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Don't judge - James 4:11-12

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 15th November 2009.

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There is the story of an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman who apply for the same job at a zoo. On the initial interview all three seem to be equal to each other in terms of ability and so in order to help decide between them the zoo manager gave them each a task to complete and return with their findings the following week. The task was this: to give a report on everything they could find out about spiders. So this they duly did and the following week all three turned up outside the manager’s office. The Englishman was the first to relay a very erudite account of spiders, going through the taxonomy of spiders, their ecology, morphology- the lot. The Scotsman similarly acquitted himself well, having spent the previous week in South America trying to obtain as much first hand information as he could about poisonous spiders-unfortunately he had been bitten by one and his right arm was the size of an elephant’s leg. Then the Irishman came in. He sat before the manager and very carefully opened a matchbox and took out a small spider. He placed the spider on the manager’s desk and gave the command: ‘Walk’ so the spider trundled along to the end of the desk at which point the Irishman picked up the spider, placed him down in the middle of the desk and issued the same order: ‘walk’ and off the spider went. Then the Irishman picked up the spider, pulled off all its legs, put the spider down and said, ‘Walk’ and of course the spider just lay there. ‘So?’ asked the manager. ‘Well, that just goes to prove my theory’ said the Irishman, ‘When you pull off the legs of a spider, it goes deaf’. Well, it could easily have been the Englishman or Scotsman, the point is we are apt to make all kinds of wrong judgements often to the detriment of others- in this case the spider!

Now in the passage we are looking at together this morning in James 4:11-12, the apostle hammers home the point that when we start behaving like that within a church family, then we are courting disaster. From the beginning of chapter 4 James has been concerned with keeping the peace within the fellowship. To adopt the flower power saying of the 1960’s it is to be a matter of ‘Make love and not war’- promote harmony not hatred. And in these two verses James focuses in on one prevalent way in which church fellowships can be torn apart- and that is by Christians bad mouthing each other. And to hammer home his point that this should not be so, James simply keeps on using the same phrases and words over and over again, so he talks about ‘speaking against each other’ three times; he reminds them that they are ‘brothers’-three times; he speaks of judging or judge 6 times and the law four times. Back in chapter three James has already warned of the destructive power of the tongue, well here we discover just how devestating it can be. Again let us remember that James says what he says because he loves these Christians and only wants the best for them. What he says may be uncomfortable but in the long run will prove comforting. So let’s look at these verses under three headings.

First, let put downs be banished- v11, ‘Brothers, do not slander one another.’ The word our pew Bible’s translates as ‘slander’ is the same word as ‘speak against’. In the Old Testament it is used in Numbers 21 for example when in the wilderness the Israelite’s ‘spoke against’ God or in Numbers 12 when they ‘spoke against’ Moses. In 1 Peter 2 it is used to describe pagans being critical of Christian believers and so ‘speaking against them (v12). Now it may be that what is being said about fellow Christians within the congregation may be true or it may not be-that is not James main concern. What he has in his sights is the way Christians are speaking about one another; it is malicious, nasty, plain uncharitable. It can be literally translated as ‘putting down’ someone, giving them a dressing down either to someone else behind their back or in front of their face. But the intention is always the same, it is to belittle and denigrate a fellow believer- and probably enjoying it while doing it.  To use the vernacular James is speaking about ‘bad mouthing’ other Christians.

Now before we go any further let me point out what James is not saying. He is not urging, for example, that we do not exercise discernment, any kind of judgement. There are those well meaning souls who come across a passage like this and say, ‘Well, there we have it. We are not to judge a fellow Christian. If they are sincere then who are we to say they are wrong? Live and let live. After all doesn’t Jesus say, ‘Judge not that ye be judged?’ Isn’t that what James is in effect saying here?’ Well, yes and no. It is no in that Jesus himself expects Christians to use their brains and not be gullible, because a few verses later in the Sermon on the Mount, he urges his followers not to cast pearls before swine- well that requires that you decide who the swine are you are not to cast your pearls before. He also talks about watching out for false prophets and that by their fruits you will know them. So again the Christian is expected to judge between good fruit and bad fruit. But it is ‘yes’ in that what Jesus is getting at, as is James, is an attitude of judgementalism. It is the carping, superior attitude which delights in the put down, for by putting down others we foolishly think we are building up ourselves. It is that snide remark designed to demean a brother or sister- maybe that they are not as well versed in the Bible as we are, maybe their lifestyle has not reached the dizzy heights of our exemplary Christian one (so we think). It is the ‘I will tell them a thing or two’ attitude , sometimes dressed up in pious garb- ‘Well, we must speak the truth, its for their own good- I am from Yorkshire and I say it as it is’ no matter how untrue or hurtful it may be. Which one of us can say we have never done that? Admittedly this is not an area in our lives which is always easy to sort out. On the one hand some people are so critical that they have roast preacher every Sunday lunch. On the other hand, as we have seen, it is important to exercise discernment and not just take on board anything which comes our way not matter how illustrious the personage who is speaking. Our problem is that naturally we are so warped that we do find it hard to get this right. So how can we begin to get it right?

