A Scattered Start to 2023

James 1:1-8

It strikes me as interesting as we start this new year that numerous churches have decided over the past two weeks to cancel services: cancel Christmas Day services and cancel New Year’s Day services. Maybe you have some thoughts about that too! I’ll say from the top that the easy (and wrong!) explanation for this is that younger generations (or just people who aren’t here!) love Jesus less. This easy and wrong explanation is very common throughout history and it always goes something like this: people who don’t believe exactly like me, who don’t behave exactly like me, or even who don’t emphasize the same things that I emphasize—well, they’re either wrong or heretics. One of the first things we learn when we become a mosaic community is “My way is just one way!” This is not to question this absolute truths of the Bible! It is to humbly admit that I don’t see everything; nor do I obey God fully.

 It would be far more accurate to say that different generations and different ethnic people have different challenges and different needs in their life!  2023 is the first year that we have begun with the COVID pandemic behind us. And as we enter it, we wonder about the shape of the church: what does God have for River Park Church, for the CRC, or for the church in the west in general? You all know either explicitly or implicitly that the world has changed.  I would contend that the world has been changing for quite some time, but that the upheaval related to the pandemic both accelerated those changes and made them more obvious and established for all to see. 

And one of the big changes that has begun already a long time ago, but that has accelerated and become more obvious and established is people’s trust or distrust of institutions. The “Boomer” generation is Western Culture has a long and trusting relationship with institutions; this includes the church. By contrast, the Millennial generation (I’m on the tail end of it) and those generations that follow have a greater and greater distrusting and distant relationship with institutions.

This is a far more complicated and nuanced conversation that we need to have together—I can’t explain it all in the introduction to a sermon and a new sermon series. Maybe this all makes sense to you! Maybe it doesn’t. But I’ll ask for a little faith and openness as we start a new sermon series and a new year! In part, because one of the temptations we experience in the Christian life is the temptation toward inertia. Inertia is “a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged.” We want to fully understand before we take even one step forward! But this is not the life of faith that God calls us to! Especially not in a changing world.

Pastor Harrison and I have titled this sermon series “Let’s Climb!” because we are looking at the practical steps for the journey of faith that God has for us. We think that James outlines some of these practical steps pretty well—especially in the fight against inertia. You know, of course, that if you want to go on a hike, you need to engage your whole body! You will use your arms and your legs! The steeper the climb, the mores fully you engage your body—and the more you must depend on others. You might go for a walk around the lake by yourself, but climbing a mountain requires not only personal strength, but also knowledgeable and experiences partners. 

So what about the journey of the Christian life? It is not a hill that slopes gently downward. In fact, Jesus says the opposite: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Mt 7:13-14) If you are picturing the Christian life as a broad and gently sloping road, you will be discouraged and stopped at every turn—not because of the terrain, but because you are not prepared for the terrain. Each new year, for example, people make resolutions to become healthier. They do not fail because their resolutions are impossible—they fail because they are unprepared and they try their efforts without enough support.

James equips believers with the tools that we need in order to hike the road of faith together. In the short book, he offers the personal tools we need and the interpersonal tools we need. Of course, these are not physical tools, but attitudes of the heart. Most of all, James regularly reminds us that if we stop moving, we do not remain in the same place—we actually lose ground. We cannot progress just with good words or preparation—the climb of faith requires active obedience to God. 

As we climb, we not only see new scenery, but we are transformed inside and out as well. Just as a picture of a mountain view is nothing compared to the real thing—so also faith without deeds is dead. To the degree that we act out our faith, that is how strong/deep our faith is. Our words mean nothing by themselves. If we think our (empty) words vindicate us, we deceive ourselves. But likewise, we cannot climb successfully if our hearts are not in it—if we just “go through the motions”. 

I started this sermon with information about our changing culture, because this is what we are experiencing as Christians today! We are experiencing new scenery—a newly-developing world (or worldview) around us. We can react with fear or judgement. We can be immovable and insist that everyone else is changing and that we are unaffected by culture. But if we are walking with Jesus, or, better yet, if we are hiking with Jesus, then we had better hope and intend that we are changed.

Change is, by its nature, unstable. But that does not make it wrong! As we go through the journeys of life, we all are changed! And God wants to transform each of us. It’s no use standing around pointing fingers and accusing others (especially those not in the room) of being changed by the world. The moment we look around to others and to our world, we take our eyes off Jesus. And the moment we take our eyes off of Jesus, like Peter in the sea of Galilee, we begin to slip and fall and drown.

