah said, “What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.
Remember that at least in one parable Jesus said something like this. “Come, O blessed, into the kingdom prepared for you,” he said – not because you believed the right things and had the right opinions about all the issues or because you went to Sunday School and church regularly or because you read the Bible everyday – but because “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, in prison and you visited me.” Be doers of the word, not hearers only. It is not the whole Gospel, but it is certainly a part of it.
The final two verses of today’s text provide a strong summary statement for the topics James has been addressing. First he says, “If any think that they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” And secondly, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
These are the two things James most wants to emphasize as marks of a Christian, and we will return to both of those themes for a full sermon in the next two weeks. Number one: control your tongue, with which we do so much damage. Number two: live out your faith by caring for those in need and by not being caught up in the “everybody else is doing it” philosophy. You may want to read chapter two in preparation for next Sunday. The theme will be “Faith Without Works Is Dead.” Maybe that is an appropriate theme for the Labor Day weekend!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
August 30, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church