Sunday, September 2, 2012

No Shadow of Turning: James and US


September 2, 2012
Fr. Philip Eberhart
Pentecost XIV
 

No Shadow of Turning

 
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The next five weeks, the Sunday’s of September we will be working our way in the readings through the book of James. And the themes that we discover here are the themes that God is very much speaking to our church and to our nation in these days!

So, to set the stage I want to take a few minutes to explore the person and the setting of the letter as we begin.

James, the writer of this book, scholars agree, was the head of the church at Jerusalem and the brother of our Lord, Jesus.  The book was written, most likely, within a decade of Pentecost, sometime around 40 AD or shortly afterward. There is no mention of the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, which would have gotten some ink if it had already happened. The Council happened in 48-49 AD.

James writes as a chief pastor, but to a specific group of people, as he is the pastor of the Jerusalem church, the letter is to the Jews who have been dispersed.  In the first verse of the first chapter:  to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.”  In his writing, James is a man of action, not words.  Though the book takes the form of a collection of proverbs, in the form of the ancient wisdom literature of Israel, it is, nearly half the time, in the imperative mood.  There is an urgency in James that is strongly persuasive – a bent towards action, not words.  He is commanding the troops at home and abroad, as the church has been born in and dispersed by the persecution that came after Pentecost (see Acts, chapter 3-8).  James has been in Jerusalem under Peter and under James and John’s leadership.  He has seen the conversion of Saul, but there is likely no Gentile Church in his mind yet.  So he writes to the Jewish Christians of the dispersion – house churches scattered by persecution or by the Diaspora itself, who have been away from Jerusalem for some time and are hearing of this “through the grapevine” as those from Jerusalem are visiting the synagogues of the dispersed Jewish community and “gossiping the Gospel.”

So James, called “the Just”, by historians, to distinguish him from James, the Apostle and brother of John, is concerned with moving his hearers to action.  His theme is living out the faith, “being a doer of the word, not a hearer only!  He is very concerned, as we will see, about self-deception and its poison in the life of the believer and in the church.  James is crystal clear about the role of faith and the necessity of acting on that faith.  He is crystal clear about the relationship of the poor and the rich in the church and their mutual need for one another! He is clear about the power of the tongue and the effects of dissention in the church.  James is a
“wisdom” writer in the Jewish tradition.  His tone is urgent and energetic and it stings us at times with its scolding satire.

Some of these things we will see, as we dive into our readings for today.

This morning we hear a specific theme that runs throughout our readings, not just in the book of James:

From the command of Moses:

So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the LORD your God with which I am charging you.

 

From David, the Psalmist:

LORD, who may dwell in your tabernacle? *
who may abide upon your holy hill?

2

Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, *
who speaks the truth from his heart.

 

From Jesus, quoting Isaiah:

Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

'This people honors me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me;

in vain do they worship me,

teaching human precepts as doctrines.'

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."

And from James, the Just, the pastor of Jerusalem:

Reading from the JB Phillips translation:

19-20 In view of what he has made us then, dear brothers, let every man be quick to listen but slow to use his tongue, and slow to lose his temper.

… humbly accept the message that God has sown in your hearts, and which can save your souls. Don’t I beg you, only hear the message, but put it into practice; otherwise you are merely deluding yourselves.

27 Religion that is pure and genuine in the sight of God the Father will show itself by such things as visiting orphans and widows in their distress and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.

The message is clear from many perspectives:  We are our own greatest problem!  We have seen the enemy, and he is US!  The call to obedience – the command of obedience, is clear from the earliest writings of Moses to the wisdom that we see here from James.  Jesus captures the problem in the words of Isaiah:

   These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”

From earliest times the people of God have been given the clear imperative of obedience.  Obedience to God’s law, to His Word, both written and spoken to the nation of Israel and through the N.T. to the people of God, is the single most consistent theme of Holy Scripture.  Jesus likened it to choosing which kind of foundation you were to build your house on!  Rock or Sand?  Storms will come, Jesus said, - and the foundation you have built on will make all the difference!

Friends, I’ve talked many times about the necessity of obedience as the third leg of our REZ stool – Willingness, Availability & Obedience.  But it seems that we get to the point of hearing, of perhaps understanding what God wants, and then we stop short.  We stop short of implementation – of execution.  When it comes to walking in God’s ways, we seem to want to have our cake and eat it too! 

We live in a land of blessing from on high – I don’t think many will argue that point – and yet we have disavowed God a role in the public square, just as we have minimized His role in our private lives as well.  I’m struck by a sense of urgency, having just come through ½ of  the political convention season last week, and anticipating the second ½ this next week.  What is so urgent is that we seem to think that politics can save our country.  NOT!

What will save our country is what will save its people, one by one, -- obedience to the God of the Universe and His son, Jesus Christ!!  The same urgency that James displays in his writing – the same imperatives, are imperative for US – individually and corporately today!  No matter what side of the aisle you fall on, it is more needful that we fall on our knees – on our faces – before the Living God.  We must return to Him, as individuals, as churches, as states and as a nation!

Just imagine some of James’ imperatives being spoken to you and to the whole of the United States of America:

2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.
 

5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God


16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change
 

19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;
 

…be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. (leading yourselves astray!)


the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

Do you think that these ring true for you?   For us at REZ?  How about for us as a nation?

Then I suggest that we pray, friends;  that we pray for ourselves along these lines; that we pray for our state and nation along these lines, especially in this run up to the next election in November.

Friends it is time.  The urgency that James expresses is our urgency.  The imperatives he commands must be our imperatives:

 

·         Be joyful in the testing of your faith – it makes you steadfast!

·         Where you lack wisdom, ask God! (not if!)

·         Every good gift you enjoy is from Him!

·         Be a quick hearer, a slow speaker and slower to get angry.

·         Do the Word.  Don’t lead yourself astray by listening only!

·         Persevere in the Perfect Law of Liberty, being a doer who acts, and                  you will be blessed by God in your doing.

 

These are the imperatives of our day, because we are on the brink.  The urgency of James must be our urgency.  God is calling us personally and as a nation to return to Him! 

From another piece of wisdom literature that we are familiar with:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean NOT on your own understanding!
In ALL your ways, ACKNOWLEDGE HIM, and He will direct (make straight) your paths!”

Let us pray:

Almighty God, You have given us this good land for our heritage: We humbly beseech You that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of Your favor and glad to do Your will.  Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in Your Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to Your law, we may show forth Your praise among the nations of the earth.  In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in You to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Heavenly Father, in your Word you have given us a vision of that holy City to which the nations of the world bring their glory: Behold and visit, we pray, the cities of the earth. Renew the ties of mutual regard which form our civic life. Send us honest and able leaders. Enable us to eliminate poverty, prejudice, and oppression, that peace may prevail with righteousness, and justice with order, and that men and women from different cultures and with differing talents may find with one another the fulfillment of their humanity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light rises up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what You would have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in Your light we may see light, and in Your straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of Your Spirit lift us, we pray, to Your presence, where we may be still and know that You are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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