10 The Marble Lady


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Shhh…she’s sleeping!

Meet the “Marble Lady.” Dr. Frederick Augustus Webster, of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, met his stunning wife, Margaret McNaught, in Scotland when he was studying medicine there.  The couple soon returned to Nova Scotia, where the doctor set up a practice in his hometown. As a young woman, Margaret contracted a fatal illness and died in the mid-19th Century. Her widower asked a local sculptor to create a fitting memorial for her, and the result was this fine marble representation of a beautiful woman resting in a field and clutching a small sheaf of wheat. It is said to have been taken from a painting on a matchbox, and it can be seen at the historic and serene Town Point Cemetery at Chebogue, Nova Scotia.

I have admired this memorial often, and it always comes to my mind when I read James 1.18:

Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

James’ Jewish readers didn’t have to grab their concordances and look up, “f-i-r-s-t-f-r-u-i-t-s.” They would have known exactly what James was saying, and they would have understood why he said it. We, however, may have to do a bit of research.

Leviticus 23.9-12 describes–actually, prescribes–for the Jews the Feast of Firstfruits, the annual festival meant to celebrate God’s faithfulness in providing another harvest for His people. It was a time of thanksgiving and reflection. The feast required each Jewish family to do three things:

  1. Take a small sheaf of grain, such as the one in the sculpture, to the priest to be waved before the Lord as a “wave offering.” This demonstrated the worshiper’s dependence on God for the harvest and gratitude for His provision.
  2. Sacrifice a perfect male yearling lamb as a burnt offering. This was for the purpose of recognizing and confessing one’s sin and receiving atonement for it through the substitutionary death of the animal.
  3. Offer with the lamb a grain offering consisting of fine flour mixed with oil, and a drink offering of wine. No grain or bread could be eaten on that day before this offering was made.

MY LIFE MUST BE AN OFFERING TO GOD

Now, when James tells me God brought me forth–gave us life–by the Word of Truth in order that I should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures, I can understand a bit more what he means. If I am to be a kind of firstfruits, my life needs to be a daily offering of thanksgiving to God, always with the harvest in mind. In addition, my life is to be the “living sacrifice” Paul speaks of in ROM 12.1,2. What can I offer God, really? What do I have that He doesn’t? Nothing, of course. So He has explained that I can love Him by loving others, and part of loving others is proclaiming to them the good news of salvation in Christ.

MY LIFE REPRESENTS COUNTLESS OTHER PEOPLE

Firstfruits are about the harvest. Just as the Marble Lady isn’t holding a harvest, neither did the Jews offer God the entire crop. It was just a token, and it represented everything that was still in the field awaiting the sickle. In the same way, my life is a small part of an enormous harvest–people from the families, languages, ethnic groups and nations of the world. (REV 5.9,10) God wants to use me in the lives of others in the same way He used others in my life–to proclaim the “word of truth,” which alone brings new life in Christ Jesus.

Paul, another one who understood well the concept of firstfruits, uses this word to describe Jesus in 1 COR 15.20: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Jesus is not the only one to experience this resurrection and receive a glorified body. But He is the first, and therefore represents all who will come after Him.

I AM ON SOMEBODY’S LIST

If you are a child of God today, think of the many people God used to bring you to faith. People who loved you sacrificially, even in those times when you were supremely unlovable and ungrateful. People who patiently and creatively explained the gospel to you, even when you didn’t really want to hear it. People who modeled godly character. You could write a long list, and would miss an unknown number of people of whom you aren’t even aware.

God didn’t save you just so He could enjoy the pleasure of your company in heaven. James tells us what our purpose is–after all, we’ll be far better able to glorify God and live holy lives in heaven. The reason we’re not there yet is that we are to be “a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” The harvest isn’t all in.

If you haven’t yet, embark now on a life of firstfruits living.

09 Shadow Maker


The other day we were flying over Lake Superior and I was looking at the clouds below us. Even the wispiest of them cast shadows on the water–dark blotches that appeared to be islands.

