I learned a lot of theology in seminary. I learned stuff like homoousios, which means of the same substance – the same nature- that term is used when talking about Jesus and God – that they are the same.
I learned about how the Bible came to be, why books were put in and why others were left out. I learned things that test your faith. I read things I still don’t understand, which is good. The truth of the matter is that people who think they know everything and have it all figured out are really just show their ignorance. Theologians have been debating things for a couple of thousand years. There are always intelligent arguments on both sides of most Biblical issues. The truth is, God is mysterious so far above our ability to think. The only thing we can know about God is what He wants us to know. And we know only a small portion of the whole truth about God. Other than that, we’re guessing. A.W. Tozer said, “There is one thing of which we can be sure of God. Whatever we visualize Him to be, he is not. God is of infinite greatness and can never be comprehended by us as He truly is.”
All this I bring up, to let you know that James was not concerned about any of that. James was not a theologian. James was a pastor. So he’s not interested in explaining the nuances of the study of God and Jesus. He wrote practically speaking. I like that because it’s proof that you don’t need to know everything, or think you know everything, to be a pastor or for that case, a witness for Jesus.
Brennan Manning in his book, Lion and Lamb, tells a story of a new Christian when he is confronted by an unbelieving friend:
“So you have been converted to Christ?”
“Then you must know a great deal about Him. Tell me, what country was He born in?”
“I don’t know.”
“What was His age when He died?”
“I don’t know.”
“How many sermons did he preach?”
“I don’t know.”
“You certainly know very little for a man who claims to be converted to Christ.”
“You are right. I am ashamed at how little I know about Him. But this much I know: Three years ago I was a drunkard. I was in debt. My family was falling to pieces; they dreaded the sight of me. But now I have given up drink. We are out of debt. Ours is a happy home. My children eagerly await my return home each evening. All this Christ has done for me. This much I know of Christ.”
James says, this much I know, you can be a hearer of the word and it proves nothing. You might think they were gathering information to write a book. What else are they doing with what they hear? James says people who do this: hear and do not do, are deceiving themselves.
James feels the need to write this in this letter because there was controversy in the early church. You think controversy is a more modern thing, not so.
Part of the controversy that made them have a conference in 47 AD called the Jerusalem Conference was this: Paul and Barnabas were preaching to the Gentiles telling them if they accepted Jesus as Lord, they would be saved. But the church in Jerusalem said, not so fast. The church in Jerusalem said a man couldn’t be saved until he was circumcised and followed the law of Moses, became a Jew and adding works. WA Criswell explains it like this:
On the one hand, you have Paul, Barnabas, and Hellenistic Jews saying all you had to do was confess Jesus. No works. You didn’t have to be baptized or circumcised; you didn’t have to take the Lord’s Supper – Holy Communion, keep the Sabbath, or obey laws or regulations. What did you have to do? Trust Jesus as your Savior.
The other side had the church in Jerusalem, Judaizersm who said to be saved, you have to trust Jesus and you had to do this and this and this and this. There was a great confrontation in the church and guess who presided over the conference? JAMES! James ruled over the conference, made the final decree, and wrote the decree for the church. And what did he say? He said you had to be hearers and doers. He said in chapter 2 verse 26, faith without works is dead.
Martin Luther thought the Book of James should not be in the Bible. He thought it contradicted Paul. Paul said – you have been saved by grace through faith, not by works, so that nobody can boast.
I’m not nearly as smart as Martin Luther, but I can’t believe Luther didn’t get this – James is not saying your works save you. He is not saying the DOING saves you. You don’t have to do to be saved. He’s saying if you are saved, and if you are a convert to Jesus, if you have the Holy Spirit inside of you, that it makes you want to do the works, it makes you want to be a doer, not just a hearer. James says there’s a problem when all you want to do is hear about Jesus and not do what He says. It’s the other side of the same coin as what Paul says. You are saved by grace through faith – and you will know it by what you do.