The way forward that I am suggesting is simple: if we each are consumed with our own spiritual growth, then we will not need to force or pressure others to change. Remember Jesus words: do not look the speck in your brother’s eye; first deal with the log in your own eye! This is not about carpentry, bout about the attitude of our hearts! Will we wait for others to change? Followers of Jesus cannot afford such inertia. Instead, if and when others do change, it will be because they see God powerfully and beautifully at work in us. This is the difference between legalism and love: Legalism demands that other changes based on the law. But love always goes beyond what the law requires. By love, we draw others into desiring to do what is right, rather than trying to force them. And in doing so, we are ourselves freed from the pressure to try to change anyone else! Instead, we are able to focus every area of our lives in Jesus and on the life and joy that he has for us!

ALL of what I’ve been saying this morning is talking around what James says in our text for today! Listen to what he packs into only 8 verses!

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, 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. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.

James 1:1-8

James is trying to keep us from double-mindedness. What is double-mindedness? It’s asking God for something, then either (a) doing nothing about it; or (b) also to manufacture it in our own strength. In other words, double-mindedness is asking God for something without trust or expectation. James reminds us that we will face trials. Do we trust and expect that God actually cares about these trials? Or do we imagine we are alone in them? Some of our trials, of course, are interpersonal. But many are a result of simple change in our world: children grow up, people move away, we lose jobs or find work elsewhere. The economic, political, and social dimensions of our lives and our society fluctuate. We don’t have to look far to find trials of many kinds. We are sometimes tempted to  fight against all of these trials and changes—and by this I mean, we are tempted to keep change from happening or to try to force things to go back to the way they used to be! 

But friends, it’s not 2022 anymore! And no matter how much you might have loved last year or the year before; last decade or the decades before—we cannot go back. So rather than fight against all of the trials and changes in our world, James give us two amazingly simple answers:

JOY and WISDOM. One brief comments about each before we close:

During  the FIFA World Cup last month, our world was captivated by soccer! A commentator made an off-hand comment during the Morocco-France game that billions of people were watching. And it shocked me because he was right! And what moments of joy were captured for billions of fans around the world when Argentina won gold! What about the joy for Lionel Messi! But already we have moved on, haven’t we, to the World Juniors Hockey Championship. Maybe you’re already thinking about the Australian Open for Tennis, just around the corner. The moments of joy in our world tend not to last. In fact, I was reminded of a story I read a while ago about a tennis player who won Wimbledon at 17 years old! And after he hoisted the cup, he said in an interview that he stood on his hotel balcony contemplating jumping to his death. “I caught it!  I realised my dream! But is this it?  What now?” Those were his questions.

Year after year, no matter what changes and no matter how quickly the changes come—our world has a stunning lack of any joy that lasts. Do you think that the people who aren’t at church are having more fun? And, if they came and worshiped with us this morning, might they know the joy of the Lord more fully? Or, perhaps, a more important question: are you here because you think it’s important to worship or because of it’s your habit? Or maybe it’s a matter of pride or responsibility. But are you here because you are filled with the joy of the Lord? 

And what about wisdom? The author of Ecclesiastes says, “there is a time for everything!” And one of the authors and preachers I appreciate describes wisdom this way: the right thing at the right time for the right reason. When you look to our changing world and you do not know what to do—do you look to God for guidance? And if you look to God (perhaps I can say when you look to God); are you willing to do what he calls you to do? When he calls you to do it? And for the reasons he gives? Or do you look elsewhere too? Do you try to motivate others out of guilt or obligation? Do you let your frustration or confusion or anger hang in the air and wait for someone else to deal with it? This is an unstable way of moving forward, James says. In fact, it’s so unstable that you’re not truly moving forward. 

As we close today, I want to remind you that we’re calling this series “Let’s Climb!” because we need to be prepared for the journey of faith and we need to walk it together. As we continue through this series, Pastor Harrison and I are going to highlight temptations that keep us from the journey God has for us—both individually and communally. And so I’m going to end today with the first temptation in this series: complaint!

At any point, we are tempted toward inertia. Toward lack of movement. Do you want to know the first sign of inertia? It’s very simply complaining. You may be tempted to complain (and I baited you a little bit) about church attendance on a Sunday. You may be tempted to complain about the work that remains for the church or in your own life. You may be tempted to complain about others—they are doing things you don’t like, they seem to have it unfairly easy, the list goes on. 

Complaining keeps you from:

  1. Joy. You cannot complain about your situation and experience the joy of the Lord.
  2. Wisdom. You cannot say, “woe is me!” and grow in a deeper understanding of yourself and your relationship to God and to the world around you.
  3. Working on yourself/Moving Forward. Complaining ensures that you will never have to move or change; it enables you to pin all responsibility on someone else.

Instead of complaining and instead of inertia, let us follow the example of Jesus; who emptied himself out of love for others. He continued the work that God had for him, even though it cost him his entire life. It cost him every hour of every day, and eventually it cost him his life. But, to close with James’ words, Jesus “let perseverance finish its work so that [he was] mature and complete, not lacking anything.” Jesus did everything he set out to do because of his perfect perseverance. Let’s commit in this new year to following his example as we close in prayer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: