James: A Letter to the Faithful - Week One "Counting it all Joy"
This week we are going to be launching a brand new sermon series, a study on the New Testament book of James. James has always been a challenging book. and wasn't actually included in the canon of the New Testament until at least the second century--even though many early Christian communities were reading and studying it.
The great reformer Martin Luther couldn't stand James, and argued for it being excluded from the New Testament because of what he described as too much of an emphasis on works and not enough on grace.
But when you read through the book of James--at least when you read through it with a Jesus tinged lens--you get a different picture of this complicated and almost in-your-face letter that was written nearly two thousand years ago to Christians who were facing hardship and persecution.
Before we go any further, though, we need to answer the most obvious question that you might be ready to pose at this point:
Who was James?
James was called many things in his time. In the Bible he is referred to as an apostle and leader of the early Christian church in Jerusalem, but these were not the only references to him from antiquity.
He was known as James the Just, a name that is drawn from a first century Christian work known as The Gospel of Thomas.
In other stories from the first and second century he was known as Old Camel Knees. It seems that he prayed so often for the people of Israel that his knees grew gnarled and nasty.
In other places he was called the "bishop" of Jerusalem and even a "high priest" in one account--a man known to be so holy and connected to God that he was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple.
He was thought to be a Nazrite, a man set aside for special ministry to God and to the people who never cut his hair or drank anything "strong"---much like the Old Testament character Samson, only without all the drama.
He was also a martyr, falsely accused by the high priest Annas and condemned by Roman officials to be thrown off of the walls of the Temple and then stoned to death.
None other than that great historian Josephus spoke of this moment and how it resulted in unrest among the people who held James in high esteem, and also in the replacement of Annas by the Romans
Oh, and he was also the brother of Jesus.
Which is kind of awesome.
How would you like to be Jesus' brother?
"Why can't you be more like Jesus?"
"Jesus never complains, talks back, disobeys, does anything wrong..."
"When you grow up I hope that you are just like Jesus."
"Did you hear that Jesus healed a bunch of lepers? What did you do today?"
"Dude, we heard your brother turned water into wine--can he make us a keg of beer for our frat party?"
And so on...
Honestly, James is actually some of the most incredible proof that Jesus was who he said was. If you can actually get to a place where you believe that your brother is the Son of God---that's saying something. And further, if you can then devote your entire life to this proposition, even going so far as to be martyred for it--that's really saying something.
The letter James wrote is believed to have been written sometime between between 50 and 62 AD. And it's confounded scholars, preachers and readers for centuries. On the surface James' letter appears to be a series of rambling thoughts--proverbs, snippets of wisdom and an occasional rant on a topic, followed by moments of random encouragement.
At first glance, it doesn't seem to be have any coherent literary composition--or does it? Maybe there is more than meets the eye within the seemingly disconnected thoughts in James.
First, we need to realize that this was a letter to a community of Christ that was experiencing a prolonged season of persecution and isolation. As we mentioned earlier, when you read the letter through this sort of Jesus-tinged lens, you start to see some patterns.
Today we are going to be looking at James 1:1-18, and the thought that is going to guide as we go--the overarching idea that seems to be forming and informing James' thoughts in the early part of this letter is simply this:
How we respond to hard times reveals the nature of our relationship with God.
Let's read some James...
1. James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:Greetings.
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. 6 But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7 That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.
9 Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. 10 But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. 11 For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.
12 Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
16 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.Okay, before we dig into some specific verses--let's take a bird's eye view of this text for a moment. Throughout his letter James keeps coming back to a central principle that seems to be shaping his thoughts: There is a sharp contrast between the way things are here on earth as opposed to the way things are in heaven.
And by heaven we mean the place, the space, the reality where God is, and this doesn't mean "up," it means just on the other side of "there," or "here."
We tend to think that the early Christian writers and thinkers didn't have the capacity to understand these kinds of things, but they did--maybe not to the extent that we understand them, yet they did.
For James there is reality here in this world---and then there is REALITY with God. In other words, there is a sort of dingy, less colorful way of living outside of God's kingdom, but where God's kingdom is breaking through into this world--we can glimpse the brilliant, color-filled reality we are meant to have with God.
Additionally, There is way of knowing here in this world and then there is KNOWING with God. You might think you know something on this side of reality, but in God's REALITY you KNOW it in your gut, deep inside, like it's a part of you.
In fact, James is so eager for his readers to embrace this idea of knowing vs. KNOWING that in the first 27 verses of his letter he uses the term "knowing" 17 times, and then only 7 times in the rest of the letter.
James believes that understanding precedes action. You have to have a kingdom mindset--to begin to see the world the way that God sees it. You need to look at it, as we said, through a Jesus-tinged lens. And this understanding of how things really are should shape the way you endure hardship.
Which brings us to the specific focus of our passage. In verse 4 James writes, "Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." The word he uses here for perseverance is hupomone which literally means "endurance in the face of aggression." The word was most commonly used to describe a really good sword that could absorb violent blows.
Remember, James is writing to people who are suffering for their beliefs, they are being persecuted by both their Roman overlords and their Jewish compatriots--beset on all sides by those who find them a threat to the status quo.
In verse 12 James comes back to this idea of endurance when he writes, "Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him."
