April 17th, 2016

God will start with you right where you are.

James 1:19-27

What everybody knows

While Linda and I were away the last couple of weeks (part work and part rest), y’all have let North Carolina get into a hot mess. It started back in February when Charlotte passed a law saying transgender people can use the bathroom of their choice. The North Carolina legislature passed a law saying Charlotte can’t pass that law. Now we have boycotts and protests and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

I’ll give you my political opinion, whether you want it or not. In my view, the original Charlotte ordinance was an overreach. The legislature’s response was an overreaction. The protests and boycotts since were an overstretch. I wish we could all go back for an overdo (a do-over). You may or may not agree with my political response. You might guess, however, that I’m not as interested in the political response as I am in the Gospel response. What is the biblical way to think about and respond to this conflict?

How about this, from James: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” Wouldn’t those be good reminders for everyone in the midst of any volatile conflict? There’s more to the Gospel response to the bathroom law, but let’s save it to the end of the sermon.

The New Testament letter of James is intensely practical. James was Jesus’ little brother, literally. After the virgin birth, Mary and Joseph had several more children the usual way, and James was one of those. John tells us that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him during his earthly ministry (John 7:5). Perhaps it was overfamiliarity: “We know this guy; we used to play ball with him, wash dishes with him, saw and hammer wood with him in Dad’s shop. He’s a regular guy, like we are.”

The Apostle Paul tells us that after Jesus’ resurrection, he appeared personally to his brother James (1 Corinthians 15:7), and that apparently changed everything. James not only believed, he became a leader of the church in Jerusalem. That church was made up of almost exclusively Jewish people who believed in Jesus. When he wrote the letter that’s in our New Testament, he was writing to people who still worshiped in synagogues, prayed at the temple, and lived by the Torah. James’ letter was apparently written before any of the other New Testament books, so his Bible is what we call the Old Testament.

As Chad Hall pointed out last week, James begins the book by urging us to trust God for wisdom, to seek him in times of testing. That’s very consistent with what the Old Testament teaches, which can be said of most of the book of James.

Verse 19 is also very consistent with books like Deuteronomy and Proverbs: “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” In fact, it’s very similar to wisdom literature outside the Bible – before the time of Christ and even until now. Who hasn’t heard someone say, “God gave you two ears and one mouth, so listen twice as much as you speak”?

Verse 19 in most Bible translations begins with a command – “Take note of this” (NIV) or “Understand this” (NLT). The Greek grammar allows a command or a statement. I think it’s the latter. I think James is speaking to people quite familiar with common wisdom, especially Old Testament wisdom. He’s prefiguring the Geico commercial: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry… everybody knows that.”

“But did you know,” James continues in the following verses, “how to put a God-spin on that common knowledge?”

Slow to become angry (20)

James begins with the last of these common sayings: “Let everyone be slow to become angry.” Everybody knows that, but did you know why? James continues in verse 20: “…because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” In other words, God wants the world to be right. He wants you to live right. He wants people to be treated rightly. Human anger reaches none of those goals.

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of anger in political discourse these days. I’m not just talking about the bathroom law. I’m talking about the presidential race, and I’m not just talking about one candidate. Why do politicians express so much anger? Because it works, politically speaking. Why does it work? Because the people are angry. Depending on their political views, they’re angry about different things, but the current political wisdom is that for a candidate to win, he or she has to tap into that anger.

James is right. Anger does not make the world right. Even if it gets someone elected, it doesn’t fix the problem. Mark my words, no matter who gets elected. Taking your anger to the White House doesn’t achieve God’s righteousness.

Andy Stanley, whom some of you may only know as the son of Charles, recently scolded baby boomers in a Sunday sermon about the political anger. The issues are different in Georgia, but Andy says we’re turning the younger generation off to the church by engaging this level of political rhetoric, even in churches. In a phrase he says, “Stop! You’re scaring the children.”

Here’s what he says in a little more detail–

The generation that’s coming along behind us are going to take their cue from us. And here’s the cue we’re giving them: ‘Oh my goodness, if we don’t get the right person elected in office, it’s the end of the world. If we don’t fix the economy, it’s the end of the world. If we don’t have religious freedom like my mamma and my grandmama had religious freedom, it’s the end of the world. …


Nothing could be further from the truth. Government matters. Policies matter. But neither of those matter as much as men and women who understand this word: Faith … So all of you people over 45, knock it off. You need to model your behavior for the next generation that God is in control.


