Do you like surprises? I am sure it depends whether it’s a good one or a bad one. Some people don’t even like good surprises, like a surprise birthday party. The city of Sardis was a city that knew a thing or two about surprises and was about to get another one.
To start off on the right foot, let’s talk about hope and the advent of hope. Hope is a wonderful thing. We are hopeful about a lot of things. How many of you hope you don’t get the flu this season? How many of you hope the Seahawks win the Super Bowl? How many of you students hope to do well on your assignments and tests? How many of you hope you get a raise in the next year? How many of you hope to lose a little weight, maybe after the holidays? A farmer plows in hopes of a harvest. A student studies in hopes of good grades. We practice in hopes of playing well. We take medicine in hopes of getting well. We court and date in hopes of getting married. We save in hopes of purchasing something or retiring. We hope we get what we want for Christmas. This is hope in the conventional sense. It’s a desire for something good in the future that is uncertain. This is hope as the world knows it and as we all have experienced it. It may not happen, it may be short lived, who knows? On Thursday I hoped for a great feast with my family. That happened. Yesterday some of you hoped the Cougars would win, but they didn’t. I hope the Packers win today, but who knows. I hope my preparation for this sermon about hope will be helpful to someone who is struggling with hope or hopelessness. In the normal course of the day and week and year, we all think about, talk about and feel this kind of hope in a million different ways, small and large. This is conventional hope. The hope that the Bible is concerned with is of a completely different sort. It’s important that we get this at the outset or we will miss something very important. From the Biblical perspective the hope of the world, in the end, is no hope. The reason for this is because the world is without God.
To get to Thyatira from Pergamum we have to turn south-east and head into the interior of Turkey about 40 miles (modern Akhisar). Thyatira was smaller and less important than the cities we have been to so far. It was for a time a garrison city, a military outpost to protect the capital Pergamum from the east. Thyatira was a prosperous and wealth city because of her thriving trade guilds. Inscriptions have been found in the ruins of Thyatira that mention numerous trades: wool-workers, linen-workers, makers of outer garments, dyers, leather-workers, tanners, potters, bakers, slave-dealers, and bronze-smiths. These were highly skilled craftsmen and tradesmen. The trades were more prolific here than in any other city of Asia Minor. Thyatira was famous for dying, making colored cloth. You might recall Acts 16:14 when Paul and Silas were in Philippi in Greece, they stayed with a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple, from Thyatira. She helped them even after they were jailed and released.
In church history James has been a controversial book with much debate as to whether it should be included in the Bible. It was disputed by a number of early scholars and even Martin Luther called James a “strawy (weak) epistle in comparison with Paul and John.” Many people over the centuries have believed the James contradicted Paul. Paul wrote that salvation is by faith and James wrote salvation is by works. So which is it? Let’s establish some ground work before answering the question. What do we know to be true about the Bible? It’s the very Word of God written. It’s breathed out by God and therefore it must be true, unchanging and eternal. It cannot teach anything false and it cannot contradict itself. So when you hear someone says they have found a contradiction in the Bible you can know with confidence that’s impossible. God cannot lie, God cannot contradict Himself. Now that doesn’t mean that everything in the Bible is immediately clear and understandable. There are conundrums, paradoxes, mysteries, things that are hard to understand, that challenge our intellect or require a great deal of study and work to figure out. We should expect that, this is the Word of God after all and we are human and finite. So what about this apparent contradiction that we have here in chapter two of James? Most of us should know our salvation is not based on our works or efforts or goodness, but purely on God’s grace given to those who put their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. Nothing we can do can earn for us God’s favor. While we were yet sinners God loved us and Christ died for us. Salvation is by grace through faith alone. This single theological truth separates Christianity from every other religion and every other gospel.
Suppose you and a good friend are meeting over coffee and during the conversation your friend gently points out one of your weaknesses, maybe a character flaw, perhaps one of your persistent sins or a place where your words and actions don’t match up, some hypocrisy. What happens in the next moment is really important. You could be offended or angry, you could quickly point out one of your friend’s weaknesses or sins to balance the scale. Or you could internalize it and get depressed or feel worse about yourself than you already do. Or you could just blow it off, dismiss it or deny it. There is also another possible response. You could receive correction as a gift, as the truth being spoken in love. You could receive it in the spirit of Proverbs: Proverbs 27:6 Faithful are the wounds of a friend. Proverbs 25:12 Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear. Proverbs 28:23 Whoever rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue. Flattery is nice, it makes us feel good, but it also denies the truth. The truth is I am a sinner saved by grace, but my sin still clings closely. I am blind to many of my most deeply ingrained sins. A real friend cares about our souls. The man in this world who will tell you I am his best friend will tell you that the day I became his best friend was in June of 1985 when I pulled him aside and confronted him about a sinful behavior. He received it as an expression of real love and friendship. And we have been doing that for each other ever since. If we are wise we should not only receive correction and rebuke, we should invite it. If you don’t have a friend like that you need to prayerful seek one out. A true mark of growth in godliness is a desire to have our faults and sins brought out and when they are we should thank the person who dared to do it, even when they do it poorly. The book of James is God’s gift of a wise friend to all of us. James is that wise, older, more spiritually mature brother who sits down with us over coffee and speaking the truth in love inflicts wounds as only a truly faithful friend can and should. We are going to come away from James each week tested and convicted, but better for it if we have ears to hear. The goal of James is not to make us feel bad about ourselves, but to make us mature in faith.
