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The World or God

Sep 23, 2018

Passage: James 4:1-10

Preacher: Rev. Dr. Alfonso Espinosa

Category: Sunday, Pentecost


In the Name of Jesus. Amen. If Christians are really the people of God, then why is there so much division among them? Indeed, it is that division the world sees, and it is does not help our cause and is often used as an excuse by the world to reject the Christian faith. “Oh, they are just a bunch of hypocrites.” Ever hear that one?

But the division is there, because while it is fairly-easy for many people to claim the Christian faith, it is a whole other story to define what it means to live as one. God warned us that this would happen: “for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” (1st Co 11:19)

Point blank: if one defines a Christian as one who holds to the Word of Christ that does not change like the world changes, then you will encounter great objections to your definition of the Christian faith. If this is you, then don’t be surprised that you won’t be winning popularity contests anytime soon. 

The Christian who submits to God and His Word, rejects the thirst for power and selfish-ambition, and instead holds to what God says: marriage between a man and a woman is sacred and therefore life-long; the child in the womb is fully known by God (whenever I hear that a woman should have the right to choose, I cringe because women are also in the form of little week-old women or perhaps second or third trimester women in the womb). The problem is who is asking them? Does anyone ask the woman in the womb, “Do you want to exert your right to live?”

Ironically, what has just come out of my mouth – generally -- is also on the list of what defines a Christian and a Christian pastor: “[The world accuses] will you dare speak of that which the world wants to confine to politics, and will you dare say that this restriction to the political realm cannot hold because the Word of God takes precedence over all politics?!” And trust me I know: to take this course means – inherently – to be self-accusatory.

The real reason that we don’t want to hear these things is because we’ve done them, or we’re doing them, or we intend to do them (or all three). And so, St. James also speaks to the pastor-teachers: they are susceptible to having their passions war within them (specifically the passion to be lords, authorities, successes, noted teachers, successful authors, sought-after speakers…they want to make a splash); and in order to serve their prideful ambitions, they murder with their tongues and with their behavior; they are adulterous toward God while loving the world more than God. If a pastor experiences any level of achievement in the world, then he will feel his sinful flesh desire that acknowledgment over and above the grace of God.

So, everyone gets their due conviction when they read and hear the letter of St. James. All have sinned. All have been unfaithful, all have murdered – in one form or another – and all have sought to be their own god, so St. James starts off this section of chapter 4 with this warning about “passions” or what he referred to previously in chapter 3 as “selfish ambition,” (vss 14 & 16) or what he refers to later in chapter 4 as “friendship with the world.” (vs 4)

Selfish ambition and passions are driven by the things of the world. St. John teaches us what this looks like and feels like, 1st John 2:16: “For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride in possessions – is not from the Father but is from the world.”

And yet still, James is even more specific. He is not speaking of general immorality or even general ambition, but the seeking of power and control. These things are the antithesis of humility and love. So if a person ever says that they love you, you must seek to know, “are they saying this from the flesh, because if they are then what they mean by love is that they want to use me,” or, “are they saying this by the Holy Spirit, because then what they mean by love is that they want what is best for me and desire to put my needs over and above their own.” Which one is it? One serves the devil and the other serves God.

But selfish ambition, worldly passions, and friendship with the world for the imagined idea that we are the ones in control to have what we want over and above what God wants is all deception designed to destroy your peace and your life. This is a major problem.

Nouwen warned about the problem: “Stardom and individual heroism, which are such obvious aspects of our competitive society, are not at all alien to the church. There too the dominant image is that of the self-made man or woman who can do it all alone.” (In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1989. 56) Nouwen goes on to describe the church leader who gets it: “[Jesus] wants Peter to feed his sheep and care for them, not as ‘professionals’ who know their clients’ problems and take care of them, but as vulnerable brothers and sisters who know and are known, who care and are cared for, who forgive and are being forgiven, who love and are being loved.” (ibid, 61)

And then Nouwen really challenges us. “What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.” (ibid, 77) For love to come forth, then we must be needy for grace – and know it – and we must be brought low so that in being loved by God, we no longer seek power, but we seek to be God’s ambassadors of His love. By grace through faith in Christ who did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many (Mt 20:28), we also serve, and we rejoice in this new life!