Well, didn’t Jesus get angry and turn over the tables of the money changers in the temple? Yes, he did. But he had been coming there at least once a year for Passover  since he was 12, so this was probably his twentieth Passover at the temple – but the first (or maybe second[1]) time he overturned the tables. When he did it, he was deliberately setting himself up for his own death, to save the world. James doesn’t say, “Never get angry.” He says, “Be slow to anger.”

In summary, then, James offers three tests for Christians who are angry –

  1. Is my anger impulsive or measured? (“slow to anger”)
  2. Is my anger about me or is it about God? (“human anger”)
  3. Will my anger result in ruin or in good? (“does not produce righteousness”)

Think about that when you’re stewing over the bathroom law, or yelling at your spouse or kids, or losing sleep over presidential politics.

Quick to listen (21-25)

From “slow to anger,” James moves to “quick to listen.” I’ve often used this phrase “quick to listen” in connection with normal conversation, but James turns this common phrase in a different direction. The urgent listening he’s talking about is to God’s word.

“Therefore,” he says in 21, “get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent” (that’s how James sees inappropriate, unproductive anger) and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”

I love this planting analogy. A few weeks ago, trying to get ahead of the spring growing season, I pruned the holly bushes that have been growing in front of my house since the house was built about thirty years ago. Well, I’ll be more honest. I hacked them to the ground with my Sawz-all. I was tired of reaching up high to trim bushes that were taller or fatter than I am.

I realized then how many empty spaces there were out front, and in consultation with Linda chose some rose bushes and a tree that will do well in full sun. This past Friday I headed out to see Randy Hefner at his nursery on Springs Road. He’s full of farming wisdom, but also patient with complete gardening idiots like me. “You can’t be an expert in everything,” he told me. “You know preaching; I know plants.”

As he instructed me on planting the Knock Out roses, he said that often people who move here from other parts of the country think that they need to replace all that clay they dig up with store bought bags of organic material. “Plants and soil are like people,” he said. “You have to start with their strengths. That clay needs to be broken up and mixed with your top soil, but you don’t need to buy anything to mix with it.”

I love that. God will start with you right where you are. Do you need a little digging up and breaking up and mixing up? Yes, you do. He’s not going to leave you like you were. But he’ll start with you right where you are. God’s word, James says, has been planted into the soil of your life already. Let’s start there. Humbly accept that word.

He continues with the “listening” theme. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (22). The word won’t change your life if you only go to Bible studies or turn on the TV preacher or leave church with a bulletin full of notes.

He then uses his well-known analogy of a mirror. “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (23-24).

Contrast this to someone who “looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do” (25).

God’s word deserves more than a glance. It needs a gaze. Glancing won’t change your life. Gazing means you take the word with you, you discuss it with friends, you take it on long walks. I love those sermon series Bible study groups where we’re thinking about the passage all week. I also love the Bible studies that have participants reading and studying the text before and/or after the study. What we’re doing is gazing – what in my life needs to change? Glancing won’t change me.

In verse 25, James calls the Bible “the perfect law that gives freedom.” Remember, James is a Jewish Christian whose Bible is Genesis, the Ten Commandments, Joshua, Psalms, Isaiah and the prophets. He doesn’t have the Gospel of John or Paul’s letter to the Romans or Galatians. He has the Law. And he says, “The more I gaze, the more I realize doing what God wants makes me free.

Glancing is frustrating. Many people get turned off from the Bible with a surface reading – all that killing, bloody sacrifices, prophets pronouncing judgment. James says, “When I gaze at this law and see the heart of God, I’m so much freer.”

Slow to speak

When we came to this part of the text in our Thursday morning Bible study, Paul Schowalter said, “I want some specifics!” James is all about specifics. He’s got four more chapters of specifics. He wants you begging for specifics. He starts by returning to the phrase from verse 19. You know this, right? Everyone should be “slow to speak.”

“Those who consider themselves religious,” he says in verse 26, and “yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves and their religion is worthless.”

