James 5: “Joy to the World”

Joy to the World

Here’s something interesting you may not know, Isaac Watts never intended his famous song, “Joy to the Word,” to be sung at Christmas time. His intention was to celebrate the joy we will experience when Christ returns.

Even after the Psalmist proclaimed the Messiah’s coming; even after Isaiah prophesied he would be born of virgin, in the town of Bethlehem, thousands of people still missed it!

John 1:10-11 (NLT) even says, 10 He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. 11 He came to his own people, and even they rejected him.

He Came, We Missed It

My greatest fear for our generation is falling into the same trap as the first century Jews. They didn’t recognize the Messiah when he came the first time, what makes us think that we will recognize him when he comes again? Grant it, he will come with great peals of thunder and the sky will be torn in two, but I’m not talking about his physical return, I’m talking about all the signs leading up to his return.

Are we desperate to see him come again? Are we prepared like a bride waiting for her groom? I’m not so worried about what Christ will think of the world, I’m more worried about what Christ will think of his church. There are scholars who believe that Jesus hasn’t returned yet not because of the condition of the world, but because of the condition of the church!

James 5:7-9 (NLT) Dear brothers and sisters, be patient as you wait for the Lord’s return. Consider the farmers who patiently wait for the rains in the fall and in the spring. They eagerly look for the valuable harvest to ripen.You, too, must be patient. Take courage, for the coming of the Lord is near.

Don’t grumble about each other, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. For look—the Judge is standing at the door!

What’s interesting about this reference is James’ use of the analogy of waiting for rain. This is interesting because he references particularly the rain in fall and spring. The early and late rains are the rains of autumn and spring. The first rain germinates the seed; while the second matures it.

Standing at the Door

Based on this usage, James is referencing not only the arrival of Jesus in his birth but also the anticipation of Jesus’ return. The other interesting note from James is note that the Judge is standing at the door!

The challenge from Isaac Watts is found right in (verse 1):
 Joy to the world! the Lord is come: let earth receive her King.
Let every heart prepare him room,

The door that Jesus “the Judge” is standing at is the door of our heart. As we read in Revelation 3:20 (NLT) 20 “Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.

The Lord came and the Lord is coming again, but in both cases it was the Lord who came and will come again for us.

Kierkegaard, “The Humble Maiden”

Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden. The king was like no other king. No one dared breathe a word against him, for he had the strength to crush all opponents. And yet this mighty king was melted by love for a humble maiden. How could he declare his love for her? In an odd sort of way, his kingliness tied his hands. If he brought her to the palace and crowned her head with jewels and clothed her body in royal robes, she would surely not resist—no one dared resist him. But would she love him?

She would say she loved him, of course, but would she truly? Or would she live with him in fear, nursing a private grief for the life she had left behind? Would she be happy at his side? How could he know? If he rode to her forest cottage in his royal carriage, with an armed escort waving bright banners, that too would overwhelm her. He did not want a cringing subject. He wanted a lover, an equal. He wanted her to forget that he was a king and she a humble maiden and to let shared love cross the gulf between them. For it is only in love that the unequal can be made equal.

The king clothes himself as a beggar and renounces his throne in order to win her hand.

James 4: “Humble Yourself”

Humility

Did you hear about the minister who said he had a wonderful sermon on humility but was waiting for a large crowd before preaching it?

Many years ago, Christian professor Stuart Blackie of the University of Edinburgh was listening to his students as they presented oral readings. When one young man rose to begin his recitation, he held his book in the wrong hand. The professor thundered, “Take your book in your right hand, and be seated!” At this harsh rebuke, the student held up his right arm. He didn’t have a right hand! The other students shifted uneasily in their chairs. For a moment the professor hesitated. Then he made his way to the student, put his arm around him, and with tears streaming from his eyes, said, “I never knew about it. Please, will you forgive me?” His humble apology made a lasting impact on that young man. This story was told some time later in a large gathering of believers. At the close of the meeting a man came forward, turned to the crowd, and raised his right arm. It ended at the wrist. He said, “I was that student. Professor Blackie led me to Christ. But he never could have done it if he had not made the wrong right.”

James 4:5-10 (NLT) Do you think the Scriptures have no meaning? They say that God is passionate that the spirit he has placed within us should be faithful to him. And he gives grace generously. As the Scriptures say,

“God opposes the proud
    but gives grace to the humble.”

So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor.

Humble Yourself

C.S. Lewis is quoted as saying, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”

This section of James’ letter is considered by many to be the climax. You can almost tell by the power of his words that James has something to say! When challenging his readers on the meaning of scripture, James points out that scripture communicates God’s desire that we would remain faithful to Him. He then highlight the verse from Proverbs 3:34 (NLT) “God opposes the proud
    but gives grace to the humble.”

