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First Reading = Psalm 1
1Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.
3They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.
4The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
We are still in our series looking at the New Testament book of James. This letter encourages and challenges us to have a serious faith – the kind of faith that affects our daily choices. Last week we started the series by looking at how trials and temptations are also opportunities to become better people and better followers of Jesus.
This week we are continuing with the first chapter as James pivots to some pointers for daily living.
Sermon Reading = James 1:19-27
19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. 26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Well like many of you, I grew up on games. One of my favorites was Taboo. The idea is very simple. You try to get your team to guess the word on the card without saying any part of the word OR any of the other words listed on the page. For example, if you’re trying to get your team to guess the word “tip,” the game might tell you that you can’t say the words, “gratuity, restaurant, bill, meal, or off.” So you have to listen to what’s said, but also what’s not said.
Let’s give this a try. Try to guess this movie title. There’s a…large body of water. Salty water. And there’s a number. It’s larger than…Roman numeral X. The lead actor was George Clooney. Any guesses? The movie title is Ocean’s 11! Congratulations if you got it. And if you didn’t, I know it was just on the tip of your tongue!
I like that game because it’s not just about accumulating trivia like some games. It’s not just about rolling dice and getting lucky like other games. It requires imagination and creativity from the speaker and the listener. It’s an exercise in creative listening.
That game came to mind when I read our text today. James encourages and challenges us: “let everyone be quick to listen.” That’s an interesting turn of phrase: “be quick to listen.” If you’re quick about something, you’re prepared to do it. You’re practiced at it. You’re giving it your energy. So to be “quick to listen” means you’re a well-practiced listener. Like a game of Taboo, you’re dialed in to what someone’s saying, and even what someone’s not saying.
Are you a well-practiced listener? Does listening come naturally? Or are you disciplined enough to listen despite it not coming naturally?
I’ll preface this example by admitting that I’m cherry-picking one of my positive examples from a sea of less positive examples. But with that admission out of the way, I was talking with a church person a few weeks ago. Well, really we weren’t “talking” per se. In reality, she was venting. She was upset!
Now, when I heard this person’s issue, I had a response rolled up and ready to go. But this particular time I remember to first ask, “Can you tell me more about what made you feel that way?” And here’s the interesting part. The response I had ready to go? It was totally barking up the wrong tree. When she explained in more detail what had happened, how she perceived it, and how it made her feel, I realized we were really talking about something completely different.
In fact, it all stemmed from a couple of misunderstandings. Having learned an internal lesson about not assuming I understood things, I first summarized what I thought she said, then I offered some clarifications, then I asked how she felt with that extra information.
By listening, and then by listening deeply, I was able to understand what was really going on. And once someone feels heard, they’re way more likely to listen to what you have to say. I often tell small group leaders that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. That requires deep listening.
We’re going to try this kind of deep listening as one of our goals for 2021. We’re putting together a new ministry team to focus on online ministry. Not online marketing. Online ministry. There’s a big difference. Where online marketing is trying to gain people’s attention, online ministry is trying to give people our attention.
The idea is to form relationships with people in our city online by listening to them, praying for them, and blessing them. It’s a digital mission field! Some of those people we hope will join us for bible studies or game nights or worship, but our primary goal will be the ministry of listening. You don’t have to be super tech-savvy to do this, but you do have to be comfortable with online chat. If you want to know more about this new online mission field, let me know.
It’s one major way we are trying to develop well-practiced, deep listening as James encourages and challenges us in this text today.
James encourages and challenges us to have faithful ears, faithful listening.
A Faithful Mouth
And the second little blurb from James is like the other side of the same coin. James says, “let everyone be quick to listen, [and] slow to speak.” So James also encourages and challenges us to have a faithful mouth, faithful words.
I am not a big fan of smart speakers, because I don’t like the idea of paying a corporation to listen to everything anyone says in my house so they can try to get more money out of me. But I am glad about one thing. I am very glad that smart speakers don’t live up to their names. And I’m not talking about the “smart” part.
Really, they are “smart listeners” because they’re listening until you ask a question. But what if they randomly just started talking? What if your Alexa just decided to chat you up or spout random knowledge at you whenever it wanted? “Good morning, Kathy, and did you know that Mt. Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain in Africa? The summit is 19,340 feet above sea level! It’s the fourth most prominent peak on Earth! On a related note, the fourth most prominent sandwich in the world is the BLT! And speaking of sandwiches, let me share this recommended deal from your local Jimmy John’s!”
No one would buy that, right?!? No one would want a computer just randomly talking every hour of the day! If we are slow to speak, we don’t have to fill the airwaves with our voice!
This past week I led a Zoom Biblical discussion for college students at School of Mines. And it’s normally a bit hard to get a group you’ve never met to interact with you during a talk. And it’s especially hard if that group is college or younger. And it’s supremely hard if you’re on Zoom and they’re in-person!
Several times I asked a question and was met with silence. Utter silence. I had the urge to fill the emptiness and start talking. But I tried to remind myself to give it time. And more often than not, one or two or three students jumped in with their responses. If I had been quick to talk, they would not have talked. Since I was slow to talk, they had a chance to think first and then talk.
So part of having a faithful mouth, faithful words, is to be slow to speak. The other aspect of having a faithful mouth, faithful words, is to choose your words carefully.
