Pastor Craig Carter
This fall, we are exploring the New Testament Letter of James. It begins with a claim that life is a series of tests consisting of trials and temptations. While Satan wants us to fail these tests so that we stumble and fall, God wants us to pass them all because they enable us to grow and develop as Christians.
Given that life is a test, it shouldn’t surprise us there is one day going to be a final exam. Jesus suggested as much during His earthly ministry.
And since the Lord hopes we pass with flying colors, Christ wanted to make sure we know what to expect and how we will be graded on our final exam. So Jesus provided that information through a parable that is recorded in Matthew 25.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the story about the sheep and the goats. When life on this planet is over, Jesus said there will be a day of reckoning. The great multitude of humanity will then be divided into two groups before the judgment seat of God – sheep on the right, goats on the left.
What determines who is in each group?
Jesus first gave the reason some folks are deemed to be “sheep” …
Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:34-36 NLT)
Then these righteous ones will reply, “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” (Matthew 25:37-40 NLT)
Jesus then explained why everyone else is a “goat”…
Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, “Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.” (Matthew 25:41-43 NLT)
Then they will reply, “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?” And he will answer, “I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.” And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:44-46 NLT)
So, in the end, how are we going to be graded? By how we treat others, especially the needy.
In our study of James we have observed that it appears to be a commentary on Jesus’ teaching that gives believers some practical advice on how to live as God’s people.
Since Jesus emphasized the importance of relating to others, especially the down and out, in a compassionate manner, it should not surprise us that James makes a similar point.
So he concludes the first chapter of his letter with these words:
“Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” (James 1:27 NLT)
Let me point out that “orphans and widows” are singled out because they represented the most overlooked persons in the ancient world.
It’s why throughout the Old Testament and New Testament, God encourages His people to care for them, knowing that if they do, they’ll care for everyone who is in need.
At first glance it appears that James is emphasizing two types of behavior: caring for orphans and widows and refusing to be corrupted.
But I’m convinced he’s talking about the same thing. What James is saying is that when we care for the less fortunate we are going against the grain of society.
In other words, our culture does not put a high value on helping people in need, but God does, so we should choose His way and not the world’s.
Further support for this understanding is given in the discussion that follows in chapter 2. There James begins with this rhetorical question: “My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?” (James 2:1 NLT)
The obvious answer is: You can’t! He then goes on to give an example of how this might occur:
“For example, suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, ‘You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor’ – well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives? Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? But you dishonor the poor…” (James 2:2-6a NLT)
You’re beginning to get the picture, aren’t you?
As Christians, we must “refuse to let the world corrupt us” with their way of thinking that values the rich and powerful over the poor and powerless. Instead, we must show godly care to the less fortunate.
As a matter of fact, how we treat them will determine how we ultimately are treated.
“So whatever you say or whatever you do, remember that you will be judged… There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you.” (James 2:12-13 NLT)
In other words, there’s a final exam coming when everyone will be graded. Whether we pass or fail depends on the way we have responded to the needs of others.
Sound familiar? It’s the same message Jesus preached in Matthew 25.
Okay, but wait a minute … isn’t our salvation based on faith, not works? Isn’t believing in Jesus what really matters, not what good works we do?
Well, that’s the whole point of James’ writing. He’s trying to show that “you are what you do because you do what you believe.”
“You are what you do” … If you help, you’re a helper. If you complain, you’re a complainer.
“You do what you believe” … If you believe the Bible is the authoritative Word of God and commands are given for your own good, you’ll do what it says. If you believe Bible is filled with ancient myths and man-made rules, you’ll ignore its teaching and disobey its commands. Action follows belief.
Here’s the way James puts it in chapter two:
“What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” (James 2:14, 17 NLT)
The conclusion is this: If you and I really believe in Jesus then our actions are going to prove it. That means it’s not enough to say we believe. Words can be empty and “even the demons believe” (see James 2:19).
The reality of our faith, genuine faith, is never more evident than in the way we treat others, especially those persons that others overlook and neglect.
And since those kind of folks are very special to God, the Lord expects us to give them special care and attention and will judge us accordingly.
That’s why James spends a great deal of time trying to show us how to live with others, both inside and outside the fellowship of believers.
Last week, Pastor Terry talked about how we are to relate to our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are to listen carefully to them, avoid judging them, and help them.
Now we’re going to look at how we can live with others who are in the latter group – people outside the family of faith. It’s critical that we get this right because it shows the reality of our faith, which, in turn, determines our eternal destiny.
