Well, today we come to the end of our five weeks with the Epistle of James. It would take many more weeks to adequately cover the themes he explores. In addition to the passages I have picked from chapters four and five today, these chapters have a number of other themes: conflicts and disputes among church members; resisting sin by submission to God; humility; not judging your neighbor; a scathing warning to the rich; encouragement to pray at all times, whether suffering, rejoicing, or sick; encouragement to the community praying together and church leaders taking a significant role in leading the church in prayer; and the importance of reaching out to those who have strayed from the faith and restoring them to the community.
The two passages I have chosen to focus on today both emphasize that tomorrow is in the Lord’s hands. So after all the emphasis James places on Christians needing to do good works to validate their faith, he now leads us back around to the themes of trust in and dependence upon God.
The first passage, 4:13-17, takes to task those who have forgotten their dependence on the Lord in their daily activities and think only of the role they play in carrying these things out. In other words, it’s all about me and what I’m doing and what my plans are.
During the heyday of the Roman Empire, which coincided with the history of the early church, the world was expanding rapidly. New markets were opening up along with expanded trade routes. The pax Romana, the Roman peace, united a huge amount of territory under common rule and common law. For those willing to take risks, this presented the opportunity to make big profits in a short time.
To these merchants and capitalists, James has this reminder. HE says, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such town and spend a year there doing business and making money.’ You do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.”
James does not tell us that it is wrong to do business and take risks and make profits. What is wrong is to leave God out of the equation – to believe and act as though we are totally in charge and in control of our own destiny. James reminds his readers, and us, that none of us is guaranteed tomorrow – today is the only day we know we have. He reminds us that life is brief and we are less than a speck in significance in the history of which we are a part.
If this is the James who was the brother of Jesus, perhaps he has in mind a parable he heard his brother tell, about a farmer whose crops came in so abundantly one year that he didn’t have room to store them all in his barn. Rather than give the excess away, he tore down his old barn and built a huge new one so he could store all the crops. When he was finished stockpiling it all he sat down with contentment and assured himself that he was set for life. And he was, because his life ended that very night.
So James reminds us that each day is a gift from God; that all we have is a gift from God, and that it is wrong for us to think that we deserve everything we have because we have worked hard for it and earned it. James says that what we need to do is get in the habit of saying, “If it is the Lord’s will, then tomorrow we will go here and do thus.”
In my first church there was a man in his 80’s who had retired after working in the textile mill down the street for 62 years. After he retired he came to see me and made a deal. He said, “You pick a day every week and come pick me up. I’ll buy you lunch and you take me with you to visit the people who need to be visited.” Who knows how many times we did that. He taught me so much about humility, about faith, about generosity, about compassion for others. And when I took him back home each time he would get out of the car and say, “I’ll see you Sunday, if it’s the Lord’s will.”
James offers us an attitude adjustment and a stewardship reminder in one. Recognizing our dependence upon God for life and daily bread eliminates a boastful attitude and replaces it with humility. Realizing that success and possessions are gifts from the hand of God loosens our grip on those possessions. We give some back to God in thanksgiving for what we have received. We give some to other people who are in need because we realize how blessed we are.
In the sermon on the mount Jesus addresses those who have little and are worried greatly about food and clothing. He tells them, “Don’t be anxious about these things. God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the grass of the field and he will take care of you. Trust him and seek the kingdom.”
James, on the other hand, addresses people who don’t have these daily worries. He reminds them that God has provided all this for them, hoping that this reminder will lead them to trust God instead of themselves and to treat their possessions differently. Life is to be lived without anxiety about the needs of life on the one hand, without arrogant boasting about the quantity of possessions on the other hand, and in dependence upon the God who provides. Trust, humility, and thanksgiving is a pretty good recipe for faithful living in this area of daily work and daily bread.
The second section with which we are concerned this morning is James 5:7-11. The heart of this passage is a reminder that the Lord is coming, and that this is how you are expected to live your life while you wait. This is a statement of fact for James which he feels no need to explain or defend. The only question is when it will happen, but James is not interested in speculating about that. He has two points to make: be patient as you wait, and take care about how you live. Let’s look at both.
First he talks about the need to be patient as we await the Lord’s return. This was certainly important for the early church to hear, because they had expected Jesus to return very quickly, within their lifetimes. Jesus seemed to indicate this would happen, but he also said that only the Father in heaven knew when it would take place. So when the years went by and Jesus did not return it created a crisis within the early church and made them question the validity of the Christian faith as a whole. Several of the New Testament letters have sections addressed to Christians who are getting discouraged, losing heart because Jesus has not returned yet.
James says, “Be patient. It is like the farmer, who after planting the seed has to wait for the rain to come and the necessary time to pass for the seed to sprout and grow and finally bear fruit. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.” James did not know that the coming of the Lord was near. As it turns out, it was not. But if Christians ever stop living as though the coming of the Lord is at hand, we lose our urgency about the Gospel. We need to keep in balance the urgency about living each day as though Jesus will return today with a patience which keeps us from becoming discouraged if he does not come today… or tomorrow…or during our lifetimes.
And secondly, James talks about how we should live while we are waiting patiently for the Lord’s return. You might be surprised at the first warning. He says, “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!” Grumbling typically happens when people have too much time on their hands, don’t have enough to keep them busy. Grumbling is one of the first signs that things are unraveling on a ball team or in an office or in a family. People start grumbling about each other. Tempers become short; personality conflicts develop; it takes longer to reach desired goals than anyone could imagine. James urges us to avoid this sort of self-destructive behavior. And the word patience shows up again, this time patience with each other.
So no grumbling as we wait patiently for the coming of the Lord. And the other instruction he gives for life as we wait is in a statement. “Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance,” or steadfastness. He points to the example of Job, who endured the loss of all things. His faith had prepared him for bad times as well as good, loss as well as gain. He was able to persevere through suffering and continue in relationship with God, even though he had lots of questions and complaints.
Faith that is steadfast and enduring has learned that even or especially for Christians suffering is a part of life. Beyond the fact that it must be endured, we also believe that it plays the positive role of shaping our character and faith and helps us learn to trust God.
Why is that we learn we can trust God, can endure suffering, can wait patiently for his coming? Because, James says, “You have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” Those characteristics of God are seen and celebrated and recited from the beginning to the end of the Bible. The Lord is compassionate and merciful, always has been and always will be. We can count on it, we can take it to the bank, and that is how we can wait for him with patience and steadfastness.
And so we are brought full circle back to the note on which James began his letter. Right after his greeting, you may remember, James sets the plate for his readers by saying, “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
And on that marvelous note we shall take our leave of James for now, hopefully pondering all these things in our hearts for quite some time. James is not the whole of the Christian Gospel, but he says some important things that help us keep our balance in living a life of Christian integrity. Thanks be to God for all his faithful witnesses!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
September 20, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church