James 1:17-27 – Be Good because God Is Good

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first-fruits of all he created.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (New International Version)

God is Good – All the Time

And all the time – God is good. That statement is a bedrock foundation for Christian faith. Without a basic affirmation and belief of God’s goodness, our faith will experience cracks and not stand the test of hardship and difficulty in life. Without the steadfast conviction that God is good, the alternative is that God is somehow fickle or even mean – that God does not care about my problems.

The trials and tribulations of life are intended by God to be watershed experiences that prove the genuineness, or lack thereof, of our faith. When life is good, it is easy to say God is good. However, when it isn’t, we may slide into a belief system that thinks God is the source of our trouble. And if we have not been working on a relationship with God, we will have scant resources to draw from to help us.

God is good, and not mean. Every single good gift there is in this world comes from God. Nothing evil comes from God. God’s grace is constantly around us. If his grace were not here, it would be like living inside a dystopian novel, or a zombie apocalypse, where everyone is constantly looking over their shoulders for the next evil thing to happen. Although evil exists, it could be a whole lot worse if it were not for divine grace and goodness.

“This is true faith, a living confidence in the goodness of God.”

Martin Luther

God is immutable, that is, God’s goodness is ever-present. On this earth we are constantly subjected to changing light as the sun rises and sets, and as the clouds come and go. Yet, God does not change like shifting shadows. God is not fickle or capricious. God’s goodness is always at high noon, standing like an eternal sun in a bright blue sky radiating unbroken grace to us.

God’s goodness has delivered people from sin, death, and hell. God’s grace has given us new life. God created the world and pronounced it “good.” God formed you and called you “good.” And God has forgiven you, in Christ, and says it is “good.”

God gave us a good word for us to accept and live by.

Hurry Up and Listen

There is a great need for listeners today. Precious little productive communication takes place because there are so many people in a hyper-vigilant state airing their opinions. They talk over and on top of each other because they’ve already made-up their minds about how things really are and what should be done. Nobody is listening.

Bible reading is a primary source for listening to God. Yet, although many people own multiple Bibles, and Scripture is freely available through digital sources, far too many persons simply don’t read and listen to it.

Slow Down and Speak

God has given us two ears and one mouth so that we will listen twice as much as we talk.   

Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut. (Proverbs 10:19, NLT)

A loose tongue and constant opining happens because of faulty listening.  An inability to listen leads to a lack of understanding because we do not take the time to get the whole story. It’s easy to pronounce verdicts with little information, and offer bad advice, when there is little listening.

Have a Long Fuse

Be slow to anger. A fool speaks without thinking, which stirs up strife. Slow to listen and quick to speak leads to anger flares. An angry spirit is an unteachable spirit, unwilling to listen to both God and others. 

Rash words said in anger produce an ugly unrighteous life. Selfish opinionated anger produces harsh bitter words and kills God’s plan for a good life.

We are to accept the Word of God. Throwing labels at people only de-humanizes them. They become objects of anger and scorn, and not people made in God’s image. Nothing good comes from ignoring God’s Word and giving-in to bitterness. It destroys good people.

Get Rid of Evil

Get rid of all moral filth, and the evil that is so prevalent. The unwillingness to listen, a loose tongue, and unrighteous anger are moral evils. Evil is not only perpetuated by serial killers, terrorists, and other people different from us. In fact, the face of evil rarely comes to us in the form of red horns and a pitchfork.

Evil also resides as soft-core wickedness – common ordinary evil. The demonic can work in an almost ho-hum manner, subtly questioning whether anyone can really live up to the precepts of God’s Word, and generally undermining all that takes place to the glory of God.

The face of evil is neither hot nor cold, but “meh.” It is the bitter slow-cooked seething anger bubbling just underneath the surface which comes out in a plastic smile while offering up a morsel of slander based on a lack of listening well. It comes out in fake gestures of niceness while being quick to make judgments with little to no information.

Put away the “meh.” Receive God’s Word. Take a teachable posture. Stop and listen to what God’s Word has to say.

Be a Doer of God’s Word, Not Just a Hearer

The Word of God is not truly received until it is put into practice. 

