Preaching Values in the Epistle of James
Preaching in a series adds zest to the pulpit fare. It puts the minister to work on a definite plan. He has no greater frustration than deciding what he will preach, and the absence of a plan, plus the rush of an average pastor’s schedule, can well leave him without a theme until late in the week. Nothing is more likely to give him ulcers! But a plan for preaching will relieve this tension. The minister can then awaken on Monday morning with his Sunday pulpit destination in mind.
The series also excites the interest of a congregation. If it is planned well, if interesting topics are chosen and announced in advance, and if opportunity is given for the people to join in a study of the text, those who sit in the pew get involved with the minister and eagerly await each sermon. There is no more interesting way to study a biblical book or theme than to conduct a Wednesday evening exegetical analysis of the material and then to preach from the same material in one or both of the Sunday worship services.
The January Bible Study offers an excellent opportunity for testing the benefit of planned preaching. James, the epistle of practical Christianity, lends itself to this approach with excellence.
The minister will be disappointed who seeks sermons of comfort here, however. For him James will prove to be a “straw epistle” indeed. There is much in the book to encourage the hearer, to be sure, but it is primarily a document filled with pointed, relevant themes which stab the complacent Christian awake. A series from this book will long be remembered as a source of conviction and renewal.
The beginning sermon could well deal with an overview of the Epistle. No theme could be used more profitably in such a book sermon than the relation of faith and works. James has come in for its share of critical rejection because some scholars have discovered an inconsistency between it and the writings of Paul. The question “Can faith save?” (3:14) seems, upon first glance, to contradict the evident emphasis elsewhere in the New Testament on justification by faith. And when James chooses Abraham and Rahab as examples of those “justified by works,” the problem deepens. Isn’t Abraham Paul’s favorite biographical source for proving that salvation comes by grace through faith? Doesn’t Rahab’s name join the list of those whose greatest reputation is for faith?
These questions which have troubled many scholars will give the minister an excellent motivation for relating faith and works in the Christian life. Careful study reveals that there are no conflicts between Paul and James. As someone has said, “they attack different foes of Christianity.” Paul strikes out against legalism. James does battle with antinomianism. They use “faith” and “works” in different ways. Justification means something slightly different to each of them. The great message of James is that genuine faith proves itself in works. Faith without works is dead. No word is more needed among people who have emphasized “believing” to the neglect of “doing.”
This sermon would furnish an excellent opportunity for the minister to discuss the current debate on evangelism and ethics which dominates Southern Baptist life. He has proof in James that any attempt to divorce personal redemption from social action is spurious. There is no conflict between faith and works. They go together!
There are those who believe that biographical preaching is the best form of biblical proclamation. When one presents a doctrine, for example, through the life of a character, the doctrine comes alive. The preacher simply invites the biblical character to visit his pulpit. He preaches the sermon, while the minister steps aside.
The biographical possibilities in James are not many nor apparent. But a sermon on the author presents an interesting possibility. The theme “The Best Proof of the Resurrection” emerges in the opening verse. The best evidence for a man’s character comes from a member of his family, who knows him for what he is. James, although doubtless attracted to Jesus’ qualities of devotion and manliness, did not accept his divine mission until after the resurrection. But after Jesus appeared to him (I Cor. 15:7) James believed! No greater evidence for the resurrection exists. The opening verse of the Epistle has James referring to himself as a bond-servant of God who recognizes in Jesus the Incarnate God and so gives him the same allegiance as he gives to the Father. It is a tremendous affirmation of faith and, coming from the pen of Jesus’ brother, affirms the Resurrection in a dynamic way.
If the preacher wishes to present the qualities of the life of James in a biographical sermon, he has ample material. The quality of humility dominates the opening verse. It is interesting that James simply calls himself a bond-servant of God and of Christ. He was a distinguished leader of the early church, but he makes no arrogant claims for himself. He is simply “slave.” He discusses prayer as if he is a person who knows how to pray. Without question he is walking proof of the thesis that true faith will result in Christian works. His reference to the poor, to impartiality in worship, to gratitude in trial all hint at experiences and qualities in his own life which add credence to his words. Not only would a biographical sermon on James prove to be an excellent part of a series from the Epistle but it would be an exciting possibility for an ordination or for a special occasion honoring a true minister of Christ.
