Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sermon: James 4:13 - 5:6 Faith in action - time and money

A wee while back, I was on the website for HMRC, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs - the taxman, just making sure that everything was up to date. They had expanded the website, adding new features, and one of them caught my eye. The link promised to give me my State Pension forecast, so I clicked on the link. The experience came to mind this week, because it brought together the two themes that James tackles in our reading this morning - time and money.

Now, whether there’ll be a state pension in 2049, and what it will be worth when I reach retirement is anyone’s guess. But on that webpage there was both time and money, and that’s what we find in our reading this morning. So as we begin, I wonder how you feel about tackling these issues together? It seems to me that we’re much more comfortable talking about time than money. How busy we are, how little time we have for anything, how fast time seems to be going. We’ll talk about time, well, all the time. But money, we’re less keen to go there.

Regardless of how we feel, though, God is speaking in his word, through James the brother of Jesus. We’ve already seen how direct and straightforward James can be - and we’ll see the same today. And in our passage, there are two direct statements made; James has two distinct groups of people in mind - he has them in his sights.

Do you see how the two paragraphs start in the same way? ‘Come now, you...’ James has a group of people in view each time - you who say something; or you rich. So let’s get into the passage and see what James says to each of these groups about time and money. (And if it’s helpful for you to use the grid in the service sheet, then fill it in as we go along).

Verse 13: ‘Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.’ So the people that James has in view are people who make plans, people who set out what they’re going to do today or tomorrow, or over the next year. And you might be thinking, well, that’s probably most of us. You maybe have a diary where you write down your plans, what you’ll be doing next week or next month. Or you have a calendar in the kitchen with everyone’s dates and appointments on it. Or, like me, your life is on your phone, where you’re meant to be and what you’re meant to be doing.

So what’s the issue James is addressing? What’s the problem with having a diary or making plans? Well, as James reminds us, ‘yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.’ We might leave here today, with all sorts of plans for this week, but we don’t even know how today will end, let alone what tomorrow will bring.

And that seems to be what James is driving at. The saying ‘Today or tomorrow we will’ can seem so concrete, so certain, so definite on our lips, but we simply can’t know what will happen tomorrow. We can’t be sure of what we will (or will not) do.

James is reminding us of our weakness, the very fragility of life, which we should know, and we’re unexpectedly confronted with from time to time, but which still comes as a shock every time. ‘What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.’

We might think we’re invincible, but the picture James uses of our life is mist. This morning, the bathroom mirror fogged up while I was in the shower. But soon after, the mist had gone. Or you get in your car and there’s a bit of mist on the windscreen. Hot air, full blast, air conditioning on, and the mist clears. It’s gone. For a moment it held up your journey, but now it’s gone. Forgotten.

We don’t like to think of ourselves like this. We like to imagine that we’re in control of our destiny, that nothing can stop us, but we’re just a mist. Here today, gone tomorrow. So rather than planning as if we’re unstoppable and our will is final, James urges us to submit our plans to God’s plans; our wills to his will.

‘Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ Just the other day, I had texted someone, hoping to see them soon, when they replied with just two letters. DV. Deo Volente - God willing in Latin. Now is James saying that any time we make any kind of plan we need to remember to say ‘If the Lord wills’? Not if it becomes a little cliche, something that you say without thinking.

But James is challenging us to avoid boastful arrogance, and instead to follow the path of humble submission. We make all our plans subject to the Lord’s overruling. Everything is just ‘pencilled in’ rather than inked in our diaries and schedules. Now as if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, James back it up with verse 17 - to know what the right thing is, and then to not do it, is sin. So how will we view our time and our future planning differently? By looking to the Lord’s leading, and seeking to follow his will, rather than our own plans.

Now in verses 1-6 of chapter 5, James starts all over again. ‘Come now, you rich.’ Having talked about time, he now talks about money, and he has in view the rich. but do you see the advice he has for rich people? ‘Weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.’

James obviously hasn’t read the book ‘How to win friends and influence people.’ This isn’t a friendly chat and a word of advice, no, this is a full-on direct assault on the rich; a condemnation in the style of some of the Old Testament prophets. So what is James’ problem? Why should the rich be howling as they anticipate the miseries coming on them?

Well, James suggests there are miseries coming because of their miserly attitude. They’ve stored up so much, and yet it’s been in vain. ‘Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.’

These rich people have stored up so much that they don’t know what to do with it. They’ve kept it for themselves so that it has corroded and wasted away. Their designer garments in their huge walk-in wardrobes have been moth-eaten. They didn’t clothe anyone else in them, and now they can’t wear them themselves. Their gold and silver is now worthless, corroded away.

Even worse, their wealth has been because of oppression, fraud, and corruption. ‘Behold, the wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.’

The wages they’ve held back in their own pockets cry out against them. It’s as if the money cries out when these rich people open their wallets. But more than that, the harvesters have been crying out as well, and they have been heard - not by the rich people, but by the Lord of hosts.

It seems that the Christians James is writing to are those who are suffering, those who haven’t been paid, those who are poor. The rich are those who have been oppressing them, taking advantage of them. (The rich have been in James’ sights before - remember the bit about being impartial in chapter two, when we’re tempted to warmly welcome the rich while ignoring the poor - even though it’s the rich who were taking the Christians to court).

And it may be that the rich wouldn’t even have heard this advice, this condemnation. but it has made it into God’s word, and still stands as a warning to the rich. Now before we join the revolution and wage war on the rich, perhaps we need to consider just where we stand, in terms of the world situation.

James describes the rich as those who live in luxury and in self-indulgence; those who have fattened their hearts; those who condemn and murder the righteous person. Could that be us? In global terms, are we the people who oppress, who withhold fair wages, who live in self-indulgence while others starve? Do our riches rot away and our garments go moth-eaten when both could help someone in need? Could our plenty supply someone else’s need?

In global terms we are the rich. And if that’s the case, then we’re in a dangerous position. You see, you might have been following along with all that James has been saying. You might have been filling in the grid - the people in view, the problem, and the solution. But how far have you got? With time, it was easy to fill in all the boxes. But with money, it’s not so easy.

The people in view - that’s easy: the rich.
The problem - that’s easy, but the box is too small.
The solution? We might come up with things to do - share, have a clearout, shop responsibly, reduce our consumption and donate more. All good things, but what does James suggest as a solution for the rich people he is addressing? There isn’t one. The only thing they’re told to do is to weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon them.

As we meet here today, repentance is always possible. Today you can turn from your sin, all your sins, and God will forgive. But for those who don’t, James sets out what is to come - the misery that lies ahead. The misery that could come at any moment, because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Time and money, both scarce resources, both life-changing. How will you use them? For your own will? Or in God’s service according to his will?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 12th March 2017.

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