Palm Sunday is a day of contrasts, the people thinking Jesus is a reigning King, when He is coming to be a suffering servant. The crowds shouting hosannas on Sunday and crucify Him on Friday, was revered one day and rejected the next. Jerusalem is rejoicing and Jesus is weeping. Palm Sunday is the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem to set in motion the final pieces of His plan to rescue sinners from death, to confront sin. It was a plan that had lots of moving parts and involved lots of instruments, lots of players. As we come to the end of James, we remember from two weeks ago he urged all Christians of the necessity of prayer. He commended us to pray in all situations and circumstances, for all our needs. And as an encouragement or motivation he reminded us of the example of Elijah and the great power there is in prayer. Now James takes up another spiritual duty of Christians and gives us another great motivation to do this. As we ought to pray for one another, so ought we make every effort at reclaiming straying sheep. We ought to be like Jesus in what He came to do on Palm Sunday.
Politicians and sports figures are notorious for their poor confessions and weak repentance and aversion to the humility of coming completely clean. It’s no wonder we struggle with the idea of confessing our sin to others, we so seldom see it done well. Do you know anyone who regularly confesses their sins and failures to another person? Adam sinned and blamed Eve. Cain killed Abel and told God he didn’t know where he was. Joseph’s brothers sinned against Joseph and covered it up to their father. Ananias and Sapphira gave money to the church but lied about the amount to make themselves look better in the eyes of the apostles. King David was a politician, the master of cover up until God uncovered his cover. But his repentance was beautiful, full, honest, sincere. A gift for the rest of us. Peter also sinned as greatly as any man ever did, but when he realized his sin, he broke and wept. The Prodigal Son gives us as good an example as you can find in Scripture. He went directly to the one he sinned against and made a simple, clean, clear confession of his sin.
One of the great blessings of worshiping a living God is He can hear and because He can hear, He can answer the prayers of His people. Brothers and sister, imagine the despair and hopelessness of praying to a dead god, to a god who is no god at all. Imagine the futility of spinning a Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheel building up merit and good karma, believing its spinning emits positive energy. Imagine asking for help from Brahman, the supreme god of Hinduism, an impersonal force, the unknowable divine ground of all being. Imagine the terrible silence of gods who are deaf, dumb, and blind because they are dead. One of the distinguishing marks of Christianity is prayer offered to the personal, living God. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of David and Elijah, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the prayer-hearing and prayer-answering God. There is no other God like Him. Prayer is the first and last and best thing we can do. As God brings us to the end of our lives He prunes away all the lessor things and leaves us with one remaining thing we can always do, the best thing we can do, the most powerful and fruitful thing we can do, prayer. God has created this world of ours to run under the influence of prayer. The wheels of the machinery of this world of ours are turned by prayer. He has tied His activity to our prayers. He wants us the see again and again the connection between our asking and His answering. He wants us to see the glory of His power and goodness. Prayer is the first and last and best thing we can do. It applies equally well in all situations and circumstances.
How would you preach a sermon about money and riches and wealth to a congregation in which there are people who are very well off, who have lots of assets; and people who have enough, they are making it fine, without a lot extra; and people who are struggling to make ends meet, maybe falling behind slowly; and people who are completely dependent on a social security check and that’s all they have; and people who are unemployed or underemployed? I want to say as faithfully as I am able what the Holy Spirit wants to say to our church through His inspired Word. This is the truth of God and the grace of God for all who will hear and receive it and apply it. May we all benefit for the sake of our souls.
Let’s see a quick show of hands. How many of you are planning on still being alive next week? How many of you who have jobs are planning on still having them next month? How many of you are counting on still having reasonably good health a year from now? How many of you have some plans for travel and vacations later this year? We wake up every day in a world that lives this way. It may be one of the most common shared characteristics of each of us in this room. We all presume on the future. But there is a world of variables that could impact whether we actually go, variables involving any one of us and our health or life, variables of continued employment, variables of airlines or natural disasters. Our text in James is meant to give us some wisdom about life and making plans and the will of God. Let’s define the will of God first and look at different ways to respond to the will of God.
