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10/29/00 Reformation Sabbath
by Tony Grant
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the epistle of James, chapter 1 and follow along as I read verses 22-25. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." (RV2:29).
22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.
23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass:
24 For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.
25 But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to Godl
I remember one summer evening when I was a child. It was in JuIy and the days were long, sundown being around 8:30 or 9 O'clock. I went over to friend's house to play hide and seek. We enjoyed the game very much. We enjoyed it so much that we continued to play until after dark, until about ten o'clock. Then happily I went home. I was greeted at the door by an angry father.
"Where have you been," he shouted. "I told you to be home before dark." I could not think of anything to say, because he had indeed told me to come home before nightfall. "You told me you would come home on time," he continued, "yet you did not."
Boy, was he mad. Out came the belt (My father never hesitated to draw his belt. He was the fastest belt-drawer in the west.). Wham, wham, wham. He let me have it (He did not administer light whippings.).
The thing that made him so mad was not just that I had stayed out late. It was that he had specifically told me to do something, and I had said I would, and I had not. That made him so angry that he was about to burst a bloodvessel.
I suppose that the main lesson I learned from that incident was that when I said that I would do something that my father told me to do--I had better do it. Yet it appears that many adults have not learned that lesson when it comes to dealing with our heavenly father.
We seem to have the impression that God is a weak kind of father. You know the kind of father I mean. When his son throws a rock through the neighbor's window, he says, "Little Johnny is just bit rambunctious." Or, when his daughter is a discipline problem at school, he says, "All the teachers are against my Jane."
God is not that kind of weakling, blind father. Yes, God forgives our sins, but he does not approve of our sins. He justifies us; he does not justify our sins. As his children, we are to depart from iniquity. We are to do as he has told us; and if we do not, then we shall not escape punishment.
We are called by the name of Christ. .We claim to be joint heirs with Jesus as sons and daughters of God, yet for many people that claim is a deception. They are not deceiving God, nor are they deceiving other people. They deceive none but themselves. They call themselves by the name of Christ. they imagine themselves to be Christian, and they are not. It is a sad thing for a person to deceive others about his religion, but for a person to deceive himself is the saddest of all. Yet many people do just that--for they have persuaded themselves that all there is to Christianity is to call ourselves by the name of Christ. They have convinced themselves that to profess Christ does not mean to live Christ. They believe that they need only to hear the Word to be saved. They are wrong.
If a woman's house was on fire, and she deceived her husband and children about it, soothed their fears, and put them to bed, and let them die, we would condemn her as a criminal of the darkest stripe. Behold then worse criminals, people who lie to themselves, even though the lie causes the destruction of their own souls. They have heard the gospel. They are not ignorant. This is not a matter of dealing with some unregenerate pagan. They have heard the word of God, but they have not obeyed God. They tell themselves that they can profess without practicing; that they can profess to be a Christian without being a Christian. They think that by giving lip service to a creed that they can live in sin and selfishness and still find that in the end, they are counted among the people of God.
That attitude, the letter of James states firmly, is baloney and balderdash. James is a practical book. It consists of guidelines for Christian living. It might be called a handbook for everyday with Jesus. James reminds us that our conduct reflects what we are. We may say that we are many things; we may kid ourselves about ourselves; but our conduct--the way we act-- reveals us. To be blunt, if our conduct is not of God, we are not of God.
The story is told of a young Greek soldier who was brought before Alexander the Great on the charge of cowardice. If there was one thing Alexander would not tolerate, it was cowardice in the face of the enemy, but this was a handsome youth, and there were extenuating circumstances, so the great conqueror was inclined to leniency. Alexander asked the soldier his name.
"The same as yours, sir," replied the soldier. "Alexander."
Alexander's face ashed with anger. "What is your name," he asked again.
"Alexander, "- repeated the hapless soldier.
"Then you will change your name, ' snapped Alexander, "or you will change your conduct."
James says to us, "Christian, change your conduct or change your name."
But does not the Scripture promise that if we believe, we will be saved. It does not say that we are saved by our conduct. That is true. James is not advocating salvation by works, but James does maintain that if there are no works, then there is no salvation; that if we are content only to hear the word of God, and not do it, then we are not God's people.
In Hebrew, the word "shema" is usually translated "hear," but it means more than the English idea of hearing. It means to hear and obey, to hear and act. The Hebrews felt that if a person did not hear and do; then he had not heard at all. James would agree with that. To hear the gospel implies that we must do something about it. We must live it. We cannot just hear and believe. As belief permeates our being, we act. Our deeds begin to demonstrate our faith.
I heard a story about a Christian man who went to church one Sabbath to partake of communion. He saw sitting on the opposite side of the church an enemy of his; a person who had done him great harm. Hatred rose up within him against that enemy. During a hymn this man walked out of the church. He felt that he could not receive the sacrament in such a state. As he went out into the parking lot toward his car, he thought on the one hand of his salvation, and on the other of his grievance. He felt bad about leaving the church, but he also remembered the harm that his enemy had done him. He stopped at his car door, his keys in his hand, unable to decide what to do. By the providence of God, a verse came to mind. "By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." The man turned and ran back into the church. In the narthex, he met his enemy, who was also leaving the service, who was also troubled. They were reconciled and partook of communion together. That is Christianity. That is putting Christ into action.
