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.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Sermon: James 4: 1-12 Faith in Action - True Humility


Over the past couple of months, we’ve been getting used to the very direct style that James uses in his letter. We’ve seen time and time again that he doesn’t beat around the bush. He just comes out and confronts whatever needs to be confronted. So much so, that today, we’re getting straight into the text. No gentle introduction, no wee illustration to ease you in. No, because James just comes out and says it.

‘What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?’ Wow. It seems that the church(es) the James is writing to aren’t necessarily nice places to be. There are quarrels and fights going on. Imagine being part of such a church! James confronts it head on. He wants to get underneath the bonnet to see what’s going wrong. He wants to diagnose the symptoms, and provide the cure.

The presenting problem is that they are conflicted Christians. Quarrels and fights. But why? ‘Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?’ There are fights among them because there is war within them. And their passions, their sinful desires, seem to be winning the war, with devastating consequences for the church fellowship: ‘You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.’ Their inner desires, coveting, leads to murder, fighting and quarreling. Now whether this is actual murder or the actions that Jesus described as murder in Matthew 5 - hate in your heart - the end result is the same. It’s what we see in verses 11-12. Speaking evil against one another, and judging one another. Quarrels, conflict, sin.

Their problems are made worse because, even though they might pray about it, they don’t seem to get anywhere. End of verse 2: ‘You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.’

I wonder could this describe our prayer life? Either we don’t ask (and therefore don’t receive); or we do ask (but don’t receive) but our prayer is out of selfish motives. What have you been praying for? Has God answered your prayers - if not, why not?

Could it be that we are conflicted Christians - war within, quarrels among us, driven by our selfishness, our passions and desires? Could it be that we’re just like James’ original readers, even though we don’t like to admit it?

James is writing to conflicted Christians, who are also compromised Christians. Having diagnosed the problem, James then spells out exactly why it is a problem. We see this in verses 4-5. Are you ready for more directness from James? ‘You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.’

Conflicted Christians are compromised Christians. If we are the bride of Christ, then to run after anything else, any idol - this is to commit spiritual adultery. Rather than being faithful to our God, this sort of conflict is compromise, and is unfaithfulness to God. You see, there are just two options, there’s no middle ground. Friendship with the world (living according to the world’s values and desires) is enmity with God. We’re either friendly with the world and an enemy of God, or we’re friendly with God and an enemy of the world. So which is it going to be?

Is that us, this morning? Whose friend are we? Whose enemy are we? Are we compromised Christians, friends of the world and enemies of God?

God is portrayed in verse 5 as the jealous husband, dismayed at his wife’s adultery and betrayal. He yearns for us to be true to him. So will we do it? Can we do it? Not if our passions are warring within us, leading us to choose the world and reject our God.

That’s the bad news. But sometimes we need the bad news before we really appreciate the good news. Sometimes we need to find ourselves in the lowest place to appreciate what comes next.

It’s not enough to apply a sticky plaster to the surface if the problem is on the inside. In that case, we need the deep surgery, the removal of the cancer, the treatment we can’t do without. And that’s what James does in the rest of the passage. Conflicted, compromised Christians need to confess their need of grace.

The problem may be great, ‘but he gives more grace.’ Your indwelling, deep-rooted, desire-filled sin might seem impossible to defeat, but he gives more grace. Your sins might cry out against you, but he gives more grace. God gives us his undeserved favour, his grace. James quotes a line from Proverbs 3 - ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ To receive this promised grace, we need to be humble, not proud.

And in verses 7-10, James spells out what this will look like in our lives, as we submit to God, and confess our need of grace. And to encourage us, there are great promises in these verses. ‘Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.’ As we stop being the world’s friend, as we stop taking our lead from the devil, as we resist him, he WILL flee from us.

‘Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.’ It’s as if we choose how closely we walk with God - as we draw near to him, he WILL draw near to us. As we increase our dependence on him, as we seek to be close to him, so we find that he is increasingly close to him, present with us. (He always is anyway, we just don’t know it or realise it or appreciate it).

The way we do it, the way we draw near to God is by cleansing our hands and purifying our hearts. Getting rid of our sins, and stopping being double-minded. And this will lead to verse 9, being wretched, mourning and weeping, taking our sin seriously, and mourning over our sin. Not just thinking that it doesn’t really matter, but seriously grieving over our sin.

You see, grace will change us. Grace will make us see our sin differently. No longer is it something that doesn’t matter, no big deal; suddenly (or perhaps gradually) we see our sins as the reason Christ died; we see just how serious our sin was that it lead him to be crucified for them. That’s why the confession is coming after the sermon this morning. So that, in the light of God’s word, we seriously consider our sin, and confess our need of grace.

It’s when we do this that we receive the promise of verse 10. ‘Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.’ When we humble ourselves before the Lord, he WILL exalt us. As we go down before him, he lifts us up.

Conflicted, Compromised Christians need to confess our need of grace. This morning we can do this in two ways. In our confession (and prayer of humble access), and in our coming to God. James calls us to not judge or speak evil of anyone else, not to think, this is a great word for so-and-so, let’s hope they’re listening. No, James calls us to examine our own heart. To confess our own need of grace. And to draw near with faith to receive his grace. Grace offered freely; more abundantly than all our sin; grace enough for you and me. So come humbly, and rejoice in his grace.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 5th March 2017.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 20: 1-16 Grapes, Gripes & Grace


“That’s not fair!” It seems that from our earliest days, we have an inbuilt sense of fairness - at least as far as recognising when things aren’t fair for us! So whether it’s the sharing out of sweets - watching carefully to make sure that your brother or sister didn’t get one more than you; or how long you played on the computer - making sure that you got an equal amount of time; or when dividing up a cake - friends of ours have a rule in their house that the one that cuts it isn’t the one who picks which slice they want, therefore ensuring that the pieces are cut evenly!

