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First Reading = 1 Corinthians 10:1-14
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3and all ate the same spiritual food, 4and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. 5Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.
6Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. 7Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.” 8We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. 10And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. 12So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 13No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. 14Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols.
We are starting a new series looking at the book of James in the New Testament. It is believed that the author was James, the brother of Jesus. I would say there are two major themes in the New Testament letters. On one hand you have a lot of the letters of Paul encouraging people to accept that they are saved by grace through faith – not by their good deeds. And on the other hand you have letters like this one that encourage people to take their faith seriously through their actions.
These two ideas aren’t in conflict – they are complementary. A person’s grace-given faith should be evidenced by their actions in their life, but those actions aren’t what save a person. One way to think about this is to picture a parent who is proud of their child because of a decision they made or an action they displayed. Does the child’s decision determine their status as part of the family? No! They were born into the family! But making that decision or living that way makes the parent proud.
Or looking at it from the other side of the coin, when I was in high school my brother came home one day. And as he came in, he tossed his car keys to my parents and said, “If you don’t already know what I did, you will soon.” He knew the car keys would be taken away, so he just owned it. Did that choice that disappointed my parents make him lose his spot in our family? No! It lost him his car for a while, but he was still part of the family.
So as we look at serious faith through the book of James, just remember that your life choices can make Jesus proud or make Jesus disappointed, but he still died and rose again from the grave for you. You’re in the family without your good deeds, and you’re in the family even with your bad deeds. But why don’t we strive to make Jesus proud instead of disappointed? Are you with me? That’s how we will seek to have serious faith.
Sermon Reading = James 1:1-18
1James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. 2My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. 5If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 9Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 11For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away. 12Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
13No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 16Do not be deceived, my beloved. 17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
My younger son’s most precious stuffed animal is Lambie. Unsurprisingly, Lambie is a lamb. And Lambie tags along with Caleb much of the time that he’s at home. Lambie is usually pretty happy and chipper, as Caleb is. But sometimes, you see, Lambie is a bit rowdy. Sometimes Lambie jumps on my face. Sometimes Lambie keeps pestering me while we’re reading a book to my son. Sometimes Lambie can be…annoying!
And when we ask my son to stop, his reply is pretty typical: it’s not me, it’s Lambie! Lambie’s doing that, not me! Have you ever heard that kind of excuse?
To take that a step further, have you ever heard or ever thought or ever said, “the Devil made me do it?”
I believe it is a common misconception that temptation arises from some place outside of ourselves. I believe it is a common misconception that temptation is a burden that is placed on our shoulders. James says in our text today, “But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin.”
Temptation arises from within ourselves. It’s not a weight added to us by others. It’s not a weight added to us by circumstances. No. Temptation arises from within ourselves. Others might make it harder on us. Circumstances might bring our temptations to light. But they exist because of what’s beneath the surface of our hearts, minds, and souls.
Christian author Ruth Haley Barton wrote of a trip she took to Florida by herself to rest, walk the beach, and swim in the ocean. One day while she was swimming alone, a fisherman came running down the beach yelling, “Get out of the water! Get out of the water!” She swam as fast as she could to the shore with her heart pounding.
“Is it a shark?” she gasped. “No! It’s a saltwater crocodile!” She had never heard of saltwater crocodiles, but the locals knew they were one of the most aggressive creatures and very dangerous to people.
She took a faith lesson from that experience. She wrote, “what lies beneath the surface – of the ocean or our lives – really matters.”
Temptation arises from what lies beneath the surface of our lives. You can’t erect a fortress against something that’s already inside the walls. But that realization is the first step to living a different kind of life.
British author GK Chesterton realized this. A newspaper once asked him to write an essay about what is wrong with the world today. Chesterton wrote in reply, “Dear sirs, I am. Yours faithfully, G.K. Chesterton.” What plagues us is trouble beneath the surface of our hearts, minds, and souls. When those saltwater crocodiles within us get called out and unleashed, that’s what’s wrong with the world. I am what’s wrong with the world. You are what’s wrong with the world. We are all what’s wrong with the world. It’s inside of us.
