The most powerful force on earth
James 5: The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with.
One righteous person praying is the most powerful force on earth. It’s true you know. Prayer is the most powerful and most underutilized force available to us. Righteous praying influences the God who’s already inclined to bless us. I think I believe this but tend to not act as though I believe it. Prayer’s more an “add on” to what matters to me. I sometimes do the best I can do and then toss in a prayer for good measure. In doing it that way I do it exactly backwards. What I need to learn to do is pray first and then add my efforts to it. James’ example of a powerful pray-er is Elijah. This righteous man prays for rain, and then, when he sees the first evidence that his prayer is being answered, takes action, preparing for that answer to come. His template, then, is: pray first, then, stop praying and start acting as though that prayer is being answered. I really do believe that Elijah is correct in this but all too often I don’t act like it.
Take Away: Pray first and then act.
Planning for tomorrow with an eye toward God
James 4: You don’t know the first thing about tomorrow.
James challenges Christians in how they talk about the future. He advises us to not state with an attitude of certainty what will happen tomorrow. Instead, we’re to be humble about it, saying things like, “If it’s the Lord’s will we’ll do this or that tomorrow.” Now, he’s not giving us some formula to say as much as he’s describing an attitude we’re to have. He’s opposed to Christians living self-willed, God-ignoring lives in which we imagine ourselves to be self-sufficient and operating independent of the Lord. He’s not against my making plans and having dreams. At the same time, he’s in favor of my planning and dreaming with an eye toward God. The Lord, himself is a planner, operating on a scale far beyond my comprehension. As an individual created in his image I too plan, thinking about a desirable future and working now to bring it to pass. However, unlike my Heavenly Father, my view is limited and because of that, my expectations are flawed. I remember that I’m to pray for my “daily bread” trusting the Lord to supply the need of the day. To plan for the future while ignoring God isn’t only foolish. According to James it “is evil.”
Take Away: Ultimately, my future – my life – is in God’s hands and not my own.
Taming the tongue
James 3: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue.
A person can live a good life, honest and sensible, committed to doing good things and yet still have a tendency to say things that aren’t very Christian. One problem is that we see sins of speech as less serious than sins of action. People who would never dream of robbing anyone of anything will thoughtlessly gossip about another, thereby robbing them of their reputation. Sins of words are slippery, hard to pin down. A person might say something that’s absolutely innocent. The listener, though, misunderstands the meaning, hearing something that isn’t there at all. Another person might say the same thing but intend it to be hurtful in some way. In one case it’s just a misunderstanding. In the other case it’s sin. James emphasizes the fact that no one can win the battle of the tongue. Try as I might, in and of myself, my words will betray, humiliate, and condemn me. On the surface, it appears James leaves us in this sorry state of affairs. However, a different picture is painted as I read these words in the context of the passage. James says, “My friends this can’t go on.” A few paragraphs later he describes the Christian community as a place where people are treated “with dignity and honor.” On one hand, I can’t control my tongue (or my thoughts, or, sometimes, my actions). The only hope I have is to surrender my tongue to the Lord. As I give it, and my whole self, to him, making him Lord of my life, he goes to work transforming me into the person he wants me to be. It’s a more than one time surrender. In fact, I may have to bring my tongue back to the Lord on a regular basis. As I do that, he takes control doing for me what I can’t do for myself.
Take Away: “I surrender all” is a song that needs to be sung repeatedly.
Faith without works
James 2: Faith expresses itself in works.
The most famous portion of the Bible on the topic of faith is Hebrews 11. While that chapter describes faith in a different way it actually underscores the truth of James’ words here. If faith isn’t put into action it’s something less than faith. If works of righteousness are accomplished outside of faith (maybe out of a sense of obligation or guilt) those works are something less than righteous. Faith and works, according to James, are joined at the hip. When the writer of Hebrews embarks on this topic he takes us through the faith hall of fame, listing for us people who inspire us to greater faith. Now, as James deals with this topic, he takes us out to the streets challenging us to practical acts of faith. He challenges us to treat people as valuable just as they are. He tells us to not just speak words of faith but to back up those words with action. After all, he says, belief without action betrays itself as impotent. James doesn’t ignore the great examples of faith completely. He takes us back to Abraham, who, in faith, takes action more than once. James is having none of this sitting around trusting God kind of faith. He demands, “If you really believe, go and do something about it.”