That’s not fair - when we feel hard done by. Perhaps on other occasions, when we benefit from the unfairness we don’t seem to notice. But when we are losing out, then it’s definitely not fair, and we’ll make sure everyone knows about it. If you can identify with these feelings of being on the wrong end of unfairness, perhaps you can identify with the complaint in our Bible reading tonight.

Workers who have laboured hard all day in the hot sun are paid the same amount as Jonny-come-latelys who swanned in for the last hour’s work. How would you react, if that was in your current or former place of employment? You’ve worked hard all day, done your twelve-hour shift, and then someone comes in to do the same job, the same work for just one hour, and they’re given the same pay packet. You’d be looking for the trade union shop steward! Instinctively, you’d be crying out ‘That’s not fair!’

Well, rather than holding a protest straight away, or writing to our MLAs, whoever they might be now, let’s have another look at the story, to see what it’s all about. And as we dive in, I’ve come up with three ‘gr’ words that summarise the story - think of Tony the Tiger on the Frosties box “they’re grrrrreat!” Let’s see if you come up with the same three words.

The first grrr word is - grapes. There were grapes, loads of them, all growing in the vineyard, and all of them needed to be harvested. The master of the house might have had one or two permanent staff, but come harvest time, he needed casual labour.

Now, if you were to drive through Dromore any weekday morning, you’re likely to see a bunch of men gathered around one of the summer seats. I know it, because my dad is one of them. Dromore’s version of last of the summer wine. They’re there in the Square every day, mostly just to chat, about football or books or the latest happenings in the town. But in Jesus’ day, a similar gathering would have been the men looking for work that day. They’d turn up at dawn, ready to go to work, to earn enough money to feed themselves and their family for that day.

So the master agrees with the labourers their wages for the day. One denarius. A labourer’s daily wage. And off they go to work. Grapes, grapes, and more grapes.

They’ve been working for three hours already, when at 9 o’clock they’re joined by more workers. The master had seen them idle in the marketplace, and says: ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’

As the day goes on, even more workers join them at the sixth hour (noon), the ninth hour (3pm), and the eleventh hour (5pm). These last ones, they’ve been standing idle all day because no one had hired them. Eleven hours idling, and one hour working. It was hardly worth their while. Or was it?

Evening comes, the end of the working day, and the foreman pays the wages, starting with the last, up to the first. The last ones hired, the eleventh hour workers, they open their pay packet to find a denarius - a full day’s wage. So the ones who worked all day, they see this, and they’re rubbing their hands, they think they’re in for a bumper bonus bonanza of a pay packet. ‘They thought they would receive more.’ But they’re given... a denarius. The same amount of pay for harvesting grapes for an extra eleven hours. They might have been fed up looking at grapes - which leads to the second grr word - the gripes.

The gripes come in verse 11. ‘And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’’

It’s not fair! say these gripes. We’ve worked hard for our money and they haven’t! You’ve exploited us! We’ll see you in court!

But look how the master replies. First of all, he answers their gripes: ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go.’ He takes out their contract, and reminds them that they had agreed to work for a denarius. They were content with their wages when they started the day, so why change now? He had given them what they deserved.

Now, the story could have finished there. The master didn’t need to say anything else. He didn’t have to give any further answer. The gripe had been answered. But in the last couple of verses, we get to the heart of the story, the reason it was told, the point it’s driving to - and it’s grrr - grace.

Listen to what the master says: ‘I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’

The twelve-hour worker deserved to get his denarius. The one-hour worker deserved to get a twelfth of a denarius. But the master chose to be generous, chose freely to give him the same wage. What seemed at first to be a matter of fairness is actually a matter of generosity, a matter of grace. The master displays his grace, above and beyond the narrow confines of what is merely fair.

But what is the story all about? And why does it come where it does in Matthew 20? Look back to the opening words of the story. ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house...’ So the story is telling us something about the kingdom of heaven. That God is so gracious, that sometimes we might be offended by it.

Do you think that’s possible? That we could be offended by God’s grace? That we could be the long-hours labourers complaining about God’s grace to others? Surely not! And yet that’s what the story is all about.

Did you notice the first word? ‘For’ - that’s a linking word, linking back to what had come just before, at the end of chapter 19. There, we find the time when the rich young man came up to Jesus, and then walked away sorrowful, because Jesus told him to sell all his possessions and follow him. There’s the bit where Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. And then Peter says this: ‘See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’

He’s saying that the first disciples are all in, giving up everything for the sake of following Jesus, so what’s in it for them? Will there be a bonus package awaiting them?

And then Jesus tells this parable. He seems to be saying that they’re in from the start, but they’ll receive the same as someone who comes in later - eternal life in both cases - but don’t be offended by God’s grace! They’ll give their lives in witnessing to Jesus, they’ll bear the burden, but don’t be offended when God graciously deals with others who don’t do as much.

Could it also apply to us? Could we be offended by God’s grace? You’ve been a Christian for fifty, sixty, seventy years. You’ve worked hard to follow Jesus, to live your life as he wants, you’ve laboured in his vineyard a long time. And someone you know, the worst scoundrel in the whole of Fermanagh, a notorious sinner, they come to faith a week before they die. And you might be tempted to think - God, that’s not fair! They lived a life of sinful pleasure and nipped in at the last minute, and they get the same eternal life that I do, having served you all these years?

Grapes, gripes, and grace. The Lord has called us into his vineyard, to serve him as we gather the grapes. It’s only by his grace that we were called. So don’t be offended by that same grace, freely shown to others. Grapes, and grace, but please, no gripes. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached at the Women's World Day of Prayer service in Aghavea Parish Church on Friday 3rd March 2017.