Banish boasting - James 4:13-17
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
There is the story of the man who suspected that his wife was cheating on him and so one day he decided to find out for himself. They lived in a fourth floor flat and so one day he kissed his wife goodbye and pretended to set off for work. Instead he drove around the corner and waited for half an hour. Then he came back, rushed up the stairs and burst into the flat and smelt the whiff of cigarette smoke. ‘Where is he?’ he shouted to his stunned wife. He then heard a car starting up in the street below and so he dashed to the window and so a dapper looking man getting into a sports car clutching a bunch of flowers. ‘Ah, ah,’ exclaimed the husband, ‘the culprit.’ and so he ran into the kitchen, picked up the fridge and hurled it on the man in the car below and in the event collapsed with a heart attack. Now imagine a change of scene and we are outside the pearly gates of heaven with St Peter as gatekeeper. The first person to arrive is the jealous husband. ‘And what is your story?’ asked Peter. ‘Well’ said the husband. ‘I have to admit to my shame that I have always had a jealous streak and I suspected my wife and losing my temper I picked up a fridge which was too much of a strain and here I am.’ ‘OK’ said Peter, ‘You just stand over there for a moment.’ Next came another man and Peter asked him, ‘What’s your story’. ‘Well, you won’t believe this, but I had just popped into the florist to buy my wife some flowers this morning, it was her birthday you know, and I had just got into my car and I heard this whistling noise. I looked up only to see this huge fridge hurtling down towards me. And here I am.’ ‘Fair enough’ said Peter, just wait over there. The third person to arrive was a man who looked rather sheepish and in a particularly bad way. His head was bruised, his arm was broken, he limped along on crutches. ‘And what’s your story?’ asked Peter. ‘Well, he said, I was hiding in this fridge……’ The fact is, we never know what is about to happen or how short our life might be. Now the problem that James is addressing this morning to this group of Christians is the way life can be conducted as if this is not the case, as if this life is the be all and end all and it is we rather than God who is in control. And if ever there was a word from God for today with our hectic, busy, let’s make money kind of lifestyle- it is James chapter 4:13-17. And there are three things that James wants to impress upon our minds and hearts so that we might live the best life possible- that is a life which brings glory and joy to God, there is an attitude to avoid; an assumption to reject and an approach to adopt.
First, an attitude to avoid. ‘Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to do this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” There are five things these Christians are planning to do, they plan to set out on a trip either today or tomorrow; they plan to go to arrive at a certain destination - a city, that is where the money is; they plan to spend a certain amount of time there- a year; they plan to carry out business and they plan for a certain result- to make a load of money. In this context James is speaking to Christian traders, this is the ay the conducted business. Most travel in these days was carried out by boat in and around the Mediterranean Sea. We tend to think that because the Romans build roads these were used for business travel. Not so. The roads they build were not very wide and so carts and the like would tend to be too broad and overspill. The main purpose of the roads was to get Roman troops from point A to point B as quickly as possible. No, the main way of travelling and transporting material was by boat. And so a lot of business was conducted in this way which meant travelling to cities and staying at least a day or two. In many ways it was an advantage to Christians because it meant that as a Christian businessman went from his home town to another City, he would take with him written documents-like this letter and hand it to the church in the town he was doing business in. So Christian traders were key in enabling churches to keep in contact with each other and be the recipients of apostolic teaching. How else do you think the Four Gospels manages to get around the Ancient World- they didn’t have email or face book? So it is not business as such that James is attacking or even planning ahead. No it is what is said and the way it is said which betrays and attitude which is at odds with what the Bible teaches that is in his sights. This is an application of what James said back in chapter 1:19, ‘Be quick to listen and slow to speak.’ And so James says, ‘Now listen’- the phrase he uses is equivalent to when we want to catch someone’s attention and shout ‘Oi, you!’ i.e. ‘Be quick to listen to what I have to say’. Who are the ‘you’? It is those who say, we are going to go to so and so and do such and such- but with no reference to God. It is a wrong view of life which James goes on to correct in v14 and wrong view of God which he corrects in verse 15 which gives rise to this wrong attitude to life. The attitude is, to use the old catch phrase of Bruce Forsyth, of ‘I’m in charge.’ ‘I am going to do this and then I am going to do that and the goal of it all is making money.’ No consideration is given as to what God wants, what his priorities are, and the fact that it is he and not we who is in control of our lives. To declare in our creed on a Sunday, ‘We believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth’ and yet declare with our mouths on Monday we are going to do this that and the other, is to displace God. We are, whether we realise it or not, boasting, according to verse 16.
