A couple years ago I was invited by some other students at my seminary to go down and visit a large protest that was going on downtown. This protest had some big sounding goals, a desire for actual justice, and involved quite a bit of idealism at first. I went down to participate as a voice for peace, knowing that some there were already advocating for violence. The Occupy protests went on for some time before being chased out of the parks, but if we look below the surface of how they were portrayed and how they talked about themselves, we can see a bit of what our scripture passage is talking about today. The first thing is that there were some legitimate critiques of the government’s handling of the housing crisis that overwhelmingly favored the wealthy campaign donors who had caused the mess in the first place. The second is that the “Occupy” protests held within itself the seeds of its own disintegration. They could not deny their desires and as the atmosphere in the encampment degenerated into a party/free-for-all the serious people who could have provided a stabilizing moral center were disenchanted and splintered off to actually do something. The whole of our text today speaks to the desperate need to exercise self-control in order to combat that one enemy who can derail us faster than any other.
9 Let the believer* who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 11For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.
12 Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord* has promised to those who love him. 13No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 16Do not be deceived, my beloved.*
James begins this passage by addressing the poison of confusing social class with value in God’s eyes. Recorded for us is an important reminder that wealth and “success” are not something to boast about as marks of God’s favor. James here tells us that the poor have dignity, and it is the duty of the people of faith to affirm the gifts that God has given to those people who are viewed by our society as people who have nothing to contribute. It is in treating each other with the same dignity that we affirm the truth of what we believe Christ to have done in establishing his rule. Every person has access to God’s redemption and the Holy Spirit. Every person has something to contribute to the ministry of the church. Each one of us also has something much better than anything our world has to offer: we are beloved of God. The creator of the universe loves us, not because of our circumstances or our choices, but because he made us. We are each fearfully and wonderfully made in the image and likeness of God and no matter how much we accomplish in our lives, no matter how much wealth or status we accumulate, no matter how far we climb the social ladder we all come to the same end and all have the same access to the redemption of God. If you are going to boast, rich, poor or otherwise boast in the fact that you are a child of the king and one who has received the greatest gift, the gift that surpasses all others, Jesus. In the light of that fact everything else becomes less important.
So if money and prestige aren’t signs of God’s blessing what is? James tells us here that the only reliable sign of God’s blessing is being able to endure temptations. That is the true test of your maturity and faith, not giving in to the temptations that are around us. You might be thinking how do I not give in? Well, I am glad you thought that because I have a couple of ideas to help us out. The first thing you need to endure temptation is a cultivated awareness of the presence of God. God is right there with you when the temptation comes and at every other time, so is present to give you aid if you call on him. God really is with you when the neighbor’s dog leaves a pile in your front yard, when that idiot cuts you off in traffic, when two pop cans drop in the vending machine, when someone says let’s go to the buffet for dinner, when that nice coworker gives you that meaningful look, and when that banner ad pops up in your web browser. With the God who loves you so deeply right there and at the front of your mind, it becomes easier, not easy, but easier to turn away from the temptation and ask God for the strength to avoid it. Then with God’s help you can endure the temptation and maybe even see the desire it arrives from find its true fulfillment. CS Lewis gives a great example in his book The Great Divorce in which Lewis sees heaven and hell and gives some wonderful metaphors speaking to the truth of change in our lives, and how our temptations twist the desires, even the good desires of our hearts, away from their ultimate fulfillment. <Read p 106-114>
Now that we know what happens when we endure temptation let’s ask the question of where temptation comes from, the question of who is responsible for bringing this temptation into our lives. James is extremely straightforward here and leaves us with a clear understanding of exactly where the responsibility lies. It is a fact of humanity that no person gets up in the morning and says “I want to make the worst possible decisions in the worst ways in order to maximize my and others’ suffering.” No one wants to look in the mirror and say “Wow was I an evil jerk today.” When we succumb to temptation we immediately tend to shift the blame to someone else. We want to blame God, other people, or in Adam and Eve’s case the “serpent”, but we don’t recognize the reality that the temptation found its source in us. Let’s take Adam and Eve as an example. The couple goes for a walk in the garden and meets the serpent by the tree. The serpent talks them into eating the fruit and they go run and hide. So I have a question that no one seems to ask: What were they doing in that part of the garden in the first place? If they hadn’t gone to the tree they wouldn’t have encountered the serpent there. They were not tempted by the serpent, the serpent took advantage of their already being tempted to push them over the edge into disobedience. Just like Adam and Eve we want to blame God for “the woman you made”, other people for “handing us the fruit”, or the “serpent” for telling us what we wanted to hear so we can look in the mirror later and say “It was not my fault.” James is clear, as is the rest of scripture that the ultimate responsibility for our temptation and broken actions is our own. Do not be deceived, if you want to overcome you have to confront your true enemy, those desires that rage unchecked within each of us. To take responsibility we must, as the young man in Lewis’ story, allow God to break the power of our desire, to kill it. This will be a painful process that requires the support and love of our faith community, since each of us will need that same support when we confront the enemy within. We must remind ourselves and each other that we have a resurrected life in front of us, waiting to burst forth if we face the pain of dying to ourselves and our desires. I need you to help me and you need me to help you, that is why Jesus calls our community a hospital for sinners, we need the healing of the resurrected life every day and each other to encourage us in the struggle.
During our time of open worship sit in the presence of God, knowing that many things will come to your mind. Release all of those to Christ as they come asking that he only return that which is pleasing to Him. If you feel the prompting of the Holy Spirit to share God’s words to you, please stand, and after five minutes the microphone will be brought to you. If you hear from God and those words are for you alone, treasure those words in silence.
There is a song that has helped me through some of my own battles with temptation that I would like to share with you. It is called “Knowing You”
Knowing You Jesus knowing You
There is no greater thing
You’re my all You’re the best
You’re my joy my righteousness
And I love You Lord
All I once held dear built my life upon
All this world reveres and wars to own
All I once thought gain I have counted loss
Spent and worthless now compared to this
Now my heart’s desire is to know You more
To be found by You and known as Yours
To possess by faith what I could not earn
All surpassing gift of righteousness
Oh to know the pow’r of Your risen life
And to know You in Your sufferings
To become like You in Your death my Lord
So with You to live and never die
CCLI Song # 1045238
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