Nov 09 - Endure To Mature

Endure To Mature

November 9, 2014

James 1:1-5


ENDURE TO MATURE
November 9th, 2014
James 1:1-5

Jesus told his followers that trials aren’t aberrations; they are to be expected. 

In this world you will have trouble.  But cheer up, I have overcome the world.                John 16:33

Because you are not of the world and I chose you out of the world, the world will hate you. …. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.          John 15:19-20

You will be hated by all because of my name, but the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.    Mark 13:13

Other NT writers also indicated that believers were having a difficult time.  I’m especially reminded of what we read in 1 Peter.  Numerous references in that letter indicate that the readers were truly under attack, grieved by various trials (1 Peter 1:6).

Beloved, do not be surprised when a fiery trial comes upon you to test you, as though something strange is happening to you.    … Resist the devil, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your fellow believers throughout the world.                        1 Peter 4:12; 5:9

Know that in the last days there will be times of difficulty. … Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.        2 Timothy 3:1,12

Particularly in 2 Corinthians there are so many passages where Paul writes about his own affliction and suffering (2 Cor 6:4-10; 11:23-27; cf. 1 Cor 4:11-13) and how he considered them to be negligible when compared with the eternal blessings that await in heaven (2 Cor 4:17).  

In that same letter Paul also points out how God had comforted him in his suffering and that this had given him the ability to comfort others who are suffering (2 Cor 1:3-4).
Paul writes about the suffering of the believers in the churches in Macedonia, such as Thessalonica and Philippi (2 Thess 1:4-7; Phil 1:29; 3:10).  He writes about the suffering of the believers in the province of Galatia (Gal 3:4).  After Paul was stoned and left for dead in Lystra, he and Barnabas returned to the cities they had previously visited to encourage the new believers to go on in their faith.  They said, “Through many difficulties we must enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

At certain times, suffering, trials, difficulties are not only unavoidable, there actually doesn’t seem to be the ability to resolve it.  

If you’re familiar with Paul’s letters, do you remember when he wrote about this physical disability that hampered him?  He called it a “thorn in the flesh.”  Three times he prayed for healing, but he wasn’t healed.  The answer that he heard from God is that this disability was to keep him from pride and that it made him continually dependent on God’s power, not his own (2 Cor 12:7-10).  Because of this, Paul wrote: “when I am weak, then I am strong.”

So what if we are faced with suffering, especially with suffering where it is undeserved, where there isn’t some easy solution, and where it cannot be avoided, and our circumstances won’t change anytime soon.  It may be when we’re doing everything right and everything goes wrong.  

What if we deal with chronic pain?  Or a physical or psychological disability?  Or we are in a marriage that we realize will never be what we hoped for?  Or we realize that we’ll never be able to afford to go to medical school?  Or the truth sinks in that the person who died can never be replaced?  Or we go to work only to be fired?  Or our hearing loss is permanent?  Or old age dementia is irreversible?  Or the money stolen from us is irretrievably lost?  Or we go to the doctor and receive a bad prognosis?  What do we do when we’ve done everything right yet everything is going wrong?  What do we do when there’s nothing we can do?

Some people simply give up.  “There’s no point staying in this relationship, no point getting out of bed, no point working out or eating responsibly, no point quitting smoking, no point spending less, no point even trying.”

Others think that God has made a mistake.  “Spencer, if you knew what I’m going through, what I’m facing, you would realize that NOTHING good can come from this … why in the world would God allow this to be part of my life?”

In our passage this morning, James writes something quite extraordinary.  

1 James (literally: Jacob), a slave of God and of Jesus Christ the Lord, greets the twelve tribes who live in the dispersion (scattering).  2 Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you are confronted with all kinds of trials (or: temptations).  3 You know that the testing of your faith (beliefs) produces endurance (perseverance).  4 And let endurance finish its work so that you will be mature (complete) and without fault, not lacking in anything.
5 And if any of you lacks wisdom, ask God who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given him.  

James seems to think that God can redeem, work through, and use trials and tribulations to the point that we should be able to accept and move through them, not just complaining and down and defeated, but retaining a sense of joy.  What an unusual point of view.  Who is this James, or let me call him by his real name, Jacob, anyway – that he could write something like this.

Many scholars believe that this Jacob is not one of Jesus’ disciples, but his half-brother.  

The person who wrote this was James (Jacob) the brother of Jesus.  Did not show up during any time in his ministry except to mock.  He never steps up, never steps out, never says anything.  

We know very little about Jesus’ family.  The husband of Mary who helped raise Jesus was Joseph the carpenter.  It seems likely that Jesus himself was trained by his father to become a carpenter as well.  But Joseph must have died by the time Jesus was 30.

When Jesus first moved to Capernaum, it seems that his mother, his half-brothers, his disciples, and likely his unmarried sisters all moved with him (John 2:12).  