If our contemporaries look at us and see what we spend our money on, what moves us and excites us, what our plans are for our future and our children's future and see that in fact they are the same as theirs, then with some justification will they not think we are the same as they are and so wonder what is so special about being a Christian? You may read the Bible, you may have an inner peace, and you go to heaven when you die- but what about the here and now?
And so we justify ourselves. We say we have earned what we have, we deserve it, we have worked hard for the nice house. But of course we have done nothing of the sort. What we have is God’s gift to us. If you were born in Ethiopia you wouldn’t have any of this. Did you choose to be born here rather than in Ethiopia? Did you choose the type of parents you would have and the particular genes and upbringing that has shaped you? Did you produce your own strength which you used to earn all these things? Of course not. The Bible would tell us that we don’t deserve anything in this life. The kindness of God is to give us a moment to live in and to live for him.
Then we rationalise by becoming altruistic. We say. ‘It isn’t for me. It’s for the children. I want what is best for my children and what is best is the best clothes, the best education, the best toys.’ Really? Is that Jesus’ Criteria for what is the best? Where does seeking first the kingdom of God fit into any of those things?
In Australia a friend of mine was approached by an English woman to thank him for caring for her son. She said that ‘When he was being born I prayed for him.’ That didn’t surprise my friend because when a child is being born everybody prays. But she was a Christian, a missionary in fact, the boy was born on the mission field. So my friend assumed that she prayed what every Christian parent prayed, that he be born healthy and would become a Christian. She said, ‘Yes, but I really prayed for him. I prayed that he become a missionary.’ You see she wasn’t just concerned about bringing Christians into the world, she was praying that she would bring missionaries into the world. She wasn’t going to give her life for mission in India without producing more missionaries for India. One of the great contributions of this woman for the cause of the Lord Jesus Christ was five children and she wanted them to be committed to that cause too. She was a clever woman, educated at Oxford from a an upper middle class family. She sacrificed everything for the Kingdom to serve in India under terrible conditions, so terrible that she didn’t even know she was having twins until the second one arrived, and she knew he must be a missionary because she had prayed that! So when she and her husband left India they didn’t come back to England for that was too far away from the mission field, so they went to Australia to keep the children close to the mission field so that the children could get back to Asia quickly and easily. And sure enough her son is now on the mission field- in Paris. And that is the kind of attitude, as we shall see that James wants us to adopt.
This brings us to the wrong assumptions. The first assumption is that we are in control, it is our will, not God’s will that is to the forefront. And as we have seen that is a delusion. We are who we are, living where we are, doing what we do only at the kind behest of a sovereign God. If he so chose he could take it away in a heartbeat. That puts us in our rightful place. We don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. The second assumption, especially when you are much younger, is that you are going to live a very, very long time. We act as if this life is the be all and end all, the ‘now’ is the most important thing and eternity doesn’t figure that much in our thinking. But James reminds us here that our life is really like a ‘mist’, a ‘vapour.’ I guess that not many of us looking at a boiling kettle engage in too many philosophical reflections about the steam that comes out of the spout. But perhaps we should. In terms of this world alone, our appearance on this planet is as unsubstantial as the steam coming out of the kettle- in next to no time it is gone- vanished- v14. But we don’t carry out our lives in the humble attitude that perspective is meant to generate and so making the most of what we do in a way that is going to be the most productive eternally. So yes, in terms of this world, we are here today and gone tomorrow, but in reality there is eternity, there is a heaven to be gained and a hell to be avoided and we are to order our priorities in life according to that perspective.
So given that time is short, it doesn’t follow that we just give up and do nothing- adopting a ‘what’s the point’ attitude. Nor is it a matter of cramming as much in for ourselves- making money. It is a matter of, as the Bible says, redeeming the time and using it for Christ and his glory. The tragedy of not doing this and allowing the predominant busy life approach which centres all on self is well illustrated in the song I have read to your before, ‘The Cat’s in the Cradle’. ‘My child arrived just the other day; He came into the world in the usual way, But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay, He learned to walk while I was away. And he was talkin’ before I knew it and as he grew, He'd say, "I'm gonna be like you, Dad. You know I'm gonna be like you." And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon, Little Boy Blue and the man in the moon. "When you comin' home, Dad?" "I don't know when, but we'll get together then; you know we'll have a good time then." My son turned ten just the other day. He said, "Thanks for the ball, Dad, come on, let's play. Can you teach me to throw?" I said, "No, not today, I got a lot to do." He said, "That's okay." And he walked away but his smile never dimmed. It said, "I'm gonna be like him, yeah, you know I'm gonna be like him. And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon, Little Boy Blue and the man in the moon. He came from college just the other day; So much like a man I just had to say, "Son, I'm proud of you, can you sit for a while?" He shook his head and he said with a smile, "What I'd really like, Dad is to borrow the car keys. See you later, can I have them please?" I've long since retired, my son's moved away. I called him up just the other day, I said, "I'd like to see you, if you don't mind. He said, "I'd love to, Dad, if I can find the time. You see, my new job's a hassle, and the kids have the flu, But it's sure nice talkin' to you, Dad, It's been nice talkin' to you." And as I hung up the phone It occurred to me, He'd grown up just like me, My boy was just like me. And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon, Little Boy Blue and the man in the moon, "When you comin' home, Son?" "I don't know when, but we'll get together then, Dad. We're gonna have a good time then, we're gonna have a good time then." Now let me tell you the real tragedy of that song, it was the life of the man who recorded it, Harry Chapin. His wife actually wrote the lyrics and asked him one day when he was going to slow down his frantic pace of life and give some time to his children. His answer: ‘At the end of this busy summer, I’ll take some time to be with them then.’ That summer ironically and tragically, Harry Chapin was killed in a car accident. No, the Christian parent is meant to have the spiritual well being of their children uppermost, Christian husband or wife is to have the spiritual and moral welfare of their spouse uppermost in their thoughts, serving God to the best of our ability wherever God has placed us- knowing we are one day to give an account to him, and that could be at anytime. So, if you like, we start living in the light of eternity now.
