Yesterday we hit one of the most famous statements in the New Testament: “Faith without works is dead.”  But reading the whole passage, short as it is, shows us just how often we misuse this passage.

Way too often we use the bible as a proof text for whatever theology we want to espouse.  It is the reason one of my guiding theological principles is context, context, context.  “Without context, any text is simply a pretext for saying whatever you want.”

In speaking of faith, James is not speaking about a belief that doesn’t result in obedience.  And that is the context where I’ve regularly heard this passage used.  Frustrated and disgruntled life-long Christians who have worked to obey every law they can accuse others of not working hard enough to obey.  “Your faith without works is dead,” they say.

But James is speaking specifically about caring for the poor.  “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”   He is speaking to those who value their own spiritual well-being over another’s physical well-being.  “I don’t need to help the poor as long as I’m obedient in my own lifestyle.”

James is making much the opposite point from the way his writing is often used.  I can only imagine his frustration.

When I first arrived at one of the churches I’ve served, I was watching closely to see who this new congregation was.  And so I watched with interest as a couple, young and well dressed, entered the church doors, met the greeters and were pointed to the sanctuary for worship with a smile.  Immediately following these young seekers came another man, older and unshaven, unshowered, and seemingly homeless.  Like the first couple, he was met with a welcoming smile.  Good!  Unlike the younger couple, however, he was not asked where he would like to sit but rather, “how can we help you?”

It was a kind, welcoming reception and I might not have noticed anything amiss had it not been for the timing.  But placed back to back, these two receptions made it clear that we are still guilty of the sin James points out today.

Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

While James is giving an exaggerated example, the premise is one I see again and again in churches.  Whether the difference is age, gender, race, economic status or _______ (I’ll let you fill in the blank), we are still guilty of this favoritism.  We naturally like and are attracted to people like us, same class, race, or history, and it takes an effort of will to suppress that discrimination.  But it is that very effort to which God calls us.

Who do you want to see in your church?  Who do you NOT want to see?  How might you give that effort to welcome everyone the same this week?

Someone has called James, “the Proverbs of the New Testament”.  And surely, James is a collection of wisdom sayings like the book of Proverbs.  But James’ sayings are longer, more organized, and more directed, (“To the twelve tribes scattered across the nations…”)  Still, James fits our culture better than books like Romans or Ephesians does, with our short attention spans and sound-byte news clips.

The other day, someone asked me about the part of the Lord’s prayer that says, “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”  What could this prayer mean if in fact God does not tempt us?  He then cited this James passage, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’  For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.”

Let me lead us to 2 other passages, Jesus beginning His ministry with a trip into the wilderness and Jesus ending His ministry in the Garden of Gethsemane.  In both circumstances we either read or assume that Jesus is following His father’s will, what the bible calls “being led by God”.  And yet in both instances, He is led to a place of temptation.  The wilderness is obviously a matter of temptation, but the Garden?

“Father, let this cup pass from me,” is such a human cry.  “I don’t want to face this, Lord, even though I know, and have known all along, that it is Your will for me.”  This is so often the cry of our hearts, but it is temptation.  Anything that attempts to distract us from God’s will is temptation.  So, like Jesus, when we face temptation, we can stand against it with God’s help.

God may lead us into situations where temptation is going to happen, but He will also stand with us as we face it.  Though He does not produce the temptation (His will is that we follow His will always), He also knows we cannot avoid them in this world.

The Christian life is not one that can be lived partially.  It can not be a part of our life, of our routine, of our schedule.  Yet in America, where everything is compartmentalized, it too often is.  We look at our life like a puzzle, where school is one piece, family another, work another, free time another, and our faith another.  As a piece of the puzzle, our faith is adjacent to a few pieces, but by no means all.  It fits the knobs and ridges of some of the pieces (family, social work, free time) but not all (work, socializing…)

If this is the way we live, with a partial faith life, then we cannot follow the commands of today’s Hebrews reading.  We cannot truly feel the pain of others, offer hospitality as a way of life, and bring God a continual offering of praise, telling everyone around us about Jesus.

But what if our faith, rather than being one piece among many, is the picture that all the pieces of our life displays?  What if when we put our schooling, work, family, free time, social and political work, and even our socializing, together they displayed the face of Christ?  I think this is what Jesus intended.  I think this is what the writer of Hebrews assumed.  And I think this is God’s call to us all.

The Covenant had to deal with the confusion of “the wrath of a gracious and loving God” early in its history.  The question through which it came was this:  Did Jesus die to appease the anger and wrath of God against our sin, or as the gift of a loving father to pay the price for us?  The main argument was less the effect of Jesus’ death – all agreed that it saved us from hell and opened the door to eternity with God – and more the attitude of God.  P.P. Waldenstrom famously argued that the God he worshiped was not an angry, wrathful God we should be afraid of but a kind and loving Father we should long for.  The Covenant has viewed God through this lens of love ever since.

