Be a doer - James 1:22-27
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
A number of years ago the Police Department in Huston Texas issued a circular with the title: ‘How to make your Child a Delinquent.’ And these were some of the suggestions made: 1. Begin at infancy to give the child everything he wants. In this way, he will grow up to believe the world owes him a living. 2. When he picks up bad language, laugh at him. This will make him think he's cute. 3. Never give him any spiritual training. Wait until he is 21, and then let him 'decide for himself'. 4. Avoid the use of the word 'wrong'. It may develop a guilt complex. This will condition him to believe later, when he is arrested for stealing a car, that society is against him and he is being persecuted. 5. Pick up everything he leaves lying around: books, shoes and clothes. Do everything for him so that he will be experienced in throwing all responsibility onto others. 6. Satisfy his every craving for food, drink and comfort. See that every sensual desire is gratified. Denial may lead to harmful frustration. 7. Prepare for a life of grief. You will be likely to get it.
As I read that I thought that you could adapt that list in a spiritual direction along the lines of: How to make a Christian delinquent: 1. Begin the moment a person becomes a Christian to give him everything he wants, this way he will believe that God owes him a living. 2. When he uses bad language or bad mouths people’s smile, this will indulge him. 3. Never give spiritual training encouraging Bible study or evangelism or church attendance, let him decide what he wants to do and when. 4. Avoid the use of the words ‘sin’ and ‘repentance’; he might get a guilt complex. 5. Do everything for him; never let him learn what it means to carry each other’s burdens. 6. Satisfy his every craving no matter how spiritually harmful it may be. 7. Prepare your church for a life of grief, it will probably get it. You see, the church can adopt the ways of the world when it comes to discipleship. But the end result will be the same- ‘rice Christians’, insubstantial and ineffective Christians who will not see their faith through to the end and will not make any lasting contribution to the Kingdom of God. Now one of the reasons James is writing his letter is to offset Christian delinquency and promote Christian consistency. And the main way God has provided to ensure this happens has to do with ‘doing God’s Word’. The receptivity of God’s Word in verse 21 is to be translated into the activity of God’s Word in verse 22. And what that means for us is spelt out in this little section which is packed with spiritual dynamite. So let’s turn to this passage and look at it under three headings all to do with doing the Word.
First the principle, v 22, ‘Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.’ Now when James speaks of ‘the word’ it is the same as the ‘word implanted’ in the heart of a person mentioned in verse 21 and the ‘word of truth’ which gives the new spiritual birth in verse 18. In short he his talking about the Gospel, the Christian message. But this is not the truncated Gospel-‘Jesus died for our sins’- it is full Gospel- all that God has revealed in the Bible which centres upon the Lord Jesus Christ as our glorious ruler and rescuer. This includes the whole Old Testament as it prepares the way for him and the New Testament as it looks back to him and all that this entails for living I out our lives for him and his glory. In other words, everything contained within these pages. This is the way one writer, A. W. Tozer describes what this remarkable book is as well as what it isn’t in this way: ‘The Bible is unique among books, which means simply that no book has been produced just like it. The Bible is not a book of history, though it contains much history, and all it does contain is authentic. It is not a book of science, though all its pronouncements upon the facts usually falling into the category of science are accurate and trustworthy. It is not a book of biography, though its biographical sketches are easily the most inspiring in the world. It is not a book of psychology, though its knowledge of the workings of the human mind astonishes the reader and lays bare his soul. It is not strictly a book of theology, though it is the source of all the true theology this fallen world will ever know. What then, is the Bible? It is the Book of Life. `The words that I speak unto you,' said our Lord, `they are spirit, and they are life.' The Bible is a life-bringing and a life-giving book. It is not primarily concerned with any department human thought for its own sake. If the Bible speaks about the rainbow, it is that we may be reminded of God's covenant of mercy with mankind. If it tells the story of Abraham, it does so that we may learn to know the place of faith in our relation to God. If it points us to the moon and the stars, it is that we may know how frail we are. If it talks about the birds, it is to teach us to trust our Heavenly Father without fear or doubting. It tells us about hell not to satisfy our morbid curiosity, but that we may steer our feet far from its terrors. It tells us about heaven that we may be prepared to enter there. It writes the history of human disgrace that we may learn the value of divine grace. It warns in order that it may turn our feet away from the paths that go down to the path of destruction. It rebukes in order that we may see our own faults and be delivered from them.’ And you know what? James would say a hearty ‘Amen’ to all of that. But notice that James speaks of the importance of ‘hearing’ the word and not ‘reading’ the word. Why? Well, part of the answer is that in the early church before you had printing presses and the like, much of the Bible, including these letters were read out aloud to the church and people were expected to listen. But I also think that it tells us something about the importance of preaching in the life of a Christian community. God has given as a gift for the good of his people, preachers, those who will open up, explain and apply in the power of the Spirit the Bible. In so doing, God speaks to us and so our spiritual ears are meant to be open and attentive. Preaching isn’t just an activity to fill 25 minutes on a Sunday morning or evening, it is meant to be a divine encounter. And it shouldn’t need saying, but it does need saying, that if God speaks, it is not only polite to listen and act upon what God is saying, it is crucial. And one of the main reasons James gives here is so that we avoid self- deception: ‘deceiving yourselves.’ So is James saying that it is possible to listen to sermons, to read your bibles, to even teach others from the Bible and still not be a Christian or at least be a useless, worldly Christian? That is precisely what he is saying.