But it seemed that during his public ministry, Jesus own family were not fully supportive.  For example, Matthew and Luke record the fact that Jesus’ mother and brothers once sought to speak to him when Jesus was so busy in ministry he didn’t even find time to eat (Mk 3:31; Matt 12:46; Luke 8:19).  It is only Mark who points out that they were hoping to “take a hold of Jesus” because they thought he was “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21).  

We have the names of four of Jesus’ half-brothers:

Jacob (James)
Joseph (Joses)
Simon
Judas (Jude)            Mark 6:3: Matthew 13:55-56 

We only hear one more time of his brothers in the gospels, where they tried to goad him to perform miracles in Jerusalem during the Feast of Booths because they didn’t believe in him (John 7:3-5).

Now let me ask you, what would it take for your brother to convince you that he’s the son of God?  I know what you’re thinking – NOTHING!   

Jesus’ half-brothers weren’t convinced that Jesus was God’s son based on the story of his birth, his life, his ministry, his popularity, his teaching, his miracles or his crucifixion.  During Jesus’ lifetime they didn’t speak out, speak up, get involved, or support Jesus.  They were a no-show.

It took something else.  From Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth we learn that the resurrected Christ appeared to Jacob (1 Cor 15:7).  It took the resurrection for Jacob to believe … and it seems that more of Jesus’ half-brothers ended up coming to faith and being active in the church, as Paul also mentions in that same letter (1 Cor 9:5).  

From among Jesus’ half-brothers, it was Jacob, Jesus’ oldest half-brother, who quickly rose to prominence in the church in Jerusalem.  It was Jacob who is named first or is the only one referred to by name in the list of leaders at the church.  His word carried the day at the Jerusalem council.  

We can say with complete confidence that within a number of years after the crucifixion, Jacob becomes THE preeminent leader in the church of Jerusalem, even above the 12 apostles. 

If it is he who penned the letter of James, isn’t it startling that he refers to himself, not as the Lord’s brother (which others called him), but “a slave of Jesus Christ, our Lord”?  That kind of change should probably make us take pause if we are in the process of writing off Christianity altogether.

Jacob would be no stranger to trials and suffering.  For one, he had to look after a congregation that was divided over the issue of what it took for non-Jews to become Christians – and if Jewish believers should retain the Mosaic Law as binding or not.  He was also faced with the same persecution as other believers during that time.

Josephus, a Jewish historian records that Jacob was stoned by order of the Sanhedrin on the charge of breaking the Mosaic Law.  This was done at the instigation of the high priest Ananus and took place in the year AD 62 (Antiquities, 20.9.1), about 4 years after the apostle Paul’s arrest.

Between the combined efforts of the power of the Jewish leadership, temple and court, and the Roman growing intolerance toward Christians who refused to call Caesar their Lord, Christianity should have been squeezed from existence.  It should never have survived beyond the first century.  

The entire lives of many Christians during this era and beyond was consistently at a level of suffering, rejection, ridicule and persecution that we would not want to endure even for a short time – any time, for that matter. Given their situation, they would have found today’s health and wealth teaching preposterous.

Jacob writes something that does seem to ring true.  Bad things in our lives test our faith.  Suffering usually is a way of seeing whether or not we actually believe what claim to believe.   Whenever we face difficulties, whenever we suffer, our faith is put on trial, put to the test.  Every set of negative circumstances test whether or not we really believe and continue to believe what we say we believe.  Put differently, trials test our confidence in God.  

And while some in the early church certainly fell away because of the difficulties, the vast majority endured and persevered.  Why?  Because they did not seem to think there was something contradictory between a faithful, loving, good God and the reality of a difficult life.      

However, if we think that God wants all believers to live a charmed existence, then it can become easy to dismiss him.  If we get baptized expecting that God’s will for us is only sunshine and smelling the roses, we will be bitterly disappointed.  

I met a blind woman who was dragged to a faith-healer by her parents when she was a kid.  She was absolutely convinced that God would heal her.  After the unsuccessful laying on of hands the man told her she wasn’t healed because she didn’t have enough faith.  That absolutely devastated her and as an adult she led a life far away from God until she rededicated her life to Him.  

If we only focus on the prayers that God is not answering it’s easy to lose sight of the prayers that are being answered.  If we only focus on the negative, it’s impossible to remain positive.  But being positive and thankful and even joyful is exactly what Jacob is telling his readers to be.

How?  By realizing that even through the unexpected, underserved, unavoidable, circumstantial, and what appear to be unredeemable trials in our lives, something good can indeed come from it.

So how do you react when bad things happen to you?  Think about the greatest struggle or source of pain or suffering in your life right now?  Do you blame God?  Do you convince yourself that nothing good could possibly come from it?  Do you walk away from God or God’s people?

Or will you walk toward God, toward others?  Can you think of every trial, every suffering, as a potential source of something good, even if initially it seems counterintuitive?  

If we do this, we can embrace a different attitude toward adversity and retain or regain our joy?  

So what positive end result is Jacob speaking of?  First of all he writes that the testing of our faith can produce endurance or perseverance.  

