James the man - James 1:1
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Let me begin by telling you about George. George is 28 years old, married with no children. Well, one Sunday morning George just couldn’t bring himself to get up. The alarm went off, and so he hit the snooze button and went back to sleep. Twenty minutes later his wife, who was an early riser, came in and shook him. “George” she said, “It’s Sunday morning and you are going to be late for church.” “My dear’ said George, “I am not going to church for three reasons: first, I am tired; second, the people there don’t like me and third, the sermons are boring. His wife gave him that steely look only wives can give, folded her arms in that determined way only wives can do and replied: “George you are going to church and for three reasons: first, it is Sunday and we always go to church; second it doesn’t matter whether the people like you or not God loves you and third; you are the Vicar!”
You have to admit it; God does take the most unlikely material to be the leaders of his people. They are sometimes folk who themselves are just as surprised as anybody else that God should have chosen them to do one of the most privileged and most onerous tasks in the world-pastoring God’s flock. And one such man wrote the letter we are going to be looking at together over the next few weeks, James. And the first verse, which is all that we are going to be thinking about this morning, tells us two things which are quite remarkable, that is remarkable not so much about the man God called, but the God who called the man.
First of all we have insight into the power of transforming grace-v1a, ‘James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Now we have to ask, which James are we talking about? There are a number of James’s mentioned in the New Testament, for example James the brother of John who together were known as ‘sons of thunder’ probably because they had volatile tempers, liable to flare up at any moment so you didn’t want to mess with them. But he was killed off around AD 44 so it is probably not him. The other most likely candidate is that this James is the half brother of Jesus, who we read about in Acts 15 as having a senior position in the Jerusalem church. So we have that incident recorded in Mark 6 where Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth to preach in the synagogue and the locals were just bowled over and wondered how on earth the one they knew as a door hanger with his Dad, Joseph could preach in such an amazing way, so they said to each other, ‘Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him.’ So Jesus had a whole bunch of siblings and it would appear that the next one in line was James.
Now you might say surely the half brother of Jesus would be an ideal choice for a church leader, what better stock could you want? Well, being the brother of someone who is able doesn’t mean that you will be. After all, Napoleon Bonaparte’s elder brother didn’t do all that good a job as King of Spain. And when you dig a little deeper, during Jesus’ earthly ministry James appeared to be more of a hindrance than a help.
So going back to that incident in Nazareth Luke tells us in his Gospel what happened next. ‘They got up, drove Jesus out of town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and on his way.’ (Luke 4:29-30). Remember this is where Jesus was raised and this is where his family lived. What we read is pretty ugly isn’t it? Mob rule. But what we don’t read is, I think, even more surprising. We don’t read that Jesus brothers stood up for him. They are nowhere to be seen, unless they too are part of the crowd. Is that too harsh a judgement? I am not so sure it is because of what we read in Mark 3: 20: ‘Then Jesus entered a house, and again, a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’ His brother James was part of the delegation that had come to get Jesus sectioned. But this wasn’t the only time James and the family failed to understand Jesus and ended up opposing him. We read of another incident in John 7:3, ‘So Jesus’ brothers said to him, “You should leave here and go to Judea so your followers there can see the miracles you do. Anyone who wants to be well known does not hide as he does. If you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” And then John adds in parenthesis, ‘Even Jesus own brothers did not believe in him.’ As you listen to those words does not sarcasm and ridicule simply drip from them? Big brother wants to be really big does he? Well, this is not the way to go about it tucked away in Hicksville. No, if Jesus is performing miracles let him make a show of it; go to the big city, the place where it counts- ‘show yourself to the world.’ And so they in effect repeat the temptation of the devil to Jesus in the wilderness: ‘If you are the Son of God go to Jerusalem and perform a stunt by throwing yourself off the pinnacle of the temple, people will believe you then.’ Now that was James’ settled attitude towards Jesus, seeing him as something of an embarrassment and a liability. Now, who wants someone like that running your church?
But by the time we get to Acts 1:12 we read that after the ascension of Jesus, ‘The disciples went back to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives… They all continued praying together with some women (and then listen to this), including Mary the mother of Jesus and Jesus brothers.’ Now that is some change isn’t it? That is one mighty transformation. Those who mocked him now worship him. Those who pitied him now pray to him. In other words James is converted. Just how do you account for that?
Well, we are going a clue as to what happened by something the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15. Talking about the resurrected Jesus he tell us that he appeared to the apostle Peter, then to the twelve (the inner core of disciples), then to five hundred folk, and then says Paul, ‘he appeared to James’. James is actually singled out for a special encounter with the Risen Lord. We don’t have any records of what that encounter was like. Perhaps in seeing Jesus standing before him the different pieces of the jigsaw simply fell into place and he realised at last just who his half brother was- that he was a half brother- fully man, but also fully God. What we do know is that he was transformed by grace. It was wholly underserved and no doubt wholly unexpected.
