Posted in James

Faith Works (James) Part VI: Handling the Truth

you can't handle the truth

Reading: James 4: 1-10

There are very few films I’ll watch again and again, but A Few Good Men is one of them. It stars Tom Cruise as a military lawyer, who defends two marines facing a court martial for killing one of their comrades.

It’s clear they did it. But Cruise’s legal team are convinced they were following orders from their Colonel, played by Jack Nicholson. But proving that isn’t easy. The Colonel is one of the most respected people in the US military. He’s just been offered a very senior post. And he has no time for office types like Cruise.

Cruise reckons if he can get the Colonel on the witness stand he’ll get a confession. He gets him all wound up before demanding to know if he gave the order. The Colonel takes the bait. He says ‘You want answers?’ to which Cruise responds ‘I want the truth.’ To which Nicholson responds with one of the great lines in modern cinema…

You Can’t Handle the Truth!


As I hear those words from James this morning, is the same challenge being issued to me.

And you.

Can we handle the truth James offers today?


Before Christmas I started preaching through the book of James. It’s a short letter towards the back of our Bibles, written by a man called James, who many believe was the brother of Jesus.

It’s a small, often overlooked book, but it contains some very challenging passages. I say this every time I talk about it, but today is no exception.

Some of the language in today’s passage is really strong. He’s writing to followers of Jesus but warns them about becoming ‘enemies’ of God. He even calls them adulterers.

James does not hold back. We might struggle to handle his truth.

But this morning I want to suggest not only do we need to handle it. James tells us how we can.

The first truth is the faith community is not perfect.

Where do all these fights, quarrels, conflicts and disputes come from?  he asks.

It would be bad enough if James was talking about the world generally, outside the church. There’s no shortage of conflict there.

But that’s not James’ concern.  I left two words out of his opening sentence. He asks where do all these fights and quarrels among you come from.

He’s talking about the church.

Bear in mind James isn’t just writing to one particular church. He’s writing to groups of believers scattered all over the place. But he writes to them all, confident that such quarrels and disputes will exist amongst them. He might not know what they are, but they’ll be there.

He’s not saying they’re always fighting, or in the midst of a dispute. But he knows there will be times when peace amongst them is broken.

Cos that’s community.

Where 2 or 3 gathered, there is plenty of scope for arguments.

Church is no exception.


But he’s not done. He’s asking where these quarrels and fights come from.

And we might not like the answer.

Oh, we know the answer we want. Whether it’s not doing their bit, being awkward and obstructive, or just being idiots, it’s other people isn’t it? From childhood it’s one of our first lines of defence. He started it. She hit me first.

 It’s very human to look for someone to blame, and very human to blame somebody else. Anyone but ourselves.

But by now it’s probably no surprise that James won’t let us off quite so easily. James won’t let us point the finger, unless it’s to point inwards.

It’s about desires or wants that emerge within us.

It’s about us not getting what we want.


And me.

Now, hear him properly. James is not saying they’re entirely right; you’re totally wrong. He’s saying deal with your own stuff first. Examine your heart. Your motives. Your actions. Your part in the dispute

One thing we all probably agree on is when you’re in a quarrel, it’s really not pleasant for us or others. But it’s also true that there’d be a lot less of it, if we stopped long enough to examine our own hearts, to recognise our own part in it, rather than just how right we are.

That’s no easier for me to hear than you.

We might struggle to see our differences as  seriously as James is describing here. Yet how often do big arguments spring up over relatively minor things. Oh at the time it seems crucial. But in time we look back and think really? And, trust me, if we don’t others probably will.

James very much agrees with Jesus. Ages ago we worked through the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus talks about murder and adultery. We focus on the end product, but Jesus and James start much further back. With the angry thought. With the lustful glance. With stuff that goes on inside each of us, but goes unchecked and reaches a disastrous conclusion.

I’m not saying there’s never a time to stand for something. But still, if we took James’ advice and examined our own hearts, motives, actions, if we dealt with our own stuff, we’d be so much better placed to recognise that when is arises.

By the way, in verses 1 and 3 James is not saying we shouldn’t have desires, enjoy stuff, find things pleasurable. It’s a particular word he uses, which in the Bible is always used in a negative way. It’s the word Jesus uses when he tells the story of the sower and he talks about the thorns which spring up and choke the seed. It’s about when things become too important and get in the way of our relationships with others and with God.

That’s quite relevant to this passage, as we come to our next truth we might find it hard to handle.

These things that cause quarrels and fights to spring up, they come not just between us and each other, but between us and God.

It’s a good sign that what I want is not good for me when I’m reluctant to pray about it. But often it’s more subtle than that. This is not a complete answer to why all prayers aren’t answered as we would like. But it’s still possible to pray for stuff that really isn’t good for us. A good parent won’t give their child what might harm them.

It might be obvious in prayers like Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz. But even stuff that on the surface seems so good and honourable can have dangerous motives underneath.

I might pray our congregation triples in size this year. That we have to roll back these doors to fit everyone in. That we just fill the baptistry every Sunday cos sure someone will come to faith and want to be baptised.

But is that prayer really about wanting to see Jesus transform people’s lives, or about me being seen as a ‘success’?

Is it about God’s glory or me wanting to look good amongst my peers?

God’s not an idiot. We may fool others and even convince ourselves. But God knows our hearts, our motives.

But the language James uses to describe how this comes between us and God is really strong. He talks of us being friends of the world and enemies of God.

Let’s be clear. James isn’t talking about having friends who aren’t followers of Jesus. He’s not telling us to avoid playing a constructive, active role in our communities and world.

We use the same word ‘world’ in different ways. So did Bible writers.

It describes our planet. James isn’t saying it’s wrong to care for our planet, to be a friend of the earth.

It describes the people of the world. James wasn’t saying we shouldn’t love others or have friends outside the church.

But there’s another way they used the word ‘world’. It was about how the way the world works so often is contrary to how God would have it run. Jesus prayed that though his disciples were ‘in the world’ they would not be ‘of the world.’ He told his disciples how rulers of the Gentiles lorded it over others. Then he said ‘don’t be like that’ and offered them a model of serving one another.

But often it’s more subtle than that. We don’t realise just how much we’re shaped by our culture. It’s so normal, like the air we breath. It’s affecting us, we just don’t notice. From waking up, to going back to sleep, from ads, TV, music, we’re being told how we should look, live, drive, how much we should weigh, how often we should have sex…

As Brene Brown says ‘We’re exposed to over 3000 ads a day. Yet, remarkably most of us believe we are not influenced by advertising. Ads sell a great deal more than products. They sell values, images and concepts of success and worth, love and sexuality, popularity and normalcy. They tell us who we are and who we should be.’

Those messages can muffle God’s call on our lives. And we don’t notice. We live on autopilot. We drift.


And the truth that’s hard to handle is that James says when we do that we are setting ourselves against God and what he wants for us.

It’s not that God feels enmity towards us. James is not speaking of God’s attitude to us. It’s our attitude towards God. From God’s perspective he wants to live at peace with us. Jesus gave his life to declare peace between us and God.

But when we drift ever closer to how this world entices us to live, we’re drift, however unconsciously, farther from God.

And God jealously longs for us to live in relationship with him.

Can I just say our church bible translate verse 5 really badly? In part it’s because no-one actually knows what scripture James is referring to.

In our church Bibles it reads

Don’t think that there is no truth in the scripture that says ‘The Spirit that God placed in us is filled with great desires.’

A much better translation of the second half is ‘God yearns jealously for the spirit he has made to dwell in us.’

God longs for us to live in relationship with him. Not like a king to a subject, or a master to a slave. According to the Bible the relationship God longs to have with us is like a marriage.  So much so that when we drift from God, James and other Bible writers liken it to adultery. That’s a strong, emotive word.

And so is jealousy. That’s not a word we like to use, but within a healthy relationship there is an appropriate use of the word.

Say for example next month I were to send my wife a Valentine card. She opens it up and I’ve written the following message. Of all the women I love, you are right up there!

How do you think she’d feel?

She has a saying for just such an occasion, should it ever arise. Try it. See how that works for you!

There is an appropriate jealousy. That says if this relationship is to work, I ain’t sharing. You have to commit, not leave your options open.

That’s the relationship God longs for us to have with him. Not because he wants to control us. Because he is the one who longs for our greatest good. He is the one prepared to give himself for us.

For all the truth that may feel too hard to handle, James has one more to offer.

God hasn’t given up on us. God still yearns for us.

And God’s grace is greater than our sin.

But we can’t receive it until we realise we need it.

And to realise that we need to face and handle the truth.

It’s very easy to drift through life, not examine ourselves too deeply, and fail to notice the sin that we so easily fall into. If we take James up on the challenge to resist the devil and draw near to God, one of the first things that will come into view is our sin.

That can be hard to handle.

But is also helps us recognise our need of grace.

And that’s when we are able to receive it.

Rob Bell tells a story of how as a young pastor someone encouraged him to visit and observe their Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. As he sat through it he was aware there of something very different, that he hadn’t experienced elsewhere, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

Then it struck him.

It was the honesty.*


No-one was pretending to be better than anyone else. No-one told their stories to make themselves seem better than they really were. They owned their stuff. There was a reason they were there. They’d faced the truth about themselves, however hard it was to handle, and reached out for help, in a safe space to name it.

What if church was like that? What if we truly believed we were a hospital for the broken, rather than a museum of saints.

How safe do we make it to own our stuff?

That what James longs for in this passage. That we face the reality, that we listen to the truth about who we are, rather than hide behind the façade of respectability. That we actually feel the weight of our sin, and own it.

But here’s the important bit. Not so that we can be left utterly desolate, but so that we can be aware of the grace we need and know and experience the grace which lifts us up the humbled.

That’s the grounds of James’ call to submit to God, to resist the devil and draw near to God. Because when we face the truth, however hard it is to handle, that’s the start of the healing process.

It is grace that makes the truth possible to handle. It’s his grace that makes us safe to face the truth of ourselves, to grieve and wail…

…and know that even the worst parts of us arestill loved.

Even in our worst state, we’re invited to draw near. In the Old Testament that invitation was only extended to a high priest. God was seen as too holy to encounter us. Not any more. Through Jesus that door’s wide open to all of us.

When we draw near to God we discover that whatever we’ve done, his love is not beaten. However bad our motives have been, however unfaithful we’ve been to God, God never falters. He’s tirelessly on our side. Whilst we were still his enemies, Christ died for us.

However bad we feel we are or have been, his grace is stronger and greater. His resources are never at an end. His patience is never exhausted. His initiative never stops. His generosity knows no limits.

