Thursday, September 12, 2019

Living in Hope

“Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”

(James 5:7-11 ESV)

The Lord has given to us a tremendous hope. He’s assured us that, one day, Jesus will return. He’s assured us that, when Jesus returns, the dead will be raised imperishable and that those who are alive in Christ will be transformed. He’s assured us of a new heaven and earth. And he’s assured us that we’ll live forever in this new creation, where there is no more suffering, death, or mourning.

As we endure the trials of this life, we can’t help looking forward to the fulfillment of these promises. In fact, we would prefer that Jesus come back now. We would prefer that the hardships of this life would come to an end that we might enjoy the blessings of which Scripture has spoken.

We, however, do not know when this day will come. It may come soon, or it may be generations away. And, for this reason, we are called to patience.

James compares the patience being required of us to that of a farmer, waiting for the fruit of the earth. He has to wait while the crops receive the early and the late rains. He has to wait until the time of harvest is at hand.

He points us also to the patience of the prophets as they proclaimed the Word of God. He points us to Job, who remained steadfast in the face of many trials. Their example is one we can emulate as we look forward in hope.

He then reminds us of the Lord’s purpose. He does so because, as we wait, it’s easy for us to call this into question. As we endure the trials of life, we can begin to question his motives. And God’s purpose, James assures us, is compassionate and merciful.

God’s desire is for our salvation. But it’s not for our salvation alone. He desires the salvation of all mankind. And, as we await Jesus’ return, he’s working for the salvation of the lost.

In the meantime, we’re not to grumble against one another. We’re to avoid this complaining, realizing that it can lead to judgment. It reflects not the patience to which we are called, but our momentary displeasure.

May we, then, look for the Lord’s coming in hope. May we patiently await his return, knowing that God is faithful to his promise. And may we remain steadfast, living in light of this hope, without wavering.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Taking Advantage of the Needy

“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.” 
(James 5:1-6 ESV)

No matter how we compare to others in our nation, the fact of the matter is that we are rich. As Americans, we are among the wealthiest people in the world. Even those considered “low income” in our nation have far more than most people in the rest of the world today. 

As those who are rich, we have to take the above passage seriously. Even though we may believe ourselves to be innocent, even though we may believe that we haven’t or don’t take advantage of others, we have to evaluate ourselves when it comes to those who have less. We have to do so because it’s the natural tendency of our sinful nature.

The rich have a tendency to be discontent with their wealth. They have a tendency to always want more. And they have a tendency to do whatever is necessary to make that possible, even if it means harming or taking advantage of others.

As I say this, I’m reminded of Martin Luther’s explanation of the Seventh Commandment in his Small Catechism.  He says: “We should fear and love God so that we do not rob our neighbor of his money or property, nor bring them into our possession by unfair dealing or fraud, but help him to improve and protect his property and living.”

Even if we believe that we haven’t robbed our neighbor of his money or property, we may have stolen in other ways. We may have taken advantage of his misfortune to acquire something unjustly. Or we may have taken advantage of his misfortune to improve our own.

For example, imagine your neighbor has an awesome sports car. You’d like one for yourself, but they cost too much money. Your neighbor, then, loses his job and has to sell his car in order to provide for his family. And you come in with a low-ball offer because you know he’s desperate. You pay him far less than the car’s value, knowing that he’ll accept it in his time of need.

Or perhaps someone is desperate for a job, and you hire him. However, knowing he is desperate, you fail to pay him a fair wage. You take advantage of him, in his hardship, for your own personal gain.

These are the situations to which James is referring. We live in luxury while taking from those who have little. And, if we are guilty of this, his warning must be taken seriously.  We must repent of our sin, look to Jesus for the forgiveness of our sin, and make things right with our neighbor.

As God’s people, we are called to love our neighbor. We’re called to serve our neighbor. We’re called to seek his blessing, rather than his harm.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Planning for the Future

“Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit"-- yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that." As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”

(James 4:13-17 ESV)

In our society, we like to plan. In fact, we encourage people to plan for just about everything. We encourage them to decide what they would like to do and to discover how they can accomplish their goal.