And just what the nature of the transformation was is spelt out for us in the rest of what James has to say about himself.
First, this is now ‘James, the slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.’ There we have two things which result from grace. James now has a new conviction about Jesus as well as a new position before Jesus.
His conviction is that this is the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘Jesus’ is the name James would have called him when they were playing in the street together when they were children, it’s his human name. And as such you can understand that it would take some radical re-thinking to see your flesh and blood brother anything other than that- flesh and blood. But now he does see that Jesus is something more. Firstly, that he is the ‘Christ’. This is not a surname which is shared with James, like Melvin Tinker and his brother Mark Tinker, so there is Jesus Christ and James Christ. No this is a special title. It has its roots back in the Old Testament and God’s promise to David that there will always be a King descended from him who will rule over God’s people and eventually all the nations. This is God’s ‘anointed one’ the ‘Messiah’ which is what the title ‘Christ’ means. This is God’s King says James.
But he goes even further than that and speaks of him as the ‘Lord Jesus’. You see, in the Greek/Roman pagan world the gods were called ‘lords’, even Caesar was worshipped as ‘lord’, so it was a term which referred to divinity. But James was a Jew and he knew that in the Greek translation of the Old Testament the word used here ‘Lord’ was used to translate the name of Yahweh the one and only true God. And now miracle of miracles, he is using that term to describe his brother! This is deity incarnate he is talking about. Perhaps we can think of it like this: Travelling at the speed of light (186,000 miles a second), you would encircle the earth seven times in one second and pass the moon in two seconds. At this speed it would take you 4.3 years to reach our nearest star and 100,000 years to cross our galaxy. There are thought to be at least 150 billion galaxies in the universe. It would take 2 million light years to reach the next closest galaxy and 20 million to reach the next cluster of galaxies. And you have still only just begun to explore the universe. Now do you realise that the one whom James had previously scorned, his brother Jesus, brought all of this into being and now keeps it all going, for his is Lord? He is the one who measures it all not in terms of millions of light years but with a span, says the prophet Isaiah- the width of a man’s hand? And so James worships him, not like a younger brother might look up to an older brother and idolise him, but as a Jew worships his God. In fact in the original language the sentence construction could be literally translated, ‘James, slave of God and Lord Jesus Christ’ so he may be using the term ‘God’ as a reference to Jesus as well, which would really be something. But even if he isn’t and it is God the Father he has in mind, which is the way I think it should be taken, nonetheless Jesus is being placed on an equal footing, he belongs to the family of the Trinity. So how about having a member of the Trinity as your brother?
Now I think it is interesting to see how James describes his position in relation to Jesus- it is ‘slave’, which is a better translation than ‘servant’. And to be a slave in these times doesn’t necessary carry with it all the negative associations it has for us. Certainly a slave meant that you were not your own, you belonged to someone else, so you couldn’t go moonlighting. But many slaves had very high and responsible positions in Roman households- educating the children or running the business for example. But what I find striking is that James does not pull rank when writing to these Christians by drawing attention to his physical ties with Jesus. He doesn’t say, ‘James the brother of Jesus’- ‘I knew him and grew up with him you know and so let’s have a little respect.’ Not at all. The only thing that matters is his spiritual ties to Jesus- he like every other Christian believer is a ‘slave’ of Jesus. So grace transforms by humbling us too. So let me tell you about Mr Abercrombie. Mr Abercrombie was a respectable pillar in a local community in the Unites States. If you needed any help, Mr Abercrombie was your man. He was also a highly successful business executive and an active member of his local church. Why, he was so keen that each week he a hosted a lunchtime Bible study in his office. Then came the day he invited a speaker who would normally be found in prison, not serving time, although he had done that, but rather that he spent most of working life now speaking to prison inmates about the Christian faith. But this day he was addressing 19 businessmen elegantly dressed in their blue pinstriped suits and white shirts. It looked like a scene straight out of the film ‘Wall Street’. And so the speaker began his talk. It was about half way through that he said something which caused several of the dignified gentlemen to pull a face as if a skunk had just walked into the room. What he did was to refer to our ‘sinful nature’- the actual phrase he used was our ‘total depravity’, the belief that every part of us is morally twisted- that we are crooked through and through- mind, body and soul. Believe in the tooth fairy, believe in UFO’s, believe in Father Christmas if you like-but belief that we are morally corrupted? No, that is too much to take and one of the businessmen said so. ‘You don’t really believe that we are sinners do you? I mean you are far to sophisticated to be one of those hellfire and brimstone fellows, intelligent people don’t go in for that kind of stuff.’ So the speaker replied, ‘Well, yes sir I really do believe that we are desperately sinful. What’s inside of each of us is really pretty ugly. In fact we deserve hell and we would get it, but for the sacrifice of Christ for our sins.’ Then Mr Abercrombie chimed in: ‘Well, I don’t know about that,’ he said. ‘I’m a good person and have been all my life. I go to church and I get exhausted spending all my time doing good works.’ The room went so quiet you could hear a pin drop as twenty pair of eyes burned into the speaker. How did he reply? He said, ‘Mr Abercrombie, if you believe that- and I hate to say this, for you will certainly not invite me back again-you are for all your good works, further away from the kingdom of God than the people I work with in prison who are aware of their own sins.’ But as Mr Abercrombie led the speaker down the corridor, he took him to an empty office and as soon as they were inside he said ‘I don’t have what you have.’ ‘I know’ replied the speaker, but you can.’ Within a few moments both men were on their knees with Mr Abercrombie reaching for the G word -grace- God’s free unmerited forgiveness and love in his Son.
