James 3 & 4
The theme this week is living in God’s world by God’s wisdom. Our call to worship Psalm tells of the growing, bountiful life of the wise person. Proverbs 31 tells the story of the exemplary wife who lives in wisdom, giving joy to her family and living a fulfilled life. In Mark, Jesus shares God’s wisdom with the disciples—approach like a child, don’t argue about who’s the greatest. Our sermon is from James 3 and 4, and looks at the telltale marks of godly wisdom.
Traditions aren’t nearly as reliable as Scripture, so we don’t know the exact details, but we do know that most of the apostles faced martyrdom. The Apostle James, one of the two sons of Zebedee called the Sons of Thunder, was killed at the order of King Agrippa by sword. But the end of life for the James the brother of Jesus, called James the Just, the elder at Jerusalem who wrote this book, is said to have happened in this way: He was led to the pinnacle of the temple by an angry mob—to the same pinnacle where Jesus was led by Satan years before. From that place he was told to tell the people to stop believing in Jesus. He, of course, used this as opportunity to preach the gospel loudly to the crowd. The mob pushed him from the tower, and he crashed to the ground. But he didn’t die. They started to stone him, and still he didn’t die. He rose to his knees, asking God to forgive his attackers. Someone hit him with a club, and he died and was buried right there at the steps of the temple. The idea of James, the brother of Jesus, enduring to the end and praying for the forgiveness of his attackers fits what we know of James and the other apostles.
James 3:13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
4:3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
4: 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
James was the elder responsible for the care of the Jerusalem church. Jerusalem was one of the epicenters of the early church but also the most embattled and troubled. They had an initial reluctance to welcome Gentile believers, but eventually received financial support from the Gentile communities in their time of need. (We can read of this support in Romans 15 and other letters of Paul). The details of his martyrdom reveal that James was tough, focused and Christ centered. If Paul was your philosophy professor, and Peter was your hothead friend always getting in trouble, James might have been your football coach. A game plan is useless unless you’re following it on the field. (Faith w/out works… dead!) The wisdom of connecting true faith and actions is James’ theme, and he rings it throughout his short letter.
In the opening chapters he presents us with two topics we can all relate to: the danger of showing favoritism and the taming of the tongue. It’s interesting that he first addresses universal and somewhat “acceptable” sins. He doesn’t jump straight to murder or fornication. James’ target audience is the everyday Christian struggling with everyday sins. In a word: us.
In chapters 3 and 4, he digs into this wisdom theme. James sees godly wisdom as the place right action grows out of. He compares heavenly wisdom with its cheap, earthly copy. For James, wisdom means living life the way God made it—living according to the grain of reality. So what does James teaches us about wisdom? Today we will look at 3 dimensions he gives us about the Wisdom which is from above. First that wisdom…
Comes from peace – And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:18)
We live in noisy times—from a preset alarm that wakes us up to the manufactured white noise we need to sleep. More than any other era in history, our center of peace is crowded with sound. An observation from a recent article on the noise of our modern age says the following: Scientists define “noise” as unwanted sound, and the level of background din from human activities has been doubling roughly every three decades, beating population growth. Road traffic in the United States has tripled over the last 30 years.
Depending on the construction of your home, even the sound of the outside AC unit makes it through our bedroom window panes. It’s often hard to find a center of peace, yet James encourages us to be the center of peace for others. James’ point speaks to us, telling us that righteous action and the results of it comes from that center of peace. That may run against instinct for a lot of us. When we think about faith and faith instruction, we might automatically think of busyness and work—changing our habits, watching our interactions, serving difficult people. We may also think of the hard work it takes to go against the flow of culture and stand up for righteousness. But James doesn’t start there! While he is clear that the evidence of faith is action, he says the beginning of it is peace. That peace is behind it all, and that’s where the power of living the Christian life comes from. (Matt 11:29 – “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”)
The word James uses for peace suggests a wholeness…that things are the way God made them and working together the way God made them. It corresponds to the Hebrew word “shalom.” Jewish and Muslim people greet each other with this word “shalom” (“salaam” in Arabic), wishing integration and rest to the person they meet. Do we act out of this center of shalom?
Shalom is the state of people who know who they are in Christ and have hope and trust that God will take care of them. Shalom is this state of clear-headed quiet within this noisy world—the place where the true strength comes from. The third step in the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: Male a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand him. The operative word hiding in here is “care.” The antidote to addiction is believing that God will take care of you—that you don’t have to self-care through addiction anymore.
We can learn from this as Christ followers—this kind of centered peace comes from believing that Christ will take care of us. We don’t have to protect ourselves with scorching cynicism; we don’t have to live in constant distraction by devices and entertainment—God will take care of us. We don’t have to steal the spotlight and live in the constant hunger for attention—God loves us, we are his royal children.
