The Relationship of Faith and Works (James 2:14-26)

Most of you know how much I love baseball over other sports, and for most of my life I have been a follower of the Baltimore Orioles. Imagine if I had this following conversation with another person who claimed to be a fan of the O’s …

Fan: I like your orange shirt; I’m a fan of the Orioles also.

Me: Really? How many years have you been following them?

Fan: I don’t know, I think I was kind of born a fan.

Me: Do you get to go to many games?

Fan: Yes, I go once every four or five years.

Me: So you watch them on television quite a bit?

Fan: The Orioles have their own network?

Me: Who is your favorite player on the Orioles?

Fan: I really like Boog Powell and Brooks Robinson.

Me: You do know that those guys are in their 70s now, right?

Fan: Really? It only seems like a couple years ago that I saw them in Memorial Stadium.

Me: That’s where you would have seen them. That place has been torn down and the Orioles have played now at Camden Yards for the past 25 years.

Fan: In New Jersey?

That’s not much of a fan, is it? But a lot of people are like that about their faith. They say they love God and serve him, though they’ve forgotten how to get to church or how to live in a way that demonstrates a values system consistent with their profession.

This is essentially what James in getting at in today’s passage. At first glance, one can see why Martin Luther struggled mightily to believe that James was a legitimate part of the Scriptures. It sounds like he is asserting that salvation is based upon works and good deeds – the very opposite of the of the primary teaching of the Reformation and the Protestant Church. But James is just so strongly stating the necessity of works as the genuine proof and outcome of salvation, not as the means of gaining salvation.

Merely believing in God isn’t enough. As James will say, that doesn’t make you any better than Satan’s servants – who know that God is real.

And James will go to the great Jewish father of faith – Abraham. Yes, it was faith in God’s promises that gave the crediting of righteousness to Abraham, but that wouldn’t have been worth anything if he did not act upon that faith with obedience – to the extent of offering his only son Isaac on the altar.

On the other end of the spectrum, James illustrates the combination of faith and works with reference to the prostitute Rahab. She didn’t just say she believed, she acted upon her faith in helping the spies from Israel.

As a pastor, I do worry about people who claim to know and follow Christ, but who seldom make it to church. I worry about people who do attend but who seldom get involved in anything and give nothing of themselves. I don’t want to say they don’t have faith, but the absence of works of service raises the question of the genuine nature of their belief.

Faith and works are like the two sides of a dollar bill, you can’t have the genuine article with just one side.

James 2:14 – What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

The Right Way to Show Favoritism (James 2:1-13)

If I had not read in the news that Governor Hogan was going to be in town for the big parade Saturday evening, I certainly would have known it from Facebook. Suddenly there were dozens of pictures from a variety of people who shared that they were with the governor and had a picture taken with him. Hey, I get it, I really do. He’s a really good guy, and I’ve done the same thing. Maybe I’ll share my own picture of Larry and me at the end, if I remember it by then.

There is something about liking to be seen with important people. It is probably because just being with them makes us feel better about ourselves. Or worse, maybe we hope they’ll do something for us if they like us.

And on the other hand, there is something natural in all of us about backing away from people who are by outward appearance very disheveled and dirty in some way resultant from lifestyle or circumstance. And just as we hope the good stuff of the rich and famous may rub off on us, we fear the bad stuff of the poor and outcast might do the same.

James is writing to a Jewish audience that surely had a lot of background in people categorization. (Wasn’t that a nice way of saying “judgmentalism?”)  Some of this was legitimate in terms of Old Testament obligations relative to the approach to God. But the gospel message breaks that all down, with words like “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden…” (Sorry, went KJV on you there … youthful Scripture memory coming out!).

These early Christians were showing some favoritism with people who came into their meetings. I realize it doesn’t necessarily sound like it from the first verse … James 2:1 – My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Actually, this was more than a general warning or admonition. The way it is written in Greek (complicated to explain) indicates that this was something already going on.

James gives an illustration …

James 2:2 – Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

The church is the ultimate place for inclusion – not in terms of overlooking sin, but rather by welcoming all peoples to enter into and successfully sustain a walk with God. When we rightly understand theology and the common denominator we all have as sinners from before birth, there is no high ground from which to cast judgments on others.