James is in a group of people who practice “religion.” Remember, he leads a community of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. These people are into religion. They’ve got Moses and they’ve got Jesus. They go to synagogue and they make sacrifices at the temple and they have small group with the other Christians. “Religion” in the sense James uses it includes all the rituals you do because you think that’s what good Christians do – go to church, take communion, pay your tithe, greet and usher, go to Bible study. Religion is a neutral term for James. It’s a descriptive term for churchy stuff.

When you gaze into the law it gives you the freedom to rein in your tongue. Having to speak about everything is bondage. Would you like to be one of those presidential candidates who can be asked about any subject, on the fly, and is expected to articulate a wise and well-informed response on the spot? I wouldn’t! That’s bondage. The same is true in every day life when we find it necessary to pontificate on any subject with anyone.

Gaze on that principle. James is only teasing you with a preview at this point. He’ll spend most of chapter 3 on the tongue.  But being “slow to speak” is a segue, it’s the first of those specifics Paul Schowalter wants.

James continues, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (27). “Distress” means pressure, finding oneself in a difficult position. You don’t need the New Testament to get this emphasis on widows and orphans. You get it by gazing at “the law that gives perfect freedom.” Patrick Hartin says, “God is the champion of the weakest members of the community.” If you want pure religion from James’ perspective, look for those who are overlooked. Who are those distressed, weak, excluded, vulnerable, judged, or unwanted? Pure religion “looks after” them – sees them, visits them, provides for them.

“…and,” James adds, “to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Again, this is very Old Testament-like. Live holy lives. Jewish religion is all about being different, and being proud of being different. In my view, Jewish tradition focuses too much attention on the wrong areas of being different – what you wear, what you eat, which feasts you observe. Jesus and Paul and James all use the same law but as they gaze into it they say what should make us different is how we care for the vulnerable, how we use our tongues, how we trust God’s goodness and providence, how we endure suffering.

The world’s pollution is a message of self-absorption, getting ahead, looking out for yourself, looking down on others, accumulating wealth, manipulating people, caring more about this life than the life to come. Pure religion, James says, avoids that pollution.

Lost in the bathroom debate

Did you take good notes today? Good. Throw them away. There’s so much content in this text that about all you can do is glance. Instead, do some gazing. Pick one word or phrase from this passage, or one principle you heard, and decide this week you’re going to “look intently into the perfect law that gives freedom” on that one point. James spent enough time gazing at common sayings – Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to get angry – that he could determine under the direction of the Holy Spirit how to put them into action.

Or, instead of picking a biblical principle, take one issue that you’re going to gaze on this week to apply your accumulated biblical knowledge. Pray about it. Ask God, “What’s your way of looking at this?” Maybe it’s a business decision. Maybe it’s a relationship. Maybe it’s suffering or some other test of your faith. Pick one area where you will gaze this week, like who gets to use which bathroom. In light of what James says here, what is a distinctively Christian response, a biblical response, a Gospel response?

Lost in the bathroom debate, especially among Christians, is that these are people we’re talking about. These are persons of infinite, intrinsic value whom God loves and for whom Christ died. Do you actually know any transgender people? Linda and I spent a weekend in Texas a few years ago with a transgender woman and her partner. Her name and face appear for me when an issue like this comes up. What’s it like to live life not liking your gender? What’s it like to be whispered about and not talked to? What’s it like to be a political pawn instead of a hurting person who longs to be known and loved?

Set aside your politics or theology or ethics long enough to remember that this is a population among which there is significant pain, identity confusion, rejection, struggle. A typical church like ours is not where people go to find answers or find the unconditional love of being accepted, wanted known – the kind of love that changes people.

I’m convicted as I gaze into God’s Word. I’m convicted that I listen too slowly, speak too hastily, become angry too quickly, and argue about who can use which bathroom instead of longing for “the perfect law that gives freedom” for me and for others. I’m convicted that I’ve been following this news story, but I haven’t been praying for my friend in Texas or her partner or her children or myself. The gospel response makes this not about the battles I fight but about the persons I love in the name of Jesus. Amen.

[1] There is some difference of opinion about whether the story in John 2 is the same or different than the event in Matthew 21 and Mark 11, which took place on Monday of Holy Week.

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