Sermon --- Sunday, 14-May-2006

 

Peter Flowers, Elder, Bethel Evangelical Free Church

 

The Message of James (2)

The Testing of Faith (2):  James 1:2-11

 

 

Radix malorum est Cupiditas. 

 

This is 1 Timothy 6:10 in Latin.  In English this is:  For the love of money is the root of all evil.

 

We are told by the very wise preacher of Ecclesiastes (1:6): 

 

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.

 

There is nothing new under the sun, the wise man tells us.  And when it comes to the human obsession with money, this certainly is true. 

 

One of the great classics of earlier English literature is the Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer around 1380.  A set of pilgrims are on a pilgrimage together, riding on horseback to Canterbury in southeastern England.  As they ride along the road, each pilgrim is called upon to tell a tale.  One of the pilgrims is a pardoner.  A “pardoner” was an official in the Roman church who went around literally selling pardons.  If you had done some offense, you bought a pardon, and you were free from your guilt.

 

As we listen to the pardoner, we should remember that in 1380, when Chaucer wrote, we are almost a century and a half before Martin Luther nailed his theses to the wall of Wittenburg Castle.  But listen to how Chaucer has the pardoner reveal himself: 

 

The pardoner starts his prologue to his tale like this:

 

Lords, he said, in churches when I preach,

I am at pains that all shall hear my speech,

And ring it out as roundly as a bell,

For I know all by heart the thing I tell.

My theme is always one, and ever was –

Radix malorum est Cupiditas.

 

Chaucer’s pardoner always has the same theme – in fact, he has only one sermon, which he has learned by rote – and the theme of the sermon is always this:  Radix malorum est Cupiditas; the love of money is the root of all evil.

 

The pardoner goes on to tell the pilgrims – and us -- what his motive is for preaching on this theme:

 

But briefly my intention I’ll express;

I preach no sermon but for covetousness.

Therefore my theme is yet, and ever was,

Radix malorum est Cupiditas.

Thus can I preach against that self-same vice

Which I indulge, and that is avarice.

But though myself be guilty in that sin,

Yet can I cause these other folk to win

From avarice and really to repent.

But that is not my principal intent.

I preach no sermon save for covetousness;

This should suffice of that, though, as I guess.

 

Well, this is pretty funny stuff.  Chaucer is just as amusing today as he was in his own day.  But behind his humor lies a serious point.  In his day, as in the days of Luther, the sin of avarice and love of money was both preached against but also very much embraced.  And we all know that this is just as true today as it was in Chaucer’s day, and it was just as true when James was writing as it is today.  In the obsession with money there is, sadly, nothing new under the sun.

 

These same themes – the need for wisdom, the perils of money – may be found in our scripture passage today.  I read from James chapter 1, verses 2 through 11.

 

2 Count it all joy, my brothers,[a] when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass[b] he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

[prayer for enlighentment]

 

Last week we examined the first section of this passage.  In that section, verses 2 through 4, James encourages us to develop an attitude when faced with the many trials and afflictions which we will face in this life.  That attitude is one of joy.  As we noted last week, only a Christian can develop this attitude, for only a Christian has a foundation for it, the foundation of hope in Jesus Christ.  James concluded that unit by pointing out that this hope leads to our steadfast endurance.  As we develop steadfastness, we develop a mature character that is complete, fully rounded, fully realized.

 

This week we will examine the remaining two units of thought.  The first of these is found in verses 5-8.  In these verses James addresses our need for wisdom, the generosity of God, the necessity of faith, and the fatal effect of doubt.

 

In the second unit of thought, verses 9-11, James discusses poverty and riches.  Both of these are trials and afflictions.  James here gives us a timely warning about how wise we must be in dealing with such a practical problem.

 

 

So let us turn to the first section, verses 5-8.

 

The first thing to note is the relationship of these verses to the verses we looked at last week.  In the previous verse, James had encouraged us by suggesting that our steadfastness would lead to our becoming complete, well rounded, lacking in no attribute of a fully developed character.

 

Then here in verse 5 James immediately continues – but if you lack wisdom … .  Wisdom, then, is a crucial part of our becoming a fully realized disciple, complete and well rounded in our character.  He wants us to know that we must have wisdom.  Further, no one ever is fully wise.  By saying “if any lacks wisdom,” he gently is suggesting to each of us that we should pay attention to what he is about to say.

 

It is common to contrast wisdom with knowledge.  Knowledge, as we commonly think about it, is being aware of and having mastered many facts and the systems of connections among facts.  The connections among facts form the coherent body of connected realities which we call truth or knowledge.  We definitely admire, as we should, those who have wide and deep knowledge.