Well, it might be that in writing this James has in mind something from the Old Testament, Leviticus 19:16-18 and this is what we read: ‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything which will endanger your neighbour’s life (note James speaks of neighbour in verse 12). Do not hate your brother in your heart (again James’ language). Rebuke your neighbour frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself.’ Now we are in a position to see what approach we are to adopt. The ruling motive and principle comes at the end, ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ If you feel that something has to be said to a fellow Christian believer, ask yourself this question: ‘How would I like to be spoken to if someone had to have a word with me?’ That is, loving others as you would love yourself. Not many of us would want to be spoken to as if we were rubbish, as if our feelings didn’t matter, as if we didn’t have a reputation to protect. If that is the case then how can we even entertain the idea of speaking to another Christian as if they were rubbish, had no feelings and we were casual about ruining their reputation?

So we are not to go around spreading slander- putting folk down, but if there is a genuine issue, we are to rebuke our neighbour frankly- that is speak quietly to them eyeball to eyeball as they say. But the attitude is all important- the attitude of love, the attitude of ‘but for the grace of God there go I.’ Isn’t that the ‘beatitude attitude’ you would want someone to adopt if they had a bone to pick with you instead of coming at you like a Spanish galleon on full sail? That is all James is asking that we do and what a difference it would make.

You see, in all of this it is a matter of putting into practice our second point, let Scripture rule- ‘Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgement on it.’ There are two things James draws our attention to in order to stop us dead in our tracks from going down this road of judgementalism. First of all, he implies that we are in denial with regard to our true relationship with each other. He underscores the fact that we are dealing with a brother or sister- ‘Anyone who speaks against his brother….’ In other words fellow Christians have a special claim on us, they are one’s for whom the Lord came from heaven only to go to a cross and bleed in agony to make them his own. As Jesus says in the Gospels they are his ‘little ones’ and if anybody- including professing Christians- causes anyone of these little ones to stumble, to trip up because of anything we have said or done, it would be better for that person to suffer the painful death of having a giant millstone put around his neck and drowned in the sea in preference to what is going to happen when we face him on the judgement day. That is how protective Jesus is of his children. But the fact is we are family and while it may increasingly be the case that earthly families are at each others throats ala ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘East Enders’- it is not to be so amongst God’s family. Tension may characterise the soaps, but tenderness is to characterise the church. And to blithely go on putting fellow Christians down, even if we think we are right in what we say about them, is to deny what is the case- we are family.

But secondly, it is to be defiant with regards to God- Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgement on it.’ By speaking or putting down the Christian brother we are at the same time speaking against or putting down God’s Word- the Bible. How so? Well in this way: The Bible, as we have seen here in James, in the Sermon on the Mount, in Leviticus and elsewhere makes it plain that we are not to badmouth each other. But if you go ahead and do it anyway, what does that say about your attitude to the Bible and to God? It is that you have decided what you will believe and not believe, what you will do or not do. In other words you have come to Scripture and said to yourself that does not apply to me; I am going to ignore that part of the Bible, the law. And so what you have done is to set yourself up as judge. Instead of sitting under Scripture you have adopted the defiant posture of standing over Scripture. In short you have decided to be God. Some of you will remember how in the early 1970’s the United States was thrown into political turmoil by the antics of the then President Richard Nixon. Eventually under the threat of impeachment he resigned. In the famous interview with David Frost as he was pushed about whether what he did or allowed was illegal like the Watergate burglary, he said, ‘When the President does it, that means it is not illegal.’ (Repeat).  Do you see what he was saying? He was claiming that the law didn’t apply to him, he was above the law, in fact he defined the law. Now James is saying that whenever we decide to ignore Scripture at this point (or any point) we are acting like that with regard to what God has said. ‘When I do it, it isn’t illegal. I decide which parts of the Bible to believe and apply, I follow my own conscience, my own rule not what any preacher might say. He doesn’t know my situation, the Bible doesn’t know how much that person has hurt me, or what they are like, someone has to expose them and let people know what is really going on- and that someone is me.’ When we do that, says James, we have become a judge, not only of a fellow Christian but of God’s Word itself. And then we are back to the original sin of the Garden. God had said that Adam and Eve were not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil- that is what he had said. They decided otherwise and did it and so declaring themselves to know better than God and to therefore judge God- he was wrong when he said that, it didn’t apply to them (not that anyone else was around the garden to whom it applied) and so they just did it. That is when everything went to pieces and relationships were torn apart. But isn’t that exactly what happens every time we decide to sit in judgement over the Bible? The Bible speaks about not storing treasures up on earth but in heaven, so what do we do? buy more and more things for ourselves and give less and less to God. The Bible talks about redeeming the time, using it for promoting the Gospel, getting on with prayer, developing a Christian mind, and what do we do? spend more and more time slumped in front of the telly. The Bible warns against idolatry allowing other things- good things- from being made much of, and yet we make much of them instead of making much of Christ in all his sublime beauty and majesty. And each time we do that we become judge and jury of what God has said and implicitly claim we know better than he does.

