Marks of a Mature Christian

First in a series on the book of James,
Delivered July 15, 2001 by Rev. George Antonakos.

Sermon Text:
James 1:1-16
1James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the
twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings.
2Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds,
3because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.
4Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete,
not lacking anything.
5If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all
without finding fault, and it will be given to him.
6But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is
like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.
7That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord;
8he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.
9The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position.
10But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because
he will pass away like a wild flower.
11For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom
falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will
fade away even while he goes about his business.
12Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood
the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to
those who love him.
13When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be
tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone;
14but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.
15Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it
is full-grown, gives birth to death.
16Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers.

James wanted Christians to walk the talk. He wanted Christians to live practically, to live out the reality of being a mature Christian. He talks about many church problems in this book. He talks about problems of class distinction. He talks about problems of how to handle wealth. He talks about sham spirituality that only looks good on the outside, but doesn’t compute on the inside. James, as one person said, was like the church’s conscious, in his day. Trying to hold the church accountable to what it meant to be a “follower of Christ.” Without becoming too academic, who is the author of James? There are four or five people in the New Testament who are called James. And take my word for it, most commentators agree that the epistle’s author was probably James, the Lord’s real brother, who is referred to in the gospels, whom Paul sought out after he was converted. The Apostle Paul said, “I went to see James and spent some time with him.” And he was also the pillar of the church mentioned in Acts, Chapter 15, when there was a dispute about the Gentiles and the Jews and what the requirements would be to the Gentiles. So James was a great leader in the church and it’s believed that he wrote these words. He described himself in a way that communicates what he wishes all of us would be. He describes himself by saying, “James a servant of God, a doulos of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” By the words, “doulos of God, servant of God,” commentators think this means that James was a person of authority in the church because Moses was called the servant of God. But I think in addition to that, out of the four Greek words for servant, James chose the one that represented the lowest of the low. The word that showed that he was the one that sought to do what Jesus wanted him to do, plain and simple. A doulos in ancient times would never say to his master, “Master, I know you told me to do something today, but I am going to take the day off. I am a little tired today.” A doulos would never do that. “Lord, you said it, I am going to do it.” That’s the way James presents himself and that’s the challenging way that he presents his whole letter to his hearers. And who were his hearers? He writes to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations, mainly Christian Jews who were scattered about all the land because of persecution. James was trying to encourage them to hang in there. He knew that it was tough to be a Christian in the 1st century, it would be tough to be a Christian in the future. James is encouraging each of us today, as well as people 2,000 years ago. Another way of defining James’ wish for us, is that he wants us to be mature. He wants us to be “whole people.” It’s hard to stay with it, isn’t it? After years and years and then when things get tough and you have losses, it’s really easy to set things aside, but James is saying, “No, I want you to press on brothers and sisters and be mature.” And I thought to myself, “Why should we be mature Christians? Why should we even care whether we are mature Christians or not?” Because it makes an awful lot of difference in this life and in the one to come. In this life, we have the opportunity to really learn what it means to be salt and light, to have a transforming effect on the people around us. There are so many problems in this world, so many struggles, and there is nothing more beautiful than when a person in pain understands that God is the answer to their problem. We can have a part in helping them understand that and their whole life will get reorganized and reoriented. That’s the greatest thing in the world. Because it lasts forever. That’s the second point. In the next life we all want to hear, “Well, done thou, good and faithful servant, enter in to the joy prepared.” It’s important to be a mature Christian, because that’s going to make us whole people. To make us the most fulfilled and fruitful. And so that is what James is about.

Do you remember Stephen Covey’s book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People? Well, years ago, InterVarsity published a book called, 77 Habits of Highly Ineffective Christians. James would have loved that book. He would have bought one, because he would want to say, “How can I encourage Christians who are struggling, to really hang in there? And to be mature for their own growth and for God’s glory?” He is asking each one of us, “Are you a servant of Jesus, are you seeking to follow him? I know it’s hard but are you doing it? Is that your goal? Are you a mature believer? At least are you wanting to be a mature believer?” Then he goes into the rest of our text today and develops four characteristics of what a mature Christian looks like. What I call “Marks of a Mature Christian.” Look at these characteristics with me and see if God is speaking through them to encourage or maybe challenge you today. I am going to use a garden metaphor to describe these characteristics. Our Christian development, no matter how young or how old we are, can be like a development of a garden. It can be a beautiful garden or it can be an overgrown garden. The choice is ours.