Clouds hover outside the window of an aircraft on a mission to find the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, off Tho Chu islandShadows move and change. The shadow of a tree when the wind is blowing brushes the ground like a broom. Shadows can drive a hunter nearly mad with frustration: Is it an ear? An antler? A branch? Where is it now? Shadows can make a photo portrait appear either dramatic or sinister.

James writes about this in James 1.17, and makes the point that the good gifts we receive come down from the Father of lights, who never shifts like the shadows do. When we know Him, we realize that He is not fickle or capricious or vindictive. His character does not change, and He does not vengefully withhold His goodness like a catty middle-schooler might. Certainly, James never saw his older half-brother, the Lord Jesus, act that way.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

In the Scriptures, the character of God is connected very often with light. At creation, His first command was, “Let there be light.” It wasn’t until Day Four that He created the heavenly bodies, so the original source of light was God Himself.

The psalmist wrote, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (PSA 27.1a)

John the Apostle wrote in the first chapter of his gospel, “[John the Baptizer] came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” (JOH 1.7-10)

Later, in John 8.12, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

chp-shadowIn our text, Jesus’ younger brother speaks of the Father of lights, from whom we receive every good and perfect gift. As the Father of lights, there is no variation with Him, no shadow due to change.

James makes a connection between this idea and the one that follows in verse 18, which we’ll consider next time. What we understand from this text, though, is that God is constant and reliable. There are no shadows with him.

A shadow is cast when something gets in the way of the light. God never does that–He is the light.  John also wrote, “…God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” (1 JOH 1.5) God cannot deny Himself, and, as the Father of lights, He cannot obstruct the path of His own glory.

But I can. If I get in the way of His light, I cast a shadow on my own path and on the path of anyone near me.

James knew Jesus never did that.

 

Image is from nypost.com

08 The Lion, the Birds, and the Bees


Though I never saw it, there once was a TV show in which the main character, Flip Wilson, used to routinely justify his mischief by saying, “The devil made me do it.”

Baloney.

The devil never makes anyone do anything. There is not a single act of sin we may commit which we can blame on the devil. That’s not to say he isn’t involved–the Holy Spirit tells us through the Apostle Peter that he “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 PET 5.8b)

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So, who is actually to blame for our high crimes and misdemeanors, then? James tells us who in James 1.13-15, and then reminds us in verse 16, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.” While some translations (my ESV, for one) place this verse in the next paragraph, it seems to make far more sense as a summary warning for verses 13-15, in which it is clear that some of the apostle’s readers were deceived about who is responsible for acts of sin:

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

THE THEOLOGICAL REASON

James first offers a theological rebuttal to the accusation that God tempts people to sin. The fact that sin is possible and available in the world God created does not constitute divine temptation. God was not sadistically using reverse psychology in Eden when He instructed Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. James reminds his readers of two critical theological facts about God: His separateness from sin Himself and his hatred of sin in us. These two facts serve as the backdrop for what he says next. If sin is never God’s fault, whose fault is it?

THE PHYSIOLOGICAL ILLUSTRATION

To allow James to illustrate his point, the Holy Spirit uses an illustration about human reproduction–conception, to be exact–by comparing an act of sin to the process by which life is formed in the womb. He makes it clear that this is what He is doing when he says, “…desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin,” in the first part of verse 15.

Just as two things are required for conception, an egg from the female and sperm from the male, two things are required for an act of sin to occur–desire and enticement, or opportunity. The devil cannot provide the desire–he doesn’t have to. James says that desire is our “own desire,” the cell we provide. Satan can certainly point out opportunities, though–he did that in Eden and has been doing it ever since. When desire and opportunity come together, an act of sin is often conceived. We sin when we allow our desire to dwell on and seriously consider the opportunity. This is what James means when he talks about being “lured and enticed.”