James will give his readers a social/experiential reason, and then a theological/Scriptural argument …

James 2:5 – Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

It is a fact that those who are rich find it more difficult to trust in something beyond their own powers and security, as their wealth stands in the way. So those who are chosen end up to more often be those who admit their need. So why should James’ readers dishonor the poor? Beyond that, the social problems being experienced by these earliest Christians – accusatory legal problems and slander against them and the name of Christ – are not coming from the poor, but rather more from the wealthy by worldly standards.

James 2:8 – If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

So what is the big deal about showing some favoritism? It’s not like murder or adultery. But James argues for the unity of God’s law, citing that the #1 governing principle for all human relationships is to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. And if that is violated by favoritism, it breaks the whole law. It therefore is no trifling matter, it is a big deal.

James 2:12 – Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

A day of judgment comes for all people who are believers (2 Cor. 5:10). One who has shown mercy to others can expect mercy at this time, for that is greater than judgment. There will be a lack of mercy for those who have likewise failed to demonstrate mercy, grace and love for others. Having received so much grace, Christians, of all people, should be the first to display love and mercy to others. This is being Christlike.

The favoritism that is correct is to show it toward all people, looking away from self, especially to those who most need it and who may be most open to it.

Are we a church who functions this way? Are we in any way like the recipients of James’ letter? We can say that we don’t have special seating arrangements that actively preclude anyone from being a part of our gatherings. But could we be passively exclusionary? We could be if we are unwilling to warmly welcome and embrace new people, especially if they are different in some form or fashion from the mainline, majority group of our church.

At this moment of our history we especially need people who will show favoritism toward all strangers, rather than merely being comfortable with our well-known crowd of friends. God is already sending us an increasingly diverse group of first-time attenders. This is only going to increase, especially if some of our intentional outreach efforts and new partnerships begin to bear fruit.

Solus Christus

Today is the second of what will be five posts within this larger book of James series on the “five cries (primary tenets) of the Reformation.” The third and fourth will be next week, with the final writing at the very end of this series.

I certainly groove with the Reformation from a purely theological basis. The basic teaching of the total helplessness of man spiritually speaking, yet the incredible and magnanimous grace of God in Christ to do everything to reach out and save, all gives great glory to the Lord. It explains everything about the nature of the human condition and wondrous love of God.

Beyond theology, I have learned over the years that I have some personal family ancestry that dates back to the earliest days of the Reformation in Switzerland. A particular ancestor was a theologian in association with Ulrich Zwingli, also having some connection to Martin Luther. The first Buchman who came to America in 1750 was named “Martin” – surely after the father of the Reformation. So I see myself as a spiritual descendent of these people even more than a biological offspring.

Solus Christus … Christ alone … Christ only. Well, “yes,” you say. Who wouldn’t believe in that? The theology of the church prior to the Reformation (with these beliefs still in practice today in certain circles) involved the teaching of a need for mankind to use the assistance of varied mediators to be in proper relationship and fellowship with God … go-betweens like priests or saints or the mother of Jesus. Beliefs in purgatory called for saints on earth to intervene and intercede for the release of these souls, etc.

The teaching of the Reformation broke into this errant emphasis, calling for the church to rightly see Christ as the only mediator between man and God. It is trust in the work of Christ alone that gives a person salvation and a right relationship with God. The most famous of the Reformers, John Calvin, wrote in his voluminous treatise on faith called “The Institutes of the Christian Religion” that “Christ stepped in, took the punishment upon himself and bore the judgment due to sinners. With his own blood he expiated the sins which made them enemies of God and thereby satisfied him. We look to Christ alone for divine favor and fatherly love.”  

The Scriptural passage that best summarizes this is 1 Timothy 2:5-6 …

For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.

The word for mediator means: “one who intervenes between two, either in order to make or restore peace and friendship, or form a compact, or for ratifying a covenant.”  Indeed that is what Christ has done between God and mankind – that relationship being marred by sin. And as the passage goes on to say, Jesus did this by giving himself as a ransom – this being the idea of a justly required price being paid.

