Let’s start with a question…
Who is the greatest men’s tennis player of the last, say, 50 years?
It’s hard to compare across different eras, but at the moment we are blessed with three of the greatest ever, all playing at the same time. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Some might go back to Sampras, or to Borg and Connors, maybe even Rod Laver.
However you could make a good case for John McEnroe being better than all of them. Only four men have won more singles titles than McEnroe. Jimmy Connors, Roger Federer, Ivan Lendl and Rafa Nadal.
But none of them achieved much in doubles.
Whereas McEnroe? Well, oddly enough there are also only four men to have won more doubles titles. Two of them are brothers: Mike and Bob Bryan. The others are Daniel Nestor and Todd Woodbridge. But, between the four of them, they only managed two tournament wins in the singles form of the game.
When you combine singles and doubles McEnroe is way out in front of all the others. Today he’s a much sought-after commentator, here and in America.
But winning tournaments or commentating is probably not the thing for which he was most famous. Some of the media had a nickname for McEnroe when he was playing.
He was more famous for temper tantrums and arguing with umpires. The most famous was in a first round match at Wimbledon in 1981, against Tom Gullikson. He fired down a serve which he thought was an ace. He started walking across the baseline to begin the next point. But despite a puff of dust coming up off the ground, a lines judge had called it out. The umpire backed the lines judge. At which point McEnroe uttered one of the most famous lines ever uttered in the sporting arena. Which was…
You cannot be serious!
Which he later used as the title of his autobiography.
Today I’m starting a new series, based on the book of James. It’s a short book, towards the back of our Bible, which many believe was written by James, the brother of Jesus. Last week I’ve gave out little booklets, offering some background to the book, and suggested you read James for yourself.
If you did, you may have sometimes found yourself, like John McEnroe thinking ‘James, you cannot be serious.’
Sometimes I really hope he was exaggerating for effect. I mean, at the start of chapter 4 he talks about them killing because they don’t get what they want. Now I’ve heard some horror stories from churches, but that’s a bit extreme.
But there may be plenty of times over the next few weeks, when we might find ourselves thinking ‘you cannot be serious.’ But often he is.
And today we come up against a real big one, right at the start.
Some writers think the book of James was initially a sermon or collected bits of sermons, rather than a letter. In any form of public speaking, it is part of the art to try to grab people’s attention.
If this was a sermon, I imagine James’ opening line would have really caught their attention.
My brothers and sisters, consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds.
You what, James?
You cannot be serious!
You might even find it a bit insulting. James, you don’t know what I’m going through. How dare you tell me to consider it pure joy?!
Thing is, as I read the book I don’t get the impression that James was naïve or stupid. He knew how it would sound or read. He knew it would sound stupid. He knew it was not easy. He knew it’s not our natural response. He knew we think of joy and trials as being opposites.
So let’s be clear about something. James is not saying we should pretend that bad things are actually good, or live in denial, saying it doesn’t matter, really, when, in fact, it does. He’s not suggesting we have a stuff upper lip or grin and bear it. Not that long ago we spent a year on all those seasons and words in the spiritual life. About half of them were dealing with the darker side of life. God wants your honesty. God can handle your honesty. Dishonesty gets in the way of any healthy relationship. And certainly with God.
Part of the problem is that we tend to think joy and happiness are the same thing. And we live in an age which tends to think of happiness as the ultimate goal in life.
But happiness is largely determined by our circumstances. And one thing is true about life. In life we will have trials. They are universal. Everyone faces them. Having faith, or following Jesus does not give us protected status. Some trials are harder, deeper more painful than others, but they come to us all nonetheless.
Some are persecuted for their faith. We’ve had people from Open Doors and Christian Solidarity Worldwide tell us of brothers and sisters who are part of the great worldwide church who face persecution for their faith. People of other faiths who face persecution too. James knew plenty about that. He was stoned to death quite possibly within a couple of years of writing this.
But trials can come in all sorts of forms. Temptations, sickness, bereavement, relationship problems, financial worries… Some of them external to us, caused by circumstances. Some internal, the struggles within us, the stories we tell ourselves, or physical struggles.
We can look at others and wish we had their trials, but they might be thinking the same about us.
Not having a job can be a trial.
But people who have jobs have trials because of their jobs.
Not having a family can be a trial.
But people who have family will have trials because they have a family.
Wealthy people face trials associated with their wealth.
Poor people suffer trials because of their poverty.
We all have trials. And they all matter and they’re all significant.
The Franciscan monk Richard Rohr wrote recently about Jesus’ call to take up your cross. We hear that, and we focus on the cross bit. Rohr suggested a different emphasis. In life, the cross is inevitable. We have that saying ‘we all have our crosses to bear.’ And we do. We all have our trials. The cross will always be there. We have no choice about that.
No, the choice or challenge is whether we’ll take up that cross.
Trials will come. No-one escapes.
