The morning Scripture James 3:13-18 13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. 17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
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For the next several weeks we will be working with the Letter of James. This letter was written in about 48AD and has been tributed to James, the stepbrother of Jesus. The letter is addressed to Christians everywhere and not to a specific church. Like much of the New Testament, what was written more than 2000 years ago is as relevant today as it was then. James wrote the letter to help instruct new Christians how to live a Christ like life. James insists on saying that if we have real faith, we will show it by acting like Christians. James gives practical advice on things like anger, quarreling, showing favoritism, controlling the tongue, boasting, patience and prayer.
Why is James so important? The book of James looks a bit like the Old Testament book of Proverbs dressed up in New Testament clothes. Its consistent focus on practical action in the life of faith is reminiscent of the Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament, encouraging God’s people to act like God’s people. The pages of James are filled with direct commands to pursue a life of holiness. He makes no excuses for those who do not measure up. In the mind of this early church leader, Christians demonstrate their faith by walking in certain ways and not others. For James, a faith that does not produce real life change is a faith that is worthless.
What’s the big idea? In the opening of his letter, James called himself a servant of God, an appropriate name given the practical, servant-oriented emphasis of the book. Throughout the book, James contends that faith produces authentic deeds. In other words, if those who call themselves God’s people truly belong to Him, their lives will produce deeds or fruit. In language and themes that sound similar to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, James rails against the hypocritical believer who says one thing but does another.
For James, faith was not an abstract proposition but had effects in the real world. James offered numerous practical examples to illustrate his point: faith endures in the midst of trials, calls on God for wisdom, bridles the tongue, sets aside wickedness, visits orphans and widows, and does not play favorites. He stressed that the life of faith is comprehensive, impacting every area of our lives and driving us to truly engage in the lives of other people in the world. While James recognized that even believers stumble, he also knew that faith should not coexist with people who roll their eyes at the less fortunate, ignore the plight of others, or curse those in their paths.
James is speaking to me. Last week, I was driving to Westminster and at the intersection of Route 97 and Main Street was a young man with a cup out begging for money. My reaction: I didn’t even think as to how this young man got there. My only thought was “get a job! Every where I go, there are help wanted jobs! What’s wrong with you? I thought. I was working at age 9 delivering newspapers! The people in todays world have a problem! Sounds like I need to review James! I felt like being a “Bible thumper.”
And then there is James 3:13-18 13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. 17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
It’s been said that nothing teaches like experience. Pain and suffering teach us endurance and empathy. The experience of mercy and forgiveness inclines us to be more merciful and forgiving. We gain moral maturity each day precisely because each day brings some difficulty that we must overcome. Like it or not, we persevere, and we are morally the better for it. This is why James tells us to “consider it pure joy … whenever we face trials of many kinds, because we know that the testing of our faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that we may become mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4). A person who has been at a constant feud with misfortunes acquires skin calloused by suffering; she yields to no evil and even if she stumbles, she carries the fight on upon her knees.
Misfortunes build virtue in us, and among the virtues gained through difficulty is patience. That family member or work associate who annoys you is God’s gift to you to build your patience. If we are stuck with a job you don’t like, and we can’t find any other work, then God is building your patience. Each nuisance, long wait, and affliction, every mosquito bite, traffic jam, and body ache in the life of the Christian raises our threshold of tolerance ever so much. Even tedious sermons and difficult reading (perhaps including what you are enduring right now!) can make each of us a more patient person.
To me the key word in James 3 is wisdom. Last week I mentioned the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, / Courage to change the things I can, / and wisdom to know the difference.” – The Serenity Prayer. This is the beginning of the Serenity Prayer – a prayer that is often repeated at AA meetings — the key words are “The wisdom to know the difference between things I can change and those I cannot change.” Once again, we are confronted with the truth that this simple prayer radiates because it focuses on wisdom. Here is where Wisdom comes in, we as Christians are to show respect to our neighbor. Wisdom is the ability to take knowledge and insight along with common sense to help make an informed decision. This is not about saying other religious paths are equally valid. It is about us learning how to love our neighbors as ourselves out of reverence for Christ! The wisdom to know the difference.
As we look at James 3, we cannot escape what the Letter is saying to us about wisdom. Wisdom is not all book learning. Wisdom comes from seeking to live a godly life. James says that wisdom can come from God and is healthy and creative by following the quiet nudging of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom comes from the person who lives a life of humility and caring for others. James says the wisdom comes from heaven – through a life lived in faith. James also writes that there is an earthly wisdom that comes from a life lived that harbors envy and selfish ambition in our hearts. James says that this is demonstrated by a life that has disorder and evil practice. Godly wisdom comes by being considerate, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
In James 3:15 we read: 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. In this case. I found that the Greek word for this kind of wisdom means, “Stop being arrogant.” Again, it is easy for us to fall into pride, thinking, “I’m right and those who disagree with me are either stupid or sinning!” As Paul says, “Knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor. 8:1, ESV). Everyone ought to study the Word and become knowledgeable in the things of God. We all should know what we believe and be able to support it from Scripture. But we should always be on guard against the pride that so easily creeps in. If we start parading our knowledge or using it to “put others in their place,” we are not displaying godly wisdom.
Finally, gentleness and humility are exhibited in several different ways. Gentleness means that we think of others first. Gentleness means that we are patient with others. Gentleness means that we go out of our way not to cause harm. Gentleness means that we practice self-control with others. Gentleness means that we are confident in the strength that God has given us, and we don’t need to intimidate people to feel strong.
As I pondered the words that James writes and how they have applied to me, I cannot forget the impact that Gordon Cosby had on the life that Ann and I have. Ann and I met Gordon Cosby in the early 1990s. Gordon was a co-founder of the Church of the Saviour in Washington DC. This church was not the traditional church. There was no separate building for worship that was idle for the rest of the week. The church was a mission that reached out to the disenfranchised of Washington and by extension to the people of the world. Gordon’s constant message to each of us was to embody the passion and compassion of Christ in our daily living. That is hard, but necessary for a life of humility and gentleness. For Gordon and his wife, Mary, they constantly radiated the love of Christ. Out of their wisdom came many focused ministries that continued to radiate and build the love of Christ to the local community. The Church of the Saviour transformed many sections of the Washington Community.
During our early years of ordained ministry, Ann and I lived at Christ House, a medical facility for homeless men. I was a deep and intensive ministry that transformed our lives.
James 3 is right on! “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, / Courage to change the things I can, / and wisdom to know the difference.”
Thanks be to God.