And the root cause of putting down Christians and putting down the Bible’s teaching is pride. We hate being put down ourselves but feel good in putting down others. In fact it  all comes down to  the failure to put into practice what James says in verse 10, ‘Humble yourselves before the Lord.’ This is the way C.S. Lewis describes the problem: ‘Pride has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Other vices may sometimes bring people together; you may find good fellowship and friendliness amongst drunken people. But Pride always means enmity-it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God. In God you come up against something which in every respect is immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that-you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud person is always looking down on things and people; and of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.’ Could I ask: what is your attitude in coming to the Bible? Is it the humble attitude of saying, ‘I may not fully understand why God says this, but since he says it I will do it?’ Or is there still that rebellious streak that will pick and choose, taking what you like and think is reasonable but ditching the rest? Remember what Jesus said? ‘Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this sinful and adulteress generation, the Son of man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his father’s glory with his holy angels.’ (Mark 8:38). The true measure of whether we are ashamed or not of Jesus is the extent to which we are ashamed of his words.

So what are we to do? Thirdly, let God be God-v 12, ‘There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you- who are you to judge your neighbour?’ What makes us think we are qualified to exercise such judgement on fellow Christians? Do we know all the facts? Do we know all the mitigating circumstances which make them the way they are? Are we able to save them or destroy? Of course not. There is only one who is, he gave the law and so he alone is in the rightful position to apply it-God. Sometimes by virtue of my position as Vicar I do have to speak to people about the way they are behaving. I don’t particularly enjoy it, but I have to do it. And the way you do it, will vary depending upon who it is. Paul in his first letter to Timothy (5:1-2) gives some very helpful advice on this. He says that you speak to younger men as brothers, younger women as sisters, older women as mothers and older men as father’s and the latter you do not rebuke harshly. It is not a one size fits all approach. And so if I have to raise something with an older woman or man, I think to myself, ‘How would I approach this subject with my Mum or Dad?’ How would I go about trying to correct them?’ And as you can well imagine it will be done delicately and with great respect. That is the mindset I try and develop when such things have to be done. But do you see what Paul is doing? He takes seriously the fact that we are a family and that is how we are meant to relate to each other. But the other thing I always have in mind when I have to correct someone in the faith is that it is God and not me we are both ultimately answerable to. I have no right to lose my temper or treat people harshly because I happen to be a Vicar- quite the opposite actually. While we may have to say hard things it doesn’t mean that have to be said in a hard way. God has all the facts, I don’t and in the end, he is the one who will be their judge, not me. And sometimes I simply have to leave things in his strong, capable hands. And I would suggest that is the approach we all should take in our dealings with each other.

The bottom line is back in verse 10, ‘Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will raise you up.’ There is a touching story, told originally by Dr Barnardo himself, of how a dirty, ragged urchin approached him nervously in the street one day asking how he might be taken into one of Barnardo’s homes. ‘I know nothing about you my lad,’ said the Doctor, ‘What have you in the way of recommendation?’ ‘Please sir, I thought these would be enough,’ murmured the little boy, pointing to his rags. Dr Barnardo gathered him up in his arms and took him in.’ Isn’t it exactly like that with us and God? If he doesn’t put us down but picks us up, surely that is what we should be doing with each other?

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