By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 26, 2021
This is part 3 of the Willow Creek Friends Annual Spiritual Formation retreat. The video will be posted on YouTube after the service (Sorry no live stream this week because the internet at the camp will not handle it.
James 5:13–20 (ESV)
13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. 19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
We are all part of a story, as story that we might not think is that interesting while we are living through it, but when we pull back the layers something more is revealed. Yesterday we explored who we are, where we have been, and hopefully who walked with us along the way. Today we will explore the rest of the story.
The history of each of our families are important to who we are. As is the culture our families emerged from. These give a foundation to our experiences, they give us a framework to process our lives through. But like most things, it is not perfect. In the story of Joseph we can see that even a single tribe chosen by the Most High God is not perfect. Abraham lied about his wife, even offered her to be courted by other men. Why? Because he was afraid of what might happen to him if they knew that she was his wife. This man that scripture regards as a man of stellar faith fails sometimes.
Failure is not always bad. Failure is a reality of life. We will never get everything perfect no matter how hard we try, because we are human. We live our lives out the best we can, and often we live those lives out with incomplete knowledge. When we function with incomplete knowledge we must accept the reality that at times we might make mistakes. We might fail.
What we do with that setback is where our story takes a turn. The reason we hear the story of Abraham is because he failed but he continued to trust God through the failures. Then there are times where we were not the problem. That is Joseph. When we hear about Joseph the only real failure we see in scripture is that he was not that tactful in how he spoke early in his life.
At the age of seventeen he had a dream where he and his brothers were gathering the harvest and the eleven sheaves of wheat his brothers gathered bend down toward his sheave. Then he had another dream where there were eleven stars as well as the sun and the moon that all bend down in homage to his star. Joseph was telling the truth. He was completely honest but he failed to recognize how his words would be taken by his brothers.
This is at time our greatest failure. James, Jesus’s brother, warns us about this as well. He tells us, “we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.”
Joseph was not mindful of his words, but he was an adolescent male. I do not know a single person that has not made that mistake somewhere along the line. That is not an excuse and it also does not excuse the brothers for their actions.
Sometimes the troubles of our live are enacted upon us. When this happens it is particularly difficult to move forward. And unless we have experienced the injustice we cannot fully relate. There are things that I learned about in history class. Things I have thought were far in the past. Things I thought were history. And then something triggers in my mind and I realize that it really was not that long ago. There are still people alive today that faced the problems that prompted the civil rights movement. This is not ancient history to many people. It is not the ancient foundation their stories have been built on. It is still part of what they live today. And yes it is still something the live with. There are countless veterans that served in Vietnam who still struggle with loud noises even though they have been home from the war for forty-eight years.
Our cultural history lays a foundation for our story, and our past experiences fill our stories. These thing make us who we are, but we are more than our past. We can take an active role in how we will respond when we face those struggles.
Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. That is something that would devastate me. I cannot imagine a member of my own family selling me into slavery. I cannot imagine it, and yet it still occurs even to this day. Even though our nation outlawed the practice a hundred and fifty-six years ago there are still thousands of people in the United States living in forced servitude. That was part of Joseph’s story. Did he want to be a slave in Egypt?No, he wanted to be wandering out in the countryside with his father’s sheep wearing his technicolor-ed dream coat. But that was not what happened.
What do we do about it? We look at the life of Joseph, we would know that he worked hard. He became indispensable within his master’s house to the point his master put him over everything. Effectively Joseph even while a slave, became the voice of his master. He was effectively his equal. Then something else happened. Even Joseph’s master’s wife began to see Joseph as being equal to his master. She demanded that he join her in that type of a relationship, but Joseph refused. He would not disrespect his master even though he knew that his master was exploiting him.
I want us to think about that for a bit. In the world around us we live in this community of competition. And to be honest for the most part I do not mind it. But there are places where we need to recognize it for what it really is. In this culture of competition we take advantage of situations so that we can turn a profit. I love to see this in the movie Mary Poppins. Bert the street peddler will sell roasted nuts when its nice out and as soon as it starts to rain he pulls out the umbrellas. There is nothing wrong with a little competition. Until we start to take advantage of a situation where there is not any other options. That become exploitation and exploitation is wrong. The reason it is wrong is because there is not mutual profit. One party did not benefit equally in the transaction. And when there is not an equal exchange hard feelings develop, and when these hard feelings compound we get violence.
