James 4:7-17: Choose today whom you will serve
Last night saw the landmark 50th anniversary final of the Eurovision Song Contest in Kiev. I think the greatest surprise was not the predictability of the words or banality of the music or even the way certain countries voted tactically, reliving former wars and historic alliances. It was the fact that although Ireland has won it more times than any other country, they were eliminated in the semi finals… I’m sure you’ve watched it at least one Eurovision Song Contest in your life, if not last night…. As each performer sang, the score board ranking of each other country changed. Every time a singer performed well, the ranking of those with fewer points dropped, until at last the winner emerged….. Javine Hylton, UK’s entrant started the competition as a 25:1 outsider according to the book makers...
Yesterday was also the final of the Football Association Cup Final between Manchester United and Malcolm Glazier in Cardiff, or was it Arsenal? As the game progressed each team gained or lost the ball and with it the advantage. The same thing will happen at Wentworth this week during each round of the European PGA Tour. Golfers will rise or fall on the leader board with every hole, with every round until the final day and the final round next Sunday.
There is here a universal principle, like a pair of scales. We see it not just in sport but also in nature and society, and in things like economics. Consider the way the currency markets operate, or house prices, or the balance of trade surplus or deficit between countries. I’m sitting on a few dollars at the moment and I won’t convert them to pounds until the exchange rate improves in my favour. If you’re contemplating a trip to the States on the other hand, the advice is buy your dollars now because the pound, like house prices is predicted to lose value by the Summer.
Like a set of scales, as one side gains, so the other loses weight or value. And the apostle James, in our bible passage this morning, helps us to see this same principle is at work spiritually in us today. As we feed our souls we starve our carnal nature. Conversely, as we feed our carnal nature, we starve our souls. Which has been winning this week? In these verses, James describes contrasting uses for our tongue. We can either call upon the Lord and confess our sin or we will curse others and crow about ourselves. As we do more of the one we will do less of the other. Slagging and bragging or submission and confession? We cannot elevate God and ourselves at the same time. Here is a possible breakdown of the passage:
1. The Wisdom of Humility (James 4:7-10)
2. The Perils of Slander (James 4:11-12)
3. The Folly of Arrogance (James 4:13-17)
Without the wisdom of humility - recognising our place before God, we invariably find our security in exalting ourselves and denigrating others. James shows us what happens when we forget we are the Lord’s servants. Lets begin by considering the perils of slander, move on to the folly of arrogance and then return to consider the wisdom of humility.
1. The Perils of Slander
“Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbour?” (James 4:11-12)
To slander is to speak negatively about someone else. It is about destroying someone verbally. Gossip is another word for slander. Gossip is when I speak negatively about another person to you where neither you nor I are part of the problem or the solution.
Criticising a brother or sister without seeking to help them involves standing in judgement over them instead of kneeling alongside them. And despite being common, it is forbidden because when we judge one another we are placing ourselves above God’s word which judges us all. James may have had Leviticus 19:16-18 in mind. We are commanded not to slander one another but instead we are commanded to love one another as ourselves. “Do not go about spreading slander among your people…. but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:16-18)
Slander breaks the command to love our neighbour. Loving our neighbour as ourselves will break the back of slander. We cannot do both simultaneously. Why should we not judge? Two reasons: 1. We do not know all the facts (we are partial) and 2. We never know the depths of our own motives (we are biased). To speak evil about a brother or sister on the basis of partial evidence and biased motives is to incur the wrath of God because we are usurping God’s role. “I am the Lord.”
In the list of spiritual gifts there is one noticeable absence. There are not meant to be any judges in the church. We don’t need any because God is our judge. Thankfully, he is patient and understanding, just and holy. We can therefore leave the matter to him. James is not forbidding the use of discernment (Philippians 1:9-10). Its just that we must not act like God in passing judgement on one another (Matthew 7:1-5). The encounter between George Galloway and the US Senate committee last week is a good example of the folly of passing judgement without all the facts.
How should we deal with one another? If the truth about a brother or sister is harmful we should cover it with love and not repeat it (1 Peter 4:8). If we know a brother or sister has sinned we should go to them privately and win them back (Matthew 18:15-19).
The perils of slander. Secondly notice that when we fail to humble ourselves before God we will not only tend to pull others down, we will also elevate ourselves.
2. The Folly
“Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins.” (James 4:13-17)
Just as slander is an act of defiance against God, so arrogance is an act of independence from God. And we are so much more susceptible to this sin the more youthful we are or the more wealth we have. What is it that you dream about as you fall asleep?
James is blunt about the folly of boasting or scheming about the future. He is not condemning life insurance, planning for the future or saving for retirement. James may be citing Proverbs which simply warns us “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.” (Proverbs 27:1) James gives us three reasons why it is foolish to be arrogant about the future.
1. Life is Uncertain (4:14a)
“Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life?” (4:14a) Life is made up of so many variables, like the weather we cannot accurately predict even tomorrow. I once had a solicitor friend who moved into a bigger house opposite his old house. He had to temerity to call it “The bigger barn”. His marriage eventually fell apart as did his Christian allegiance. Life is uncertain.
2. Life is Brief (4:14b)
“You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (4:14b) We count our birthdays in years but God tells us to number our days. “As for mortals, their days are like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him.” (Psalm 103:15-17) We must learn to measure life as God measures it - in days like grass. Why? Because we can only live one day at a time.
Life is uncertain. Life is brief.
