Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sermon: James 3: 13-18 Faith in Action: Wise Up!

Over the past week or so, our front porch has been carpeted with a forest of glossy papers, each with a smiling face looking up at me as I’ve collected our post each day. You might even have had some of those smiling faces knock on your door, because, just in case you’ve somehow missed it, we’re having an election to the NI Assembly this Thursday.

Each of the candidates, with their smiling faces, is trying to persuade you to vote for them. (I will never tell anyone who to vote for - that isn’t my position; but I will encourage you to use your vote.) Those election leaflets are sent out to help you to decide who you’ll vote for. And the way they do that, is to try to persuade you that they are the wisest choice - that they have wisdom and understanding in what should happen up at Stormont.

You have until Thursday to decide who is wise and understanding out of the list of candidates in the election, but James confronts us with a more pressing question. Isn’t this James’ style all over again? He’s upfront, direct, he gets us to think, and react, and hopefully act in the light of what he’s saying. So here’s the question we’re thinking of this morning. ‘Who is wise and understanding among you?’

Forget about the assembly election candidates. He’s asking the hearers of his letter, the local church gathered together. It’s a question for us, Aghavea church family. Who is wise and understanding?

Perhaps as your mind races to think of people, this is a great question to be asking. You see, in a few month’s time, it will be the Easter Vestry, when churchwardens, glebewardens, and Select Vestry are elected and appointed. And this year is the triennial - with the special once every three years elections for Diocesan Synod members and Parochial Nominators - those who will work to find a new rector during the vacancy.

As your mind spins with all those positions and roles, the need for wisdom and understanding becomes obvious. But even besides electing parish officers, as we meet week by week and seek to grow together in becoming more like Jesus, we want to know how to work out how we’re getting on, and seeing how we’re growing in wisdom and understanding.

Perhaps by now you have some names in mind. Maybe you include your own, or maybe you look to others and recognise in them this notion of wisdom and understanding. Or perhaps you’re not sure what to look for; how to discern who is wise and understanding. Well, thankfully, James helps us to recognise what this wisdom and understanding looks like; and by contrast, what is definitely not real wisdom.

So let’s dive in to verse 13, as James answers his question. ‘Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.’ How do we see who is wise? It’s ‘by his (or her) good conduct.... in the meekness of wisdom.’ Wisdom will be worked out - it will be seen in our works, our good conduct. (It’s a bit like faith - which, as chapter 2 showed us, also works itself out in what we do).

Wisdom is seen in our meekness, and seen in our good conduct. In fact, the way James puts it, he’s talking about seeing it in other people - ‘he’ and ‘him’. And do you see the contrast with verse 14? It’s not he and him now, it’s you. James is addressing ‘you’ (which includes me) directly. ‘But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.’

The way the two verses sit together, it’s as if James is saying: it’s ok to point at someone else and recognise that they are wise; but to point at yourself or put your own hand up is to be boastful (and therefore definitely not wise!). The root of this boasting comes from wanting to be seen to be wise - this bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in our hearts.

Bitter jealousy - seeing other people having wisdom and being jealous of them. Selfish ambition - wanting to be in the position where other people honour us as wise, so that they look up to us. Either or both of them are far from true wisdom. And that’s what James goes on to say in verse 15. ‘This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.’

This way of thinking; this attitude of the heart; this isn’t godly wisdom, but rather is of the earth, a product of our own thinking; it’s unspiritual, not something the comes from the Holy Spirit; and it’s demonic - the same desire that the devil and his angels had to overthrow God.

And look where this earthly, unspiritual, demonic so-called wisdom leads us - verse 16: ‘For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.’ This false wisdom in our hearts will lead to disorder and vile practice. When you think of it, this is a fitting description for our world, as we see the consequences of jealousy and ambition worked out every day. The teatime news would be a lot shorter if they said ‘because of our jealousy and selfish ambition, today there was disorder and every vile practice. Good night.’

This is the world we live in, as we live out our heart’s desires. And if we only had this earthly, unspiritual, demonic so-called wisdom, then we would despair. Because try as we might, we couldn’t do anything about it. We couldn’t change.

