"Hearing the Word, Helping the Distressed"
James 1:17-27 Nov.1, 2009
RHEMA & RHUBARB: OUT OF THE FILTH - FRUIT!
"Every good and perfect gift is from above..." The temporary and corrupt nature of this present order, passing away so quickly, contrasts sharply with God's unchanging goodness. Life is filled with shifting shadows. Today there is the time change from Daylight Saving back to Standard time; but even that date has changed in recent years - any of you who are still using Windows 98 probably had your computer this past week come up and prompt you (wrongly) that the system had put the clock back an hour - when in fact the clock was still supposed to be AHEAD an hour. Things change so fast, even the computers can't keep up!
Why do we change to Daylight Saving Time? Because the sun appears to change its direction twice a year between the Tropics, so our daylength changes. James uses the sun's turning shadows as a contrast to God's constancy. V17, God, "the Father of the heavenly lights", is the source of "every good and perfect gift"; after all, God in His very nature IS absolute goodness, love, and holiness, as the Jews experienced in the Old Testament, and as we see reflected in Jesus. Thus, God the Father does not change like "shifting shadows" (here the Greek word for 'shifting' or turning is the root from which we get 'tropics', where the sun turns).
God's goodness is in sharp contrast to what James sees around in society. V27 he talks about the danger of "being polluted by the world"; v21 mentions "all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent..." The word translated 'filth' means "to make filthy, befoul, defile." Ever since Adam and Eve exercised their moral autonomy by choosing what God prohibited, our environment has been permanently polluted by sin, corrupted by disease, devilish desires, and death.
To bridge these two realities of God's goodness and earth's corruption, God developed a plan, outlined in v18, God's secret surprise factor I'll call 'the rhubarb principle': God "Chose to give us birth through the word of truth (the gospel or Good News of Jesus Christ) - THAT [purpose clause starts here] THAT we might be a kind of firstfruits of all He created."
Why call this 'the rhubarb principle'? Out of the filth - fruit! If you've grown rhubarb, you know it loves lots of manure, compost, decaying fertile ingredients. That's like the filth or 'evil that is so prevalent' James refers to. From such raw materials rhubarb stalks combine sweetness from sunshine falling on such huge leaves to make the perfect ingredients for a delicious rhubarb crisp.
What's the transforming agent? God's word: v21, "Humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you." That's the same "word of truth" that can give us birth back in v18. When we humbly receive the word God's trying to plant in our lives, it makes our mess into a masterpiece.
Jesus described it in Matthew 13 as a sower planting God's word in different types of soil, with varying harvest results. He warned, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots." (Mt 15:13) God's word or 'rhema' in Greek is supernaturally active - we're to live on it daily in preference to bread; all things are possible with God, so Mary could accept it saying, "Let it be to me according to Your word"; at the Master's word Peter agree to let down the fishing net, with unexpected results; Jesus said the rhema-words He spoke to the disciples "are spirit and they are life." (Mt 4:4, 26:75; Lk 1:37f, 5:5; Jn 6:63). God's word has surprising results when we humbly allow Him to plant it in us. What once looked just like manure becomes meaningful.
Paul describes this life-transforming miracle in more detail in Ephesians 1:13: "And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit..."
Bringing to birth involves a certain amount of method. I can think of one couple right now who have a pretty clear plan of action prepared once contractions are really underway. The bag is packed ready to take to the hospital; the husband has a cell phone ready to answer the call for transportation; the doctor is up to speed; distant family members are booked to fly in to provide assistance. It'll all get rolling with that cell phone call. Likewise, God's word plays the key part in our spiritual birth, the beginning of our new life in the Holy Spirit that gives us victory over our sinful past, empowering us to be fruitful.
It was to bring that 'word of truth' to inner-city kids challenged by all kinds of family, neighbourhood, and personal 'messes' that Hannah flew over to Dublin - so she could see something good and beautiful start to take root in their lives through Christ's love.
DOING THE WORD: FREEDOM WITHOUT FORGETTING
Anybody here use a mirror this morning? Mirrors are more useful as you get older - and hari starts growing everywhere except where it's supposed to. As a young boy, I often didn't care whether my hair was combed; now, I wouldn't want to appear foolish or slovenly up in front of people. It's one thing to notice a hair in your eyebrow sticking straight out where it's not supposed to be; but to deal with it requires that you pay attention. You need to REMEMBER what you saw in the mirror, so you actually get around to grooming it.
