I don’t know if you are big X-factor New Zealand watchers… A couple of weeks ago they had what they call a six chair challenge. Contestants sing for the judges and if they do well they were invited to take a seat in the judges top six. If the judge likes a contestant and the chairs are full then they have to swap someone out… It adds to the drama. In the boys category that very situation happened. English Judge Mel Blatt to build the tension asked those who were seated if they were willing to give up their seat for the person who had just sung. She probably didn’t understand New Zealand culture that well, or it was well orchestrated. But two of the contestants stood up, then the other four got to their feet as well. Mel’s response was to go ballistic at them she told them that none of them were going to go very far in the competition or the business because they obviously didn’t want it enough.
Stan Walker understands New Zealand culture and in particular Pacifica culture a bit better and responded to the guys by saying it’s the ‘x-factor not the humility factor.’ And yes they were going to have to fight for their place in the competition. Maybe that is the prevailing wisdom of this world but it is not the wisdom that comes from above.
In the passage we had read out to us today, James flips that wisdom on its head,. He says in the church it is not all about the x-factor it is about the humility factor. It’s not about fighting one another to get the top spot, it’s not about ‘I really, really want this’ but rather it is about living together humbly in response to the grace of God. If any x factor is involved it should be the cross of Christ.
James starts by expressing the problem the church is facing in two rhetorical questions. It is a church that is beset by quarrels and factions. This says James is because people are more focused on their own pleasures their own agendas and desires rather than the gospel. It is the issue that James has been dealing with all the way through his letter. It is what he calls being double minded, they believe in Christ, they have been saved but somehow their understanding of how community is to work and what is success and important is shaped by the society around them rather than Jesus Christ. It had manifested itself in who got a seat in showing favoritism to rich and powerful people at the expense of the poor. It was about their faith being a good show not a heart change resulting in compassion: they were quick to bless people with words butdid not follow that up with actions. They wanted the same things that the world wanted rather than to live a life focused on Christ. James says even their prayer life is ineffectual because they are simply praying that God would bless them so they can focus on their own desires, their own pleasures.
It may be a bold move for an x-factor contestant to take on that Frank Sinatra standard ‘My Way’, you know… “ I did it my way”… but sadly said James it has become a standard in the church as well. It may win the approval of the judges to tackle Freddy mercury’s souring high notes in Queen’s “I want it all”… I want it all… and I want it now… but that hedonistic song has no place in the community of faith.
James uses some strong wording to talk of the effect of these conflicts and desires… murder, war , and fighting. But that is what they can do to a church and a community. Factions that want things their way can kill off a church, can stop it growing and moving out in mission. The epitaph of many churches is but we’ve always done it this way… our way… my way. I know many people who have been left battered and bruised and even whose faith is on the critical list because of the way that the church fights amongst itself, and the way we fight amongst ourselves… There are conflicts that need to be resolved but we need to have Christ honoring ways of addressing them.
Then James moves on to address these issues on a theological level. He says that you can’t be friends both with this world and with God. The wisdom from above is totally at odds with the wisdom of this world.. For the x-factor you might get somewhere singing Mary McGregor’s 1976 chart topper ‘torn between two lovers’ But James says that this kind of double mindedness is adultery. In the Old Testament, the prophets likened Israel’s worship of other god’s alongside YHWH as adultery. Jesus had said it very succinctly when he said you can’t serve two masters, you can’t serve God and mammon (or wealth and riches) you will end up loving one and hating the other.
James move towards the solution for us. He says that God is jealous, He has given us his Holy Spirit and does not want it to simply be one thing amongst other things in our life. The bit we keep in the god box, right next to the other box which is all the things we want and desire, because simply putting it in the god box can lead to it being considered the dog box, where we put things that are inconvenient or unwanted. The solution however is that God’s grace is greater than his jealousy. As we saw a few week ago 'mercy triumphs over judgment'... God loves us and welcomes us back, if we will humbly come to him. To put our desires on the same level as God is arrogant and as proverbs 3 34 says God opposes the proud … But if we humble ourselves and turn to him God will be gracious to us.
That then is what James says is the remedy for us. He expresses it in ten imperatives or commands. Submit yourselves then to God… As we said last week when we looked at the word submissive, this is not just giving in it is a willingness to recognize the truth and let it be what guides us.
