Listening is doing - James 1:19-27

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 19th May 2002.

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One of my favourite stories from childhood is Hans Christian Andersen's story of The Emperor's New Clothes. A certain emperor was very fond of appearances and clothing. So when certain clever philosophers (actually they were con men) offered to weave him a rare and costly garment, he was overjoyed. He especially liked their promise that the garment would be invisible to all but the wise and pure in heart. The delighted emperor commissioned his new clothing at great cost, and the con men sat before their empty looms and pretended to weave. Soon the emperor's curiosity became so great that he sent his chief minister to go and see how the work was progressing. Seeing no cloth on the busy looms, and not wanting to be thought unwise and impure in heart, the official returned reporting the fabulous beauty of the cloth. After a time the weavers asked for more money. Again the emperor became impatient, and sent his second minister to find out how the work was progressing. He too returned, giving an enthusiastic report. A few days later, the emperor himself went to find out what was going on. Though he too, like his ministers, saw nothing on the looms, he also did not want to appear foolish, so he proclaimed the clothing to be excellent and beautiful. He even gave the weavers medals. Well finally on the day set for the grand parade, the con men dressed the emperor in his nakedness and then quickly left town. As the emperor paraded through the town wearing absolutely nothing but a crown, all the people joined in praising the beautiful new clothes, lest they too be thought foolish. So the absurd parade continued, until in a moment of quietness, a little boy was heard to say: "The emperor's got no clothes on!" At once everyone knew the truth, including the emperor. One innocent remark from a small boy had exposed the hypocritical pretence of an entire nation.

Well I wonder what you make of James' letter so far. I sometimes think that James is like the little boy who exposed the emperor's nakedness. He has a painful habit of exposing our own spiritual hypocrisy. But James only does what he believes is for our benefit. It's worth noting that he calls his readers brothers, or dear brothers [which includes 'sisters'] fifteen times in the letter. He loves them and wants them to go the right way. And his concern throughout the letter is to show us what authentic Christianity is like. We must, as he says in 1 v 21 humbly accept the word and then, in verse 22, do the word. The danger for James' hearers, you remember, was double mindedness. Having one foot going the world's way and one going God's way, trying to do the spiritual splits. James tells us: 'No, you cannot do that. You must humble yourselves before God and live whole heartedly for him. Your faith cannot simply be a hobby which you practise on Sundays. It must be something which works on Mondays as well.' For Christian faith is belief in practice. That's James' burden.

And this morning he gets to the heart of what he is saying in this letter. In verse 18 we saw that we are born again through the word, the word of the gospel as revealed to us through the Bible. But James says there is far more to being a Christian than simply starting off well, making the profession. We need to keep on with the word of God. For there is a very real possibility of deceiving ourselves. There is a danger that we might be like the emperor with no spiritual clothes on. So James gives us three commands which we'll look at together, three commands which we must obey if we are not to deceive ourselves, and they are all founded on the Word of God:

1) Listen to the Word (Vv 19-20)

2) Accept the Word (V 21)

3) Obey the Word (Vv 22-27)

1) Listen to the Word (Vv 19-20)

So first, then, says James, you must listen to the word. Verse 19: "My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry." So listen, he says. Listen to what? Well in the context, because he has just mentioned the word of God in verse 18 and he'll continue speaking about the word of God in verse 21 and following, it must be the word of the God that James is urging us to listen to. We need to be listening to what God is saying to us in his Word the Bible. And yet, James is never far from putting theory into practice because he goes on to say that we need to be slow to speak and slow to become angry. If you don't listen, then you are quick to speak. It's true isn't it? Just think of the arguments we have. More often than not, when the other person is speaking, we are already formulating our answers in our heard. We are not listening- slow to listen, quick to speak. And if you are quick to speak then usually it leads to anger. Lack of listening leads to arguments and then anger. And anger is not the mark of someone seeking to live a godly life; it does not bring about the righteous life that God desires, says James in verse 20. I think the reason James moves from listening to God to anger with one another is because if our relationships with one another are difficult, then our relationship with God is bound to be affected. It's hard to sit down to read our Bibles if there are unresolved issues with someone else bubbling to the surface. Instead, says James, very practically, we need to be listeners in every area of life, both spiritually as we listen to God in his Word, and physically as we listen to one another in our different relationships. For if you do not listen it leads to break down in communication both with God and with others. Zeno the Greek philosopher said that we have two ears and one mouth therefore we should listen twice as much as we speak. James would agree.