This is what James spoke about last week. “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not as. You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people!”
When we continue the cycles of exploitation we are participating in what drives these quarrels and fights. When we do not recognize where we ourselves are participating in the exploitation we become part of the problem. We become the antagonist in someone’s story instead of a companion along the journey.
Joseph was placed in a position where no matter what he did he would be accused and convicted. He was a slave and therefore had no voice of his own. So he could not defend himself against the accusation of the wife, and if he had gone through with the incident, his master could have had him killed. The fact that Joseph was not killed actually tells us a great deal. His master knew that his wife, was most likely at fault, but what would happen to him if he took the word of his slave over the word of his own wife?
Do you see how the cycle continues. It will always continue until someone takes the risk to put an end to it. This brings us back to our story. You know where you are from, you know your roots. If you do not know your roots find out about your roots it might explain a great deal as to why you are in the place you are. We also know our experience up to this point. This is where you are from and who you are in your story. But there is more to be written. Our lives are not predetermined. You are not fated to the position you are in. When we take that look on life we are not being bold, we are not being brave. When we look at our lives and decide that this is our fate, we have given up. We have made a choice that it is not worth the work. We have decided that my story and the story of everyone around me does not matter.
I want us to consider that for a moment. Abraham was one man living in the wilderness of Palestine. He was an old man without a family. Sure he was secure in his income but when God said he was going to be a father of a nation that would be the light to the world, imagine the laughter he must have felt. He was barely a family let alone a nation. Yet his story is important because God made it important. That one man did become a father of a people, and that people became the light to the nations. And from that nation came the restoration of all creation through Jesus Christ. One person’s story is important. If it is lived in a manner that will break the cycles of sin and exploitation.
James tells us is, “anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.”
I mentioned a few weeks ago that James was one of the first letters written but one of the last to be accepted within the cannon of scripture. We know it is one of the first to be written because often when James speaks of the church he uses the term for synagogue instead of ekklesia. The term synagogue implies that the church is still connected the traditional roots from which our faith emerged. Jesus was Jewish, our God is the the God of Israel. But when James comes to the close of this letter, he does something interesting. He begins to speak about breaking the cycles. In verse 13, he encourages us to pray while we are in the midst of suffering. When we are in a place of cheerfulness we should express our joy through praise to God. This is in keeping with tradition. But then in verse 14, he begins to speak about the sick. This is where things begin to change. I am not saying that the Jewish people by in large did not help the sick, that would be a gross misrepresentation of the truth and a twisting of scripture. But there were some illnesses that required isolation. If we take for instance leprosy, when a person was determined to have this disease they were essentially regarded as dead. They could not associate with the community and were required to live outside civilization. James challenges those that are sick to engage the community again. He empowers them to call for the elders of the church. And in this case he uses the term ekklesia.
James is empowering the sick, and he is challenging those of us that have health to look beyond the wisdom of our cultural and our society. He is challenging us to take the action we need to take to become the change we want to see in our community.
I want us to think of this in the context of our story. We have the power through Christ to break away from tradition to restore the honor and dignity of the individuals around us. Each of us were created to bear God’s image. Every person that we meet was also created to do the same. Do we recognize and respect that in the people around us. The church is called to go to the sick, and the sick are empowered to make that call. Will we take that chance?
This is part of our story. The foundation of our lives, those things that happened before our birth are the preface. The things that set the scene. Our past, those struggles we have faced and overcome are scenes and subplots that bring out our character. Those struggles are the spices seasoning our lives, but even those things are not our complete story. We still have the power to change the course. Will we let the forces outside ourselves dictate who we are? Or will take a different path.
We at every moment have a choice to make, we can stay the course or we can look for a different path. But at times we cannot see. Our vision is so clouded and distracted that we cannot even tell which side is up or down. We are seemingly trapped in the clouds of unknowing, and our souls are shrouded in a dark night. The sick are not always physically sick. There is mental and even spiritual illness that can hold us in a place of desolation. This is why we need the church, and trusted friends willing to listen and help you along your journey.