Let me illustrate. If I am an alcoholic and stumble upon (sic) an unopened bottle of whiskey on a table in an abandoned building, I have a problem. Desire and opportunity have met, and they’re climbing into bed. My best strategy is to turn around and run–or stumble–out of the building as fast as my legs can take me! If I have an aversion to alcohol, a bottle of the very best Scotch would not tempt me, even if I knew nobody would see me drink it. On the other hand, if that bottle is empty, I won’t take a drink no matter how badly I want one. I can’t drink what isn’t there.

So it all comes back to us. What are we to do, since the desire to sin is part of our makeup as fallen people, and the opportunity to sin is ubiquitous in our fallen world? Until God removes the desire, we need to run from the opportunity, just as Joseph ran from Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39, leaving his blazer in her hands in his haste to escape.

If we know the Lord, we can be reassured that God “predestined [us] to be conformed to the image of his Son. ” (ROM 8.29) One of the things conformity to Christ involves is the removal of sinful desires from the heart of the believer. (Remember, Jesus never had any.) Sometimes this removal is immediate and dramatic. Sometimes it is more gradual, a constant struggle to evade the lion who is always on the prowl.

James  grew up with Jesus, who, ironically, was not conceived in this way. Nor did He ever have the desire to sin, though He was “in every respect tempted as we are.” (HEB 4.15) James could never convince him to participate in neighbourhood shenanigans with the other the kids in Nazareth, or to lie to their parents, or to steal matzoh from the matzoh jar. Imagine growing up with a sibling who never once had the desire to do wrong–never!

When you sin, James says–and you will–don’t deceive yourself by saying, as Adam did in the garden, that it’s God’s fault. It isn’t.

Don’t forget about that lion, and don’t forget about the birds and the bees.

07 Five Crowns


We love the word game, Quiddler, produced by Set Games. It’s a fantastic game for people who love words, and we use it with our English students to develop their vocabularies and spelling skills. The same company makes another game, which we haven’t played, called, Five Crowns

 

5 Crowns

 

That’s an interesting name in light of James 1.12:

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

The New Testament speaks of five distinct “crowns,” or rewards, God will give His children for their faithfulness. The “crown of life” is one of them. “The Greek word translated “crown” is stephanos (the source for the name Stephen the martyr) and means “a badge of royalty, a prize in the public games or a symbol of honor generally.” Used during the ancient Greek games, it referred to a wreath or garland of leaves placed on a victor’s head as a reward for winning an athletic contest. As such, this word is used figuratively in the New Testament of the rewards of heaven God promises those who are faithful.”*

In 1 COR 9.24, Paul–evidently a sports fan–uses an allusion to the ancient Isthmian Games to illustrate how these crowns figure in the life of the believer: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” Paul is not suggesting that only one of each kind of crown will be awarded in heaven, but that every believer should view his or her life as a race and run to win.

The crowns mentioned in the New Testament are not the wreaths of the Greek games, which were already dead when they were placed on the heads of the victors. Instead, they are “imperishable” rewards that will last for eternity. (1 COR 9.25)

The second kind of crown is the “Crown of Rejoicing,” (1 THE 2.19) or literally, a “Crown of Boasting.” Paul purposed not to boast in anything but his identity in Christ, and in this text he suggests that the Thessalonian believers will give him cause to boast in the grace of God when he gets to heaven because they will be with him there for all eternity.

Paul writes that the third crown, the “Crown of Righteousness,” will be rewarded to “all who have loved his appearing.” (2 TIM 4.8) He is writing at the end of his life, just before he is martyred by the Romans for his faith in Christ and his earth-shaking  ministry throughout the Roman world. Given the chaos and evil of our day, all believers in Jesus should “love his appearing,” the instantaneous removal of true Christians from the earth just before the horrific “Time of Jacob’s Trouble.” Sadly, some do not.

Given the chaos and evil of our day, all believers in Jesus should “love his appearing.” Sadly, some do not.

1 PET 5.4 mentions a fourth crown, the “Crown of Glory,” which will be awarded to those who faithfully, eagerly, selflessly “shepherd the flock of God.”  While the rewards on earth for this work may be few and small, the reward in heaven will be glorious beyond all imagination.

