James 2:17-26 – Faith Works

Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?

I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department; I’ll handle the works department.”

Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.

Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That’s just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands?

Wasn’t our ancestor Abraham “made right with God by works” when he placed his son Isaac on the sacrificial altar? Isn’t it obvious that faith and works are yoked partners, that faith expresses itself in works? That the works are “works of faith”? The full meaning of “believe” in the Scripture sentence, “Abraham believed God and was set right with God,” includes his action. It’s that weave of believing and acting that got Abraham named “God’s friend.” Is it not evident that a person is made right with God not by a barren faith but by faith fruitful in works?

The same with Rahab, the Jericho harlot. Wasn’t her action in hiding God’s spies and helping them escape—that seamless unity of believing and doing—what counted with God? The very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up with a corpse. Separate faith and works and you get the same thing: a corpse. (The Message)

True faith is shown as the genuine article by how it acts and responds in real life situations. 

Christians are saved for a purpose. Christian faith is much more than mere intellectual knowledge of Jesus Christ. We are to take our knowledge of Christ’s redemptive events and put it into daily practice.

There were folks in today’s New Testament lesson who were justifying a lack of action with statements such as, “I’m not wired that way,” “That’s not my gift,” “We pay our pastor to do the ministry,” “This church is not meeting my needs,” “Let the next generation deal with change.”

Anyone in the habit of complaining without doing anything to be part of the solution needs to get an active faith. Every believer in Jesus Christ is called to ministry. All Christians are gifted by God for service. And God expects us to use those gifts to build up the Body of Christ. The church suffers when we do not all participate with the abilities God has provided.

Faith apart from action is impossible. It’s like saying I can bench press 400lbs. just because I read about it in a muscle magazine; or, that I can produce corn just because I saw a farmer in a field. 

There are no atheistic demons. The glimpses of Satan we get in the Bible lead me to think he likely has the entire Bible memorized and knows it quite well. Knowledge, however, by itself, is useless.

The Great Blondin, walking a tightrope across Niagara Falls, 1859

In the nineteenth century, a famous tightrope walker from France, Charles Blondin, once strung a cable across Niagara Falls from the American side all the way to the Canadian side. Thousands of people watched him do his theatrics across the falls.  He walked back and forth, people applauding wildly. Then to further wow the crowds, he put a blindfold on and went back and forth. He also rode a bicycle back and forth, and then pushed a wheelbarrow back and forth.

As the story goes, while pushing the wheelbarrow back and forth, he called out to the crowd on one end, inquiring whether or not they thought he could successfully push the wheelbarrow across with a human being riding in the wheelbarrow. The crowd went berserk: “Sure you can. You’re remarkable. We believe in your abilities. You are the greatest.” On and on they went, to which Blondin responded, “Then someone volunteer. You come right up here, single file, form a line, and get in the wheelbarrow to prove your trust in my ability.” A deafening silence overtook the crowd. There were no takers.

Intellectual belief is one thing. It is quite another thing to place complete trust in Jesus Christ. Knowledge without an active commitment is about as helpful as a backseat driver.

Faith is a big word in Scripture and life. It encompasses the totality of how we come to Jesus Christ and how we live for him. So, when talking about faith, it is important to distinguish between saving faith and sanctifying faith. 

If we are fuzzy on our understanding and application of these two spiritual realities of salvation and sanctification, we will sleepwalk through life as zombies living in two different worlds of the living and the dead.

“Salvation” is a term used a lot in the church. In Christianity, it means to be delivered from sin, death, and hell.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, a person is “saved” by knowing about the work of Christ on the cross and trusting this has taken care of the sin issue once for all. 

Through repentance and faith in Jesus, there is salvation. A person cannot earn it, accomplish it, or buy it. Salvation is a gift that comes by faith in the person and work of Jesus. It is a one-time event of trust.

“Sanctification,” on the other hand, begins when we become believers in Jesus. The word means “to become holy,” or, “to be set apart for God.” Sanctification is not a singular event; it is a lifelong process. Whereas saving faith is a gift given to us without effort, sanctification requires much effort. We work, struggle, and expend lots of energy to live the Christian life. 

“Grace is not opposed to effort; it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. Grace, you know, does not just have to do with forgiveness of sins alone.”

Dallas Willard

When a student receives a college scholarship, it is a one-time event, granted to the student. She now possesses it and is able to attend school without trying to earn the money to pay for it. Yet, the scholarship was given for a reason – so that the student can now focus entirely on their studies and/or sport. The work is just beginning.  More blood, sweat, and tears will take place living into that scholarship than the student could ever imagine. It won’t be easy. It will consume the student’s waking hours for the next four years.