But there is good news. It doesn’t have to be this way. There is what James calls ‘wisdom from above.’ And Psalm 19 helps us to grasp this wisdom from above. The first part of the Psalm is all about seeing God’s glory and handiwork, his wisdom as we look up at the heavens. The stars, and the sun show God’s wisdom. But they’re up there, out of reach, we can’t touch them. But then Psalm 19 changes, and God’s glory and wisdom are touchable, they’re down here. ‘The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.’ God’s wisdom has come down, as he called a people to himself through Abraham; as he spoke through Moses and the prophets in the Old Testament; and supremely as he came down in the Lord Jesus, who is ‘our wisdom’ (1 Cor 1:30).

This wisdom from above is seen in the life of Jesus, and as we trust in him, as we submit to him, as we receive the implanted word, he gives us his wisdom (James 1:21, 5). Rather than living out of our own earthly, unspiritual, demonic jealousy and selfish ambition, we can now live out the wisdom from above.

And here’s what it looks like. ‘First pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.’ (17). This is what the good conduct of v13 looks like as it interacts with other people. How attractive it is, compared to the disorder and every vile practice.

So how do we become wise and understanding? If this way of life is so attractive, how can we start? It’s about being reconciled to God first of all, as we turn to him. We need to submit to God’s word and wisdom, as we unlearn our sinful attitudes and ambitions and instead learn God’s ways. As we daily seek to live out this wisdom from above. And it will impact the way we deal with others - inside the church and beyond.

Verse 18 sums it up well. If the farmer is expecting a harvest later in the year, then he’ll have to sow some seeds. If there’s no sowing, there’ll be no growing. And so, James tells us: ‘And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.’

If we want to see a harvest of righteousness - in our own life and in the lives of others; if we want to see people flourishing, and to see God’s kingdom spread. If this is our desire, then we need to get to work. We need to be sowing - not seeds, but peace. We’re to be active in making peace, and in that way, seeing this harvest of righteousness grow and be gathered in.

So let’s return to the original question James asked us. ‘Who is wise and understanding among you?’ As we thought of this today, who did you consider? And was your name among those considered wise? Please do consider this question later on, while you’re waiting for your dinner, or when you enjoy a quiet Sunday evening, or when you close your eyes and wait for sleep. And, can I say as respectfully as I can, it seems God is saying to us today: ‘Wise up!’

Perhaps you realise that you are operating according to the world’s wisdom. Your life is controlled by this jealousy and selfish ambition. See where such a life leads you, and how it affects you and those around you and our church family. Submit to the Lord Jesus, who is our wisdom, and allow him to change your heart, as he applies his sin-sacrifice to you, and begins to lead you in his wisdom.

Perhaps you’re considered respectable, well-liked, and wise, but it’s still just this worldly wisdom. Submit to the wisdom from above. Become truly wise today, as you live in line with heavenly, spiritual and godly wisdom.

And, even if you are already truly wise, then keep going. Keep an eye on the harvest, and act accordingly. Sow the seeds of peace. Make peace. And watch as the harvest grows, thirty, sixty and a hundredfold, for God’s glory.

Wise up, in the wisdom from above, and so we wise and understanding. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 26th February 2017.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sermon: James 3: 1-12 Faith in Action - Tongue-tied

A couple of weeks ago, you might remember that I mentioned some of the things that I wanted to be when I grew up (in age, if not height). There was the job with Ulsterbus that didn’t happen, and my desire to be a journalist. In school, we had a careers teacher, giving us lots of information and advice about different jobs. Well, as chapter 3 opens, James sounds like a very bad careers adviser.

‘Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters.’ Now maybe those who are teachers would agree with his advice - and you’re glad to see halfterm arriving! But this verse isn’t about whether you should pursue a career as a primary school teacher and apply to Stranmillis or for a PGCE. Rather, James is saying that not many should become teachers in the church, preachers. Why? ‘For you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.’

James is saying that those who teach the faith will be judged more strictly. Not just in what we say, but how we say it. And in teaching others, are we doing it ourselves? Please do pray for those who study and teach - for faithfulness in teaching and in living...

