A Changing Season
I love autumn. I love the quickening of the season, the drawing in the days, the changing in the colours. After a long languid summer, there’s a crispening in the air, a change in the colour, and in the words of the poet:
Something told the wild geese,
It was time to go;
Though the fields lay golden,
Something whispered: “Snow”
- If you have a bias for action, chances are you are going to like James.
- If you struggle with what it means to be a Christian, James gets practical.
- This is the James who says in Chapter 2: Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
So if you struggle with this whole idea of godliness, then James seems to point a way that we can come to grips with. Good works. Observance of the law. Being seen to be doing good. But that’s not what James is saying.
A lot of New Testament scripture is about a lot of very perplexed people grappling with the Gospel, and responding to the Gospel in different ways:
- Some of us just don’t get Grace. We carry on living as though our salvation can be earned by observing the law
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?
- Others just relax into Grace. First there was the law, then there was Grace, and therefore I am no longer required to follow God’s law.
- And for others, we hear the Gospel, and we carry on as though it went in the one ear and out the other.
And it is particularly to this last group of people to whom James is addressing himself here.
What James is looking for is that “before” and “after”. One day Ira, walking along the road, has an encounter with Jesus. And he does a 180 degree pivot, and falls into step with Jesus. He becomes, as it says in Corinthians “a new creature” 2 Corinthians 5:17: Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new.
James is looking around him and finding that that encounter hasn’t changed anything.
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is”, says Paul. A “renewing of the mind”. What we thought, and did, and what motivated us previously……has passed away. Yet we’re not doing anything differently!
The gospel – the good news – the word – is being listened to……..but no-one seems to be taking it on board. So in verse 22, James pulls us up. He says: ““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 someone 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 whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.”
What James is laying out for us here is the age-old struggle to understand the nature of Grace.
Because if “Salvation is by grace and grace alone”, then on the one hand doesn’t that lead to lawlessness? Does this mean we no longer have to live by the law?
On the other hand we have this idea that, sure, “Salvation is by grace, but grace only comes to those who obey God’s Law.”
The “Law” that we’re talking about here is not the Constitution of Canada, or English Common Law. The law that James and Paul refer to is the standard that God hands down to the chosen people on Mount Sinai: it starts with the 10 Commandments, which is then unpacked in the books of the Torah as the 6 hundred and something rules to live by, and is then subsequently codified and interpreted by Jewish scholars who tried to understand how it applies in practice to a nation trying to live under God. The Law is given for at least three reasons:
- So that it sets apart God’s chosen people. They could be identified as God’s chosen people by the way they lived and worshipped. The laws were lived “unto God”, and “pointed to God” by their lifestyles.
- The law is held up as a mirror to us. If we do not see ourselves reflected, then we fall short of the glory of God.
- And at the end of the day, we are pretty much brought to that admission: We cannot live up to the law, no matter how hard we try.
By the time Jesus arrives on the scene, we see the law has become so complicated and oppressive and unattainable, and hijacked by self-serving Pharisees and Jewish leaders, that a message of salvation by grace is like a tonic. No more striving. No more repeated failures for which we must atone. No more doing it in our own strength. Oof, I’m just exhausted.
And then along comes James. And he looks around at this. And says Nu? So? Are you done being exhausted already? Are you ready to put some legs under your new faith? Because there’s something you need to know. Jesus didn’t come “to abolish the Law or the Prophets; but to fulfill them. Can I say that again: Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”.
We often talk about this God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament, and sometimes lose sight of the fact that it’s the same God. The system of sacrificial law that started with Moses is made perfect in Christ – the ultimate, once-and-for-all, perfect sacrifice.
It’s the same God. And the law is still held up as a mirror for us to recognize how far we fall short of it.
So this new freedom that Grace brings does not leave us without the law. Paul, in Romans 6: We sin, we receive Grace, we sin, we receive more Grace. “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! By no means!! (Or, in the modern vernacular: Are you smoking something? ) By no means. We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”
Here is the crux. If we continue as we were before, then Grace has not caught hold of us. Because a Grace that has the power to save us, also has the power to turn us in our steps, and to motivate us to godliness. We cannot earn our salvation by good works, that only comes from grace. But good works follow grace. And here is James asking himself: Where is that impulse to godliness? Don’t you love that term: An impulse to godliness.
We started off by anticipating and embracing this season of change. We as a congregation have similarly been longing for a new season. When we can travel again. And meet again. With a bit of luck, and God willing, this is one of the last times we’ll have to huddle around the screen, and we look forward to services where we can worship together again.
But we all know that that what lies ahead is different. The future is not what it used to be.
And friends, I encourage you, to be looking to that new thing that God is doing in our lives.
As you walk in the garden each day with God, can you imagine strolling down the Downtown Eastside, and saying to God: I don’t feel it.
When you walk through shattered Afghanistan, saying to God: Nope. I got nothing.
When you tramp through the ashes of the wildfires, try saying to God: Not my problem.
James says: Where is your impulse to Godliness? An impulse to godliness. Tolook after the orphans and widows. To feed the hungry. And to walk hand in hand with God