James 3:17-18 – Be Wise

The wisdom that comes from heaven is, first, pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (New International Version)

All New Testament epistles are letters written by Apostles to problems and situations within certain churches. When James sat down to pen a letter to the Jewish Christian churches in Gentile dominated countries, it was to address the state of their fellowship, their Christian lives, and an unhealthy church dynamic.

The believers faced lots of adversity as Christians. Sometimes, they responded well, and sometimes, they did not. They wavered between faith in Jesus and relying on other things to deal with their problems. James labeled this kind of inconsistent approach as double-minded or duplicitous. (James 1:5-8).

The church vacillated between knowing God loves them and wondering where God was in all their trouble. They investigated Holy Scripture, but then did not do what it says. (James 1:22-25) The church claimed faith in Christ, then schemed about ways to cozy-up to the wealthy so they could have a healthy budget. (James 2:1-4)

People professed faith, then sat on the fence, straddling the sacred and secular, doing nothing. The church was between two worlds of heavenly wisdom and worldly wisdom. James sought to knock them off the fence, to quit being in two worlds with one foot in each. He wanted them on a path of authentic faith and true wisdom which would support them in a difficult world. 

James provides a way to navigate this troublesome world. He highlights seven characteristics of godly wisdom needed to face adversity and live well….

Pure

Purity is holiness. It’s morality and ethics. The pure person has a singular devotion to Jesus Christ – they pursue God’s will and seek to follow God’s way in everything, without exception. Purity means there are no mixed motives, no hidden agendas, no secret self-serving desires. 

Those who are pure have experienced spiritual cleansing. The pure know this is a foolish messed-up world; living in it means facing envy and selfish ambition. So, they jump the fence into God’s big meadow of grace. They joyously roll in the green grass of forgiveness. 

“Blessed are the pure in heart, Jesus said, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8, NIV)

Peace-loving

Someone once asked a gentleman married for fifty years the secret to his marital bliss. He said, “The wife and I had this agreement when we first got married: When she was bothered about something, she would just tell me and get it off her chest. And if I was mad at her about something, I was able to take a long walk. I suppose you could attribute our happy marriage to the fact that I have largely led an outdoor life.”

That’s typically how we think about peace – the absence of conflict. But biblical peace is more than not fighting. Peace is harmony, working well together, and enjoying our relationships. Wise and godly people not only possess peace; they promote peace in all they do and say. Peace-lovers long for a real peace, which is more than keeping people from one another’s throats.

Just because there is no appearance of strife, doesn’t mean there is peace. Avoiding conflict is unhelpful. Jesus said:

“Blessed are the peace-makers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9, NIV) 

To enjoy the green pastures on God’s side of the fence means there are fences which have been mended….

“It is better to correct someone openly than to have love and not show it.” (Proverbs 27:5, NCV)

“Avoid saying anything hurtful,
    and never let a lie come out of your mouth.
Stop doing anything evil, and do good.
    Look for peace, and do all you can to help people live peacefully.” (Psalm 34:13-14, ERV)

“Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near.” (Ephesians 2:14-17, NLT)

Considerate

Consideration of others means to be flexible, open to reason, level-headed in anxious situations, gentle, non-combative, non-retaliatory, and generally understanding of another’s point of view. The considerate person puts themselves in another person’s shoes. It’s the opposite of being judgmental and going-off with partial information and quick interpretations. 

To be considerate is to make allowances for the weaknesses and shortcomings of others. It takes the kindest possible perspective. The considerate person avoids jumping to conclusions. I wonder, do you know how another person thinks to the degree you could state their opinions or positions accurately in a way they would say, “Yes that is exactly what I think!” 

The opposite of being considerate is to have a critical spirit. Constant criticism is a clue that godly wisdom will not be coming from the other side of the fence.

Submissive

Submission is a good thing. It’s a choice. If a person is coerced into submission, that’s slavery, not submission.  To submit is to place oneself under someone else’s authority. The submissive person listens and obeys authority. Submissive people are teachable – not concerned with gaining authority so they can call the shots. They humbly receive correction and do what is right. 