But the primary application James has in mind as we have seen is the Word of God. We need to be listening to God's word first and foremost. So James asks you and me: Are you listening to the word of God? Does the Bible have a key place in your weekly and daily life? If not, then we are failing to listen to God and what he has to say to us. I think a very practical thing to do is to set aside even a few minutes a day to read the Bible. Many people have found Bible reading notes helpful. They set you a small passage a day which you can spend a few minutes looking at, thinking about and then praying about. Even a few minutes a day would be better than nothing. Because if we are not listening to the voice of the living God, then whose voice are will listening to? There are plenty of other voices clamouring for our attention. TV is a very powerful voice which tends to dominate our lives. If the voice of God as heard through the bible is not feeding us, then we'll get our nourishment from elsewhere, whether we are conscious of it or not. And then when the tough times comes, we'll have no anchor for our souls. We won't know God's wisdom that James talks about in chapter 1. We'll make our moral decisions based on Vanessa or Kilroy and our children will know more about Sabrina the Teenage Witch than the Word of God. So listen, says James. Make sure the Word of God is your diet not just on Sundays but throughout the week. It may be hard for many of us with busy lives, rearing children, pressures at work. But unless we're listening to the word of God, then everything else we do will remain untouched by God's wisdom. And we'll be tempted much more easily to go other ways contrary to what God wants. So make time, however hard it is. I know of one woman who was so busy with family and work, that she used to lock herself in the toilet at night for ten minutes to read the Bible and pray, so that she could listen to God's word. Drastic measures, but at least she was listening.

Someone once told me about the time he went on a course in order to train to do a parachute jump. And at the first session everyone was sitting in a room waiting for the instructor to arrive and trying to act and sound as if they weren't at all nervous about jumping out of a plane a mile high. Well eventually the instructor, a royal marine, arrived. He walked into the lecture room, and without saying a word walked up to the blackboard and wrote in large capital letters - PARACHUTE JUMPING CAN BE LETHAL. And with that he walked out of the room again and just let the class mull over the words on the blackboard. Well the bravado and cockiness subsided somewhat and a very nervous silence descended on the class. After a while the instructor returned again - and this time he spoke. He said: 'After jumping from a moving aircraft, a human body travelling at terminal velocity, when it hits the ground will be distributed over an area approximately equivalent to the size of two football pitches - THEREFORE WHAT I AM ABOUT TO TELL YOU IS VERY IMPORTANT.' And after an introduction like that I have no doubt that everyone in that room listened very carefully to his instructions about safe parachuting. The words God has to say are the most important in the universe, far more than even a royal marine's instruction on parachute jumping. It is only God's word that can save. Only his word can do the work necessary in our lives to bring us to new birth. Only his word can give us the wisdom and strength to get through life as a Christian. If that is how powerful God's word is, then surely we must do everything we can to make sure we are listening to it. Are you listening to God's Word the Bible? Are you reading it? If we ignore it then we face more than death. So listen says James. That's his first command. Listen to the Word.

2) Accept the Word (V 21)

But having told us to listen to the word, James also goes on to tell us to accept the word in verse 21: "Therefore get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, and humbly accept the word planted in you which can save you." James is talking about a humble attitude which accepts that God's word is the only power that can save us and change us. Listening to the word of God is not enough. We must accept it for what it is, the word of God, and therefore that will mean the rejection of our way of doing things and the acceptance of God's way of doing things. In fact we could rename this section- "Get rid of sin in your life". If we are going to build our lives on the word of God as we listen to it and read it, then we must reject everything else that is contrary to God's ways revealed in his word. With a humble acceptance of God's word comes a rejection of sin.