The question is how will we face them?
Will we face them?
What will we do with them?
What kind of people will they make us?
There is a natural wisdom in what James about tests and trials leading to growth. When I was training for half-marathons, one route would take me down Watford Road, along Sudbury Court Drive, which is a long, slow, boring climb, then up Sudbury Hill. Which is really hard work. I can’t say I ever enjoyed it. But I could see progress by how far I could get up that hill without stopping. And when I was doing that kind of training I noticed that in races I would be passing lots of people on the inclines. Facing the trial of Sudbury Hill strengthened me.
Trials can serve different positive purposes. It turns out we need them. Sometimes they act like those car sensors David talked about last week, calling our attention to something that’s not right and lead us to change course or not do that again. The trial of the hangover might remind the drinker that an extra glass of wine when you have an early start tomorrow is really not worth it and maybe next time do it differently. Some learn that lesson better than others.
Trials and struggle are also nature’s way of inspiring change. Within evolution it’s the creature which is dissatisfied and insecure in its environment that will seek to adapt and innovate. That’s the one that will survive. It is a feature of human development that trials and struggles spur us to innovate, to progress. We seem to be wired for at least a certain amount of discontent so that when trials come we can grow and develop. In life there really is no growth or development without some sort of trials.
But James is talking about something deeper than that. A different kind of wisdom that emerges not just out of life, but out of relationship with the living God. A wisdom that comes to us as a gift from God.
It’s a wisdom that knows that whatever we face we are not truly alone. We are held by a good, loving, generous God, whose purpose for us is not just to survive, but to grow, to thrive, to mature. It’s a wisdom that knows we walk with a God who can not only bring us through this, but transform it and even bring good out of it.
But joy? Where does ‘joy’ come into this?
There’s a young woman in America who follows my paperdolls sermon blog. She herself runs an excellent blog called Beauty Beyond Bones. Of itself it is a great example of what God can bring good out of. Much of it is about her faith and her recovery from an eating disorder .
About a month ago she wrote an article on the subject of joy and about attending a conference about joy, hosted by a woman who had written a book about joy. She said at the time it was great, but later it left her feeling a bit hollow. Then she mentioned a quote from a Fr Mike Schmitz.
True joy is knowing that we are known by God, loved by God and always with God.
James doesn’t tell us when we face trials of all sorts of different kinds, to buckle up, hunker down, grin and bear it, and think this’ll do me good. In that sense it’s not like me running up Sudbury Hill.
No, he’s saying when all sorts of trials come – and they will – remember you are known by God, loved by God and always with God.
James is not saying it is easy or natural. He says Consider it pure joy. Consider. That requires discipline, intention, focus. It requires being open to the Spirit.
You see trials or troubles, they’re quite needy and jealous. They like to suck up all your mental energy. They don’t like you thinking of anything else, certainly not anything good, healthy or positive. That’s why they like nighttime so much. Fewer things to distract you. When you start thinking about something else, trials are all woo-hoo, don’t look at that, look at me!
In those times, it takes effort to remember that you are known by God, loved by God and always with God. It requires that we stop, be still, and be open to the Spirit.
You see, inside we’re telling ourselves stories the whole time. They’re shaping how we behave, think and act.
James is telling us to give space for the Spirit to offer another kind of story.
The Spirit reminds you that your trial or your pain is not the whole of your narrative. It’s just part of this season. You may have to go through it, cos sometimes the best way out of a trial is to go through it, rather than round. But as you do so, don’t despair. It does not have the right to speak the last word over you.
Because through God, by his Spirit, you can have an insight that God can not only bring you through this, but he can invert it and use it for good.
That story had shaped the people to whom James was writing. Whilst following Jesus took Peter and Paul to all sorts of places, James it seems, after the resurrection, spent his days in Jerusalem.
But he writes to the twelve tribes, scattered amongst the nations. That word, scattered, tells a story. In some ways the people of Israel were like the Irish. There were far more of us outside Ireland than on the island. You’ll find us all over the world. Just look for the Irish pub. But, as with so many people’s scattered around the world there are all sorts of stories behind that leaving home, some of them quite tragic.
The same was true for the Israelites.
Down through the years they had been conquered and taken captive. By Assyria, by Babylon. When Rome conquered Jerusalem in 63BCE Pompey took many of the people as slaves.
Others left simply to find a better life, mostly in Egypt and Syria.
It didn’t always end well. Those captured by Assyria never re-merged in history. But exile in Babylon proved the making of that people. Their faith flourished and much of our Old Testament emerged from that time. Those taken off to Rome were useless as slaves because of their rigid Sabbath observance, so they ended up being freed and flourished.
You get a sense of how far they were scattered when you read the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 and see the great list of people groups at Jerusalem for the festival, all hearing about Jesus in their own language. There was barely anywhere in the world where they were not thriving. Which meant that when the first Christians took the Gospel of Jesus out into the world, they had lots of bases to start from. But it was the result of being scattered. They had been through all sorts of trials, some quite horrific, but in all sorts of ways good had emerged from it.