 

But being very knowledgeable is not the same thing as being a full, mature, well rounded person.  We probably all have our own personal examples of someone who “knows” a lot, but is sadly deficient in his or her ability to live a complete and rounded life.  One poor example I frequently think of in this context is the famous chess player Bobby Fischer.  He is a man who at one time knew more about chess than any other person on the planet.  But his life has been one of disastrous personal decisions, withdrawal, and mental problems.

 

So what is the problem with such people as Bobby Fischer?  They are very smart, they know huge quantities of facts, more than you or I could ever hope to know, but their lives are a mess and their decisions are consistently catastrophic leading to bad effects for them and for everyone around them.

 

The problem of such people is that they lack wisdom.  In this sense, wisdom is the ability to use the knowledge we have been given in an appropriate and proper way to lead successfully to realize well designed goals, goals which will yield true satisfaction.

 

This wisdom, then, is what James is telling us we need.  If we really want to become the kind of person James is encouraging us to become, we need wisdom.  We need the wisdom to gain the kind of perspective on trials and afflictions which allows us to see the joy of developing through those afflictions into the person God wishes us to be.

 

James makes an important point when he tells us how to acquire such wisdom.  Such wisdom does not come through studying harder (at least, not directly), or even just through experiencing many trials.  No, we all know people who have suffered many trials who are just as unwise as they were to start with.  So it is not experience or facts or more study which leads us to wisdom.   Rather, wisdom is an attribute, a characteristic for which we must ask.    We must go to God, for only from him can we receive this character virtue.  God is the only source of real, true wisdom.

 

Don’t we know this already, at the bottom of our heart?  Wise King Solomon had the following advice in Proverbs chapter 2.  He tells us to make our ear attentive to wisdom, to incline our hearts to understanding, and goes on:

 

if you call out for insight
   and raise your voice for understanding,
4 if you seek it like silver
   and search for it as for hidden treasures,
5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD
   and find the knowledge of God.
6 For the LORD gives wisdom;
   from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.

 

We seek, we pray, we ask – but it is the Lord who really gives us wisdom and true knowledge and true understanding.

 

It is easy for us to miss the point that James is making, which is that we MUST ask.  I think there are two reasons for missing this point.  The first is our pride.  We think we are very smart and fully capable, even in our dealings with God.  “I know my salvation comes from the Lord, but when I live my own life, I am going to figure out what it is I should do.”  And in one sense it is true that each of us, when faced with a decision, chooses a course of action to follow.

 

But even in choosing course of action, we must not lose sight of the fact that we must ask God for the wisdom to choose correctly.  We need this wisdom in order to reason correctly, in order to understand how to put together all the factors which we should consider when making decisions.  The factors which ought to influence our actions include our general knowledge of how affairs in the world work, that all men are fallen, and that the world is hostile to true believers.  But this wisdom we seek is not a purely worldly wisdom.  No, it also must include, if we are to be mature and fully realized, that knowledge of God and his goals for us which we should have gained through careful study of the Bible and sitting under committed preaching of the Word.

 

We saw an example of this recently in the sermon series on Daniel which Ron has just finished.  In Daniel chapter 2, Daniel is given insight into Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.  And he immediately bursts into a prayer of thanksgiving.  He concludes that thanksgiving and praise of God with this:

 

To you, O God of my fathers,
   I give thanks and praise,
for you have given me wisdom and might,
   and have now made known to me what we asked of you (Dan 2:23).

 

Do you see?  The wisdom that Daniel has – and as Ron pointed out to us, Daniel was exceedingly wise – all comes from God, and for this Daniel is exceedingly and consistently thankful.

 

So James tells us that we need wisdom, that it must come from God, and that we must ask for it.  But he also assures us that if we do ask for it, we will receive it!  What a wonderful promise!  As Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount,

 

7 "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”  [Matt 7:7-8]

 

But again we should not be surprised by such an overwhelming response to our prayer.  In fact, just under two years ago Ron preached on this passage while he was opening up for us the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer.  Ron made the point then that one of our incentives to fervent prayer is the knowledge that God gives generously.  It is the nature of God to be generous, to respond to prayer.  And as James points out, God gives generously “without reproach” – even though we come back to God again and again with our petitions and requests, God never tires of this.  When we fall, we come back humbled, and ask for more wisdom to not fall, and God hears us without reproach, and gives us the wisdom we ask for – if we truly ask in faith.

 

James next tells us what the relationship is between our faith and our prayers to God.

 

In verse 6, James first tells us that our requests must be made in faith.  And he contrasts the kind of faith required with that of the person who doubts, and who therefore does not have real faith.

 

I believe that the best definition of real faith – or at least, the best “short” definition -- is found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 86.  This question is found in page 875 of your hymnal, if you wish to look there.

 

WSC Q. 86:  What is faith in Jesus Christ?

 

A:  Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.

