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First Reading = James 5:13-20
13Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. 19My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
This is the final week in our series about having serious faith. The New Testament book of James has encouraged and challenged us to put our faith into daily practice and daily action. Last week we heard about Christ-like conflict, which means being flexible, giving the details to God, and approaching conflict with grace and humility – not to mention 1-on-1 instead of behind people’s backs.
Just a reminder – we’re starting Lent this week with a drive-through Ash Wednesday from 4:30-5:30pm in our parking lot. We’ll be up close, so we’ll be wearing masks and we ask that you do, too.
But this week we are closing out with James’ parting words to this church community. It’s kind of hard to keep up with James here, because he covers a huge range. He talks to the wealthy. He talks to the suffering. He talks to the joyful. He talks to the mourning. Let’s see if we can find the commonality.
Sermon Reading = James 5:1-12
5Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. 2Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. 3Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. 4Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. 7Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. 8You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. 9Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.
12Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
One of the most memorable movies I have ever seen is Alien, directed by Ridley Scott. For those who haven’t had their dreams haunted by that movie yet, let me spread the wealth. In the science fiction movie, a space-faring crew stumbles upon a lair of alien eggs. As Kane, one of the crew, leans in to investigate, one of the eggs hatches and a spider-like creature attaches itself to his face. Uplifting, right?
Back in the infirmary, they try without success to remove the strange entity. They decide to try to cut it off, but instead of blood the creature emits a strange yellow substance that eats through the floor. They’re on a space ship, so they’re a bit worried as the blood continues eating through deck after deck. If it pierces the hull, they’ll be exposed to the vacuum of space. So the scene tracks the crew as they rush down, deck-by-deck, watching the acidic blood eat through solid metal. It eventually stops, but they realize they can’t kill the alien because its blood is molecular acid and would destroy their ship.
If you want to be further disturbed, just go watch the rest of the movie. Just don’t blame me if you can’t sleep after that. You’ve been warned!
I share this joyous little vignette with you to illustrate that a little bit of acid can go a long, long way. If you want to store strong acids, you have to choose your container very carefully. Some are best with glass. Others need Polymethylpentene or Polyethylene. Others are good with teflon-coated containers. But if the acid happens to off-gas, you have to take extra precaution. And don’t forget about the special caps or you’ll walk into your lab one morning with a hole in your floor! Because a little bit of acid goes a long way!
If you get corrosion on the inside of your car, for instance, it has to be cleaned very carefully to avoid damaging the rest of the engine. A little bit of acid, and a little bit of corrosion, goes a long way.
Corrosion on the inside is not a small problem. It’s a big deal. And it requires careful consideration and concentrated effort to correct.
Here’s what James says about corrosion in our text today. “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. 2Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. 3Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire.”
He starts off with some of the wealthy people in the community, but as I said before he doesn’t stop there. He goes on a wide-ranging tour through quite a number of different life situations. And we arrive at what I believe is the commonality – the underlying theme of this final chapter of James. I believe James is confronting a series of acidic, corrosive attitudes that rot us from within.
The first is, according to James, most prevalent among the wealthy of the community. And that corrosive attitude is arrogance. He says in our text today, “You have laid up treasure for the last days.” What’s that mean?
Well, remember that the early Christians thought Jesus would return within their lifetimes. We sit here 2000 years later and know that they were off by a couple of orders of magnitude – at least! But they thought Jesus was coming back really soon.
So let’s run this logic forward, shall we? Let’s say you thought Jesus was returning sometime in the next 20 years. You don’t know when. It could be tomorrow or it could be a couple of decades hence. But sometime in the next 20 years. If that were the case. If you believed Jesus was returning that soon. If you believed Jesus was coming back that soon to make all things new and inaugurate a new heaven and a new earth! Would you need a bunch of cash stored up for that event?
I don’t think cash is going to still be a thing when Jesus returns, so why were they, according to James, laying “up treasure for the last days?” It makes no sense! When Jesus comes again, you don’t need a bunker or a bank vault for that!