So to make his point James gives us a picture-v 23, ‘Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror, and after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.’ Now I don’t think James is talking about the manner in which we attend God’s word, as if he is speaking about a superficial glancing at God’s word, like a man taking a quick look in the mirror and because he didn’t spend enough time gazing at himself he forgets what his face looks like. The word he uses for ‘looking’ means ‘carefully observing’ – ‘looking intently’. So according to James, it is possible to spend ages reading the Bible, pouring over commentaries, listening to sermons downloaded on the ipod and still do nothing about what you have heard. That is what this picture suggests. And it is probably significant that James speaks about a ‘man’ looking into a mirror. You have to remember that in these days mirrors were not made of glass, but polished metal, so you had to look very carefully if you were going to see your reflection, a casual glance would have been useless anyway. And men do this don’t they? They can spend hours in front of the mirror making sure no hair is out of place, the hair gel has been properly applied, the tie is smartly done up- but once they walk away from the mirror –that is it, they will forget what they look like. But you can bet your bottom dollar that a woman won’t do that. She will remember exactly what she looks like, and she may check throughout the day that she still looks that way ensuring that the make up is still well applied by taking out the compact mirror and so on. That is not a sexist judgement, it’s just that men and women by and large are different in that regard which is fine. So James’s illustration is pretty accurate. For some of us it may be a good thing that we can’t remember what we look like or we might not dare to venture out of the house. But, when it comes to listening to God speaking, that kind of behaviour is positively foolhardy and dangerous. So the implanted word in our hearts is meant to be the applied word in our lives otherwise we have to question whether it is really implanted there at all. That is the ‘hearer only’ person.
But James goes on with the positive illustration, what the ‘doer’ looks like-v25, ‘But the man who look intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it- he will be blessed in what he does.’ Now what does James mean when he speaks of ‘the perfect law which gives freedom’? The focus may be upon those elements of God’s Word which come in the form of commands, things we should do- but it would also include parables, stories, proverbs and the like which also set before us what God wants from us. And by speaking of it being the ‘perfect law’, he probably means that it expresses perfectly God’s nature as well as the fact that what God commands us to do fits perfectly our nature, the way God made us. You see, God’s commands aren’t the arbitrary demands of a despot who is out to make life miserable for us. He made us and so it follows as the Maker he knows how we best function and thrive and so he gives us Maker’s instructions to live by. And therefore we should not be so surprised to discover that as research shows a child thrives best in a family of a mother and a father who are married and living together. That is why you have the commandment ‘do not commit adultery’ which destroys that. What is more that commandment tells us something about God doesn’t it? We are to be faithful in our relationships because God is faithful in his. He doesn’t choose us to be his people one minute and then abandon us for someone else the next and so neither should we. We are given these things so we can live out our lives which best glorify God and best edify us. He loves us and cares for us- that is why we have the do’s and don’ts in the Bible, models to follow and examples to avoid , what else would you expect from a heavenly Father?