Take Away: What more can I say? Faith without works is dead!
Praying in times of pain or confusion
James 1: If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help.
James writes his letter to Christians in general, scattered throughout the region. His writings might be labeled “common sense Christianity” because he covers many topics and always in a reasonable, “tell it like it is” way. For instance, he doesn’t deny that hard times have come to many of them but at the same time he tells them that such an unwelcome set of circumstances isn’t all bad. In fact, they can rejoice when, in the midst of trials they catch themselves responding as genuine people of faith. As hard times continue they can be pleased as they realize that they’re handing such times better than they would have earlier on. It isn’t fun to go through hardship, but there’s reason to rejoice when I realize I’m responding as I think Jesus would and that I’m maturing in my relationship with him. James knows this sounds like so much gibberish to many people; outsiders for sure, but also to some believers who’ve concluded that if they’re faithful to the Lord and trust in him things will always go well for them. The Apostle has some advice for that crowd too: pray about it. If I’m in a fix and can’t imagine how God can work in such a disaster, I don’t have to pretend I’m handling things just fine. Instead, I can turn to the Lord and confess that I’m having a hard time seeing him anywhere in all this mess. James is absolutely sure that the Father will hear and respond to such a prayer. I guess it would be better if my first response was the best one, but if that doesn’t happen, the next choice is a good one too as in absolute honesty I run to the Father, telling him I just don’t get it and I sure don’t like it. After all, James assures me, “God loves to help.”
Take Away: It’s encouraging to catch oneself responding to an unwelcome situation as we believe Jesus would respond.
A different kind of “street service”
Hebrews 13: God takes particular pleasure in acts of worship…that take place in kitchen and workplace and on the streets.
We’re not sure who is the writer of Hebrews, but this chapter (and not just the Timothy, Italy, and prison references) feels a whole lot like Paul’s writings. As he closes the letter, as Paul does, the writer tosses in a lot of one line instructions. As a reader, what I get out of a chapter like this depends a lot on what’s happening in my life right now. Tomorrow I might read it again and have a different “one-liner” jump out at me. Anyway, the instruction to take our faith out of the church and into the streets stands out to me. Christians are to be generous people who not only respond to needs when we’re confronted with them, but who actively go out and seek those in need that we might minister to them in Christ’s name. I tend to think of “worship” as what takes place on Sunday mornings inside the church building. In this passage I’m reminded that God really likes it when I make my “sacrifices” (an Old Testament style of worship) outside the church building and into my everyday life; at home, at work, and out in the general public. In-church worship is important, a vital part of living in Christ. Out-of-church worship is just as important as I take Jesus in practical ways to those “out there.”
Take Away: Worship inside the church and service outside the church are both vital parts of Christianity.
Hebrews 12: One last shaking, from top to bottom, stem to stern.
The old way stood for hundreds of years, sometimes with seeming success and at other times in total failure. Jesus came to usher in a new way. Those portions of the old way that were intended to survive did so, but the rest came crashing down as the superior new way was put into place on the first Easter Sunday morning. There was an earthquake at the tomb that morning but there was a much greater spiritual earthquake that day and the result was all good. All the “historical and religious junk” was replaced with the “unshakable essentials.” All that to say that the coming of Jesus was and is a very big deal: the centerpiece of human history. In a much more minor way, but still important to me personally, is the spiritual earthquake that happens when I give my heart to Jesus. The result is some big changes in my life. As it was with the Old Testament Law, some things are worth keeping. They survive the earthquake, made clean and new by Christ. A lot of stuff has to go. In the case of such things, it may be a slow motion earthquake as the Holy Spirit goes to work in my life, dealing with different things as time passes. A lot of stuff, though, simply falls right then and there. Well, one thing in particular: my own self-righteousness. It can’t survive the Christ-earthquake. From my point of view its good-riddance; self-will and some other things must yield to Jesus if he’s to be Lord of my life. Most earthquakes are unwelcome, but this one: this transformational encounter with Jesus is the best thing that could ever happen to me.