Other references in James point to more primary sources for biographical sermons on Elijah, Abraham, Job, and Rahab. The minister could seize upon James’ allusion to the prayer life of Elijah, on his reference to Job’s patience in suffering, on his use of Abraham to demonstrate that a man must prove his faith by his obedience, and on his illustration of Rahab’s fulfillment of her faith through her deeds. He could produce four interesting sermons that would make key truths in James “come alive” for a congregation.
Thematic sermons abound in James. In addition to the “faith and works” theme which dominates the book, there is a vital “series within a series” possibility on prayer. People are troubled by unanswered prayer. James suggests the sermon “Why Are Our Prayers Unanswered?” Prayer must be offered “without doubt” (1:6-8). Doubt makes it impossible for a person to lean on God. Not only does doubt set up a restlessness within. It disqualifies a person from receiving from God.
A doubleminded man is unable to pray (1:8). He is a man facing literally in two directions. Doublemindedness is the characteristic of a man trying to serve both God and mammon. Selfishness also blocks the power of prayer (4:3). Too many of us think of God as a sort of “night watchman” employed to guard our treasures. James makes it clear that prayer cannot be answered when it is offered in self interest. The minister has here an excellent opportunity to define prayer not as asking God for something we want but as communion with Him. We have every right to talk with our Father about our desires, but, if prayer is to be effective, we must want God more than we want the things we ask him to give us.
Other themes on prayer receive emphasis in James. The book gives us an insight into the prayer life of the early church (5:14-16). The qualities of genuine prayer are discussed (1:6, 5:16). The power of prayer becomes evident in the example of Elijah (5:17-18).
“The Worship God Wants” finds eloquent definition in James. It has been said frequently that “eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.” James’ version of this truth goes much beyond the matter of racial segregation (2:1-4). Worship in a “ghetto” which respects the material standing of men is a mockery to God. Some years ago Henry Sloan Coffin became pastor of a sophisticated and well to-do Presbyterian church in New York. Soon his warmth and message attracted “strange” people into the congregation on Sunday mornings. Prostitutes, beggars, and newsboys dotted the crowd. Some of the more affluent members were offended. One lady approached her pastor in evident outrage. “Didn’t you detect a strange odor in our church this morning?” she asked defiantly. Without a moment’s hesitation, Coffin replied, “Yes, my dear lady, and it was the odor of holiness!” James makes it clear that God wants worship unmarred by class partiality. The charge that the modern church is too often a “country club complete with baptistry” is too often true. James has something to say about this!
God wants worship that is completed in deeds (1:22). If worship means response to the voice of God, then it is never finished until men have done something for God. The lives of the people are more eloquent forms of worship than the loveliest anthem or the most eloquent sermon. James echoes the word of the prophets who denounced sacrifices without obedience and who insisted that it is mercy and not sacrifice that God desires. Such language does not militate against the beauty of and need for effective corporate worship, but it makes it clear that worship is never genuine unless it issues in a redeemed life.
As has been noted already, James closes his Epistle with an interesting insight into the worship life of the early church (5:14-16, 19-20). The worship God wants is accompanied by compassion, fellowship, and restoration. The prayer life of the early church indicated that such qualities of “community” existed with New Testament Christians. These elements of worship can be used to produce an excellent sermon.
Other themes run through James and excite the minister who wants his preaching to be relevant and who seeks to “teach” the book through preaching. But the primary use of the preaching values in James will come through a chronologically arranged series growing out of a faithful exegesis of the book.
The best way to build sermons is to follow a program of Bible study not connected with sermon preparation. If the minister will set aside a period of time each day to do serious biblical exegesis he will find sermons literally “jumping” at him and demanding to be preached. If biblical study is a regular habit, the minister’s problem will never be to “find something to preach” but to find the time to preach all of the sermons which are on his heart. The best sermons are never “found.” The best sermons “find” us. A careful study of James will produce more sermons than a series can profitably contain. It may be that the minister will want to preach one sermon from each of the chapters of James. Or he may wish to spend several weeks or even months in a planned course of sermons from the Epistle of Action. The following suggestions grow out of a careful study, not done with any idea of producing sermons at all. They are a part of a “seed bed” waiting to be preached. They are merely suggestive of what can be done.