We can’t point a finger at Lambie or the Devil and let ourselves off the hook. We can’t blame the universe without including ourselves in it, either. Darkness lives within us. That’s why we need a savior. That’s why I need a savior. Let’s just go through the seven deadly sins, shall we? The problem with the world is that pride lives within me! Greed lives within me! Wrath lives within me! Envy lives within me! Lust lives within me! Gluttony lives within me! Sloth lives within me!
And unfortunately, it lives within you, too. And everyone else, too. That’s why we need a savior.
Do you know that you need a savior? Do you feel how you need a savior? Would you agree with GK Chesterton that you, me…we are what’s wrong with the world?
Formed By Trial
And yet, James writes in our text today, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.”
So whenever we are tested, whenever we are stretched, whenever we are strained, whenever we are at our supposed breaking point, there’s also an opportunity, according to James. Those moments are an opportunity to develop endurance in our faith and life.
Last year I started 3D printing masks to help kids like our oldest son who chew on their cloth masks. And I started offering them to schools and therapy centers and eventually to a whole rare disease group across the country.
When I started offering them more widely, I got a very sudden rush of orders. My one little 3D printer couldn’t keep up. The nice 3D printer I wanted to buy was back-ordered for months. So I found one in stock online that was, and I quote, “mostly assembled.” No problem. I’ve disassembled and reassembled 3D printers. I could handle “mostly assembled.” I just needed to get it up and running quickly with the orders.
But then the printer arrived. It was in a distressingly small, flat box. And I told my wife, “Uh oh. That doesn’t look ‘mostly assembled’ to me. That looks like an Ikea box.” It turns out “mostly assembled” in this case meant, “all the parts you will need are in this box…probably” It took me several days to assemble, and the orders kept coming in.
That was an unexpected challenge. But I decided to do it right. I looked up some assembly videos from a guy who’s known for being very persnickety. I replaced some stock parts with better parts. I measured and tweaked and calibrated everything. I removed and re-installed an eccentric nut that was one of the very few things actually pre-assembled at the factory, because it was installed incorrectly. I got it to the point where the nozzle of the 3D printer was level to within the thickness of a single piece of paper across every point on the build surface.
It was very annoying! But all that investment of time made that printer my most accurate one. It is more accurate than my more expensive, professionally-tuned machines. I could have slapped it together. But I decided, “If I’m going to have to ‘mostly assemble’ this thing, I’m going to do it as accurately as I possibly can.” And now I get to enjoy the fruit of that labor.
I am not glad that I had to do that much assembly when I didn’t have the time and I had orders coming in. But I’m very glad now that I have such an accurate 3D printer. And I know that machine backwards and forwards, inside and out now.
In a similar way, when we face trials and temptations, it’s not fun. But we have the opportunity to create value, to create endurance in the midst of those trials and temptations. If you’re going to face a trial or temptation, if you’re going to need more assembly on your life than an Ikea box, you might as well get something nice out of it!
For instance, this pandemic stinks! It certainly qualifies as a trial. But did you know that we can become better people and better followers of Jesus through this trial? It’s not the default setting, but it’s definitely 100% possible for each of us to become better people and better followers of Jesus as a result of our choices during this pandemic.
But picture a long-distance runner. Let’s fast-forward to mile 20 of a marathon. That’s about where my wife used to ask me to jump into the race with her because that’s when it got really hard for her. So we’re at mile 20 of a marathon. What would happen if she decided to stop running? How far her momentum carry her? Five steps? Maybe six! A runner only keeps going when they choose to keep running. By default, they stop. It takes a choice each and every step to keep going.
When we are in a trying time, a difficult time, a trial or temptation, by default we will drift from Jesus and the problems that dwell beneath the surface of our souls come out looking for food.
But if we choose, like a runner at mile 20 choosing to keep running, to focus on Jesus even when it’s hard to do so, we build endurance. We become better people and better followers of Jesus. That 3D printer won’t assemble itself. When we put in the work when it’s hard, we grow.