3. Life is in God’s hands (4:15)
Ultimately boasting is folly because our lives are in God’s hands not our own. That is why we should say “If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.” (4:15). Life is both uncertain and transitory. Thomas A’Kempis once said “Man proposes but God disposes.”
To ignore God’s will is like trying to cross a stormy see without a compass. Knowing and trusting the will of God is not an option, it is an obligation for the Christian. That is why we must always add the conditional clause to our plans, verse 15, “If the Lord wills”.
That is why we have been investing many weeks over the past year considering the Purpose Driven Life, which we will consider further in June and July. We were planned for God’s pleasure, formed for God’s family, created to become like Christ, shaped for serving God, made for a mission. To know Jesus and make him known.
But, when we try and find significance and security in measuring ourselves against other people, when we seek to achieve status and wealth, by slandering others and elevating ourselves, we will meet with inevitable failure and even condemnation. If antagonistic slander denies God’s word, arrogant planning ignores God’s providence. The perils of slander and the folly of arrogance can only be countered by the wisdom of humility.
3. The Wisdom
“Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” (James 4:7-10)
Notice the number of action words James uses. Submit, resist, come, purify, grieve, mourn, wail, change, humble. There is no sense in which James subscribes to the superficial theology that says “Let God and let go.” James extols three aspects of an active, intentional, purposeful faith (for which I am grateful to Warren Wersbie - see James - Be Mature, p114.).
1. Submit to God (4:7)
We come to kneel together in the presence of Almighty God. This position changes our perspective on ourselves and one another. How can I stand in judgement over you when I am rightly kneeling beside you. Satan needs a foothold in our lives and we give it to him when we stand in our own strength. The way to resist him is simply to submit to God.
2. Draw near to God (4:8)
How do we do this? By confessing our sins and asking for his cleansing. A. W. Tozer says ‘nearness is likeness’ The more we draw near to God, the more we become like God.
Submit to God. Draw near to God.
3. Humble yourself before God (4:9-10)
It is possible to submit outwardly and yet not be humbled inwardly.
James uses strong language to describe how we should feel when we understand the seriousness of our sin. If we find it hard to feel like mourning or grieving over our sin, perhaps we have yet to appreciate how God views it. Our tendency is to make light of it or excuse it.
Instead we need to realise that “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17) What are the consequences of humbling ourselves and confessing our sin? Three precious consequences. Three great promises to cling to.
Satan will flee you (4:7). He is afraid of Jesus, and he is afraid of God’s word because he is a created being subservient, just as we are, to the power and will of God.
God will be near you (4:8). What could be more comforting? You may not feel him but you can trust his promise.
God will sustain you 4:10). He will energise you. He will motivate you to live a meaningful, purposeful and significant life. If God gives grace to the humble (James 4:6), then humbling ourselves is obviously the way to experience that grace. We gain strength to withstand temptation. Strength to resist evil. Strength to become like Christ. Satan will flee you; God will be near you; God will sustain you.
We have seen the consequences of forgetting we are the Lord’s servants. It leads to pride and arrogance. Exalting ourselves and denigrating others, we give Satan a foothold and we become miserable. But today we have a choice. We can heed these instructions and live today a life worthy of our calling.
Yesterday may have been the cup final in Cardiff. It may also have been the 50th anniversary of the Eurovision Song Contest in Kiev. But both the winners and losers will soon be forgotten.
Of much, much more significance to this country is something that happened 51 years ago today. On 1st March 1954, Billy Graham began a three month “Greater London Crusade”. It was to be his longest and his largest mission to date. Even as he sailed to the UK, a member of Parliament challenged his admission to Britain on the grounds that he was interfering in British politics under the guise of religion. Even well known members of the religious establishment opposed his visit betraying their prejudices about Graham’s simple biblical faith and direct approach to evangelism.
The first night brought rain, sleet and doubt - and of the 12,000 who attended, just over 200 people came forward at the invitation. For three months, Billy Graham preached daily to ever growing numbers at the Harringay Stadium. In addition to the nightly meetings there were many special events, such as rallies in Hyde Park, in Trafalgar Square, in various US military bases near London, an outdoor rally for youngsters featuring Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, an invitation to preach before Her Majesty, the Queen in the chapel at Windsor Castle. On May 22nd 1954, the last day of the Greater London Crusade, the weather was terrible and Graham was drained of energy, and yet he preached twice that day, first at White City Stadium to 67,000 people and then finally in Wembley Stadium. Every one of the 100,000 seats were filled and another 22,000 without tickets were allowed to sit on the hallowed grass.
It was the largest religious congregation ever to meet in the British Isles. After more than 80 days of preaching, Graham was physically exhausted. On that final occasion he preached on the theme: “Choose this day whom you will serve” The passage Graham used is taken from Joshua 24. At the end of his life, aged 110, God used Joshua to deliver this one final sermon. “if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." (Joshua 24:15).
At Wembley, as at Shechem, God worked a miracle in people’s hearts. Over 2,000 people came forward to receive Jesus that night. In all, more than 38,000 people made professions of faith.
1954 marked a turning point in the revival of bible based ministry within Britain. 50 years on, isn’t it time for another revival? It starts here. Lets cut the pride and independence. Lets sever the arrogance and boasting. Lets prune the slander and negative criticism. And instead lets submit ourselves to God and his perfect will and we will see Satan flee, souls saved and God be exalted. “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve... But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”