Sermon for Sunday, March 6th, 2022 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
Old Testament reading:
[Pro 2:1-8 ESV] 1 My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, 2 making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; 3 yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, 4 if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, 5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God. 6 For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; 7 he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity, 8 guarding the paths of justice and watching over the way of his saints.
New Testament reading:
[Jas 1:1-17 ESV] 1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. 2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. 9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. 12 Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
[Mat 21:18-22 ESV] 18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. 20 When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 22 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
Before we look at our text this morning, I want to say a few things about the book of James as a whole and about the probable author of it, James the brother of Jesus.
Or as some say, the half-brother of Jesus, for they had the same biological mother Mary, but Jesus was born of God, not of Joseph as was James.
There are a number of James’s in the New Testament.
There is James the Great who is the son of Zebedee, the brother of John.
There is James, son of Alphaeus, of the twelve apostles.
And there is James, the brother of Jesus, who wrote this epistle.
As you may know, the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox theologians argue that when, in the New Testament, we see the phrase “Jesus’s brothers” that this really means his cousins. They say this not because the text demands it or indicates “cousin” more than “brother,” but because of their prior commitment to the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. But as that doctrine is not taught in the Scriptures we need not believe it, and we can go with the more straightforward reading and hold that James was a brother (or half-brother) of Jesus.
Now what we must know about James is that he, and the rest of Jesus’s family were not believers while Jesus was alive. They only came to faith after the resurrection. They weren’t part of some inside plot to crown Jesus as King or declare him messiah. They were reluctant, and converted only by God.
But James became a great leader in the church of Jerusalem. And tradition has it that he was martyred there for the faith. Here he described himself, like Paul does, as a servant (or really a slave, doulos) of Jesus Christ. He is now fully dedicated, having been convinced of the resurrection.
Whereas some letters are written to particular churches (Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, etc.) this letter is written to the “twelve tribes in dispersion.” That is, it is written to believers in all places of the world.
The audio recording of Alexander Scourby reading this book is only 14:45 long. With some focus this whole book can be read in less than 15 minutes.
Now this is possibly the first of the New Testament books to have written. In our evening service on the fourth Sundays of each month we’ve been working through the book of Acts. And that is a history of the early church, from the days right after Jesus and moving forward. But it wasn’t written until sometime in the 60s AD, whereas James’s letter here is thought to have been written perhaps as early as 45 AD which would be within a dozen or so years of the death and resurrection of our Lord.
In this first passage there is a theme, not always emphasized in sermons ad commentaries, of “steadiness.” We will see that (1) trials produce steadiness in us, but that (2) we must rely on the steadfastness of God.
There is an old story of a man who felt the need of a vacation and decided upon undertaking a sea voyage. The ship, it is said, was comfortable, the weather clear, and the sailing find. And for ten days the cruise was perfect. But on the eleventh day, the poor welding loosened, the seams opened, and the ship sank. And as the man gurgled his last, the waves heard him say, “TWAS A FINE SHIP, IT SAILED PERFECTLY FOR TEN DAYS; IT ONLY SANK ONCE.”
Of course, we know that a single sinking is a disaster and proves that the ship was not built true and strong. The ship faltered and that was the end of it. The builders—the shipwrights— did not put it to the proper test, finding its weaknesses and fixing them. And while rounds of testing might be painfully expensively, far more costly is the sinking of the whole ship. Trials, when they are undertaken may not be pleasant, but trials would have made for a more seaworthy vessels.
We see this idea here in the Epistle of James also when it comes to people:
2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.
Trials in our lives are … well … trying. They are difficult. But they have good purpose in the plan of God. We’ll look at that more in a few minutes
But first, there is another nautical, seafaring reference, that I’ve chosen as the title of this sermon. That is, “Steady as She Goes.”
This is a phrase meaning “progressing in a stable manner.” Steady as she goes. It was originally used in reference to a ship that was sailing steadily. And ships were generally designated as female, so it was “Steady as SHE goes.” In some languages, you know, all things or objects are designated as male or female. Most in English are the neutral “it” rather than “he” or “she.” But for some reason, perhaps needing to balance against the all-male crew of a sailing ship, or because of the sailor’s love for their ship, ships have been called “she.” So we say “Steady as She goes.”
And this is what James counsels for the Christians to whom he writes: be steadfast even in the trials of life. Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial. Even, he says, “Count it all JOY, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.”
Not only steadfastness is the Christian way, but joy in all circumstances.
I. Trials produce steadfastness. (v. 2-4, 12, 16)
2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.
This is something not only James says, but Paul in multiple place and Peter as well.
Paul [Rom 5:3-4 ESV] 3 we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,
Peter: [1Pe 1:6-7 ESV] 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith–more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire–may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
With James as well in our text, we see how frequent this teaching was among the Apostles.
And indeed know that we are going to have trials. Psalm 23 says “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.”
But in these trials we are called to be steadfast in the Lord, even having joy in our trials. And it is not a joy despite our troubles, but a joy even IN our troubles.
This must one of the HARDEST THINGS in the world to do. Have joy in trials! How am I to be joyful when bad things are happening all around! How can I be joyful when my family member is deathly ill, my car broken-down, my bills due, my friends have flaked out on me, and all is seemingly against me! How can I be joyful amidst all of this!