But you know, the other wonderful thing about transforming grace is this: that if you are a slave of Jesus Christ, you are closer to Jesus than any physical brother could be. Again going back to that moment when Jesus’ family came to take him away in Mark 3: 34, we read, ‘Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ If you are a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, he is closer to you and you are closer to him than any family member ever could be. That is something to take away with you into the coming week.
But secondly, we have the comfort of divine promises and you see that in the way James addresses the people he is writing to: ‘To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.’ What does that mean? Well, James talks about the 12 tribes who are scattered, literally among the ‘dispersion’. And the dispersion was a term used to describe those Jews that were not living in the land of Israel. But here James speaks about the ’12 tribes’, and so is probably referring to Jewish Christians who were scattered throughout the known world. And so we should not be surprised, as we shall see, that James’s letter has a distinctive Jewish flavour to it. There are allusions to the Old Testament and especially to wisdom literature. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t apply to Christians who aren’t Jews, but it does colour the language and shape the illustrations used. But given all that the Jews had been taught about the importance of the land of promise, that this was their inheritance and the fulfilment of the pledge God made to Abraham, how do you think these Jewish Christians would have felt finding themselves outside that land, perhaps having been scattered through persecution as we read happening in Acts chapter 8? It would not have surprised me if some became more than a little despondent don’t you think? It is bad enough having to leave your home and the land of your birth in any circumstances to become an asylum seeker, but to leave the land of Israel! Might that not cause you to wonder whether God keeps his promises, whether he really is up to sustaining his people? But here we do see God sustaining his people through his apostle James. He raises up a James and inspires him to write this letter and in so doing shows that he still cares! He hasn’t abandoned them or forgotten them in their dispersed state; he still gathers them under his wings like a mother hen would gather her chicks and he does so by sending out his Word in the form of this letter. Part of the evidence of God’s faithfulness is that he gives his people his Word in their time of need, a word which challenges us, a word which changes us, but a word which comforts us.
But the fact that here you have Christian Jews shows God’s faithfulness in another way. He has not abandoned the Jewish people by swopping them for another group called Christians- for if that were the case then he would have reneged on his promises to Abraham and David and if God did not keep his promises to them, then how could you be sure he will keep his promises to you? The fact is Jew and non-Jews receive Jesus as their King and so fulfilling all of God’s promises that a descendent of Abraham would eventually come who would be a blessing to all the world and to David that he would have a descendent that would reign for ever. God does not chop and change his promises. If he has said, ‘I will build my church and the gates of death will not prevail against it’ he means it.
60 years ago Stalin tried to destroy the Lutheran church in Russia. Christian families were broken up. Men were loaded into boxcars and scattered throughout the remote regions of the then Soviet Union, including Siberia. It looked as if the Lutheran church in Russia had been wiped off the map. So what happened? Well, Lutheran women worked tirelessly to keep the church alive. They had no ministers, bibles, hymn books, but they had determination. They sought each other out across the miles of desolate countryside and met in each other’s homes. They wrote down on scraps of paper all the religious instruction they had learnt by heart-bible verses, hymns, liturgies. And at the risk of imprisonment they passed on their faith to their children. Over time some of the husbands managed to rejoin their families and some of the surrounding people got converted. New ministers were appointed and house churches were formed. The Lutheran church was reborn. That is what God does!
And in the very first verse James is saying to us: get this firmly fixed in your minds- the one I knew for so long as my brother is now your brother. What is more he is the Lord who has the power of transforming grace and offers the comfort of divine promises. I have tasted that and you can taste it too.
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