Perseverance and Wisdom: A sermon based on James 1:1-8
Today we begin a study of the book of James, which we’ll be reflecting on throughout the summer. In our last series, we looked at the big picture of Scripture, we began in Genesis and worked our way to the grande finale in Revelation. Throughout the series we were trying to see how through Scripture God is telling one beautiful story of how He is restoring all creation and humanity into perfect relationship with Him. We live in the middle of that story. The greatest act of Redemption has happened through Jesus death and resurrection. Our sins are paid for, we’ve been given the Holy Spirit, but the grand conclusion described in Revelation 21 and 22 has not yet come. Creation has not fully been restored. Sin still impacts our life. Christians today live in between the ages. Jesus preached his kingdom has already come, but he also tells us to pray for the coming of the Kingdom. Theologians refer to this reality as ‘the already… but not yet.” That’s our place in the story. As Michelle said in her Easter sermon, we are no longer in dead of winter, but Summer is not yet fully here. We are in between seasons. So, how do we live in-between seasons? The book of James is one answer to that question. Throughout the summer, we are going to reflect together what the lives of Christians should look like in this in between times.
(Slide 1) So, let’s first meet the writer of this letter. He simply introduces himself as “James, servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” He doesn’t get more specific than that. The church tradition has always passed down that this James is none other than the brother of Jesus. There are a few other options of who could’ve written this letter, but the traditional view has the strongest arguments in its favour. That this letter is written by the brother of Jesus is no small thing. Think about your relationship with your siblings. How likely are you to think of them as the Son of God? How likely are you to think they’re a saint? Maybe the word that I’d choose to describe my brother or sister are tolerable. After all, I know what a jerk my brother was to me Christmas in 2005. I really do love my brother and sister, but I also know a ton about them. For me, the fact that James and his brothers put their faith in Jesus is a big deal. I’d never put my faith in my brother Matt. Sometimes I’ll listen to his advice, but more often I’ll just get annoyed by it. During Jesus’ ministry on earth, it sounds like his brothers were annoyed. In the Gospel of Mark, we see Jesus’ brothers acting like brothers, telling others that Jesus’ is “out of his mind” and trying to restrain him. That must have been pretty annoying to Jesus. But apparently, rising from the dead can smooth out difficult family relationships. In his letter to Corinthians, Paul tells us that when he rose from the dead, Jesus appeared to Peter, then to the Twelve, then to five hundred others, and then he appeared to James. What would it be like meeting your brother risen from the dead? That’s the James who wrote this letter. This meeting forever changed the way that James viewed his brother Jesus. As we see in this letter, James now refers to himself as the servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. James’ devotion to Jesus happened pretty quickly. The book of Acts tells us that James, his brothers, and his mother Mary were waiting with the other disciples in Jerusalem, waiting for the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised would come after his ascension.
James devoted his life to Jesus. He became a leader in the church in Jerusalem. In fact, he became the leader. When you read Acts you get the sense that Peter and Paul were somewhat in James’ shadow. In Acts 15 when the council of Jerusalem is deciding whether Gentiles need to be circumcised to be a follower of Jesus, James’ speech is the most important, and actually decides the matter. You wouldn’t be too off base to think of James as the first pope. But for all that, he was incredibly humble. James doesn’t use his family relationship with Jesus to throw his weight around. As we’ll see in this letter, he cared deeply for the poor. Probably because he grew up in a poor family. His dad likely died when he was fairly young. Through all his trials, James grew in wisdom and holiness until he was killed as a martyr for the faith. The early church gave him the nickname, James the Just, because that’s the way he lived. He knew how to live anticipating the coming Kingdom. This shines throughout his letter. Every line of it has allusions to the words of Jesus and how they apply to our lives. He only mentions Jesus twice, but at every turn he is applying, interpreting and echoing the words of Jesus.
Of all the letters in the New Testament, James’ is also the most Jewish. While Paul went and ministered to the other nations, James was a preacher to the Jews. Like Paul, James saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures, and his letter attempts to help Jews live out Torah in light of what their Messiah has done for them. As a result, this letter is also saturated with the wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures. This letter will help us, as it helped its first audience, learn how to be faithful followers of Jesus as we wait for the final coming of the Messiah, our Lord and brother, Jesus Christ.