 

The difference between the person who has faith and the person who doubts is, then, first, that the person has faith knows who Jesus Christ is, but the person who doubts is not sure.  Second, the person who has faith receives Jesus Christ, and trusts his fully, and rests on him alone.  The person who has doubts may know about Jesus Christ, and even be curious about him and read about him in the Bible, but does not receive him and rest upon him, but wavers to and fro.  Finally, the person with real faith receives the Christ who is offered in the gospel.  The person who doubts finds the Jesus of the Bible disturbing or distasteful, and so constructs a figure he calls “Jesus” in order to accommodate to his own tastes and what is accepted in the world.

 

This, then, is the faith which we exercise when we ask for the wisdom we need, the wisdom we must have if we are to come to experience true joy in the midst of our afflictions. 

 

In contrast, the doubter does not have this faith – he is like those waves you see when you stand on the seashore on a windy, blustery day.  You see the waves, but the gusts of wind come along and blow the waves around – froth comes off the top, and in the chop the waves have no consistency or coherence.  Paul uses a similar metaphor in the fourth chapter of Ephesians.  In Ephesians 4:14 he tells us that, as mature believers,

 

We are no longer to be children, tossed about by the waves and whirled around by every fresh gust of teaching, dupes of cunning rogues and their deceitful schemes.  [Revised English Bible.]

 

Doubters are like these children – they are tossed around, dupes, deceived.  As James points out in verse 8, they are unstable in all their ways, whirled around, unable to be consistent in their faith or in their commitment.  They may say they follow Jesus, but their life denies it.

 

We should note that James is not saying that believers cannot have momentary weaknesses in faith.  The “health and wealth and prosperity” preachers want us to believe on the basis of this verse that just puffing ourselves up with a bit more faith somehow will mean that every single one of our prayers will be answered.  But that is totally unwarranted by the context, particularly the context suggesting that we will face many trials, including poverty!  No, true believers have wavering moments.  But there is a clear pattern of faith and hope in their lives – a pattern we call steadfastness and perseverance – which shows that we retain our fundamental trust in and leaning upon Jesus.

 

In contrast, those who are double-minded and unstable are told that there is no reason to believe that the Lord will answer any of their prayers.  “That person,” James tells us, “must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord.”

 

There is a common phrase, “there are no atheists in foxholes.”  And I suspect this is true.  When you suddenly realize that your death is real and imminent, then the knowledge of God which you have been trying to suppress suddenly will burst into your consciousness.  The common knowledge of God which all men have but try to suppress is described by Paul in Romans 1:19-20:

 

19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

 

You are in a foxhole under fire, or you are on the 100th floor of the World Trade Center, or your car has just slid sideways into traffic on an icy road.  Oh God help me, you pray, even though you have always despised Jesus and have thought that religion is stupid.

 

But will God listen to you?  The answer is given here by James, and the answer is no. God only promises to answer the petitions of those who have real faith.  The prayer of the person who is false or duplicitous or incapable of making a decision must not expect anything.  This is a solemn warning to all unbelievers, and although they will not wish to hear it, they should be warned again of their plight and their danger.

 

 

Let us turn to the second unit of thought in today’s passage, verses 9 to 11.  James gives us very clear example of the kind of trial in which we desperately need wisdom. We need wisdom in order to have joy when we are poor, and we equally need wisdom if we are to have real joy when we are wealthy.

 

I recently heard a sermon by John MacArthur in which he quoted a statistic I find staggering, which is this:  50% of the waking time of all adults is devoted to thinking about money.  I have no idea how you would measure such a thing, but even if the percentage suggested is too high, we do know that concerns about and worries about money are a great trial in all our lives.

 

It is easy to see why worries about money are a tremendous trial when a person is poor.  Where am I going to get my next meal from?  How am I going to both pay the rent and buy enough gas to get to work?  These are enormous concerns.

 

It is interesting to note as a fact, however, that the wealthy, at least in my encounters with them, have an equal preoccupation with money.  Granted, this preoccupation seems unhealthy and indeed absurd to us, we lowly brothers.  Yet it is a real preoccupation nevertheless.  How much money is enough money?  The answer is always the same – there is no such thing as “enough money.”  If you have $1 million, you need $2 million – not want, but need!  If you have $100 million, you need $200 million.  And so on.

 

I had a personal experience relating to this issue some time ago when I worked in Manhattan.  At that time I would on occasion commute with a fellow employee of the bank at which I was working who lived in the same town.  One evening on the way home, he suddenly burst out in the middle of a conversation with this:  “I just don’t know how to make enough money.  I have to figure out a way to make a lot more money – I need to make much more money.”  And he went on in that vein for some time.  I do not know for sure how much money he was earning but based on a number of factors I think it was probably somewhere between $300 and $400 thousand per year, which to me, at least, seems like a lot.  But he was obsessed with the topic, because so many people he worked with made so much more money than he did, and would return to it frequently.

