May 29th, 2016

Life as Mist

Do you treat every day as “mine” or “Thine”?

James 4:13-17

Why I shouldn’t be a pastor

At the end of chapter 4 James touches on a topic I don’t know much about – business. The closest I ever came to a course in business or sales was the bookkeeping elective in high school. Many of you know far more than I do about balance sheets, sales, and marketing.

I could have been good in business. Almost twenty years ago, in connection with a conference we were hosting here, I took a Career Assessment analysis that indicated that my personal qualities and professional strengths are most similar to people who work in Banking & Finance and in Accounting Professions. A psychological assessment I’ve taken several times says on a scale of 1-100 my sympathy level is about 5. In other words, I missed my calling. People like me should sit in a cubicle and crunch numbers. I’ve taken other career assessments along the way, and it’s probably a good thing I didn’t take them back in high school or college. “Pastor” never shows up at the top of those lists for me. For some reason these people think Insensitive Introverts don’t make good pastors – go figure. 

What those assessments can’t measure is God’s call. Nor do they consider grace and what God can do in my life in spite of me. So you know much more about business than I do. Fortunately an MBA is not required to get what James says at the end of chapter 4.

This morning Pastor Paul and I will share the sermon time, each using our own strengths. I love digging into the Scripture text, and he’s a master at helping us see how the Scripture applies to daily life. The translations below combine some standard Bible versions and my own study.

Wicked quackiness

4:13 Come on now, those of you mouthing off, “Today or tomorrow we will go to __________, we will spend a year there, we will set up shop, and we will make a profit.”

The passage begins with James’ version of “Hear ye! Hear ye!” This is an attention getter, a phrase used in the New Testament here and in next week’s chapter. Specifically, he wants the attention of traveling entrepreneurs. The situation he describes would have been very common in James’ world. It’s their version of promoting your product on the Internet. If you thought you had a marketable idea, though, your only choice was to head to a commercial hub – like a Charlotte or an Atlanta or a New York. It might take you weeks to get there, but if you timed it right and found the right market and re-invested or saved your earnings you could come back home and make a much better life for yourself and your family.

James doesn’t have a problem with doing business or making money. He has a problem with the arrogant assumption that not only thinks but says out loud, “I know where I’m going tomorrow, I know how long I’ll be there, I know what I’ll be doing, and I know the result.”

4:14 You do not know tomorrow.  What is your life?  A mist it is, appearing briefly, then vanishing.

You don’t even need the Bible or a God-centered world view to realize how stupid it is to be overconfident about the future. Greek writers like Seneca said, “How foolish it is for a man to make plans for his life, when not even tomorrow is in his control.” Last year Linda and I visited Pipestem Resort in West Virginia. The morning we left I took this picture from the balcony of the resort. It was raining that morning. We could see clearly what was right in front of us, but further out the mist clouded the peaks and valleys. James would use this picture to reinforce two lessons – first, that the further out you look in your life the less you can see, and second, that your life lasts no longer than a morning mist.


4:15 Instead, you should say this: “If the Lord wants it, and we live that long, then we will ____________.” 

So what am I supposed to say? What am I supposed to do, for that matter? Plan nothing? No, planning is not the problem. It’s OK to look into the future and map out your plans – where you’ll go to college, how you can make a buck, when you’ll have children, what you need to set aside to retire. But just remember your plans are always fluid. You think you know where you’ll be working this fall. You think you know where you’re going on vacation this summer. You think you know you’re going to eat ham and pie in Bost Memorial Hall after church today, but you might not live that long. You don’t know. One year ago next month, a pastor and eight others never made it home from church on a Wednesday night in Charleston, SC.

Only God knows. James doesn’t literally mean you have say, “If it is the Lord’s will” at the end of every sentence about your plans. But say it often enough that you always think it. Plans always have an “if.” You’re not in charge. Release control of schedules and outcomes to the Lord.

4:16 But now, you are boasting in your quackiness, and all such boasting is wicked.

Now James shows us why the “we will” statements in verse 13 tick him off so much. The words you say are oozing from the heart of a quack. The Greek word I translated “quackiness” (“arrogance” in the NIV) represents a standard character in Greek theater similar to the traveling salesmen in old Westerns – the guys who set up stands to sell his cure-all tonic. He’s a vagabond and a charlatan. He brags that his bottle will soothe arthritis pain, remove wrinkles, cure the common cold, and turn gray hair black again. About the time everyone realizes the stuff doesn’t work, he moves on to the next town to cheat new gullible victims.