And as we do that, as we face the truth, we find ourselves able to handle it, cos God is bearing the weight. And we find ourselves being purified, wanting to live differently.

It takes time.

All relationships do.

It’s not a one time thing.

It’s a lifelong process in which outer life and inner life are transformed.

But it begins with handling the truth.

Which isn’t easy, but made possible because of the grace of God. Who yearns for the spirit he caused to dwell in you. Who wants a relationship deeper, stronger and more satisfying that you can imagine.

*Rob Bell actually describes it as a bullshit free zone. 
Posted in Christmas 2018, Epiphany 2019

Epiphany 2019: Keeping the Light When the Star Fades


Reading: Matthew 2: 1-21; John 1:1-5

Intro Star of Land and Sea by The Innocence Mission

I have to admit that today is one of the days in the year that I really don’t look forward to.

January 6.

Twelfth Night.

The day when the Christmas decorations are supposed to come down.


I recognise for some, maybe even most of you, the tree is already down. I try to put it off as long as possible. It’s not just the thought of taking it all down (although I admit in our house there is quite a bit to do). It’s more that I appreciate the light and the brightness which decorations bring to our house and to the streets. Winter feels long and dark enough. Everything feels so much duller and barer without them.

In some Anglo-Catholic traditions, Christmas celebrations have a little way to run. Although the trees and stuff will come down, many churches will keep their cribs in the church until 2 February, which is called Candlemas, when we mark Jesus being brought to the temple and being greeted by Simeon and Anna.

I may not be Anglo Catholic, but that’s good enough for me. There are a couple of little trees with lights which sit either side of our front door, and I’ll keep turning those lights on until Candlemas. That’s my little rebellion against that darkness and drabness of the season. Round mine, the light still shines in the darkness.


Cos if you walk around town over the next few weeks you might notice that the light that once shone has gone. Where the light was is now darkness. You could be forgiven for thinking the light has shone in the darkness, but the darkness has overcome it.

Given how much of a build up we have to Christmas, it can fade from the memory fairly quickly. Maybe the build up is so long we just grow tired of it. By now, I imagine most of those of you who work have started back. Schools start back this week, if they haven’t already, and they’d normally be back by now.

But perhaps with it, the joy and the memory of what we were celebrating also fades. It’s like we’re ‘back to life, back to reality.’ It was nice to remember of the child who was born for us, whose birth was rejoiced over by angels to a bunch of unsuspecting shepherds, of whom wise men were inspired to travel huge distances to pay homage. Perhaps it was nice to get a few days away from work, to take time to stop, to celebrate…

But as the Ray Charles laments, in the song I’ll play in a few minutes, it doesn’t remain. Life takes over and it can feel like we’re back to the same old, same old. Even resolutions to do things differently might have already faded.


That’s not altogether inappropriate. Life isn’t all celebration. It has it’s season. And the Christmas season recognises that. The day after Christmas, which we call Boxing Day is also called what?

Feast of Stephen.

And who was Stephen? 

The first Christian to be killed for his faith.

A couple of days later, December 28 is the day of the Holy Innocents, when we remember the horrific story which we read together this morning and which follows the visit of the Wise Men, when Herod seeks to destroy the Christ child.

We’re reminded that God doesn’t bring new life to the world without a struggle. It’s not without pain. Joy and celebration was short-lived, before the world reverted to same old, same old. The Prince of peace had come, but men of violence were still around.

Christ has come, the world is changed, but there are no shortage of ways in which that good news can be snatched away.


And it might feel the same for us. Some of the voices might be ‘out there’ and hostile. But equally they might be those voices inside us, which doubt the good news.

However God has sent his son into the world because God hasn’t given up on us or our world. The name given to that son is Jesus, which means God saves.

Another title given to him is Immanuel which means God is with us.

That name is a light which has continued to shine in the darkness for 2000 years and, sometimes against seemingly overwhelming odds, the darkness has never put that light out.

Some 2000 years later, over 3½ thousand miles away, we still remember that story.

People who might never return to this church until at least next year came here over the last few weeks to remember and retell that story.

We continue to carry that story. It’s been entrusted to us. To hold onto the light of the Gospel, long after the trees come down, the decorations are packed away and the world returns to carrying on as it always seems to have done. Like Joseph in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, our job is to nurture and nourish the light and the hope that Jesus has brought to our lives.

And there is something there for each of us. It might not be necessarily from the past few weeks. But there might be a moment when you have experienced something of the light Jesus came to bring – a hope, a promise, a dream, something that God has planted within you, a gift from God, something he was bringing to birth in your life. Yet something which can easily drift from sight, can become buried under the clutter of life. Life can get in the way and surround it. It might feel like that light is in danger of being snuffed out.

But it is a light that has not gone out. It shines in the darkness and the darkness hasn’t overcome it. But if we’ll offer it back to God, as we take a few moments to reflect with some music and around this table, may we truly come to see as we enter this new year that God is with us, his light has come and it cannot be overcome. And that light will continue to shine, not just round mine til Candlemas, but into the rest of this year.

Outro: That Spirit of Christmas by Ray Charles

Posted in Christmas 2018

Christmas Eve 2018


Readings: Matthew 1: 18-25; Luke 2: 1-7

I invite you to hold in your hand the holly leaf I’ve just given you. I urge you to be careful. A&E will probably be busy enough tonight without us having to pay them a visit!

These leaves were picked from a holly bush in our manse garden. Jools loves her holly trees and is quite protective of them. There is one by our front door that she has watched grow each year. She was really excited when this year and last it grew berries. And she was ready to go to war when a local squirrel took rather too much of a liking to it and started biting off branches and eating the berries!


But holly is a plant which has always been associated with the Christmas season, not least because of the hymn The Holly and the Ivy. We never really sang that in my church when I was growing up. I’m not really sure why. Maybe it wasn’t Biblical enough. But the same could be said for lots of carols. I look at the words which we’ll listen to in a few moments and they are full of good Christian messages.

And I could draw on those verses, but instead I want to just draw out three short lessons. In the first instance I just invite you to rub the centre of your leaf. It has a nice, soft, smooth feeling.


And that is quite appropriate. For there is a softer side to Christmas. It’s a time of year I love. There is so much good done around this time of year, and the reason given is that, well, it’s Christmas. We might wish we didn’t need to have a special time of year to be kind to one another, to care about somebody else. Nonetheless that’s how things are and I’m glad it’s there.

It’s the one time of year when people are most open to something of the Christian story. I get invited to go into the bank next door and talk about Jesus. That’s not something that happens throughout the year.

And in many ways it’s linked to what we perceive as a soft, maybe even sentimental vision of what Christmas is about. In his book The Lost Message of Jesus, Steve Chalke tells of attending a  civic Christmas service, where, after a passionate re-telling of the nativity story he overheard someone saying, You can see why those Christians love telling the Christmas story. It’s a great sell. After all, who can resist a baby?

It’s a season of Nativity plays, of childish wonder, where perhaps, if we were blessed, we are drawn back to memories of our own childhood.

Even if we’re not specially drawn to the religious elements of Christmas, it’s a season of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, of warming mulled drinks… of families, often scattered all over the country (or further afield) coming together, perhaps for the only time apart from weddings, christenings, funerals…

There is a soft, cuddly sentimental feel to the reason.

And, at the centre of the Christmas story, is love. It is about God’s gift to us. About God’s love for us.

But there is more to the holly than the soft centre. The Holly comes with a points that can easily prick and sting us. The holly has sharp edges.

And there is much of that in the Christmas story. It is the story of trouble in a young relationship on the edge of an empire. It is the story of Joseph, wrestling in the turmoil of so many emotions, as he discovers his fiancé Mary is pregnant. He is a good man, so why has this happened to him? It’s a story of suspicious looks, of whispered conversations, of Joseph longing to do the right thing but not sure what that right thing is. It’s a story of him tossing and turning in the night, as in a dream he reaches his decision to go ahead with the wedding.

It’s a story of young Mary, barely into her teens, taking on such awesome responsibility and risking a huge amount of indignity. Of knowing that no-one is going to believe her.

It’s a story fraught with all sorts of dangers. We’re not actually told that Mary was about to give birth when they made the journey, but it’s a story of a seemingly needless journey, made at the whim of an emperor who wants taxes to keep this people under subjugation. It’s a story of a couple arriving somewhere where you’d think they had family and finding no rooms for them. Joseph is going to Bethlehem. That’s where his roots are. But there is no guest room, and so the young mother is with the animals as she gives birth. And let’s not kid ourselves that it was in any sense a silent night, of blissful peace. It would be a birth as painful as any.

There would be danger on the road as the Christ child is rushed to Egypt to escape the murderous intentions of Herod. I’m conscious how often I end the carol service readings at Matthew 2: 12, with the Wise Men returning to their own country by another route. The story doesn’t end there. It ends with murder and mayhem, weeping and wailing.

Yes, for the all the soft sentimental feelings it can conjure up within us, the Christmas story has sharp painful edges.

And even today Christmas has its sharp edges. We know all too well that the Christmas pictured on the card is not everyone’s experience. From the madness of the sales of Black Friday, through to the violence, shame and embarrassment of Black Eye Friday, there is clearly another side to the story.

It can be a painful time for so many. Some will perhaps be without a loved one for the first time this year. It can be one of those times when the empty chair, the empty space is most noticeable. When others are cheerful and the emptiness feels that much greater.

It can a time when tensions rise to the surface. When people are thrust together, too close for too long, when perhaps more than a drop of alcohol has been taken and things spill over.

It’s a time of stress for so many. Where high expectations are set, either by ourselves, or by others and we struggle to meet them. A time where perhaps many are struggling to afford what they long to give their loved ones. Where things that go wrong can easily get blown out of all proportion.

It’s a time of year when we look back perhaps with fondness, but also with regret. And where to look forward, perhaps with anticipation, but for many, many people, with trepidation, with fear about what the future holds.

So yes, Christmas like the holly does have a softness at it’s centre, but is not without it’s sharpness, it’s potential for pain.

But there is a third thing about the holly. Is that even in the dead of winter that leaf is green. In the midst of mostly dead-looking gardens, it is a sign of hope, a sign of life.

You don’t need to be a follower of Jesus to want to mark the turning of the corner, the time when the days stop becoming shorter, and, however little we’ll notice it for a while, we start the journey to spring, to new life. To celebrate that things can and will change. We’re constantly reminded how we stole Christmas from the pagans, but in truth we all have reason to be glad about retreating darkness and approaching light.

But we didn’t just pick that season by chance. For it a message of hope, even when things seemed darkest, hopeless.

It was in the midst of his turmoil that the angel comes to Joseph and announces that the child who is to be born to Mary will be called Emmanuel, which means God is with us. God is on our side.