And you know, putting religion to oneside for a moment, this idea of being obedient to instructions or words shows itself in other areas of life too. Now I am a great fan of the American TV series ‘The West Wing.’ It is probably one of the most intelligent, engaging, well written, well acted, well directed series in decades. Accordingly it has won umpteen awards. The writer is a man called Aaron Sorkin- he wrote the script for the film, ‘A Few Good Men.’ He is the best of the best. All the actors say he knows exactly what he wants when he writes and if you stick to it- you get the best performance possible. If he uses the word, ‘and’ instead of ‘also’ it is there for a good reason. The main actor in the series is Martin Sheen who plays President Bartlet. And when he started the show, like many actors, he thought he could improvise a bit or change the odd word without causing too much damage. He soon discovered he was wrong. You did not mess with such a brilliant script writer like Sorkin and this is what Martin Sheen wrote about his experience: listen very carefully to this for it is fascinating, he said, ‘When I surrendered to the word, and was ruled by the specific text, I discovered a wonderful freedom’. Isn’t that amazing? (Repeat). Far from following the script slavishly making him a worse actor it made him a better actor, it gave him the freedom to act well. And James is saying that should be the experience of a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, we learn a wonderful freedom as we attend God’s word – we become free to be the type of people God want us to be- kind, generous, warm hearted, God loving, God honouring people. In fact the idea is that this law or word gives liberty. So God’s word is a commanding word- it expects things from us, it is a fitting word- it tallies with the way God has made us and it is an empowering word, with God giving us the ability to do what he commands. But, like Martin Sheen, we have to stick to it- ‘continues to do it’ says James. We can’t feel free to say, ‘I will go with this part of what God says about being forgiven, but not this part about being forgiving.’ That is not surrendering to the word and submitting to the specific text, it is not allowing God to be God. How else is God going to exercise his loving rule in our lives without speaking? He can’t. But he does speak. He speaks clearly even though we may not understand why God says what he says fully.
So what of the practice? James gives three areas of life in which what we have learnt is to be worked out in the way we are to live. Do you want to know whether you really are ‘religious’ in the best sense of that word? Do you want to know whether you simply have a profession of faith without the presence of faith and so are kidding yourself? Then here is the reality check. First, ask, what do you do with your mouth? V 26, ‘If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight reign on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.’ Worthless religion is one in which we say whatever we want to say regardless of the content and consequences. Later on in the letter he goes into more detail about this, but it will cover things like lying, gossip, slander, snide remarks, bad language, coarse language and the like. If you are into any of those things, then think again says James, you are probably deceiving yourself. What you have to do is hold your tongue in check, bridle it like a man might bridle a horse. You are not to allow your mouth to run away with you. Then secondly, ask: what you do with your time? v27, ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look out for orphans and widows in their distress.’ In this world these would have been then most vulnerable in society- there was no welfare system back then, and they were prey to any scrupulous person who decided to take advantage of them. So where we see need we are to act, which is one reason why we want to get things moving in terms of debt advice. It is all very practical you see. Then thirdly, there is the check of what do you do with your mind? ‘Keep oneself from being polluted or stained by the world.’ The world is society in organised revolt against its Maker- the values, the priorities, the things which shape our culture and outlook without reference to God- that is the world and it can cause a professing believer to stink. And we are not just talking here about the obvious, although they may need to be stated- things like pornography, greed and drunkenness- but the more subtle values we are being put under pressure to accept- such as easy divorce, sex outside marriage, gay relationships, the view that all religions are basically the same and we shouldn’t try to convert anyone from another faith, the problem of careerism- sacrificing family and church on the altar of getting on in the profession. I am sure you can add your own to the list. The point is, as Christians we can so easily separate what God says from what the world says so that when it comes down to making hard choices which are going to cost us the world wins pretty well every time.
Now let me give an actual negative example of the hearer only person. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, and this is an over-literalised translation: ‘If anyone looks upon a woman in order to lust, and seeks to cause her to lust, has already committed adultery with her in his heart. And so if your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.’ The thing is, something of that ‘hell’ can be experienced here and now and Jesus loves us so much he would rather spare us from that. Not long ago a very well known Christian speaker and writer, a brilliant theologian and worker in the student world was sent to prison for sexually assaulting a 14 year old boy he met through an internet chat room. In court this man said that he started struggling with his sexuality five years ago after seeing images of gay pornography on a borrowed computer. He was married with a six month old baby. He went on to described his home life as happy and content but was excited by homosexual pornography. When the police raided his house they found hundreds of gay porn magazines and videos hidden from his wife. Can you imagine what his wife felt as the police came barging and finding this stuff? Imagine the effect that has had on his family, his friends and his church-let alone the poor man himself who is now serving three years. It is tragic and what is more the experience for all concerned -including the innocent was hellish. That is why Jesus is saying what he says and why James says what he says. This is not theoretical it is intensely practical.
But let me give you a positive example of the effects of a Christian who is a doer. Judy Simpson is an athlete who was at the Olympic Games in Seoul a number of years ago and this is what she said: ‘I was sharing a room with Loreen Hall. I noticed she used to pray in the morning and before she went to bed. One night I was feeling so bored I went along to a meeting of Christian athletes. As I sat and listened, I was impressed that they were so committed and so genuine. It was just the way they lived their lives. The lack of malicious gossip about anyone else was a shining witness for what having Christ in your life could do. That really spoke to me. I committed my life.’ ‘Do not merely listen to the word….do what it says.’
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