Different - Week One: Trust
This week we're launching a brand new sermon series--a study in the New Testament book of James entitled "Different"---a series exploring what it truly means to live like a Christian.
There are all kinds of people who claim to have a corner on the market when it comes to the marks of what it means to be Christian, and typically the people who feel this way are not shy about telling you all the ways you aren't living like a Christain.
The point of this series is not to leave all of us feeling less-than because we aren't living the kinds of lives we ought to live. The fact of the matter is, none of us live the lives we ought to live---we're all in the same boat here.
The point of this series is to lift up the ways that we can step into the kind of abundant life that Jesus declared he wanted for all of us, and for us to truly live like Christians, people who belong to Jesus.
Today we're going to be learning that one of the marks of the well-led Christian life is when we learn to trust God completely. In fact, that's the main point of today's sermon--Christians trust in the face of adversity.
And I have to confess that I when it comes to trusting God completely, I fall flat on my face more often than not.
A few years ago, I was having a tough season. It felt like all of the things that could go wrong were going wrong. I was having to deal with conflict at church, there were health issues plaguing our family, the kids had drama, Merideth and I felt like we were just missing one another and weren't feeling as connected as we knew we should.
Some of you know what I am talking about. You might be going through one of those seasons right now.
I don't know about you, but the last thing I need when I am going through one of those tough seasons of my life is for some overly-Christian friend to weigh in with some unhelpful platitude.
Things like: "All things work together for good..." or "God is just testing you..." or "God won't give you any more than you can handle" (which is not in the Bible) or "If God brought you to it, He'll get you through it."
To name a few.
When you are feeling low and your overly-Christian friend says something like that, you kind of want to sock them in their overly-Christian mug, don't you?
Come on. I know it's not just me.
Seriously. Despite the fact that none of us enjoys going through suffering, trials, and tribulations, and despite the fact that none of us truly appreciates church-y platitudes when we are feeling low...
We all know that suffering, trials, and tribulations are all part of life. And we also know deep down inside that sometimes the "best is bought only with great pain."
Think about this... have you ever heard an incredible success story that didn't involve suffering?
Have you ever heard the story of a successful company that began with the founders saying, "Well, this was just too easy... we had this idea for a product, and everyone loved it, we found funding right away, and in six months we sold the dang thing for 14 billion bucks!"
How many famous writers have you heard of who never experienced rejection, never had to shop their first book to multiple publishers?
How many times have you heard the story of a famous musician who never really had to pay their dues by playing in clubs, honing their craft, doing shows in tiny venues when they were unknown?
We KNOW that suffering is a part of our story. We get that suffering is part of growth and maturity. In fact, we all get that we learn more from losing than winning. I know that I have told my boys this more than once.
But... what trips us up when it comes to suffering, trials, and tribulations is that there often seems to be a lack of meaning in the moment we are experiencing them. When we are going through tough times we don't want to hear that suffering is necessary for maturity. We don't want to hear that trials are part of future success.
We just want it to stop.
And we just want to know that God is really in control---because when you are going through tough times it can feel like God isn't... or worse, that God has it out for you.
If we are going to live like a Jesus-follower, if we are going to truly live like a Christian, who belongs to Jesus then we need to hold on to this hard, important truth:
Christians trust in the face of adversity.
The book of James is going to be our conversation partner throughout this sermon series. James is a primer on living the Christian life in a community, especially through difficult and challenging times.
The most likely author of the book of James is James, the brother of Jesus, also called James the Just in the historic church.
Aside from being the brother of Jesus, James was the spiritual leader of the church at Jerusalem and was known to be a devout, humble and spiritually discerning disciple of Christ.
James was known as "Old Knobby Knees" by his fellow Jews in Jerusalem because he never stopped kneeling in prayer for the salvation of Jerusalem. He was executed at the orders of Annas the High Priest by being thrown off of the wall of the Temple and then beaten to death with a club.
This book was written to Christians in the first century who were facing persecution, facing poverty as a result of a marginalized existence in their communities... a host of hard things.
Today we're going to take a close look at the first few verses of James chapter 1, which sheds some light on how we can lean into trust when it comes to dealing with suffering and troubles in life.
"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."
And then verse 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.
