JAMES 1:1-4

JULY 1, 2012




            Today we begin a new series on the Epistle of James, with the word “epistle” referring to a formal or teaching letter.  If I were to give a subtitle to this teaching letter, I would call it “A Practical Guide to Christianity."  There is a sense in which James’ Letter is a "how to" book, a kind of "How To" manual for the Christian life, and that’s appealing because we hear a lot in church about what we should do, but perhaps not enough about how to do it.  Well, James tell us how to do it.

            Of course, you may be aware of the controversy that has surrounded this book. It took awhile for church leaders to include it in the final version of the Bible, and not everyone was pleased with that decision.  Martin Luther did not believe it belonged in the bible because it seemed to emphasize works/behavior over faith, and he referred to the Epistle of James as "an Epistle full of straw."  While Luther called it "an Epistle of straw,” others, however, have called it "The Epistle of Common Sense."

            And as we work our way through the book we will center our attention on the crisp, pungent truths that fall one after another.  Some believe that the Epistle was originally a sermon or sermons preached by James, and then recorded in this fashion.  In fact, there is one theory of authorship which has it that this was a sermon preached by James in his Aramaic tongue, taken down by someone who translated it into impeccable Greek, edited it, and issued it to the Church at large.  That makes sense to me and with that introduction, let’s open our bibles to chapter one, verse one, and let’s begin reading.


            James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:  Greetings.


            A quick aside.  It could have read “James, a celebrity of God,” because there is no other description of this man in the letter, no other information about him, so he must have been a familiar figure in the early church just to identify himself as James.  The New Testament, of course, mentions a number of persons named James, but only two of those named James were widely known.  One was the disciple, James, the son of Alphaeus and the other was James, the half brother of Jesus.  Since James, the son of Alphaeus, was martyred by King Agrippa in 44 AD, that leaves James, the half brother of Jesus as the author of this letter  Let’s continue reading.


            My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.


            After these words of introduction and greeting, the body of the Epistle starts with a shout - “Consider it nothing but joy!”  No hesitation here.  No fumbling to get to the point.   No tip-toeing around the thorny issue.  And what is the first thorny issue James addresses?  Suffering, trials, troubles -- all those flies in the ointment -- all those thorns in the flesh -- all those sucker punches in life.  That's where James begins, and he shouts, "Consider it nothing but joy!" when trials come our way.

            Now I can see it in your eyes.  You are thinking and maybe saying under your breath, "You call this a ‘how to’ book?’  You call this ‘A Guide to Practical Christianity?’  Well, it doesn’t sound like it here.  Rather it sounds rather naive - a pie-in-the-sky approach to life, not grounded in reality.”

            It's similar to the general who found himself completely surrounded by enemy troops.  He turned to his soldiers and said, "Men, for the first time in the history of this military campaign, we are in a position to attack the enemy in all directions."

            The general may have been naive, but James was not.  What do we do when we are surrounded by an enemy that threatens to sap our spirit?  How do we handle the flies in the ointment, the thorns in the flesh, the sucker punches in life?    Well, first, James reminds us to face trials without yielding.

            When you face trials of any kind James did not say “cave in!”  He did not say “surrender!”   He said consider them nothing but joy.  James does not deny the reality of trouble.  Instead he reminds us not to yield to them because of the positive, long-term affect they can have on our lives.

            I like the story told of a 15-year-old who said, "did I ever tell you I was president of my eighth-grade class ... two years in a row?"  Now that’s dealing with adversity in a positive way. 

            At the age of 67, Thomas Edison watched helplessly as his treasured laboratory burned down.  Staring at the blaze, he said to his son, "Go get your mother and do it quickly.  She will never see a spectacular fire like this again."  As a family, they watched his life''s work go up in flames.

            Edison handled this disaster in an unusual manner.  He went to bed, got a good night''s sleep, and called his staff together early the next morning.  Glancing around at their despairing faces, he announced: "We will begin again. It will be better."

            The next day he was walking with his son near the site of the fire.  He picked up an old photograph of himself which the fire had charred on all four sides.  He said to his son, "The fire destroyed the outside ... but not the inside."

            This is exactly what James is getting at.  Trials, troubles, suffering may char the outside but they don’t have to char the inside.  Don’t yield to them.  Allow them to produce an endurance that leads to a maturity.  

