Tuesday, July 08, 2014
Sermon - James 1:13-21
An audio podcast of this sermon is available here.
|James the Apostle by Peter Paul Rubens.|
Today’s gospel reading is James 1:17-21, but to give it some context, I’m going to start at James 1:13:
No one undergoing a trial should say, “I am being tempted by God.” For God is not tempted by evil and He Himself doesn’t tempt anyone. But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death. Don’t be deceived [or ‘led astray’], my dearly loved brothers. Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights; with Him there is no variation or shadow cast by turning. By His own choice, He gave us a new birth by the message of truth so that we would be the first fruits of His creatures. My dearly loved brothers, understand this: Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for man’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and evil, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save you.
The major concern of James’ letter of wisdom is encouraging Christians to persevere with integrity as they ‘experience various trials’ (James 1:2). Current events remind us that even today being Christian can mean facing literal trial and persecution. Remember Dr Meriam Ibrahim, condemned to hang by a court in
this week after she refused to renounce her faith in Jesus. Remember the school
girls abducted by ‘Boko Haram’ in Sudan . A video from their captors
shows about a hundred girls dressed in hijabs, chanting
verses from the Koran. The terrorist leader says: ‘These girls have become Muslims.’ Nigeria
Such events naturally raise questions in our minds about God and evil, and it’s good to wrestle with such questions. However, James isn’t a book of philosophy. It’s a pastoral letter to Christians under pressure. James isn’t addressing the question: ‘How can God allow hardship?’ He is addressing the question: ‘What attitude should Christians adopt towards the hardship in their lives?’
Although the word for ‘trials’ and ‘temptations’ is the same word in the Greek, it seems clear that verse 13 signals a shift in James’ topic, from the outward trials of persecution to the inner trials of temptation, from our holy trials to our unholy trials as it were. Douglas Moo comments:
‘God, James has said, promises a blessing to those who endure trials. Every trial, every external difficulty, carries with it a temptation, an inner enticement to sin. God may bring, or allow, trials; he is not, James insists, the author of temptation.’
God doesn’t entice us to do wrong. But doesn’t Genesis 22:1 say ‘God tempted Abraham’? Well, no, not in the majority of translations it doesn’t. Genesis 22:1 says God ‘tested’ Abraham. When God tests someone, He is providing them with an opportunity to rise to the occasion and He isn’t willing or desiring them to fail the test. Whether or not our trials are intended by God as part of his perfect will, or merely allowed by God as part of his permissive will, God isn’t deliberately trying to trip us up.
In verses 14 and 15 James lays out our problem with temptation and sin: ‘each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death.’ In verse 17 James begins to lay out the solution: ‘Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights; with Him there is no variation or shadow cast by turning.’ There are two main points here. The first point isn’t that God and only God is the source of all and only good things. The word translated here as ‘every’ has a range of means, including ‘all manner of’. The point is simply that God is a generous giver of all sorts of good gifts, including the physical cosmos. The second point is that, by contrast with the unreliable, varying light given to us by the sun and moon, God’s gift-giving is characterised by a reliable consistency. The word translated here as variation is used in Greek for the setting of the teeth in a saw or for the alternation of seasons. James is saying that God’s desire for our salvation doesn’t wax and wane like the seasons or the phases of the moon. God doesn’t act against his own purposes as if he were double-minded.
Several commentators note that the phrase ‘the Father of lights’ echoes the Jewish morning prayer, which moves from acknowledging God as creator to God as redeemer, so it comes as no surprise when verse 18 re-introduces God’s gift of salvation for those who ‘look into the perfect law of freedom and continue in it’ (James 1:25). The gospel is part of God’s perfect will – The NRSV translates the start of verse 18 ‘He, in fulfillment of his purpose’ - and God won’t give with one hand whilst taking away with the other.
God’s clear intention is that we be the figurative ‘first fruits’ of the earthly creation. In 1 Corinthians 15:20 the Old Testament image of the ‘first fruits’ of the harvest, which were dedicated to God in remembrance of his faithfulness, is applied to Christ. Here in James the image is applied to those who are ‘in’ Christ. Again, the emphasis is upon God’s faithful provision for his people.
In the light of God’s character and provision, it makes no sense for us to say ‘I am being tempted by God’. Of course, we can say ‘God is allowing me to be tempted’; but we can’t absolve ourselves of moral responsibility by noting that God has permitted us moral responsibility! Nor should we dissolve the foundation of our best hope and motivation in the face of temptation by falsely portraying God as actively opposing his own gospel intent.
When we face temptation it is of course true to say ‘you win some, you lose some’. In 2 Corinthians 3:18 Paul celebrates how ‘We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory.’ On the other hand, Paul laments in Romans 7:21: ‘I want to do good, but in practice I do evil.’ (J.B. Phillips)
Sometimes we endure temptation by not giving in to it. At other times we don’t endure, and our evil desires give birth to sin. The important thing to grasp is this: if you feel guilty because you failed to endure temptation, then your sin isn’t yet ‘fully grown’. Rather, your guilt, that pained sense of failure, is itself a new trial, a new temptation trying to draw you away from the forgiveness and transforming power of God. The new temptation is to give up the good fight, to stop enduring and persevering in the process of humbly receiving the implanted word. It’s the temptation to say ‘Surely God won’t forgive me again’. It’s the temptation to feel, ‘God can’t fix me, so why bother trying? It’s the temptation to say ‘I am being tempted by God.’ So let us not be led astray, my brothers and sisters, but let us ‘humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save’ us. Amen.