We’re always asking high school students what they would like to do as a career, and how they plan to accomplish their goal. We ask young couples about their plans when it comes to starting a family. And we encourage people to prepare for retirement by putting a savings plan into place. The examples are endless.

In the above passage, however, James challenges this way of thinking. I say that he challenges it because he calls us to consider the implications of our planning. And he calls us to look at life differently.

Although we tend to think that our method of planning is wise, James tells us that it’s arrogant. It’s arrogant because we act as if we have something to say when it comes to our future. It’s arrogant because we act as if we know what tomorrow will hold.

He reminds us that, in ourselves, we are nothing. He reminds us that our life is a mist. We’re here for a short time, and then we’re gone without a trace. And, for this reason, we're to consider God’s will for our life.

We ought to say, he tells us: If it’s God’s will, we’ll do this or that. While we can utter these words as we discuss our future, this isn’t as much of a formula as it is an attitude. We must approach life with a spirit of humility, recognizing that God holds our future in his hands. And we must approach life recognizing that God blesses us with everything we need that we might accomplish his purpose.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Occupying the Place of God

“Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?”

(James 4:11-12 ESV)

We’re continually told, today, that we’re not to judge. What is meant by this is that we’re not to speak against the behavior of others, sinful or not. What is meant by this is that we are not to share God’s truth. And it may be easily assumed that this is what James is saying above.

He tells us, however, that we’re not to speak evil of one another. This can also be translated as: speaking against our brother, or slandering our brother. It’s a general term that can describe many forms of harmful speech such as questioning legitimate authority, defamation, or bringing wrongful accusations against another. In other words, we are not to make it seem that our brother is guilty when the reality is different or even unknown.

As believers, then, we are not to run one another down. We’re not to assume the worst about one another. This is something that we see in Luther’s explanation of the Eighth Commandment in his Small Catechism. Luther says: “We should fear and love God so that we do not deceitfully lie about, betray, backbite, nor slander our neighbor but defend him, speak well of him, and put the most charitable construction on all that he does.”

Sadly, this is something that happens all the time in the church. We see or hear something about another that raises a question or doubt in our mind. And we naturally assume the worst about him.

We judge him. We determine that he’s living in unrepentant sin. We determine that he’s wrongly occupying a position of authority. We believe that his faith is in question. And not only do we harbor these thoughts, but we share them with others.

In this way, we run down our brother. In this way, we destroy his reputation. In this way, we speak against him.

This is something we must not do. In this case, we’re assuming a position that belongs not to us, but to God. James tells us that, by doing so, not only are we wrongfully judging our brother. We’re standing in judgment of the law. We’re acting as though we are the author of the law. We’re acting as though we are God himself.

This, we’re reminded, is not our position. God alone is the author of the law. God alone renders judgment. God alone is able to save and to destroy.

This doesn’t forbid us from the proclamation of God’s Word. It doesn’t forbid the preaching of the law. And it doesn’t forbid us from holding one another accountable.  However, while we are called upon to voice God’s law and his judgement, we are not called to share our own. While we are called upon to proclaim the Word of God, we are not called to share our own. We are not to speak against our brother, sharing our baseless judgment of him.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Humble Submission

“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

(James 4:7-10 ESV)

Most of us think that we understand the difference between pride and humility. Pride, we believe, is thinking too much of ourselves. And humility, in contrast, is thinking too little of ourselves. While there is some truth to this understanding, what we fail to grasp is the connection of pride to unrepentance, and humility to repentance.

This is brought out to us in the above passage. James had been addressing the connection that the believers possessed with the world. He’d told them that, by befriending the world, they became enemies of God. It was an act of adultery, an act of unfaithfulness, to the God who’d made them his own.

As we see above, he goes on to call the people to repentance. If things were to change, if they were to be rescued from this state of enmity with God, they had to turn from their sin and to the Lord. And this repentance would take the form of submission and humility.

Neither of these words are considered desirable by mankind today. Submission, after all, implies that we are not free to make our own decisions. It implies that we’re not in charge of our own life. And humility implies an attitude of weakness and lowliness.

We don’t aspire to either of these qualities. In fact, we tend to look down upon those who possess them. And we, instead, encourage the opposite. We encourage people to think highly of themselves and to take charge of their own life.