            That brings us to a second truth.  In the midst of trouble trust in God.

            A major corporation was experiencing great difficulties with its large computer system. They had a number of repairmen attempt to fix the malfunction but none were successful.

            Finally, they called in a seasoned veteran who had helped build the system at the factory.  He looked at the computer a few minutes and then took a hammer and softly tapped it in three different places.  He then handed over his bill for the service call: $10,000.

            The company protested the bill because the man had only given the computer system three taps with a hammer.  The man responded, "The taps cost a total of $1.00 but it will cost you $9,999 for my knowing where to tap."

            Only God knows where to "tap in" to our lives when our circuits are overloaded.  We can count these trials and temptations nothing but joy, if we remember whom to call when they strike.

            That pushes us to the third truth this morning.  Suffering can be wasted or it can used to produce maturity and completeness in our lives.  Listen to James in verse three: You know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  It does if we don’t yield to it and we look in the right direction.  But then listen carefully to the completion of his thought in verse 4: "Because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let endurance have it’s full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

            Philip Yancey, in his book Disappointment With God, tells us about a modern-day Job, named Douglas.  Douglas' troubles began some years ago when his wife discovered a lump in her breast.  Surgeons removed that breast, but two years later the cancer had spread to her lungs.  Douglas took over many household and parental duties as his wife battled the debilitating effects of chemotherapy.  Sometimes she couldn't hold down any food.  She lost her hair, and always felt tired and she was vulnerable to fear and depression.

            One night, in the midst of this crisis, as Douglas was driving down a city street with his wife and twelve year old daughter, a drunk driver swerved across a center line and smashed head on into their car.  Douglas' wife was badly shaken, but unhurt.  His daughter suffered a broken arm and severe facial cuts from windshield glass.  Douglas himself received the worst injury, a massive blow to the head.  After the accident, Douglas never knew when a headache might strike.  He could not work a full day, and sometimes he would become disoriented and forgetful.  Worse, the accident permanently affected his vision.  One eye wandered at will, refusing to focus.  He developed double vision and could hardly walk down a flight of stairs without assistance.  Douglas learned to cope with all his disabilities but one: he could not read more than a page or two at a time.  All his life, he had loved books.  Now he was restricted to the limited selections and the sluggish pace of recorded books.

            Philip Yancey interviewed Douglas over breakfast.  He described the book he was writing, and asked, "Could you tell me about your own disappointment with God?  What have you learned that might help someone else going through a difficult time?"

            Douglas was silent for a long time.  He stroked his peppery gray beard and gazed off ... and finally said, "To tell you the truth, Philip, I didn't feel any disappointment with God."

            Yancey was startled and waited for Douglas to explain.  He did.  He said, "The reason is this.  I learned first through my wife's illness and then especially through the accident, not to confuse God with life.  I'm no stoic. I am as upset about what happened to me as anyone could be.  I feel free to curse the unfairness of life and to vent all my grief and anger.  But I believe God feels the same way about that accident - grieved and angry.  I don't blame God for what happened.  We tend to think ‘Life should be fair because God is fair.’  But God is not life, and if I confuse God with the physical reality of life - by expecting constant good health, for example - then I set myself up for a crashing disappointment."

            Yancey was shocked.  He had chosen Douglas as his modern-day Job, and had expected from him a bitter blast of protest.  The last thing he had anticipated was a graduate course in faith.

            Suddenly, Douglas glanced down at his watch and realized he was already late for another appointment.  He put on his coat hurriedly and stood up to leave, and then leaned forward with one final thought for Yancey:  "I challenge you to go home and read the story of Jesus again.  Was life fair to him?  For me, the Cross demolished for all time the basic assumption that life will be fair."

            We can waste our suffering, or we can allow it to produce endurance in faith -- and we can allow that endurance in faith to mature and complete us, leaving us "lacking in nothing."

            So the shout of James is real:  “Consider it nothing but joy."  And we can do that -- if we do not yield to trials -- if we look in the right direction when they come.  And if we will do waste our suffering but allow it to produce endurance in faith.

            That's just the beginning.  We have fifteen more practical lessons to come.  Amen.


[1] Much of this message indebted to Maxie Dunham and his sermon “Count It All Joy.”