I gave you a positive example on the last one, so let me confess a negative example on this one. I am prone to sarcasm as a form of humor. And my sarcasm increases as I get to know a person better and become more comfortable with them.
I spent a number of years as the youth leader at my previous church, and I got to know some of those students really well – especially the ones we trained for leadership. And as I got more comfortable with those leader students, my sarcastic humor would slowly increase. Three separate times, I realized my sarcasm had actually hit too close to home, and I could see it on the face of one of the students. I had to apologize and then I had to rein the sarcasm back in and be a tad more careful with my words.
Or you probably know the phrase, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” There’s a problem with that, though. I have had hundreds of minor injuries that no longer affect me – including broken bones – but I can still remember some painful words that were spoken to me or about me.
There was a cartoon that addressed this. A little kid comes running up to his father, saying, “Did you hear what he said about me?” And the dad replies, “Well remember: sticks and stones may break my bones, but words…”
The kid interrupts, “Can make someone else feel happy or sad, which is literally the only thing that matters in this stupid world?” That’s actually much closer to reality.
My mom just retired as a counselor, and she spent a lot of time using her words to help people process and heal from other people’s words. Words can absolutely hurt us, and they can also heal us.
So here’s my new proposal: “Sticks and stones will hurt but heal, but words affect how someone feels.” Our words matter. Our tone matters. Will our words bring life or death? Will our words bring peace or angst? Will our words bless or curse? Those are decisions that God leaves up to us. We control our words.
So James encourages and challenges us to be slow to speak, to have a faithful mouth, faithful words.
James then encourages and challenges us to be “slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” In other words, James is encouraging and challenging us to have faithful emotions. Or maybe a better way to say it is being faithful with how we act on our emotions.
Because many – maybe most – of our emotions are like reflexes. They just happen. We get to decide how to act on our emotions. We get to decide if we will feed and reinforce our emotions or try to go in a different direction. But the first emotion is usually a reflex.
You might feel angry, but you get to choose what you do with that feeling.
You might feel depressed, but you get to choose what you do with that feeling.
You might feel apathetic, but you get to choose what you do with that feeling.
You might feel annoyed, but you get to choose what you do with that feeling.
So in context, I would say that James is encouraging and challenging us to be slow to act on our anger, because reflexive anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
Have you ever said something in anger and looked back on it and thought, “Man, that was so Godly?” Probably not.
But at the same time, our emotions are useful signposts. I’ve shared before that the most memorable sign I’ve ever seen was in Israel at one of the archaeological sites. It said, “Stay On Path – Landmines.” That’s a sign you want to obey, right?
Our emotions are signposts like that. When we are angry, it’s like a signpost warning about landmines. Something within ourselves or something being said or something being done touches off anger within us. Warning – landmines! If you act on that immediately, though, you’re likely to stray off of God’s path and strike those landmines.
Our emotions tell us that something matters to us deeply. But take a break! Take a pause! Give yourself a chance to examine what’s really going on. That allows you to choose what you do with that feeling. That allows you to choose God’s path instead of the very human landmines surrounding our emotions.
And the point of all this? James says, “Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
That first part is an interesting image. The image is throwing your dirty clothes away. I remember a mission trip to Tijuana where we were building houses. And we had a bit of a rough time because our site had a lot more of a slope than we originally thought. We were dirty, sweaty, exhausted, and then we had to pour the concrete foundation. When we got back to our compound for the night my jeans were stiff enough to stand up on their own. My shirt, which started bright green, was now solid brown with splotches of gray. And all of it stank. I decided to just throw those clothes away. They weren’t worth keeping.
That’s the image here. James is encouraging and challenging us to throw away the habits that disappoint or separate us from God just as you would throw away dirty, ripped, useless clothes. Throw away the dirty habits so we can replace them with faithful habits.
So to be doers of the Word of God, according to James, we are encouraged and challenged to be quick to listen (with faithful ears), slow to speak (with a faithful mouth), slow to act on our anger (with faithful emotions), and willing to throw away anything that disappoints or separates us from God (with faithful habits).
When we combine faithful ears, a faithful mouth, faithful emotions, and faithful habits, then we are being doers of the Word of God. That’s what faithful obedience looks like – having faithful ears, a faithful mouth, faithful emotions, and faithful habits.
So let’s get real. If you gave yourself – or if God gave you – a score in those four areas between 1-10, what would that bar graph look like? Would some categories get a higher score than others? Would there be peaks and valleys? Or would it be a high plateau? Or a lowly plain? Which of these four areas are you closer to God? And which of these four areas are you further from God?
Faithful ears. Faithful mouth. Faithful emotions. Faithful habits. Where are you closer to God? Where are you further from God? Where have you made progress? Where have you been plateaued? Where have you been backsliding?
I encourage and challenge you to spend some time in prayer this week asking the Holy Spirit to answer those questions. I encourage and challenge you to spend some time in prayer this week asking Jesus to reveal where he would like more obedience from you. I’m going to do that, for sure, because I have some areas higher than others.
Sisters and brothers, faithful obedience to Jesus involves faithfulness across many areas of our lives. Faithful obedience to Jesus requires faithful ears, a faithful mouth, faithful emotions, and faithful habits.
Where does the Holy Spirit want to celebrate your progress with you? And where does the Holy Spirit want to encourage and challenge you to make a change? When you listen and do what the Holy Spirit says, that’s faithful obedience. Amen.