When the Apostle James talks about faith, he is primarily referring to sanctifying faith, to believers who already professed saving faith in Jesus. They were granted a full-ride scholarship in the kingdom of God. Now the work begins. And, just as a student will surely become discouraged at points throughout their education, wondering if they ought to drop out, so the Christian will face tremendous adversity and challenge in living the Christian life.  There is a lot of spiritual training and studies to do so that faith will be strengthened for a lifetime of service.

Abraham was saved from an empty way of life and given a gift of grace to move to a better country. Abraham did nothing to earn this favor. God just chose him, period. Abraham sojourned as a pilgrim throughout the land God gave him, which mirrored his spiritual sojourning and learning to be a follower of God.

Abraham’s faith was demonstrated by what he did. The way genuine faith develops and grows is in the fiery trial of adversity and hardship.

Christianity is not a matter of continual upward triumph; it is a downright hard work of faith development as we learn to be followers of Christ. Spiritual maturity happens through sanctifying faith by means of difficult life circumstances.

Rahab, a completely different person than Abraham, was a prostitute who lived in the red light district of Jericho. Abraham is a recognized giant of faith. Rahab is an almost overlooked example of faith. All of us likely fall somewhere in between these two people – graced and called by God to live into our sanctifying faith through continual spiritual exercise.

Rahab’s faith and actions worked together. She honestly believed the city of Jericho would experience God’s judgment, and, so, she housed the visiting Israelite spies.

Maybe we need to expand our understanding of faith to include people we might typically exclude. 

No one is outside the realm of faith. So, let’s not be quick to judge those with dubious lives and backgrounds, as well as the poor and needy. If we do not know their stories, or why and how they ended up in this station in life, we may make unwarranted assumptions, and turn our backs on the needy.

We must not sanitize Rahab as someone other than who she was – and because of her faith she ended up being an ancestor of Jesus himself.

Needy people are not dumb, clueless, helpless, or ignorant; they are resourceful and resilient. They need Jesus, too. Yes, people make choices, often bad ones. Yet, nobody says to themselves, “When I grow up I want to be a prostitute or maybe a porn star and live in a red light district with a pimp who abuses me and gets high on heroin.” 

People too often back into behaviors due to a lack of positive relational connections and just trying to survive whatever crisis is going on in their lives.  The church can be a social connection for them to become grounded in something other than their past experience.

God grants faith scholarships to the rich and the poor, from every race, ethnicity, and background imaginable across the entire earth.

From the standpoint of faith, Abraham and Rahab are on the same level. Neither of them did anything to receive God’s grace. And God does not grit his teeth to show favor – the Lord genuinely loves us – and sincerely loves and likes all kinds of people.

Saving faith means life is just beginning. True salvation produces good works. Both Abraham and Rahab, along with all God’s people throughout the ages, exhibit sanctifying faith by persevering through hardship and allowing God to grow their faith.

Therefore, submit to hardship. Find solace in God and Scripture. Pray and worship like you mean it. Lean into community. Keep your eyes of faith open to what the Lord is doing around you.

Faith works. So, embrace it. Enjoy it. Live into it and with it always.

1 Chronicles 10:1-14 – Faithfulness Matters

The Philistines fought against Israel in a battle at Mount Gilboa. Israel’s soldiers ran from the Philistines, and many of them were killed. The Philistines closed in on Saul and his sons and killed three of them: Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua. The fighting was fierce around Saul, and he was gravely wounded by enemy arrows.

Saul told the soldier who carried his weapons, “Kill me with your sword! I don’t want those godless Philistines to torture and make fun of me.”

But the soldier was afraid to kill him. Then Saul stuck himself in the stomach with his own sword and fell on the blade. When the soldier realized that Saul was dead, he killed himself in the same way.

Saul, three of his sons, and all his male relatives were dead. The Israelites who lived in Jezreel Valley learned that their army had run away, and that Saul and his sons were dead. They ran away too, and the Philistines moved into the towns the Israelites left behind.

The next day the Philistines came back to the battlefield to carry away the weapons of the dead Israelite soldiers. When they found the bodies of Saul and his sons on Mount Gilboa, they took Saul’s weapons, pulled off his armor, and cut off his head. Then they sent messengers everywhere in Philistia to spread the news among their people and to thank the idols of their gods. They put Saul’s armor in the temple of their gods and hung his head in the temple of their god Dagon.