Well, one might think that these trials and sufferings are only in regards to standing for the faith. The is perhaps something primarily in view. Christians will suffer more because they are Christians. We will be persecuted. But the trials in life that lead to steadfastness are not just because of persecution, but relate all back to the fall of man into sin. All trials are in view. And all trials will lead us into steadfastness.
See, this is part of the sanctification process. And there a number of positive things that come in our trials.
1. Trials sanctify us, they make us to be more like God.
God, though the trials of life, is purifying our faith to make us more christlike.
2. Trials bring steadfastness.
Trials make us stronger and more steadfast.
You may have heard years about about the bio-dome experiments, where they would try to create an entire ecosystem blocked off from the rest of the world with a large glass dome covering it. Well something very interesting happened there to the trees. Without wind there was no resistance against the trees and they grew seemingly normally, until the dome was remove and the trees fell over in the first gust of wind. It turned out that without regular wind coming against a tree it will grow without making the proper structures to support itself against the wind.
We know this too with children. If you don’t discipline them, they will not be prepared for the world. They will not improve.
And so it is with ourselves as Christians, the trials we undergo do have good purposes in God’s plan.
3. Trials produce in us the virtue of patience.
4.. We learn to focus more on others. We learn to help others go through their own trials.
5. And we learn to lean on God, knowing that we cannot surmount the trials ourselves.
Trials come to humble us. Not to think too highly of our own spiritual strength. To call us to a heavenly hope. To appreciate the blessings of life as they come to us out of the times of suffering.
These are all GOOD PURPOSES of God in our trials. Producing patience and steadfastness. Making us more sympathetic to the plight of others. And drawing us closer to God.
That is why James says we are to be joyful throughout. Not because we enjoy the pain of the trial, but because we know its result. The Lord is working, even through our trials.
And so James says to be steadfast. Be steadfast and become more steadfast. “Steady as goes.” Don’t jerk the wheel suddenly, don’t let every wind push your ship in another direction.
We have a solid foundation in Jesus Christ and in the word of God. So when other doctrines come against, don’t let those winds shake you, but remain steady on course.
5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.
We must be steady on our doctrine, not being swayed by the wind. When you hear something that challenges your beliefs, don’t just latch on to the new idea, study it. Compare it with the Scriptures. Read commentaries to see what others have concluded on the subject.
We know that Jesus is the rock of our salvation. The foundation stone. He cannot be moved. All other ground is sinking sand, and all other ships are sinking hulks.
And SO we see in our passage that our goal of being steadfast is founded on the fact that God is Himself steadfast. So let us look at the steadfastness of God, knowing hat we must rely on the steadfastness of God.
II. We must rely on the steadfastness of God. (v. 13, 17)
For it is He in whom there is no variation or shadow of change.
We are called to be steadfast, but we do not live up to that expectation. We must rely not on our own powers to be steadfast through trials, but we must rely on Jesus Christ, and the steadfastness of God.
God stays the course. He is true to his promises, sending even His son to die for our sins because of His love for us.
God’s nature is steady. On Him alone can we rely.
There is this problem in Greek philosophy related to change. One philosophy pointed out that you can’t step into the same river twice, for it has changed since you last stepped into it. The water has moved, it’s no longer the same river. Well, another philosopher may point out that YOU also have changed. Every second you are a different person, your blood has circulated around, you have different air in your lungs, a different number of hairs on your head. What then is the basis of reality? If everything changes, can anything just “be?” Does anything exist on its own right? The Bible has the answer – God does not change. He is the foundation of being, and in him we live and move and have our being. God is steady.
So “9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.”
So we are called to look to God for steadfastness, to ask for wisdom from Him, and to have joy knowing that He is true to His word.
And through our trials, God gives us a steadfast strong faith.
And indeed all good things are gifts from above, even our faith is a gift of God so that none can boast.
A minister friend of mine has said this about faith:
“Faith comes in two varieties. There’s the IF kind of faith and then there’s the NEVERTHELESS kind of faith. The one kind of faith says IF all goes well IF life is prosperous and happy then I will believe in God. The other kind of faith says NEVERTHELESS. Though the forces of evil triumph, though every else goes wrong, and the cross looms ahead, nevertheless, I will believe in God. Anyone can have faith when things go their way. You show your faith when troubles come and the lights go out.”
So through our trials God is building in us a greater faith, able to withstand the difficulties of this world as we rest on Christ for support.
Thus Calvin says “we are to bear adversities calmly.” REPEAT: “we are to bear adversities calmly.” He says “It is, indeed, certain that all the sense of our nature are so formed, that every trial produces in us grief and sorrow; and no one of us can so far divest himself of his nature as not to grieve and be sorrowful whenever he feels any evil. But this does not prevent the children of God to rise, by the guidance of the Spirit, above the sorrow of the flesh. Hence it is, that in the midst of trouble they cease not to rejoice.”
We are to be “steady as she goes” … even in our rocking world from COVID to War. We are not to be blown about by every wind of the news, but to remember that Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Stay the course, Christian, stay the course. Fight the good fight. Run the race. Seek the Lord.