Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sermon: James 1: 19-27 Faith in Action - Hearing and Doing

No one wants to be deceived. In the news recently there were stories of people from Northern Ireland buying a car from Sweden, transferring the money, and then realising there was no car. They had been scammed Everything seemed to be grand, but the truth was hidden, the deception was believed, and the four cases so far have lost about £4000 each. They were deceived.

We’re urged to be so careful on the internet, to watch out, because there are people out to deceive us. We need to be on our guard, so that we’re not deceived. And that is the message that James has for us today. To watch out, to not be deceived. But it’s not the internet deceivers James warns us about. In fact, it’s no one else at all. The amazing thing that James says is that we can deceive ourselves. We need to watch out for ourselves, to not deceive ourselves.

And in our passage today, there are three ways we can deceive ourselves: we can be deceived about anger; deceived about God’s word; and we can be deceived about bring religious. So let’s think about them in turn, as we work through the passage.

First up, we can be deceived about anger. Now I don’t know what it is about anger that makes me think of driving. But can you remember the first time you sat behind the wheel? The very first thing you learn is what the pedals do - the A-B-C: accelerator, brake, and clutch. And it’s vital to get the right pedal for the right action - if you want to go faster, you don’t hit the brake - you need the accelerator. But there are times you need to slow down - you don’t want to hit the accelerator then, you need the brake.

In verse 19 James wants us, his beloved brothers and sisters, to know something: ‘let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.’ Now I don’t know about you, but I want to do the opposite of that! I want to be quick to anger, quick to speak my mind, and slow to listen to others. But that’s the danger - we can deceive ourselves that this is the way things should be, that we need to stand up for ourselves; we think our anger is always justified, always righteous. But James gives us the truth: ‘for the anger of men does not produce the righteousness of God.‘ It’s like the production line in a factory - if you put anger in, you can’t get a righteous life out. We need to stop deceiving ourselves about our anger, and do something about it.

‘Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.’ (21). We need to get rid of our filthiness. Instead of deceiving ourselves, we need to receive something - the implanted word. God gives us his word, he plants it in us. But notice that we receive it with meekness. Anger is the expression of our rights, our opinion, our agenda. We turn that on its head, we put on the brakes, as we meekly submit and receive God’s word.

Don’t be deceived that your anger fits with a righteous life. The solution is to receive the implanted word.

But even as we receive the word, we can still deceive ourselves. Look at verse 22: ‘But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.’ James is saying that it is not enough to hear God’s word - we also have to do it, to put it into practice. Otherwise we’re just deceiving ourselves. To help us understand, James shows us a man and a mirror.

I don’t know how long you spend in front of the mirror in the morning, but the man here is looking intently at his face. Maybe he sees that he needs to wash his face, or comb his hair, or brush his teeth. But his looking in the mirror was, in the end, pointless. ‘For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.’ He might as well not have bothered, as he forgets what he needed to change.

In contrast, those who put into practice what they read in God’s word are found in verse 25: ‘But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.’

God’s word is described as the law of liberty, the perfect law - the teaching of true freedom. But just like a mirror, it also shows us what we’re really like, and what we need to change. The hearer is like the one who looks in the mirror, goes away and forgets; but the doer looks, perseveres and acts.

When it comes to God’s word, are we deceiving ourselves? It’s good to read the Bible every day (and as some are doing, to read through it in a year), it’s good to talk about it; but it could all be pointless, if we’re not acting on it. Is our Bible reading just a bookmark moving exercise? Do we speed through to get the reading done and tick off today’s box, and then forget about it? Or do we take time to hear, and put it into practice? The blessing is there for the one who hears and acts.

Don’t be deceived that hearing the word is enough. The solution is to put it into practice.

In the last two verses, James brings us to the final deception. And we might think it odd that he talks about ‘religious’ people. I’ve said before that Christianity is about relationship, not religion - about knowing God, rather than performing rules and duties. But what James is talking about here is the outworking of our relationship with God.

The deception for the religious person is that their life doesn’t fit - they don’t bridle their tongue (which reminds us of the anger we started with). They think they’re religious, but actually they’re deceiving themselves, and their religion, their witness, their Christian walk is worthless.

So how is our witness? Are we deceiving ourselves? We might deceive ourselves, but the watching world can easily spot an inconsistent walk - maybe we know this from work. How can he shout at his employees like that and him a Christian? She’s meant to be a Christian but she gossips like anyone else.

As in the previous warnings, James gives us the solution, the way to change. ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.’

Do you think that’s a surprising list? Pure religion is bridling your tongue, visiting orphans and widows, and keeping unstained. Now James isn’t saying that this is all there is to being a Christian. But why does he focus on these things as the mark of living out our Christian life?

Two quick reasons. First, because they are rooted in what God has done for us. In verse 18, just before our passage, we read this: ‘Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.’ God shows his concern for those in need, because he decided by his own will to save us. We needed his help, and so wants us to help others in need. And how were we brought forth? By the word of truth - so we should bridle our tongues and only speak the truth. And why were we brought forth? To be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures - to be holy, just as God is holy.

Care for the needy, truthful speaking, and holiness. God wants us to do these things because they are rooted in who he is. And these two verses are like a launchpad for the rest of the letter. (Now in BB, I never liked doing the horse... running up and bouncing on the springboard to get up and over the big box.) These three big themes flow through the rest of the letter - care for the needy (chapter 2), how we use our tongue (3:1-12), and holiness (3:13-5:6).

All that will come in due course. For this morning, though, perhaps we need to take some time today to ask ‘am I deceiving myself?’ Am I quick to anger, when I need to be slow, and to receive God’s word? Do I only hear God’s word but never do it? Do I think I’m religious, but it’s all a great self-deception? How am I doing with God’s priorities of bridling my tongue, caring for those in need, and pursuing holiness?

As we hear God’s word today - will we just nod along and think, yes, that’s right - or will we do something about it? ‘Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 22nd January 2017.

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