So James highlights the corrosive attitude of arrogance. They believe that if they have enough wealth stored up, they won’t really need Jesus to rescue them. They’ll be all set! They’ll be good! Because of their own efforts. “Go save someone else, Jesus, because I planned ahead!” That’s arrogance.
And that’s a corrosive attitude because it makes a giant, fundamental, incorrect assumption. That attitude assumes that our main problem as humans is a lack of power. It assumes that, if we get enough money or enough resources or enough influence or enough power, we don’t need to be saved by Jesus. But here’s a pro tip. If you have all the money in the world, and if you’re the most powerful person in the world, you will still have problems.
Jesus didn’t come for us because we lacked the finances we needed to save ourselves. No. He came because our souls continually wander from God and only he could bridge the gap. And all the money in the world and all the power in the world won’t fix that. Only Jesus can fix that.
If we think that we can prepare and acquire and build our portfolios in such a way that we don’t need to rely on God? That’s a corrosive attitude of arrogance, according to James. That will eat through your inner soul just like the molecular acid blood of the disturbing alien in Ridley Scott’s film.
But James is just getting warmed up. He has another corrosive attitude to reveal. And that corrosive attitude is fear. But not just any fear. We’re not talking about scary movie fear. We’re not talking fear of snakes or fear of heights. We’re not talking about fear of taking a chance.
No, James has a very specific manifestation of fear in mind for us today. He says some have committed fraud. James says some have taken advantage of their laborers. James says some have built their lives on the suffering of others. He says some have done anything and everything – whatever it takes! – to ensure their own security.
So the corrosive fear James highlights in our text today is a deep-seated insecurity that leads you to say, “I’ll do anything to make sure that doesn’t happen!” Whenever you find yourself saying, “I would do anything…” you might be barking up the tree of this kind of fear and insecurity.
Some people say, “I’ll do anything to protect or provide for my family.” Well…really? How far does that go? Would you harm someone else’s family to protect yours?
Some people say, “I’ll do anything to protect my reputation.” Well…really? How far does that go? Would you lie to protect your reputation for honesty? Researchers have found that kids who are told they’re smart are then more likely to cheat to preserve the impression that they are, in fact, smart!
This example I’m going to share is a bit out there. But I have this three strikes rule with the Holy Spirit. If I think something’s crazy, I allow myself to ask the Holy Spirit for confirmation. If I feel confirmed by the Holy Spirit in the crazy idea three times, I just do it. This story is one of those three strikes conversations I had with the Holy Spirit. I don’t know why the Spirit wants me to share this particular example, but after three strikes I’m going to do it.
In my previous church, I got to know a man who had been an intelligence officer in the US military. He thought, “I’ll do anything to protect my country” when we went to war in Iraq. If you remember back to the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was a fearful time in our country. 9/11 had shaken many to their core. And so, in that fearful time, many thought that the ends justified the means. Anything that protected our good, faithful, blessed country was worth it.
So this man found himself in charge of interrogations in an Iraqi prison, trying to extract actionable intelligence. He was given new orders. New techniques. New rules. He followed those orders, because the ends justified the means. But when I got to know him a few years later, his soul had been corroded by what he, looking back, called torture.
And it also ate at him that the end itself wasn’t worth it! He said it provided worse intelligence than their normal methods. I have no way of evaluating that particular statement, but it’s what he told me.
I don’t know what he did specifically. What I do know is that he had been corroded from the inside out because he thought what he had done was wrong. In his own analysis, he had placed his commitment to seemingly good things above the concepts of right and wrong. And it corroded his soul.
James doesn’t pull any punches in our text today. He says that some of the people in the community cheated their workers out of pay so they could provide for themselves and their families. James says some people in the community allowed others to suffer so they could continue in their own lives of luxury. James says some in the community condemned the innocent and murdered the righteous to protect and preserve themselves.