Resist the devil and he will flee from you. We are not often that comfortable talking about the devil or Satan, but James sees the devil as being the one behind our selfish desires wanting to stir them up and use them to destroy community and our relationship with God. In his introduction to his book the screwtape letters CS Lewis says that we can fall into two traps when it comes to the devil. One is we can give him too much power and see a demon behind every bush, that we are simply powerless against him. This is not the case, James recognizes our personal responsibility for our own desires and actions, but also that satan will flee if we resist. The other trap is to assign him to the realm of fanatsy, and we can be blindsided and unaware of the presence of real evil. In my ministry there have been a few times I have encountered the demonic in people’s lives and can testify to the truth of James word that the demonic is bent on our destruction but also in Jesus we have the power to resist and overcome.
Come near to God and he will come near to you. The other side of the coin is that to resist the devil is to repent which is to turn away from going our own way and to turn to God. In the end these two imperatives go hand in hand in saying where we invest our energy and our time and our focus will result in whose presence and power we experience in our lives.
Wash your hands, you sinners and purify your hearts, you double minded. Here James uses the language of temple worship to talk of how we are to resist Satan and turn to God. We are to stop doing the things we know displease God, like we’d wash off filthy muck off our hands after we’ve been working in the sewer and make our focus in life going God’s way.
Grieve mourn and wail, change your laughter into mourning and your joy to gloom’, Is a call to know our need for God’s forgiveness. It is not to say that the Christian faith is not full of joy but we need to be aware of the seriousness of sin and its consequences on our lives and not take it lightly. David Nystrom says “ it is to come and recognize that the paths we thought would led to true laughter and joy are dead ends and need to be abandoned”. We find our joy in the peace and the presence of God who lifts up the humble, we find joy in recognizing that every good thing comes from above, we find our joy in knowing forgiveness and reconciliation in Jesus Christ.
James finishes this section with a proverb. That the one who humbles himself before God will be lifted up. St Augustine uses a tree to illustrate this he says ‘ As a tree must strike deep roots downwards, that it may grow upwards so everyone who has not his soul fixed deep in humility, exalt himself to his own ruin.’ Growth is dependent on our acknowledgment of our need for God.
How does this apply to us today.
The first is that it is very much about how we deal with conflicts and difficulties in the Church. James’s focus is on division and faction. We often come to conflicts knowing what we want and what we think is right. But James invites us to come with humility, knowing our need for God’s forgiveness and grace, aware of our own short comings and failings. It is a call to fight like Christians. Humility calls us to listen and hear and to understand what the other person is saying and respect their opinion before we move on. Last week we saw that James held up being considerate as a virtue of the wisdom from above… humility calls us to be considerate. I may be wrong about this but it also calls us to be prepared to be wrong about things, and when we are to be willing to repent, rather than to simply become entrenched for prides sake. One of the biggest problems facing the church historically and today has been how to be a true expression of God’s new people from every nation, tribe and tongue. One commentator has said that the only way to become a multi-cultural church is to be willing to live with a certain level of discomfort for the sake of unity: To be open to different ways of doing things different languages and food even though it not our way of doing it. We have cultural pride that the way we do things is the right way right! We need to be willing to humble ourselves. Going back to our x-factor illustration instead of “ I’m not going to give my seat up for anyone” It is I am going to offer you a seat at the table.
Secondly, James invites us in our own lives to come to the chair challenge. Bill Bright the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, uses the illustration of a chair to talk about how we grow to maturity, how we are sanctified in the Christian life. He uses three simple circle illustrations to explain the Christian life. In the center of each circle is a chair that represents the throne of our lives, the central place. He uses dots to represent different aspects of our life, our desires for financial security, relational security, meaning and purpose in life, our hobby’s studies family life and social life. He uses the letter ‘S’ to represent the self.
Before we are a Christian Christ is on the outside and the Self is on the throne and these different aspects of our life and our selfish desires battle for supremacy. To be in the judges top six.
Then we become followers of Christ, we invite Christ to come into equation. Christ can become just another of those things that are trying out for the top spot. James calls this being double minded.
But as James says as we humble ourselves we are willing to stand up off the chair and acknowledge someone greater than ourselves is present and should take that place and we order all our life round that.