This week begins a sermon series on three of the harder books of the New Testament: The letters written by Peter and James. We will start with James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the Christians in Jerusalem. The same James who didn’t get it during Jesus’ ministry and was going to help his mom pull Jesus back and stop all the foolishness that would get him killed. James was a no-nonsense kind of guy and his writing style was extremely blunt. He leaves us with very little wiggle room, and it appears that there were some things that were happening that he wanted to nip in the bud and there were some Christians who were being worn down by the growing persecutions and trials of life in the Roman Empire. On our end of history we face some different things; there really is no true persecution in this country. Our trials have more to do with living in a time of transition. The pace of change in the world has accelerated exponentially in our lifetimes, and we are often left floundering as we try to discern where the hidden downsides are and where the blessings are in the mix. James begins his book with a word of encouragement that speaks to our time as clearly as to his own.
1James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. 2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. 5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.
The early apostles called themselves the slaves of Christ. This was a profound statement of how they saw themselves and denoted the source of their authority. When we hear the word slave, our understanding is influenced by the horrors of American slavery, in this context, there is a slightly different thing going on. In the Roman world, slaves were not just property, but were considered to be extensions of the master. The most powerful people in the Roman Empire outside of the Caesar were those that were the slaves of Caesar. These slaves were the agents of the Emperor and woe to those who crossed them. Calling themselves the “Slaves of Christ” implied a sense of authority which derived from that relationship and got them into trouble with the Romans. More importantly this time period marked the beginning of the first major schism in the church between those who felt that to become a Christian you first had to become a Jew, obeying all the food laws, and for the men getting circumcised, and those who felt that welcoming the Holy Spirit and living according to Jesus’ teachings was enough. These all contributed to the growing pains of the new church. James reminds his listeners that pain is part of the cost of growth. No improvement to self or community comes without pain. In my own life some changes have come through pain and as of this morning I am down 13 pounds since December. To grow healthier I have needed to make some changes to my diet and actually do this strange thing called exercising. The consequences of not changing have come home to roost, and as I lose weight, as I mature in my relationship to my own body I am becoming healthier and experiencing less pain. We live in a society that sees no value in pain. Pain is something that we are trained to avoid at all costs and boy does it cost. Americans spend over $16 billion in over the counter and prescribed pain meds, $11 billion on anti-depressants, and an estimated $60-85 billion on illegal drugs. Now I am not saying that these are all unnecessary, but quite often when we are hurting we stop at masking the pain rather than dealing with the cause of the pain. We as a society are lowering our ability to endure the pain necessary for growth. I am actually grateful that my doctor has not prescribed pain medication for me, because the pain motivates me to change. Thinking about getting a sugary snack, wow it hurt to get up off the couch, maybe not. How often is it like that for organizations? For years we go along knowing we need to change and don’t until it becomes more painful to not change. How much easier would it be if we faced into the changes God calls us to sooner rather than later? Maturity will come but we must face into the pain of change to achieve it.
The big question is how we can recognize necessary change? Is there any of us that is wise enough to look beyond the pain and say the pain is going to come, but it will be worth it? That is the essence of wisdom, to know when the pain of enacting change is worth the resulting health. If you, like me are a little thick skulled when it comes down to necessary change, we can ask God for wisdom. God is generous in His gifts, but wisdom is not something to be asked for lightly. James tells us that you had better be absolutely certain that this is a gift you desire to have, because you are going to want to doubt what wisdom tells you. Wisdom will tell you that yes, you really do need to cut down on the food and increase the exercise. Wisdom will tell you that the nice guy who seems so perfect is really an abuser waiting to wear you down. Wisdom will tell you that the person who is so hard on other people’s sins has enough skeletons in their closet to fill a mortuary, build a carnival “haunted house”, and have enough left over to make a slightly disturbing piece of modern art.* In other words you will see behind what you wish were true, or what others put out as truth, to the reality that lies beneath. To ask for the gift of wisdom is to ask that we could see the world through God’s eyes and have God’s perspective on what is going on around us. This pierces through all of the veils of comfortable misconception and leads us to the bare truth.
Let me give you an example of what this wisdom in action looks like: In the early 90’s a guy named John showed up at a church meeting with some nice glossy brochures saying that through his Foundation for a New Era we could double our money over ten months through investments and his wealthy anonymous donors. There were some who thought that this was a great idea, that the church could really use that money and it looked like the church was going to buy in to this foundation. There was one person who stood in the way, and that person said that things didn’t look right, that they were concerned that the donors were all anonymous, and that that kind of money couldn’t legitimately double that quickly. Being the voice of wisdom did not make the person who stood in the way popular. That person was labeled as obstructionist, unruly, a wet blanket, a stick in the mud, and as standing in the way of God’s promises. They threatened to remove that person from their position as an elder and the only thing that prevented them was that this person had a big personality that wasn’t easily intimidated and had an unshakeable faith. The church eventually listened to that person’s concerns and discovered just how wise they were when the New Era Foundation was raided and John was indicted and convicted for running a Ponzi scheme. Wisdom said that it looked too good to be true, and was proved right later. That is of course the difficulty with wisdom; we tend to find out which course of action was wise after the fact. I think James’ warning is an important one, we must learn to trust the voice of wisdom when it speaks, even if it doesn’t make sense at the time.
Before we end I want to talk about the last verse in our text today. It says that doubters must not EXPECT to receive anything from God, and for the most part doubters usually don’t expect anything to happen. There is a piece of good news here though that we miss if we brush by this too quickly. While doubters should not expect to receive anything, God still gives. The God of grace, of undeserved and unmerited love and mercy gives gifts anyway because of His great love for us. We don’t expect God to give us wisdom, but he does, we don’t expect God to love those who hate him, but he does. We don’t expect God to desire the presence of the broken and wounded, but he not only draws them in, but restores our brokenness and heals our wounds. We serve a God who gives gifts to those who do not deserve them out of a love we cannot comprehend. So remember that even though there are times when we do doubt God remains faithful in his love for us.
*This line inspired by Terry Pratchett.