When the people who lived in Jabesh in Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, some brave men went to get his body and the bodies of his three sons. The men brought the bodies back to Jabesh, where they buried them under an oak tree. Then for seven days, they went without eating to show their sorrow.

Saul died because he was unfaithful and disobeyed the Lord. He even asked advice from a woman who talked to spirits of the dead, instead of asking the Lord. So, the Lord had Saul killed and gave his kingdom to David, the son of Jesse. (Contemporary English Version)

The books of Samuel and Chronicles contain similar content and material concerning the kings of Israel and Judah. Yet, whereas 1 & 2 Samuel gives a more straightforward narrative, 1 & 2 Chronicles often provides the narrative with explanatory comments. 

We have such a story in today’s Old Testament lesson. The last chapter of 1 Samuel gives an account of King Saul’s death, along with his sons. However, in 1 Chronicles 10, we get the narration of their deaths along with a clear concise note on why King Saul perished in battle:

Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord and hadn’t followed the Lord’s word. He even consulted a medium for guidance. He didn’t consult the Lord, so the Lord killed him and gave the kingdom to David, Jesse’s son. (1 Chronicles 10:14, CEB)

The original compiler of Chronicles did so for the Jewish exiles who were returning to Palestine. He did not want to simply recount the important stories of the kings of Israel; he wanted the exiles to know exactly why they went into exile to begin with, and how in the future they could keep it from happening again. So, Saul served as Exhibit A of the kind of person that erodes the true worship of God and lives against the grain of faithfulness to the Lord.

The true measure of a godly person is not in titles, positions, or membership. The real test of a faithful person is obedience to, and observance of, the revealed will of God contained in Holy Scripture. Thus, to read it, know it, and live it is one of the highest callings as God’s people.

Faith in the Bible is a complete trust in who God is and what God has done. The Lord shows faithfulness through steadfast love, gifting people with faith to obey, and remaining true to divine promises for humanity.

In the New Testament, the height of faith is to place one’s life completely in God’s hands, believing in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Faith involves both information and action.

For example, the Mackinac Bridge, connecting the upper and lower regions of Michigan, is an imposing structure. It’s the longest suspension bridge in the Western hemisphere at 26,372 feet. At its mid-point, the bridge’s roadway towers 200 feet above the Mackinac Straight.

The wind on the bridge can be punishing. In 1989, a woman died when her small car flew over the 3-foot-high railing and plunged into the water due to an excessively high gust of wind. I have crossed the bridge many times. Sometimes the bridge is open to road traffic, and sometimes not, due to the wind conditions. The bridge authorities even have a protocol about how to cross the bridge when it is windy but not excessively so (driving beside a truck).

This is all important and necessary information for crossing the Mackinac Bridge. Yet, knowledge alone is not enough. At some point, one needs to actually drive across the bridge. Information must lead to action. I couldn’t just cross the Straight between the two regions of Michigan at any point along the land with a blind faith that believes I’ll make it to the other side. I needed some knowledge. Then, I needed the courage to act on that knowledge.

The person who is scared crossing the bridge, and the person who thinks nothing of it, both make it to the other side. It isn’t the amount of faith that is important; it’s in what (or who) that faith is placed. Faith in the Bible is having some important and useful information about God, then putting that knowledge into action with a trust and commitment that you’ll make it to the other side.

Saul tried to cross over on his own terms. It didn’t go so well for him. His car was picked up and thrown into the Straight.

We need to be careful what and whom we consult when we are stressed. Not collaborating with God isn’t going to end well. Being faithful matters.

Who are you faithful to? Where is your trust placed? Because the answer to those questions determines which actions we will take.

Eternal God, you remain the same throughout the ages of time. Help me to be faithful to your standard of righteousness and live faithfully into the ways of Jesus, my Lord. Amen.

1 Samuel 2:1-10 – From Weeping to Singing

Stained glass window of Hannah offering her son Samuel to the Lord by Phil Watkins

Then Hannah prayed:

My heart rejoices in the Lord.
    My strength rises up in the Lord!
    My mouth mocks my enemies
        because I rejoice in your deliverance.
No one is holy like the Lord—
    no, no one except you!
    There is no rock like our God!

Don’t go on and on, talking so proudly,
    spouting arrogance from your mouth,
    because the Lord is the God who knows,
        and he weighs every act.