The phrase that has always struck me in this passage is the first words in verse two: "Consider it pure joy... whenever you face trials of many kinds..." In Greek, this phrase is pasan chaban: pure, unadulterated joy---the kind of joy that leaves you delirious and euphoric.
Okay. Let's just put a pin in that for the moment.
Then James teaches that the trials of many kinds lead to a testing of your faith... the word testing in Greek is dokimion which literally means "without alloy." The reference here is directly connected to the idea of refinement of gold or another precious metal.
The lesson here that James is relating is that trials and testing are a refining process that should lead us to perseverance because on the other side of the refinement is maturity--the kind of maturity that comes from a pure, unadulterated, alloy free kind of faith.
It seems counter-intuitive... but at the very moment when it feels like God isn't really present, James teaches that we need to rely on God even more.
So why is it so hard for us to trust God completely when we are going through hard times?
The ancient Jewish rabbis taught that each person has the potential for evil and for good. What they called yetzer hara and yetzer harob. The rabbis taught that we have a choice to choose wisely or poorly. To choose evil--yetzer hara or good--yetzer harob.
They also taught that it's all too easy to make the wrong choice and then assume that it isn't our fault...or someone else's fault... or no one's fault... it's God's fault. And then we find ourselves asking questions like "Why did God let this happen?" "What have I done to deserve this?"
And sometimes it's an easy step to even say, "I don't know if God even cares... or is there..."
What are you struggling with right now?
Are you struggling with health issues--for yourself or someone else? Are you struggling with your job or lack of a job? Are you struggling with finances, broken relationships, or are you struggling right now in your faith?
The last thing you need is a preacher giving you platitudes right now, so I am going to tell you a story instead.
Some years ago, I was working as a chaplain in a large hospital in downtown Orlando on an overnight shift. Around midnight I was called to visit a woman who wanted to talk to the chaplain on duty.
When I arrived at her room, I was struck by how the woman didn't look sick at all. She was in her sixties, alert, and sitting upright in her bed. In a hoarse whisper she told me that in order to remove the cancer in her throat, she was going to have surgery the next morning to remove her vocal chords.
She wanted to talk to someone one last time---out loud.
I noticed she had a Bible lying on her bed, and asked her if she had been reading it. She told me that she had, but that it wasn't giving her any comfort. She told me she was angry at God for what was happening to her.
The thought of never being able to speak again was overwhelming to her. she felt lost, alone and desperate.
I asked her if she would mind reading the Bible with me--or more specifically, read the Bible to me. I opened it to Lamentations chapter 3 and asked her to start reading at verse 1. These are the first verses she read:
I am the man who has seen affliction
by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.
He has driven me away and made me walk
in darkness rather than light;
indeed, he has turned his hand against me
again and again, all day long.
It goes on and on like this--verses written by someone who experienced the worst tragedy, the worst disaster---the destruction of everything they knew.
By the time she got to verse 16 the woman's face was red, and her eyes were filled with smoky, angry tears.
16 He has broken my teeth with gravel;
he has trampled me in the dust.
17 I have been deprived of peace;
I have forgotten what prosperity is.
18 So I say, “My splendor is gone
and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”
19 I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
I watched the bitter, angry tears stream down her face... all of the sadness, all of the fear, the doubt, the sorrow and loss... the questions about God and where God was... they were all written on her face.
And then she kept reading...
21 Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
Her face began to change---a brightness came over her. Her hands unclenched. The tears flowed more freely and a small smile began to play over her lips. Then she read.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
25 The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
26 it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
She quietly closed the Bible and looked at me, smiling through her tears. "I'm ready." she told me.
In that moment she realized something amazing. Sometimes bad things just happen. We can learn from them, they make us stronger... sure, all of that is true. But sometimes they just happen. Maybe we made a bad choice. Or someone else made a bad choice. Or no one made a bad choice.
God doesn't cause all things.
But... God is present in all things. God is present in the brokenness, the sorrow, the loss, the grief, the anger, the bitterness, and God is even present in the moment when we feel the loss of God.
Beloved, if we mean to follow Jesus then we need to live like Christians, like people who belong to Christ. And that means that we need to trust in the face of adversity. No matter what you are facing today---know that you can trust God. God is near. God is always near.