People who are essentially dead cannot pay a price. People who are chained and imprisoned can’t earn their release. People who are completely lost cannot find their own way. The only hope is for someone else to intervene. This is what Christ has done – the only one who could do it, in the only way it could have been done.

Sola Scriptura

Prior to a decision of our local partner churches to once again have a joint sermon series this fall, it was my intent on my long-term speaking calendar to do a five-part series at this same time called “Sola: The Five Cries of the Reformation.”  Rather than have this material be completely surpassed, I am including five devotions on this topic and working them into the flow of our readings and writings through the book of James.

This season, this week, marks the essential 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The expanse and significance of this historical event cannot be minimized; it was huge!

The actual date was October 31, 1517 that, as the story goes, a monk named Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the chapel door of the Wittenburg Castle. This is popularly seen as a defiant stand and bold statement of rebellion against a corrupt system. Though containing many probing and uncomfortable elements, the document (officially called “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,”) was more of a bulletin board posting of his call for an academic discussion about the theological foundation for the common Roman Catholic practice of people paying to have their sins forgiven. Yes, the result was a great forest fire, though the initial spark was more of a wee lighter flame to the corner of a post-it note than a torch thrown on a bonfire pile of gasoline-soaked branches and rags.

The central theme was that salvation was through faith alone and not through deeds and good works. This was very provocative, as his writings were disseminated all throughout Germany, ultimately coming to the attention of church leadership in Rome. A series of disputations sought to bring Luther back into conformity with the Roman church, but he successfully argued against the errant theology, finding himself excommunicated in January of 1521.

In April of that same year, Luther was given a chance to recant at the famous “Diet of Worms.”  (This does not refer to an eating regimen of creepy-crawly things … a “diet” was an assembly of religious leaders, this one held in Worms, Germany.)  Luther’s final word was the famous statement, “Here I stand. God help me. I can do no other.”  An edict was issued against him by the Holy Roman emperor Charles V, with the writings of Luther ordered to be burned.

Luther had to spend time in hiding, and he also took about 10 years to finish the translation of the New Testament into German. Luther was adept at using the new printing press technology to his advantage and for the good of spreading his message.

When looking back at the Reformation and seeking to codify the basic foundational teachings, there are five “solas” … this being a Latin word that means “alone” … or “solitary” … hence the five summary statements are…

  • Sola scriptura = scripture only (for authority)
  • Sola fide = faith alone
  • Sola gratia = grace alone
  • Solus Christus = Christ only
  • Soli Deo Gloria = to God’s glory only

So, in referencing the big idea of the implanted Word of God in our James writing yesterday, let’s talk briefly today about Sola scriptura.

Over the roughly 1500 years following the ascension of Christ, the church had morphed into equating the words of the Pope with the same authority as the words of Scriptures. Actually, there was no such thing as a pope until Gregory I – about AD 490 … though the Catholic Church will claim a succession of such dating back to Peter.

Martin Luther challenged the idea of this dominant authority from human instruments, insisting that the only authority was from the accepted Word of God in the Old and New Testament Scriptures. At the Diet of Worms he said, “Unless I am overcome with testimonies from Scripture or with evident reasons — for I believe neither the Pope nor the Councils, since they have often erred and contradicted one another — I am overcome by the Scripture texts which I have adduced, and my conscience is bound by God’s Word.”

The essence of this is well-stated in the Belgic Confession of Faith (1561) that summarizes Reformation teaching – “We believe that Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God.”

Just as a country or civil government will fail when its constitution and laws are dismissed as binding or seen as antiquated and irrelevant (thus giving way to subjective standards on all matters), so also does any church or denomination of churches fail when the detailed and authoritative Scripture is dismissed in preference for the whims and winds of contemporary culture. This pattern is obvious all about us. And that is why we must be a church with a top-drawer passion for the Word of God as our authoritative guide in all matters and as the focus of our ministry.