If you have been out to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island and spent any time there you know there are two historical military sites there, the American Camp and the British Camp. And if you know that then you know about the war that almost broke out called the Pig War of 1859. An American farmer, Lyman Cutler, shot a pig that was eating his garden. Turns out the pig belonged to an Irishman and things escalated from there. History is filled with actual wars started over very minor incidents that got out of control. The War of the Whiskers, 1152-1453. The War of the Oaken Bucket, 1325. The War of Jenkins’ Ear, 1739-1748. The Toledo War, 1803-1836. “Thank God, I never liked Michigan weather anyway.” We all know how wars can begin in our homes. Do any of you remember a news story in Enumclaw in 1985 when a man got a legal demolition permit and bulldozed his two year old house his wife wanted in a divorce settlement? How about the 1994 story in Parris, Texas when their high school's Christmas concert was canceled after the chorus teacher allegedly smashed a chair on the band director over who would give the announcements. The Wars in the Middle East and Africa are just macrocosms of the wars and quarrels that rage in our hearts and homes and neighborhoods and schools and churches. The world news is just a mirror to our family news. James chapter 3 ends with a contrast between wisdom from the world and wisdom from above. Worldly wisdom is full of jealousy and selfish ambition, strife and disorder. Wisdom from above is pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason. Now James fleshes out what happens when we live according to the world and our flesh and fleshly passions and desires.
It would be a safe bet to say that all people desire to be happy. They would disagree on what would make them happy, but they all desire to be happy. The list of things that would make them happy is very long. I won’t even take time to start, you can fill in your own blanks Imagine being told you could ask for one thing and it would be given to you? Like having a genie out of a bottle saying he will grant you one request. What one thing would you ask for that would make you most happy? Something like that actually happened once. There was a man who was told he could ask for anything he wanted and it would be given to him. The answer he gave seemed to surprise the person granting the wish. God offered Solomon a blank check, “ask me for anything and I will grant it.” That is a true test of a person’s character. What Solomon asked for said something about him. II Chronicles 1:11-12 God answered Solomon, “Because … you have not asked for possessions, wealth, honor, or the life of those who hate you, and have not even asked for long life, but have asked for wisdom and knowledge for yourself that you may govern my people over whom I have made you king, 12 wisdom and knowledge are granted to you. I will also give you riches, possessions, and honor.” Wisdom is such a good thing it’s a package deal. He who gains wisdom gains many good things as well. Let’s briefly define wisdom as the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, good judgment and insight. And this leads to a question, who is wise and understanding among you? Who do you look to for wisdom? Whose life is characterized by wisdom, prudence, discernment, spiritual maturity? By asking the question the implication is that it’s something you can notice, you know it when you see it.
Two recent news stories illustrate the power and influence of words. There was the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in Paris and then the announcement by Alex Malarkey that his book, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, was fabricated. Blasphemy and lies, just two of the many ways our words and our tongues have the power of death and life, as Proverbs says. Nations have risen and nations have fallen by the power of the tongue. Students of history marvel at the power of two great orators of WWII separated by a narrow channel of water. Adolph Hitler on one side inspiring the masses of Germans to war and Winston Churchill on the other inspiring the allies to persevere. Hitler using his tongue to perpetrate great evil and Churchill using the same instrument to lead his nation in its finest hour. James 3:1-12. In chapter one James gave an outline of the practical wisdom he would expand on in later chapters. He introduced a theme in 1:19 and 26 that is now developed in chapter 3: James 1:19 Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. James 1:26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. James honestly confesses, “we all stumble in many ways.” I wonder how many unkind remarks James said of his older half-brother, Jesus, before he saw Him with the eyes of faith? I know I speak this morning as a man with unclean lips to a people with unclean lips. The fact that we all have failed in this doesn’t excuse us from seeking and striving by God’s grace to control our tongues more and more. But it does put us all in the same boat, each of us beggars needing the same grace. So here we are this morning to talk about the world’s smallest and biggest trouble maker. It makes me wonder if God paused a bit before creating our tongues, I wonder if He thought to Himself, “do I really want to do this?” James uses six illustrations to make three points about our tongues and its power to direct, to destroy and to delight.
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.