“Submit to each other out of respect for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21, CEB)

Full of Mercy and Good Fruit

Mercy is compassion in action. It empathizes with the needs of other, then, does something about it. Goodness results from mercy. Withholding mercy is a tactic of worldly wisdom, not godly wisdom. To believe we are letting someone off the hook or encouraging their bad behavior by showing mercy is completely foreign to Holy Scripture. Jesus said:

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7, NIV)

Merciful people scan the horizon to see whom they can show mercy. King David did this with Saul’s grandson, Mephibosheth. While worldly kings on the other side of the fence were killing their rivals, David did the opposite by being merciful. He gave Mephibosheth a permanent seat at his dinner table (2 Samuel 9). David used his position and power to extend mercy. That’s why David was a man after God’s own heart. 

Impartial

To be impartial is to have no favoritism, to be the same person toward everyone. The impartial person is steady, consistent, and not swayed by the crowd. They don’t act one way with a certain group of people and different with another group. The person who sticks their finger to the wind to see which way it is blowing is unwise.

An impartial person is predictable – you never have to wonder if they are going to blow up at you, or not. Genuine wisdom is equitable in meeting needs. Impartiality doesn’t ask all kinds of qualifying questions to discern whether someone should get their needs met.

Withholding needs from others is unjust. God is just and impartial and expects people to reflect this basic approach to others. 

“The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, powerful, and awe-inspiring God. He never plays favorites and never takes a bribe.” (Deuteronomy 10:17, GW) 

“Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great but judge your neighbor fairly.” (Leviticus 19:15, NIV) 

“Judge people fairly and honestly. Don’t twist the law. Don’t play favorites. Don’t take a bribe—a bribe blinds even a wise person; it undermines the intentions of the best of people.” (Deuteronomy 16:19, MSG)

Sincere

Sincerity means to be without hypocrisy. The sincere person is the same both inside and out; what you see is what you get. They are real, vulnerable, and willing to say what is needed – not what they think others want to hear. 

There are no ulterior motives and no skeletons in the closet with the sincere person. That’s because everything they say and do is above board. 

“Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.” (1 Peter 1:22, NIV)

Sincerity creates true biblical fellowship, openness, and honesty in the church.

Conclusion

People dwelling with godly wisdom produce a harvest of righteousness. The sure signs of true wisdom are good deeds done from a devoted heart to God. The source is humility. Conversely, the telltale signs of false wisdom are envy and selfishness. They result in disorder and evil practices.

We must go hard after these seven characteristics of being pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere. If we desire unity, harmony, and righteousness, then it’s imperative we pursue godly wisdom.

Be wise, my friends, without being wise guys.

Amos 9:7-15 – A Promise of Restoration

“Are you Israelites more important to me
    than the Ethiopians?” asks the Lord.
“I brought Israel out of Egypt,
    but I also brought the Philistines from Crete
    and led the Arameans out of Kir.

“I, the Sovereign Lord,
    am watching this sinful nation of Israel.
I will destroy it
    from the face of the earth.
But I will never completely destroy the family of Israel,”
    says the Lord.
“For I will give the command
    and will shake Israel along with the other nations
as grain is shaken in a sieve,
    yet not one true kernel will be lost.
But all the sinners will die by the sword—
    all those who say, ‘Nothing bad will happen to us.’

“In that day I will restore the fallen house of David.
    I will repair its damaged walls.
From the ruins I will rebuild it
    and restore its former glory.
And Israel will possess what is left of Edom
    and all the nations I have called to be mine.”
The Lord has spoken,
    and he will do these things.

“The time will come,” says the Lord,
“when the grain and grapes will grow faster
    than they can be harvested.
Then the terraced vineyards on the hills of Israel
    will drip with sweet wine!
I will bring my exiled people of Israel
    back from distant lands,
and they will rebuild their ruined cities
    and live in them again.
They will plant vineyards and gardens;
    they will eat their crops and drink their wine.
I will firmly plant them there
    in their own land.
They will never again be uprooted
    from the land I have given them,”
    says the Lord your God.
(New Living Translation)

Guilt

Doom and hope, judgment and grace, suffering and glory. These are the movements and rhythms of the Old Testament prophets. The great sin of Israel which warranted divine wrath was not only that they trampled on the poor and needy. On top of it all, they saw nothing wrong with their way of life. 

This profound lack of awareness, rooted in the spiritual blindness of greed, is what led to judgment. It would take the form of having the Assyrian Empire come, seize the land, and take the people away to a place where they would have no chance to oppress others. Sadly, death would come to many.

“The work of restoration cannot begin until a problem is fully faced.”

Dan Allender

The sin of oppressing others and believing there’s nothing wrong with it comes with severe consequences. The people relied too much on their ethnicity. The ancient Israelites wrongly assumed that because they were the people of the covenant, this somehow inoculated them from disaster. Their belief in Jewish exceptionalism was their downfall.

