29 August 2021
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James 1:27
A very poor woman called a radio station asking for help from God. A non-believer who was also listening to this radio program decided to make fun of the woman. He got the woman’s address from the radio station and told his secretary to carry a large amount of foodstuff to the woman. However, he gave the following instruction, “When the woman asks who sent the food, tell her that it’s from the devil.” When the secretary arrived at the woman’s house, the woman was happy and grateful for the help received. She started putting the food packets inside her small house. The secretary then asked her, ”Don’t you want to know who sent the food?” The woman replied, ”No, I don’t care because when GOD orders, even the DEVIL obeys!
We are moving right through the church year, and now we are moving into the second half of Pentecost. We waited for God, we celebrated God among us, we studied how to draw closer to God, and then how to respond to the Resurrection as an Easter people. Then we celebrated the coming of the Spirit among us, and tried to understand what it means to work through the Spirit. Most recently, we moved to understand how, guided by the Spirit, we come together as the church community to build one another up in Christ. We are moving through a process of growing together. First, we have to walk through our own longings of our faith and work on drawing closer to God in our own ways. Only then are we prepared to use what the Holy Spirit has offered us to gain confidence for being leaders in God’s church. Then, with that confidence, we are ready to build one another up as we learn together, so that we may now turn outwardly to the world. The last few weeks we have been emphasizing the importance of coming together as the church. Now, with the Spirit, and the confidence that we have in our faith, and the built up body that we have been working on, we can extend God’s glory into the world. We could ask ourselves this question: What comes out? When we live our lives, going about our day-to-day, what do people see when they see us?
The poor woman who called into the radio station saw her prayer to God being answered through the person who came to her door. She did not care what the intent was of the person who brought it. In her eyes, God had brought it. There was a story of another man who was sitting in a public place waiting for someone as he watched the people go by. Before long, he noticed that he was making a lot of negative judgements by looking at the way they dressed or acted, or what they said. He caught himself though, and whispered to himself. He resolved to change his attitude and start thinking something positive about each person that he saw. The man is Gregory Boyd, and he wrote about this experience in his book, Repenting of Religion: Turning from Judgment to the Love of God (2004). When he noticed how his thoughts about others were not flattering, he remembered Jesus’ pronouncement in Luke 10:5 to first bless people. As he did so, he felt more loving. He felt like he was loving Christ more. He felt like he was loving for God more deeply, and experiencing what it meant to feel the heart of God.
The first chapter of James exhorts us to be “a kind of first fruits” for God (James 1:18). The letter of James, which claims to be written by “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,” begins by encouraging “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” to ask God for wisdom if anyone feels as though they are lacking it. He also tells them to know that “the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:1-5). Knowing that we will be tested, and that we lean on God’s help for more wisdom to build this endurance, we can be these fruits that God is looking for in this world. We are at the point of the Christian year where we have matured as a church, even as we continue to learn how to be a better church. God does not look for perfection; God looks for those who can pull through the trials, who are wise enough to ask for God’s help, and are willing to try to reach out to the world and make a difference. A tree does not bear fruit if it does not branch out. No one can enjoy God’s fruit if God’s people do not make an effort to grow.
What does it look like to grow? It means that we feel at peace with God no matter what is happening around us. It also means that we notice more of an effort on our own part to change our attitude about the world. It does no one any good to judge another person. Yet it is most harmful to your own relationship with God. James notes that there is a group of people who hear the word but do not do anything about it (1:22-23). They hear the word read and preached on Sunday, but they do whatever they want on Monday thru Friday, almost forgetting that they are Christian. Perhaps God only watches us on Sunday. I hope that it comes as no surprise that God looks on at us every day of the week. God knows our thoughts and our actions behind closed doors or closed minds. When we turn to doers of God’s words, we actually want to do something about it. This is exactly what Gregory Boyd chose to do. He was the only one who would ever know that he was privately judging people. But it made such a great difference in his attitude and in his life, and that is the fruits that people would see. You cannot bear fruits with a cold heart. James warns us: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless” (1:26). That is, if we call ourselves Christian, but do not watch what we say to others (privately, behind their back, or otherwise), and say that we are trying to hear God when we are really not, God considers our identification as a Christian worthless. So if you are deceiving yourself, now is the time to make an effort in your prayer life, in your faith journey, and in the effort to be the servant that Christ needs.
