The-Wisdom-of-James
For the video version of the sermon, click here.

Moving can be a bit of a pain. And things that you don’t normally think about as being that important can begin to take on greater importance than you might otherwise realize. Case in point, getting a new driver’s license and new tags from the DMV. Getting these is a requirement within forty-five days of moving to a new state. They usually involve forms and finding previous forms from previous states to make the process go smoothly. To that end, I have made a habit of keeping such forms in a simple manila folder, things like birth certificates, marriage license, shot records for the kids, and of course, auto tag and title information.

I am usually on top of my game when I go in these places, but sometimes little things sneak up on you. For instance, I looked on the South Carolina DMV website to make sure I had all the necessary documentation before I went to the DMV. I checked everything over a few times and finally – around day forty or so – I decided to go the local office an get my license and tags. That’s where the best laid plans of mice and men went south in a hurry.

I found out that before you can get a license or tag, you go to the courthouse and pay the vehicle taxes first. But I also found out that the title on one of our cars, the one we paid off in Kentucky while I was in seminary, was not properly signed. The county clerk in Kentucky thought the bank should have signed it, the bank thought the county clerk should have. This meant I had to get a letter from the bank saying that they no longer had an interest in the title to prove the title was free and clear. I also found out that I had waited to long to get new tags for the other car – the newer one we are still paying for – because I thought the grace period on the tag in Wyoming would be good here since it was a Wyoming tag. Now, I also needed a copy of the title from the bank for the newer car so that’s now a copy of the title and a letter from the bank.

I started the process again, trying to get the letter and the copy of the title for the newer care but the bank at first said they would not release the copies to me only to the DMV over fax. The DMV would have to call them. The DMV said that bank had to fax it, that they do not call banks and ask for such things. Also, the letter I got from the bank for the older car had a different bank name on it since the bank had been bought out. I would have to get a letter saying that the bank that held the original title lien had been bought out by another bank.

I finally found out that the DMV would take a copy of the title for the newer car if it was sent from the bank by mail. So, I sent off for the copy of the title from the bank and had that sent to me and finally got a copy of the letter from new bank saying they bought the old bank for the older car. And on Friday, August the twenty-fourth – after paying the fees, penalties, and everything else – at approximately 10:00 am in the morning, I got new tags for the car.

At a certain point in this process – somewhere between the fax issue and the letter issue – I’m starting to get edgy. The tags on one car are out of date – the one Heather is driving to hospital in Camden three days a week. The other car is okay as far as the title date is concerned but both cars are overdue for registration. I won’t say I was a little frazzled because I was a lot frazzled, usually when I thought of going to the DMV. The bad part of that was it was terribly obvious to the people working at the DMV, some of whom are sitting in this room today. Hi everyone, I’m your pastor. Yeah, the one with the stack of papers and the manila envelope, foaming at the mouth, and rolling his eyes. Not quite that bad, but not my finest moment either. To their credit, the people at the DMV were always gracious, always polite, always willing to try and find the answers. And given that my reaction was not even close to the worst of what they see, I would suggest you pray for them.

Remember a few weeks ago when I quoted the English author Terry Pratchett who said, Wisdom comes from experience. Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom? Unfortunately, I have to say the wisdom escaped me while I was going through this experience. I really felt bad about this and as I was talking Melissa Payne at the Look Up Lodge retreat last weekend, I found out, as I said, that I was mild by comparison to the real hot heads. It was a nice thing to hear and I felt a little better about all the teeth gritting and face making (incidentally, I have found they are neither frightening or intimidating just mostly comical).