So, let’s move into the body of the letter. This letter is more of a general letter. Paul often wrote to specific letters addressing specific problems in specific churches. James is writing to a number of communities of Jewish Christians that were being persecuted outside of Jerusalem. The situation was probably something similar to what was described after Saul orchestrated the martyrdom of Stephen. (Slide 3). “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” James is likely one of those apostles left behind, and is writing a letter to these Jewish followers of Jesus who have been scattered because of persecution. They had to leave their home, their families, their livelihood, their land. As you continue reading the letter, you realize that James is writing to people who are persecuted because of their faith, oppressed by powerful land owners, and abused by the wealthy. These people are the meek, the powerless, and the persecuted. This background makes his opening words all the more remarkable: (Slide 4). “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds”. Pure joy. I’ve just described the types of trials that these churches were facing, how many of you would open a letter to them by asking them to think of those trials pure joy? I know that many of you’ve been disowned by your family, disdained by the synogogue leaders, taken advantage of by your employers, under threat of death, but consider it all pure joy. Why should we consider all that pure joy? (slide 5). James has a ready answer: “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.” The reason why James invites us to consider it pure joy when we face trials is because through the discipline of perseverance God shapes your character. He grows you into maturity. James is certainly not out on a limb in saying this. Maybe he has in mind when God tested Abraham in Genesis 22 and Abraham received blessing upon blessing for his long-suffering perseverance. Maybe James has in mind when the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tested by Satan. The reward for Jesus’ perseverance was the healing of creation and the defeat of the evil one. Maybe James has in mind when Jesus told his persecuted disciples, “Stand firm, and you will win life.” Maybe James had conversations with Peter and Paul about perseverance, because they say the same thing. In his second letter, Peter says that perseverance leads to godliness. Likewise, in his letter to the Romans, (Slide 6) Paul says “we glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” That is why we glory in our sufferings, and persevere when we are tested, because through it all God is somehow refining his children, making us mature and complete, not lacking in anything. God forms our character through suffering. James, Peter and Paul each had a deep trust that their trials would not have the final word. They trusted in the redemption that Jesus would bring when his Kingdom would come and this world would finally be restored to the way it was always meant to be. So, we have good reason to obey James and consider it pure joy whenever we face trials of many kinds.
Easier said than done. It’s fine and dandy to say all this when everything is going well. Its easy to consider trials a joy when the biggest trial you have is trying to choose the right cereal at the grocery store… its much harder to consider it all joy when you feel that life has bucked you off like a wild horse and is dragging you through the bush with your foot twisted in the saddle. Then comes James, shouting “consider it pure joy” as you’re being dragged kicking and screaming. James knows this is hard. He isn’t stupid. He knows perseverance isn’t enough. That’s why James then says, (Slide 7). “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.” Perseverance on its own isn’t sufficient if you don’t have wisdom. When you are being dragged through the mud, you need wisdom. Wisdom is what enables you to see through the mud, and see how God is forming you through your suffering. That kind of wisdom is a gift from God. James is undoubtedly a student of Proverbs, which tells us to look for wisdom with the same passion that you’d look for hidden treasure… (Slide 8). “Then you will understand what is right and just and fair—every good path. For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul. Discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you.” Simply enduring while you’re being dragged through a cactus field isn’t going to be sufficient. Eventually you’ll get warn down. Eventually you’ll get cynical. Eventually you’ll get bitter and jaded and burnt out. Wisdom from God is your protection. Wisdom from God will guard you. Wisdom assures you that God is in control in all of your circumstances. No matter what trial comes your way, wisdom assure you that you are not alone, you are not outside of God’s hand. Wisdom teaches that through all things God will work to the good of those who love him. Through all things, especially tests and trials, God will shape you, form you, develop your character, make you mature and complete, lacking nothing. This is wisdom, and this wisdom is a gift from God.
This certainly is not my default perspective. That’s why the book of Proverbs tells us to seek wisdom like you seek treasure. James tells us that all we have to do is ask. No doubt he’s thinking of when his brother Jesus said, (Slide 9) “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find’ and to those who knock. The door will be opened…. How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Ask for wisdom and God will give it to you. God is generous, gracious and kind. God will not hesitate to give wisdom to those who ask of it.
Still, receiving God’s wisdom does not make enduring trials easy or simple. Receiving God’s wisdom does not mean the storm will immediately die down and the waters become placid. Wisdom shows us where to put our faith. Wisdom gives an anchor to our faith, so that we don’t drift away and so we don’t ssink. (Slide 9) That’s why James reminds the church that when we ask, we “must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not think they will receive anything from the Lord; they are a double-minded person, unstable in all they do.” James chose the image of the wave because the wave is a complete victim of circumstance. Waves move wherever they are pushed or pulled. If the wind pushes a wave east, it goes east. If the moon pulls the wave west, it goes west. If the wave gets pulled in two directions, it becomes a frothing mess. The goal of faith is not to be a wave. The goal is to hold onto wisdom, and be anchored in Christ. The goal is to trust God in his wisdom throughout all circumstances, no matter what. I can’t help but wonder if James had in mind that day “when Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side of the lake.” Remember how they got into the boat and set out. Jesus fell asleep. A storm hit them hard. They rowed until they thought they were going to drown. Losing sight of wisdom, they shook Jesus awake, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown! He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples! In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”
James tells us to believe, and not doubt. As trials and storms come your way, wisdom is knowing who is in the boat with you. Wisdom is holding fast to the boat as you trust in Jesus. Trusting that he will work all things to the benefit of those he loves. Remember that as you ride out the storm, Jesus is shaping you to be mature and complete, perfect, not lacking anything. Eventually, He will calm the storm. It might not be today. It might not be until the dawn of the New Creation, but Jesus will calm the storm. Wisdom teaches us to hold fast and trust God until that day comes.