If we don’t get the how to live with others thing right, we don’t get the whole Christian thing right either. Let me share three things to keep in mind about how to live with others:
1) Have Awareness
The primary reason we don’t assist people in need is because we aren’t aware of them and their plight. The people who Jesus identified as “goats” said, “When did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?” In other words, “If we’d have only known, we’d have done something.”
It’s very easy for us to get so caught up in our own little world that we neglect to look around and see the needs that exist all around us.
I start each day by reading a devotional called the Daily Text by J.D. Walt. The current study is in John’s Gospel and last week we looked at the healing of the man born blind recorded in John 9.
Jesus encountered a man who had been blind from birth and healed him. But after he regained his sight many were skeptical and even cynical. Some of his neighbors even questioned whether it was the same guy who used to sit by the road and beg. They said, “No, he just looks like him!”
I used to think they were trying to explain away the miracle Jesus performed. But now I’m convinced they really didn’t know what he looked like. He’d been there begging so long he’d just become a part of the landscape. They really didn’t even notice him and certainly didn’t look him in the eye.
Ironically, the man’s neighbors were just as blind as he was! He couldn’t actually see them and they really didn’t see him either.
I have to wonder: How many folks do I pass every day, who are in need, but I don’t even see them?
When I first moved to Lynn Haven, I noticed the intermingling of the rich and the poor, and was amazed by the vast disparity between the haves and the have nots. But now, seven years later, I’m largely blind to it and no longer see folks living in impoverished conditions right next door.
In order to help others we must have an awareness of them and their condition. Once we are aware of others, we need to…
2) Pay Attention
It’s one thing to be aware of someone, it’s another thing to pay attention to them. This is what James is referring to in his discussion about favoritism in chapter two.
He contends it’s easy to “give special attention” to a finely dressed, rich person while totally ignoring a shabbily-clothed, poor person. That just comes natural, doesn’t it? It’s the way of the world.
In this regard, it’s not a matter of either/or, but both/and. Do we treat the rich and the poor with the same respect and honor?
We are to act that way, because it’s the right thing to do but also because the way we treat others is the way we’re treating Jesus, who said, “When you did it to one of the least of these, you were doing it to me.”
But it requires intentional effort because the world corrupts us into thinking some people are more important than others. I’m not sure we even realize how deeply in-grained certain biases are in us.
All things being equal, we naturally gravitate toward people who are like us. Being a white, educated, past middle aged, male from a middle class, Protestant background, guess who I tend to identify with and probably favor?
So I’ve realized that I need to do some things to overcome my biases and prejudices. In particular, I’ve recently become very convicted about my relationships with people of color. Like most of you, I’d contend I am not a racist nor do I feel like I live in a racist society. But the recent racial unrest has caused me to wonder, what’s up? Why now?
Rather than thinking I know the answer, I’ve decided to get with some of my black brothers and sisters and ask them. We’ve formed a group called Pastors United of Bay County. We meet two times a month, just to listen to one another and pray for each other. I’ve learned that I have to be intentional in not overlooking a certain segment of our population and possibly reinforcing racial biases without even knowing it.
I’ve discovered I can learn a lot by simply asking and listening. I’ve also found out that giving a little attention to folks who are sometimes overlooked or even looked down on goes a long way.
We show that we know how to live with others outside the fellowship of believers when we are aware of them and then pay attention to them, but it doesn’t stop there. We must also…
3) Take Action
In our study of James we have observed that it is important to know the right thing to do, but that isn’t enough. We then have to do the right thing.
James gets right to the heart of the matter in chapter two when he says…
“What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, ‘Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well’ – but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? Faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” (James 2:14-17 NLT)
We demonstrate the reality of our faith through our actions. That means that if we aren’t doing the right things, we must question the sincerity of our beliefs. But the opposite is also true – if we are doing the right things, we then can be fairly confident that we really do believe.
As a pastor and teacher, one of the things that keeps me up at night is wondering, “Is anybody listening to what I’m saying? Does anyone really get it?” I already know I’m not going to lose any sleep over this message. That’s because, even before I preached it, I’ve witnessed folks putting it into practice.
In so many ways, I see Lynn Haven UMC members becoming aware of needs, paying attention to the folks involved, and taking the appropriate action.
That’s a good thing because there is a day of reckoning coming for each and every one of us. And God doesn’t leave us guessing about what’s going to be on the final exam because, through His Son Jesus and biblical writers like James, He has given us the test question and told us how we’re going to be graded.
Let’s make sure we pass that all-important test in the next world by learning how to live with others in this one.