One of the films that I have seen recently is the film 'About a Boy' which stars Hugh Grant. Hugh Grant plays a man called Will who is a thirty something bachelor very attached to his bachelor life but also wanting a long term girlfriend. Will thinks that one of the best places to find a suitable girlfriend is a club for single mothers, and it is there that he meets a particular woman. However, in order to join this club he lies about having a three year old child. And throughout the film there is a constant battle raging between Will's desire to have a long term girlfriend and his unwillingness to give up his comfy bachelor life. He wants one thing, but will not let go of the other.

And that is the battle every Christian must face, wanting one way of life, and yet desperately trying to hang on to the old way. If we are to listen to the word and accept God's lordship over our life, then we must get rid of sin in our lives. We must engage in a battle with evil that is, says James, so prevalent in our lives. For that is the mark of someone who is humbly accepting the word of God. So we must ask ourselves what is our attitude to sin in our lives? Is it something we are rather attached to, or something we hate and long to get rid of. A practical prayer I often pray for myself is 'Lord help me to see my sin as you see it, filthy and horrible and fit for the rubbish bin.' James tells us to see sin for what it is- moral filth and evil. Is that your view of sin? Are you battling against it?

But we may well ask what help do I have? The battle is so hard. We may find it hard to stop using bad language or stop lying or stop being angry with our family. What help is there? Well James tells us in verse 21: We are "humbly to accept the word planted in us which can save us." James has already told us that it is the word which gives us new birth in verse 18. Now he tells us that this word saves us. And that is our hope. In the Bible, salvation happens in three ways, three tenses, past, present and future, all based on the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. First, in the past, we have been saved from the penalty of sin. We are no longer condemned but sons and daughters of God. Secondly we are being saved, in this present life, from the power of sin. God by his Spirit is gradually changing us and making us more like himself as we read and apply his word. And then in the future we will be saved from the presence of sin, as one day we will come to heaven as sinless perfect, people. And in the present the challenge is humbly to accept the word which has been planted in us, and to get rid of sin with the help of God's Spirit who is at work in us. So are you taking up the challenge? Is the fight with sin something you are engaged in, praying for God's strength to deal with it, practically thinking how you can become more and more like Christ. It is a battle. John Calvin the reformer, said: "If we desire to be the living plantation of God, we must subdue our proud hearts and be humble, and labour to become like lambs, so as to allow ourselves to be ruled and guided by our shepherd." But that's what it means to humbly accept the word. It means do battle with sin. Get rid of sin. That's James' second command. Accept the word.

3) Obey the Word (Vv 22-27)

But then thirdly James says we must obey the word. Verse 22: "Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." James first teaches us the principle in verses 22-25. He rams homes his sermon by telling us that listening and accepting the word is not enough. We must obey it. And if we do not we are deceiving ourselves, he says in verse 22. You see we might be very regular at church on Sundays and homegroup on Wednesdays. We might be faithful attenders of Tuesday Group and the student Bible studies. We might be very orthodox in our belief and say all the right things. We might even go to all the conferences and read the books. But if you do not put into practice what you learn, if you do not obey the word, you're deceiving yourself. The whole exercise has been a waste of time. All you've done is expand your brain. It has had no impact whatsoever on your heart. You're deceived. You have not obeyed what you have read or heard. "Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." There's all the difference in the world between reading a menu and eating what's on it!

James uses a powerful illustration to make his point in verses 23-25. And he draws a distinction between two people. This first person is the one who listens to the word but does not do what it says. And the second is the one who looks at the word and does what it says. Now some have thought that the contrast is the way we look at the word. The first man looks at the word but his look is only a casual glance as you do when passing a mirror, just to check your hair's OK, or if it's still there in some cases. And the other man looks at the word but his look is a long earnest, profound gaze. But that is not the contrast James is drawing. Because the word James uses for "look" with the first man can mean gaze or contemplate. So there's no difference in the looking. The real contrast is what happens as a result of the looking. For the first person- he looks into the mirror, looks at his hair, sees sleep in his eyes, notes his untidy beard, but having done this he leaves the bathroom and does nothing about it. He spends the rest of the day with a tuft of hair sticking up and the marmalade smear on his cheek. The comb remains unused, the soap still in the dish- no action has been taken as a result of that time in front of the mirror. This is a picture of the person who listens to the word but does not act. He's come to church, he's heard the sermons, he's even read good Christian books; he's done everything right. But the sad thing is, he's not acted on what he's seen. What he's seen in the mirror of God's word has had no impact on his life. He's like a man who looks the mirror but does not act. And he's deceived himself.