This is the power of the story, the power of your story. When we get to a place where we can share who we are honestly, when we can share what is bothering us and challenging us, We give our community an opportunity to join us in our journey. And I want us to think of just how important this is. Sin. We often think of sin as a transgression or crime against God. That is true, but it is not the complete truth.
Sin is those things in our life that keep us from our proper relationships. We can be doing everything right and still be in sin, because our proper relationship is to be in communion with God and our community. Our jobs can become sinful if it keeps us from our family, just as much as an affair with a coworker can be sin. When our relationships become fractured, any relationship it places a wedge deeper into our lives, causing more desolation within our lives. The cycle continues to drive the wedge deeper, until something stops the cycle.
James tells us to confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. This is how we stop the cycles that drive us away from God. This is how we stop the cycles of exploitation even within our communities. We talk and we listen and we pray. When we begin to tell our story, when we begin to listen to the stories of others, we begin to see the areas we can anoint with various oils and areas we can meet needs and encourage others. What is the next phase of your story? For someone like Joseph the next phase was not allowing the ways of the world to continue, he chose a different path, what was intended for evil, God used for good. The next phase is right around you. It is not focusing on our own struggles but instead helping others find God in their own story and helping them out of their dark nights. The next phase of the life and story you want comes when we turn from ourselves and toward others.
Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going? What is your story? And how will your story be told?
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 19, 2021
James 3:13–4:3, 4:7-8 (ESV)
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. 1 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
I want to begin today by saying that at times scripture convicts me deeply. I believe that that is the point of why God inspired the writers of the various books and letters that we hold to be so important. I believe that scripture is inspired. The idea of inspiration among us may differ. Some might say that God literally dictated the words to be written, while others might believe that that the inspiration came over the course of observation, prayer, and mediation. The later view gives us a picture of a union or relationship, a conversation between God and the writer. A conversation that the writers deemed so important that they were compelled to write. The unique relationship of the writer and God gave the weightiness to the validity. Meaning they had some connection or testimony to back up what they are saying. The apostles spent years walking and ministering with Jesus, because they had that relationship their words carry more weight than someone else. Moses became the law giver because of the experiences he had at the burning bush, and also because the people of Israel saw unexplainable things happening prior to Moses providing a message he said came from the Lord. The prophets, at the time of their writing were often regarded as lunatics until the messages they pinned were later proven to hold great authority. Which basically meant that the exile did occur how they said it would.
The letter of James was one of the last letters to be accepted as cannon in scripture. There are many reasons for this, but I believe that part of the reason for the hesitancy dealt with who we believe wrote the letter. Jesus’s brother was not the most supportive of Jesus’s teaching when we read through the gospel accounts. Jesus’s family at one point questioned if Jesus had lost his mind. I think that would cause some of the earlier followers of Jesus to hesitate in wanting to distribute a letter written by James the brother of Jesus, to the general assembly of people that believe that Jesus was the distributor of the words of life.
There could have been some hesitancy over the early acceptance of this letter because of that history. But I find it encouraging that the history of the church does not focus on the initial misgivings but on the fruit of his life.
I want you to think about your siblings, if you have any, if you do not, think of a close relative. This individual you have known your entire life. You know what irritates them, and you know how to bring a smile to their face. You know just about everything about this relative that can be known without being in their mind. At times it might even seem as if you are in their mind because you know how to read the most minute details of their face and posture. This is Jesus and James. Did James know Jesus was a devout and righteous man, absolutely. Did James know that the circumstances of his brother’s birth were unique and potentially scandalous, of course he did. He would have known this because his own life circumstances would have been plagued by the same scandal. James grew up with Jesus. Imagine your relative again. Imagine how you were better at something than they were and they were envious of it. Imagine how they were more gifted in another area and how envious you were of them.
