Sunday, January 08, 2017

Sermon: James 1: 1-18 Faith in Action - Facing Trials

They say school days are the happiest days of your life - you just don’t realise it at the time. I wonder if you would agree. I was thinking back to my time as a pupil at Dromore High School. We always had a long Christmas holiday, which was great. What wasn’t so nice, though, was what came straight after the holidays - probably this week coming in: the school tests. For a solid week, we sat tests three times a day. We were glad to get them finished!

I wonder if you had the same thought whenever you finished with school (or college) - no more tests! You could set down your pen, and forget about sitting any more tests. And then you realised - that leaving school and begin an adult brings far more tests than the ones you sat in school. And they come thicker and faster than ever

As James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, begins his letter, he mentions the ‘trials of various kinds’ that we face in life. Multi-coloured tests - and far more complicated than anything we revised and wrote down in school tests. Perhaps as this new year begins, you’ve already been confronted with some of these trials - health concerns; temptation; money worries; family problems; or something else entirely. For the Christian, life can get even more complicated, even harder. Some trials come because we are following Jesus. We find ourselves wanting to do the right thing, in how we use our time, our money, our words, and so on. Various trials - and you may be wondering what to do, or how to cope with what’s coming at you.

James gives us some advice for meeting these trials of various kinds. You see, the tests we face in life are just like the tests we faced in school - they show us certain things: how we’ve progressed; what we don’t know; where we stand; and the end results. We’ll think about each in turn.

Now as James begins with his advice, we might think what he says a little bit strange. We might even want to say to him, ‘You’re not wise.’ Look at verse 2: ‘Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds.’ Count it all joy? Seriously? No one in my class came into school full of the joys of spring the morning of our tests. When trials and trouble come to you, joy might be the last thing on your mind.

But that’s what James urges us to do - count it all joy. Why? Because tests show us how we’re progressing. They are markers of our growth, and make us grow even more.
Notice that James doesn’t say that the trials are a joy in themselves - but count them joy because of what they do in us and for us. ‘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.’

So when you face a trial, it produces steadfastness. You become stronger, more able to stand the next time something comes your way. And as you keep standing, so you become complete, lacking in nothing. Tests show us how we’re progressing, how we’re getting on. So how will you respond to the trials you’re facing right now? Or this week/year? See how God can use them to teach you and grow you.

But sometimes, tests also show us what we don’t know. So if you only got 30% in your science paper, it showed you needed to work harder, that there were lots of things you didn’t know. And these various kinds of trials can have the same effect in our lives - we realise that we need help. We realise that we’re lacking in wisdom, in knowing what to do and how to cope. Well, James has some wise words for us in verse 5: ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.’ How simple is that? Ask God, and he will give us wisdom. When we see our need, and ask God in faith, he will give us what we need.

But then James goes on to urge upon us faith, not doubting, ‘for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.’ I love sitting and watching the sea. It’s never the same from one minute to the next, and one day to the next. The waves are always in motion. But we’re not to be like that - back and forward, double-minded, unstable. God is the generous giver, who gives us what we’re lacking, so trust him to hear and answer your prayers.

Tests show us how we’re progressing; and what we don’t know. Another thing that tests do is show us were we stand. The next class after the tests was always a nervous one - we would get our answer paper back, with a mark on it, and within minutes, we’d have worked out where we were in the class. There was one girl who was always top, and everyone tried to beat her, but it rarely happened!

Well here, in verses 9-11, James says that these trials that come remind us of our standing. He speaks to the lowly and to the rich, urging them to boast in their position. But notice that it isn’t what you would expect. It’s not that the rich are to boast because of their wealth, and that the lowly have nothing to boast about. Look closely at verse 9: ‘Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.’

As the trials of life come, we’re to boast in the standing we have through the gospel - our position in Christ. You see, it’s not just lowly and rich - it’s the lowly brother (and the parallel if unspoken rich brother). In Christ the lowly are lifted up, even if they face poverty and desperation. Their spiritual status is the thing to focus on, to boast in. The rich may face different challenges and trials, but again, they’re not to boast in their financial position, but in their spiritual position - humiliation, being brought low as they trust in Christ rather than their own purchasing power.

Why? Because wealth is fleeting - like grass, it is here today and gone tomorrow. But our standing in Christ is permanent, whatever trials may come. So in this new year, whatever your bank balance, however weighty (or light) your wallet is, focus on your standing in Christ - that you’ve bowed the knee in submission to him, and then lifted up in him. See beyond the exterior to what lies on the inside, in yourself, and in others.

There’s one last thing that tests bring us - the end results. When you sit the tests in school, it’s to get the qualifications to get into college, or to get a job. The tests lead on to the end result. In verse 12, James shows us where the various trials will lead us: ‘Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.’

Earlier we saw that our generous God will give us wisdom if we ask. Here we see that he will give us the crown of life if we stand the test. We’ll come back to that in a second, but first, James wants us to be clear that there’s something that God does not give us. It’s there in verse 13. You can’t say ‘I am being tempted by God.’ Why? Because God can’t be tempted by evil (it has no effect on him), and he himself tempts no one.

So where do our temptations come from? Earlier we saw a kind of production line where trials produce steadfastness, which brings completion. Well here in verses 14-15 there’s an unholy production line (or more like a biology lesson in the spawning of sin): Temptation comes from our own desires, which conceive to give birth to sin, which grows up to bring death.

We do it all by ourselves (with the help of the world, the flesh, and the devil). Confession time: this week at Bible study, I was well caught. I had succumbed to temptation. I had been in Tesco, and spotted some reduced mince pies. I love mince pies, a desired these ones, and so I gave in, and bought them. I then had a couple, and hid the box in my desk. My secret was safe, until Lynsey needed something from the very same desk drawer, and my sin was out in the open. God didn’t tempt me. I did it all by myself. You will have the things that you’re particularly tempted by - we’re all different. But the pattern is the same for each of us: Desire leads to sin, leads to death. Don’t blame God for the ways in which you tempt yourself.

Don’t be deceived - God doesn’t present you with temptations, hoping that you’ll give in and he can blast you. God only gives us what is good - every good gift and every perfect gift is from above. He is the Father of lights, the one who doesn’t change. He’s always good, always generous, always wants the best for us. And he wants to give us the crown of life, promised for all who love him.

Our modern Olympic athletes compete for gold medals, but in the ancient Olympics, they wanted to win the crown of laurel leaves. So they endured all the training, they ran according to the rules, then had their eye on the prize through all the trials that came their way.

What about you? These various trials will come this year, as they come just about every year. Will you count it all joy (because they show us how we’re progressing), producing in us steadfastness? Will you look to the generous God to give you the wisdom you need (because they show us what we don’t know)? Will you focus on your standing in Christ, no matter what your financial position (because they show us where we stand)? Will you look to the finish line, past the temptations which we bring upon ourselves, to see the crown of life God will give to us (because they show us the end result)?

To all who are triumphant a crown of life shall be; they with the King of glory shall reign eternally. Let’s stand up, stand up for Jesus.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 8th January 2016.

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