Grace

Yet, all would not be an endless gloom. The Lord will not destroy completely. God’s anger lasts for a moment. However, God’s grace lasts forever. Restoration, renewal, and fruitful times will come because of God’s mercy. 

Yes, God pronounces judgment when it is warranted. But God also makes and keeps promises to people. In our lesson for today, the Lord promises to restore the fortunes of the people through rebuilding ruined cities and letting them inhabit them once again.

God steps in and graciously acts on behalf of all people because that is what God does. We might get the notion in our heads that God executes judgment to teach people a lesson or to make a point. In my line of work, it is common to hear people express the idea they are under divine punishment because of personal illness or hard circumstances. 

God, however, acts independently out of a vast storehouse of righteousness and mercy. The Lord maintains holy decrees while showing grace to the undeserving. The nation of Israel, in the days of the prophet Amos, deserved only judgment, not grace. 

It seems to me God would have been completely justified to never restore or renew a recalcitrant people. Yet, God’s grace overwhelms and swallows human sin. Try as you might to understand grace, you will end up befuddled. That’s because grace is wildly illogical, nonsensical, and unconditionally free. Grace shows radical acceptance where there ought to be only the punishing fire of hell.

Gratitude

The height of grace and the pinnacle of restoring the fortunes of Israel (from a Christian perspective) came through a baby and a humble birth in the small village of Bethlehem. Jesus came to save the people from their sins. God acted by entering humanity with divine free love so that there could be new life and fresh hope. 

So, let grace wash you clean. Allow mercy to renew your life. Receive the gift of gracious forgiveness, merciful love, and divine peace. Look ahead and see there is hope on the horizon. Give thanks for God’s indescribable kindness.

Merciful God, although you are careful to uphold your great holiness, your mercy extends from everlasting to everlasting. May the gospel of grace form all my words and actions so that true righteousness reigns in my life through Jesus, my Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

John 12:44-50 – The Light of Christ

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Then Jesus cried out, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.

“If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day. For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So, whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.” (NIV)

Jesus is the light of the world. (John 8:12)

Jesus told his followers they are the light of the world. (Matthew 5:14)

Simple observation: Neither Jesus nor his followers become light. They are light. So, what does that mean?

To be light means we take a particular posture toward the world. It means we have a unique role in society.

Sometimes its important to say what something is not before we talk about what it is. To be light means we are not:

  • The Judge. The incarnation of Jesus was not for the purpose of playing Sheriff in the Old West, riding into the town of this world and gunslinging the bad guys either out of town or into the cemetery. Just because the world shot the sheriff, does not mean they’re off the hook for not shooting the deputy. There is judgment coming. It’s just that you nor I are the judge. “Do not judge,” said Jesus, unless you’re interested in getting judged yourself. (Matthew 7:1-2)
  • Cave-Dwellers. Rabbit-hole Christians. Dorm toads. Or any other metaphor for separating oneself from society and hiding out. Cave-dwellers want to hide out and start little fires that will only warm themselves. A rabbit-hole Christian scurries from hole to hole trying to avoid the world. Dorm toads never leave the friendly confines of their apartment swamp.

Rather than judging and hiding, people of the light possess are:

  • Encouragers. They speak constructive words of edification. Encouragers know there is a bit of light in everyone, so they see through the darkness to the good which can be enlightened and called forth in others. People who encourage have a glow about them which is attractive and winsome.
  • Aware. Being light causes one to see themselves in high definition. Both the image of God and the fallen nature of humanity is seen and held together. People of the light are aware of their identity. They are then able to act with humility, gentleness, and meekness. Since they know they are infinitely loved by God, this brings a great freedom to speak and act with confidence.
  • Believers. Faith begins with receiving grace. It then works its way from an internal truth to an outward expression. People of the light follow in the footsteps of their Lord Jesus. They love, lead, and linger in society as spiritual beings who help illumine the path.
  • Merciful. Since they were once in darkness themselves, people of the light set aside pre-meditated judgment and deal compassionately with those who are spiritually blind.
  • Pure. The light has its way of exposing impurities. People of the light squarely face their own reality and purposely seek purity in all their dealings with society.
  • Peacemakers. Being characterized by the light means we not only possess personal peace; we also make peace through creating and sustaining harmonious relations with others. The light enables us to be spiritual ombudsmen who carefully and effectively bring peace between warring factions.

