In elementary school we took a field trip to the Richmond Auditorium. I don't know who was leading the orchestra but one of the things they did was to introduce us to the idea of "musical themes" via Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. Musical themes are those repetitious melodies that mark the entrance or presence of some character of force. Who can forget the heavy strings playing those simple notes at the opening of Spielberg's Jaws. Themes don't remain the same. They are repeated and transformed throughout a work. These variations include the tempo or volume such as when the music associated with Yoda crescendos as he lifts the X-Wing out of the swamp and astonishes a young Luke. Themes are memorable for at least two reasons. First they give us a hint of what is coming and second, especially in movies, they have a way of capturing our emotions into the story. 1
James too, is full of themes, in spite of those who would reduce it to being about "works verses faith". As we move through this book we're going to find themes dealing with perseverance, joy and trials as well as issues of wisdom, use of money and preferential treatment of people and of course, the issue of good actions as opposed to just saying the right words.
It is my working belief that James' concern was to warn those he wrote too from becoming what we heard last week described as a "Casual Christian" . God's desire is for us to be captured by Jesus Christ. 2
One theme is that of testing. For those to whom James is writing this word covers a lot of things. It includes direct satanic attacks as well as the general ills common to living life and facing the trials that being Christian in a heathen world brought upon them. Dr. Ralph Martin summarized this testing as, "the task of reconciling the will of God and dominating evil powers would and did find themselves.
Is this familiar? The answer for our testing is the same as for James' audience—JOY. Joy is NOT happiness. Happiness is fleeting and temporary. Your blood sugar level and the latest Blazer trade can affect your happiness. Joy goes deeper. The opposite of joy is not unhappiness its anger, despair, and bitterness. Joy is a God given gift. It makes us able to stand when trails come. And its foundation is the one in whom we trust—Jesus. Keep this in mind. The trials and problems we face cannot ultimately harm us? They can hamper us. They can short-circuit our plans. They can injure our standing in the world, but in the long run—in the eternal scheme of things, they do not, they cannot interfere with what we have in Christ. God's joy is confidence in the one who we call Lord. It is trust in the one who promises to never leave us forsake us. Diving joy is the automatic byproduct of biblical faith.
Telkon is used by Jesus on the cross when he cries, "It is finished". For the length of the letter James finds this a pretty important concept. He uses it five times, four of them in this chapter. For Jews this term is more about reaching God's goal and being reckoned by God as worthy. Along with the word "maturity" or "fullness" it is used to describe an animal for sacrifice that was old enough and without the blemishes that would keep it from being accepted. It seems the idea behind this is more than just one's actions. It is a development that moves us from self-centered to God centered. It signals that the transformation the Holy Spirit has begun has moved our character well toward the goal God has for us. We will see later that one very good measure for this is the actions we take in response to God's call. 3
Joy is the answer to the tests but in the process of living out this joy and of seeing God work His will in our life there will come a lot of opportunity to seek God's direction. In verses 5-8 James addresses this. The Potato Patch is at the entrance to the San Francisco Bay. Out flowing river water meet the surf coming towards the bay and these silt bars have the ability to create some pretty impressive waves. One description sums it up "On a big day, the Patch is creepy-- a minefield of shifting, throwing peaks, extending from a couple of hundred yards offshore all the way to the horizon." 4 In the tossing of these waves it is not unheard of to have seasoned sailors lose their lunch. That’s the picture James has of the person who seeks wisdom without certainty and trust in God to answer.
When we are talking about wisdom that readies us for Christ's kingdom we are talking about a qualitatively different type of wisdom. It is a wisdom that is God given not worldly wise. It is a wisdom that goes opposite of the world's direction. It is a wisdom that turns the world on its head.
Let's bring another theme into our discussion and that is of wealth. James is writing a letter that will be read in many different churches so he's addressing some very general and some very real problems. One of those is the relationship between the rich and poor Christ followers which every church had.
I mention this because worldly wisdom loves answers like money. Money is simple, measurable and whether any lack of it can often be blamed on others. Money was just as important in James time as ours and it wasn't an answer to their needs either. But let's not limit the worlds' answers to money. The world gives us other answers like respect, love, belonging, health and a sense of being in charge of one's own life. There is a sense of safety and security in having any of these but the truth is God's wisdom is given by God and directed by Him. And what is up to us is to believe what he tells us so we aren't tossed along with the storms that testing and trials cause.
Look at some of the sadder examples in our world of those who had the world's answers for a need for wisdom yet missed out on the joy that God offers. In verses 9-11 James underlines what we already know, that God turns the world's ways upside down. The world lifts up wealthy, powerful and important people yet in God's vision they have low positions. But the poor, those who have nothing, are ignored in by the world given high positions by our Lord.
I don't have to go far to find examples of this. Bernie Madoff who will spend 150 years in prison thought his plans and money was all he needed. Barry Bonds thought a little more muscle is all I need to deal with the issues facing me. And what can we say about Michael Jackson? His memorial service did an honest and gracious job of honoring a musical genius. But I was left with the gut feeling that Michael never enjoyed the depth of Joy he should have. For all he had, for all who he was, there was a sense of contentment that he missed.
Folks you know others who need to be captured by Jesus Christ. You know the ones who have been living lives of casual faith and have been indifferent to the Word of God or to His commands. Let me urge you to invite them to be a part of this series this summer. It's not easy giving up your own desires in order to follow Jesus but it is worth the work. There are some practical things I'd like for you to do this week. You'll find them in your bulletin. You'll also find a prayer to be prayed. It's not magic, but simply an attempt to get us focused on God's as we face the tough times that will come.
1. Read James 1 and jot down the latest trial you've gone through
2. On the line between testing and completeness where are you...
3. When you're faced with tough issues what is your first source of wisdom? To whom do you go?
4. Make this daily prayer your own and use it each day as a way to focus your attention on our Lord.
Lord, in today's tests let me see You at work. My biggest test is ________________ and I ask for Your Joy as I face it. Let Your Holy Spirit make me complete and bring maturity because of what I face for I ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
1 One example that shows how theme music can change the way one feels about a show or character is seen below where Magnum P.I. is replaced with Han Solo P. I.
2 Barna defines these folks as those who perceive their Christianity as "faith in moderation. It allows them to feel religious without having to prioritize their faith. Christianity is a low-risk, predictable proposition..., providing a faith perspective that is not demanding. A Casual Christian can be all the things that they esteem: a nice human being, a family person, religious, an exemplary citizen, a reliable employee and never have to publicly defend or represent difficult moral or social positions or even lose much sleep over their private choices as long as they mean well and generally do their best. From their perspective, their brand of faith practice is genuine, realistic and practical. To them, Casual Christianity is the best of all worlds; it encourages them to be a better person than if they had been irreligious, yet it is not a faith into which they feel compelled to heavily invest themselves." If that's not disturbing enough Barna says that this represents about 66% of the adult population in the U.S. http://www.pointofview.net/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=9637
3 Martin, R. P. (2002). Vol. 48: Word Biblical Commentary : James. Word Biblical Commentary (15). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.