With the application of the word “so” at the begging of verse 7 James is about to communicate how we are called to be humble:

  • (v. 7) Humble yourselves before God
  • (v. 7) Resist the devil, AND HE WILL FLEE FROM YOU!
  • (v. 8) Come close to God, and GOD WILL COME CLOSE TO YOU!
  • (v. 8) Wash your hands
  • (v. 8) Purify your hearts
  • (v. 9) Let there be tears
  • (v. 9) Let there be sorrow and deep grief
  • (v. 9) Let there be sadness and gloom instead of joy
  • (v. 10) Humble yourselves before the Lord, AND HE WILL LIFT YOU UP IN HONOR!

Do you notice how this list begins and ends? Humility.

For Today

Are you in need of grace today? As we’ve read today in scripture, God gives grace to the humble. It’s powerful to consider that your humility gives space for grace. When we humble ourselves before the Lord we recognize who has all the power and control in our lives. In God’s economy, the lower you get, the higher God lifts you up!

James 3: “The Tiny Spark of the Tongue”

Great Peshtigo Fire

On Sunday, October 8, 1871, as legend goes, at 9pm Catherine O’Leary went out to her barn to milk her cow.

What happens next a still a little foggy in the annuals of Chicago History, but the ally-way behind the barn at 137 DeKoven Street became the epicenter for the Great Chicago Fire. I’m still not sure why they call it the Great Chicago Fire, doesn’t seem to be anything great about it, but who am I?

The fire blazed for two long days and nights and consumed roughly 3.3 square miles of the city. Although it’s never really been determined how the fire started you can be sure of this, fire causes fire. Just like some of the greatest forest fires in US history have been caused by cigarette buts, a small spark has the ability to create major devastation.

What’s amazing about the story of the Great Chicago Fire is that it wasn’t the only fire that was started that night. In fact, you might be surprised to know that the single worst wild fire in U.S. history, in both size and fatalities, known as the Great Peshtigo Fire burned 3.8 million acres (5,938 square miles) and killed at least 1,500 in Northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Across the lake to the east, the town of Holland, Michigan, and other nearby areas burned to the ground. Some 100 miles to the north of Holland, the lumbering community of Manistee also went up in flames in what became known as The Great Michigan Fire.

Farther east, along the shore of Lake Huron, the Port Huron Fire wept through Port Huron, Michigan and much of Michigan’s “Thumb”. On October 9, 1871 a fire swept through the city of Urbana, Illinois, 140 miles south of Chicago, destroying portions of its downtown area. Windsor, Ontario likewise burned on October 12.

The Peshtigo Fire remains the deadliest in American history but the remoteness of the region meant it was little noticed at the time. And to think, this great devastation occurred all because of a spark from the lantern of Cathrine O’Leary at 9pm when she went out to milk her cow.

The Spark of the Tongue

Fire is one of those things that demands respect. We might be quick to declare that the larger the fire the more powerful the fire is, but the reality is, when dealing with fire it doesn’t take but a spark for a fire to quickly get out of control.

When referencing the tongue, James points out in Chapter 3:5-6 (NLT) In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches.

But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself.

As we talk about the power of the tongue, it’s equally important to be reminded that James was writing regarding issues in the church. So obviously, like most churches, there was a person or persons who were probably talking nasty in the church! In fact, in my own opinion, when you re-read James 3, you almost get the sense that James is trying to get people to stop talking negatively about the leadership of the church. Again, this is just my own opinion, but read it for yourself. James 3:1-2 (NLT)

For Today

As we look at what all this means for today, I do believe it’s pretty self explanatory. In the first three chapters of James alone we find James addressing faith, listening, anger, true religion, and now the tongue. All of these things are things that require a higher level of spiritual maturity.

The challenge for us is to come to the realization that when we can control what we say, we control what we do, and even who we become. Like a bit in a horses mouth, or the rudder on a ship, regardless of the amount of tugging and wind, our tongue has the ability to steer us as we go.

James 2: “The Fruit of Faith”

A few weeks ago while preaching I shared a story about a farmer in Northern Florida who planted an apple and orange next to each other on his farm. The moral of the story was that the apple tree enjoyed being an apple tree, while the orange tree didn’t want to be anything but an apple. The result? The orange tree became bitter and stop producing beautiful oranges. Instead because of the oranges bitterness and anger, the only thing the orange tree produced was bitterness and anger.

Reality check: We produce who/what we are!

This is exactly the point James is making here in the second half Chapter 2. James 2:14 (NLT) 14 What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? 

Going further I love how James explains that what good is faith if it can’t clothe the naked or feed the hungry? It’s true! Faith is a wonderful and necessary thing, but faith should be the fuel for action.

Faith Like Fuel

Think of it like a machine. The machine is built to accomplish what it’s built for; faith is the fuel that makes the machine spring to life and start producing its product. Faith is not only necessary for salvation, but it should be like jet-fuel in dormant Christian body.