2 Timothy 3:14-17 – But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

The Implanted Word of God (James 1:19-27)

As you know, I grew up in the Garden State. Though most people I meet from outside of New Jersey seem to think the state is comprised mostly of dangerous cities like Newark and Camden with an endless array of turnpikes between highly congested areas, in fact, much of the state is quite agrarian. The soil is indeed incredibly fertile. Growing a garden there was sure a lot easier than doing the same in my backyard here, and it was multiplied times easier than when I lived in Texas (where only hot peppers grew well!).

Speaking of peppers, that is something I have never been able to get to grow here in Maryland. Well … I’ve gotten the plants to grow beautifully, but they never really produce anything for some reason. The plants looked nice and gave me hope each season that this year would be different, but, nothing came of it in my soil. So what good were those pretty plants?

That is a picture of the main idea rising from our passage today about the Word of God. The encouragement of James throughout his letter is that his listeners should not just have some nice understanding of truth, but then not have that truth affect the way they live. What good is a life like that? Verse 22 here in chapter 1 could well serve as the key verse of the entire book: Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

I have a particular relative who has a habit of not actually hearing what you say. While talking to her, you can see that she is not truly listening beyond getting just a basic idea of the topic under discussion. Actually, she is thinking about what she is going to say next. People who talk quickly and listen slowly tend to fail in living well and producing a life of righteousness…

James 1:19 – My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

When it says in verse 21 to “get rid” of filth and evil, the verb there in the Greek language is one that speaks of shedding garments … of taking off the encumbrance of extra clothing when preparing for action. Rather than being weighed down, the listener to God’s word is one who plants it within their lives. They look toward seeing fruitful application and results from the life of salvation in Christ (this is not about gaining salvation … James is writing to those who are already believers).

James gets very specific …

James 1:22 – Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever 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.

James here is saying that a person should not just listen to the word in cursory fashion and then quickly forget it, for there is no value in that. Rather, the believer should “look intently” into it. Let me “go Greek” on you again by talking about this verb. It means to stoop down to look at something very carefully and in great detail. It is used elsewhere in the New Testament to talk about how John and Mary stooped down into the empty tomb of Christ to examine it closely. It is also the verb used by Peter to describe how the angels long to look into the details of salvation as foreshadowed by the prophets and fulfilled by the work of Christ. That is how we should study the Scriptures and then put them into practice, and this causes blessing in all we do.

James 1:26 – Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James finishes this section by returning again to the theme of controlling what one says. And again, he also follows it quickly with more comment about what one does. The mention of serving orphans and widows is not to say that such is the only or best way to show true faith, but it is a prime example of how genuine faith naturally flows to reach out to those who are in the greatest distress of life circumstance. This is not earning salvation, it is proving it. Over the centuries, God’s people have excelled in such ministries.

Nearly a century ago in the Christian church in America there was a controversy and a resultant splintering within many denominations. An incipient, theological liberalism began to define doing such social services as the means to gaining righteousness and genuine standing with God, rather than rightly seeing it as the resultant outcome that naturally flows from true religion. The more evangelical branches tended to sadly drop many of these endeavors so as to not confuse them as “works salvation” rather than “grace through faith salvation.”  I fully understand the need for the distinction, yet dropping involvement in ministries of mercy and social activism was likely too much of an overreaction.

A theme of the #ForOurCity campaign is to re-awaken the appropriate godliness of practical, social service involvement that can open doors for the teaching of the truth that truly fills and satisfies the deepest need in each person’s life. I am so proud of the families in our church who have taken on the challenge of such work as foster care. It is a huge commitment, but it is also a huge demonstration of faith and true religion. And it is good for all of us to have a revival of means by which our faith may naturally flow to fill human needs toward the end of the proclamation of the gospel.

The Source of Temptation (James 1:13-18)

How many of you who have children had to teach your children to be sinners? How many had to instruct your toddler to be bold and self-assertive by stealing the classroom snack from the other kid, or whacking the other kid who drew first blood?

Sin comes rather naturally to the human race, arriving upon the scene quite early. Biblically speaking, we know it was there from the moment of conception, being inherited as the curse descending from Adam. It doesn’t need to be drawn out of a person.