Those are all examples of the corrosive attitude of fear. I’m afraid to lose my life style, so I’ll do whatever it takes. I’m afraid to lose people’s respect, so I’ll cut a few corners when no one’s watching. I’m afraid that my family will have less tomorrow than they have today, so I’ll do whatever I have to do.
Family is good! The Bible talks a lot about the value of families! But when our fear for our families overtakes our commitment to right and wrong in the name of Jesus, then we’re corroding our souls. People have done terrible things in the service of good things all throughout history.
But James isn’t talking about big historical events here. He’s talking about the real lives of real people in the church. He’s talking to us! He’s talking to you and me! Where have we taken a few liberties out of fear? Where have we cut a few corners out of fear? Where have we fudged a little out of fear? Where have we placed something – even something really good like family – above our commitment to right and wrong as revealed by Jesus?
A faith that has “turn the other cheek” cannot be turned into “the ends justify the means.” Those can’t co-exist. When we place something above our commitment to Jesus – even if it’s good! – fear of losing it corrodes our soul like the molecular acid blood of that disturbing alien from Ridley Scott’s movie.
The final corrosive attitude I’ll talk about today is bitterness. James says, “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.” James also reminds us of the prophets who are “an example of suffering and patience,” and the “endurance of Job.” Even in suffering, even in pain, even in rejection, these are examples of people who did no succumb to bitterness in their hearts.
My wife and I have been using stainless steel bottles for our coffee. They’re vacuum sealed so they keep the coffee hot for a few hours instead of a few minutes like a normal mug. A couple of months ago, my wife started complaining about a weird, bitter taste in her mouth throughout the day.
After several days of this, an idea hit her. And so she asked me to taste her coffee. So I gingerly took a sip…and…blech! It was awful! Her coffee was picking up this awful, bitter, metallic taste from her stainless steel cup somehow. Since I only had a sip, it went away quickly. But since my wife had multiple cups of this over multiple days, it left a literal bitter taste in her mouth for FIVE DAYS!
Persistent bitterness from her coffee cup ruined the taste of her food for five days. Emotional bitterness is similar. If you have a little flash of bitterness and get over it quickly, that’s like me taking a little sip of that bitter brew. It was bad, but it went away quickly.
But if you drink in big gulps of emotional bitterness, it can flavor everything else in your life for days. Now remember, that coffee was legitimately bad! She wasn’t making that up! The situations that evoke emotional bitterness in your heart can be very real! They can be legitimately bad! But drinking deeply from bitterness as a result of those bad things will make other things in your life taste bitter as well.
Emotional bitterness corrodes our ability to experience good things in our lives. And so bitterness corrodes our soul like the molecular acid blood of that disturbing alien from Ridley Scott’s movie.
So we have three big corrosive attitudes in our closing text from James. Arrogance, in this context, is the corrosive attitude that thinks it can prepare and acquire and accumulate enough so that you don’t need Jesus to save you.
Fear, in this context, is the corrosive attitude that says the end justifies the means. I would do anything to preserve and protect my…fill in that blank. When your loyalty to something surpasses your loyalty to Jesus, when you’re so afraid to lose something you’ll do anything, that’s corrosive fear.
And bitterness, or persistent grumbling as James says, is the corrosive attitude that becomes obsessed with emotional negativeness in relationships. And that can corrode your ability to experience positive emotions throughout your life.
Well, what are the inverse, positive, useful attitudes?
Instead of arrogant accumulation, James recommends patience, gratefulness, and generosity.
Instead of fear that compromises your sense of right and wrong in Christ, James recommends strengthening your heart and trusting Jesus even if you do lose what you fear to lose.
Instead of bitterness that makes life taste sour, James recommends endurance through suffering because Christ gives us strength.
Which corrosive attitudes do you need to cut off at the source? And which faithful attitudes do you need to cultivate more?
Our circumstances influence our attitudes, for sure. But James encourages us to choose attitudes that are faithful to Jesus no matter our circumstances. That would take some serious faith. Amen.