The fifth crown is the one we see here in James 1.12: the “Crown of Life.” It is mentioned in REV 2.10 in the same way: as a reward for steadfastness in the midst of suffering. First Century followers of Jesus were being put to death by the thousands in unspeakably horrible ways, and all of these writers were well acquainted with this reality. Paul was martyred by the Romans shortly after he wrote his second letter to Timothy. John died alone in exile on the island of Patmos just after writing Revelation. Historians tell us James was killed in Jerusalem  in 62 A.D. by being thrown off the roof of the temple and then stoned.

In our text, James 1.12, we should notice several important things.

STEADFASTNESS IN TROUBLE IS A BLESSING

Just as when he exhorted his readers to “count it all joy” when they encountered all kinds of trials, James reminds them that doing so–remaining “steadfast under trial”–will result in their blessing. Endurance, like joy, is not contingent upon the intensity of the trouble, but on the faithfulness of God. Further, steadfastness in the midst of affliction yields more than “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (PHI 4.7)–a blessing in itself, given the array of things which would rob of us of peace. It also ensures us this mysterious, glorious “crown of life.”

STEADFASTNESS IS ONLY POSSIBLE IN TESTING

Obviously, if there is no test, there is no reason to be steadfast. The very word implies stress, trouble, pain, sorrow, heartache, and any number of other nouns we could use to describe human experience during its darkest hours. Aspirants to the “Crown of Life,” Beware!

STEADFASTNESS DEMONSTRATES LOVE FOR GOD

Notice how James connects endurance and love: the one who remains steadfast in trial will receive the crown of life, which God will give to all who love him. Clearly, then, steadfastness is a way in which we demonstrate true love for God. As it has been throughout history, the crown of life may be inextricably joined to the sentence of death. Our friend Chet Bitterman understood this. He was killed for his faith in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1981 after 48 days in captivity. “There was found an entry in Chet’s journal written nearly 2 years before his death that read. ‘The situation in Nicaragua is getting worse. If Nicaragua falls, I guess the rest of Central America will too. Maybe this is just some kind of self-inflicted Martyr complex, but I find this recurring thought that perhaps God will call me to be martyred in His service in Colombia. I am willing.'”

Even as I write this post, we are hearing reports of the unthinkable brutality of ISIS in Iraq and elsewhere. We have precious friends from Iraq–from the Kurdish region as well as from elsewhere in the country–and our hearts go out to the suffering citizens of this blood-soaked nation. These fanatical, bloodthirsty extremists have demanded that “infidels” convert to Islam or face immediate death, and it has been reported that hundreds of what I call “CNN Christians”–those who claim allegiance to Christianity or who are thought to be Christians simply because they are not something else–have capitulated.

No crown of life for them.

I pray that God would empower those who are truly His to remain “steadfast under trial” and “faithful unto death.”

 

 

THE WIDOW’S MIGHT: Giving Everything When You’ve Got Nothing


As Brother Thaddeus lit the torch in the hall, Paul paused to glance at the fading opulence of this sprawling villa just south of Berea. The remaining furnishings cast their ornate shadows upon cracked walls poorly disguised by a few threadbare tapestries. Many tiles were missing from the mosaic floor, and the Syrian carpet was faded and torn.

The apostle had been dumbfounded when this congregation had presented him with a love gift on this, his last day with them. In addition to the gold and silver coins, there were rings, bracelets, nose rings, brooches, and several unset gems. His heart overflowed with affection for this little band of believers. A marked people in a pagan city, they were being severely tried for their faith in Jesus. Money was scarce. Some shivered in thin, tattered clothing. Others had not eaten yet today. Many bore the marks of brutal beatings. Thaddeus, who had been removed from his government post for refusing to say, “Caesar is Lord” upon entering the council chambers, had been strangely unable to sell his property, and his taxes had taken an unexpected jump. Paul hoped his last sermon would encourage them all…

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“So as Jesus sat by the temple doors with His disciples, the worshipers filed by and dropped there offerings into the massive, carved chest which is opened each Sabbath to receive the tithes of the Jews.

