James – 1:17-27; Mark – 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Hearing and doing the word.
James is probably one of my favourite books in the bible, I love how he is straight to the point, not that the directness of the writing makes it any easier to understand, take on board and process; he has a lot to say, and to hear it can be a challenge!
Although it is written as a letter, it is more of a practical address, giving guidance on Christian conduct. It covers various topics: rich and poor, pride and humility, wisdom, patience and prayer, controlling the tongue and most importantly faith and actions. There should be no discrepancy between the two. Real faith shows in the way that Christians behave. It affects how they think of themselves and how they regard and treat others. James reminds his readers of the needs for genuine Christian standards and values in every area of life. Although the origin of the letter is not fully known, it is generally accepted that James was the brother of Jesus, who became a Christian when he saw the risen Christ and went on to lead the Jerusalem church. I find it interesting that he would have grown up with Jesus, seeing and hearing so many things, yet not until His death and resurrection did James see and accept who Jesus really is!
James is writing to the early Christian church, the Jewish believers who were facing persecution and had been scattered (he addresses the letter to those in dispersion) the temple had been destroyed, Stephen had become the first Christian Martyr in a public stoning, so understandably the readers of this letter would have been living with real fear. James starts by reminding them of who they are and that although they are facing persecution and trials,
they do not face them alone, they have a God who is true and faithful.
He encourages them to draw close to God in their trials and ask in faith for wisdom and assures them that it will be given.
James is not shy about bringing about the moral imperatives of living a Christian life, but we can only obey them because of what God has done in us. God brought us to new birth through the message of the gospel, but we are responsible for living out this new life he has planted within us.
The practical instructions are something we have all heard many times, to listen more, speak less and not to act in anger, it all sounds so easy, yet I for one know that these things are anything but easy – you only need to ask my husband!
One characteristic of the new life given in Christ is its basic humility. To quote Paul, the mind set on the flesh is full of its own opinions and longs to inflict them upon others. If others don’t agree, and resist, the natural sinful reaction is to get angry with them. “can’t these people see I am only thinking of their own good? Don’t they understand that I know best on this point?”
Maybe we think we are going to change the world, for good, by inflicting our opinions on others and exercising our righteous anger. James assures us this in not so, he reminds us that human anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
James likens those that hear the word yet remain unchanged, to those who look in a mirror and forget what they have seen as soon as they walk away. Today we have mirrors everywhere, we also have cameras snapping us at every opportunity. If we wanted to see what we look like we would not have far to go. By contrast, when James was writing times were very different, only the richest of houses would possess them, glass windows too where unheard of. Most people only saw their own reflection if they happened to be on the shore of a lake on a windless day and the water was very still. In that society it was very possible that a person might forget what they look like.
In the same way, James says it is possible to forget what the word of God tells us about our own spiritual state. Sometimes we might listen and recognise what it is that God wants from us, we might even feel bad about our own spiritual state and cry out to God to forgive us and help us to be different. But none of this is any good unless we actually do something about it.
When James says this, he is reflecting on the words of Jesus:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell – and great was its fall.
In our liturgy we use the word repent, as we say sorry and make fresh our promise to turnaround from the wrongs we are doing and go in the other direction, to face Jesus and walk the way he leads us. This is right and of course when we say sorry, God forgives us.
This is an important part of our faith, but it reminds me of so many conversations I have with my own children, they do something wrong and say sorry. Of course, I love them so I always accept the apology, however the words that usually follow are along the lines of – I know you are sorry, but that is just a word, what are you going to change so it doesn’t happen again? So, the question we should ask ourselves when we read our bibles, or come to church is what am I actually going to do differently in my life as a result of what I have read or heard today?
A good friend shared with me this week some words about doing, she said that if your car breaks down you do not just sit there and wait for the breakdown rescue to come, you have to do something, you have to make that call so that you can be rescued, then arrange the repairs– and so it is with faith, we have to do something for it to make a difference.
This is not because there is anything we can do to earn God’s grace, mercy, love and forgiveness and ultimate freedom – we already have that, it was given freely to us by the blood of Christ upon the cross. It is because we are the first fruits of God’s creation, the Jewish tradition was that the first fruits of every harvest would be offered to God in thanks, and so we offer ourselves to Him. In verse 25 James says – but those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseverance, being not hearers who forget, but doers who act – they will be blessed IN their doing.
This is not the language of reward, the blessing is not FOR their doing, but IN their doing. That is, as we do it, we will find it to be a blessing to us. The good deed will be its own reward, as we will find ourselves living in harmony with the way God has designed us, and that is the way to true freedom. As we bless others, so we too will be blessed.
True religion is not about rituals and liturgies, elaborate churches or full-on diaries and schedules, it is about your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven – which is all about community and equality, everyone having enough and no one having too much, God provides us with what is needed, it is up to us to do something, to receive the message and be moved into action.
Father of lights, we give you thanks for all that you have provided and what you have done for us. Help us Lord to not just be hearers of the word, but move us into action, help us to remember what it is you have called us to, so that we may bless others just as you bless us.
In Jesus name we pray. Amen