Take Away: When Jesus comes into a life it’s a very big deal.
Continuing the story
Hebrews 11: Their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole.
This chapter of the Bible is called the “faith chapter” because of its almost poetic description of the power of faith. Now, it’s not just faith in faith. The focus of this powerful faith is clearly identified as “trust in God.” If I place my faith elsewhere, no matter now sincere that faith might be; it will be an act of foolishness that will take me down the path of disappointment and maybe even destruction. The heroes of faith described in this passage didn’t believe in belief. Rather they believed in, and trusted in, God. These people weren’t disappointed as the Lord came through for them in wonderful ways. The writer takes us on a faith tour, stopping before each exhibit just long enough to remind us of their victorious stories. Before we’re ready, he tells us time is up and we get just a glance down the hall of “current events” where we see people making great sacrifices for their faith, believing whatever it is they’re facing is worth the reward they’re earning. As we prepare to move on, our host says something quite surprising. As wonderful as their examples of faith is, it’s incomplete. We’re not on this tour just to look back. Rather, we’re here to be inspired to join in; to add our stories to theirs. Their looking-forward-to-God’s-better-plan-faith is to be balanced and completed by our embracing-the-better-plan-that’s-now-available-faith. As we live in this new salvation plan we prove the validity of their faith years ago. They carried the torch of faith as far as they could; now it’s been passed on to us. What an honor, what a privilege, and what a responsibility is ours.
Take Away: We don’t just remember great faith of years gone by – we embrace it and advance it to our day and age.
Hebrews 10: Not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on.
All the heavy lifting to provide my salvation has already been done by Jesus. It’s his obedience to the cross that’s opened a new, living way to God. It’s his blood that’s been shed, providing the final, ultimate sacrifice. Now, the way to God is opened and I have sure, absolute promises upon which to take my stand. So, that’s what I do. I respond in belief and then do all I can to nurture that hope I’ve been so graciously given. One of the ways I do that, according to the writer of Hebrews, is to worship with fellow believers. In spite of the fact that some folks don’t think it is necessary or worth the time, I’m to see it as a valuable component of the life of faith. As part of a worshiping community my connection to Jesus is strengthened, my understanding of the things of God is deepened, and opportunities for serving the Lord are provided. Some may think they know better or that they have bigger fish to fry. I see it as one of several ways in which I more firmly grasp my hold on the things of God. After all, Jesus has already done the heavy lifting here. My being faithful to his Church and all the other disciplines of the Christian life is nothing in comparison to his bleeding and dying on the cross.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for the gift of the Church, the Body of Christ.
No more blood needed
Hebrews 9: He brought together God and his people in this new way.
It was a bloody religion. Even the giving of the Law was accompanied by the sheading of the blood of innocent animals. Through the centuries the blood continues to flow and on one day each year, in particular, the blood is taken behind the curtain into the Holy of Holies to atone for the sins of the High Priest and all the people. Then, Jesus, the Son of God, comes to make the ultimate blood sacrifice: his own. This High Priest gives himself, and in so doing, finishes the old bloody system once and for good. No more blood and no more curtain. These things that stood as a barrier between God and man are abolished for good, belonging in history books and museums rather than in real life. Jesus creates a new connection between God and man, the curtain removed and no more blood necessary. Today, we follow the Lord’s command to “remember” by receiving the Lord’s Supper. In the cup though, we don’t need blood. The absence of blood is, in itself, a lesson. Because Christ’s blood was shed long ago, just a bit of wine (in my church tradition, its “new wine”) is all that’s needed.
Take Away: Christ’s sacrifice was what was needed all along and it never needs to be made again.