The first thing I want to say comes from verses 2-4. A mature Christian sees trials as fertilizer to his or her faith. Again, James was speaking to people who were suffering persecution and it’s amazing how many themes from the Sermon on the Mount are interwoven into the Book of James. And the Lord in the Gospels, talked about persecution and trouble and in John 16, he said, “In this world you will have trouble, you will have tribulation, but be of good courage. I have overcome the world.” And James in the same spirit says, “Brothers and sisters, this is a hard thing to think about. Consider it make your lead thought be joy when trials and difficulties come and persecutions. Make it your lead thought as Jesus said, that it be joy. What did the Lord say on the Sermon of the Mount? He said, ‘blessed are you when people persecute you, and speak evil of you, falsely.’ Then your reward is great in heaven.” And so in the same way James says, “Consider it joy, because you know these trials are going to produce something. They are going to make something happen in your life.” The word trials is taken from the Greek word, “pirates.” It is where the English word “pirate” from. The devil, like a pirate, attacks with the attempt to steal something valuable from the owner. And when you encounter trials, those times in your life that assault a Christian, those trials try to steal the belief that God is for you, that God is with you, that God cares. Like the old Mennonite woman who said, “Lord, I am not surprised you don’t have more friends than you do, seeing as how you treat the ones that you have.” And sometimes when we are going through trials and difficulties, that’s the way we think. And it’s easy to understand how trials try to steal our belief that God is for us. But James also says, “No brothers and sisters, these trials that come from God many times are the thing that cause you to grow and if it weren’t for the trials, you would not develop the character that God wants for you.” And I know some of you are saying, “Okay, I have had enough of character building now, stop Lord.” But that is the point that James is trying to make. Consider it, regard it, and think of it. Make it your lead thought that these pirate-like events, not the trials themselves, but what they produce will bring something beautiful in your life. And that’s what happens, the fertilizer of trials worked into the soil start to produce a stalk and that’s what James calls “perseverance, patience, endurance, steadfastness, enduring character” and that’s what the stalk grows up into. In verse 3, James says, “Because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. And perseverance must finish its work so that you might be mature and complete, not lacking anything. Ready to stand against any assault that can be thrown at you, a mature believer.”

We are attracted to maturity. The corn growing in the fields is almost ready to harvest. None of us is attracted to a shriveled ear of corn. We like those juicy, plump kernels. And we also look at athletes, like Cal Ripken, for instance. If you have followed the sports news over the last week or so, you know Cal Ripken has done it again. You know he hit a home run in the All-star Game the other night. 2 outs in the 9th inning, he comes in to pinch hit, he keeps his 14 or 15 hitting streak alive. Last night he hits 2 home runs to win. When kids play sandlot baseball, they don’t say I am Joe Schmoe, they say I am Cal Ripken. Because we are attracted to what has grown full in the pursuit of what it’s pursuing and Cal Ripken is a mature athlete. In the same way, James is saying, “Brothers and sisters, these trials create perseverance, and that perseverance will create a maturity so that when people look at you, they will say I want to be like that person. And they’re really meaning I want to be like that person because they show forth what it means to be a servant of Jesus.”

As we laid to rest dear Jean Stuart this past week, people stood where I am standing and said, “I want to be like her. She was my mentor. She helped me. She encouraged me.” Same thing with Gloria Evans, who died on Friday. Women of God who showed the maturity of Jesus and made us all strive to be better Christians. That’s what James is after. A mature Christian sees trials as fertilizer to bring about deep.

