One of the things about having these services every other week, is that it can be a bit difficult to remember where we’ve got to in a sermon series. Especially as we missed the last one for the Service of light, so actually it’s a month since we were last here, together, looking at James. It’s even longer since I preached on the first chapter, and introduced the book of James, and its likely author. That was all the way back in mid September, eight weeks ago.
When I was preparing for tonight, I had a little look back at what I said then, just to make sure I wasn’t going to either contradict myself, or repeat myself too much. In that first sermon we discovered that James, or Yaacov, was probably Jesus’ brother, and thought about the similarities between this letter and the book of Proverbs, and its many links to Jesus’ teaching. We picked up the themes of listening, speaking, and doing, which were woven together in that first chapter, and which continue through the whole of the letter. I suggested that you might find it helpful to print out a copy of James and go through it, colouring in the verses that link to those three themes in different colours.
If you’ve done this, you will have found that almost all of James chapter 3, which we explored about a month ago, would have been coloured in the colour that you’d chosen for the “speaking” theme – it really focussed on what we do with our mouths, and I focussed on this last time, and especially the idea that “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks”, and what we can do to make sure that our heart is full of good stuff so that good stuff overflows in our speech.
Again, if you’ve done the colouring thing, and continued as far as chapter 4, you will have noticed that a good chunk of the chapter that we’ve read this evening also address what we say, and how we speak to people. But, I feel like I covered most of that last time, so I’m not going to focus on that this evening.
Instead, we’re going to look particularly at verses 6-10 and pick up one of those other themes from the first week, the theme of “doing”. As I said then, this letter is very practical – it is about living differently, not in order to earn God’s grace, but as a thankful response to the grace we have already received.
It seems to me that verse 6 sets the theme for the following verses. It is a quotation from Proverbs 3:34 – another link between this letter and the book of Proverbs. But I wonder if it also reminds you of something else? It seems to me to be a great summary of the Magnificat, Mary’s great song of worship recorded in Luke 1, and a setting of which we’re going to sing at the end of the service tonight. It just makes me wonder, did Mary only sing this once. Or was it a song she would sing around the house, whilst making the meals, cleaning, spinning, or weaving. Was it an often heard hymn of Yaacov’s childhood? And of course, it also links into Jesus teaching – “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” and his example – washing the disciple’s feet at the last supper.
So, we have this theme of humility, drawn from the Proverbs, lived out in the example of Mary, mother of Jesus and James, taught and demonstrated by Jesus. We are to be humble. Nor Uriah Heep “ever so humble” fawning and creepy, but genuinely and open heartedly, humble.
Yaacov wants to make this abundantly clear, emphasis it, so he repeats it three times. Banging in the nail. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. Submit to God. Come near to God. Humble yourselves before the Lord. Each thwack is phrased slightly differently, and comes with a different side benefit, but each is aimed at driving the nail home.
Let’s look at each of these thwacks in turn.
Thwack one. Submit yourselves to God and, linked to that – resist the Devil.
That is such a hard word for us, isn’t it – submit. I can’t think of a positive use of the word. Wrestlers submit when they are beaten. Suspects submit to searches or interrogations. Employees submit to the instructions of their superiors. When we submit, we are swallowing our pride, and acknowledging the superiority and authority of someone else. When we submit to God, we are confessing that God is God and we are not. We are saying that God has more right to say what we do with our bodies, where we live, what job we do, who we marry, how we spend our time and our money than we do.
It is not easy, but it is necessary, and more than that, it is glorious. Because, the paradox is that the more we submit to God, the freer we find ourselves. We discover that the things we thought we wanted control of are actually controlling us, and that as we give them to God, so we are freed from their influence on our lives, and the closer we get to being the people God created us to be.
Jesus whole live was a lived example of this, from his birth when he submitted to the Father’s will and came to live as one of us, to his death on the cross, when he submitted to the Father’s will, just the night before he prayed,”may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” Jesus was completed submitted to the Father, and so was able to resist the devil. We see this at the beginning of his ministry, when the devil came to him in the wilderness and tempted him. He was hungry and alone, and the devil questioned God’s goodness and provision, and tempted Jesus to provide for himself, to take power for himself, to test God. But Jesus was submitted to God, he didn’t need to test God, he trusted God, he worshipped God alone. And the devil was left powerless.
Thwack one. Submit yourselves to God.
Thwack two. Come near to God – God will come near to you. This one, is perhaps not so clear – what does this have to do with being humble? I think that it might be about admitting our need of God. It seems to me that we see this at work in an episode that we read about in Jesus’ life in Luke 8.
Jesus is walking through Capernaum, and is met by the synagogue ruler, Jairus, who falls at Jesus’ feet and pleads with him to come and heal his young daughter, who is dying. Jesus agrees, and goes with him. As he walks through the town, he feels power go out from him. He stops, and asks around, who touched me? His disciples are confused, they say, “loads of people touched you, we’re in a crowd” But Jesus persists, and eventually a woman comes forward and explains that she touched his cloak. She had been bleeding for twelve years, beyond medical help, and had reached out for help, and had received it. On top of the healing, Jesus commends her faith, and blesses her with peace, before going on to raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead.
I love this passage, and could preach on it alone for a long time, but on this occasion, all I really want to draw out is that both Jairus and the woman both came near to Jesus with a need – they knew that they couldn’t sort these problems themselves, they were at the end of their resources, they knew that they weren’t enough, and so drew near to God, and found God drawing near to them, bringing healing, life, and blessing.
Thwack two. Come near to God
Thwack three. Humble yourselves before the Lord – he will lift you up
We could choose many examples from Jesus’ life and ministry of people humbling themselves before the Lord, or being advised to humble themselves, so I just want to pick up on two, both from meal times.
Proverbs 25:6-7 says this, “Do not exalt yourself in the King’s presence, and do not claim a place amongst his great men; it is better for him to say, “Come up here” than for him to humiliate you before his nobles”
I wonder if that seems familiar to you? It reminds me of a time that Jesus was at a meal and was watching those coming in and seating themselves in the best seats, and he said to them, “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honoured in the presence of all the other guests. 11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
On another occasion Jesus was eating a meal, and a woman came in, and washed his feet in perfume and tears, and dried them with her hair. How much more can someone humble themselves – crying in public, letting down her hair (something women in that time only did in private), drying his feet with that hair.
And what did Jesus do, when those around began to get sniffy with her, and with him for letting her touch him? He told her she was forgiven, and that her faith had saved her. He lifted her up, and blessed her with peace. You can read about it in Luke 7.
Thwack three. Humble yourselves before the Lord.
Three thwacks, and a nail firmly home. And in this case, the practical application is pretty obvious, we are to do what Yaacov teaches, because it is what Jesus did and what Jesus calls us to do. Go thou and do likewise.