Rocherty UMC August 7th 2022
“Perfect Wisdom” Sermon Manuscript
James 1:1-8

 

          There is a story that comes from India about a travelling sage and a king. The king loved to play chess and almost invariably would win the matches that he played with others; he was an excellent chess player. But one day, a travelling wise man came to see the king. The king, as was his usual practice, challenged the wise man to a game of chess and said that the man could have what he wished if he won. And so, the match was on! In the end, although a close game, the match was lost by the king.
            The king was surprised, but he was a man of his word. And here is what the wise man asked for: he simply asked that the king provide one grain of rice and place it in the first space on the chess board. And then, he asked the king to double the number of grains on the next space. And then double that number on the next space and so on. The king happily went along with the plan—until just a few lines of chess board spaces later the board itself could not handle the grains of rice. Instead of single grains, now the board was filled with thousands—then millions—and then billions of grains of rice.
            The wise man had known exactly what to ask for. His request was simple, and the directions easy to follow. But while the king was an excellent chess player, he was not a sharp mathematician. So, very quickly, the wise man had taken a great portion of the kingdom’s rice supply as his own. And that is the story of how a wise man ate for years with the winnings of just one chess game.
            That’s a cute story. I found it on the internet among several other sermon illustrations concerning the topic of wisdom. It has all the earmarks of a good story:  interesting characters, and an ending of unintended consequences and surprising reversal.
            In real life, the life you and I live here in the world, when WE experience unexpected circumstances, a sudden reversal of fortune, or any other kind of struggle we might imagine, we need what the wise man in our story had in spades: we need the wisdom and know-how to navigate the ever-changing circumstances of life.
            That is what led me to undertake our current sermon series. Over the next twelve weeks we will take a look at the great treasure trove of wisdom that the Book of James has to offer to us. For many, the Book of James is a favorite. It has a lot of practical things that can help us understand how to live godly lives. But it also has a lot of resonance with the teachings of Jesus. After all, it was written by none other than one of the brothers of the Lord!
            So today, I want to take just a brief moment to introduce us to the Book of James, and then we will dive right in. Today we will learn how God can help us when we face testing and trials by asking God for wisdom. We’ll define what wisdom is and learn how it can help us live into our mission as Christians called to love God and love neighbor.
            So. First, a little about James the book—and the man behind the book. The Book of James is one of two books in the New Testament written by family members of Jesus. The other is the short Book of Jude. Most scholars think James was Jesus’ half-brother, either born to Joseph before he married Mary, or being born to Joseph and Mary after Jesus came along. He was among several children, sons and daughters, of Joseph and Mary that are mentioned in the Bible.
            Interestingly, from the Scriptures we are told that James didn’t believe in Jesus’ message while Jesus was on earth. The Bible tells us that Jesus’ family thought he was on the wrong path well into his ministry. In fact, it was only after the resurrection when Jesus’ family, (with the exception of his parents) realized just who and what their brother really was.
            First Corinthians 15 tells us Jesus appeared to James, and from that moment on he became a leader in the early church in Jerusalem. James was a pillar of the church and regarded as the leader of that esteemed body. He was widely respected and was a bridge between the Jewish-born Christians and the churches founded by Paul who were mostly non-Jewish. James’ decision in the Council of Acts 15 over how observant Gentiles need be to the Jewish customs was a turning point for the church, to being open and accepting of all people, regardless of ethnicity or culture.
            And now for the book itself. The book is actually a letter, written in the mid to late 40’s AD, one of, if not the earliest book of the New Testament. There is a lot to unpack in the rest of this morning’s passage, and there are some things in this opening that I don’t want you to miss.
As I mentioned earlier, the majority of Christians at this time were of Jewish origin. They still had their feet firmly planted in the traditions of the Old Testament. And so, in this book, we will find many traditional Old Testament ideas that James has brought forward and read in the light of Jesus and his teachings.
            And now, let us turn to our text. As the Book of James opens, we see right away that it is a letter. We know that because it includes what was in the ancient world the standard elements of the greeting portion of the letter.
            The text opens this way: James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings.
            Ancient letters always began with stating WHO was writing. But there is something missing. Interestingly, there is no mention of James being the brother of the Lord. James, in other words, doesn’t flout his family connections to Jesus. In fact, he does the opposite. He calls himself a bond-servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Another legitimate translation of the word “bond-servant”, doulos in Greek, is “slave.”
            I don’t like the word “slave.” It has to do with our American repulsive history of the institutionalized de-humanization of people, which we did to many people, but especially to those who were brought unwillingly from Africa. I am grieved and disturbed by the disgusting treatment to which they were subjected, the unfair, unequal, unkind… Bluntly, it was and is a sin against humanity and a great evil.
James doesn’t have that kind of slavery in mind here. Instead, he is declaring that he has given his entire life over to serving God. And this is a very Jewish idea. In the Old Testament, many of the most famous leaders, people like Moses, Joshua, David, and sometimes even Israel herself, were called servants or slaves of God. A servant, even a slave, of the ancient world was very much like an employee of our present culture. The person worked under the “boss” who sometimes even paid them wages, gave them direction and orders, and whose name was known in the community. So in appropriating this title to himself, James is pointing out his allegiance to God and Jesus. But he is also pointing out his position of leadership and authority to write this letter to the people who are reading it. He, the direct employee of the guy who started this whole thing, has some important words to share.
            And who are the people who were receiving the letter? Well, we’re not sure as to exactly where the letter was ultimately headed. In other words, it doesn’t mention a city like many of Paul’s letters. But instead it says, to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad. This brings to mind that the Old Testament story of God’s people ends in exile. Israelites were taken away from Israel to Assyria, Babylonia, and other parts of the known world. While some returned under Cyrus and the Persians, many did not. Thus, by the time of Jesus, the Jewish people were said to be in “Diaspora” which in Greek means dispersion, distributed throughout the world. That’s why Paul could always find a synagogue, a Jewish place of worship, in any city he travelled to in the Roman Empire.
            So, let’s review what we have so far before we get to the “meat” of our text for today. First, we have a letter written by James, the brother of Jesus. Second, he’s writing to Jewish Christians who are scattered around the region of what is likely the Holy Land. And third, he is standing in a long line of notable Jewish teachers like Moses, Joshua, David, and the Prophets. So, what is it that James wants these Jewish Christians to know? What are they to do in the light of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection? How then are they to live?
            Well, James has a lot to say. But James is not Paul. Paul uses a great deal of organized, very logical arguments in his letters. He goes from point A to point B and includes lots of “therefore’s” and “so that” kind of language so you can generally follow along with his arguments. But James? Not so much. James writes in such a way that, from time to time, he seems to be jumping subjects quite abruptly. But this is par for the course for the type of letter that James is writing. It’s more of a sermon/exhortation, encouraging people who are undergoing hard times. It is written more in the style of Jewish wisdom teaching than Greco-Roman scholasticism. So that’s how I suggest that we read it.
            In today’s text, James gives us some instructions for how we are to handle the various testings and trials that come our way. His prescription for enduring trials and testing is a simple one: we are to ask God for wisdom with undivided hearts. And when we do so, God will abundantly answer providing us with the tools we need to make it through to the other side.
            First, James tells us to consider it all joy when we encounter various trials.  We need to stop there and ponder a moment. Angela and I just got through a small trial ourselves the other day. We had a flat tire, my cell phone was dead, and when we final got through to AAA, they were hours in coming to fix our flat. In the grand scheme of things, it is a minor trial to be sure, but it was an inconvenience, we had to cancel our itinerary, and shuffle around the rest of our plans for the weekend.
            In other words, I would not call the experience of a flat tire with no means of contacting help a joyous occasion. And I think James would agree with me. You see, what James wants us to do is to “consider” our times of testing and trial as joy. He knows that when we experience these hard times in life, illness, loss of job, grief, the whole gamut of life circumstances that make us sad, angry, frustrated, or scared-- that we’re going to process through emotions we don’t like.
            But what James is trying to tell us is that, because of our faith, because we serve the God of the Universe and his Son Jesus Christ, that ultimately, we can see that our trials and testing have more value and more lasting impact on us than just a momentary bump in the road. James tells us that as we undergo difficult times, it can help us build our faith, our character, and our growth into the likeness of Jesus in love, truth, and holiness. It’s not a “step over” but a step up. It’s not a stutter in the engine, but a moment to shift gears. It’s not a hole in the wall, it’s a door of opportunity. The end of the chapter means a new one begins. And so on.
            But here is the difference between how many people experience suffering and how James looks at suffering. So many people get stuck looking “AT” their suffering. They focus on the near events, the current illness, the current lack of resources, the immediate inconveniences they are experiencing. And it’s not that we aren’t to do that. Like I always say, the God revealed in Jesus and throughout Scripture cares about us, as they song says, “His eye is on the Sparrow and I know he watches me.”
            But what God does NOT want us to do is to get stuck in our circumstances. God does not want us to be a prisoner to the events of our life that don’t turn out the way we want or that goes in directions we didn’t anticipate. Instead, God wants us not to look AT suffering, but THROUGH suffering.
            Here’s an important point. God is not EVER a source of temptation in life. And God is not the source of trials in our life either. God doesn’t create circumstances to make us suffer. But rather, EVEN IN those times, God can redeem and transform us with a very clear result: our growth.
            So, as we learn to look THROUGH suffering to its long-term effects, what are they? James tells us that trials will test our faith with the effect of building in us endurance, emotional, physical, and spiritual. You know, the more you exercise, the more you can do. When someone starts an exercise routine, they often can only go for a few minutes before getting tired or sore. But over time, with practice, and repeated effort, their endurance grows so that they can do more, last longer, go farther, and lift more weight.
            In the same way, as we learn to look at trials, temptations, and times of testing through the lens of Scripture, we see that, if we allow them, these times can help us in our faith journey to grow in Christian maturity and move onwards to what John Wesley called Christian Perfection: being made perfect in love for God and love for neighbor.
            James tells us, that if we cooperate with God in these difficult times and look through to what we can learn, instead of getting stuck in the moment, we will grow in our faith, grow in our likeness to Jesus, and in our faith walk with God. But doing so requires a key ingredient, to which James now shifts.
            James tells us that in order to endure suffering with the right attitude, we need wisdom. And we can tell that this is a logical follow on of James’ talk about trials because he uses a Jewish logical technique called “the catchword.” Notice how verse 4 ends with this phrase “so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” And notice that verse 5 starts, “But if any of you lacks wisdom…” That word “lack/lacking” joins these two sections together.
            James realizes that what he just said is going to be very hard. Suffering is never easy… That’s why it’s called suffering. Going through hard times is painful, it can literally suck the life out of you if you don’t have the resources to endure. And the chief resource we need during these times is wisdom: Godly knowledge and the right perspective to see through our times rather than getting stuck IN them.
            And so, James encourages us to ask God, who has the single-minded intent to give good gifts to God’s children when they ask. And when we do so, you and I cannot be double-minded. This too is a tough teaching that needs a little bit of explanation.
            James is not saying that we can never ever have doubts or questions about matters of faith. He’s not saying that at all. But what he IS saying is that when it comes to this specific request: asking God for wisdom, we can’t have it both ways. We have to trust that God is able to give us the resources we need in the times of struggle that we face and that God’s intention in and through these times are for our good.
            The people James was writing to were going through hard times. Early Christians faced a great deal of persecution for their faith, sometimes even from other Jewish people who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. But James wants them to endure. To ask God for wisdom and not doubt that God is ready, willing and able to give it.
            And so, sisters and brothers, the words of James continue to resonate for you and me today. We may not suffer the exact same harsh social penalties for our faith commitments like the early Jesus movement, but we still undergo trials and tribulations in life. Everyone does. People mistreat us, we lose friends, jobs, loved ones, we suffer illnesses, and we all, unless the Lord comes in our lifetimes, will ultimately face the end of our earthly sojourns at death. In short, life is not easy.
            But God has not left you and I without what we need. This requires a life soaked in Scripture, fueled by the only thing that can help us through difficult times, the perfect wisdom that comes only from God through the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
            If you are going through trials today, I ask you to pray for wisdom to get through—better yet, to LOOK through—to the other side. Let this time be redeemed by God as a way to build your faith, build your character, make you more like the Master in love for God and neighbor.
            And today, for some of you, life may be going quite well. You too can ask for wisdom, wisdom for how you might be of service to others who are going through difficult times. And you can ask for wisdom now, so that when the trials DO come in your life, as they inevitably will, you can face them with joy, peace, and the love granted by the power of the Spirit of God. Amen.