Picture a lawnmower with a gas can sitting next to it. Separately, the lawnmower is in perfectly working condition and the gas in the can won’t get any more gas. Now, the lawnmower won’t be effective at mowing a lawn until it’s filled with gas. But we can’t stop here with the analogy. In fact, the most important point James makes is what’s coming next.

So now we have the lawnmower filled with gas. This is great, but what good is a lawnmower filled with gas that just sits in the garage? (v. 17: So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.) Here’s the reality: A lawnmower filled with gas won’t cut a single blade of grass until it’s pulled out of the garage, started, and placed over the grass! The same is true in our Christian walk!

By My Good Deeds

A person by themselves has the opportunity to do what it was made for; but it’s not until their life is filled with the fuel of faith that they become a Christian. Going further, as James, Paul, and Jesus has said, you need to now put that faith in action! Get out of the garage, get over the grass, and start cutting… you know what I mean.

James 2:18 (NLT) Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.”

Basically, I will show you that I am filled with the fuel of faith by doing the things that God designed for me to do! James agrees when he give the example of Abraham’s faith in verse 22: You see, his (Abraham’s) faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete.

For Today

Fruit in the Greek can be translated, well, “fruit,” but metaphorically it can be translated “results.” I’m advocating that our faith should produce the results (fruit) of good deeds. I’m also advocating where we started: We produce who/what we are!

Matthew 12:33 (NLT) “A tree is identified by its fruit (results). If a tree is good, its fruit (results) will be good. If a tree is bad, its fruit (results) will be bad.

 

James 1: “Introduction”

Welcome to James!

Although it’s only five chapters long, each chapter of James is power packed with practical and insightful information.

Below is helpful information I found in Fee and Stuarts Book, “How to Read the Bible Book by Book:

Orienting Data for James

Content: a treatise composed of short moral essays, emphasizing endurance in hardship and responsible Christian living, with special concern that believers practice what they preach and live together in harmony

Author: James, brother of our Lord (Gal 1:19), who led the church in Jerusalem for many years (Acts 15; Gal 2:1–13)—although questioned by many

Date: unknown; dated anywhere from the mid–40s a.d. to the 90s, depending on authorship; probably earlier than later

Recipients: believers in Christ among the Jewish Diaspora

Occasion: unknown, but the treatise shows concern for real conditions in the churches, including severe trials, dissensions caused by angry and judgmental words, and abuse of the poor by the wealthy

Emphases: practical faith on the part of believers; joy and patience in the midst of trials; the nature of true (Christian) wisdom; attitudes of the rich toward the poor; abuse and proper use of the tongue

Specific Advice for Reading James

James is admittedly difficult to read through, because of its many starts and stops, twists and turns. But along with seeing the threads that hold things together, which we noted above, several other matters should help you to read this letter with better understanding.

First, in terms of content, you will find the letter to have a variety of kinds of material in it, all of it directed specifically at Christian behavior, rather than propounding Christian doctrine. Included are a goodly number of sayings or aphorisms that look like Old Testament wisdom on the one hand and the teachings of Jesus on the other. That is, much as the Synoptic Gospels often present the teaching of Jesus in the form of sayings—which at times ring with echoes of Jewish wisdom—so with James. This is found both in his emphasis on wisdom as such and in the frequent aphoristic nature of so much that he says. In this vein you should also look for his frequent echoes of the teachings of Jesus (e.g., 1:5–6; 2:8;5:9, 12). As with all Jewish wisdom (see the introduction to the Old Testament Writings, p. 120), the concern is not doctrinal or logical, but practical; the test of its truthfulness has to do with how it works out in the reality of everyday life.

Second, in terms of form, you will find a kind of sermonic quality to James. As you read, note the various rhetorical devices he employs, especially some that reflect the Greco-Roman diatribe (see “Specific Advice for Reading Romans,” p. 319)—direct address (“my [dear] brothers and sisters” 14x), rhetorical questions (e.g., Jas 2:3–7, 14, 21; 3:11–12, 13; 4:1, 5), and the use of an imagined interlocutor (2:18–20; 4:12, 13, 15). Thus James’s use of the Wisdom tradition is not proverbial but sermonic; he hopes to persuade and thus to facilitate change in the way God’s people live in community with one another.

Third, don’t fall into the habit, which is easy in this case, of reading James as though it were addressed to individual believers about their one-on-one relationship with God and others. Nothing could be further from James’s own concerns. From the outset his passion is with life within the believing community. While it is true that each must assume his or her individual responsibility to make the community healthy, the concern is not with personal piety as much as it is with healthy communities. To miss this point will cause you to miss what drives this letter from beginning to end.

Finally, you need to read the sections about the rich and poor with care (1:9–11, 27; 2:1–13; 4:13–5:6), since it is not easy to tell whether both groups are members of the believing community. In any case, James is decidedly—as is the whole of Scripture—on the side of the poor. The rich are consistently censured and judged, not because of their wealth per se, but because it has caused them to live without taking God into account and thus to abuse the lowly ones for whom God cares.