Obstacles to Maturity

Second in a series on the book of James,
Delivered July 22, 2001 by Rev. George Antonakos.

Sermon Text:
James 1:17-27
17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of
the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be
a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
19 My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen,
slow to speak and slow to become angry,
20 for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.
21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent
and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.
23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man
who looks at his face in a mirror
24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.
25 But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom,
and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it– he will
be blessed in what he does.
26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein
on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.
27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to
look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being
polluted by the world.

Just like the first century, there are so many competing value systems in our world today. And, just like in the first century, there are so many temptations that are similar to the ones James writes about. We live in a culture of leisure. I think James might have had our Lord’s words in mind when he talked and interpreted the parable of the sower. You remember when Jesus talked about seed sown by the side of the road, and seed sown among rocks and seeds sown among thorns, and seeds sown in good soil. And this is what Jesus said about seed that is sown among thorns, “The seeds that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures and they do not mature, but the seed on good soil, stands for those who with a noble and good heart hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.” That’s the spirit that James is trying to communicate; that we are to go on to maturity. And at first glance at this text, there are so many interesting things that a preacher could take off on. Anger and uncontrolled speech, care for the lowest in society, the most needy, or being polluted by the world. And as I study this text, I thought that’s true, they are all obstacles, but they are symptomatic of deeper obstacles to maturity that are clearly communicated in this text. There are deeper causes expressed that keep us from finishing well-to cause us to stay in perpetual childhood spiritually, or keep even those who are relatively mature from going the distance. And so in verse 16 James says, “Do not be deceived my dear brothers and sisters. Don’t be deceived.” You know when you are deceived you don’t know it, right? James is saying, “Don’t be deceived” and he is referring to what came before–how people fall to temptation and also what comes after.

There are three obstacles to maturity, according to James. He says, “Be careful about these things, be careful that you are not deceived, so that your path is blocked and you don’t grow to maturity.” The first obstacle to maturity is in verse 17. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” James has already spoken about trials, troubles, and difficulties in this text, and he has challenged us to persevere. Do not be deceived about the nature of God. The deception from the very beginning of the Biblical record is this–God is trying, (this is what the enemy said to our ancestors), God is trying to keep things from you. God is trying to tell you that the reason that you can’t take of this fruit is that he doesn’t really want you to know what life is really all about. He doesn’t want you to have a full experience. He doesn’t really want you to know what is important. If your eyes are open you will be like God. And God doesn’t want that. The enemy comes to us and says, “Now look at your problems. Look at your situation in life. Would a loving God allow that sort of thing? You have tried to be good. You have tried to do it right and look what God does. He has cast you off. Why don’t you just be like Job’s wife, ‘curse God and die.’ He can’t help you. He might want to help you, but he can’t help you.” These are the thoughts that come to us about the nature of God. Then James comes to the rescue and says, “No that is not the case at all. Every good and perfect gift is from above. God gives good, wholesome gifts for our maturity. And they come down from the father of heavenly lights who does not change lift shifting shadows.” Back in those days, just like today, people looked to the stars, sun and moon and tried to figure out how their life’s destiny was going to go. James says that the Lord is the father of the heavenly lights. This is a reference to creation that God is the creator God, and he has created all things good and for a purpose. And God is good all the time and all the time God is good, as the cliché goes. And James says, “there is no variation with God. There is no shifting shadow.” This word that translates as “shifting shadow,” means “like the way saw teeth go.” You know, saw teeth go in one direction and then go another direction and alternate. So James is saying that God is not like that. God is not a shifting shadow, for us one day and against us the next. God is good, but if we allow ourselves to believe opposite of that or if we are deceived about the nature of God, such a foundational core truth, we will be stunted in our growth. When we look to our experience, instead of the scripture, the reality of our lives in Christ will be blocked.

When we were in Ohio on vacation a couple of weeks ago, we went to visit Ellen’s 96-year-old grandmother in a nursing home. She has been there for a few years now. And they had a chapel service the day that we went and Ellen’s mom, who doesn’t usually attend church on a regular basis, loves this chapel service. I think she likes the intimacy and informality of it. Anybody who has been in a nursing home knows and can imagine what this service was like; some of us may even have led these kinds of services. And in this little room in this nursing home, there were about 10-12 people, half of them in wheelchairs, and up in the front was an older woman playing the piano. She was wearing a long dress and a Mennonite cap. And there was another older man with white hair playing the guitar, and another older gentlemen who was leading things and guiding the service. All of the music had a distinctive southern gospel twang. The songs were about heaven and were appropriate, it was very good. And as we sat there in this little room, 10, 12, 15 people the Lord started to touch my heart and I started to get welled up inside. I sensed God’s presence in that room and I felt a sense of worship as much as I have worshipped anywhere else before in my life. And even to bring it home more powerfully, there was a woman in a wheelchair seated right in front of me who had a very advanced case of MS and as we were singing the hymns she was flailing, and she wasn’t doing that all the time, it was when we were singing. She wasn’t doing it uncontrollably. She was actually lifting her hands to praise God. And I looked at that and the Lord’s spirit was there and tears were running down my cheeks, and afterward as she left I just happened to say goodbye to her and she mumbled something that I couldn’t understand. And I said, “Excuse me, could you try to say that again? I didn’t catch that.” And again I couldn’t understand and finally I understood, she said, “God is good. God is good.” And the tears kept coming down even more. I said to myself, of all people for that statement to come out of her mouth.” God is good. Deep in our heart, we know how God is in Jesus Christ. So if we stumble over this very simple basic truth, we’ll get resentful toward God when things go wrong so James says, “Don’t be deceived brothers, God is good all the time and all the time God is good.”