 

Well, as far as I know, he was not a believer – he did not have, to the best of my knowledge, the kind of faith in Jesus Christ which we saw in the Shorter Catechism.  For him, I think we can safely conclude that the theme of Chaucer’s pardoner’s sermon seems to have been true.  Do you remember that theme?  Radix malorum est Cupiditas.  The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.

 

So money is a trial and indeed a temptation, both for the wealthy person and the poor person.  What does James have to tell us about these things?

 

First, the lowly brother is, of all things, to boast in his exaltation.

 

What in the world does this mean?  By the standards of our consumer society, to be lowly is so far from cause of boasting that it is cause for shame, and so far from exaltation that it is reason for deepest despondency.  What is it, then, that we have received, when we receive wisdom from the Lord, which leads us to boast?  What is it that leads us to exaltation?

 

The answer is very clearly stated for us by Jeremiah.  Here is what he says in the ninth chapter of his prophecy [Jer 9:23-24]:

 

23 Thus says the LORD: "Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD."

 

So what kind of boasting is this?  Is it the kind of boasting little kids do – I’m bigger or faster or smarter or better looking than you, so nyaah nyaah?  No, boasting in this context is the joyous delight we take in praising, not ourselves, but God!  Our boasting is not that we are great, but that our God is great!  And we exalt, not because we are rich by the world’s standards, but because we are rich in having God on our side.  Our God gives us his covenant love, and is fully just and fully right.  In this, then, even when we are poor, we have real cause for boasting, and real cause for exaltation.

 

James emphasizes this himself just a little later in this letter.  In chapter 2, verse 5, he asks:  “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to possess the kingdom he has promised to those who love him?” [REB]  So, then, in the end, our boasting and our exaltation are not founded on our wealth, on what we can do, on how WE can outshine the Joneses, how WE have better toys.  No, our boasting and our exaltation are founded on the character of our God, that he loves us, and that we have a hope that is so true that it needs a stronger word than hope.  What we have is not so much a hope as a certainty that we will share the eternal kingdom with God our Father and with Jesus Christ.

 

Then James turns to the situation of the rich person.  The rich, he says, should boast in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.  He will fade away, James says at the end of verse 11, in the midst of his pursuits.

 

Two ways have been suggested for interpreting the “boasting” of the rich. 

 

Some interpreters believe that James is being heavily ironic.  On this interpretation, the rich are not believers.  They are fat and happy and comfortable and very proud of their riches.  Far from boasting in their humiliation, they are supremely confident that they are sitting on top of the world – until one day, the sun rises and they are withered and perish. 

 

In a way, for the rich, money has been the root of all evil – for it has kept them from coming to know the truth about their need for a Savior.  They are so comfortable and complacent in their wealth, they are so arrogant, that they think they care totally self-sufficient.  Then, suddenly, they are swept away by death, totally unprepared for what they now face.  Jesus warns us about such dangerous attitudes in Matthew 19:23-24:

 

23 And Jesus said to his disciples, "Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God."

 

Some commentators suggest a different interpretation of these words of James. They believe that James here intends to refer to faithful disciples who happen to be rich.  In this case, his reference to boasting is not ironic, but rather is a description of the recognition, by a rich disciple, that indeed he will fade away in the midst of his pursuits.  This causes him to adopt an attitude of humility.  He does not trust in his wealth but in Jesus.  He has the appropriate attitude which all believers have, that is it not my own self sufficiency which gets me right with God, but rather only Jesus’ work, which then is applied to me.

 

My own opinion is that both of these interpretations contain hard hitting truths.  I think that holding them both together gives us a true window into the trials of the rich person.  To the unbeliever – warning and woe!  To the believer – if you are wealthy, you must recall in the midst of all the world tells you – about how important you are because you are rich, about how powerful you are – in the midst of all that, remember to be humble and to trust in Christ alone.

 

James concludes this by using a common illustration drawn from the hot desert environment in which he grew up.  The rich are like the grass which withers. 

 

But this actually is true both for the rich and for the poor alike.  In all our trials, we base our hope on looking beyond the withering, the fading.  Each one of us will wither and fade, but we depend finally and forever on the steadfast love of the Lord.

 

Here is how the Psalmist puts it in Psalm 103:

 

15 As for man, his days are like grass;
   he flourishes like a flower of the field;
16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
   and its place knows it no more.
17 But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
   and his righteousness to children's children,
18 to those who keep his covenant
   and remember to do his commandments.

 

Do we fear the Lord?  Do we keep his covenant and remember his commandments?  If we do not, then we have no hope and no relief.  But if we do – well, then we truly can count is all joy when we meet trials of various kinds.

 

 

Amen.

 

Prayer of Thanksgiving for the Word