But that appreciation of eternity doesn’t just happen, it has to be cultivated. Reflecting on putting eternity back into our lives, the writer Os Guinness says this: ‘When I came to faith a generation ago, the practice of daily personal worship was fundamental. We were taught to begin every day with a sustained act of worship, reading the Bible, and prayer….in many circles today, however, that habit has worn thin and that practice has become casual. The result is an extraordinary loss for the people of God of a powerful insertion of the perspective of eternity at the very outset of the day.’ Could I ask: do you start the day in this way or at least insert it into your day? He goes on, ‘Equally when I was young in the faith, regular public worship was considered essential. It was both the practice of the ministers and the expectation of the people that the sermon would bring a direct, helpful, and practical word from God for his people. In many parts of the West this is no longer the expectation or practice. Church-going is viewed by many as merely optional; an increasing number of people have no regular expectation of sitting under an authoritative word from God,; and in many parts of the western world, preaching has fallen on hard times.’ Then he speaks of the irruption of eternity into our experience maybe during a hymn or at Holy Communion, or during the preaching- such that there is a sense of the presence of God that is almost tangible. He then asks: ‘When was the last time a sermon ended and you just wanted to sit there and ponder what God has just said to you?’ (‘Prophetic Untimeliness’-p110). We have to place ourselves in the way of eternity if we are going to let it impact our lives.
All of which brings us to the approach we are to adopt-v 15, ‘Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” In other words, we not only need a right view of our life- it is like a vapour, the morning mist which disappears with the morning sun, but a right view of God. The phrase ‘God willing’ or ‘DV’ – Deo Volente- is not the Christian equivalent of ‘touch wood’. It is a profound recognition that our lives are not in our hands but in the strong capable hands of another- the One who has made us and redeemed us- the Lord Jesus. Whether we live or not is up to him. What we do or not is up to him. This, ‘will of the Lord’ is not his revealed will- how we should live- that is made known to us in the Bible and we should make ourselves familiar with that. It is the hidden or ‘decretive’ will, the way he providentially steers all things both great- economic and political upturns or downturns -and small- as to which bus we will catch down town- for his people’s greater good and his greater glory. But you may say, ‘Surely, which bus you catch can’t be such a big deal?’ Well, you would be wrong. Again this is where we are to recognise that God and his ways are much, much bigger than ours and we should be thankful that it is so. Some of you will know that I became a Christian in my late teens after much struggle and resistance. And one significant turning point for me occurred when I was waiting with my friend at a bus stop. The bus was late and this gave time for an old man to engage us in conversation. He was a Christian and we were not, but I had already started to think about it. And in a very cheery, gentle Lee McMunn kind of way he started to talk to us about Christianity. We listened politely and the decided we had had enough and gave up on the bus and walked into town. Now unbeknown to that old man, what he said really got to me and nudged me on a little further towards Christ. It was a link in a chain. Do you not think that God was involved in all of that? Do you not think that since everything is connected to everything else- the timing was just right so my friend and I were going to that particular bus stop, at that particular time to catch that particular bus which was late and that man was there too? It was the ‘Lord’s will’ and I for one am thankful of that truth. To submit to the sovereignty of God who is weaving his purposes in all things is a wonderfully liberating truth. It means we needn’t be frantic, rushing here and there or else who knows what might happen if we don’t get it right? Sure we will plan, sure, we will pray, but we will pray humbly and confidently ‘If God wills’ and be content with that. Not to put this into practice, says James in v17 is sin. To put it into practice is freedom.
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