It is out of this peace that we sow the seed whose “fruit is righteousness” (verse 18). Think of firebrand evangelists who delight in scolding their audience and decrying the evil of “the world.” While they may identify sin in the world, they don’t come from peace, and rarely see a harvest of righteousness. True and lasting changes in behaviors and conversation comes out of this commitment to Christ in HIS shalom. And so the brother of Jesus shows us that the wisdom from heaven begins and ends in peace. Second, it:
Arrives with gentleness
Truly strong people freely share their strength, but they don’t waste time showing it off. If you’ve ever had the privilege to spend time with some great saints of the faith, you may be surprised by how gentle and humble they are in their interactions. They are not announcing their strength and their credentials every time they enter a room – they let their manner and actions speak for themselves. People who “announce their strength” constantly are usually tiring company. (Carl Barth – Answer to students query about the deepest theological truth He has ever addressed: Jesus Loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”) But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. (James 3:17 ESV)
Wisdom from heaven arrives with gentleness. This word James uses translates as “equitable, fair, gentle, reasonable.” Do we arrive with gentleness? Has anyone complained recently that Christians are “too reasonable” when we arrive on the scene?
An accomplished professional journalist and marketing executive tells a story of going to see Billy Graham speak at a rally as a young college student. She was positive she was called to the missionary field and could barely sit still through her college years so she could get out to the jungle to serve. There were thousands of people at the conference, and Billy gave his typical downhome style of preaching, ending with an altar call for those who felt moved by God to go to the mission field. This young woman stayed rooted to her seat as all her friends went forward. She had no idea what kept her there.
As the crowd filtered out, Graham himself waved at her and asked her to come closer and talk with him. Baffled by the invitation, she went up to talk with him. He said he was sure she’d be the first one up to the front for the altar call. He said he’d been watching her while he preached—to thousands of people by the way—and thought she’d jump forward to make her call to the missionary field known. She said she had no idea what kept her seated, and then Graham chatted with her for a solid ten minutes like they’d known each other for years. Hundreds of other people vied for the preacher’s attention, but he talked with a lost college student for one suspended moment, listening to her concerns.
He encouraged her, “You know, you don’t have to go to a foreign country to make a difference. I can tell by talking to you that you will touch lives in your community and in your work life.” As they parted ways, he took her hand in his and winked, “Now go and do great things.” This was in 1976, after Graham had traveled the world many times, written best-selling books and advised presidents and royalty. This was not Billy just starting his career. The gentleness of this moment is shocking—Graham taking time to talk with and listen to a confused college student—there are no shortage of these examples in his life and in the life of other godly people!
But the gentleness with which he moved in the world shows someone who, despite incredible busyness and pressure, was present and available to someone in need of his attention. Instead of the seriousness and severity we might think we should be known for, James calls us to be warm, kind, and real in our interactions.
Philip Neri was a 16th century priest and missionary to the poor in Rome, was known for many great spiritual accomplishments, not the least of which was a great sense of humor. He knew how to welcome because he’d been welcomed by Christ. Heavenly wisdom, then, comes from peace and arrives with gentleness.
“We are not saints yet, but we, too, should beware. Uprightness and virtue do have their rewards, in self-respect and in respect from others, and it is easy to find ourselves aiming for the result rather than the cause. Let us aim for joy, rather than respectability. Let us make fools of ourselves from time to time, and thus see ourselves, for a moment, as the all-wise God sees us.”
In other words, don’t take yourself too seriously! It’s not all about you! And Third, the wisdom from above:
And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:4 ESV)
Going back to the beginning of James’ letter for a moment, the word that James uses for “perfect” describes a fullness or completeness, a person that is fully integrated with their faith, values, and actions, not someone who never makes mistakes.
This is that state of heavenly wisdom—fully integrated with yourself, knowing yourself and having a keen ear for God’s direction. Most of us live in such a fragmented state that we don’t even know it. We say we believe God will take care of us, and then we try to control every situation. We say we want God’s peace on our lives, but we fill our days with noise and entertainment. We say we trust God’s provision, but we work constantly to the detriment of our relationships and worry about money compulsively. We are out of harmony.
James has described this lack of harmony in chapter 3:14-15 – But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.
James describes the noisy, fragmented life we live without wisdom. Driven by lack, self-addicted and exhausted, he calls us to relief from this, refocusing on the life of wholeness God gives us. “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. (James 4:7-8)
Submit yourself to God. Let him take care of you rather than trying to rule your life yourself. Where there is wholeness and integration, where there is peace, there God is.
The wisdom of heaven….Comes from peace—Peace is the starting point and the energy of heavenly wisdom.
Arrives with gentleness—Like the story of Billy Graham, truly powerful saints are known for their gentleness.
Brings wholeness—Jesus takes us from a fragmented state to a true state where we are in harmony with ourselves and others.
James, even in his final moments, showed this centered wisdom. He was tough, strong and faithful while showing his peace, and praying for forgiveness for his killers as he passed from this life. May God allow us to be instruments of his peace to all he places in our path.