It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (Romans 2:13, NRSV) 

Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it (Luke 11:28, NIV). 

The person who only hears is like a Mr. Potato Head that is only ears. He cannot stand because he has no feet.  He cannot do anything because he has no hands. Mr. Potato Head needs some feet so that he can follow Jesus wherever he goes. And he needs hands so he can do God’s will.

Listening to the Word without obedience is just that – it is mere hearing.  Profession of faith means nothing without a practice of that faith; learning the Bible is useless without living it; and acceptance of the Word is nothing more than a mental exercise without action to back it up.  Profession, knowledge, and acceptance alone does not satisfy God’s plan for our lives. 

Pay Attention to the Person in the Mirror

A person looks at himself in the mirror. He clearly sees all his flaws. Yet he does not respond, likely because he doesn’t like what he sees. It’s silly to look into a mirror, see a major bedhead, and just do nothing about it and go to work as if everything were fine. We look. We examine. We hear. We see exactly who we are. And we can’t even identify ourselves in a police lineup.

The person forgets what he looks like because he does not really want to face himself. This isn’t a clueless guy. It is one who sees himself as he really is and chooses not to do anything about it.

Forgetfulness happens because of inaction. Remembrance, communion, and hope all occur through active participation. God blesses the one who looks hard into the mirror of God’s Word, then intentionally makes changes based on what he finds.

Obedience to God’s Word brings freedom, not bondage. Listening, seeing, adjusting, and changing is a freeing activity. That’s because it’s how we are designed to live.

Holy and good God, give me grace to see you, others, and myself clearly so that I will be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Amen.

James 1:1-8 – How to Face Painful Trials

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,

To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:

Greetings.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. (New International Version)

Where do you turn when unwanted circumstances leave you wondering how to cope?

The Apostle James, no stranger to adversity and stressful situations, likened our position in hard situations as faith being on the witness stand, put to the test. Faith is being examined and cross-examined. And it must stand the test. 

Our attitude toward such trials, in all their varied forms, determines whether we will become upset, hard-hearted, and calloused, or, come through having our faith confirmed with newfound peace and joy.

James wrote to Jewish Christians who felt like fish out of water. They were part of the dispersion of believers from Jerusalem in the persecution against Stephen and the church (Acts 7). The dispersed believers were refugees – poor, in a foreign country, just trying to carve out an existence and live for Jesus the best they could under a lot of adversity. 

James exhorted the Christians to view their situation as an opportunity for their faith in Christ to develop and grow.

Rejoice in the midst of trials.

“Consider the adverse circumstances as joy? Are you smoking something?” we might wonder. Telling someone to consider their tough situation as pure joy is a really hard pill to swallow. 

I’m not sure what the believers were thinking when they first heard this from James, but they might have thought the guy was crazy. These were people experiencing a lot of hard things. To tell hungry families with scant resources, wondering where their next meal is coming from, that they ought to consider their situation as pure joy may seem strange, even downright calloused. 

James, however, was looking to fortify the believers’ faith. Whenever we get a cut or a laceration, the first thing needed is to apply peroxide to the wound so there will be no infection from the injury. It might seem insensitive because peroxide applied to an open wound, frankly, hurts like hell. Yet it must happen. It’s a necessary part of healing. 

The Apostle cared enough about the people to tell them what they needed to hear, up front. Without a positive, godly, and wise perspective on their difficult situation, they would not make it. Infection would set in and destroy the fledgling church.

Suffering, in the form of spiritual peroxide, is necessary. To merely say what itching ears want to hear helps no one. Suffering is a significant part of the Christian life. God never promised that life would be or should be all cupcakes and unicorns. 

In fact, Christ promised just the opposite – that everyone who wants to live for Jesus in this present broken world will have a hard time of it. It’s not a matter if you will face the testing of your faith, but of whenever you face trials.

The good news is that adversity can become our teacher. We can learn patient endurance, which is necessary to the development of our faith. Spiritual growth only matures through the testing of faith through adversity.