My brother is much more mechanically minded than I am. He could look at something and figure out how it worked. He used to get kids in his class to give him broken portable cd players and he would fix them and at times sell them back to the kids. He even figured out a way to give a privacy feature to a screen making it so that the only way you could read it was if you wore the proper glasses. This is now something that you can get for your phone and when that came out, he sent me a link and lamented about his missed opportunity. I felt a bit guilty about that because I told him that he was stupid for thinking it was cool. I told him that not because I thought that it was because I was jealous of his skills. I wanted to be able to do what he could do. You all might think that I can do a great deal with technology, but the truth is the only reason I appear to have knowledge is because I have an amazing brother that is very generous with his giftedness. I could also tell you about the amazing attributes of my sisters, but if I keep talking about my family you might just realize how mediocre I am.
I have an amazing family, and I love them, and at times they annoyed me. Imagine if your sibling was Jesus. This is where James is coming from. Imagine the jealousy that James might have felt, he was not simply trying to live up to the standard of a sibling, but his sibling was God. Consider the story of Cain and Abel. The jealousy that Cain felt for his brother because God was more satisfied with Abel’s offering than Cain’s. Cain was filled with jealousy that become something worse, his jealousy became murderous. I am not saying that James felt that kind of burning envy, but I could not imagine growing up in a family where my brother was literally always right.
I hope that gives us some idea as to where James is coming from, and I do believe that love not jealousy dominated the relationship between Jesus and his brother. Even though James initially rejected Jesus as messiah, Jesus visited James after the resurrection. And that encounter changed everything. James was no longer the one wishing to silence Jesus, but when God had opened the faith to the Gentiles, it was James that provided the words of wisdom that brought peace to the church. “Therefore my judgement is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” (Acts 15:19-20)
James becomes the one that provides the words of wisdom that allowed us to worship God in this manner here today. He became one of the greatest leaders in the church at Jerusalem, the apostle Paul goes as far as to tell us in Galatians 2, that the pillars of the church that first accepted and encouraged his ministry were James, Cephas (Peter) and John (the gospel writer).
When we read the words, James was inspired to write today, I want us to remember that he lived by these words. Once the truth of Jesus was revealed fully, James embraced his brother to such a degree that when the persecutions began James remained in Jerusalem while the other apostle left town. And traditions tell us that James was gaining so much influence in Jerusalem the scribes and Pharisees placed him on the pinnacle of the temple and threw him down. The fall did not kill him, so they then began to stone him and beat him with a club. This is a terrible scene, and one that made a profound impact on the religious community. Even outside of Christian writing James is mentioned and some ancient historians even go as far as to claim that the death of James is what prompted the siege of Jerusalem. I do not know if I would go to that extent, but James was respected both inside and outside the church.
James asks us, “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.” I love that phrase, “In the meekness of wisdom.” James wrote this before the apostles really came to an understanding of what exactly was going on in their lives. They knew that the Spirit had and was filling their lives with the same power that raised Jesus from the grave, but they were just beginning to find the words to express it. James could be using the concept of wisdom to explain how the spirit of God works. Proverbs speaks of the lady wisdom in an almost divine way. Wisdom is important and at times is almost a feminine expression of who God is. I do not want you to mishear what I just said I am not saying that God is female, or that wisdom is a female god. I am saying that wisdom is often an expression of God’s character, and that expression is often portrayed in a feminine sense. Sophia, or wisdom, is a feminine name. There are a few other attributes of God that are also portrayed in a feminine manner, we might know them as lady Justice and Liberty.
There is a reason for the feminine image of Wisdom. True wisdom is gentle, or meek. Think about the teachers that have been most important to you in the past, were they gentle or brow beating? For most of us it is the teacher that took the time to understand what our problem was and walked with us through the issue until we could grasp the concept that troubled us. Very rarely do have fond memories of a forceful teacher.
“But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in our hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” What image does this give us? What image would this create if I were to tell you that the words translated bitter jealousy could also be harsh zeal? The term zealot is derived from this same word. The concept is that there is a zeal of fanaticism or an us verse them mindset. Are we getting a picture of what is going on? When we add in selfish ambition, we can see the root of nearly every news story that you have watched this past week.