Just about the time you think he’s talking about someone else, James plunges the dagger into your heart. If you boast about tomorrow, you are that guy. Your self-importance and self-confidence looks like that quack. And it’s not just wrong, it’s wicked. Wicked is a strong word, and James uses it on purpose. The self-sufficient life that doesn’t need God’s protection, provision, or even presence is operating under the delusion of hell.

4:17 Therefore, the one who knows to do good, and doesn’t do it, to that person, it is sin.

On first read, this seems like a random proverb James inserts that has nothing to do with what he just said. If you’re noticing the grammar, James switches from second person (“you”) to third (“he”). So it is a proverb.

But it’s not random. James connects this verse to the rest of the passage with “therefore” (NIV, “then”). So for James, it’s a direct connection. But what is the relationship between not boasting about your plans but instead committing them to the Lord and doing the good you know to do?

It comes down to this. Is the way I make my daily plans any different than the way an atheist makes plans? Do I think church is where I do my God-thing and hang out with God’s people – then I can head to work Monday morning and the way I make and spend money or how I treat people has nothing to do with God? Am I living my weekday life as if there is no God – never deferring to him, never seeking him, never even naming him? Or am keeping my eyes open for the good he wants me to do whenever he wants me to do it?

Pastor Paul, help us see how this connects to our lives.

Mine or Thine?  (Paul Cummings)

When I was growing up, I was an omnivore. My least favorite things were liver and Brussels sprouts. On one unholy night, Mom made liver and Brussels sprouts, but she also made mashed potatoes and gravy. Our rule was you had to clean your plate. I slayed the mashed potatoes and gravy, and then developed a “cough.” The key is a good cloth napkin. I kept going to the bathroom to throw away the liver and Brussels sprouts.

My Dad was on to me. He got up and said he was going outside. Instead, the next time I opened the bathroom door, he was sitting on the toilet. He had caught me. I determined then and there that when I grew up there would be no liver or Brussels sprouts. My wife Danielle and I did figure out how to cook Brussels sprouts, but no liver has been served in my Cummings house. That was my will.

A lot of us live life according to “our will.” We say, “I will” do what I plan with my life and my money. Sometimes we look at God’s will as a bitter medicine we have to take in order to do what we want to. We think “real living” is on the other side of doing God’s will.

James say we have it backwards. God’s will is the only thing that leads to life. If you think you are the kings and queens of this world, James is saying, “Don’t be fooled. You are a mist.” Second, he’s saying, “In those few moments give God the glory.” Seek God’s will.

James begins in verse 13, “Look here.” Where in your life is God’s will being played out? We don’t have to wonder where God’s will is. It’s right here in the Bible. “Should I find another woman to sleep with?” No! “Should I love my neighbor as myself?” Yes. That’s clear in God’s Word.

Then there are questions like this: “Should I be a missionary?” “Should I pull my kids out of public school?” “Should I buy a Chrysler or a Ford?” Maybe. But do I want God’s will?

Do you look at your day, your money, and your plans like a child with a toy? Danielle teaches the 1’s here in our Preschool. One of their favorite words is “mine.” Do you look at your day, your talents, your money, your life, as “mine”? Or do you hold it with an open hand and say to God, “Thine”?

Is this on your heart every morning: “Lord, what is it you want from me today?” The hurricane may be there, but I have you in the palm of my hand. The safest place to be is in his will. It’s the best place for us to be.

James says it is a sin to know God’s will and not do it. The other day I went mountain biking. It didn’t occur to me until I got there that I would be sharing the back of the truck with my bike and a bunch of sweaty guys. I realized I hadn’t prayed for that moment. I prayed, “Use me, Lord with these guys.” A guy in the truck had a shirt on that had something about Jesus. I asked him about the shirt and he said, “I just became a Christian.” Opening my heart to what the Lord might want to do through me in that moment created a chance to encourage a new believer.

What do you look like when you’re holding on to things? Closed hand or open mind? Jesus taught us to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

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