But before you think to yourself, well, I’m off the hook this week, James opens up the focus, from those who teach, to ‘we all’. Teachers and hearers alike, we all stumble in many ways. There are things that we get wrong, little ways in which we stumble and stagger in our Christian walk.

Just think about the past week, and think back to some of the ways you stumbled. What happened? How did it happen? Was it in something you thought? Did? Didn’t do? Or maybe something you said? The likelihood is that there were some of each of them - thought, deed, left undone, and in your words.

Look at verse 2. ‘For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man (or woman), able also to bridle his own body.’ Now that ‘if’ is a big one - if you don’t stumble in what you say, then you’d be perfect (or complete), able to control your whole body. James is saying that our biggest struggle is to control our tongue, to not stumble in what we say, He’s reminding us of what he said back in chapter 1, as he gave the outline of the whole letter. Do you remember this? ‘If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.’ (1:26)

So today we’re thinking about our tongue. Maybe you can touch your nose with it, or roll your tongue. You can impress us all over the coffee with your tricks. But James wants us to examine our tongue. It’s as if you’re at the doctors, and they ask you to stick it out, to get a good look at it. So, for a moment, go on ahead, and stick your tongue out! Might be the only chance you ever get to do it in church!

Now, back to the passage! What does James teach us about the tongue? First of all, he says that it is small but mighty. He gives us two pictures of small things that influence and direct something so much bigger than itself. So in verse 3, he mentions the ‘bit’ that goes in the horse’s mouth. That little bit of metal can control the whole horse along the racetrack or around the paddock.

Then in verse 4, he shows an even bigger example of influence. Think of a ship, a big proper ship. And yet it’s steered by a very small rudder. The pilot holds it in his hand, he moves it a small way, and the whole ship turns. Do you see what James is saying? Small things can have power over something much bigger. Bits in horses, rudders in ships, and tongues in our bodies.

And the two examples that he gave are both positive. The horse can be ridden because of the bit. The ship can be steered because of the rudder. So do our tongues also follow with this positive influence? We should by now know the answer. We all stumble in many ways. If we were able to control our tongues, we’d be perfect. Our tongue might be small, its influence big, but it’s not always for good. As James says, ‘So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.’

The tongue is small but mighty. But the tongue is also fiery. In verse 6, James mentions another small thing that has influence far beyond its size. And here, we get closer to the small and mighty power of the tongue. ‘How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!’ Every so often we see on the news forest fires. According to the internet there are forest fires raging in southern Chile this past fortnight. And how did such devastation begin? By one spark, one small fire that spreads and grows.

And James says that our tongues are fiery. ‘And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.’ You know the feeling when you eat a chilli pepper, and your tongue feels like it’s on fire. Well, we may not feel it, but our tongue is always on fire. It’s staining our body, setting on fire our course of life - but do you see where the fire comes from? ‘Set on fire by hell.’ This small and mighty power is always in our mouths - and how tempting it can be to unleash a mouthful of hellfire - whether it’s by anger, or gossip, or seductive words, or innuendo, or whatever.

James continues his examination of the small but mighty, and fiery tongue in verse 7, where he declares that it is untamed. Humans are really good at taming beasts and birds and so on (although sometimes you wouldn’t think it to see our dogs refusing to sit, or stay!), but despite our talents with animals, we’ve utterly failed with our own tongues. It’s a restless evil, never at peace, always ready to strike. And it’s full of deadly poison. Forget about that old saying ‘sticks and stones may hurt my bones but names will never harm me.’ Our words are filled with poison. Maybe you’ve been on receiving end of poisoned words. Years later, you still hear them being said to you, the dagger driven into your heart. Maybe you’ve seen how your words have harmed and poisoned others, breaking down relationships. We try to tame our tongues, but we can’t. The truth comes out.

And that brings us to the last observation of James as he examines our tongues. They are double-minded and inconsistent. Verse 9: ‘With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.’ We pour out our praise to our God, yet we curse the people who are made in his image. Blessing and cursing out of the same mouth?

Listen to James: ‘From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, these things ought not to be so.’ To show just how wrong it is, James points us to nature. ‘Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?’ Answer - no! Fresh and salt water don’t flow from the same spring. It’ll be one or the other. (So which will it be?)