Last week, talking about our use of the tongue, we noted that James aims to encourage Christians to be more consistent, to have their behaviour better match their beliefs. Already in the early church, some were getting labelled as hypocrites because their deeds didn't match their doctrine. So in v22 James says, in effect, "Be doers of the word, not hearers only, fooling yourselves." Here's where he brings in the mirror analogy. "Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like." (Jas 1:23f) V25 on the other hand says a person will be blessed if we continue to look intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continue to do that, not forgetting what we've heard, but doing it. Continue to "look into the perfect law that gives freedom..." The original wording here means to "stop and look into, gaze carefully, peer into: for example, don't just rush through reading the passage, but mull over the phrases with the benefit of a study Bible commentary, or even discuss them in a small group - something that develops depth and helps you apply the teaching. Speaking of mirrors, some people actually post slips of paper on their bathroom mirrors with a verse to recall while you're brushing your teeth. Tape a paper clip to the dashboard of your car and redeem the time at stoplights. For that matter, download some good free Biblical teaching to take with you as an MP3 in the vehicle. Talk about a few verses with your family before dessert. All these methods help us become doers of the word, integrating it into our daily lives so we don't forget it.
This is different from a legalism based on slavish obedience to rules like the Pharisees. Jesus taught, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (Joh 8:31f) Biblical principles are freeing, for the Holy Spirit shows us how to apply them, moment-by-moment. Paul told the church at Rome, "...through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death." (Ro 8:2)
What a difference it would make to those inner-city kids to know that God loved them, and made it possible for their sin and shame to be dealt with by Jesus' cross; that no matter how messy their home situation, God had a purpose in life for them, an eternal home reserved for them in heaven, and Christian friends and mentors like Hannah and Liesel and the others to encourage them along the way.
REAL RELIGION: CHARITY ALONG WITH PURITY
Don't you just love it when someone cuts through the clutter and sums up something profound simply and memorably? In v27 James gets right to the point about consistency and tells us God's definition of real religion: he says, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." Two parts there.
A) We might label this part CHARITY or social action. "To look after orphans and widows in their distress..." Literally, in the conditions that cause them pressure, or oppression. It's an amazing fact that God has set up the world in such a way as to gauge my love for Him by the way I respond to those in need who cross my path. Can you believe that? Remember how Jesus associated love for God and love for others in the Greatest Commandment. Even some Proverbs (14:31; 19:17) put it plainly - "He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God." And, "He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done."
Hannah and those who supported her invested a significant chunk of their time and resources helping those summer ministries for inner-city kids happen. That being 'kind to the needy' honoured God. Likewise for those packing Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes and the volunteers going to help sort them November 30. Anglicans across the country have raised $94,000 for a suicide prevention initiative for native children in the north, where suicide rates are 5-6 times the national average. And this Christmas season the Salvation Army hopes by its "Santa Shuffle" 5 km run and 1 km walk to raise over $400,000 again to address the needs of hundreds of thousands of Canadians who find themselves having to avail themselves of help over the coming winter. Bona fide charitable endeavours such as these diminish the suffering of the poor and are rewarded by God. How have YOU recently extended yourself on behalf of the orphan and widow?
B) But don't stop there with the outward dimension: an absolutely good and holy God requires that we be cleansed and made acceptable in PURITY if we are to be part of His Kingdom, His eternal family over which He's truly "Father". So Part B of James' definition of true religion that's acceptable to God is: "to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." The word 'polluted' can be translated 'spotless' or 'unstained' (NRSV). Robinson puts it more literally, "to keep on keeping oneself unspecked from the world." What could that mean? What's flying at us that we need to duck?
The Life Application Bible comments, "We are not to adapt to the world's value system, which is based on money, power, and pleasure.True faith means nothing if we are contaminated with such values." When you come upon a group of guys, do you just sort of fall into the groove of whatever they're talking about, regardless of calibre, or do you bring something extra? As you filter conversation, can you find other subjects to talk about than the usual money, markets, and gadgets? How about your browsing habits - can you filter out immoral influences? Same for your TV viewing? I'm thankful to be able to record programs so I can watch them after and fast-forward the ever-so-worldly commercials! Now there are tools that help you filter out programs with questionable ratings. Do you filter your reading material so you're spiritually built up after a week's worth?
The Spirit of the Father of the heavenly lights will help us encourage one another in wholesome activities, entertainment, and pastimes - even such events as a Free Community Breakfast! So may we in fact become a kind of firstfruits of all he created, showing others His goodness, sharing His abundant and perfect gifts. Religion that's 'the Real Thing.' Let's pray.