“Our Lord watched closely. Prominent men strode sedately to the coffer, their elegant robes sweeping the marble floor, and with practiced flourishes dropped fistfuls of silver from their brocade purses. Pharisees and members of the religious councils would bow and scrape piously, glancing about to make sure none of their generous contributions slipped into the box unappreciated.

“Occasionally, one of the Twelve would gasp as the equivalent of an entire year’s earnings passed before his eyes and clattered onto the growing heap of coins.

“Then, as several of my associates quietly speculated about the possible uses for such a fortune, a young widow entered the hall and shuffled over to the treasury in her patched sandals, carrying a whimpering infant and pulling a dirty toddler with her. No flowing robes here. No gold, no jewels, no wish to be seen by anyone but God. Clumsily she fished two tiny coins from the threadbare pouch fastened to her tunic. Whispering a silent prayer of thanksgiving, her damp eyes full of hope and adoration, she dropped her very life into that chest, its tinkling barely  audible as it, too, landed on the heap.

“Instantly, the Master was on His feet.

‘Did you see that poor widow, my friends? That one, over there. She just put two mites into the treasury, but I tell you assuredly that she has given more than all these well-heeled hypocrites put together! And do you know why? Because those two mites were all she had. They gave token amounts out of their vast wealth, doing their best to appear generous and holy. But she, in her poverty, gave everything to her Heavenly Father. He will reward her richly for this!’

Though we don’t actually know what Paul taught the Macedonian believers about giving, the apostle held them up to the Corinthians–wealthy, urbane believers in a city directly south of Macedonia–as model givers. They are an example to us, as well. If we could master the principles by which they lived, the cause of Christ would be propelled forward exponentially. People in our communities would not go hungry or unclothed. Believers would be more content and better able to serve the Lord.

Just what was it about these anonymous Christians that made their gifts so special? Four simple observations can reveal their secret of giving.

A DIFFERENT  PERSPECTIVE ON THINGS AND CIRCUMSTANCES

The Macedonian Christians had a different perspective on things and circumstances from most of us. In 2 Corinthians 8.1-2, Paul writes, We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.

What an amazing statement! In our culture, affliction and joy, poverty and liberality–these are perceived as mutually exclusive. We don’t expect afflicted people to be joyful; indeed, when they are we question their grasp of reality. We certainly don’t expect the poor to give generously to others–we expect others to give to them! So when we read of these wonderful people who were both oppressed and poverty-stricken, we marvel. Affliction did not rob them of their joy, and poverty did not rob them of their generosity.

Joyfulness and generosity must be conscious decisions we make as Christians, irrespective of circumstances. They are directly related to our priorities. Our tendency is to pursue what is not important, to wish for what is not possible (see PRO 23.1-3), and to take pride in what is not ours. (PRO 30.8,9) What a contrast to those struggling Macedonians, enduring one of the early waves of persecution which swept over the Church in the first century.

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON FAITH

Their perspective on faith was different, as well. Paul writes in verses three and four, For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints… We often give according to what we can afford. This is not wrong, but it is not faith. As we learn to give, it is a good place to begin, as Paul says in verse 12: For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. But that was not enough for the Macedonian believers. They gave beyond their ability. They gave according to faith, not figures. Not only that, but they “begged…earnestly”. There was no reluctance, no need for reminders, as in Corinth. They were “cheerful givers,” not giving  “reluctantly or under compulsion.” (1 COR 9.7)

Sometimes the poor are more generous than the rich. Perhaps this pattern was evidence in Paul’s day, as well, and prompted him to write, As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the certainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share. (1 TIM 6.17,18)

Either we trust God or we don’t. If we don’t, no amount of money will be enough to please Him. If we do, no amount will be too much. He can afford whatever we decide to give.

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON MINISTRY

An incident over thirty years ago taught me a lesson I hope I will never forget.

