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Faith Works 1

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I’m guessing that, at some point or another, every one in this room has owned something that didn’t work like it was supposed to. It could be a tool, a car, an electronic device, a toy, an appliance- anything. And you’ve had that experience where you go to turn it on or use it in the way it is meant to be used and…nothing. It doesn’t work for you. And while this would be a wonderfully appropriate moment to introduce the sermon by talking about a certain green jeep and my journey with it over the last year and a half, that seems just too easy and predictable. So instead I want to tell you about an employee that I had when I was in charge of the front desk for one of the freshman dorms at ACU. The freshman dorms require having someone at the desk 24 hours a day. Its not a difficult job. You sit at the desk, and watch the lobby. At midnight, you lock the doors, and at 5 am, you unlock the doors. If you see someone that isn’t supposed to be there, tell them to go away. Most of the time spent at the desk is spent watching movies, doing homework, or hanging out with others who are in the lobby. Its not terribly difficult to find workers for most of the shifts, but the average student doesn’t care to work the 1am-5am shift, nor do they care to roll out of bed and be ready to start a 5am shift. If you can find someone that likes working those shifts, you treat them like royalty in order to make sure they choose to work for you each semester, or else you find yourself working those shifts.
Well, once upon a time, I thought I had found that person. She asked for that shift and I thought I’d hit the jackpot. I scheduled her as often as I could and she never called in. Every time I was still up at 1am and would go down to the lobby, she was there. It wasn’t until about halfway through the semester that the person who normally worked the 5am-9am shift got sick and I ended up picking up that shift. Lo and behold, my 1am-5am person wasn’t there. She wasn’t at the desk. I took the 5-9 again the next morning because the normal worker was still sick and at 5am when I walked down to the desk, she wasn’t there. She’s supposed to stay until the next person relieves her at 5 and she’s not staying. And through a couple conversations, I decided we should probably take a look at the lobby security cam footage just to see what was going on. Turns out that, for the vast majority of the year, she’d been showing up at 1am and leaving somewhere around 2am, all while logging her full 5 hour shifts into our system. And the later we got into the school year, the less she showed up at all, all while still logging her hours as worked. She had the title of desk worker. She claimed the work. She logged the hours. She expected the benefits, but there isn’t a person who would say she was doing what she was supposed to do. She had a role, a job. She wasn’t doing it.
We are starting a series today called “Faith Works.” Over the next 5 weeks we are going to look at the way of life, something James calls actions or works, which is the product of a faithful life. In James’ words, this is what a faithful person does. Across these, we will see James expound on what it means to live faithfully in a person’s day to day life. The last 10 weeks, I repeated several times that Jesus constant invitation to those who were around him was to a total transformation in the way they life and interact with the world that is around them. In a lot of ways, James is furthering that teaching- this is what it looks like to live differently, to live transformed. James can be a challenging book because he leaves little middle ground. If you are a person who isn’t perfect, which pretty well nails all of us, James can be painful because he doesn’t offer a lot back-patting or encouragement for struggling. And yet, James does a fantastic job of reminding us that the way we live our lives, especially in the public sphere, matters deeply. Those actions reveal our faith, or lack thereof.

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. 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.

The New Revised Standard Version Hearing and Doing the Word

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 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.

22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 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.

26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 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.

The New Revised Standard Version Hearing and Doing the Word

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 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.

James’ words here are imperative- you MUST understand this. This is something you desperately need to know. Well why on earth would people be told they need to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger? Don’t we all come by that naturally? Oh yeah, me either. But the problem is not in the acts themselves. Not being a good listener doesn’t make you a miserable human being, thank goodness. Same goes for being talkative. And getting angry in and of itself isn’t the issue. Instead, it is what they produce. This should sound familiar if you remember last week’s teaching from Jesus that it is what comes out of our hearts, our lives, that defiles and not what goes in. The problem is someone who is slow to listen, quick to assert their own expertise, and quick to anger when things don’t go their way is going to have a very difficult time “producing God’s righteousness,” being seen by others as a follower of Jesus. Someone who cultivates their life this way is going to be known as selfish, angry, bitter, inconsiderate- certainly not holy, or even friendly. And it is clear by the words that come next, “welcome with meekness the implanted word,” that living a life that is rooted in anger and rejection of neighbor is a sure sign that a person hasn’t accepted or been transformed by the word of God, the gospel that Jesus constantly taught and lived out.
But what does that look like? What does James mean when he tells them to “welcome with meekness the implanted word” that has been given to them?
The New Revised Standard Version Hearing and Doing the Word

22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 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.

26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 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.

As far as James is concerned, to be a follower of God who has that word of God implanted on one’s heart, you must be someone who works toward actively choosing to live out the way of Jesus. Simply hearing the word, once or a thousand times, is ultimately meaningless if a person never allows the word of God to transform the way they interact with their neighbors. It doesn’t make you “kind of” faithful. Simply being present for a sermon was never the goal. James offers an all-or-nothing proposition- followers of Jesus do the work of Jesus or they aren’t followers of Jesus.
And James offers a good gauge of what that looks like. Words matter. Followers of Jesus pay attention to what they say, not just the words themselves but the message they carry. Destructive sentences can easily carry no profanity and even be said with a smile. James isn’t cautioning against a few choice words, but the way we use words themselves and how they reveal what is in our hearts. And James points out how just a few words can reveal the true depth, or lack there-of, of our faith.
James also provides perspective on where we can find blessings we often overlook- in our own faith lived out. James does not say here that blessings come back to us because of our doing- this isn’t some sort of health-and-wealth gospel. James definitely isn’t saying that those who do good things get good things back. Instead, James invites us to recognize the blessing that is present in the act of service- the opportunity to display and share our faith and imitate the one whom we follow. That is the blessing.
Finally, James names how they interact with those on the fringes of society as the true marker of their faith. I’ll ask it this way. Nobody cares if you are the nicest person in the world to your boss if you turn around and heap verbal abuse on those who work under you. They notice the second. Widows and orphans live on the edge of Jewish society. They are often ignored or neglected. They are the most vulnerable, they are individuals with no voice and no power in the first-century Jewish world. And James says its how you treat those whom you could get away with neglecting matters. If you treat those who you could neglect with compassion, then you truly show that you have been transformed.
In short, James is telling them that their faith must work. If their faith does nothing, then it is nothing.
But, this always comes back to one very clear point. Our faith can work because God has worked on our behalf. Jesus lived this way towards us, and that and that alone is the reason that we get the blessing of living in this way towards those who are around us.
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