Francis Chan says it would be like him telling his daughter to clean her room. She goes to her room and in an hour he goes up and she’s sitting on a messy bed, clothes still strewn on the floor, the room has been untouched. He says to her, I thought I told you to clean your room? She says, you know I’ve been thinking about what you said. I definitely heard what you said. I’ve been contemplating it. He says, you don’t need to study it or think about it any more. You heard what I said, now you just need to do it.
James wanted to keep it simple – on the most basic level, James says in verse 27, when you visit the widows and orphans in their trouble, you’re doing what Jesus would have you do and you’re being doers of the word. At the beginning of chapter 2, James says, there’s a problem when you pay attention to the people who are dressed nicely, and ignore the poor man in filthy clothes. When you pay attention to the outcast, the poor, you are being doers of the word.
Does that make any of you think of anything? It does me. Wednesday night dinners. One time I saw a person who would be considered an outsider by most in the church sitting completely alone at a table. The table next to this person had 8 people sitting at it, 3 on each side and one on each end. And I saw a person go up to pull out a chair next to the outsider. But instead of pulling the chair out and sitting there, they pulled the chair over to the table with 8 people and 9 people ate at that table with one outsider sitting alone at the next. Do you think Jesus would have been pleased about that? James says, no He wouldn’t.
You know from my sermons I’m like James in being real and down to earth. Like James, I like to keep it simple. Maybe too simple for some of you. And maybe too honest for others. Oswald Chambers wrote, The preaching of the Gospel awakens an intense resentment because it is designed to reveal my unholiness and your unholiness. But hopefully, it also awakens a desire in within you and within me, within us, as the hearers, to come to the realization that there is room for improvement in our lives to be more like Jesus. I like to challenge myself and challenge you with God’s word. And folks, this is God’s word.
A certain pastor of great austerity
Climbed up in his high church steeple
To be nearer God that he might hand
God’s word down to the people.
He cried out from his steeple,
“Where are thou Lord?”
And the Lord replied,
“I’m down here among my people.”
Jesus loved and loves the poor, the outcast, the lost, the discouraged, the unsought, the weeping, and also the rich. He loved them all, and he loves us all. But I find it hard to love the people He loves and love people the way he loves. Can you be honest enough with yourself to admit that, too? I find it difficult to love like Jesus. Even when we come in the church, we’re often hearers and not doers.
Michael Yaconelli in Messy Spirituality says, “Nothing makes people in the church more angry than grace. It’s ironic: we stumble into a party we weren’t invited to and find the uninvited standing at the door making sure no other uninviteds get in. Then a strange phenomenon occurs: as soon as we are included in the party because of Jesus’ irresponsible love, we decide to make grace “more responsible” by becoming self-appointed Kingdom Monitors, guarding the Kingdom of God, keeping the riffraff out.”
Do you see what he did there? He says we come into a place in which we should be trembling and pounding our chest like the repentant sinner about being unworthy to be here, and maybe at one time we were, but somewhere along the way we get comfortable in church. A little too comfortable. We get comfortable to the point that we appoint ourselves as the ones who decide who’s in and who’s out. We start to believe it’s our job to decide who should be coming into the church, We start to believe it’s our job to decide what they should be wearing, We start to believe it’s our job to decide how they should be behaving, James says that’s not being doers of the word. It’s a worthless faith.
Finally, I want to bring in the Gospel reading from Mark – The religious people are telling Jesus – listen, your disciples are dirty – they didn’t wash their hands before they ate. The religious people washed their hands a certain way, washed the pitchers and cups in just the right way –
And Jesus said Isaiah prophesied that there would be hypocrites such as them – “The people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, and in vain they worship me.”
The religious leaders had the
James says you are hearing in vain if you are not doing. Your faith is only a valid faith if it moves you to do. To do for others in the church, to do for others in the world, to do for those in Zuspan’s trailer park. Our job is not to keep the riffraff out. Our job is to show everyone the love of Jesus. The people who think they’re something – and there are some in every crowd – they’re deceiving themselves.
It’s like I’ve explained about communion – only those who understand their unworthiness should come. If we look at some as though they shouldn’t come for communion and we think we should – oh boy. We’re not even understanding the hearing part very well.
I would love to stir up your thinking?
I meant to say…I would love to stir up your thinking.