Faith is not a neutral or static thing. Faith is active and dynamic. It’s always either developing or degenerating.  Without spiritual peroxide, faith degenerates and becomes rancid. Eventually, gangrene sets in, and an amputation will happen. To avoid this, we need to learn how to experience joy in the middle of hard things.

It seems to me a great tragedy, for many Christians and faith communities, is that we can live a trivial, blasé, and superficial existence as believers in Jesus, and get away with it. Because we have the ability to be independent, self-sufficient, and hold our own, we don’t really need anybody, including God. We say we need God, then turn around and live our lives as if no divine being existed, at all. 

Too many folks are doing everything but exercising spiritual disciplines that would put them in touch with Jesus. To try and keep from getting hurt, church becomes optional; reading and reflecting on Scripture becomes our daily crumb instead of our daily bread; prayer becomes a hail Mary, only for times of desperation, and not as a means of connecting with Jesus; giving and serving becomes ancillary, done only if there is any discretionary time and money left over. 

The Christian life was not meant to be easy! It requires blood, sweat, and tears. Faith is challenging, and often hard. Yet, even within the pain, faith is incredibly invigorating and joyful.

Do not avoid trials.

We need perseverance. If we always bail out when things get hard, we will be immature. Only through endurance does the maturation process occur. Let your hard situation do its necessary work. Immature people avoid hard things and instead put their energy into keeping up appearances.

Conversely, the mature person spends energy standing the test and trial of faith. They understand that there must be pressure for spiritual maturity to occur.

Oyster pearls are valuable and expensive. They result from years of irritation. Natural pearls form when an irritant – usually a parasite – works its way into an oyster. As a defense mechanism, a fluid is used to coat the irritant. Layer upon layer of this coating is deposited until a beautiful pearl is formed.

God is looking to do something beautiful in our lives. So, if we constantly run away and do not deal with our hard situations, there will never be a pearl. It takes about ten years for a pearl to form in an oyster in the ocean.  Observing an oyster every day, you never notice any movement is happening. You only see the irritation.

In the Christian life, the consistent daily choices over a long period of time (perseverance) form the eventual beauty.

No one needs to go looking for trials. And, I might add, you don’t need to take upon yourself being someone else’s trial. There’s no such thing in the New Testament of anyone having the spiritual gift of irritation. The trials come from God, not people. Therefore, we are to let our faith develop and grow through the testing.

Yet, what if I am in the middle of something so hard that I just cannot see God’s perspective on it? What if there is seemingly nothing redemptive from this adversity?

Pray for wisdom in the trials.

Ask God for wisdom to see the situation from a different angle – of its positive good, and for what God is accomplishing in and through it. The truth is, God is developing within people a strong vibrant faith, if we allow it.

Growing up on the farm, we had apple trees on the property. My Dad had a shop in the garage with a big vice on the workbench. Vices and little boys were made for each other. My brother and I used to find all kinds of things to put in that vice and squeeze them until they broke, split, or exploded. 

Putting fresh apples in the vice was one of our favorites. The best were the strong juicy ones because we could get them to splatter everywhere. We hated the wormy apples. They were rotten inside and collapsed with only a little pressure.

God will, at times, put us in the divine vice – not because the Lord is mean or delights in our pain. God places us in situations of extreme pressure for fresh prayers to explode out of us to heaven.

If we are walking with God, we will be strong and juicy. However, if we have neglected God, then just a smidge of pressure will create a collapsing wormy mess. With no meaningful prayers, there is no meaningful wisdom for our circumstances.

Believe God is good no matter the trial.

God is not mean, but generous. The Lord gives with no questions asked, and without giving us a hard time about our situation. Yet, there is a condition….

We must believe – that God is good, answers prayer, and gives wisdom. Doubting God’s generosity and benevolence is a demonstration of a weak wormy faith. We may doubt a lot of things. Yet we are always to be secure in the knowledge that God has our best interests at heart. This is why there can be joy and perseverance, even when everything around us is going to hell.

Grant, O God, that we may never lose our way through stubborn self-will, and never abandon the struggle but endure to the end. Help us never to choose the cheap way of avoiding or circumventing our trials but embrace the Via Dolorosa. May we never forget that sweat is the price of all things, and that without the cross, there cannot be the crown. Amen.