And there in the stable area of a house in a tiny corner of empire, God announces his arrival, not initially with a voice from the heavens, but with a tiny cry, shocked into life in the world, longing to be fed and changed.

Pretty much like we might have failed to notice the lengthening of days, the encroaching light, so you would have been forgiven for not realising that new hope was being born in Bethlehem that night. Indeed only some shepherds on the hillside where given any real indication that the Saviour of the World was amongst us. And no-one was going to listen to them.

But cry out that baby does, and announces that God is with us, God is on our side.

And when we come to this table, that is what we remember. Whether we are excited about the softer side of Christmas, or all too aware of the sharp edges that have power to sting us, we are not forgotten, we are not alone. Because a child was born for us, a son was given for us. The world had turned a corner.  At times we might struggle to remember that. But it’s true.

For the baby whose birth we celebrate tonight, is not just the child of Bethlehem, he is the man of Gethsemane, of Golgotha…

… and of the empty tomb.

And by his Spirit he is with us now.

He is a God who is Emmanuel, rejoicing with us in celebration. But he is also Emmanuel, God with us, in the painful times. In Jesus we encounter a God who has been there with us and understands us. And because he is Emmanuel, God with us, whatever life brings, we can have hope, we can know there is life, because nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God, which we celebrate coming into our midst this evening.

Grace and peace.

Happy Christmas.

Posted in James

James Part 5: Get Wise!


Reading: James 1:5; James 3: 13-18

Every now and then, on the internet I see a link for articles claiming to correct me on what I’ve been doing wrong all my life. One thing I’m probably getting wrong is I sometimes click on that links to see what they are!

But from such articles I’ve learned how to properly use  a hair clip, which admittedly, for me personally, is of limited use.

I’ve also learned the correct way to tie my laces, something I thought I’d mastered when I was about 6. But clearly not.

And also how to peel a banana. Most of us start from the stalk end. But it seems we should do it from the bottom end. Apparently that’s how monkeys do it.

Of course none of those things are really going to make a significant difference to my life. Well, the laces one might stop me killing myself falling down the stairs, but aside from that…

Perhaps more serious was an article I spotted on the BBC news website this week that suggests the vast majority of us are not getting this living thing quite right. It suggested that 9 in 10 of us have at least one unhealthy trait. These traits were


Drinking too much

Not eating enough fruit and vegetables


Low rates of physical activity

About half of those surveyed had at least a couple of those unhealthy traits.


We could all probably think of other things to added to that. But even within the study they did, that is quite a staggering statistic. 9 out of 10 of us. Though if we really think about it perhaps not entirely surprising. Maybe we’re aware of one or more of those things in our own lives.

How come we’re so bad, and I can’t exclude myself in this, at healthy living?

It’s not that we don’t know about these things and the risks they bring to our health. The problem is not one of information. We’ve been warned about smoking and told we should be eating fruit and veg and keeping ourselves fit for years.

No, it’s following that advice. That’s the bit we don’t do. Sometimes we struggle to believe it. Oh, they keep changing it

… or maybe we’d like to live more healthily, but it’s hard.  We hear those messages, we just struggle to do them, to put them into practice.

I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount…

Whoever hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.   

But whoever hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  


Wisdom is a common and important theme in the scriptures. It’s seen as the key to a good life, to help us to approach and steer through all the ups and downs that we encounter in life. To keep our house firm when the storms come.

It’s maybe an overused metaphor, but life, including the life of faith is often seen as a journey, a way or a path and we’re reminded of the importance of choosing the right path. The wise path. It’s not always obvious. Other paths seem more attractive, beautiful, better, but often they are ultimately destructive.

There’s a sadness to Jesus words about the right path and the few who find it. (Although maybe the report about our health backs up what Jesus says).


One of the other common features what the Bible calls wisdom is it has to be lived. It’s not just about knowing stuff. It has to be applied. It wasn’t just those who heard what Jesus said who were considered wise. It was those who did it, who took his words and lived them.

There is a difference between being clever, smart, educated, informed, whatever and being wise. It’s often the stereotype of the boffin, who knows everything there is to know about their own subject but has no common sense.

It’s not entirely fair. Not because such people don’t exist, but I’m sure plenty of uneducated people also lack common sense.

But we recognise there is a difference between knowing stuff and being wise. One is a lot rarer than the other. The words of Jesus about the wise being few apply to our age as much as any. As Arianna Huffington writes in her book Thrive, Ours is a generation bloated with information and starved of wisdom.


Wisdom is also an important subject to James, who wrote the short New Testament book we’ve been working through over the last few weeks. Right at the start wisdom was central to helping us face the trials and struggles of life, still trusting in God.

And we shouldn’t be surprised that, for James, wisdom is practical. He’s been like that throughout the entire book. In many ways it is a book for our times. In our generation fewer people are asking is this true? They’re more likely to ask does this work?

 I’m not dismissing the importance of truth, nor would James. But when people ask that kind of question, James is with them. His primary concern is what does faith look like? How does it affect your life? Like the Hindu Brahmin I talked about a couple of weeks ago James would listen to people saying what they believe and reply yes, very nice, but what do you do?

For James the real indicator of what we believe is not what we say, but what we do. Do our actions match our words?

But that didn’t mean our words were unimportant. Last week I talked about how we used our tongue. What we say and how we say has the power to be creative or destructive.

Today James brings those two things together. But then he adds another element into the mix. True wisdom is not just reflected in what you say and what you do, but also how you do it.


In this morning’s passage there are three kinds of wisdom James talks about. They are…

…the wisdom we should choose

…the wisdom we have chosen, or do so often actually choose

…the wisdom which chooses us, which comes to us.   (Repeat)

Do we have any Calvin and Hobbes fans in this morning?

Do you know what it is? It’s an American cartoon strip about a boy called Calvin and his toy stuffed tiger, Hobbes. To everyone else Hobbes is just a toy. But to Calvin, Hobbes is real, so when nobody else is around Hobbes comes to life.

This is one of my favourite Calvin and Hobbes strips. 


Perhaps there were a few ‘misunderstood sages’ amongst James readers. He asks is there anyone amongst you who is wise and understanding? Had his audience been British they’d have probably been a bit too modest, or at least false modesty might have taken over. But perhaps there were a few hearing this who thought they had this faith thing sussed.

Then he adds, show it by the way you live, by your good works.

We’re back in the territory of a few weeks back. Do you really think the way Jesus wants you to live, the way God created you to live, is actually a better way to live? Then live it out.

It wasn’t uncommon in the era in which James was writing to find teachers who didn’t live out what they preached. Not necessarily, or certainly not just within the faith community. In wider society. What they taught was good for the little people, helped them live a good life. But they themselves were on a higher plane. They didn’t need to do that.

It’s not entirely gone away. One thing I have learned in the 5 years since Jools and I moved here is that London has no shortage of drivers who think they’re so good they don’t need the Highway Code!

James says there’s no room for that in the church. The mark of true wisdom is not knowing stuff. Nothing is really known until you’ve made it part of your life. Until you’ve lived it.

He adds show it by your good deeds. We touched on that a couple of weeks ago. The Jewish idea of Mitzvoh. It was that idea that the world was not as it should be. That picture I’ve shown you so many times of how our world is characterised by damaged relationships, between ourselves and God, ourselves and others, ourselves and creation, even within ourselves.

Broken 5

God’s big plan is about his longing to heal all these relationships, what the New Testament calls reconciling all things to himself. We are invited to be part of that. Seeking to make the world more as God intended.

Have you got that message, asks James? Have you understood it? Then show it by what getting involved in that.

So far not much new. But then he adds a third element. To do it with the humility that comes with wisdom. Some other translations say gentleness. Other describe it as meekness.

James says you can have all the knowledge of the world. You can be right and win every argument. But those who are really wise? They’ve got a way of carrying it.


Meekness is not a popular idea today. We hear meek and but all too often we think weak. We think of Gentle Jesus, meek and mild or of cuddly little lambs.

That’s not what meekness is. Last week James spoke about bits in the mouths of horses. Part of training stallions is called meeking them. Recognising they have this raw power, but it needs to be controlled. Meekness is about self-control, restraint.

This is one of my favourite cartoons.

wrong on het

The internet, social media and so on can bring us into contact with people all over the world in an instant. If like me you like a good debate you can get sucked into an argument. Knowledge and education is great. I love it. But there’s a wisdom that knows this isn’t really isn’t that important, it isn’t going to end well so just walk away.

Meekness is probably easier to spot when it’s absent. A couple of stories in the news really annoyed me this week. One was from America. It’s actually a couple of years old, but only came to my attention this week. It was about a pastor in Texas who went to a shopping centre which had a Santa grotto. Here starts shouting at the children that there is no Santa Claus and that Christmas is all about Jesus.

The other was from this week, from this country, about a Christian charity worker who went into a school and did an assembly about how Christmas is really about Jesus, how Santa wasn’t real and to illustrate this she got children to smash a chocolate Santa and reindeer.


My heart… just… sank.


It’s not lack of knowledge. It’s lack of wisdom. I find myself thinking is that really going to end well? Were parents going to think oh yes, he’s so right. Sorry, Bobby, forget Santa, let’s go to this guy’s church instead? He seems like fun!

Are they likely to be won over by that school assembly?

In a few weeks we’ll hear those words again… the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.

Wonderful words. But John didn’t finish there. He added full of grace and truth.

Truth is important.

Knowledge is good.

But it needs to be embodied well.

Without grace, gentleness, meekness, there is no wisdom.

Without love it’s just noise and we’ve got nothing.

And the sad thing is, all too often we don’t see it. We haven’t chosen the wisdom we should.


Instead James points to another sort of wisdom. A wisdom that all too often we have chosen.

If someone told you that James had written this in the past week, after watching the six o’clock news. No shortage of people, on all sides, wanting their own way, but cloaking it in ideas of what is good for us all.

There are two key characteristics of the type of wisdom James is speaking about. James uses them twice. Bitter envy and selfish ambition.

It’s interesting that the history of both the words James uses followed the same path. Their meaning changed over time. The words for bitter envy was zelos, which is similar in root to the word zeal. It started life as wanting to emulate something good. Perhaps like me admiring our church musicians and wanting to emulate them.

But over time the meaning became more and more dark. Maybe an athlete starts out wanting to be as good as their rivals. It starts out admirably. But the longing gets stronger than the admiration and they start to cut corners. To take those performance enhancing drugs. Or it might develop simply into a bitter resentment. Why should they have that and I don’t? Envy is a pretty ugly character trait.