Well what about the second person? Well the difference is that he looks into the what James calls the perfect law that gives freedom, in other words God's word, the word of the truth. Only God's word can free us to be what we were meant to be. And then here comes the difference- He continues to do it, not forgetting what he's heard and does what it says. That's the difference! Action. So this man gets out the comb and brushes his hair, he washes his face to get the marmalade off and so on. He takes action on what he sees. He is the wise man. He is the one whose faith is authentic. So if we translate the illustration into spiritual reality, then James' lesson is very potent. He is saying that whenever we hear the scriptures explained or we read them ourselves, then we must put what we read into practice. We will seek prayerfully to apply the teaching we have heard. One helpful tip I was given on this some time ago was to jot down one or two notes on a piece of paper and then to pray through we I have noted from the talk or the reading. It may be that I must pray that I will be more patient, or maybe I must reassess my giving if I have been studying 2 Corinthians 8. Whatever the passage, the principle still applies. Obedient faith acts. If not then we are treating God's word like any other book we might happen to pick up. I can read a history of Britain and it need not have any impact on my life. It's interesting and fun, but it has no bearing on my life. But God's word is not like that. It is like a mirror reflecting our very souls, and it must be acted upon if we are to take it seriously. If not then we are disobeying and ignoring God himself. We are deceiving ourselves according to James. But if we obey it, then James says there is blessing. Such a man "will be blessed in all he does."

The story is told of a company director who went away for a few months to do some business in the Far East and he left the business in the hands of the Junior Director. Over the months the Manager sent letters telling his Junior how to direct and keep the firm going. Some months later he returned to a terrible mess. The building was in a state of disrepair, the secretaries were lying on their desks chatting and smoking and when he went into his office the young Junior was in the arms of his boss' personal secretary whilst slowly drinking his way through a case of Dom Perignon 62. The Director was puzzled. "What's going on?" he asked. "Didn't you get my letters?" "Oh the letters," said the Junior. "Yes, great letters. We spent hours poring over them. We divided ourselves up into little groups for more open study, some of us memorized passages from them, we even had a convention looking at the author's real intent, and some bright spark even translated them into French." "But what did you do about them?" asked the Director. "Do?" asked the Junior quizzically. "I didn't realise we had to do anything!" "Do not merely listen to the word, warns James, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." Well it's hard to miss James' point isn't it? Obey the Word. Whenever you listen to the word, make sure you obey it, otherwise you're deceiving yourselves.

But James won't let it rest there, because he goes on in verses 26-27 to talk about the practice. But we're going to spend no time at all in these verses, apart from to highlight them, because James will spend the rest of the letter talking about these three particular applications of what it means to obey the word of God. If you like verses 26-27 are the chapter headings for the rest of the letter. And his point is if you want to be an authentic Christian, then you must be obedient in, for example, these three ways. He's not saying that everyone who does these things is a Christian, nor is he saying that we become Christians by doing good things. We'll see that in a few weeks time. Rather, he says, obedient faith acts. It's not clear why he chooses these three things. Probably because they were issues for his readers. Certainly they are very pertinent to us in the 21st century. There's the use of the tongue in verse 26: "If anyone considers himself religious yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless." James will have much to say to us about the use of the tongue in chapter 3. There is looking after widows and orphans in verse 27, which he'll pick up on in chapter 2. And there is remaining unpolluted by the world in the last part of verse 27 which he'll pick up again in chapters 4-5. But the question the practical James leaves us with is are we obeying the word? If not we're quite simply deceiving ourselves.

Well like the little boy in the story, James has once again exposed or spiritual hypocrisy. And yet the reason he does it is not to make us feel guilty, but to drive us again to the cross, of which the communion reminds us, to confess our sins, and then seek to live God's way, as authentic Christians, not spiritual frauds, but people born again by the word and living by the word. So, says James, listen to the word, accept the word, and obey the word.

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