Now this is the moment in the text when more than a few Christians will start to go down a path where all of the difficult things that are happening in their life are part of some cosmic obstacle course that they alone must run in order to please the Almighty in the end.
But in verse 13 James writes this, "When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone."
This is the only time in the New Testament that this word is ever used. In other forms of literature it's typically used to describe a benevolent leader who doesn't make his followers jump through hoops in order to prove their loyalty. In fact, tis word is used more than once to Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman general and emperor--who was beloved by his men for that very reason.
In ancient Judaism the rabbis struggled to explain why human beings could contain both the capacity for great evil in addition to great good. They developed the idea of the Yetser Hatob and the Yetser Hara. Basically it goes like this, God created evil (Yetser Hara) as well as good (Yetser Hatob) within human beings and then gave them the Law to guide them to the good.
This idea stemmed from their understanding of a sovereign and all-powerful God who must have created those evil impulses within us all---but then in an act of love and grace gave the Hebrew people the rules and regulations to live by so that they could be an example of what it looks like when people choose good over evil, life over death.
It's a compelling concept. So compelling, in fact, that it seems to have pervaded the very way we have come to understand God, good and evil--and even the bad things that happen to us in our own lives.
The logical end of this argument is helplessness and hopelessness. It's why people will excuse their poor behavior with words like "It's just how I am... it's my nature... it's how I am wired..."
And when we start excusing our bad behavior, and our poor reactions to trials and tribulations by saying it's just how we are---it becomes even easier to then begin blaming God himself.
In other words, you might find yourself struggling to have faith in the middle of a bad time in your life and instead of saying, "God--it's not you, it's me." we find ourselves saying, "God--it's not me, it's you."
LOTS of Christians believe that God causes trials and tribulations. That God is the author and finisher, not merely of our faith, but also of our pain. And then the really church-y people in our lives will try to tell us that "God has a plan," and somehow that we won't be worthy of God's love unless we just accept this and soldier on...
So, does God really cause all trials and tribulations?
James, the brother of Jesus, didn't seem to think so.
Compare these two statements:
"If God brought you to it...He'll get you through it."
"God doesn't cause all things, but God is revealed in all things."
That first statement is grounded in that ancient belief about Yetser Hatob and Yetser Hara. Your loyalty, your faith, your worthiness is defined by how you respond to the many tests you have to take... the hoops you have to jump... the hills you have to climb...
The tests, hoops and hills that God has set before you to prove yourself to Him. In this belief system, you better choose wisely. Your relationship with God depends on it, my friend.
But out of those two statements, which one engenders more trust? Which is closer to what James, the brother of Jesus, wrote? Which one would you really want to put on a post-it note and stick in your cubicle at work?
Listen to me... Here's what James knew. He knew that because of the Cross, we don't have to jump through hoops... there are no tests... no more hills to climb to prove our love for God. Because of the Cross, because of what Jesus did for you, and me and for everyone... we don't have to live in fear or dread or with a twisted understanding of how God works in the world.
The Cross is evidence that even in the middle of the darkest moments--the darkness ultimately does not get to win.
What James knew was that when you are facing your worst fears, your greatest challenges, your most difficult seasons of life---God isn't somewhere else sending you through it like some harsh drill instructor with a clipboard and a stopwatch. No! God is with you in the middle of it, suffering with you, grieving with you, and even feeling the very loss of God with you.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a Soviet dissident during the Cold War era. He was thrown into a concentration camp by the communist government, which was for many a death sentence. At one point he was breaking rocks and digging--hard labor that he knew would never end. All seemed lost, and hopeless. He laid his shovel aside and sat down on a bench, knowing that at any moment a guard would most likely come up to him and beat him to death with the butt of a gun.
He felt a presence next to him on the bench and looked over to see another prisoner, a thin, drawn man who had been in the gulag longer than Alexander. The man took a stick and drew on the ground in front of Alexander and then quietly got up and walked away. When he looked down on the ground, Alexander saw that the man had drawn a cross.
Even the worst thing that could happen to him would not defeat him. Alexander got to his feet, and returned to work. Eventually he would become one of the most famous authors, speakers and advocates for freedom and human dignity in the twentieth century. And in no small part, his work became one of the many things that contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union and the totalitarian rule of the communists in Eastern Europe.
What are you going through right now?
Does it seem too much to bear? Have people been telling you that God is just testing you? Have you started to wonder what the heck God is up to? Have you secretly begun to doubt that all those things you learned about God, might not be true?
James wrote that when you are feeling that way---to rejoice.
James teaches us that when we are in the middle of suffering we should "consider it joy." I always sign my letters, my emails and writings, "Counting it all Joy." I started doing this years ago, honestly not because I always believed it---but because I wanted to.
James teaches us that the way to joy in suffering comes when we begin to ask the right questions: Not "Why is God doing this to me?" but "Where is God in this?"
We should look to the Cross in our own moments of struggle and ask "Is Jesus--the one who suffered and died for my sake--still worth trusting? Is Jesus--whose own brother actually believed was the Son of God--still actually worth believing? Is Jesus--who invites us to live bigger, more abundant lives--still worth serving?"
We can continue to see God as distant, demanding and arbitrary... or We can look through a Jesus-tinged lens like James and see a God who is close, loving, present and completely on our side.
Because how we respond to hard times reveals the nature of our relationship with God.