The word for selfish ambition was eritheia. It also had a similar path. It started off innocently enough. It meant someone who got paid for what they did. For doing their job.

But over time the meaning too became darker. It started to mean someone who was only in it for the money, then someone who was only out for themselves.

The trajectory of those words says something about how this second wisdom develops in us. Often the things which bring out the worst in us are not necessarily bad of themselves. But what  starts out innocently enough become more and more important. We need to get our own way.

It starts to become personal. Someone disagrees with us and we see them as an enemy. Ours is a generation which has lost the sense of how to disagree well. We demonise people we don’t agree with.

James says when people start to get envious, and selfish ambition takes over, all sorts of disorder and injustice creep in.

I’d love to say that churches are better than that. But I’m reminded of some words that I heard from a Mennonite woman who came to speak to us about conflict when I was at college.

The problem with churches, she said, is that they are full of people who care.

When people care about stuff they sometimes do awful things. The more noble the thing they care about the more strongly they’ll defend it. People do the worst things for the most noble cause.

And what could be more noble than God?

When you convince yourself that God’s honour is at stake, how far is too far?

Our current generation has seen terrible evil done in the name of gods. But our own faith has been far from perfect down through the centuries. Terrible things done in the name of religion.

And even at the small level, how easy it is for churches to descend into politics. What starts out as good and important can become about getting our way.

It’s the wisdom of how so much of the world works, but it’s not of God. It’s not the wisdom we should choose. But it’s the wisdom all too often we do choose.


But there is a third wisdom. A wisdom that, despite our lostness and bad choices comes looking for us. A wisdom that is peaceful, gentle, friendly, full of compassion, produces good deeds, free of prejudice and hypocrisy.

It’s a wisdom that came to us in Jesus. Everyone of those traits is found in Christ. One who, although he was pure, was prepared come into the mess of our world to meet us and set us right with God.

He was gracious and gentle, certainly with those who didn’t need to be told yet again they were on the wrong side.

Who could look on the woman caught in adultery and say ‘I don’t condemn you. Go, sin no more.’

Who could look on Zaccaheus and say ‘he’s a son of Abraham too.’

Who was reasonable, willing to listen. In the area of Syro-Phoenicia and a woman begged for him to heal her daughter, he was brought up short by her challenge to his declaration that it was not right to give the children’s food to dogs and responded to her cry.

He was merciful. When we were still estranged from him, he was not interested in blame, but gave himself for us, so that we might be right with God. And that the heart of the story was peace. The reconciliation of all things.


It was a wisdom which characterised not just Mary’s first son, Jesus, but also her second son, James. During Jesus’ ministry, his brothers did not believe in him. That changed after the resurrection when, Paul tells us, Jesus appeared to James.

James came to prominence in the Jerusalem church. Then in Acts 15 there is a dispute in the church. The missionary journeys of Paul had started to see more and more Gentile converts, to what had been a Jewish faith. There were some who felt they needed to convert to Judaism to become Christians. The men had to be circumcised and everyone had to keep the law. Others held completely opposite views and it threatened to split the church.

It was James who made the decisive intervention. There’s a lot of discussion before he speaks. But when he does, he displays all the characteristics he describes as the wisdom from above.

 For a start most of us men have reason to be thankful. Particularly those of us who came to faith in adulthood. I’ll say no more.

But he is displayed a wisdom which was pure, which simply wanted to find the right way through. Which sought to draw people together, which was reasonable, open to persuasion, able to discern what was really important, from what really didn’t matter.


James was historically recongised as one who himself fervently kept the Jewish law, but he didn’t force it onto others. He was concerned with right relationships between people. In developing healthy community life.

I sometimes wonder was that something he learned at home. His father, Joseph, was another great example of the man who was quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. Faced with news that Mary was pregnant and knowing he was not the father, he didn’t rush to judgment. He wanted to do the right thing. He still wanted to divorce her. But he was quick to listen, and displayed the considerate, merciful, compassionate wisdom James speaks about, as he takes Mary as his wife, at great cost to himself.

Read verses 16 and 17 side by side.


Imagine two communities. One where people are characterised by bitter envy, selfish ambition and there is disorder and all sorts of evil.

And one where people are pure; then peace-loving, considerate,  submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

Where would you prefer to live?


If it’s the second one, then there is an obvious answer. Seek that wisdom. Choose it. Live it. Be that kind of people.

For that is the wisdom that seeks you. That is the wisdom that came to us in Jesus. But it wasn’t just for him, it wasn’t just for James. It’s the wisdom that seeks all of us.

If it was just for special people, there would be no point in James urging people to display it. But it’s a wisdom we cannot conjure up within ourselves. It comes to us as a gift from God.

James says if any of you lacks that wisdom (and let’s be honest, we all occasionally do) then ask God who gives to all generously without finding fault.


It’s true, we need to cultivate it in our lives. But it comes to us from God as a gift.

Getting that wisdom starts with recognising we lack it. But reaching out and taking what God has to offer us. He’s a God who gives generously to those who seek him.

And if we do it in time we start to resemble what we worship, with this wisdom our God longs to give us. The wisdom that seeks us.

It’s not that we won’t be concerned with truth, but we’ll have the wisdom to know what really matters and how to disagree well. For we have been filled a wisdom that comes to us full of grace and truth.

Posted in James

James Part 4: Watch Your Mouth

words power

Reading: James 1: 19-21, 26; James 3: 1-12

There’s an old Jewish story about a man who lived in a small town, who had a big problem: Whenever he heard a story about somebody he just had to tell it to his friends. He knew it was wrong, but just couldn’t stop. Since he was in business, he heard lots of rumours and stories.

One day he found out something really weird (but true) about another businessman in town. He passed it on to colleagues, who told their friends and neighbours, who told their friends and neighbours. Soon it was all over town, until the other businessman heard it.

He ran to the rabbi of the town, and complained that he was ruined! Nobody would like to deal with him after this. His good name and his reputation were shattered.

So the rabbi visited the man who loved to gossip. When the gossiper heard how hurt the other man was, he felt truly sorry. He had not considered it such a big deal to tell this story, because it was true; the rabbi could check if he wanted.

The rabbi sighed. “True, not true, that really makes no difference! You just cannot tell stories about people. It’s like murder—you kill a person’s reputation.”

The man who started the rumour now felt really bad and sorry. “What can I do to make it undone?” he sobbed. “I’ll do anything!”

The rabbi looked at him. “Bring me a feather pillow!’  So the man did. The rabbi then handed him a knife. “Cut it open!”

The man did. A cloud of feathers came out. It was a windy day and they floated all over the place. Onto the rabbi, onto the man, up a tree, across fields, off they went in a big swirling, trail.

Then he ordered the man: “Now bring me back all the feathers, and stuff them back in your pillow. All of them!”

The man stared at the rabbi in disbelief. “That’s impossible, Rabbi.  I can’t do that, you know it!”

“Yes,” said the rabbi, “and that is how it is with gossip. Once it leaves your mouth, you don’t know where goes and you never get it back!”

We’re working through the book of James, It’s a small book, written, many believe by James, who was the brother of Jesus, but as we’ve already seen it’s challenging. And few parts more so than today.

Sometimes I have to explain something the context of the Bible world and help bridge the gap between their their and ours. Today is not one of those times. This virtually preaches itself. We know this to be true.

In last week’s passage James said it’s not what you say that’s important, but what you do. That’ll show what you believe.

But that doesn’t mean words don’t matter. Quite the opposite. In today’s passage, James tells us our words are very important. Faith needs to be more than words, but words matter.

It’s especially humbling for people like me. For those who would assume the position of teacher in the church. It’s not just true in church life, but in all of life. People often say you shouldn’t learn to drive with a family member. They will pass on their bad habits, to which each person will add their own. Jewish rabbis used to warn about being careful what you teach. Students will compound a minor error and in turn will teach nonsense.


But James isn’t just speaking to teachers. This message is for all of us. Our era is a perfect example of what James is talking about. Twitter and Facebook have given us a real insight into what goes on in our hearts and minds, and it’s often not good.

Today we have access to celebrities and politicians that we simply didn’t have before. From the seeming anonymity of a computer keyboard, people say things they would probably think twice about saying in public.

There’s been a lot in our news about threats and hatred directed at our politicians, particularly female politicians. Amongst themselves there has been discussion about how to handle political discourse, because words have power greater than we know. They can affect how others act.

More and more we see stuff that people have said years ago, being used against them. I am so glad I did not grow up in the age of social media. I can think of countless things I’ve said, which are best left back there. I’ve grown up. I know more. But I’d still hate to have them played back to me.

Our tongue is tiny but powerful. It offers no end of opportunities to mess up, harsh words, half-truths, gossip… I’ve lived with this passage particularly all week and I’ve seen how easy it is to fall.

James says if we learned to control our tongues we’d achieve perfection. He almost dangles that idea out like it is a possibility, before snatching it way. It’s never been fully done. We’ve tamed all sorts of wild animals, he says, but no-one has ever completely tamed their tongue.

We all often make mistakes. We all stumble in many ways.

Can we just take a moment to acknowledge that?

We all stumble in many ways.

Each of us may done things that we regret, and wish we could undo. But I’d suggest that these are vastly outnumbered by words we wish we’d never said. Not just hasty words, but considered words, those moments when we’ve known precisely which buttons to press to cause most damage, those moments when, in the midst of the heated argument, you’ve known precisely the one thing we shouldn’t say, which will make things so much worse… and yet we’ve said it. And it’s out there. We can’t get it back.

James offers great wisdom in the first part of our reading. He urges us to be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry. I love how the Message put this. Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, let anger straggle along behind.

It’s easy to assume that we know what someone is going to say. To not really be listening, to just be waiting for our opportunity to pitch into the conversation what we were going to say, or what we think should be done.

But James’ words about anger are especially important. Anger doesn’t put us in a position to listen well, to truly hear what the other person is trying to say. We very rarely make good decisions or act fairly when we are angry. When anger enters the room, listening flies out the window.

Notice James doesn’t say NEVER be angry, nor does he encourage us to be completely silent. There are times when it is probably good to get angry. But they are rare. If we’re really honest, less of our anger fits into the righteous category than we dare to admit. We need to be careful.

Each of us knows we are capable of being really good and being pretty terrible. We are a mix of ape and angel; hero and villain; saint and sinner. We all have our moments.

And in no area of our lives is this is more apparent than our tongues. It is tiny, but it exerts great influence. Only a fraction of it is the words we speak. Ideas and thoughts we put into words. We use it to descend into self-pity, to think dismissive thoughts about someone, even if we never actually say them, to imagine that argument we would have with someone, where they would simply not be able to answer you, and others would see how right you were, to develop lustful thoughts… The tongue influences so much of life, how we feel, and in turn later how we act…

And that’s before we consider what we tell ourselves. Our worst enemies would not talk to us the way we often talks to ourselves. With our words we can build up or destroy others… and ourselves.