But the devil is also using power to cast its line to hook us. Tim Keller wrote about an experience he had: “During my college years I knew a man who, before professing faith in Christ, was a notorious womanizer. [His] pattern was to seduce a woman and, once he [was done] with her, lose interest and move on. When he embraced Christianity he quickly renounced his sexual escapades. He became active in Christian ministry. However, his deep idol did not change. In every class or study, [he] was argumentative and dominating. In every meeting head to be the leader, even if he was not designated to be so. He was abrasive and harsh with skeptics when talking to them about his new-found faith. Eventually it became clear that his meaning value had not shifted to Christ, but was still based in having power over others. That is what made him feel alive.” (Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters, New York: Dutton, 2009. 111-112)

The first-century environment in Jerusalem included former Jews now Christians still retaining many remnants of Jewish identity and depending on how they were closer or further away from other Jews in society could impact their status, their finances, and how they fit into the overall culture. This made gaining positions of power intriguing and tempting. This also brought on competition and competition brought on factions even among the Christians. James writes very harshly, but he still considers them Christians. This testifies to the real battle we have both within ourselves, but even within the Church side-by-side. Even within the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod we know significant signs of this sort of thing.

But St. James has this word for us to help us and bless us.

Verse 2 describes the problem:

You want something

And do not have it

So you commit murder

You covet something

And cannot obtain it

So you engage in disputes and conflicts

What did they want? They wanted power and when it did not come easily, they committed forms of murder (recall that our LORD teaches in Matt 5:22 that we break the commandment against murder with our thoughts and our words, though religious conflicts have also been known throughout history to lead to physical murder as well…we cannot forget that Stephen, and the apostle James, and our Lord were all murdered based upon religious pretenses against them).

So yes, this is very serious business. James calls the Christian leaders in Jerusalem out, and indeed all Christians who would encourage the factions.

And just when we might get defensive and try to fall back on how religious we think we are, we realize that in this letter St. James is teaching an amazing theology about prayer. There are in this letter three reasons why prayers are not answered:

“Unanswered prayer is caused by doubt (1:6-8; cf. 5:14-15), not asking (4:2), and asking for the wrong reasons (4:3).” (McKnight, Scott, The Letter of James: The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011. 329)

But we always ask for the wrong reasons when we become best friends with the world. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matt 6:24)

So how do we get it right? St. James tells us at verse 6: “But he gives more grace.” And there it is! So much for the idea that St. James does not know nor depend on grace! He depends totally on the free-gift of God’s love and mercy in Christ! We are saved from our selfish desire, our blind ambition, our passions for the things of the world…from all of it, but for one reason: “But [the LORD] gives more grace!”

While it is compelling at verse 5 to consider that St. James is referring to the Holy Spirit [this is how the AAT and NASB versions translate this verse], and the ESV has yet a different take on this verse, there is a third alternative that is pretty compelling: vss 1-4 are all about our drive for power and so vs 5 is a transition and it acknowledges that you and I actually have two experiences at the same time:

“Or do you think it is for nothing that the Scripture says (v. 5a) 

Then we have this paraphrase of Proverbs 3:34:

  1. The human spirit yearns toward envy (v. 5b).
  2. God gives grace (v. 6a).

Then the more direct quotation of Proverbs 3:34 (v. 6b):

  1. “God opposes the proud,
  2. but gives grace to the humble.”

(McKnight, 340)

In truth, this is extraordinarily helpful to us and I hope more than just a little comforting. The Christian knows both conditions. We still have the proud sinful nature; the power-hungry flesh; the one who tries to be better than others while talking trash about others, but there is another aspect to you Christian: it is the one upon whom the more grace is given; and while God opposes your pride (and He always will…He condemns it in fact; and He died for it in fact covering it with His blood); more importantly, He also gives grace to you and makes you low.

We are made low when the Holy Spirit convinces us that we have sinned; and we “mourn and weep” (vs 9). God is not saying that this is how we live 24/7, but as we receive the Gospel giving us Jesus who humbled Himself even to the point of death for us (Phil 2), then it is Christ who leads us to humble ourselves. Lenski: “James describes what must take place when sinning Christians return to God on their knees in true repentance…[he] speaks of self-humiliation in repentance only…[and] The exaltation is thus that of pardoning grace (v. 5, 6); the penitent sinners are restored to their position in this Lord’s kingdom.” (The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Epistle of James, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1966. 634)

2nd Cor 7:10: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret…”.

Christian you have been delivered from living for power and one-upmanship! Wow…what a relief! We don’t have to live for that power-hungry ego that will never let you rest! Instead, the LORD has given you more grace, and more grace, and more grace…so we sorrow over our sin – about to see it clearly – and we are lifted-up daily for new lives. We have a different master now and the exaltation He gives in the forgiveness of sins is priceless making the old selfish ambition thing look like manure. We now serve God, covered by the blood of Christ, with clean hands and purified hearts. Let us serve Him with one mind, with the mind of Christ.