Luke 11:5-13 – Pray

Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

“So, I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (New International Version)

Jesus, in his teaching ministry on earth, often used the lesser-to-greater argument in getting his point across. And that is precisely what he was doing with his disciples in today’s Gospel lesson, instructing them about the nature and motivation of prayer.

The lesser-to-greater argument implies a comparison of values. It’s grounded on a common sense and logical convention that if this lesser thing is true, then, of course, how much more is this greater thing! If something less likely to happen is true, then something more likely to happen will probably be true as well. The technical phrase for this is the a fortiori argument. It is a Latin term meaning, “for a still stronger reason.”

So, then, Jesus wanted his followers to understand that prayer has value because God is a loving Father, not a begrudging friend. Whereas the friend in the story was badgered just so the person could get some real necessities, God needs no badgering to generously give good gifts that may or may not be considered as necessities by us.

Jesus desired to highlight that prayer has veracity because of whom those prayers are directed.

”Our prayers may be awkward. Our attempts may be feeble. But since the power of prayer is in the one who hears it and not in the one who says it, our prayers do make a difference.” 

Max Lucado

In the ancient world, it was common understanding you needed to get the local gods attention if you wanted something. Which is why, for example, in the prophet Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal, that Baal’s worshipers were yelling, gesticulating, and even cutting themselves for hours. They fully expected to put a lot of work into getting Baal’s attention, maybe even needing to convince him of intervening in their ancient version of a wild West shootout.

In contrast to four-hundred prophets of Baal, a single prophet of the Lord utters one simple prayer, then fire comes rushing down from heaven. Much like the person who badgered the friend for bread, the prophets pestered Baal for hours.

It all comes down to who really cares. The friend? Not enough to jump out of bed right away and meet a need. Baal? Not so much. God? Now we’re talking.

We typically don’t ask, seek, or knock, if we believe we will not get a response – or if it will take a lot of energy, time, and effort we don’t have. Yet, if we are confident of being heard and our requests taken seriously with care, then we are likely to have a habit of asking, seeking, and knocking.

If a friend begrudgingly gives to you because of persistent knocking, how much more will God graciously, generously, and with gaiety give you goodness when you ask? Because God is good, God gives. The largess of the Lord is willing and ready to dispense grace from an infinite storehouse of mercy.

This is why Jesus encouraged people to not pray like those who don’t know God, babbling on because they think they’ll be heard because of the sheer volume of words. (Matthew 6:7-8)

Two misconceptions of prayer which existed in Christ’s day, and even today, come from non-Christian sources:

  1. There must be a lot of prayer before prayer “works.” Although I believe repetition is important for forming good habits, praying the same prayers over and over again so as to be heard betrays an ignorance of God, not to mention an actual lack of faith. Many ancient religions were based in learning how to manipulate the spiritual forces out there to get what we need. It’s kind of like a divine version of hustling for love in all the wrong places. Christians need to know they don’t need to have thousands of people praying in order to get God’s attention to answer prayer.
  2. I must convince God of the need to answer my prayer. God is not a reluctant listener. The reason the Lord already knows what we need before we ask is because God has been paying close attention to us well before we got around to asking, seeking, and knocking on the divine door. God’s ear is already inclined to hear us – expectantly and anxiously awaiting our petitions. This is a tremendously freeing idea, that I can come to God openly and honestly, without drudgery, and without wondering if I am heard, or not.

May we be encouraged to pray, to truly connect with God, because the Lord is available without appointment, and is waiting for us to ask with bended ear.

Eternal God, by whose power we are created and by whose love we are redeemed: Guide and strengthen us by your Spirit so that we may give ourselves to your service and live today and every day in love to one another and to you, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

John 6:35-40 – The Bread of Life

I Am the Bread of Life by Joseph Matar

Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever. I have told you this explicitly because even though you have seen me in action, you don’t really believe me. Every person the Father gives me eventually comes running to me. And once that person is with me, I hold on and don’t let go. I came down from heaven not to follow my own agenda but to accomplish the will of the One who sent me.