Jesus is the light of the world. We are the light of the world. That means we do not hide but are present and involved in our families, neighborhoods, communities, local institutions, national affairs, and world problems. Being characterized as followers of Jesus causes a person and a faith community to be visible, to show the world who Jesus is, and what he is like.

The earliest followers of Jesus allowed their light to shine in the world through:

  • Taking in unwanted children, orphans, and babies left exposed to infanticide.
  • Ministry to the sick and dying during times of plague and disease, as well as visiting those in prison without families.
  • Help and kindness to the poor, foreigners, immigrant strangers, and widows, especially when no one else would.

Where light is present, no one needs to remain in darkness. Even a small flickering flame can illumine enough to make a way. And when many small flames come together, there is a great light for all to see.

Our message is not about ourselves. It is about Jesus Christ as the Lord. We are your servants for his sake. We are his servants because the same God who said that light should shine out of darkness has given us light. For that reason, we bring to light the knowledge about God’s glory which shines from Christ’s face. (2 Corinthians 4:5-6, GW)

May the light of Christ, the living Word, dispel the darkness of our hearts so that we may walk as children of light and sing the praises of a merciful God throughout the world. Amen.

Psalm 51:1-12 – Facing Our Darkness

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Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit. (NRSV)

David experienced a lot of hard things. Through it all, he held fast to walking with God. Eventually, David became king. He used his power and authority to do exactly what God likes – showing grace and kindness to those in need. Except in the case of Bathsheba, another man’s wife. He made one unwise decision, which led to a bad decision, and then to another and another – until the prophet Nathan came and called David on the carpet.

Whereas King David began his reign using his royal position to show kindness, he ended up acting like any other worldly king by giving orders and using his authority to get what he wanted. Just as David sent others to do his personal bidding, God finally sent Nathan for a divine intervention.

If we confess our sins, God will forgive us. We can trust God to do this. He always does what is right. He will make us clean from all the wrong things we have done.

1 John 1:9, ERV

Nathan wisely helped David see his sin for what it really was. Irresponsibility, adultery, and murder are serious matters. The mental and spiritual gymnastics people make to justify their poor decisions always ends up devaluing what is right and making sin less heinous than it really is.

Good news can only be properly understood considering the bad news.

Without seeing our true predicament of being held in the vice grip of sin and unable to move, we will go on wondering why nothing ever goes like we want. A person who is lost, and doesn’t know it, is in the worst of situations. Calamity is just around the corner.

Like a restaurant owner who fails to see the health violations all around him, the business is about to be shut down with him scratching his head or blaming others for his misfortune. Only when the owner comes to recognize and agree with established health standards will there be a turn around and a renewed existence for the establishment.

We must agree and comply with God about how bad things really are without sugar coating any of it.

Only then can best practices be put into place which help everyone to be safe, healthy, and happy. To King David’s credit, he saw his terrible decisions and actions for what they were and faced them squarely with a repentant heart and a renovated life.

Thus, we have today’s psalm, crafted by David as a response to his own egregious wandering from how God wanted him to reign as king. David’s sin was mercifully outdone by God’s grace. The main event to the psalm is not David’s wrongs but God’s forgiveness. Prayer is the mechanism which accesses divine pardon to even the most awful of transgressions.

The appropriate posture of the devout Christian is to pray.

Specifically, to confess our great and many sins, shortcomings, and moral failures. This might sound negative and a major downer. Yet, to not look evil square in the face and call it out for what it is, is at best denial, and at worst, allows a bitter seed of unforgiveness to gestate in the depths of your soul. 

I believe one of the best ways to confront the darkness within is by using the ancient prayer book, the Old Testament Psalms. Sometimes when we pray apart from considering the psalms, our prayers go along the lines of something like, “Change my situation so I can praise you, God.” Rather, the psalms guide us toward a shift in direction by praying:

“Change me, God, because I am the problem.”

I encourage you to pray Psalm 51 out loud, slowly, with a generous amount of emotional flavor – even, and especially, if you don’t feel like it. Pray it over more than once, and perhaps several times punctuated throughout the day today. In doing so, you will be joining the faithful across the world who today offer God a prayer of subversion against the blackness on this earth.

What places in your life allow you the freedom to confess your sins?  What places seem to keep you from confession? How might a regular practice of repentance help you beyond this season of Lent?

May almighty God, who has promised forgiveness of sins to all who turn in faith, pardon you and set you free from all your sins, strengthen you for right living, and keep you in eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.