God has called us through salvation into his eternal family, but that doesn’t mean he is going to just always give us everything we would like to have at every moment we would like to have it. We don’t do that with our children. We work to wisely discipline them toward responsible behavior, not self-centered expectation of needs and desires being immediately met at every moment. We don’t do their homework for them, though we may guide them along the way.

And so it is with our faithful heavenly father. Like the readers of James’ letter, we need to distinguish between testing and temptation. Testing involves instruction toward growing in godliness and dependence upon the Lord in all things. Temptation comes from an entirely different source. One is meant to get you to pass, the other is meant to get you to fail. God only does the former, the latter is a natural condition from inherited sin and has a source going back to the beginning of human time.

James 1:13 – When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

Recall again that this letter from James is believed to be likely the very first of the New Testament writings. There weren’t any Pauline Epistles to reference; no Gospel accounts of the life of Christ had yet been penned. This new life and belief in Jesus as the Messiah and Savior of the world was entirely new. Yet the teachings about God’s goodness are timeless. James continues …

James 1:16 – Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

When growing a garden, it is always a big day to bring the first tomato into the house. It may not be as big and impressive as others that come along later, but it sure beats anything from the store. And hope springs from it that this is just the first of a great harvest to come. In Old Testament times, firstfruits were celebrated and seen as a special offering to give to the Lord in faith and trust of more that was yet to come.

These first believers, James says, were a sort of firstfruits of all of God’s work in building the church and the eternal kingdom. They were the first to hear and believe the gospel, and as such they were a witness and evidence of more that was yet to come.

This is what the church is the world, a visible sample of the great work of redemption and kingdom building that God is doing. As Chris shared on Sunday this great illustration – a builder of a neighborhood of homes will have a sample house near the entrance to show what homes in that division will look like. The church in the world is a sample of what God is building – the firstfruits of heaven. And like the first tomato, it may not be as grand as others to follow, but it is the real deal.

What kind of sample house are you? What kind are we as a church family? How do we as churches together in a community model what is to come? We can be better, and we are better together.

The Testing of Faith (James 1:2-12)

I spent the first two of my summers in high school working at a Christian camp in South Jersey as a counselor. It was a great experience in many ways, as I recall leading 10 children to Christ that first summer. Yet a part of me now looks back with amazement that this camp allowed a 15-year-old to be a counselor for seven new 10-year-old kids in a cabin each week. I think they were desperate … actually, yes, they WERE desperate! There literally was nobody else.

As camp staff, we would have to also attend the adult Bible conference part of the camp on the weekends, and I distinctly remember one particular speaker named Charlie Tremendous Jones. Yep, you read that correctly. I was wondering if maybe my memory was playing a trick on me, so I google-searched it and sure enough found a page about him that said …

People called Charlie “Tremendous” because he called everyone else tremendous. If asked how he got the moniker, he’d blame it on a limited vocabulary: When someone told him they were having a child, he’d say “Tremendous!”… When someone got a promotion, “Tremendous!”… When someone got married, succeeded at something, met a great mentor… all “Tremendous”. And pretty soon, everyone realized Charlie was “Tremendous.”

The guy wrote a book that sold over two million copies, a book that has never gone out of print. He was high energy for sure. My memory of his was that he was an old man, though I see from his bio that he was in his early 40s at that time.

But here is what I most remember about his sermon:  He kept repeating, “I hope you have a lot of problems is life … Oh, I pray that God gives you tons of problems and difficulties.”

That’s not very nice, is it?  That’s not … ah … what’s the word?… not very TREMENDOUS!

Or is it good theology?  Let me ask you: As you look back on your life, when is it that you grew the most in trust and dependence upon God? Was it when everything was going swimmingly well in your experience, or was it in the wake of trials and crises that God brought you through? You know it is always the latter!

As James opens his letter to the scattered Jewish Christians who were facing great difficulties wherever they lived, he sounds a lot like “Tremendous” Jones …

James 1:2 – Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

Most of us find joy in escaping trials rather than in facing them. But we should always distinguish between joy and happiness. Joy is an attitude, whereas happiness is an emotion. We can be joyful about trials and the benefits they will bring, yet additionally happy when those benefits come and the trial passes.