‘Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs?’ Answer - no! James is picking up on what his big brother says in Matthew 7. One sort of plant can’t produce a different sort of fruit. The fruit comes out of the plant, the same as the plant.

And so James is driving towards the last illustration: ‘Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.’ If we’re not seeing fresh water flowing out of the pond, then it’s not a fresh water pond. A salty pond will only yield salty water.

This is why James got us to stick out our tongues. You see, our tongues and our words show what’s going on on the inside. Our words are the overflow of our hearts. Our tongues are small and mighty, fiery, untamed, and double-minded. Yours is, and mine is. No wonder not many of us should be teachers.

This morning James has given us a reality check. In examining our tongues, he is actually examining our hearts. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is showing you the way you’ve used your words, and is saying ‘these things ought not to be so.’ Let’s pray for ourselves, and for one another - for healing for the poisoned words we’ve said and received; for balm against the burns we’ve inflicted and suffered; for the grace to bless those made in God’s image, just as we bless God himself; for the grace to bridle our tongues. Let’s pray.

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

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Sermon: James 2: 14-26 Faith in Action - Faith that works

Consider this headline from last October: ‘Labour “rank hypocrisy” - two more MPs against grammars sent children to private schools.’ The Labour MPs had been speaking out against plans to establish new grammar schools, arguing that every child should be educated together in comprehensive schools - but they were paying thousands of pounds to send their own children to private schools. The hypocrisy stands out - between what they claimed to believe, and how they actually behave.

Or consider another example. Imagine a football manager who works hard to train his team for the cup final. He makes motivational speeches, saying that he believes in the team, and that they’re going to bring home the cup. He might say that, but he then goes and bets on the other team to win. His beliefs and his behaviour are in opposition. Hypocrisy is rife, it seems.

James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, wants to make sure that we aren’t guilty of a similar form of hypocrisy - the inconsistency between our beliefs and our behaviour - our faith and our works. And, as we’re coming to see with James, he doesn’t beat around the bush. He comes straight out with whatever he’s thinking. And he confronts us in verse 14 with this question: ‘What good is it, brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?’

It can be easy to say that you have faith. After all, we’ve just stood up and recited the Nicene Creed, the statement of Christian belief. Or when census time comes around, you tick the box that says Church of Ireland. Or if you get one of those equal opportunities monitoring forms, you tick to say that you are a Protestant. James is asking if it’s enough to do that, to say you have faith, if you don’t do anything about it, if you don’t work at it. As he puts it, ‘What good is it?’ Or, as he goes on, ‘Can that faith save him?’

Now, the way James frames the question, you can tell that the answer he is driving towards is - no good at all. To help us get to the answer, he gives us two negative examples - ways in which it’s obvious that faith by itself isn’t enough.

The first is in verse 15. ‘If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”, without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?’

So someone sitting near you in church, a brother or sister in the family of faith, and you become aware that they’re struggling - they haven’t got warm enough clothes for these cold winter days; they aren’t eating because they can’t afford to. You see their need, and you say to them ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled.’ Or in other words - hopefully God will sort you out and provide for you in your need. What good is that?

If you see a need, and you don’t do anything about it when you could do so, then what good are your pious words? Your blessing effectively becomes a curse to them! Such faith, by itself, without works, isn’t real faith at all.

Now, straight away, James expects a reaction. He jumps right in and says ‘But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.”’ As if there are different types of Christian - some are the faithy kind of thinking about things type of Christian; while others are the practical working kind of Christian. So how do you show your faith apart from works? How can you give any evidence that you really are believing, if it’s not affecting how you live - the choices you make, the things you do, the way you help others?

In verse 19, we see the second negative example of faith disconnected from works. James points to a person who affirms the true belief that God is one. It’s true, it’s right - but just believing that God is one gives you some strange company. As James continues: ‘Even the demons believe - and shudder!’ The devil and his demons (fallen angels) know that there is only one God, they have right belief, they believe in God, but it makes them shudder - because their belief in God isn’t enough. They know God, but they don’t produce deeds of love and service to them, because they have rebelled and fallen.