The bows of mighty warriors are shattered,
    but those who were stumbling now dress themselves in power!
Those who were filled full now sell themselves for bread,
    but the ones who were starving are now fat from food!
    The woman who was barren has birthed seven children,
        but the mother with many sons has lost them all!
The Lord!
    He brings death, gives life,
        takes down to the grave, and raises up!
The Lord!
He makes poor, gives wealth,
    brings low, but also lifts up high!
God raises the poor from the dust,
    lifts up the needy from the garbage pile.
    God sits them with officials,
    gives them the seat of honor!
The pillars of the earth belong to the Lord;
    he set the world on top of them!
God guards the feet of his faithful ones,
    but the wicked die in darkness
        because no one succeeds by strength alone.

The Lord!
His enemies are terrified!
        God thunders against them from heaven!
    The Lord!
    He judges the far corners of the earth!

May God give strength to his king
    and raise high the strength of his anointed one. (CEB)

This is the song of Hannah, a woman unable to conceive children and then offered a heartfelt petition to God for a child. Her prayer was answered. A thousand years later, Mary took this same song, reworked it, and personalized it, to voice and sing her own praise to God. (Luke 1:46-55)

Hannah dared to hope. It might seem from the perspective of one who has never struggled with being childless that offering a prayer for children is easy. However, when hope has been dashed and all seems impossible, putting oneself out there to ask, even to beg, is downright hard. In a fear of having what little hope remains be crushed, it is far easier to stay away from God and keep the prayers to oneself.

Hannah actively sought divine help and risked praying and emoting. The Lord heard. Hannah’s weeping turned to singing. And, like Mary’s Magnificat, Hannah quickly moved from her own experience to the experiences of people everywhere. In short, Hannah focused on the God of the impossible and the divine accessibility which exists when we become vulnerable and put ourselves out there in risky hope.

The great reversal of Hannah’s condition from barren to fertile gives hope for the weak to become strong, the hungry to be filled, and the lost to be found. In a world in which God is Sovereign, nothing needs to stay the same – nothing is carved in stone.

Since no part of our existence as humans is outside the purview of God, there is always the possibility of change, of a reversal of fortunes.

The underdog has a champion with God. The misfits, the exploited, and the downtrodden – those who cannot lift themselves or pull themselves up by their bootstraps – are precisely the persons whom the Lord raises up. God’s providential care shall oversee them, and justice will be dispensed with perfect equity.

It is one thing to hope; it is another thing altogether in daring to hope against all odds and while others poo-poo your dreams. Godly hope is not wishful thinking but a confident expectation that God will show up and be gracious, merciful, and kind.

The place of crying and weeping is important because it is our tears which find a better way. Anyone can offer cheap praise but the person who sits with their sadness and feels the heart-wrenching agony of a hope unfulfilled is the one who is able to give genuine praise and to sing with authenticity. Since their hope was planted and watered with tears, their joy in the harvest is abundant and plenteous.

As we move to the expectant close of Advent and realize the Christmas hope fulfilled, allow the daring hope of Mary and Hannah to conceive a fresh hope in your own life so that you will give birth to new life.

God of hope, in these times of change, helplessness, and uncertainty give us courage to overcome our fears, and help us to build a future in which all may prosper and share together, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

James 2:14-26 – Faith Works

What good is it, my brothers, and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 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.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. (NIV)

Genuine authentic faith is more than mere sentiment and head knowledge. Faith without works does not work. Strong robust faith is active and can withstand adversity.

The rhetorical questions the Apostle James asked were meant to awake his readers to the reality that true faith is always active. In other words, inactive faith is not really faith at all. In his letters to the churches, the Apostle Paul typically talked about the relationship between faith and works before a person converts to Christ, whereas the Apostle James emphasized the role of works after a profession of faith in Christ.

St. James was getting at the heart of how a believer in Jesus ought to live. And he did this by giving an illustration of the relationship between faith and works: If someone is in need and a person expresses a sentimental feeling, even if that feeling is sincere, without backing it up with action – the expression is merely an expression, nothing more. 

I once came home after a long day at work on a Valentine’s Day several years ago. I had picked up some flowers at a drive through flower shop. I walked into the door and handed my wife the flowers with an “I love you.”  Then, I sat down in a heap and turned on the television. My dear wife’s response was not so favorable to my sentimental overtures. I did not really put any thought or action behind Valentine’s Day, and she knew it. My words of “I love you” just did not sync with my actions. 