But James takes down one thing I’ve heard quite frequently. Have you ever heard, or ever thought, “Why is God making me face this?” But James took this on directly in v13. “No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.”
When I read that, I come to the conclusion that God doesn’t send junk into our lives to make us better people and better followers of Jesus. Instead, I believe God gives us his own presence to enable us to choose to become better people and better followers of Jesus through the junk that happens in our lives. God is the one enabling the good on the other end of the bad. God isn’t sending the bad to create the good in you. There are probably some exceptions to that, but I believe they’re pretty rare.
God gives us the opportunity to become better people and better followers of Jesus through the trials and temptations in our lives. This past year has been a rough patch for most of us. Have you invested in becoming a better person and better follower of Jesus?
Putting In the Work
So what can you do if you don’t think you’re becoming a better person? What can you do if you don’t think you’re becoming a better follower of Jesus? What can you do if you’re stopping instead of running?
One problem is that we can feel overwhelmed and not know where to start. There’s an old tale from the desert fathers. A monk succumbed to temptation one day, and in his distress he stopped practicing his monastic rule. He longed to take it up again, but he said to himself, “When shall I be able to be holy in the way I used to be before?”
One of the older monks learned of his distress and told him this parable. There was a man who had a plot of land, but it got neglected and turned into waste ground, full of weeds and brambles. So he said to his son, ‘Go and weed the ground.’ The son went off to weed it, saw all the brambles, and despaired. He said to himself, ‘How long will it take before I have uprooted and reclaimed all of that?” So he lay down and went to sleep for several days. His father came to see how he was getting on and found he had done nothing at all.
Why have you done nothing?’ he said. The son replied, ‘Father, when I started to look at this and saw how many weeds and brambles there were, I was so depressed that I could do nothing but lie down on the ground.’ His father said, “child, just go over the surface of the plot every day and you will make some progress.’ So he did, and before long the whole plot was weeded. The same is true for you brother; work just a little bit without getting discouraged, and God, by his grace will reestablish you.
This is the spiritual version of the five minute rule. As we approached Christmas, we realized we needed to clear out the toy closet a bit to get ready for the new stuff. But it was overwhelming and disorganized. It started off halfway organized, but two boys can do a number on any organizational system, let me tell you! So my wife and I each agreed to set a timer, and we were committed to that amount of time clearing out the closet. We each chose to continue past our timers, but we needed to focus on those first few minutes to get started.
Just pick one way that you have been sliding away from Jesus. Work on that. Pray on that. Just do a little bit. As the desert father said, “work just a little bit without getting discouraged, and God, by his grace will reestablish you.” Just do something! Even if it’s a five minute timer in prayer.
And remember one other aspect of that story from the desert father. Was God the one keeping the fallen monk away? No. He did that to himself. He couldn’t imagine or accept God’s forgiveness. He did that to himself! Not God! God was ready to welcome him back and help him build a more faithful life once more. God’s ready to welcome you back, too. God’s ready to help you build a more faithful life, too. God’s grace is given to you, too.
Sisters and brothers, temptation is just a manifestation of something already churning beneath the surface of our hearts, minds, and souls. Like the saltwater crocodile, what’s beneath the surface matters.
Times of temptation and times of trial and difficulty are opportunities to invest and alter and indeed improve what’s going on beneath the surface of our lives. It doesn’t happen by default. We have to choose to improve our souls during challenging times, just as a runner has to choose to keep running at mile 20.
But it just takes a little start. Even five minutes. That’s enough to start a change over time. Because our God doesn’t require fourteen hours of penance and nineteen push-ups and four Our Fathers to come back into his presence. He gives his presence to us freely and helps us live better lives going forward.
How will you invest in your own spiritual endurance this week? Even if it’s hard. Even if you’re overwhelmed. Even if you don’t know where to start. Even if you think you’re too far away for God to welcome you back. That just means you need a savior. Thankfully, God already sent Jesus to do the saving. Amen.