James has something to tell us about this type of mindset. It is earthly, meaning that it is of this world, the opposite of heaven. It is unspiritual. This is a bit harder to understand but the word used here is the same word we get our word for psyche, which in Greek philosophy is the word for soul. How can we say that a word for soul is unspiritual? In the New Testament this word used to describe a place where human feeling and reason reign supreme. Maybe if we consider it from the perspective of psychology, we might get a better understanding. The earthly could be the id those base desires and reflexes and the concept of unspiritual could be the ego. Meaning it is not from God but it is a wisdom that we have come up with. But James continues by saying one last thing about this false wisdom, its demonic. It will in some way oppose the things of God. Not only will it oppose God, but it will openly reject God and the things God hold most dear, his image bearers. James tells us that if our wisdom contains harsh zeal or selfish ambition, disorder and every vile practice will become the result.
We see that all around us. We can see that in the responses we have over the recommended Covid policies. We see it every couple of years when there is an election. Do you know that I have come to lament over the election cycle? I lament, because at times it seems as if we have lost our sense of reason and become engulf in the zeal of our party. James continues, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”
Do you see the contrast? We are now in the early stages of football season. For many of us we have a favorite college and professional team that we like to cheer for. We might even call ourselves a fan. No mater what the sports broadcaster that analyses the various statistics and variables of the teams says we will not believe a word if it does not support our team. I am not telling you to drop your favorite team, but what happens when we use that same logic for other things in life? What if our zeal or our ambition blinds us from reason, or mercy? What if our fanatism clouds the truth and causes us to act in a manner that is contrary to the words we say we believe?
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
I want us to really consider what these words are saying. Why are we getting upset with certain things around us? What is really causing the issue? If we ask the wrong questions, we will get the wrong answers. And if we are unwilling to listen, we will never hear. So often we hear one thing and we begin to make assumptions before we sought clarity. We do this with our children, we do this with our coworkers, and even with people in our church. This is not how it should work. The wise, those that have true wisdom are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. They do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit but they consider others before themselves. What does that mean? It means we do not always think about ourselves. It means that when making a decision, we will consider options. Let us remember James. Let us remember that he was once a man that rejected the truth, but the meekness of Christ turned that around. Let us remember that this man that once opposed the will of God, became the voice of reason within the debate that allowed for us to worship God in spirit and in truth. Let us remember that this man in his actions influenced not only those that agreed with him but was also so respected by some that opposed him that they included him in a positive manner within their own histories. This man is not encouraging us to do the impossible, he is simply encouraging us to love God, embrace the Holy Spirit, and to live the love of Christ with others. And we do this through our worship, prayers, and our actions.
Let us now prayerfully seek that wisdom from above. So that we can show our faith and live our lives in the meekness of wisdom.
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By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 12, 2021
James 3:1–12 (ESV)
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
James is one of my favorite letters of the New Testament. I like it because it is considered a book of wisdom. Pretty much every book of wisdom in scripture, and even a few of the apocryphal books of scripture that are included in the wisdom category are favorites of mine. I appreciate them because they are practical. They give us guidelines to follow in life. When we follow these guidelines, when we apply these practices, we will more likely feel greater satisfaction with our emotional and spiritual lives. That being said, they are not guarantees. Nothing in life is guaranteed. We will still struggle even if we apply every failsafe we can possibly think of. Just like with this covid pandemic, we can do everything the CDC and local governments recommend and still end up with the illness. But if we apply the knowledge and wisdom we have gained, we are more likely to have the things we seek.
Wisdom is important. Wisdom is applied knowledge. It is one thing to know something, but it is a totally different layer of knowledge to know how to apply what we know in a meaningful way. The old joke says, “knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.” This bit of wisdom does not really help us in life, but it might keep you from facing embarrassment when we can begin to have potlucks again. But many of the words of wisdom from scripture do have practical application, and most of these words of wisdom go beyond a mere Christian or religious context.