In Jesus’ parable of the four soils, the seed that falls on the good soil hold fast to the message of salvation in their hearts despite trials and difficulties and continue to serve and do good to others (bear fruit) with patience or long-suffering (Luke 8:15).

Think about it.  Are we most impressed by the kind of faith that gets a “yes” answer from God?  I mean, the person who gave $ 50 to God and got $ 5,000 in return?  When we hear a testimony of that kind, aren’t we always looking for the right formula to be blessed ourselves?

Do you remember the big hype in 2010 about praying the “Prayer of Jabez” verbatim every day for 30 days?  This is a prayer that God will always answer and he will bless you in incredible ways.  What absolute tripe and rubbish.  It’s bad exposition leading to bad theology leading to bad spirituality.  It is built on rank selfishness and caters to the reader’s desires for wealth, power and comfort.  I think that Bruce Wilkinson was likely the only person who really got blessed by that prayer.

I think what impresses us more is a person who received what we would think of as a “no” answer, but didn’t hit the eject button, the alcohol button, the run-away button, the hide-out button, the selfish button, the divorce button, but stuck it out and went on to live for God.  

Suffering and trials can produce enduring faith.  And if we allow that enduring faith to complete its work in us, then the promise in our passage is that we will come to the point of maturity and completeness …  emotionally and spiritually.  We will have everything we need to live out the Christian life as God had intended for us.  

The focal point of God’s work can be the very thing that is the greatest trial … IF we allow it to finish its work.  Paul writes something quite similar to our passage in his letter to the believers in Rome:

We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.                             Romans 5:3-5

Character, hope, and God’s love overflowing with God’s love because of the Holy Spirit in us.  This passage reminded me again of the fruit of the Holy Spirit as listed by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatian believers:

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control … these don’t just develop in our lives if we were raised in a wonderful nurturing home.  They also grow in the crucible of suffering.  I sometimes find that those who suffered the most tend to be the most gentle and caring of people.

Some people seem to lead a charmed life.  And when we compare ourselves to them we could be tempted to think, 

“if I grew up in that kind of home, with those kind of parents, with those kind of looks, with those kind of abilities, with that kind of education, with that kind of health, with that genetic material, with that much raw talent, with that financial success, … then maybe I would be a nice person who displays all the fruit of the Spirit.”  

The problem with that thinking is that no-one leads a charmed life.  No matter how happy the childhood, something bad happens to everyone.  

I am reminded of Bethany Hamilton, a kid growing up in a Christian home in Hawaii, surfing most days.  

And then at age 13 her left arm was bitten off by a tiger shark (2003).  As the movie (Soul Surfer) about her experience showed, these were followed by many days of tears, despair and doubt.  

But ultimately her faith was strengthened and she not only competed again in surfing, but continued to share about her faith to others.

Most people don’t even come close to living a charmed life. They have dealt with abuse, rejection, tragedy, personal loss, with a debilitating accident, with problems that we can only dream of, and yet they persevere in their faith and rise above their circumstances.  

Nick Vujicic is one of those people.  His confidence in God is truly amazing and inspiring.  But, like Bethany, he first had to deal with rejection, depression, and feelings of hopelessness … much like those who return from war physically or emotionally devastated.

Let me show a very short clip of Nick.

He faced the valley, but his faith endured.  And the fruit of the Spirit is evident in his life as he travels all over the world sharing his faith and helping people deal with their own trials.    

He allowed perseverance to finish its work.  In the valley of the shadow of death he didn’t hit the eject button but said that he would trust God anyway.  

We could be consumed with our own story of woe, but after hearing theirs and seeing the joy that is a part of them, even though God did not seem to come through for them to begin with, can help to put things into perspective.   

I’ve included v.5 of our passage only to point out that at times when we are experiencing trials, we may need to ask for wisdom to gain or regain that larger perspective.  
We often need that wisdom to see our current situation in a broader context.  

Heavenly father, give me the wisdom to see my trials the way you see them.  I’m so frustrated, so hurt, so worried, so afraid.  Life is hard and it doesn’t look like it will get any better soon.  Help me to realize that in and through this all you are up to something.  Help me not to focus solely on my problems, to stop looking to you because I’m so focused on my circumstances.  Help me to realize that you still love me, that you haven’t abandoned me, but that you’re allowing all circumstances to test my faith, and, if I allow it, to bring spiritual and emotional wholeness, maturity, and completeness into my heart and character.

I’ve entitled this sermon, “Endure to mature” because of this.  Yes we can shake our fist at God, we can walk away … or we can be like those who endured and have found an inner strength and a joy that defies logic, found a confidence in God that does not rest on their circumstances. 

WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN WITHIN ME SO THAT SORROW, SUFFERING AND TRIALS DO NOT ROB ME OF MY JOY IN GOD?

Heavenly Father, I believe you will use this trial until you choose to remove it.  Grant me the wisdom to see as you see and the strength to do as you say.