The-Wisdom-of-James
Click here for the video version of this sermon.

I was first introduced to running as a sport at Stewart Middle School, in the sixth grade. Every other day, we would go through the ritual of dressing out – putting on our gym clothes – and walking from the gym to a field that had a quarter mile dirt track. There were markers to tell you how far around the field you were and a sort of honor system when it came to the students reporting their laps to the teacher. However, sometimes the students would ask the teacher to count their laps and sometimes, the teachers would check up on the students and count them without the student knowing it.

Some of the kids really didn’t care so much but for me, recording those laps was important. I really liked – and still like for that matter – the sense of accomplishment that comes with working toward a long term goal. Every year, students who ran an average of one and half miles, twenty total miles minimum, during the fifteen minutes we had to run could earn two t-shirts, one for each semester, with their miles for the year printed on it. I earned a shirt every semester I was there but the mileage on one shirt almost wasn’t accurate.

Running, for those of you who may not have much interest, is as much a mental as a physical event. Not only do you have to have physical stamina and strength to keep going but at a certain point, when it feels like your body can’t handle any more – something called hitting the wall – you must convince yourself that you can go on. One day, I felt like I was hitting a wall about every fifteen or twenty feet. I was struggling to get over that hump and not making any headway. I needed seven laps – a total of a mile and three-quarters – for that day to keep up the pace I needed for the shirt.

I got finished and my teacher, Coach Morris, asked for my laps.

“Seven,” I said between gulps of air.

“You sure,” she asked.

“Yeah, seven.”

She looked at me with this little squint in her eyes, like she was saying, “I hear you. I don’t believe you, but I hear you.”

She wrote it down and went on asking other students for their totals and I wandered back to the gym to change. Now, as a kid, I saw myself as boring. I spent most of my time in middle school reading or watching movies or wandering around in the woods near my house. My friends from elementary school had wandered off to different places and I really didn’t connect with the other people around me. So, I decided to make myself more interesting: I made up stories about myself. Not out and out lies mind you, but more like fish stories; you know, “it was this big.” Usually, these stories were reserved for my peers, but in the moment, I really wanted that t-shirt and I was really worried about not being able to catch up my laps and I really wanted that t-shirt and I knew it was a not an exaggeration so much as a lie, but I really wanted that t-shirt.

I don’t remember much of what happened when I was getting ready other than feeling a sense of general guilt for having lied. I was not yet a follower of Jesus, that would come some time later, but I was raised in a family where honesty and integrity were considered necessities. A fish story was obviously a fish story and meant to entertain but a lie was not acceptable. I decided to go and admit that I had lied, and hope Coach Morris wouldn’t make me sweep the gym or run extra laps or whatever the punishment might be. I walked up to this tiny person terrified and told her that I had lied about the lap count. She looked back at me with same expression from earlier and said, “I know. I wrote down six. But thank you for being honest about it.”

Through my time in school there were all kinds of moments that I could have remembered. Truth be told I have forgotten far more than I could ever hope to get back but that one moment, the one where Jill Morris very calmly accepted my apology left an indelible mark. That mark defined for me a definition of honesty and integrity that I have not forgotten. I have not always practiced it the way I should have, but I have not forgotten it.

∞ ∞ ∞

I remembered that story because today we are talking about the ideas of temptation, patience, and endurance as the writer of James understands them. Temptations are a result of our own desires focused in the wrong direction, meaning away from God. According to what we read here in James, temptation does not come from God but is internal, coming from our own unchecked desires. For the Jewish people this is an important difference to make – that temptations comes from within us rather than from God. It was and is important to devout Jews that the notion and character of God be protected from connection with evil. If God was the author of sin, human responsibility for own actions would not be true.[1] It would be God’s fault that we sin, and we could not be truly in relationship with God. We would be little more than robots, preprogrammed to act out a drama of God’s own choosing.

In our reading today, the author of James says this is not the case. The writer lays out a progression in these verses to show us how the process of desire-sin-death creates a broken relationship between God and his people. The idea is desire (intensely wanting something forbidden or inordinate craving or lust[2]) leads to sin (a departure from the human or divine standard of right living and being[3]) which leads to death (the breaking of a relationship with God[4]).[5] Another of way of reading the verse would be a person in right relationship with God is one who maintains their course of action[6] while being led to act against it[7]; when they overcome this ordeal[8] they will take possession[9] of the crown of future glory[10] promised[11] to those who love/esteem/take pleasure in God.[12]

I think a distinction needs to be made here. Throughout the Bible, the words tempt and test have been mixed up, misinterpreted, and misused as synonyms. To test is to try and prove the person’s true character under duress. Think about what Jesus went through when he went into the wilderness before his ministry. We call it tempting and it was; the adversary tried find something that Jesus would be willing to have rather than go through with the ministry ahead of him. The point behind it, however, was to test the mettle of his character before his ministry began. In a similar way to what many of the patriarchs, kings, and people of Israel faced, Jesus ‘temptation’ was also a testing, a time of seeing what Jesus might be willing to do, give up, or give in to rather than live into his mission and calling.

In the same way, we also are tempted and tested to give in and the give up on our commitment to discipleship and our relationship to God. So how do we deal with this tempting and testing when it comes? How do we go about maintaining our footing in the face of an internal and sometimes external storm? I believe we can start with something a little further into the text. Later in James (5:7-12), the writer speaks of patience and endurance in the face of suffering (of which temptation could be, and I believe is, a type), extolling the virtues of these qualities. If we are patient and endure in the face of suffering, we will overcome.

One point: Temptation comes from our negative desires within. Giving in to those desires leads to sin and a broken relationship with God. Be patient and endure the tempting that you can stay strong in relationship with God.


References

Arndt, William F., F. Wilbur Gingrich, F. W. Danker, and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Dibelius, Martin. A Commentary on the Epistle of James. Translated by Michael A. Williams. Phialdelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.

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] (Dibelius 1975, 90)

[2] (Arndt, et al. 2000, 372)

[3] (Arndt, et al. 2000, 50-51)

[4] (Arndt, et al. 2000, 442-443)

[5] (Dibelius 1975, 97-98)

[6] (Arndt, et al. 2000, 1039)

[7] (Arndt, et al. 2000, 793)

[8] (Arndt, et al. 2000, 198)

[9] (Arndt, et al. 2000, 583)

[10] (Arndt, et al. 2000, 430)

[11] (Arndt, et al. 2000, 356)

[12] (Arndt, et al. 2000, 5)

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