It was also the founding story of the church. It was the story of Jesus, whom God sent into the world to rescue and redeem us. But he had a very strange way of doing it. A couple of weeks ago I outlined some of the trials Jesus faced in life. He lived most of it poor and on the road. His own family didn’t understand him, including James, who, it seems, refused to believe in him before the resurrection. He faced pain, suffering, anxiety for his future, misunderstanding amongst friends. Ultimately he was rejected, executed in a brutal, humiliating, agonising way, all alone.
That was the story of God saving the world. No wonder Christians looked back through their scriptures and found that passage about a suffering servant which started who would believe that kind of message.
This is how you’re saving the world?
God, you cannot be serious.
Yet through it all God was reaching out to save us, and God was able to bring Jesus through to resurrection and us into relationship with him. In a few minutes we’ll break bread, drink wine and remember and retell the story of how we know, even through the worst of what we face, God has the power to bring life, hope, new beginnings.
When we look at the cross, when we look at this table, it’s like God’s saying ‘you think that’s going to stop me loving you? You think that’s going to thwart my plans to rescue my world? If you think that’s going to stop me it’s you who can’t be serious.’
It’s because of Jesus we can know that we are known by God, loved by God and always with God.
It’s by his Spirit within us, whispering within us we can know we are known by God, loved by God and always with God.
So that whatever we face we can face it with the wisdom of God; we can face it knowing we are not alone, for we are known by God, loved by God and always with God.
But James doesn’t leave it there. If he had we might have been left feeling even worse. It’s bad enough going through trials, without feeling guilty about how we approach it.
We might find ourselves thinking James, I’m sorry, but I can’t see it that way. I don’t feel known by God, loved by God and always with God.
There are all sorts of reasons why we might not be able to face trials the way James talks about in verses 2-4. James knows that it is not easy or natural to follow what’s he’s said so far. Even the most experienced and spiritual people will have times when they struggle.
But whatever the reason James has a simple answer.
God wants to help you. God loves to help you. God is generous.
Now you know me, I’m not into prosperity Gospel, name it, claim it, Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz type theology. But one prayer he will most certainly say yes to is the one for wisdom. God likes nothing more than when his children ask him for help.
Perhaps even more importantly, James tells us that God gives generously without finding fault. In your trials it’s not about proving yourself to God, proving that you trust him.
If you struggle, just ask. In one of the very first sermons I ever preached here I spoke to you about how one of the biggest barriers to inviting God into a situation is because we’re embarrassed. It’s not a God-size problem. We really ought to be able to handle this. Or we might think I really ought to be able to trust God with this. By now I really ought to face something like this knowing that I’m known by God, loved by God and always with God.
But you can’t. And James’ opening words might sound hard. But it’s not his intention. He says if you can’t do this, just ask God for help.
And you know what? God’s not thinking really? This? Again? You still can’t trust me? And now you come begging for help? You can’t be serious!
God is not thinking anything like that. God wants to help you. It is not bad to seek help. We all at times have that lack. We all need help. Lacking wisdom but asking in faith is a perfectly acceptable place to be.
But James adds something which might trouble us. About doubting and not being helped.
To an extent doubt has always been part of the life of faith. If there was no doubt, we would be certain and not need faith. It is good to question. It’s how we learn and grow. I wrestle with stuff as much as anyone.
But here’s the thing about doubt. It might be a stepping stone on your journey. But it’s not the goal. It’s not the destination. Faith is where God wants to take you. Faith is where the action is. Faith is where we see what God can do.
God can handle your doubt… if you’re willing to listen.
And that’s what James is talking about here.
We tend to think of faith and doubt as intellectual type matters. What we believe or don’t believe. James doesn’t. In weeks to come we’ll see James is more interested in how you behave than what you claim to believe. What you do will show whether you have faith or not.
The same is true with doubt. Have you ever had someone come to you for advice, then they completely ignore what you tell them? They are going to do what they want to do, whatever anyone says.
That’s what James is talking about here. That’s the kind of doubt he’s talking about. Asking God for help, then ignoring him. God can seek to inspire you, help you, guide you… but your faith or doubt will be shown in what you do. Will you listen? The greatest advice and guidance in the world is pretty useless if it’s ignored.
But if we will listen, we make space for another voice, the voice of the Spirit to speak into our hearts and into our situations. Reminding us that we are not alone. We’re in the hands of a God who not only can bring us through whatever we face, but has the power to bring good even out of this.
God has shown us that in our founding story, which we celebrate at this table, as we break bread and drink wine and remember God’s love for us. God is speaking. All the time. But are we listening?
If we are, we’ll be reminded that yes, trials come.
But whatever we face, we need not despair.
We can face them knowing that we are known by God, loved by God and always with God.