We all know that the saying sticks and stone may break my bones, but names will never hurt me is utter nonsense. Broken bones can heal, but many of us carry wounds inflicted on us by words of others for many years. The damage caused by words is deep and lasting. And one word spoken out of turn can undo so much good.

We all know something of the power of words. At the beginning of the Bible how does God create the world?

He speaks. Through words things come into being.

Words create worlds.

They can bring courage to those who are struggling, they can inspire us into action, they can cheer the discouraged and brokenhearted. Three little words I love you can transform everything. Two little words I do can create a whole new family as a couple give themselves to one another in marriage.

But they can also be highly destructive of worlds. I hate you; you’re useless, you’ll never amount to anything, no-one would believe you, who would listen to you…  we can damn others to a life where bit by bit doors close, opportunities and shut down, hopes fade.

All from words.

All from the tongue.

This morning I want to show you something.

Have you ever walked into a room and without anyone saying anything, you’ve just known something is wrong? You just feel it.

It might actually be the opposite feeling. You go into a place and get a  good feeling or a sense of peace. People often say that about our church. Not even necessarily people of faith. I get it all the time.

You might not be able to explain why you feel this way, good or bad. But you might say I can feel it in my waters? Ever heard that phrase?

Well this morning I want to introduce you to someone who suggests there might be more to that than you think.

His name was Masaru Emoto.

He was a Japanese researcher. He died in 2014. He was probably most famous for experiments involving water crystals. There was an exhibition of his work in London, but it was long before I came here.

He recorded it in his book The Hidden Messages in Water. I don’t think he would have described his work as spiritual. But he did look at the power of our words. At how things we say or do, or that we surround ourselves with make a big difference.

What he did, with some variation, is type words and phrases is a variety of different languages onto sheets of paper and he taped them to glasses of water. Sometimes he, or others spoke to the water. Sometimes they played music.

Then he froze the water and took photographs of the crystals formed.

The experiments are not without their critics.  But before we just utterly dismiss this have a look at some of the results…

Notice how positive phrases, led to patterns emerging,

whereas the negative messages lead to chaos.

Now I’m sure at least some of us aren’t buying this. The work has plenty of critics. I’m not even sure what I think myself.

Yet somethings we do know…

We walk into room and talk about being able to feel something without being able to explain it.

We know phrases like thank you or I love you create a real warm feeling within us, whereas someone says something horrible to us and it unsettles us.

We know that music stirs something within us and can’t often explain why it moves us as it does.

And we know that we are 55-60% water.

We know that good, positive messages have the power to create something beautiful, whilst negative messages have the power to destroy.


What are the messages we are surrounding ourselves with? That we’re an accident? A product of chance? An insignificant speck in the universe? And unintelligent animal?

Or that we’re precious, loved into existence by a God who numbers the very hairs on our head?

The stories we tell ourselves, the words we use make a difference.

What messages are we sending out? That God loves us unconditionally, or that we are superior and that God is angry, ever ready to punish?

Words have power. Way beyond what we imagine. They’re capable of great things.


But the tongue can be full of deadly poison. It is small, but of great importance. It can steer the direction of our lives in the same way as a small rudder can steer a ship, even through fierce winds.


And the bad news is that although we’ve tamed all sorts of animals as yet, no-one has tamed the tongue.

So what do we do with that?

James echoes Jesus when he says our tongues are an indicator of the state of our hearts. If our tongues are to be changed, so must our hearts. On our own we are powerless, but we’re not left to ourselves.

If I had started just one verse earlier, we’d have read about another word. A word which brings life. James speak of God giving us new birth through the word of truth.

That is the word to which we should be quick to listen. To allow put ourselves in a position where we can hear that word. Be it together, in worship, or in private, in prayer, in scripture… Surrounding ourselves in what is good, wholesome, helpful, healthy. If we are quick to listen and slow to speak, we allow time for that message to sink in before we open our mouths. And hopefully that will then reshape what we say.


We may never be able to completely control our tongues, but we can create the environment where we hear the good word of God, full not just of truth, but also of grace.


James talks of ridding ourselves of moral filth. The word he uses for that was from the same root as the wax that builds up in our ears. It’s like he’s saying get rid of what stops us hearing or listening to the good news of what God has done for us in Christ. Allow the good to be cultivated. Create space to allow it to be implanted, germinated.

I’ve spoken before about how easy it is for the bad side of life to scream at us, and the moments of blessing can be harder to recall. I keep coming back to this point of allowing yourself the time to notice the good, the things for which you are thankful, the things which are worthy of praise. I’m not going to tire of telling you it. I’m far from perfect,. I too fall in many ways. But when I do this stuff, it makes a difference.

It is very easy to allow ourselves to be surrounded by mixed messages. But the thing is, if you mix salt water with fresh water, all you are left with is… salt water. Leave some bad fruit in the bowl with the good, and in time it will contaminate the whole.

It’s as we make space to allow the God word of truth to be cultivated that we place ourselves in the way of a God who wants to use us for good. Who wants us to use our lips not just to praise him, but to be healthy and helpful to those around us who are made in his image.

Even those who would curse us. It was one of the most challenging things Jesus said bless those who curse you.  It’s so easy to curse back, to wish harm on those who turn on us. But when we curse back, all we do is add to the destructive chaos of our world. When we bless, we start to create, however slowly, a world more like God wanted it to be.

This table is a place where we can hear those positive, life-affirming, life-creating words that we are loved. At this table we are reminded how even at our worst, our most destructive, God was still reaching out to us, speaking words of blessing, words of love, words of forgiveness, creating new possibilities, new opportunities, where we can know the God who created and sustains us in love.

May we stop and allow space to listen, to allow the words and actions and tastes to remind us we are loved and precious to God. May we allow that word the space to cultivate goodness in our lives and hearts, and may the words of our mouths come to reflect the meditations of cleansed hearts, so that we might live in ways which bring glory to God.

Posted in James

James Part 3: Show and Tell


Reading: James 1: 22-27; James 2: 14-26

When I was at Bible college, training to be a minister, we had a week-long intensive course on ‘encountering other faiths.’ We visited a synagogue, a huge Mosque, a Sikh Gurdwara, which was housed round the corner from the Mosque in a tiny, ex-congregational chapel…

But the encounter that left the biggest impression on me was with a Hindu Brahmin.

He challenged many of my stereotypes of Hinduism,  not least because he’s a white, blonde, lapsed Catholic, Southside Dubliner, with a broad Irish accent!

And he  claimed he converted to Hinduism so that he could more faithfully follow Christ!

But one thing he said during the session stuck with me. He said that when he’s talking about Hinduism with a group of Christians, all the questions are about what he believes. But, he said, that doesn’t work with Hindus. Tell a bunch of Hindus what you believe and they are likely to respond ‘yes… very nice … but what do you do?’


I’m not sure what James would have made of the rest of the talk, but at this point I suspect he would have uttered a loud ‘Amen!’


We’re working our way through the book of James, which is a short letter, towards the back of our Bibles, written by a man called James, whom many believe was one of Jesus’ brothers and a leader of the early Jerusalem church.

Throughout the book, not just in this morning’s passages, James is issuing much the same challenge as was made to my ministerial class. James is writing to a bunch of people who claim to be followers of Jesus and he’s saying ‘yes, that’s very nice, but what do you do?

To James, following Jesus is as much about a life to be lived as a truth or story to be believed. James is challenging us to think what does faith in Jesus look like?


James has not always been a popular Bible book, particularly in the Protestant part of the Christian faith. The reformer Martin Luther referred to James as an epistle of straw, lacking Gospel character. This morning’s passage, particularly the bit from chapter 2 was the main reason for that. Especially verse 24, and perhaps especially as our church Good News Bibles translate it…

You see, then, that it is by our actions that we are put right with God, not by our faith alone.


What’s the problem?

Well, this seems to contradict other parts of the New Testament, especially the writings of Paul…

For we conclude that a person is put right with God only through faith, and not by doing what the Law commands. (Rom 3:28)

We know that a person is put right with God only through faith in Jesus Christ, never by doing what the Law requires…. no one is put right with God by doing what the Law requires. (Gal 2:16)

It is by God’s grace that you have been saved through faith. It is not the result of your own efforts, but God’s gift, so that no one can boast about it. (Eph 2: 8-9)


All these passages talk of us being right with God through God’s grace. It’s not about what achieve on our own merits. Nothing we do can make God love us more, nothing we do can make God love us less.


I hope I have shared that message with you more than enough down through the past few years. I pray I’ll never tire of telling you that. I have a minister friend who once told me that some of his church members complained that he talked too much about grace. I said ‘that’s a complaint? I’d love that on my gravestone.

Here lies Andrew Jackson.

He talked too much about grace! 

What James says here seems to contradict all that. He highlights two Old Testament stories, one about Abraham and one about Rahab, and certainly the way it is translated in our church Bibles it seem to suggest they made themselves acceptable to God through something they did. So not by grace.

So who is right?


Or Paul?

Or can they be reconciled?

Well, for a start, I think James knew he was being provocative. He seems to like to say things which might shock people to get their attention. We saw that a few weeks ago when we saw his first line was brothers and sisters, consider it pure joy when you go through trials of all sorts of different kinds. He wanted people to say you what? Really? Joy? Trials? You cannot be serious.

But Paul and James are also starting from different places. Paul is talking about how Christian faith begins. Where someone turns to God and trusts in Jesus. He never really doubts that faith is real. He assumes it is.

James is talking about to those established in faith, who claim to believe in Jesus. But he is asking are you sure about that?

He’s asking how do I know that’s real, either in me, or in others.

 What difference has it made to me?

 What difference has it made to those around me?

They are also using the same word, but in slightly different ways. The word is ‘justified.’

Sometimes words get used in a certain ways in certain fields of study. They mean something specific in that field, but if they were used elsewhere, they would mean something different.


Let me give you an example. I studied Economics at university. A word we used a lot in Economics was ‘utility.’ The meaning in Economics was much the same as ‘satisfaction’ or ‘pleasure’.

If I have a cup of coffee first thing in the morning, the measure of how much I enjoyed that cup is called utility.

But that’s not how we use the word in other areas of life. We talk of companies which provide our heat, light and water as utilities. But the main use of utility in normal life is about how useful something is.

That doesn’t mean the Economics definition is wrong, it’s just that it only makes sense for me to use the word utility in the economicsy kind of way when I’m talking to economists about economics.