Just so you know, I redeemed myself the next year by winning a contest on a local radio station for a spouse’s best love note, and it got read on the air several times throughout the day for my lovely wife to hear. My commitment and actions were were nicely aligned so that when I said “I love you” at the end of that workday, there was no doubt about it.

Faith requires that actions sync with words. For example, when we say “I will pray for you” it needs to be more than an expression of concern – we need to spend the time and commitment it takes in praying for them.

Faith involves emotions yet ought not be limited by them. Faith can neither exist nor survive without deeds. Christian works are not an added extra to faith any more than breathing is an added extra to the body. Both faith and action is needed for the Christian life.

True faith is shown as the genuine article by how it acts in real life situations. Faith is more than a checklist of right beliefs to sign-off on, as if it were some fire insurance policy against hell. Frankly, as a Pastor, I have heard some pretty lame justifications over the decades for failing to help others, give to the poor, be involved in justice work, and just plain serve in the church, like, “I’m not wired that way,” “That’s not my gift,” “That’s what we pay you to do,” and the ever-prolific, “This church is not meeting my needs.”

Those in the habit of complaining without an intent to boots-on-the-ground helping do not yet have an active faith. Each person is to do their part in serving the common good of all. And we all suffer when that does not happen. Bifurcating faith and action leave us with a false faith. 

If faith without action is okay, then so is the entire demonic realm. The glimpses of Satan we get in the Bible leads me to think that the devil has the entire thing memorized and knows it well from Genesis to Revelation. Yet, knowledge puffs up but love builds up. Information by itself is useless unless it is accompanied by gracious and loving action. (1 Corinthians 8:1)

Salvation is a term Christians are familiar with. In the Christian tradition, it refers to being saved from sin, death, and hell. Sanctification is another term most Christians recognize. It means “to become holy,” or, “to be set apart” for God. Sanctification is not an event but a process. Whereas saving faith is a gift given without works, sanctifying faith requires a great deal of effort. A lot of energy is expended to live the Christian life. The late Dallas Willard used to often say, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action.” 

The Apostle James dealt primarily with the sanctifying faith every Christian needs to exhibit. It is as if we have been graciously granted a full-ride scholarship to a university (salvation) but now the real work begins (sanctification) to learn, grow, and obtain the degree. And, just as a student will surely become discouraged at some point throughout their education and wonder if they ought to drop out, so the Christian will face tremendous adversity and challenge. Indeed, a lot of blood-sweat-and-tears goes into our spiritual studies so that our faith will be strengthened for a lifetime of active loving service.

For example, the Old Testament character Abraham was saved from an empty way of life in a pagan country and given a gift of grace to move to the country God would show him. Abraham did nothing to earn this favor.  God just chose him (Joshua 24:2-3). Abraham sojourned as a pilgrim throughout the land God gave him, which mirrored his spiritual sojourning and learning to be a follower of God. Abraham faced a monumental test of faith when asked to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19).

Abraham’s faith was made complete by what he did. Testing of faith is necessary so that we become mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:3-4). The way for authentic faith to develop and grow is in the fiery trial of adversity and hardship. Spiritual maturation, holiness, and a well-rounded faith come by means of difficult life circumstances.

Rahab and the Two Spies by Unknown artist

To press the significance of faith and works, the example of the Old Testament character Rahab is highlighted. Rahab was a prostitute who lived in the red-light district of Jericho. St. James was doing something profound and important – he took two extreme examples, one a giant of the faith, and the other an almost overlooked example of faith, to demonstrate we all are candidates for real faith.

Rahab’s faith and actions worked harmoniously. She genuinely believed the city of Jericho was going to be overcome by God’s judgment, and, so, she housed the visiting Israelite spies (Joshua 2:1-11). Methinks we must expand our understanding of faith to include persons others might exclude. Some may be quick to judge those with dubious lives and backgrounds, as well as the poor and needy. The bald fact of the matter is that we cannot sanitize Rahab as something other than what she was – and because of her faith she ended up being an ancestor of Jesus himself (Matthew 1:5).

From the standpoint of faith, Abraham and Rahab are on the same level. In Christ’s new egalitarian society, all are welcome, all are equal. Together, we work on our sanctifying faith by submitting to adversity as our teacher; finding solace in God’s Holy Word and Spirit; praying for and with others; worshiping God like there is no tomorrow; leaning into faithful relationships; keeping our eyes open to what God is doing; being patient with the process of sanctification; and embracing unwanted change as our friend.

Faith works, my young Padawan. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Energize it.