Some years ago the sermon “When Life Tumbles In” discovered this writer. It has remained a favorite sermon from the first chapter of James. It is built upon the unbelievable statement that Christians are to “count it an occasion of overwhelming joy when they fall into all kinds of trials” (1:2). The word “temptations” in the verse has the double significance of outward trials and inner temptations and thus can refer to the whole gamut of human suffering. It is unthinkable that James would suggest that the Christian is to be happy about his troubles. Such is beyond human possibility. He either means that there is such a deep source of joy in the Christian’s life that no trial can ever affect it, or he urges us to have joy in the knowledge that God can redeem any trial the Christian will ever confront.
The sermon begins with a brief statement of the various ways in which men meet the universal problem of evil and suffering. Certainly the difference between men is not determined by whether or not one man has his trials and another does not. The difference is determined by the way men react to their problems. This introduction gives the preacher the opportunity to examine the weaknesses of the various philosophies on evil and suffering which fall short of the Christian solution to the problem. The burden of the sermon becomes the reasons why the Christian can have joy in his trials.
The first chapter of James gives four explanations for this victory in trial. Trials drive us to prayer (1:5). One of the magnificent things said about prayer is that “God gives to all men liberally and upbraideth not.” By “upbraideth” James means “scolding.” James encourages us to bring all of our problems to God because He never grows tired of us. A man can’t come to God too often. God never reminds us how unworthy we are or how much He has already done for us. Trials bring us to the time when our “wisdom” fails. In that moment we turn to God in prayer. Anything which drives us to prayer is a blessing.
Trials produce an unwavering faith in God (1:6-8). In these verses James describes the doubter as a cork, floating on a wave, now tossed toward the shore, now tossed away. Effective prayer must be the prayer of faith. But the matter of confidence in prayer suggests the larger subject of holding on to God regardless of the circumstances of life. One of the Bible’s solutions to evil and suffering is a “disinterested faith.” Men should believe in God “no matter what.” Such faith emerged in Job. It found expression on the Cross. Any trial is a blessing from God if it matures our faith to the point that we believe in God “regardless.” Such faith, in fact, is not easily produced except in the shadows.
Trials show us the real values of life (1:9-11). The Christian has a new set of values. Because of his new outlook on life he can be happy in the midst of his physical struggles. The poor man who is not recognized in the worldly society is exalted in Christ. The rich man has found in Christ a security which he never found in his riches. Therefore the Christian has a source of joy which no trial can destroy. Any experience which teaches us about that source of lasting security is an occasion of “rejoicing.”
Trials bring us to God’s purpose for life (1:12). The man who endures trial receives the “crown of life.” By “endure” James means active patience. Through endurance the Christian receives the crown of fuller life which God has intended for him. The crown is life, in all the fullness of that word. There are some things learned and gained in trial that are not to be learned or gained elsewhere.
In addition to this sermon built on the entire paragraph (1:2-12) several other themes can be developed from these verses. “The Sound of Music” is a title which captures the basic quality of joy which should dominate the Christian’s life (1:2). “Wisdom—God’s Answer to the Prayer of Faith” (1:5) points up the difference between the world’s answer to the problem of suffering and the solution which God gives. “Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde” suggests the torment of doubt in a man who has “two souls” when trouble comes (1:8-9). “The Coming of the Drought” (1:10) suggests that a man’s false security in things will perish as surely as the spring grass suddenly fades in the summer heat. “What Did He Leave?” suggests a sermon on the suddenness of a man’s death and the loss of all his physical security. It is foolish for men to depend on goods in light of the fact that they can “fade away” while men are still “on the move,” as on a business trip. These sermons point to the need for a better sense of values and a deeper source of security than material things can ever provide.
The next several verses of the first chapter deal with trials which beset man from within. The sermon “When Trials Become Temptations” cries for attention (1:13). The trials that test men can be used by Satan to become moral temptations. James does not deny that God tries men, but he does protest against the idea that God tries men with an evil intent. Our sorrows can become occasions for temptation to sin. In the last analysis it is never what happens to us that counts. The issue is “what happens to what happens to us.”
The source and course of sin (1:13-14) give ground for a sermon on “Sin on the Installment Plan.” “The Way Down” may prove to be a better topic for a message on the progression of sin from its beginning to its consummation. James will not permit man to escape responsibility for sin. Man is “lured away” like wild game from their cover by his own sinful passions. When lust has received the consent of man’s will, it produces sin and sin results in spiritual and eternal death. The topic “Death Beyond Death” could well excite the imagination for another sermon on the same text. “The Two Destinies of Man” (1:12, 15) provides a topic for the minister’s comparison of different reactions to trial. One response leads to the crown of life, the other to death.