In today’s passage James is encouraging us to be mindful of our speech. I first want to point out that nothing James says in this passage is particularly unique to the Christian community. These sorts of things are found throughout the Wisdom works of the Old Testament and we can even see aspects of this in ancient works of philosophy. Consider Proverbs 17, “a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.”  Silence is often golden. You can have opinions, you can even have strong opinions, but being able to vocalize your thoughts in a manner that can transmit knowledge and wisdom takes training and discipline. We have all seen videos and have heard sound bites of people from opposing political factions where they sound ridiculous, and we wonder how they were elected. And people from other parties can play similar videos from people we respect that sound just as ridiculous. This is the fate of people that believe they must express an opinion on everything, there are some things that they know nothing about and when they speak, they look and sound like a fool.
This apparent foolishness is what James is getting at in this passage. He says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” The recipients of this general letter written by James, was a church that was predominately populated by those with a Jewish background. The Hebrew people were the nation through which God determined to reveal himself through. After the fall of humanity, after the rebellion among the heavenly hosts expanded to include the sons and daughters of man, God decided that he would leave the vast majority of the human population to follow the teachings of lessor beings, and the Most High God chose his own group to provide the true revelation of His wisdom. We read about this in the story of the Tower of Babel. The people wanted to make a name for themselves, they wanted to become like God, building a tower that could reach to the heavens or the realm of God. Because of their arrogance God confused the languages of the people and dispersed them over the face of the earth. We wanted to make a name for ourselves, we wanted to exert our wisdom and equate our wisdom with that of God’s. The result was that God let us be ruled by our own wisdom. And when we look to our own knowledge without taking into consideration those around us, we will always find ourselves misinterpreting and confusing things.
In Deuteronomy 32, we are told the rest of the story when it came to this Babel event. “Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you. When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage. ‘He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye. Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him, no foreign god was with him. He made him ride on the high places of the land, and he ate the produce of the field, and he suckled him with honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock. [F]rom the herd, and milk from the flock, with fat of lambs, rams of Bashan and goats, with the very finest of the wheat— and you drank foaming wine made from the blood of the grape.’” 
God separated the people, he gave them over to the lesser beings that rebelled against the Most High, and God out of a small insignificant tribe of people in the desert claimed the people that he would eventually use to bring about the restoration of all people to repentance.
This is what election is. They were the elected people through whom the revelation of God would be transmitted to mankind, belief and faith is still necessary. God scattered the people to face the reality of our own wisdom, and the results of this wisdom can be seen on the news every day of our lives.
“Not many of you should become teachers.” James tells us. This is important because in the Jewish culture education was very important. We know that the church was predominately Jewish when James wrote this letter, because when he speaks of the assembly or the church, he used the word synagogue instead of ekklisia, which is the term most used by the apostles. The synagogue is the place of worship and learning within the communities of Judea. The synagogue was more than a mere meeting for worship; it was a library, a school, it was the place of meeting for civil concerns, and it was the place to enact justice. The synagogue was the communities’ heart, and the most important people within that place were the teachers, or the Rabbis.
When Paul and James make lists of the gifts of the spirit, both put the teacher as the most prominent role within the community. At times we would like to say that the role of the prophet is the greatest role, because our idea of a prophet is that they hear directly from God, but the writers of the New Testament did not regard the prophet as the most important gift, but the teacher. There is a reason for this. The teachers within a community are the ones that pass knowledge on to the next generation. They are the ones that have thought about and processed the words that prophets hear to a degree that that knowledge can be applied within the community. A teacher often guides the future of the community.
Not many of you should become teachers. There is great wisdom in this advice because a teacher by default needs to speak. Communication is the only way to transfer knowledge from one person to another. Without the spoken or written word, the ideas within one mind will never make their way to any other individual. And if I have wisdom and do not share the words I have been given, I have not encouraged the community. But there is a risk to those that teach, “[they] will be judged with greater strictness.”
When we speak, we must be aware of our words, and think about where they go. Once our words leave our mouth we are no longer in control. Those words are received and interpreted by others. What they hear may or may not be what we intended for them to hear. But we have a responsibility to what we say. A word can bear melodies of blessing or they can become a destructive terror.