Theology has done something similar with the word ‘justified’ or ‘justification.’ Theologians use it in a technical way to describe our status with God. That God accepts us, that we are in a right relationship with God. It is sometimes explained by saying that, because of Jesus, God looks on me ‘JUST-as-IF-I’D’ never sinned.

In the Bible, when Paul talks about being ‘justified’ or later when Luther was talking about Justification by Faith, which has become so vitally important in the Protestant tradition, that was how they were using the word.

But we don’t really use the word ‘justified’ that way in other parts of life. When we ask someone to justify something, we’re asking them to back it up, give evidence, show that what they said is right.

James is using the word in that way. He’s saying ‘you claim to believe something. Can you justify that claim? Is that backed up by what you do?’

That verse 24 is one of those times when our church translation is not really helpful.

 James looks back to the scriptures and says how do we know Abraham really believed God’s promises to him? Cos of how he acted! Same with Rahab. How do we know she sided with God and Israel? Because of her actions.


They weren’t proving anything to God. God knew they trusted him.  It was because of what they believed that they acted as they did. It’s how we know they believed what they claimed. How they proved it. How they justify their claim to believe. James is asking the same of those reading this letter. You say you believe, yes, very nice, show me, prove it, what do you do?

James is not alone in thinking like this. At the end of chapter 1, James says What God the Father considers to be pure and genuine religion is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their suffering, and to keep oneself from being corrupted by the world.

 The word for religion there is religious practices. It would be the word they would have used for prayer, worship, singing, scripture reading etc.

James is saying does your worship impact your life?

Does it drive you to care about and for the vulnerable?

Is your lifestyle good and wholesome?

You say you believe in Jesus, yes, that’s all very well, but what do you do?


James stood in a long line of Jewish tradition in thinking this way.

The Psalms speak of God as a father to the fatherless and a defender of widows (Psalm 68:5)

Zechariah has God call on the people of Israel to [A]dminister true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. 

Micah said what are the true sacrifices, or worship that God wants of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Amos is far and away the strongest, He has God say

I hate, I despise your religious festivals;

your assemblies are a stench to me.

Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,

I will not accept them

Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,

I will have no regard for them.

Get that. God says he hates their religious festivals!

Why? Because their lives didn’t back up what they said. They came to the festivals, celebrated the stories of God and his relationship to the people, then went back to their lives as if nothing had happened.

This continues into the New Testament, John the Baptist urges the people coming to him for baptism to start living in ways which show they have turned from their sins.

Jesus tells people to be salt and light in their world, to behave in ways which reflect God and make a difference, so that others may see your good deeds and give glory to God. He talks about how people will be known by the fruits they produce. Do their lives back up what they say. Jesus says you believe in me, yes, very well, but what do you do?

Even Paul, whom James at first glance seems to be contradicting is in agreement. So much of his letters are given over to how our lives must be different because of the impact Jesus has had on us. Even take one of the passages we quoted earlier from Ephesians

It is by God’s grace that you have been saved through faith. It is not the result of your own efforts, but God’s gift, so that no one can boast about it.

 But don’t stop there. Go on one more verse…

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Notice, James never says that faith is unimportant. He offers two parts to the true religion that God wants for us. Caring for the vulnerable and taking care of our inner life. We’ll major on the second half in the next couple of weeks. But at no point does he say that one is more vital than the other. They are both important.

But James is saying that real faith demands a response from you.

 So, you say you believe in Jesus. That’s nice. So what do you do?


It’s possible to have a crisis management faith. Jonathan Aitken talks of how in his past he treated God a bit like a cosmic bank manager. You didn’t have much to do with him, but you kept on decent terms, in case you needed him. We can want just enough faith that it makes us feel better, keeps God onside in case we need his help. But we don’t want it affect our lives.

Dallas Willard, in his book The Divine Conspiracy, talks about a kind of bar-code Christianity. I’ve got two tins here. But if I were to swap the labels and take them to the till in the supermarket, the scanner would have no idea that what was inside the can does not match the label. He argues that much of what passes for Gospel preaching amounts to little more than a changing of a label, a new barcode. Pray the prayer, the cosmic bar code changes, you’re right with God, but it doesn’t mean anything is different inside.

James warns us we can deceive ourselves, but we don’t deceive God. And he’ll say if we truly believe, well, how does it affect the contents of our lives.

But James also challenges us about what it even means to believe. A few weeks ago we talked a little bit about doubt and the doubter. We read those words about praying in faith and not doubting in chapter 1 and they were a real challenge.

One of the things I said back then is that we think of doubt as a kind of intellectual thing. For James it’s not like that. For him, whether we doubt is shown in our actions. It’s like we go to God for guidance, but then totally ignore what he says.

Well for James it is much the same with faith. It can be possible to see faith as being about what we think, or intellectually give assent to. That’s what , the Hindu I spoke about earlier was suggesting.

We can, perhaps particularly with a modern Western mindset come to think of what we believe in terms of intellectual propositions, about God, about Jesus and so on. We can come to church, read scriptures, hear sermons, and perhaps learn a lot. We can come to the point where we say, that makes perfect sense to me.

Yet it makes no impact on how I live.


Cos there are different types of knowledge. For example take Pythagoras Theorem. I learned it at school. In a right angled triangle the square of the length of the longest side, the hypotoneuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. I’ve remembered it, and never forgotten it.

It has made no difference to how I live my life.

But other things I learned have. My times tables. I learned that 2 x 5 = 10. So if I buy two packs of coffee at £5 each, I’m not going to let Sainsburys charge more than £10.

James is saying it’s possible to believe in something, but it make no impact on your life. At least not for the better. We can recite a whole creed and say, yes, I agree with the lot. He gives an extreme example – demons believe in God. It doesn’t drive them to worship. It doesn’t drive them to seek good.

James warns us about the acquisition of knowledge about God as a substitute for knowing God and living in relationship with Jesus. We can read the Bible, hear sermons, read all the popular Christian paperbacks, we can even be challenged by them all. But go away, life takes over and it’s forgotten.

James says that’s like looking in the mirror, noticing a big dirty mark, or having missed a bit shaving, then walking away and doing nothing about it. And everyone is looking at me saying do you think he knows about that?

James is saying we can listen to scripture, we can hear or read it being explained, we can even come to agree with it. Yes, very nice, but what do you do with it?

Life with God is not so much about information as transformation. 

You can spend forever in prayer and reading. But what do you do with it?

What difference does it make to those around you?

For we do not live out of what we say we believe. We live out of what we do believe.

What we truly believe will come to the surface.

We can see it in our leaders. Some very rich people who told us we were better off outside the EU are moving investments to Ireland, or quietly encouraging people not to invest in Britain. Do there actions back up what they say they believe.

Or lest I be accused of bias, a pot shot at my own side, who say they don’t believe in private education, that it breeds privilege, yet educate their children privately. Do their actions back up what they say they believe.

It’s not just a case of words and actions lining up. What you really believe affects what you do.

Just a few quick thoughts to touch this down. A few weeks ago I showed you this. A Pythagoras cup which I bought on holiday.  It’s a trick cup, which if you overfill it will start to empty itself.

It is possible to want just enough faith to save yourself. That’s the kind of faith of the barcode Christianity.

But that’s not the faith God wants for you. That’s not living faith. The kind of faith God wants for you, is the promise to Abraham, to bless you that you might be a blessing. It’s not about doing good works to earn God’s love, it’s about experiencing that love and it overflowing to others.

The faith that James is speaking of, the faith that the Bible is speaking of is not just about getting individual souls into heaven in the sweet by and by. It’s about recognising that our world is not as it should be, that our world is in all sorts of pain and groaning, but that God’s plans, hopes, longings for his world are so much a better way.

It’s about taking the opportunities, playing our part in making the world a little bit more the way God would want it.

When James talks about faith and works, the idea behind ‘works’ or deeds is quite a specific thing. It was what Jews called Mitzvot. It’s not just doing your good deed for the day. It’s about specifically doing something to make things more as God intended. The feeding and clothing the hungry would be an example of that. Caring for the poor and vulnerable were a gift that Judaism and Christianity brought to the Gentile world. At the Council of Jerusalem, when the Jewish Christians accepted Gentiles as part of the church, one of the few stipulations they were given was not to forget the care of the poor. It is something we take for granted, but it came to much of the Gentile world through Judaism, then the church. And it was based on this idea of being blessed to be a blessing.

What good is a faith that tells someone who needs food and clothing to go get them. It adds misery rather than blessing.


I would add what I said earlier about Period Poverty and our Christmas collection to that. We don’t do these things simply because they are nice things to do, and Christmas is a time for giving though both those things are true. We do them because we believe that through individual actions, some big, some small, we are making the world more and more as God would want it to be.

We don’t do them to get God on our side. We don’t do them because we want God to notice us, to love us more.

God does notice us.

God loves us completely already.

But he has called us into relationship with him and invites us to be part of making the world more as he intended.

He wants to bless us and in turn allow that blessing to overflow to others.

Do we truly think the world would be better if it were as God wanted?

Well, yes, very nice. But what do we do?

Do our actions back that up?

Do we truly believe that the life Jesus calls us to is a better way to live.

How are we different?

How do we bless those around us?

Faith and deeds. They go together. True some of us will be more activist and others more prayerful. But they do together.

Thoughts and action.

Prayer and effort.

Faith and deeds.

We are blessed to be a blessing. And joining in that blessing is a sign of a living faith, a faith that God desires for us.

Posted in Christmas 2018

Christmas Gift Day 2018


It has been our practice in recent years to have a Christmas Gift Day on one Sunday in December. In the past we have bought toys for a local children’s charity, and socks and gloves for various Homeless charities. This year I would like to suggest something a little different.

An issue which has been highlighted quite a few times in our news recently is the subject of Period Poverty. The latest research from children’s charity Plan International UK reports that one in 10 young women (aged 14-21) have been unable to afford period products.

In London, this number is closer to one in seven.

Girls have been reported to be using socks and tissues as improvised sanitary products. This causes health risks and is an affront their dignity. 

This may not be a subject we may feel comfortable talking about. But we are not alone.

Almost half of young women are embarrassed about their periods.

Only 1 in 5 feel comfortable talking about it with their teachers.

Over 70% feel embarrassed buying sanitary products.

When we avoid talking about these things, we reinforce the feelings of shame.

Meanwhile last year 137,000 girls missed school in the UK because they were unable to afford sanitary products.

They missed an average of 5 days each.

6% of parents admitted to stealing sanitary products.

Earlier this week I had a conversation with one of our local schools. I asked if Period Poverty was an issue they encountered, and if any help we could offer would be welcome. The answer to both questions was Yes.