Perhaps there is just one area of your faith journey that has not been attended to in some time. Perhaps you have done so well in serving others, but you have not talked to God in some time. Perhaps you read your Bible every day, but you do not like to try to talk to God or even ask God what God would have you do. If you notice any weakness in your relationship with God, ask God what you can do about it. Or ask a friend first if that makes you more comfortable. But make sure that you are a doer of something today.
The Pharisees thought that they were the best doers alive. Imagine their shock when Jesus tells them, “Isaiah prophesized rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (Mark 7:6-8). If we just honor God with our lips, sing praises to God and pray to God every now and then, but do not mean what we say, our worship is in vain. If you sang this morning about being gracious for the beauty of the earth, for the wonder of each hour, for the joy of human love, and for the church, but did not mean those words, what did they mean? Jesus gives us a grocery list of vices which districted the Pharisees and can distract any budding or seasoned Christian from the right path, which comes from the human heart: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly” (Mark 7:21-22). If these defile a person, the first step that we must take is to remove these from our lives. And yes, it is harder to do this than it is to say it. But we start with our church. We start with our Christian neighbors. We can start with God. If we do not start somewhere, these vices will keep on making our worship empty. If we do not start now, we will just have another week being a tree without fruit.
James provides us with one definition of a pure and undefiled religion before God: “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). If you think about it, each one of us who does not belong to the family of God is an orphan. Everyone who needs to hear about the love of God, or who once heard it and no longer believes it, is an orphan and a widow. We are all among us. If we do not have the desire to find and care for others who are hurting, who need to know that God loves them, then what business do we have calling ourselves a Christian? I do hope and believe that all of us here do have this desire. Yet even this desire can be stained by the world. They can be stained by the vices that Jesus warns us about. When we let the world control us, and scare us into doing nothing, we are just the same as if we did not have this desire. Call on your friends, therefore, and call on God, to ask them to help you to remove your stains, or to remain unstained, so that Jesus will truly recognize you as a Christian when you reach the pearly gates, and so that others know that you are Christian by the love that you show the world despite the hate that it shows you back.
The non-believer who sent the Christian food did so with hate. Yet the woman who believed in the glory of God believed that God’s will is carried out even by the devil himself, because he cannot help to obey. The woman exclaimed, “When God orders, even the devil obeys!” That is amazing confidence in God’s authority over this world. If and when we allow God to be on our side, and come to God as we would our very best friend, keeping unstained will not be hard at all. Yes, the world will still batter us, and we will still become discouraged, but we will not bow to the vices that keep our worship feeling empty, without joy, and just going through the motions. Do you want to worship God feeling full joy in your heart again, or perhaps for the very first time? Then think about the image of yourself that other people see. Think about the image of yourself that you see. Think about the image of yourself that God sees. It is what comes out that will be your judgement from God. Let them be words of love, words of joy, and words of worship for all the world to see that you are unstained by the Devil, even if the Devil himself was the mailman who brought God’s flowers to you. This week, start small. First, bless the people whom you see. It is not hard to be a faithful servant of God, and feel God’s peace along the way. You only have to start the journey. Pray to God right now – give God your heart right now – so that from this day forward you may be not an empty Christian, but a vibrant Christian bursting with God’s love, sharing it with the world. For God is more powerful than anything that you will ever face. God invites you to experience God’s heart. May all power, glory and honor be to God! Thanks be to God! Amen.
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
2:8 The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.
2:9 My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.
2:10 My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;
2:11 for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
2:12 The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
2:13 The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
1:17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
1:18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
1:19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;
1:20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
1:21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
1:22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
1:23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror;
1:24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.
1:25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act–they will be blessed in their doing.
1:26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.
1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
7:1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him,
7:2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.
7:3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders;
7:4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)
7:5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
7:6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;
7:7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
7:8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
7:14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand:
7:15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
7:21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder,
7:22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.
7:23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”