A matchless statement on the goodness of God follows ( 1:17 ). The claim is that nothing but good can come from God. This is true because there is no shadow in God brought about by change. In contrast to the variableness of the light of the sun and moon there is not the slightest possibility of change in God. Nothing but good can come from Him who “knows no change of rising and setting, who thus casts no shadow on the earth.” The sermon, “The Changeless in a Changing World,” comes to mind immediately.
While discussing the goodness of God, James speaks of “God’s Greatest Gift” (1:18). By His own willful act, in which God put his whole interest and strength into our redemption, we are born into his Kingdom. We are the first fruits of the many who are to know Him. Our salvation is the guarantee of the new spiritual order. It is unthinkable that such a God would send moral temptation to those whom he has chosen.
Several sermon ideas are born from a study of the passage on the nature of true religion (1:19-27). “The Way to Hear” can be developed from James’ word about doing as well as listening. The suggestion concerning the “laying apart” of all “hang-overs” from the previous pagan kind of life in order to hear the Word correctly offers a unique opportunity to preach to the subject of the ethical requirements of worship. “A House of Mirrors” (1:23-25) suggests a sermon comparing quick glances with intense self examination as reactions to the word of God.
Finally, the idea “Your Religion is Showing,” correctly interprets the nature of true religion mentioned at the close of the discussion (1:27). James does not give a full definition of religion in the words “visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” Rather he restates the concept of Jesus (Matt. 25:31f) that external religion without practical concern for our fellowman is useless.
“The Royal Law” is a sermon theme which, in addition to the emphases on barriers to worship and on the central theme of faith and works already discussed, makes the second chapter of James fruitful for proclamation. The preacher’s imagination can fly after careful exegesis of the law which is the King of the laws, the law of the Kingdom of God. Love is the law that controls all other laws concerning human relationships. It is love which proves faith. Love is the deterrent to all pride in worship. What does the Christian’s allegiance to the law of love mean for his social, racial, and religious life today?
“All Or Nothing At All” seems to express the idea that it is hopeless for a man to depend on his goodness for salvation (2: 10-11). Each one of the laws which James mentions has to do with some form of the “royal law.” And he insists that all of the laws hang together. We must not pick and choose where we shall be obedient to God. To break one of the laws involves us in the spirit of disobedience. What a tremendous text to show us that we shall be judged primarily by our relation to the law of love and to convince us that we are all in need of God’s grace.
Other fruitful sermons which wait to be preached from the second chapter include: “No Specialists Allowed” (2:18), emphasizing James’ word that it is utterly impossible for a man to become a specialist either in faith or in works; and “When the Devil Believes” (2:19), an idea which permits careful distinction between a “knowledge” of God and “faith” in God.
The third chapter, with its emphasis on the responsibility of those who teach others, furnishes abundant sermon material on “The Power of Words.” A striking idea in the chapter is “Taming the Untameable.” The same sermon idea could be developed under the title, “Riding The Wild Horses.” The power of the tongue is stated graphically in the illustrations of the horse and the ship (3:3-4.). The power of the tongue for evil receives the major emphasis of the section (3:5-9). The tongue represents the unrighteous world in our nature and has the power, like a sudden forest fire, to destroy and pollute the entire human personality. Nothing in the Bible on the evils of the tongue compares with the hard-hitting word here.
The height of inconsistency occurs when the same tongue is used to praise God and to curse men. The thing wrong with such a tongue is its impure and inconsistent source. The only hope for taming the tongue rests in a new life in Christ. In a culture of profanity, careless speech, judgment, and filthiness of language, no sermon is more needed.
A contrast between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God follows (3:13-18). “Earth-Bound Wisdom” consists of jealousy and selfish ambition and belongs to an earth centered existence. Three characteristics of this wisdom are: it never gets far above the earth; it owes nothing to the work of the Holy Spirit; its source is the pits of hell.
But the wisdom of God is: pure, wholly free from defilement; peaceable, because it will not be easily provoked into controversy; gentle, it “yields”; open to reason; full of mercy and good fruits; without distinction; without hypocrisy in all human relationships. These verses furnish an excellent basis for a sermon at an installation service for teachers in the church on “False and True Wisdom.”