I have also had a brief chat with a local pharmacy. They have indicated that if we raised money they would sell us sanitary products at a reduced rate.

So following consultation with the school my suggestion is that this year we collect sanitary towels to donate to the school and help combat period poverty in our local comprehensive school.


I recognise that some might feel slightly more uncomfortable buying these products. This in itself might be no bad thing. It might help us understand what young girls already go through.

Nonetheless, if you feel you would like to donate money instead we could use that to top up what we receive.

At Christmas time we celebrate incarnation, the idea that God did not stay distant from us, but entered into the whole human condition. He was not embarrassed about any of it.

This is a great opportunity for us to partner with a local school and a local business to bless some of the most vulnerable people in our community at a time when they most need it.

Posted in James

James Part 2:Walking With Princes and Paupers

judge book

Reading: James 1: 9-11; James 2: 1-13

A couple of weeks ago, when I was last with you, I introduced a new sermon series which will take us into the new year, with a bit of a break for Christmas. We’re working our way through a little book, towards the back of the New Testament, called James. It’s a letter written to some of the first followers of Jesus, and is believed by many to have been written by one of Jesus’ brothers.

Before I dive into what I want to share this morning, I just want to highlight how I intend to approach this series. Normally when studying a book I would start at the beginning of the first chapter and just work through it section by section.

That’s not necessarily the best way to approach James. I encouraged you to read through the book for yourselves. If you have done that, you might notice that he jumps from one theme to another very quickly, particularly in the first chapter. How do you make sense of it all?

Well, back when I was a student, and wrote essays or gave a presentation, teachers would often tell me to give it a threefold structure…

  Tell them what you’re going to say

  Say it

  Tell them you’ve said it

James kind of does the first two parts of that. In many ways Chapter 1 is like a contents page. He briefly mentions lots of themes he is going to talk about, although as we’ll see, not necessarily in the order he’s going to talk about them. It wouldn’t be a great contents page from that perspective, but it’s a pretty good guide about what to expect in the rest of the book.

I’ve put a table up on the screen to show what I mean.

Theme Chapter 1 Rest of Book
Perseverance in Trial v2-4 James 5: 7-11
Faith and Prayer v5-8 James 5: 13-18
Wealth, Poverty,


v9-11 James 2: 1-13

James 4:13-5:6

Worldly Values v13-18 James 3:13-4:10
Watch Your Mouth v19-21 James 3: 1-12
True Religion v22-27 James 2:14-26

He starts off talking about persevering through times of trial, then has a section on prayer. That was our theme last time. He returns to both of these towards the end of the book.

But for the rest of chapter 1 he touches on lots of other themes. Wealth and poverty. He returns to that twice. He talks about where we get our values from; about controlling our tongues; and about what a good, healthy faith looks like. Each of these in given a more detailed discussion later in the letter.  But each is briefly preview in Chapter 1.

So what I plan to do over the next few weeks is to tackle the subjects as they appear in the rest of the book. So we’ll jump around chapter 1, then add another longer section for us to consider.

Main Sermon

Every now and then I come across a story in the news about making first impressions count. Whether we realise it or not, whether we recognise it or not, whether we want to or not, we are capable of making very quick judgments about other people. Psychologists reckon we are making big decisions about people within 6 seconds of meeting them. One article I read suggested that potential employers have decided 4 things about you in the first 4 seconds of meeting you. They’ve decided if they like you; if they trust you; whether you are safe; and who you remind them of. If you remind them of someone who hurt them, you could be in trouble before you’ve opened your mouth.

Psychologists estimate that within 30 seconds a woman will have decided whether she would consider a man as a sexual partner, some even estimating that the decision is made in as little as 8 seconds.  So whilst we like to think we’re rational people who would never make rash judgments maybe we need to be careful.

There is something about group dynamics that when people come together there will always be those who are assessing others, sizing them up, establishing a pecking order. One of the safer ways I can admit to this in my own life is playing tennis . We go to another club and we them warming up. By the time we start playing I’ve probably decided how it’s going to go. If you’re not careful you can be beaten before you start.

That’s fairly trivial, but when it spills over into how we treat others it’s more serious. Favouritism is really destructive, and James warns against it at the start of chapter 2.

One translation puts it

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism.

Another one says

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?

Our church Bibles put it

My friends, as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, you must never treat people in different ways according to their outward appearance. 


The word translated favouritism in the first two literally means ‘to judge by the face.’ We might say to judge a book by its cover.

It’s interesting how James puts this. There is a tenderness in there. He refers to them as brothers and sisters or friends. But there is also an element of firmness. You’re believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, you shouldn’t do this.

You can often tell by the way people address you whether what follows is likely to be good or bad. If my mum calls me by my full name, if she says Andrew Jackson, I know I’m in trouble. Doesn’t matter how old I’ve got, I’m worried.


Well there’s something of that in how James addresses his readers here, when he speaks of them as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ. Oddly this is one of only two places when he even mentions Jesus by name.

When I was growing up, if I were out of line, my mum would challenge me by saying, whilst you’re under my roof, you’ll do things this way. Or she might have reminded me who I was, you’re a Jackson, and Jackson’s don’t behave like that! That’s not how we do things in this family!

There is something of that in James’ writing. He’s saying remember who you are, remember you are part of the family of the God revealed in Jesus. That’s not how we do things in this family. God’s not in the business of playing favourites, and nor should we be.

There is something else going on in the book of James which is an interesting bit of background. James is an English translation of the writer’s name. In Greek his name is Jacobus. When he was at home, he would have been called Jacob.

He’s not the only figure in the Bible with that name. In the Old Testament there is a Jacob, who is the father of the nation, of the twelve tribes of Israel.

And how does this James start his letter?

James, Jacobus, Jacob, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ; to the twelve tribes scattered amongst the nations.

He is setting himself up as a New Testament Jacob, a founding father for the Jewish people who are becoming followers of Jesus.


So what?

Well, that has a special relevance in this passage. Because a key part of the story of Jacob in the Old Testament is a story of how favouritism is really destructive.

At different points in his life Jacob was both a victim and a perpetrator of favouritism.

Jacob was the second-born of two twins, born to Isaac and Rebekah. His brother was called Esau. But the Bible says that even in the womb Jacob and Esau fought each other. When they were born Esau emerged first, but Jacob came out grasping his heel. It’s like he was trying to stop Esau being born first. Right from the start this was a story of the struggle to come out on top.

Jacob’s father Isaac favoured Esau, but Rebekah favoured Jacob. This caused great division in the family, ultimately leading to Jacob stealing his father’s blessing and having to run for his life.

Maybe we would like to think that having seen the destructiveness of favouritism in the family, Jacob would have learned his lesson. But his story was all too human. Instead the  failings of one generation passed to the next.

Jacob married two sisters, Rachel and Leah. But he never really wanted Leah. He was tricked into marrying her. He loved Rachel more. Yet for a long time Leah was the only one to give him children.

Then Rachel had a son. Joseph. And guess what? Jacob started playing favourites again. He favoured Joseph over all the others, with horrendous consequences. First his brothers decided to kill him. Then they relented but still sold him into slavery.

We reach the end of the story and see how God worked through even the worst of them. But don’t lose sight of how destructive favouritism can be.

Now James, assuming the position of a founder of a new twelve tribes is saying don’t make the same mistake as our forefather’s made.

It tore them apart.

It’ll do the same to you.

James illustrates what he means with what may (or may not) have been a fictional example. A rich visitor comes in blinged up with jewellery, and top threads. Then along comes someone else, poor, with filthy old clothes. How do you react? says James.

If you pay special attention to the rich one, giving him a special place, making certain that they get the best seat, whilst you make the poor guy stand at the back or sit in the wrong place, James says then you’ve started playing favourites, and he says you’ve become judges with evil thoughts.

You’ve become distracted by the bling, and lost sight of what truly matters to God.

You’ve got distracted by what is temporary, fleeting, largely a product or chance of birth, and lost sight of what is eternal. And what is really going on in the heart of people.

And it is so easy to do.

Because often we’re not even aware of it. It’s that first impressions thing. It’s happening subconsciously.

And all too often we get it wrong.

Let’s take the example James uses. We live in a culture which, subtly but certainly, makes judgments on people based on the how wealthy they are. There’s the myth of the deserving or undeserving poor. We can see it in attitudes to the welfare state.

Take the language used in our media. A few years ago research was carried out into the annual usage of a particular word in UK newspapers since 1994. That word was ‘scrounger’.

For most of that time it sat at in and around once per day across all newspapers. Then the 2008 crash happened. There was a lot of talk in government about strivers and skivers.

Suddenly usage of the word scrounger rocketed to 3,500.

That’s a sevenfold increase.

Or consider questions like this. One poll a few years ago asked people in the UK a few things about the UK welfare bill, to see how aware we really where of the issue. One question was

What percentage of the welfare budget is paid to the unemployed?

The average response in the poll was 41%.

The actual figure was… 3%.

Or what percentage of the total welfare bill is claimed fraudulently?

The average response was 27%.

Whereas UK government estimates were 0.7%. Less than 1%.

We were jumping to conclusions about others, based on very little information. And subtly the message being portrayed is that somehow the poor deserve it, whilst the rich are somehow, well, better.


This is not a new phenomenon. Such attitudes existed in New Testament times. The church was the one place in first century culture where social class distinctions broke down. It was the one place where a slave and master could be on a level footing, or even where a slave could hold a position of responsibility over their master.

Yet it didn’t always work like that. Attitudes picked up outside the church could soon spill into the church. If you read the books of Corinthians in the New Testament, this idea of allowing social ideas of class, success, and worth spilling into the church is one of the big themes of the book. Paul also has to warn the Galatians that what we might today call identity politics should not be allowed to destroy the unity we have in Jesus. Ethnicity, social standing, gender, we’re all one in Christ Jesus.

And James is highlighting much the same thing. It can be very easy to be distracted by the bling.

But favouritism might express itself in different ways. Towards the educated, those who can present themselves better, where they live, how successful they’ve been at work…

At Coffee, Cake and Prayers the other week, I asked if two people joined our church, one a well-spoken, successful professional, the other a bit more scruffy, struggles to express themselves, whatever… if they both joined our church, which would be more likely to be nominated for deacon and why?

Now don’t get we wrong. I don’t know the answer.

I’m not saying the first one wouldn’t be suitable. I certainly would not advocate reverse snobbery.

But it is worth asking the question.

And if I go beyond us into our wider Baptist family, I look at my brothers and sisters with whom I share the responsibility and privilege of ministry. I am aware that as an educated, middle class, white British male, how much easier it’s been for me to be called to a pastorate. Ok, I might speak a bit funny. But compared to my Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic colleagues, and the sisters who share this calling, it’s nothing.