Today is Reformation Sabbath, and we remember that our Reformed and Presbyterian heritage has always had a practical streak. When John Calvin moved to Geneva, one of his projects there was to create a Christian community. That meant the people of the community were to hold each other responsible for their conduct. Now Calvin's Christian community in Geneva was far from perfect, because it was run by human beings. But it was at least an attempt to practice Christianity on a community wide basis. Calvin knew that Christ cannot be confined just to a person's inner thoughts. He did not believe that it was possible to be a Christian without trying to do something for Christ in every sphere of human activity--as an individual, as a community, as a nation, as a world. Today, we have mostly lost that part of our reformed heritage. Few people today are trying to establish a Christian community, let along a Christian nation, or a Christian world.
We have hearer religion. We have lots of talk about Jesus. We do not have much doing for Jesus. We are afflicted with hearer religion, which is false religion. True Christianity is based on the law of love, and love always demands that we take action to help those we love.
James says that a person who hears the Gospel and does nothing about it is like one looks at himself in the mirror, and he sees a true reflection of what he is. He does not see a touched-up portrait, he sees all the spots and blemishes and blotches, and then he goes away and forgets. He imagines instead some idealized portrait of himself with all the spots and blemishes and blotches smoothed over.
He kids himself about his appearance, and James is making the point that he kids himself also about his spiritual appearance. He flatters himself that he is a child of God when any objective observer would tell him frankly that he has not one iota of evidence to think that he is such. If he read the scripture, and his own heart, he would see immediately that he is not like those who are called God's people. For if we read the Bible not as something about people long ago and far away, but as the word of God to our hearts, then the scripture becomes our spiritual mirror. To take an example, in Romans, Paul describes himself as one who thought that he was a good person--until he encountered the law of Moses, and the law was like a mirror set before him, and he realized that he had only been flattering himself (Rom. 7:9).
What of us when we see ourselves in the mirror of the word of God? James says: "Whoever looks closely into the perfect law that sets people free, who keeps on paying attention to it and does not simply listen and then forget it, but puts it into practice--that person will be blessed by God in what he does."(GNB)
That is doer religion. It is the only religion. Hearer religion is no religion. So let us get to the point that James is making: Is your life a Christian life? If you examine your everyday existence, can you find evidence that you are a Christian? Look in the mirror of the Word. Do you have the marks of a Christian?
For instance, do you support the church--both with your money and with your presence? There is something about a gathered group of Christians which is more exciting and more meaningful than any other group or organization on this earth--because the church seeks to do God's work. You need to be part of the church because God is active in the church.
You need to be in every church service. that you can possibly attend, because I assure you that that if you neglect the fellowship of Christ, which is the church, then your spiritual life will die. Your religion will be a false hearer religion instead of a true doer religion. One of the marks of Christian people has always been that they go to church.
And you do need to put your money where your mouth is. Some folks say that money is not a part of spirituality; therefore it does not need to mentioned in church. But when the scripture speaks of living in Christ, it means that the spirit of Christ should penetrate every aspect of our lives, and that includes the way we spend our money. It includes everything else too--the way we act toward our families, the kinds of friends we choose, the books we read; the TV and movies we see, the Internet sites we look at, every part of our lives.
Sometimes we try to confine Christ to one section of our lives. We say, "I have this many hours a week for my job--no time for Christ there--and this many hours for my hobbies and relaxation--no time for Christ there--but maybe if I strain, I can give Christ an hour on Sunday.
To that kind of religion, James replies, "Do not strain yourself. Christ does not want that kind of commitment anyway." Christ will accept nothing less than full commitment. Discipleship does not mean an hour or two for Christ. It means lives devoted to Christ.
You might say, "Wait a moment, that is hard." No one ever said that it was easy- to be a disciple of Christ. Jesus said, "Strait is the way and few there are that enter therein." The other way is the one that is crowded. That is where everyone is, because it is easy. The way of Christ is the way of the cross.
But think on this. In the gospel of Matthew, after Jesus preached the sermon on the mount, which is the greatest sermon ever preached on Christian living, he told a parable.
He said, "So then, anyone who hears these words of mine and obeys them is like a wise one who built his house on rock. The rain poured down, the rivers flooded over, and the wind blew hard against that house. But it did not fall, because it was built on rock. But anyone who hears these words of mine and does not obey them is like a foolish one who built his house on sand. The rain poured down, the rivers flooded over, the wind blew hard against that house, and it fell. And what a terrible fall that was." (GNB)
Jesus talked about two kinds of houses, one build on rock and the other on sand. These are houses of life. Jesus is speaking figuratively of two attempts at building a life. Both of these houses were begun with good Intentions.
But one was built on sand. Its builder was hasty or careless with regard to her foundation. She found herself a clear spot and started building paying no attention to what she was building on. Had you asked, she would have said she was building a life and that was what counted. She had made a profession of belief in Christ and now she could build as she pleased. In figurative language, Jesus tells us of the fate of this person. The rains come, the trying times of life, the sand quickly erodes from beneath the house, the walls sag and buckle. Eventually the whole thing collapses.
Because there was no doing in the sand person's religion, because it was all hearing, her soul is lost, her life goes for nothing. She was not concerned to obey Christ. She was concerned to obey only her own impulses, and therefore her life was no more than a house of cards. It never had a chance to be anything else for it was not built upon the foundation of God's word.
Then there was the one who Jesus called wise. This person counted the cost of discipleship. She knew that her spiritual life would be short unless it was built upon the foundation of God. She believed Christ. She put Christ at the center of her life. She did that by obeying the Words of Christ.
This parable of Jesus of course is about religion. What about your religion? What kind of house are you building with your life? Whose Word are you obeying? Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, October 27, 2000