I went with a friend to visit a rural family in Nova Scotia who lived in a two-room block cottage with no hot running water, little heat, and just enough food to keep the lions in their bellies from roaring too loudly. It was a bitterly cold winter, and they had to wear their coats inside to keep warm.

They had recently immigrated from England. The man was out of work, with no prospects. His wife was ill and they had two small children.

But they were a Christian family, and there was joy in the home despite the hardship. We had a good time of fellowship, and when my friend and I went out to the car, the man came with us. As we said good-bye, he stuffed a five dollar bill into my hand.

“I–bu–I can’t take this from you!” I stammered. “I should be giving you money.”

“Listen, Brother,” my new friend replied in his direct manner, “does your Bible say it is better to give than to receive?”

“Of course it does, but—“

“Then who are you to deprive me of the blessing of giving?”

He had me there.

The Macedonians might have asked this question had Paul refused their gift. Indeed, he says they begged…earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints. (2 COR 8.4) These impoverished disciples knew God could use them despite their need, and they considered the needs of their Judean brothers and sisters more pressing than their own. The realization that we all minister together with God and that we are equally important in His program will affect how we give out of what He has given to us.

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON COMMITMENT

Paul seems surprised himself as he writes of the Macedonians, and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. (2 COR 8.5) Just as the widow in the temple, they had given God their very lives, so it was no great thing to offer Him a gift to ease the pain of His children in Judea and give His servant a nice send-off.

To be truly cheerful givers, we must give ourselves to God. Such a gift is not beyond the call of duty. Indeed, Romans 12.1 calls it our “spiritual worship.” This sacrifice comes with the knowledge that if the Lord can’t have us, He doesn’t want our money. And if He does have us, He already has our money, too. All of it.

If that poor widow had only known how many precious gifts her spirit would inspire, her steps would have quickened, her face would have radiated with humble thanksgiving to her Lord for using her so.

She knows now.

Image from http://galleryone.com/fineart/sculpture_figurines/CHRWI1.html

 

06 The Richest Homeless Man in the World


Friends recently told us of a young man they know who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was raised in a well-heeled family, coddled, given everything he could possibly want, and allowed to live without boundaries. He now sleeps in a homeless shelter and spends his days on the streets. His entire family, profoundly distressed about his situation, is reaping a harvest of wrong choices. And it’s a bumper crop.

I wonder how Jesus’ family felt about Him.

Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (MAT 8.20)

He wasn’t complaining. He was responding to a scribe who had come up blithely promising to follow Him wherever He went. Jesus was essentially asking this privileged and respected Jew, “Are you sure you’re ready to become a homeless man?” There is no suggestion in the text that the scribe really did follow Jesus.

IMG_9205James, Jesus’ little brother, knew how Jesus lived. He knew He was a homeless rabbi who traveled all over Galilee and Judea, teaching crowds of people and performing astounding miracles of healing. His wisdom was astonishing, His boldness newsworthy, and His power unearthly. But He–God in flesh!–and his ragged band of disciples were reliant upon the generosity of sympathetic followers for food, clothes, and a place to sleep at night.

In our day, such a man would have an agent and probably a personal security detail. He would appear on all the TV talk shows and his photo would be seen on billboards along the nation’s highways. He would earn an impressive salary and drive an expensive car–or, better yet, have his own chauffeur. He would have assistants to do this, and other assistants to do that. He would never be seen with his hair out of place. His golf clubs would be custom-made. His kids would be in a private school and his beautiful wife would wear Gucci and Chanel and smile demurely whenever she saw a camera.

Not so with Jesus.

Many years after Jesus has returned to heaven, James writes these words in James 1.9-11:

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

IMG_9407His use of the word, “brother,” indicates that he is writing about believers in Jesus. Faith in Christ, in addition to providing the assurance of eternity in heaven, is an equalizer. (James will write more about this in the second chapter of his letter when he speaks to the issue of partiality.) The poor man is exalted in that he shares equally in the glorious eternal inheritance God has promised to those who know Him. The rich believer, by recognizing that his riches cannot buy God’s mercy, prostrates himself in the dust at the foot of the cross along with the brother dressed in rags.