Repentance, however, takes the form of submission and humility because we are brought to the realization of our true standing. We are brought to an understanding of our position in the universe. And this removes any sense of pride or self-worth we may feel.

We are brought to the realization of our sinfulness. We are brought to the realization that we are not good people. We are brought to the realization that we are undeserving of God’s love and blessing. We are brought to the understanding that the only thing we deserve is his wrath.

We are also brought to the realization that God is our Lord. We are brought to the realization that Jesus is our Lord. And we, in turn, are his people. We are the people that he both created and redeemed.

While this may lower our view of ourselves, it’s a blessed thing. It’s a blessed thing because of the great assurance we receive from the Lord. As James points out to us, when we resist the devil, he will flee from us. When we draw near to God, he will draw near to us. And when we humble ourselves, God himself will exalt us.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

In the World and Of the World

“You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, "He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us"?”

(James 4:4-5 ESV)

We’ve all heard the phrase: “Be in the world, but not of the world.” Although this isn’t a direct quote from Scripture, it certainly is consistent with Scripture.  And it tells us that, even though we do live in this world, and although we live among the people of the world, we are called to be different.

As much as we claim that this is our endeavor as believers, the truth is very different. The reality of the situation is that we are in the world and of the world. We do not like to be different. We do not like to stand out. We desire to reflect he world in which we live. We desire to be like the people among whom we live.

We prefer conformity. We prefer to be in accord with the world. We prefer to keep in step with the standards of the world. And we long for this that we might be loved and accepted by the world.

Our tendency is to think that this is no big deal. However, according to James in the above passage, this is a serious problem. Our tendency to befriend the world demonstrates a spirit of adultery. It reveals that, instead of demonstrating our faithfulness to the Lord, we worship the world in which we live.

We are not able, at the same time, to befriend the world and love God. Yes, we are to be kind to the people of the world. We are to love the people of this world. But we are not to befriend the world in the sense that we are conformed to the world around us.

The world, after all, is wicked. The world is in a state of rebellion against God. And if we’re conformed to the image of this world, if we befriend the world, this will be our condition as well.

James says that, to be a friend of the world is to be an enemy of God. Both conditions cannot coexist. They are mutually exclusive. It’s one or the other.

Scripture tells us, James says, that God is jealous. In other words, he is not willing to share us with another. We belong to him, and to him alone.

Loving the Lord, then, invites the hatred of the world. Jesus says as much in John 15:19. And although none of us like to experience hatred and rejection, this is the reality we face. We, then, must willingly endure the world’s hatred that we might experience the love and mercy of God. We must endure the world’s hatred that the love of God might be seen in us.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Unaswered Prayer

“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.”

James 4:2-3 ESV

We’re often confused when it seems that God isn’t answering our prayers. We’re confused when it seems that he isn’t providing for us in our need. We’re confused because, in Scripture, God promises to do so. 

This causes many of us to struggle with our faith. It causes many of us to question or doubt the promise of God. We don’t know how we can trust in God when this seems to be the case.

In the above passage James tells us why we don’t have the things we desire. He tells us why God will leave our prayers unanswered. And these reasons begin, once again, with the searching of our own heart.

He says, first of all, that we do not have because we do not ask. In other words, we aren’t bringing to him our needs in prayer. No matter what we claim, we aren’t truly looking to him as our provider.

As we experience needs, we often take God’s grace and provision for granted. We fail to pray about them. We fail to entrust them to God. We, then, blame and accuse him when our needs are not satisfied.

God does promise to provide for us. And it’s true that he knows our needs before we ask. But he also calls on us to bring our needs to him in prayer. We are to bring our needs to him in faith, trusting that he will provide.

When our prayers go unanswered, we must then look at our motives behind the request. And, more often than not, our requests are selfish in nature. We are seeking our own glory rather than God’s. We’re seeking to have our will accomplished rather than God’s.

We must realize that God isn’t simply a Genie in the sky who is bound to grant our every wish. It’s not our will that will be accomplished, but his own. And, as his people, we are called to seek his will rather than our own.

The prayers God will answer are those that align with his will. The prayers he’ll answer are those that agree with his purpose. And as his people, as his children, our will is to be brought into conformity with his own.