“For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” These are some harsh words if we really think about them. I want us all to consider our past week. Did you have a misunderstanding, where words were involved? I attempt to pick words carefully when I speak and even when I am being as careful as I can possibly be if I am not mindful or observant of the condition of those around me, my words can set off or what we now refer as trigger those around me. As a parent this makes us feel as if we are failures. Everything we do is to encourage our children, to empower, and inspire them to use the talents and abilities we know they have so that they can live their lives to the fullest aspect of who they are created to be. Yet at times we feel as if every time we open our mouths, we begin an argument. There are even cycles where this happens with our spouses, or our siblings. We love them deeply yet at times we just cannot communicate effectively.
James tells us, we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble, that person is a perfect human being. Guess what I am not perfect. I have probably offended everyone in this room with my words at some point in time. That is not my intention, it is just a reality that I am not omniscient. I do not know all things. And at times even pastors need to be informed when someone needs assistance.
But this statement goes deeper. He speaks of a perfect man. When we hear these words, our mind is immediately filled with images of people we feel as if we can never be. This is one of the reasons things like pornography and romance novels have such detrimental effects on relationships, because they fill our minds with an image of an ideal that is not based in reality. Yet often in scripture we are called to be perfect.
What does it mean to be perfect? It can be without blemish or fault. That is often the most common definition we use, but there is more to it than that. It is also a word used for completeness, or professionally it can mean that the individual has gone as far as one can go within current knowledge. It can also be used for maturity or when someone’s mind is undivided. We often say that James and Paul conflict in their teaching but they are saying similar things. Paul says be of one mind, and James is also saying that an individual that does not stumble in what he says is perfect. It is speaking of a spiritual maturity where our words and our actions are focused not on ourselves but on the Kingdom of God, which loves God with everything that we have and shows that love through the way we live among the people in our neighborhoods. That perfect person is someone that able to bridle or control their whole body.
James compares our tongue to things like a bit within a horse’s mouth, or a rudder on a ship. He compares it to a spark that catches a forest on fire. This small seemingly insignificant thing within our mouths has great power. I do not want us to focus on the bit or the rudder, I think that is self-explanatory. I want us to consider the idea of fire.
The words that we say, the words that people in high positions say have consequences. This week we remembered one of the most tragic moments in the history of the United States. Twenty years ago, groups of men with evil intent hijacked airliners and piloted those massive planes into buildings that symbolized American greatness. I remember that day quite clearly. I remember where I was when I first heard the news. I remember the emotions I felt. And I remember my first conversation I had after hearing the news. That event started a war that has continued for my oldest son’s entire life.
All of that began with words. The men in the planes were inspired to do what they did because someone used words. Words were used to inspire a response of retaliation. And words used carelessly also prompted many people to turn on their neighbors, and to treat those around them with inhumanity. Words started a fire, and when the spark of that fire hit the unrighteousness within our world things began to burn. James tells us the tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. He tells us that no human being can tame the tongue. That it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With our tongue we will bless God and with the same tongue we will curse the very people who were created to bear God’s image.
Friends, we live in a world of dry tinder that will burn rapidly with a single spark. We saw this happen twenty years ago. We saw that happen thirty-five weeks ago. We saw that happen last year. And we will continue to see this happen, if we continue down the path we are going. James says, “My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” And James is correct in what he is saying. We must repent, we must turn from this path. We say this as a nation and we praise and curse the actions our leaders take. But these things are sparks on dry land. The change happens right here. We need to repent. We need to change. We need to be mindful of our words, and mindful of our actions. We need to become undivided in our minds, so that we can live out that mission that God has given us. Loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. We cannot do it on our own, because we are imperfect people and live among imperfect people. But Christ came to live among us. He came from his throne in heaven and he dwelt among mankind. Why would God do this? So that he could bring humanity back to himself. He came and lived among his people, the Jews thorough whom he elected to reveal himself to the nations through, and even his own people were bent on living by their own wisdom. And we the very people created to bear God’s image rejected him and crucified him on a tree. But while we were still sinners, enemies of God, Christ died for us. He took on that penalty we all inherited from our first parents, and he was buried in a tomb, and on the third day he rose from that grave, restored to life. This reversed the rebellious curse and provided the means of restoration. And all nations that believe in him, are no longer condemned but have the life God created us to have. We are restored to rightfully bear His image. What if this was our singular focus? What if this was how we lived? What if this was how we lived in our neighborhood today, what could God do through us?
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