This means we Covenanters have a hard time with passages like this that show us God’s wrath.  We will read an entire book of a prophet and only focus on the few verses that share God’s mercy and grace.  Yet the bible is clear that God’s wrath is poured out on the sinfulness of humankind.  Though we usually think of this as an Old Testament stance, it is the key point of much of Paul’s writing, including Rom. 1-3 which many say are the cornerstone of the entire New Testament.

What do you do with God’s wrath?  Do you ignore it, focusing instead on a “nice” God who overlooks our sin and shows us mercy instead?  Do you read it and get anxious about Him lashing out at His children, specifically YOU, for the sins in your life?  Do you accept it as part of, but not all of, God’s personality and recognize that He is justified in His wrath, but also generous in His mercy?

Ezekiel is one of the weirdest books in the bible.  Even Revelation with its odd creatures and confusing descriptions isn’t on par with Ezekiel’s commands from God.  But in the midst of a year lying on his left side and eating food cooked over cow poop, we have a few very important lessons.

First, according to this Old Testament prophet, we are responsible for those we see sinning but don’t warn.  Assuming this is not a command unique to Ezekiel, and I don’t believe it is, if we see someone sinning (and who doesn’t on a daily basis) and don’t warn them against this sin, then we will be held responsible for their sin.  Not to say that we will suffer their punishment for it, but “I will hold you accountable for their blood” says God.  What this means is unclear, but it is certainly not good.

What would it look like for you to warn those around you that what they are doing is sinful?  if you’re like me, your mind immediately went to the busybody old lady who sticks her nose in everyone else’s business.  Or the bible-thumping “preacher man” who had a word of condemnation for everything anyone did, except for he himself, of course.  First, we’d need to understand what sins God is calling us to call out in this society.  We should be standing verbally and loudly against racism, sexism, human trafficking, violence, and fearmongering.  But what are the other sins we should call out?

The second teaching for us is just as important:  our task is to obey God, whether we see results, are successful, or are even noticed.  Ezekiel is to share God’s message with his people, but is promised that his people won’t listen.  We are so success-focused that we gauge our mission, our behavior, and our giving by whether we see results or success.  But God doesn’t call us to succeed.  He calls us to obey.

Hard lessons from a pretty weird source.  But they are God’s Word, and so are part of our sole ruler measuring faith, doctrine, and conduct.  We’d better be listening.

“By faith”.  Say this phrase to anyone who knows their bible a bit and they will immediately think of this chapter from today’s reading, Heb 11.  It is a famous litany of the heroes of the faith, a quick tour through all of biblical history stopping at famous names to remember their stories.

But while many see this as a list of heroes, there is a deeper point made here, and it is locked in to the phrase we began with, “by faith”.  What makes these people heroes is not their valiant deeds, their unwavering belief, or their godly obedience. What makes these people heroes is that they acted in spite of their lack of proof.  It is their trust in God’s promise that makes them heroes.  If you read their full stories, you will find that they fail, fall, and fool around regularly.  Abraham is the ultimate example of Old Testament faithfulness, yet it is primarily because of one event – leaving his home at God’s bequest to go to a strange land.  That’s about it.  He doubts God’s ability to supply an heir, goes to battle for his own desires, and sleeps around.  Sure, his faith makes him willing to sacrifice his own son for God, but this is after a lifetime of disappointing Him.

What if being declared righteous in God’s eyes only took one faithful action?  The rest of your life could be a wasteland, but one righteous act puts you in the Heroes Hall of Fame.  What would that look like for you?  Would it mean that you could go ahead an live selfishly, sinfully, and filled with doubt as long as you did the one thing, so it felt like freedom?  Or would you feel like you never knew which act of faithfulness was needed, so it felt like a burden?  Or would you feel like your dark and painful past could still be redeemed, so it felt like hope?

Our goal is not to get into the Hall of Fame, or even to please God with our righteousness, even just once.  Our goal is a complete change of heart, so that our everyday activities were righteous.  But maybe we can start today with just one act of righteousness.

“By faith”.  Say this phrase to anyone who knows their bible a bit and they will immediately think of this chapter from today’s reading, Heb 11.  It is a famous litany of the heroes of the faith, a quick tour through all of biblical history stopping at famous names to remember their stories.

But while many see this as a list of heroes, there is a deeper point made here, and it is locked in to the phrase we began with, “by faith”.  What makes these people heroes is not their valiant deeds, their unwavering belief, or their godly obedience. What makes these people heroes is that they acted in spite of their lack of proof.  It is their trust in God’s promise that makes them heroes.  If you read their full stories, you will find that they fail, fall, and fool around regularly.  Abraham is the ultimate example of Old Testament faithfulness, yet it is primarily because of one event – leaving his home at God’s bequest to go to a strange land.  That’s about it.  He doubts God’s ability to supply an heir, goes to battle for his own desires, and sleeps around.  Sure, his faith makes him willing to sacrifice his own son for God, but this is after a lifetime of disappointing Him.