“This, in a nutshell, is that will: that everything handed over to me by the Father be completed—not a single detail missed—and at the wrap-up of time I have everything, and everyone put together, upright and whole. This is what my Father wants: that anyone who sees the Son and trusts who he is and what he does and then aligns with him will enter real life, eternal life. My part is to put them on their feet alive and whole at the completion of time.” (The Message)

Bread has always been a food staple throughout human history. Whereas many people today try and avoid bread because of either carbohydrates or gluten, a lack of bread in the ancient world usually meant people would starve to death. Bread is a big deal.

So, when Jesus gave a self-description as the Bread of Life, he was saying a lot.

The cup we use in the Lord’s Supper and for which we give thanks to God: when we drink from it, we are sharing in the blood of Christ. And the bread we break, when we eat it, we are sharing in the body of Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:16, GNT)

After the Israelites were delivered by God from their bondage in Egypt, and found themselves in the desert without food, the divine provision of manna – a unique kind of bread – literally showed up on the desert floor every morning. It was just enough for everyone for that day. Once the Israelites entered the Promised Land, the manna disappeared.

As Jesus entered fully into his earthly ministry, throngs of people began following him. At one point, the thousands of men, women, and children were together with nothing but a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread. Much like the miraculous provision of manna which sustained their ancestors centuries earlier, Jesus multiplied the measly morsels of bread into enough to feed the entire bunch, with leftovers.

Little is much when God is in it. Just a smidgeon of Jesus is enough to fill a crowd of growling stomachs.

The Lord Jesus is not like a loaf of bread bought in a grocery store which has all kinds of funky additives, loaded up with sugars, and questionable ingredients you can’t even pronounce. Christ is fortified with everything we need to thrive and flourish. Jesus is so packed with good stuff that a seemingly paltry communion wafer is filling and satisfying.

The bread that comes down from heaven isn’t like what your ancestors ate. They died, but whoever eats this bread will live forever. (John 6:58, CEV)

Just as bread is a simple mixture of water and flour, so partaking of Jesus is rather uncomplicated. There aren’t hoops to jump through or lengthy recipes to follow. If we simply align ourselves with Christ, come to him and believe, we will never be hungry again.

The world needs bread. They ask for bread. In response, Jesus gave them himself.

Give us the bread we need for today. (Matthew 6:11, CEB)

All the world has to offer, and of which so many humans strive to obtain and accumulate treasures on earth, money and possessions, does not bring ultimate satisfaction. The drive for more is never satiated. Humanity is afflicted with boredom, dissatisfaction, anxiety, and worry over losing what they have and fretting about how they can obtain just one more thing in the misguided belief their fear will finally melt.

But it doesn’t. So, like a hamster running in a wheel and going nowhere, there is the constant activity of racing thoughts and workaholic behavior to try and somehow keep ahead. Yet, authentic rest never comes. The more the striving, the more the anxiety.

There is a divine/human responsibility and cooperative at work. Jesus will hold us secure. And we need to let him do it, and fully align our lives according to Christ’s words and ways. The divine bread is available. God isn’t going to force feed us. We will need to take and eat.

It requires faith to take and eat. We might wonder: Will I like it? Is it really going to satisfy me? What if I’m allergic to it? Do I need some other food handy to eat in case I gag or vomit? Will there be pie? Mac & cheese? Bacon? (insert your own comfort food) Do I have to eat alone?

Try it. You’ll like it.

My own experience of having tasted much of what the world has to offer, and tasting the good flavor of God’s grace, I can say that I never want to go back to the gruel of guilt and shame.

I have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. And that is what I want for you, too.

Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. (Psalm 34:8, NIV)

The bread is for me, and it is for you. There is plenty of bread for the life of everyone in the world. No rationing is necessary. This is the place of abundance.

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51, NKJV)

Almighty and everlasting God, I thank and praise you for feeding me with Jesus, the Bread of Life. Send your Holy Spirit so that I may by faith obtain and eternally enjoy your divine grace, the forgiveness of sins, unity with Christ, and everlasting life; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.