This evening we turn to the third letter Jesus told John to write, the letter to the church in Pergamum. Pergamum or Pergamos is 55 miles north-east from Smyrna in western Turkey. The city is built on a large high hill, hundreds of feet high with a commanding view of all the surrounding valley. For centuries it was a royal city for kings, before and during the Greeks. In 133 BC the Romans made Pergamum the official capital of the province of Asia and the seat of imperial authority. As such Pergamum was the first official center of emperor worship. The first and for a long time only temple of Emperor worship was built here in honor of Caesar Augustus. A second temple was built in honor of Emperor Trajan and later a third to honor Severus. In Pergamum government was god, government was savior and to it was owed loyalty, allegiance, homage. Emperor worship required an oath and an offering to the divine emperor. To refuse to bow down and say “Caesar is Lord” was treason, meaning death as a traitor and an enemy of the state. Other gods worshiped there included Zeus, Athena (daughter of Zeus, goddess of wisdom and victory) and Dionysus (god of fertility and wine). Aesculapius, the god of healing, was worshipped with the symbol of a serpent, which is still seen today in the medical symbol of a caduceus, a serpent wrapped around a pole. A kind of alternative medicine, today it would be new age. Because Pergamum was the center for Roman politics and the Roman cult of Emperor worship and the worship of other gods, Jesus called it the throne of Satan. Satan was powerfully present in this city of rampant idolatry. This was a very difficult place to be a Christian.
There are a lot of parents in this room this morning who can testify with me that it not just older people who are hard of hearing but also kids. In fact sometimes I think kids are even harder of hearing. You say something and it’s in one ear and out the other. You repeat yourself and somehow it still doesn’t get through. Our kids are all old enough now that they like to remind their old parents of the things they heard over and over again growing up. One of my most famous and repeated sayings in our home was, “What we have here is a failure to communicate” (Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke). This morning’s text is about eliminating failures to communicate when it comes to the Word of God.
On this second Sunday of November each year the church around the world remembers our brothers and sisters in Christ who are being persecuted for their faith. Christians in more than 60 nations are under direct threat from their government or militant groups in their countries, and in another 60 countries Christians experience some form of harassment. Christians today are one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world. There is a global war being waged against Christianity. Topping the list of countries are North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Indonesia. Half the Christians in Iraq have fled in the past 8 years. They are fleeing Syria daily as they are being chased from their homes. For 12 years straight North Korea is the worst nation in the world for tyrannical oppression of Christianity. Just to possess a Bible means execution as does any contact with Christians outside of the nation. As we have seen even suspicious activity by tourists can lead to imprisonment. Believers in many parts of our world pay a heavy price for their faith. Discrimination in education and in employment and housing, beatings, physical torture, isolation, rape, slavery, imprisonment, and even death are just few examples they experience on the daily basis. Just this past week a Christian couple in Pakistan was brutally killed because they were Christians. The author of Hebrews speaks of these believers as people of whom the world is not worthy. We pampered American Evangelicals have been living a dream for a while. But the normal experience of Christians in history is to suffer for what they believe. We are not entering into a strange time of history, but a more normal one (see II Timothy 3:12; 1 Pet. 4.12). It is almost impossible for us here to imagine how people can suffer so much and yet remain faithful to the very end. The terrible persecution of the followers of Jesus all over the world is a testimony to the worth of Jesus. He is better than life itself. This was the testimony of the church in
We live in confusing times morally and spiritually. We live in a world that is increasingly ambidextrous when it comes to good and evil. As the prophet Isaiah warned we live in a time when people are calling evil good and good evil (Isaiah 5:20). We live in a world where morality is decided by a vote of the majority, where if it feels good it must be good, if you succeed you must be right. We live in a day when evil is not just common place but respectable. We no longer blush and are no longer shocked at every new immorality. But God says woe to those who rationalize, those who excuse, those who wink and nod, those who look the other way, those who call evil good and good evil. Romans 12:9 Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Have you ever considered that it is a sign of love and an act of love to know the difference between evil and good and to abhor the one and hold on to the other? This morning we want to spend some time thinking about evil and good and the source of evil and good.