The second foundational obstacle can occur when we are deceived, not about the nature of God, but when we are deceived about the nature of salvation. Look at, verse 18. “God chose.” I can stop right there. God acted freely. God willed without any external constraint to create all things including humanity. God chose, but what did God choose? God chose to give us birth. God chose to give us birth, not just in our creation, but in our new creation. Look back at verse 15. When James talks about how death occurs, he says, “Desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin and sin, when it’s full-grown gives birth to death.” James now takes that and shows the opposite. He says, “God chose out of his spoken word, (the father of lights, who created all things, sun, moon and stars). God chose to give us birth, how? Through the word of truth.” That’s James phrase for the gospel. That when we hear the truth in Jesus Christ and we receive our Lord, he births us into a new creation; that we might be first fruits of all he created. He brought us forth by the word of truth. Now this leads further that we might be an honoring people to God. First fruits were that which honored God the most. When the crop came in, you took the first fruits and put them before the Lord. That was a sign of honor. We’re to be people related to God, who live above the powers of evil, who demonstrate what it means to be related by the Spirit to the Lord. Holy. Set apart. And he says it very clearly that salvation is coming from God, choosing to give us birth. This is a very reformed verse. God chose to give us birth, by grace we have been saved. Not of yourselves, it’s a gift of God. Now here’s the obstacle. A lot of folks, both inside and outside the church, do not like such an exclusive sounding message. We like to hear that all roads lead to God. We like to hear that everyone will come into God’s family, no matter what. It’s very tempting to go that route. It’s very tempting not to share the gospel with others when we start to stumble over this obstacle of the exclusiveness of Jesus Christ and the nature of salvation.

Lyle Schaller said that the verse that’s going to be most debated over the next 10-20 years is John 14:6. You know it. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father, but through me.” That’s going to be the verse of debate in the church and outside the church. The son of a preacher in Louisville, Kentucky had an opportunity to share his faith with a class. This class was a class in a magnet school where a lot of the intellectual kids from the county wanted to go, and those who were artistically elite and a lot of national merit scholars And this courageous Christian young man presented John 14:6 and the truth of the gospel that God has come to deliver us out of our sin and out of our death and bring us in to the kingdom of light. And he said after he presented, “Are there any questions?” Immediately he was bombarded about his claim that Jesus was the only way to heaven. He said, “It’s not my claim, it’s His claim.” And he said, “Yes Jesus is exclusive in his claims, but Jesus is inclusive of anyone who will believe. It doesn’t matter who you are.” This courageous Christian stood there and these students kept insisting that he was wrong, not because they examined the truth, not because they examined the evidence, but because he claimed that there was a true way. A number of students said that they bailed on the church because it was intolerant, that the church was intolerant and therefore wrong. And you know, some of our liberal colleagues say the same thing. And even at the General Assembly in Louisville this past month it was hard to frame a very strong statement about the lordship and salvation that comes only through Christ. Now let me be quick to say that no one here including me, especially me, knows the extent of God’s grace in to eternity. Nobody. But what we need to be careful of is that thinking that salvation can come by some other means than through the cross of Jesus Christ. I mean, the scripture even talks about Jesus speaking to spirits that are in prison. What does that mean? It may mean something very significant. But the fact of the matter is, to say that, salvation comes through Jesus for us, but it can come for someone else in another way is not the truth. James is clear about this. He said, “God chose to give us birth through the word of truth that we might be first fruits.” And so, no one comes to salvation except by the atonement of Jesus. How that is applied, is up to God, but it comes through no other name. That’s what Peter said. There is “salvation in no other name in heaven and earth, by which we must be saved.” And Paul said, “If righteousness from God can come through any other means, then Christ died needlessly, then why the cross?” The cross is essential, and the resurrection is essential to our salvation. That’s the second foundational obstacle, when we are deceived about the nature of salvation.