My second point is found in verses 5-9. The mark of a mature Christian is that when trials and confusion come, a mature Christian doesn’t just wring their hands, they pray. They get on their knees. One of the traditions surrounding James is that he was “James of the camel knees” because he prayed so much. His knees were calloused from kneeling in prayer. also says, “If any of you lacks wisdom,” and who doesn’t lack wisdom sometime, especially during those times when we say, “Lord if you don’t show me what to do, I am going to really be stuck.” James says that we should come humbly to God, “who gives generously to all without finding fault” and ask for help during times of suffering. Some versions say that God gives “without reproach.” What does this mean? It means you can never come to God too many times. Sometimes we sit around and say, “You know, I have asked that person for a favor, I am not going to ask them again.” Well that’s not the way it is with the Lord. With the Lord, he never reproaches, he never says, “Oh, are you here again? Didn’t I help you yesterday?” No, he gives without reproach. We come to the Lord and pray, we say, “Lord I need your wisdom. I need your help, I am confused. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what the next step is going to be.” The Lord promises that in the midst of the struggles and trials, that He will grant His wisdom and will show what you to do . Truett Cathy, the founder of Chic-Filet Restaurants, said that “We are all faced with great opportunities, brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.” Prayer is the means by which we figure how that impossible situation is a great opportunity. James continues by describing how ought not to pray, that is in a double minded way. What does he mean? The reason that we exist is to be whole people in Jesus, to single-mindly want what the Lord wants, and James is saying, “Don’t be like a person who prays, ‘Lord, now look I am stuck and I need your help and when you answer it I am going back to living on the fence. I am going to go back to living, you know, in two worlds.’ Let not that person expect to receive anything from the Lord, because they are asking in a way that’s not really in concert with what the Lord wants for them.” So James is saying that a mature Christian prays when they are confused and doesn’t resort to illegitimate means of trying to fix their problems. And that’s what leads James to his next thought, and my third point.

A mature Christian has a sober view of possessions and eternal reality. James says that, “A brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position.” What does that mean? When we strive after obtaining this world’s goods, we are tempted to do things that we ought not to do. So James says, “Listen, a trial is when you don’t have enough. It’s a trial, but rejoice in your high position, that you have the riches of heaven. You have claim on eternity.” Then he says to the rich person, that he should take pride in his low position, “Because one day he will pass away like a wildflower and he will be destroyed and he will be gone.” So a mature Christian has a sober view of possessions and sees possessions against the backdrop of eternity.

I was struck on my vacation with an experience that we had. We went to the Thousand Islands, just east of Lake Ontario and the headwaters of the St. Lawrence sea way, about 100 miles north of Syracuse. It’s a great vacation. Takes about seven hours to get there by car, maybe a little more if you don’t drive like me, it’s beautiful. Thousands of islands, right there in the St. Lawrence sea way. People buy these islands and they build homes on them. Gorgeous homes. You take a boat tour and on part of the tour you stop at Heart Island,. Where you will see a huge castle above the tree-line. It’s a wonderful, interesting story about how that castle got there. Back in the mid 1800’s, a man by the name of George Boldt came to this country as a seven year old Prussian immigrant. He was dirt poor, but he remembers seeing castles in his homeland and he said, “One day I am going to build a castle.” And so he came to America, made millions in the hotel industry. In fact, Boldt was on the Board of Trustee’s at Cornell University, which has a great hotel administration program. Boldt built the Bellevue Stratford in Philadelphia. He partnered with John Jacob Aster of the Waldorf Astoria in New York. He made millions and millions of dollars. He was the first person who was accredited with saying, “The customer is always right.” He was the first person to put flowers in a hotel room. The first person to provide room service to his guests. He was a great guy. He made tons of money. He had a wife who was ten years younger than him, and as a token of love, he built a castle on Heart Island for her. Boldt even had the island made into the shape of a heart. There was a beautiful home already there, but he tore it down and started constructing this castle. The whole thing cost two million dollars. Now in 1904, what is two million dollars worth, right? Two million dollars and four years into the castle’s construction, his wife died suddenly. Boldt telegrammed the workers saying, “Leave everything now. Just leave the tools where they lay. I don’t care anymore.” And he never set foot on that island again. Later, the New York authorities bought the castle and now they are restoring it, as a tourist site. They way it might have looked like if Boldt had completed it. But nobody ever lived in that beautiful place for even one day. And I thought about this when I read in James, “Let the rich brother take pride in his low position. Knowing that possessions will never obtain for us true riches.” So, a mature Christian has a sober view of possessions and eternal reality