So yes, James used the rich and the poor, but with just about any way in which we might seek to divide people, James would issue the same warning.

As believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, God has made us part of his household. And in his household, we should things his way. Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ should become aware of the ways in which we play favourites, to ask God to reveal it to us, and do what we can to avoid it.

James offers three reasons why we need to do it. I want to touch on them briefly


Firstly, we’re called to see others as God sees them.

Right in the very first chapter of the Bible there was a really radical claim. That all people were made in the image of God. The world in which that story emerged had no problem saying that about kings and queens, those at the very top of society. It was often used as a way of justifying their control. But those who preserved this first story of our origins were keen to declare that all were made in the image of God.

If anything God’s favour seems to run contrary to ours. In the first family Cain is favoured over Abel. Yet it is Abel’s sacrifice God accepts. Throughout the story God makes surprising choices. Jacob the second of two twins. Gideon, one of the least likely leaders of a people. When Samuel went to Bethlehem seeking a successor to Saul as King of Israel, David’s own father didn’t think it was worth inviting David to the sacrifice. Along the way Samuel got distracted by the kind of stuff that distracts us and had to be reminded ‘You’re looking at the outward appearance.’ If you’d been looking for someone to whom God would entrust sending Jesus into the world, you’d have gone through a lot of guesses before you got to Mary of Nazareth.

One other thing from the start of James 2. The first verse has proved quite hard to translate. Two of the three translations we looked at earlier spoke of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, the other spoke of him as the Lord of glory. Literally it translates, Jesus Christ, the glory.

I’ve been like a stuck record over the last however long saying if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Well, if you want to know what the glory of God looks like, look at Jesus. Within a few weeks we’ll be thinking of his humble beginnings, of a flight to Egypt, of a life lived unnoticed in a backwater. It’s revealed in a teacher who was so easily rejected, who largely went unrecognised. The first Christians looked to a passage in Isaiah to find something about his story. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. Towards the end of his ministry he told a story of people who had served him and not known it, or turned him away without knowing it, saying whatever you did for the least of them, you did for me.

Look around you into the faces around you. Each of us is made in the image of God. Walk around our town, each one made in the image of God. We might find it easier to see in some than others. But each is made in the image of God. And don’t be surprised that God comes to us in the most unlikely ways. It’s the way he’s always done it.

And James warns us that if we’re not careful we might miss him because we’ve been distracted by the bling and he’s come to us in ways we least expect. We’re called to see others as God sees them.

But secondly, he highlights how the rich are the ones who persecute the church. I have been suggesting that the letter of James is amongst the earliest of the New Testament writings. Not everyone would agree with that. One piece of evidence for those who say it must have been later was that it presumes there are rich people in the church. It is true that most of the church were amongst the poorer sections of society, but there were people like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus in the early church.

James isn’t saying that all the rich hated the Christians and were to be avoided. But it was true that the most vocal opponents came from the rich and powerful. They were the ones who were able to use the authorities to attack believers. Many of them were suspicious of the Christians because of the way they treated slaves as equals. It was giving them ideas about their station and who knows where that might lead. It was a threat to their way of life.

And it was amongst the rich that we see some of the greatest criticisms. One Marcus Cornelius Fronto complained that the Christians were made up of the dregs of society who worshipped an executed criminal and his cross. Another Celsus claimed that Christian converts were foolish and low individuals, and saw education as a hindrance to Christianity. And it was those from amongst the elite in society who ended up driving Jesus to the cross.

James isn’t encouraging them to dishonour the wealthy believer amongst them. He is simply saying why are you assuming someone is a better person cos they are wealthy, when so much of your experience is telling you the opposite.

But finally he goes back to the most basic commandment. He calls it the Royal Law, we might call it the Greatest Commandment. Those of you who were here when I started might remember it was the Shema. Love the lord your God with all your heart, soul, mins and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.


James says at the heart of everything is this command. If you do this, you won’t go wrong. We can have a tendency to view some commands as more important than others. I remember doing a sermon in Somerset years ago on the Ten Commandments, and I put the commandments on sheets of paper, one command per sheet, and stuck the sheets of paper around the wall. And church people being creatures of habit we sat in the same place. And the ones who sat where I had put You shall not commit adultery were especially concerned about why I had put it above their seat!

James is saying you can’t pick and choose which commands to obey. And at the heart of everything is that we love our neighbour as we love ourselves. And when Jesus was asked, who is my neighbour, he made his definition uncomfortably wide.

How would we feel if someone rushed to judgment on us? Then, if we rush to judgment on others, we’re not loving them as we love ourselves.

Instead he urges us to look on others with mercy, with generosity, to see the good in them, the image of God in them. I’m not saying we look at people unrealistically, as if through rose-tinted glasses. It is possible to recognise that yes, they do get it wrong sometimes.

But none of us wants to be defined by our worst moments.

So let’s not do it to others.

Before God none of us stands higher than any other. We all stand in need of grace, and God pursues each one of us.

There’s an old story about a wandering scholar in the Middle Ages called Mauretus. He never had much and dressed in very poor clothing. When he fell ill in a town where he was little known he was taken to hospital. The doctors thought he was a tramp. As they gathered round his bed they spoke Latin, which was the language of the educated. The spoke of how since he was so clearly a worthless person, no-one was likely to claim his body after he died, so they could conduct some experiments on his body. They were shaken out of their apathy when, in perfect Latin Mauretus said ‘call no-one worthless for whom Christ died.’

Brothers and sisters, we are believer in our Lord Jesus Christ. Our Lord and master showed God’s glory not in power, prestige and riches. But in the face of Jesus, born of a woman, who walked amongst us in love, giving himself in service of others. Who lived among us not amongst the elite, but amongst the ordinary. And he continues to meet us in the ordinary people we meet every day. May we look on each other with generosity, recognising that each of us in precious in God’s sight, made in his image all standing in need of grace and may the mercy with which we look at one another, triumph over our urges to rush to judgment. For whilst we are looking at the outward appearance, God is searching our hearts.

Posted in James

James Part 1: You Cannot Be Serious!

count-it-all-joyLet’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.

Posted in James

James: An Introduction

James Main Slife

From Sunday 4 November, I plan to preach through the book of James. With a short break for Christmas, this should take us into early 2019. The aim of this is to introduce the book, freeing me on Sundays to concentrate on its content in the preaching.


Much of our New Testament is made up of ‘epistles’ (letters). Most are named after the recipients of the letters. Some are churches, such as Ephesians or Galatians; others are individuals: Timothy, Titus, Philemon. With the exception of Hebrews, these are all attributed to Paul, an earlier follower of Jesus.

There are then a further 7, generally shorter, epistles sometimes called ‘general’ or ‘catholic’ epistles. These are named after the person who wrote them. James falls into this category.


It’s possible that James was amongst the first books of our New Testament to be written, yet it was one of the last books to be accepted into the Bible. This had nothing to do with the contents. It was more about identifying the James who wrote it.


Even as late as the 16th century Martin Luther compared it unfavourably with the writings of Paul, calling it ‘a strawy epistle’ with ‘no Gospel character to it!’ This was largely influenced by a seeming contradiction between James and Paul’s letter to Romans. For example, compare Romans 3: 28 with James 2: 17, or Romans 4: 2-3 with James 2: 21-23. We’ll talk more about that when we reach that part of the letter.


But there are other things that are slightly different about James. He makes no reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact he only mentions Jesus twice, and that in passing.


Yet compared with Paul’s letters, James contains more material that can be traced back to Jesus himself. There are up to 23 references to The Sermon on the Mount. Compare James 2: 12-13 with  Matt 6:14-15; James 3:11-13 with Matt 7:16-20; James 5: 12 with Matt 5:37.


James is more interested in how we live than what we believe.

He challenges us about what real religion looks like.

Who was James?

The short answer is we’re not sure. James was a common name and there are a few people called James in the New Testament.

The most famous is James, son of Zebedee. With Peter and John he seems to be part of Jesus’ ’inner circle of disciples. However, this James was martyred quite early in the story of the church; probably too soon for the letter to have been written.

There is also a James, a father of a disciple called Judas and a another disciple James, son of Alphaeus, who might also be the disciple called ‘little James’ elsewhere in the Gospel narratives. However, we know nothing about them, and it is highly unlikely they were the James who wrote this book.


Then there’s James, the brother of Jesus. The Gospels tell us that Jesus had brothers called James, Joses, Simon and Judas. They also mention unnamed sisters. They did not believe in Jesus during his ministry. Yet they are with the disciples at the start of Acts, before Pentecost. In Corinthians 15, Paul lists those to whom the Risen Christ appeared. James was one of the first.

He then rose to prominence in the Jerusalem church. When Peter escapes from prison in Acts 12, he is keen to get word to ‘James and the brethren.’ When Paul visits Jerusalem, it is James he goes to. He also played a decisive role at the Council of Jerusalem (AD50) in Acts 15, when Gentiles are admitted to the church, without first having to become Jews.

This last reference is quite important, as, following the Council, James issues a letter to the churches, stating their decision. It contains a greeting and some other phrases which occur in James’ letter and nowhere else in the New Testament.

Some question whether, if it was this James who wrote the book named after him, would he not have mentioned that he his relationship to Jesus? Perhaps he saw that as irrelevant.

Some ask whether a simple Galilean would have been capable of the quality of the Greek found in the letter. But we can overstate how simple life was in Galilee. Greek was widely spoken there. As a key figure in the Jerusalem church James would have met believers from around their known world. It’s hardly unbelievable that he would have had a decent grasp of the most widely used language of the time.

If it is not this James, we would need to find another one, so widely known within the first century church that he could just use his name and expect people to know who he was.

When was it Written?

If it was this James it does leave a puzzle as to when it was written. It makes no mention of the issues which were important around the time of the Council of Jerusalem. So this could mean it was quite early (so the Council has not taken place) or quite late (it was so long gone that it was not considered worth mentioning).

A few features suggest to me it was early. He’s not that bothered about church structures. At one stage he even calls the assembly a synagogue. If it is early it is amongst the first bits of our New Testament to be written.


There is another possibility.

The letter reads more like a sermon. It’s possible that someone, whom we do not know, took a block of James’ teaching, and wrote it down to preserve from the church, adding James’ name to the top, to show where they got it and why it was important.

If that was the case we should be grateful for it is a great little letter.  It is far from an epistle of straw. It is full of challenging wisdom, calls us to Christian character and deserves far greater attention than it is often given.

May we hear its challenge, but not just hear it.

May we live it.

Grace and Peace.