What if being declared righteous in God’s eyes only took one faithful action?  The rest of your life could be a wasteland, but one righteous act puts you in the Heroes Hall of Fame.  What would that look like for you?  Would it mean that you could go ahead an live selfishly, sinfully, and filled with doubt as long as you did the one thing, so it felt like freedom?  Or would you feel like you never knew which act of faithfulness was needed, so it felt like a burden?  Or would you feel like your dark and painful past could still be redeemed, so it felt like hope?

Our goal is not to get into the Hall of Fame, or even to please God with our righteousness, even just once.  Our goal is a complete change of heart, so that our everyday activities were righteous.  But maybe we can start today with just one act of righteousness.

I find it so hard to feel the bible texts about persecution having grown up in the Detroit suburbs, lived in small towns, medium cities, and metropolitan suburbs.  To live in America, no matter what the circumstance, is to live better than most of the world.  This is not arrogance or false patriotism, it is a financial fact.  In fact, to be in the top 1% of the globe financially, you need to have an annual income of $32,400.  The median American household income is $59,000, nearly double what it takes to be in the 1%.  And not only do we have more money than the rest of the world, we have more help available were we to fall short of that number.  In many places around the globe and throughout history, it is not only that they had less but that they had access to less.  Even if some were to come into millions of dollars, they would have no access to food to spend it.  I have never known want or poverty or hunger.  And I know precious few who have.

So when, like today in both the OT and the NT readings we find warnings (promises?) of persecution, I cannot relate.  Yet this is a reality for Christians throughout time and around the world.  And for them, one of the biggest questions is this: am I suffering because of God’s withdrawal of His blessings like in Lamentations, or am I suffering because of the evil of this world like in Hebrews?  This question is hard, important, but very hard to answer.  Yesterday we talked about God’s sovereignty, and if God truly is sovereign in the world, then nothing can happen without His knowledge at best, His causation at worst.  If our suffering is not part of God’s will, then we have to question God’s sovereignty, which is equally scary.

We have solved this by focusing on our own free will.  It is free will that allows us to sin against each other, but it also allows us to love.  God cannot revoke the gift of free will without revoking the very core of our identity – in effect annihilating us.  So He has to let us go about our sinful ways or risk losing us altogether.  Not a very satisfying answer where sovereignty and accusation are at work.

So, can we, like the authors of today’s passages, still praise God in the midst of our suffering?  Can we see God’s punishment and still say, “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.” (Lam. 3:22-23)  Can we face the sinful effects of this world and still proclaim, “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded?”  (Heb. 10:35)

I don’t know and probably never will.  My children probably never will know this either.  Will you?

I find it so hard to feel the bible texts about persecution having grown up in the Detroit suburbs, lived in small towns, medium cities, and metropolitan suburbs.  To live in America, no matter what the circumstance, is to live better than most of the world.  This is not arrogance or false patriotism, it is a financial fact.  In fact, to be in the top 1% of the globe financially, you need to have an annual income of $32,400.  The median American household income is $59,000, nearly double what it takes to be in the 1%.  And not only do we have more money than the rest of the world, we have more help available were we to fall short of that number.  In many places around the globe and throughout history, it is not only that they had less but that they had access to less.  Even if some were to come into millions of dollars, they would have no access to food to spend it.  I have never known want or poverty or hunger.  And I know precious few who have.

So when, like today in both the OT and the NT readings we find warnings (promises?) of persecution, I cannot relate.  Yet this is a reality for Christians throughout time and around the world.  And for them, one of the biggest questions is this: am I suffering because of God’s withdrawal of His blessings like in Lamentations, or am I suffering because of the evil of this world like in Hebrews?  This question is hard, important, but very hard to answer.  Yesterday we talked about God’s sovereignty, and if God truly is sovereign in the world, then nothing can happen without His knowledge at best, His causation at worst.  If our suffering is not part of God’s will, then we have to question God’s sovereignty, which is equally scary.

We have solved this by focusing on our own free will.  It is free will that allows us to sin against each other, but it also allows us to love.  God cannot revoke the gift of free will without revoking the very core of our identity – in effect annihilating us.  So He has to let us go about our sinful ways or risk losing us altogether.  Not a very satisfying answer where sovereignty and accusation are at work.

So, can we, like the authors of today’s passages, still praise God in the midst of our suffering?  Can we see God’s punishment and still say, “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.” (Lam. 3:22-23)  Can we face the sinful effects of this world and still proclaim, “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded?”  (Heb. 10:35)

I don’t know and probably never will.  My children probably never will know this either.  Will you?