Faithlife Sermons

Keeping It Real

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I wonder if anyone here has heard about a new movie coming out in October called Religulous? It’s a documentary about which some in Hollywood say is already in the running for an Academy Award. It stars standup comedian Bill Maher, and one quote from an interview with him lets you know everything you need to know about the film.

            "I always call religion a neurological disorder. I really do believe that. I mean it's not criticizing. I'm just saying if…somebody went to a psychiatrist and said you know I believe in…this crazy, illogical thing, the shrink would say, well you have a neurological disorder. And you need to really get therapy or take a pill." Bill Maher in an interview for CBC.

            Maher wants to spread the message that religion is not only ridiculous, but dangerous.

            How could you prove him wrong? What evidence could you point to in your own life and say here is proof my religion is real.

            Trying to prove your religion is real to Bill Maher isn’t really that important. He’s already made up his mind on the subject, and you’re not likely to change it.  But it is important for us to be sure our religion is real in the eyes of God.

The Bible gives us some very specific characteristics of real religion that aren’t just theoretical, but practical. I think it would be good for you and I to take a look at just what makes religion real, kind of a spiritual check-up. The test can be found in James 1:19-27. Begin with me in vs. 19-21.


            How do we know our religion is real? How do we keep our religion real? To begin with, James says to

I.               HUMBLY RECEIVE THE WORD (v. 19-21)

An evangelist named Gipsy Smith told of a man who said he didn’t get much out of the Bible even though he had “gone through it several times.” Smith replied, “I think I see your problem. Let it go through you once then you will tell a different story!” [i]

I wonder if that might be the problem with many people’s religion—they haven’t allowed God’s Word to “go through” them. The reality of our religion is not based on what we read n the Bible, but how we receive the Bible. As James puts it in vs. 21 we must …receive with meekness the implanted word…Three words sum up how James says to do this:

Listen. (v. 19-20) One of the best ways to let the Word of God go through you is to be humble enough to listen to what He says. Too often we spend so much time talking about the Bible and arguing over the Bible that we don’t get alone and quiet and listen to what God says in the Bible.

Listening is hard work. The Holy Spirit doesn’t usually shout, but whispers. To really listen to what God says, you have to quiet your own prejudices and presuppositions.

Listening is humbling. You have to lay aside your pride that tries to tell you that you already know it all. You’ve got to be willing to hear what God says, even when it might not be pleasant.

Listening involves the effort of turning your attention from everybody else and everything else and tuning in to what God says in His Word.  As you listen, you will also need to    

Lay aside. (v. 21) The phrase James uses here literally refers to stripping off filthy clothes, describing the importance of stripping off sinful attitudes and habits. But the word translated filthiness is also connected to a medical term for ear wax. James might be saying just as you need to clean out your ears to hear, so also you need to clean up your life in order to hear God speak to you.

Ps 119:11 Your word I have hidden in my heart, That I might not sin against You.

            Our religion is real only as we humbly receive the Word, listening and laying aside anything that hinders us from hearing God speak.

            A gentleman who was getting on up in years once became convinced he was losing his hearing. He visited a specialist, who pulled out a gold watch and asked “Can you hear this ticking?”

“Of course,” he replied.

The specialist walked to the door and asked the question again.

The patient concentrated and said, “Yes, I can hear it clearly.”

Then the doctor walked into the next room and repeated the question a third time. A third time the man said he could hear the ticking.

“Mr. Harris,” the doctor concluded, “there is nothing wrong with your hearing. You just don’t listen.”[ii]

Are you and I listening? So often—too often---we are talking too loud and too much to hear the Lord speak.

            How often do we turn off the TV, turn off the radio, turn off the computer, pick up our Bible, ask God to speak, and then take actually  time to listen to what He says to us?

How often do we hold on to what we hear from the Lord---meditating on what He says, writing it down, and committing His Word to memory?

How often do we actually lay aside attitudes and habits that keep us from hearing God’s Word? Not just the most obvious sins, but the secret sins of our hearts, the respectable sins?

If our religion is just about feeling better and learning to cope, or getting along with our neighbor, then there really isn’t much to it. If, on the other hand, we are practicing receiving with meekness the implanted Word then our religion is about God—His Word, His truth, His love, His power, His goodness.  Real religion is about humbling receiving the Word. It’s also about


I read the story of a man who had been away from his home church for some years, involved in all kinds of shady practices and criminal activities.  But when he came back to his home church and testimony-time came, he was ready.

He stood and said, “I'm so glad to be back in my own church, and I want to tell you that while it's true that I have beaten my wife, that I have deserted my children, that I have stolen and lied and done all manner of evil and served several terms in jail - but I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that not once, in all that time, did I ever lose my religion!”[iii]

            Sounds to me like he needs to lose his religion!

            James reminds us real religion is not just about what we hear, but about what we do. He hammers home his point with an illustration about a mirror.

            What do you use a mirror for? To see yourself, but why do you want to see yourself? I once knew a young man that liked to stand in front of a mirror and admire his muscles. I’m guessing most of us in here don’t use a mirror that way, do we? Most of us use the mirror to check our appearance, to be sure everything is in order.

            You look in the mirror to comb your hair so you don’t look like you just fell out of bed.

            You look in the mirror to be sure your lipstick covers your lips and not your nose.

            You look in the mirror to check your teeth so nobody gets grossed out over the parsley shining out from your pearly whites.

            In other words, you use a mirror to help you fix whatever’s out of place.

            James says real religion is looking into the mirror of God’s Word so you can fix whatever’s out of place in your life. Or as vs. 25 says (read.)