It is like preparing for something very difficult. One of my boys is going to participate in the upcoming JFK 50-miler. He is putting his body through physical trials – like a 100-mile bike race, and running on all sorts of terrain and in every weather condition, good or bad. But these trials will give him the perseverance and preparation he needs to finish the ultra-marathon and gain the satisfaction and happiness that follows.

This is not to say that trials are easy to overcome. Indeed, they can be complicated and gravely difficult, but the believer has a resource …

James 1:5 – If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. 6 But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7 That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

Seeking wisdom from the Lord shouldn’t be like calling the service center number to deal with a computer problem. There, you find yourself talking with someone offshore who is difficult to understand, and all of the advice does nothing to fix your problem. It does reinforce your skepticism however. Asking God for wisdom is nothing like that. He wants you to ask and believe that you will get the answer.

James 1:9 – Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. 10 But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. 11 For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.

The trials of life tend to even the ground between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”  The believer with little in terms of material assets is blessed to have the need for total dependence upon God. And when the wealthy believer is humiliated through trials, he is blessed to have to depend now upon God rather than upon earthly assets that fade like a plant in the heat of the sun. The trials prove to be beneficial for each one as each might choose to trust in God …

1:12 – Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

There is great reward for perseverance in trials, both in this life and surely for eternity. And nothing can beat this gift of God’s promise. So … I hope you have lots of trials and problems! It is the best thing that can happen to you. Consider it total joy! Just call me Randy Tremendous Buchman next time we meet!

Why Study the Book of James (James 1:1)

It was about 18 months ago at one of our monthly luncheon gatherings of evangelical leaders in Washington County that one of the brothers raised the issue of the opioid crisis and how we might make some impact upon this local scourge. One thing led to another, and a decision was made to present a unified sermon series as one voice in our community to address this and other pressing issues. The result last fall was a series on the book of Nehemiah – the series being called “For Our City.”

Again this year, leading up to the Thanksgiving and holiday season, we are coming back together with a sequel – to bring a voice of truth, biblical perspective, hope and godly encouragement to our community and its people. The themes and text this year will come from the New Testament book of James – truly a repository of practical advice and godly admonition. James begins his letter by saying …

James 1:1 – James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings.

So why should we have an interest in studying James?  Consider this background …

Rocks were hurled at Stephen. As they struck, he prayed for the forgiveness of his attackers, falling asleep before he died. A passionate and radical Jewish leader named Saul approved of this murder and watched intently.

That same day, a great persecution erupted against the fledgling Christian church, and Saul rallied his followers to snuff out this community of devotees of Jesus and to end the influence of this new way of faith. They dragged Christians to prison and even to their deaths. As a result, the church scattered from Jerusalem to the surrounding regions.

Christians gathered in groups far from their homes and continued to teach and encourage each other in the way of Jesus, but many of the most prominent leaders remained in Jerusalem.

The church in Jerusalem continued to meet and grow (even under great threat) led by James, the brother of Jesus. With great compassion and concern for these “dispersed” believers, around AD 45, James wrote letters to rally the scattered church to continue in their bold faith and active love.

While they were tempted to hide or grow quiet or retaliate, James challenged them to live radically, to entirely re-orient their lives around a set of ideals offered by Jesus. He challenged them to live a life that mattered for eternity – a life that wasn’t merely about their well-being or preservation.

James’ letter was not a call to arms, to war or violence, but to a bold and visibly active faith in Jesus. James invited people of faith to join a revolution of love, to give up this temporary life for life eternal, to surrender personal desires to fulfill the will of God. In essence, James offered a radical, counter-cultural battle-cry for all who would listen to live a life for Jesus and for others.

Shortly after his writing, James was martyred for his faith. But his legacy of an active, practical faith lives on TODAY. We are invited to matter, to make a difference, to change our world through revolutionary living. The revolution of Jesus is one of intentional kindness, of compassion, of serving others. Rather than bunkering in churches or shielding our faith from threats, we are challenged by the teachings of James to run toward danger while others are running away.

