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

Philippians 4:13 I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. NKJV

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James is one of the most beloved and controversial books in the Bible. Luther famously called it an “epistle of straw” because he thought much of James’ theology was in contradiction with Paul’s theology of justification by faith and grace alone. But introducing a new theological framework is not James’ agenda. Rather, he is a leader of the early church who is seeking to encourage the community to remain faithful to Jesus amidst challenging circumstances.

James is the half-brother of Jesus, and although he only mentions Jesus twice in the whole book, Jesus is everywhere in his letter. James is deeply influenced by the teachings of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount. As a Jewish Christian, he is also very influenced by the Jewish wisdom literature tradition, especially the book of Proverbs.

Given these influences, James’ aim in this book is to help guide believers in how to live. He believes that the faith in the Lord Jesus is a faith that deeply matters for all of life and is a faith that should be profoundly shaping the way believers live. The topics he covers range widely and are highly practical, covering everything from speech, class and economic divisions, wealth, hardship, prayer, and love. James believes that followers of Jesus are those whose beliefs are deeply integrated with their actions. 

In preparation for worship the next several weeks, try reading the book of James the way the original listeners would have heard it- all at once! It takes about 15 minutes to read it and try doing so out loud. Or better yet, listen to a recording of it so you can hear it read to you. Pay attention to themes that emerge and listen to what jumps out at you. Pray that the Lord uses this book this fall to shape our community into a people who are following Jesus more faithfully and steadfastly.

As we work with James, this morning, let us repeat the 4th verse again —- Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

In the last eighteen months or so our world has dramatically changed. Don’t focus on the political divide that separates many of us. Just focus on how we have changed. The pandemic has reshaped us. We have learned how to wear a mask when before we would never give it a thought. I went into a bank a few days ago with the mask on. Had I done that two years ago, the alarms would have gone off. Many of us have gotten vaccines to help stem the tide of the pandemic, and we still need to get the flu-shot again. We had to learn how to stay away from others, and Zoom stock soared because of it. We waited to see family and some of our family members have died while we were not permitted to be close to them. It has been painful. It has been tearful. We hurt through the pain and trauma of the pandemic. We have persevered!

 It’s been said that nothing teaches like experience. To some degree this is true of the virtues. 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 you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).

However, Pleasant Grove UMC has persevered over 150 years witnessing God’s steadfast love for us to counter the pain and suffering of our community. Consider how much the world has changed in those 150 years. Ponder it! Remember the changes that have occurred. Remember the trials that have happened the last 150 or so years. As a congregation we have had to persevere! We have had to be patient and we will have to continue to be patient. Perseverance and patience go hand in hand.  In James, the author has written you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. We have been tested. Perseverance is not giving up! It is persistence and tenacity, the effort required to do something and keep doing it till the end, even if it’s hard.

Years ago, Ann and I had an excellent example of perseverance and persistence. We were wandering the back roads of Portugal. Long before GPS. We had detailed maps as to where we were, but the back dirt roads always lead to a unique experience for us. We made a turn and we found that we had wandered into Fatima — the Catholic Shrine where the Virgin Mary, in 1917, appeared to three young children who were tending sheep. Several appearances were over a period of three months. And the Catholic Church verified the reports, and a sacred place of worship was built. Now, Ann and I were there, watching the pilgrims seeking healing. What I remember the most was the pilgrims crawling on their knees towards the shrine — and the distance was several hundred yards. Crawling on their knees – not giving up— persistent — perseverance.

Paul writes in Romans 5:3-5 …… wealso glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hopedoes not put us to shame, because God’s lovehas been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

We may remember that it the past, I have mentioned Joni Eareckson. In 1967 Joni Eareckson jumped into the Chesapeake Bay. Having misjudged the depth of the water Joni Eareckson emerged forever changed. She would from that point forward be a quadriplegic, living her entire life in a wheelchair. She has written extensively of her experiences. She has been an inspiration to many people. She is a picture of our text in James 1:1-4. She models joy in the midst of suffering. Furthermore, she shows that God often has a good purpose in our suffering. On one occasion Joni discussed having her wheelchair in heaven. She said: Where does that type of joy come from? Ultimately, we know the answer to that question is that such joy can only come from God. James 1:1-4 helps our answer to that question becomes more specific.

Many aspects of the life and experience of Jesus provide a profile in patience and persistence. First, Jesus endured nuisance and annoyance from his disciples. No doubt Jesus’ patience with them was partly attributable to his empathetic understanding of their weaknesses. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch remarks, “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” Jesus did know everyone perfectly, completely understanding each person’s perspective. Knowing what it was like to be the disciples, as Jesus did, would certainly contribute to his remarkable patience. The lesson for us is that we should strive to imagine what it’s like to be certain people, what it’s like to walk around in their shoes. This will make us more patient.

Secondly, Jesus withstood boredom. Although this is somewhat speculative, I think it’s fair to assume that it was tiresome for Jesus to work as a carpenter for many years before beginning his formal messianic ministry. For over a decade the Son of God pounded nails into wood. Think about that if you feel overqualified for your job. The waiting might have been the hardest part, knowing his own mission as the Messiah but not being able to declare his identity openly for so many years.

Thirdly, and more obviously, Jesus exhibited patience through severe suffering. He suffered intensely during the passion, which we appropriately focus upon during Easter week.

Finally, Jesus exhibited patience with his heavenly Father as he waited for and worked toward the completion of his mission. Note that, like the psalmist, Jesus cried out in agony, offering his righteous complaints and pleas to God, even quoting Scripture in the process. This was not impatience but a heading off of the temptation to be impatient by taking his complaint directly to God the Father.

So, patience is a virtue, a difficult but important one for the Christian. While every day our patience is tested and, we can hope, increased, we must be mindful of the process of how God is at work in our difficulties, even in tiny annoyances, to make us more like Jesus. We must be intentional about increasing our patience, by practicing the spiritual disciplines of prayer and study.

Our second Scripture from Philippians 4:13 I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me is our stabilizing base for our perseverance. It is through our faith in God’s mighty plan for us through Jesus that we are given the power and grace to sustain us. Yes, there will be days of frustration and concerns. There will dark and raining days also. But there will be glorious days when God’s light on us is abundantly clear and uplifting.  There is coming a time —- no more masks – no more social distancing — no more elbow bumps – just plain old life – compassionate and caring life through an active community of Christians who have persevered.

Thanks be to God.