            I love this phrase …the perfect law of liberty…So many of us think real freedom is being able to do what you want without any restrictions, but James reminds us real freedom comes from hearing and obeying the Word of God. It is not lawlessness that brings us real liberty, but living in line with God’s truth.

            But so often, we look into God’s Word, but it doesn’t really affect how we live (v. 23-24)

            It’s like looking in the mirror at a mass of tangled hair and never picking up a comb.

            It’s like staring in the mirror at a scraggly face and never picking up a razor.

            It’s like smiling at your reflection, and leaving whatever is in your teeth still there.

            James says it is just as foolish to look into God’s Word and never do anything about what you see. Real religion faithfully puts God’s Word into practice.

            I suppose we’ve all been guilty of failing to do something about what God says.

            Sometimes we turn a blind eye, ignoring the plain words of Scripture because it sounds too hard, too bothersome to bother with.

            Sometimes we procrastinate, saying One day I’ll do something about that, but not today.

            Sometimes we come up with a string of excuses to quiet our conscience long enough to forget about it.

            But make no mistake: real religion makes a difference in how you live. Anything else is just a cheap substitute.

          If your religion does not change you, then you should change your religion.—Elbert Hubbard.[iv] 

            Maybe some of us need to change our religion. I don’t mean we need to abandon Christianity, but maybe we do need to abandon the cheap substitute of a faith without works. Real religion humbly receives the Word and faithfully puts the Word into practice.

Finally, real religion

III.           PRODUCES A HOLY HEART(v. 26-27)

A radio station ran a competition to find the most religious person in their community. They got a letter from one man that read, “I don’t suppose you’ll find anybody more religious than me. I don’t smoke.  I don’t drink.  I don’t gamble. I never even look at women.  I am hard-working, quiet and obedient.  I never go to the movies or the bar, and I go to bed early every night and rise with the dawn. I attend chapel regularly every Sunday. I've been like this for the past three years. But just wait till they let me out of jail!”

Sometimes we think of holiness as a list of rules and regulations about how to dress, where to go, and what to do. But the main meaning of the word holy comes from a word meaning to cut. The idea is of separation, of being special or different—not just a difference in what we do, but a difference in who we are. James reminds us that real religion produces a holy heart. He describes this holy heart in terms of 3 key areas:

A holy heart connects with your tongue. (v. 26)  Jesus made this connection in

Mt 12:34-35 34 …out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things.

Your words are rivers that flow from your heart. Whatever is in your heart overflows into your mouth. Vance Havner used to say what’s in the well comes up in the bucket. If angry, hateful words come up in the bucket that tells you something about the heart from which it comes. If good words full of grace and praise for the Lord come up, that tells you something about the heart from which it comes.

A holy heart is full of compassion. (v. 27a) In the ancient world, there was no such thing as Social Security or orphanages. If a woman lost her husband, or a child lost its parents, they were basically on their own.

James says a holy heart is full of compassion for the helpless, the homeless, the hungry. A holy heart looks at needy people the way Jesus did in

Mt 9:36 But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.

Holiness is not just about holing up and hunkering down. Holiness is about caring for peopel, weeping with them, doing what you can to meet their needs.

Real religion is not about focusing on your own needs and ignoring everybody else; it’s about reaching out to others and sharing with them what God has given to you.  

A holy heart is separated from the world. (v. 27b) Keeping yourself unspotted by the world doesn’t mean isolating yourself, but it does mean separating yourself. It involves your mind, your heart, and your body.

You keep God’s perspective rather than the world’s perspective. The world tells you things are most important; God tells you people are most important. The world tells you to get ahead, you have to push and promote yourself; God says the greatest of us is the servant to the rest of us. God says He is Lord over all; the world says it’s up to you and me. The world says if it feels good, do it; God says do what’s right, no matter how it feels.

Real religion involves a separation from all that is sinful and evil. There can be no compromise.

Think of it in terms of marriage. Marriage doesn’t mean you stay at home with your spouse all day, and never venture outside the doors. But it does mean when you walk out into the world, your heart still belongs to your husband/wife. In the same way, as you walk through this world, your heart is holy if it belongs to God.

            Is your heart holy? Does it show up in what you say, how you talk? Is your heart full of Jesus’ compassion for the weak and wounded? Is your heart separated to Christ? This is real religion, and nothing else.

There was once a woman visiting a large church one Sunday morning.  When the pastor made a good point in the sermon, she cried, “AMEN!” 

     Heads turned to see who was making that racket.  Then when the preacher made another really good point, she yelled, “THANK YOU JESUS!” 

     These stodgy folks were getting uncomfortable by then.  Finally the preacher made an exceptionally good point and the woman stood up, waved her hands in the air and shouted “HALLELUJAH!” 

     At this point the head usher runs up beside her and says, “Madam, what do you think you’re doing?!”  She replies, “I can’t help it, I’ve got religion.”

     The usher replies, “Well, you didn’t get it HERE so sit down and be quiet!”

     You don’t get real religion from church—you only get it from Jesus Christ. He alone is the Source of a religion that’s real. If you and I want to receive a religion that’s real, it has to come from Him.

You can enjoy a safe religion, a religion that makes no impact on the world, a religion that sounds good at funerals, the Rotary club, or the campaign trail, but it won’t be a religion that’s true and real. We have to humbly receive His Word, faithfully put His Word in practice, and ask Him to make and keep our hearts holy. This is what the Bible calls true religion.

            Let me ask you—is your religion for real?


[i]10,000 Sermon Illustrations, electronic ed. (Dallas: Biblical Studies Press, 2000).

[ii] Today in the Word, June 9, 1992

[iii] James W. Moore, You Can Get Bitter or Better, (this book is out of print

[iv] Leadership, Vol. 15, no. 4.


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