Proverbs 30.8-9 contain the following prayer: “Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.”

Daniel Doriani observes, “The poor are prone to dishonor God by breaking His law, if necessary, to obtain the next meal. But the rich are prone to trust their wealth and power and so to forget God. The rich are also tempted to insult and abuse the poor (JAM 2.6-7), to live for themselves, and to exploit whomever they can (JAM 5.3-6)…The poor must remember they have an exalted position in God’s eyes. The rich must remember the dangers of materialism. They must believe their life is fleeting, impermanent, and beyond their control, as it is for everyone else.” (Daniel M. Doriani, James, P & R Publishing, 2007)

The irises in our back yard were magnificent this year. Admiring them in their dew-drenched beauty became a morning ritual for several weeks. I took lots of photos, including the ones on this page. The second one reminds me of the truth of what James is saying: riches, like flowers, fade and fall off. They are temporal and vulnerable. They are only endowed with eternal value when they are given away!

Both rich and poor can exult in God’s saving, amazing, equalizing grace. As Jesus’ own life attests, it’s far better to be homeless than hopeless.

 

05 The Wind-Driven Life


But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Wild Ocean Surf HD Desktop Background

Few things are as calming as the rhythmic crash of the surf on the beach when one is on dry land. And few things are as terrifying as a storm at sea. Our family can remember a ferry trip across the Gulf of Maine in the early 1980’s. It was November, we were sailing home to Nova Scotia, and the weather outside was frightful. The seas were seven metres high, and an anchor chain swung loose and clanged ominously against the hull of the ship every time it rolled. The sound resonated throughout the nearly empty vessel, making the ship’s violent motion even more alarming. Doors slammed shut violently and loose items flew about. We were at the mercy of the angry sea. At one point our three-year-old son asked, “Are we going to die?”

James has told his readers about the guaranteed source of the thing they need most: when they lack wisdom, they can ask God, and He will give it to them generously because He wants them to have it and because He has it all and longs to give it away.

Now Jesus’ little brother attaches a proviso to his promise. When we ask God for wisdom–or anything else, for that matter–we must ask in faith. Without faith, asking is pointless. Why would I ask for something I know I won’t receive, or ask it of someone who does not have it to give? James says that is being double-minded, the spiritual equivalent of being two-faced.

If I pray without faith, that’s exactly what I am.

Although James does not figure in any of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ words or works, it is safe to assume that by the time he has written this letter, the apostles of the Lord have probably filled in the gaps in his experience. And it is unthinkable that Jesus did not make every attempt possible to proclaim the truth to His family members. Having grown up where he did, James is familiar with the effects of wind-driven waves even on a relatively small body of water. The apostles’ stories have surely included their times with Jesus on the Sea of Galilee, sometimes scared out of their minds. Some amazing things happened on that lake–an enormous catch of fish when there weren’t any to catch, the instantaneous calming of a tempest by Jesus’ command, and Peter’s brief stroll on the water while Jesus patiently humoured his unbelief.

So James knows what he’s talking about when he makes this comparison between unbelief and the sea.

Jesus had much to say about faith during His ministry. Once, when cursing a fruitless fig tree, He told his disciples, “…whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Matthew 21.22) When Jesus spoke to the Father, He did so with the assurance that the Father heard Him and would answer according to His will.

Before raising Lazarus from the dead, He prayed: “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11.41b-42)

With absolute assurance of His purpose for coming to earth and anticipating His imminent arrest and crucifixion, Jesus prays in John 12.27: “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

In John 15.14, the Lord says to His disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” That kind of promise should elicit strong faith from any follower of Jesus, so that asking God for anything, including the wisdom we know He wants us to have, is an act of supreme confidence.   

James will conclude his letter with another reference to praying in faith–but that’s for a later post. Suffice it to say that his admonition to us is founded in experience as well as sound theology.

Jesus never doubted, and neither should we. We must avoid the perils of the wind-driven life.