And lastly, the mature Christian according to verses 13-16 doesn’t blame God. They don’t blame God for their failings and times of temptation where they really blow it. They don’t even blame the devil by saying, “The devil made me do it.” James says, “Listen, when tempted no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ God can’t be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when by his own evil desire.” You see, the mature Christian knows in his or her heart of hearts that there is an old nature residing there. And all you need to do is just let go of Jesus’ hand for a little while, move away from the word of God for a little while, and move away from the fellowship of the church for a little while and before long you are a sitting duck. You know that you can’t make it. I don’t care how long you have been a Christian. You can’t make it, apart from a close relationship with Christ and a mature Christian knows that. So a mature Christian stays close to Him and confesses it when they don’t. And he James also describes what temptation is like. He says it’s like a fishing lure. We see that temptation, that tempting thing and we were drawn to it, not because somebody’s making us do it, but because of our own internal makeup so we grab that bait and it leads to sin. It leads forth to death if we keep it up. Let me tell you quickly how to fight temptation. You know if you had a nice summer meal of crab cakes and corn, bread, salad, and desert and then somebody put out the most beautiful gourmet meal right in front of you, it wouldn’t mean a thing. You would be so full, but when you’re starving it looks great. When a person is filled with Jesus, and when a person has Christ in their life and is staying close to Jesus, somehow temptation seems to take a lesser place. Temptations are always there, they are always a struggle, but James is saying that a mature Christian deals with temptation, by staying close to Jesus.

So the mature Christian perseveres in trial, prays in confusion, perceives eternal reality, and presumes that temptation and struggles are internal struggles. They don’t blame anybody for them and takes responsibility for them. Which one of these points is God speaking to you about today? There is one more verse and I want to close with a story. Verse 12 says “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial.” (That’s what James is all about. He is trying to help us stay with it. Because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”)

Many here have heard the name of Luis Palau. He described his dad, a well-known preacher in South America, as his hero. Palau said that his dad would share the gospel with people and try to help them mature in Christ every single day. On cold winter mornings he would see his dad get out of bed, wrap a poncho around himself, heat the wood stove, and pray by the stove. And he would talk to Luis sometimes and he said, “Luis, Proverbs has 31 chapters. There is 31 days in a month. I read a chapter everyday. It gives me wisdom. It helps me to understand what God wants.” And Luis says that he still practices that today. Well in 1944 when Luis was 10, he learned that his father was dying, and he arrived home too late to say goodbye. He said that he tried to steel himself but couldn’t and the midst of all the crying and sobbing and he began to shake. His mother came from behind and she said, “Luisito, Luisito, listen to me, I want you to know how it was at the last with your poppa.” She said that it was obvious that he was dying and as the family gathered around his bed and prayed and tried to comfort him, he seemed to fall asleep and he struggled to breathe. But suddenly he sat up and began to sing, “Bright crowns up there, bright crowns for you and me, then the palm of victory.” She said, “He sang it three times and he was clapping as you children did when you sang it in Sunday school. And then when Popito could no longer hold up his head, he fell back on the pillow and he said, ‘I am going to be with Jesus, which is far better.'” Luis Palau was shaped by that experience at age 10. It is what led him through considering being a lawyer, and then he was a very successful banker, but God was tugging at his heart so he committed more time to telling people about Christ because he remembered how his father lived and how his father died. Now, not everybody is called to be an evangelist who speaks to 12-15 million people in their lifetime, but here’s what Luis Palau said about his motivation. “My wish and my desire it that people get right with God, grow to maturity, and die happy, knowing they will be with Jesus.” Brother James hearing that would have said, “Amen.” How about you? “Amen.” Let us pray.

Lord, we give you thanks for this brother who has been gone for 20 centuries, but still speaks to us. Lord we pray that this word would spur us on. Lord that we would be people who run to the finish line, that don’t grow weary, but that press on to the high mark, the high calling. Lord we ask for Your strength, and I ask that if anyone is here today who doesn’t know You, that they come to understand what it means to know You and be Your servant. And for those who do know You, Lord and are struggling, I pray that You would lift them up and strengthen them and help them to know that even though it feels like pressure, there are beautiful times coming if we do not grow weary and lose heart. Thank you Lord. Help us now to heed Your call in Jesus Name. Amen.