The church is exhorted to rise above surrounding troubles and become the greatest healing agent in their world. Every Christian is called out from hiding in order to be the response of God to the crises around them.

The Letter of James is both a personal and corporate invitation to churches and Christians to unite together in serving and loving so loudly that their words and actions transform their neighborhoods, communities, and cities. And this is what we want to see in Hagerstown and in the Tri-State region, doing so not just as isolated outposts dotting the landscape here and there, but rather as a united voice of THE CHURCH of Jesus Christ. We are better together.

Looking Ahead

I trust that as we (this Sunday) end this series on “The Other Side of the Tracks” that you have been challenged anew to consider looking beyond ourselves to those who may be different from us in one of a variety of ways. Be they people who know the Lord, or be they others who are yet to meet Christ, the expression of the heart of God would be to reach out in warm compassion and welcome.

The series also leads well into the next theme: studies and applications from the book of James for our second annual “For Our City” series. The first sermon will be on October 22nd.

You may have already seen an article in today’s Herald Mail about the approaching series and about some service events happening this weekend. You can link to it HERE. Many of our partner churches are involved in this effort, though we chose to focus our energies on assisting with the Kingdom United Faith Conference last weekend. Regarding that, let me thank so many of you who participated with food provisions. It was a great weekend for them that culminated in the joint worship gathering of nine churches on Sunday; and the leaders of those churches were so thankful for our partnership and blessing upon them.

So our devotionals associated with the coming series will begin on Monday, October 23rd.  Along with themes and passages from the book of James, I’m going to mix in five days of topics that memorialize the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. So check back in just over a week.

I Have a Dream Today

It probably will not take much imagination for any of you who have read through these devotionals and travelled along with us on the theme of this series to anticipate where I am going with this title “I Have a Dream Today.”  Of course, this is from the repeated phrase used by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at his famous 1963 March on Washington speech. I was going to re-write it with my own applications for our own context, but many segments of it were too far afield for even my biggest literary shoehorn.

But I do have a dream today for Tri-State Fellowship. And it is a dream of us becoming like the increasingly expansive fabric of America, multi-culturally. The phrase from the speech that I especially recall – beyond the repeated title – is this one:  “ … that one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

It is not like this never happens at TSF. We have seen the beginnings of this and been already enriched by it. Yet I think there is substantial ground for us to cover as we would embrace an intentional outreach beyond merely ourselves.

It does happen in other places in our community. I’ve referenced our nearest elementary school as an example. And one of my grandchildren attends a Montessori school in Hagerstown that is extraordinarily diverse. My son tells me that his children have had so many natural interactions with multi-ethnic children that racial difference is simply not even a category on their radar … they’re just other kids. (Yet another instance where much can be learned from children.)

Yet I have a dream today of a time when my grandchildren and all our TSF kids will hold hands with children of a dozen different ethnic backgrounds, much like the report last Sunday of our partner Kazakh church that has 25 different people groups worshipping together under one roof.

Am I crazy? Am I off on a side road of ministry? Not if I read and hear the national and district leadership of our own fellowship, the Evangelical Free Church of America. The purpose statement of the EFCA is that “We exist to glorify God by multiplying transformational churches among all people.”  Among all people!  Our national fellowship that was originally and historically an immigrant Scandinavian denomination now has over 20% of all churches that are either minority-majority or vastly multi-cultural. I have a dream today that we could be in that latter category, even in the foothills of Appalachia. That might be a God-sized vision, but so was escaping Egypt across the Red Sea – getting to “the other side of the tracks” so to speak!

There’s another MLK speech reference that has been hanging in my brain, and upon some research I find that it is actually from a much later speech near the end of this life. Alluding to the end of the life of Moses, who would not enter the land of promise with the people but would see it from a distance … “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

So I have a dream today for TSF, and I might not get there with you. But I have seen and look forward to a day when all of God’s people at TSF from the varied shades and cultures of God’s creative hand will join together and sing the old gospel song, “We are one in the spirit, we are one in the Lord, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love!”