So the two negative examples show us that faith by itself isn’t enough. It’s not enough to issue pious words when we could work to help those in need. And just believing true things about God isn’t enough - it puts you in the same league as the demons.

In order to help us see how faith and works are meant to go together, James gives us two worked out examples from the Old Testament. The first one he turns to is Abraham. You might remember a few years ago we looked at the life of Abraham - or maybe you’ve been following the through the Bible reading plan and had a more recent reminder. Well in verses 21-23, James picks out a few different moments from Abraham’s life.

Verse 21 focuses on Genesis 22, where Abraham obeys the command to offer up his son Isaac to God. This was Abraham working out his faith in God, by obeying God’s command. You see, verse 23 quotes Genesis 15 (which was about 25 years before Genesis 22). God had promised Abraham not just a son, but offspring as many as the stars in the night sky. And Abraham believed God’s promise, and he was counted righteous before God.

Abraham believed God’s promise - and so he obeyed, he worked it out, by placing Isaac on the altar. As James puts it, ‘faith was completed by his works.’ He trusted that God would still fulfil his promise, and demonstrated his trust by his obedience. He was justified by his actions. In fact, more than that, he was called a friend of God.

Now sometimes people read verse 24 and think that this is contradicting what Paul says in Romans, that salvation is by faith alone. Indeed, in this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, when we’ll think more about faith alone, it seems that James is saying something different. ‘You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.’ But both Paul and James are saying that it is only by faith that we are saved. But the faith that is saving faith is never alone - it always produces works in us.

To make the case, James points to Rahab. It’s one thing if this applies to Abraham, but Rahab is completely different to Abraham. He was a patriarch (the father of the Jewish nation), Rahab was a prostitute. He was a Jew, she was a Gentile. Does the same faith expressed in works apply in her life? The answer is, yes!

We heard her story earlier. The people of Jericho had heard all about what God had done in bringing the people of Israel out of Egypt, through the wilderness, defeating kings and nations along the way. And now Jericho was next. Rahab trusted in the God of Israel, and so (at great danger to her life), she took in the two spies, hid them, and made sure they escaped to safety. She was kept safe, by the sign of the scarlet cord, when everyone else in Jericho perished. (And she became a great-great.....granny of the Lord Jesus in the process.) Her saving faith was demonstrated in the way she acted. Her faith was expressed in her works.

Can the same be said of us? We are saved by faith alone in Jesus alone (as the Reformation rediscovered) - but genuine saving faith will always be seen by the way we live. So how are we doing, as we work out our faith, as we straighten out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies that can continue to cling to us (maybe even without us noticing).

Perhaps some of us need to have that real faith in the first place. We're heard all about Jesus and what he has done for us in his cross-work - his death and resurrection, pictured in the bread and wine of the Holy Communion. But we've never really believed. If this is you, then this is the step you need to take today - believe in the Lord Jesus, receive his promise, and discover the faith that God gives.

Perhaps some of us need to move from pious, blessed thoughts to compassionate action. That we move from seeing needs around us to meeting those needs. Are there ways you could help, providing for others from the abundance God has given you? The Pantry is one way we can do so, but you could also dream up other ways of acting out your faith.

Perhaps some of us are really passionate about doctrinal orthodoxy, getting our beliefs right, and debating intricate points of theology until the cows come home. But sound theology isn’t enough - we need to be just as passionate about showing that faith in the truth in our lives.

Perhaps you see yourself in Abraham or Rahab - trusting God’s promise and stepping out in faith, living out your faith by word and deed. Keep going! Abraham waited for 25 years to see the promise fulfilled. Rahab could only imagine how God would bring her into his family and story of redemption.

Please don’t be disheartened as you hear God’s word to us today. While there is challenge in these words - for me as much as for everyone - there is also encouragement to keep doing what we are doing, as we express our faith in our actions. Thursday [and the funeral of the late Kirsty Clarke] stands out as an example of how the church family rallies together, serving in so many ways, as we demonstrated our faith by our works.

So let’s keep going - both believing and be-living in our great God.

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