The truth is, we’ve all been there. Some of us handle it better than others, but I think we all know what it’s like to be in a situation where we are tested in the moment with what I call triggers – those things that set off deep rooted, animalistic responses – and in the moment, we must try to control the animal beneath it. We are set off by situations and circumstances that try our last nerve and we let the frustration and anger rise to the top and become our response. The sad part is, the media landscape has made it easier for us to do this. With a constant stream of polarized politics on news networks and social media battles between rival groups on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, it’s a wonder that frustration and anger don’t get the better of us more often. When our society will turn a kitten picture on Facebook into an opportunity to bash everything from the ASPCA to the GOP to the DNC to every other major social/political group in the world, we have a major problem with where we are as a society. The spirit of God is ther, is available to lead and guide us, the essential source of all wisdom[1], but one we are not always willing or able to hear.

All of this brings us to the epistle of James. This little letter is a collection of good advice, or in the Hebrew understanding, sayings, to those who believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. [2] It reads like a Jewish book of wisdom – a New Testament version of Proverbs – but it sounds very much like Jesus teachings from the gospels.[3] Some these are teachings like,

  • Do not swear oaths, let your yes be yes and your no be no. (Matthew 5:33-37)
  • Loving your neighbor fulfills the Law (Matthew 22:39-40)
  • The rich should be wary of their riches and the coming judgment if they are not (Matthew 19:23-24)

The wisdom that this is talking about is concerned with ethics[4] and the way the letter is written makes that clear.[5]

The episode at the DMV made me think about the part of our scripture today where it says, the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.[6] The Common English Bible translates it this way, After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing. [7] In either version, we see the connection of faith and wisdom to the maturing of the disciple as a follower of Jesus. This, I believe, is the heart of James here in this little introductory paragraph: that we are a people who will be tested during their life and if we are aware and prepared, we will pass that test and become more mature, more complete examples of Christ-likeness.

The writer of James is not, however, saying trials are good. Some people have misinterpreted this to mean that if you aren’t suffering, you aren’t really being a good disciple. We will have to deal with suffering, but suffering isn’t the goal. It is an opportunity to strengthen faith and improve our character.[8] This is not a testing to see if someone has faith but testing an existing faith to strengthen it.[9] Continued endurance in this testing leads to wholeness – a word I believe is synonymous with salvation and the process of salvation – and maturity, which is being fully equipped with a wisdom (knowledge, know-how, steadfastness which is revealed to us by God) to deal with trials as they come.[10] The wise person is one who grows from these experiences and learns to progress to a mature way of living.[11]

So, the bottom line is this: no matter who you are, trials or testing or difficult things will come. This is not just something in the writing of James, but it mirrors the words of Jesus himself who in Luke 9 talked about being a disciple meant living in whatever conditions are there (Luke 9:57-58), giving up wealth (Luke 9:59-60), and being willing to give up everything, possibly even family for the sake of being and making disciples (Luke 9:61-62). This kind of discipleship will undoubtedly lead us to at times, to places and moments of suffering. The wise disciple, the mature disciple, the one who has been tested and learned from that testing and grown from that testing will not react in haste or fear or dismay, but will respond with the wisdom of Jesus, offering a portrayal of a mature disciple.

The point:  You will be tested. Be wise. Be ready.


Bibliography

Ehrman, Bart E. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Motyer, J.A. The Message of James. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985.

Powell, Mark Allan. Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Publishing, 2009.

Scholer, David. “The Epistle of James.” New Testament II: Acts – Revelation. Fuller Seminary – podcast audio: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/new-testament-ii-acts-revelation/id440552427?mt=2, May 27, 2011.

Witherington III, Ben. Leters and Homilies for Jewish Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Hebrews, James, and Jude. Downers Grove/Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2007.

Wright, N.T. The Early Christian Letters: James, Peter, John, and Judah. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.


[1] (Benner 2003, 68)

[2] (Ehrman 2004, 446)

[3] (Ehrman 2004, 446-447)

[4] (Powell 2009, 453)

[5] (Witherington III 2007, 420)

[6] James 1:3-4 (NRSV)

[7] James 1:3-4 (CEB)

[8] (Witherington III 2007, 424)

[9] (Witherington III 2007, 424)

[10] (Witherington III 2007, 420, 425)

[11] (Motyer 1985, 38)

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