The third is this. Not just when we are deceived about the nature of God, or the nature of salvation, but also when we are deceived about the nature of God’s word. God’s word is a light and a lamp. God’s word is milk, the Bible says. It’s a hammer. God’s word is a fire. God’s word is seed. It gets into us, it causes something to happen. It changes our life. You can take somebody who is addicted to drugs and through the Word of God, and the Spirit of God can change them and make them a totally new person. James emphasizes how important he thinks God’s written word is. Look, in verse 19, James says, “Be quick to listen my brothers and sisters. Be so quick to listen.” Not just to anybody, “be quick to listen to the word.” And then in verse 21 he says, “Get rid of all moral filth and evil.” That’s a reference to when those candidates for baptism would come, they stripped themselves of their old clothing then they were baptized. Get rid of everything that keeps you from hearing and receiving the word of God and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. This refers not to salvation, it refers to those times in our life when we are stuck, or there is a fork in the road and we are thinking should I go God’s way, or should I go my way, or should I go somebody else’s way? Then God’s word comes and saves us and keeps us from sorrow and pain and distress. In verse 22, James goes into it very deeply and says, “Don’t just listen, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. For anyone who listens to the word, but doesn’t do it, is like a person who looks at his face in the mirror and after looking at himself forgets.” This is not just about forgetting what you look like; it really is a very humorous allusion. Somebody looking at themselves and let’s say what happens, men, when you cut yourself shaving and you dab a little piece of toilet paper on your cheek and there is one over here and there is one on your neck, and you go away and you’ve got three pieces of paper and you forget and you have company. You look stupid. You look silly because you have forgotten that there is paper on your face and that’s what James is trying to say here. He says that the person who just glances at the word and goes away from and doesn’t do it, is going to end up looking stupid. But the person who looks intently, that means like looking at a blueprint. Well who looks at a blueprint? People, who look at blueprints, study them so that they can build something. And they look at it and look at it again and again and again, and they keep referring back to it. So that something great can be built, and they won’t make a mistake. Those who look intently at the perfect law, it gives freedom and they do what they hear and they are blessed in their doing.

Everything else that James mentions in this text are topics that will come up again in future weeks and in future chapters. Everything he mentions that are problematic, things like anger, uncontrolled speech, not sharing with the needy, being polluted by the lust of world, all those things that lead to death, every single one of them, every single one of them can be overcome by a deep absorption, memorization, living in the word of God.

There was a study done at Hopkins about things that people most often forget. They listed things that people forget. 83% of people forget names. How many have said, “Oh what’s that person’s name?” 83% say they forget names. 60% of people forget where something is. So don’t feel bad you are in the majority. 57% of people forget telephone numbers. 53% forget words. Earlier today I was struggling. I was thinking I was going to see somebody I knew and I kept thinking I know this person’s name, I know them like I, J I know it starts with a J. And I was thinking ‘J’, and I think okay give me a vowel, give me a vowel and I finally said, “Oh Julie, that’s it. I am going to see Julie later.” Nobody here, it’s up in Pennsylvania. I am going to visit right after we are done the third service today. People also forget what was said, 49%. It breaks my heart, 49% of you are going to go out of here and forget what was said today. 42% forget faces. And if you cant remember whether you have just done something, then you join 38% of the population. It happened to me again today, getting ready. Did I shampoo my hair? Did I do that, I thought I just did that? The point is this. We forget easily. And James says that if we don’t forget the word, we are going to be blessed. We are going to be mature as believers.

Let me just share with you in closing, an example of a person who was a doer and not just a hearer. A young woman, a new Christian named Sarah, who came from a family where there was very little love, where criticism, fighting, ridicule and violence were a way of life. She was birthed by the word of truth and Sarah found a new self in faith through Christ. And in a home where words like, “I love you,” “I’m sorry,” and “Forgive me” were never spoken, she began to act differently by the power of Christ and his word. She would stop right in the middle of a fight and ask to be forgiven. She started to say, even though it was very difficult, “Mom I love you. Dad I love you.” She began giving hugs; she began returning blessings for curses, compliments for ridicule, forgiveness when wronged. Over a period of 2 years of giving blessings to parents and siblings, the entire family came to know Jesus Christ and came to be totally transformed. “Don’t be deceived my dear brothers,” James says about the nature of God who is good, about the nature of salvation which is in Jesus Christ, and about the nature of God’s word, which is life changing. Blessed are you if you know these things, even more blessed if you do them. Let us pray.

Lord, we thank You for Your Word again and we know that the Word is a lamp unto our feet because we so often feel like we are walking in darkness. And we ask that Your Spirit and Your Word would lift us from that darkness. I pray Lord for those who need to make a new commitment to study Your Word, to be in it daily, to allow it to sift through their mind and heart so that they might be like trees, firmly planted by streams of water. And Lord I ask that you would touch each of our hearts through this word and help us to turn back to you and to walk with you in these days. Lord, thank you that you love us so much and that you have given us these foundational truths. Help us to live in them and be honoring to you. For we ask it in Christ’s name. Amen.