In an age of war, racial violence, and frequent divisions among the people of God, the sermon “When Pleasure is God” (4:1-3) can be useful to explain the source of turmoil in our experience. Selfish desires are constantly at war within man, causing his loss of inner peace and robbing him of his relation with others. James suggests that selfishness can become as much a part of prayer as of any other dimension of life. But such improper motivation destroys the effectiveness of man’s communion with God.
A primary theme in this section of James is worldliness (4:4f). In a way reminiscent of I John (I John 2:15) James points to the impossibility of giving primary affection both to God and to the world. God is a jealous God and will brook no rivals. As a famous preacher put it years ago, “A man’s heart is like an auditorium and when the last seat is gone, the next comer, no matter what his position, must cool his heels at the curb.” If the human heart is filled with the world, there is no room for God. The text can produce the sermon “A Love That Kills.” Relevant for a culture of relativism in morals, the sermon can well point to the worldliness within the church which cripples and destroys the Christian mission. The analogy created by the term “spiritual adultery” is fruitful for speaking to the spiritual lethargy of our times.
As a corrective for worldliness James suggests that the Christian should never recover from his sorrow for sin (4:9-10). Christian joy is not destroyed by this “mourning,” but the Christian’s humility before God and his sense of concern for sin in himself and in his world are enhanced by grief over evil. As Jesus said, “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted (Matt. 5:5), so James describes a wretchedness from which no person who is sensitive to sin can ever be free. Such sorrow motivates the Christian to “draw near to God,” and to resist the spirit of worldliness which robs him of spiritual power. The sermon topic “The Happiness of Sorrow” comes to mind.
While discussing sin, James points out that the evil of taking life and God for granted is deadly. Men often act as if they were masters of their future. God is either ignored or his grace is presumed upon. The uncertainty and brevity of life should constantly make us aware, however, that we are totally dependent on the providence of God (4:13-16). The preacher’s imagination is stirred by the description of the text. Merchants point to their maps, noting with confidence the cities they plan to visit, the length of their stay, the business they will do, and the profit they will make. But God is left out! The foolishness of such presumption is apparent. No man controls his life. It is actually like a vapor of smoke. Man should consciously depend on God’s will both for life and for the work he is to do. These verses could well become the biblical basis for a sermon on “Horoscopes Without God.”
The chapter on worldliness closes with “The Sin of Not Doing” (4:17). It is an inadequate understanding which limits sin to the breaking of laws. Actually no sin is more prevalent than failing to do that which is known to be right. A minister was approached by a pious deacon who informed him that he had “lived without sin” for a number of years. The pastor thought for a moment and asked, “Marvin, do you know the poor family down the street from you who are in such destitute circumstances?” When the deacon assured his pastor that he was familiar with his neighbors and their plight, the minister asked, “When was the last time you did something for them?” The deacon had never thought of his failure to be a Christian neighbor as a sin. The sin of omission is serious indeed. Such a theme needs to be preached again and again.
Through James the potential evils of wealth have been pointedly stated. The Bible’s warning about material riches never intimates that money is evil within itself. It is the love of money which is sinful. The wealthy who are proud and self–centered, and who afflict the poor in order to become richer are the objects of God’s judgment (5:1-7). James tells such men to “howl” in anticipation of imminent judgment. Riches that are not used for the good of others are already in a state of corruption and will perish through misuse. A sermon on “What’s Happening to Your Bank Account?” could excite interest in the folly of hoarding that which cannot be kept except as it is given away.
As the rich are called to judgment, the suffering Christian is urged toward patience (5:8f ). This summons to self-restraint comes from the assurance of the Lord’s coming in kingly majesty and glory. The Christian is to live so constantly under the influence of Christ’s coming that he is in control of his wrath. He is to develop the same patience which a farmer exerts as he waits upon the rains that will guarantee the bounty of his crops. A sermon “Already At the Door” (5:8) affords the minister the opportunity to present the doctrine of the Second Coming, not in terms of speculation, but in terms of the practical results of this central hope of the Christian faith. The ethics of the early Christian were controlled by the feeling that “they could meet Him at the next turn in the road.” Modern Christians are the weaker by the neglect of this hope.
The last verses of the Epistle, by affording an insight into the life of the New Testament church, furnish an interesting text for a sermon on “Healing That is Divine” (5:14-20). The modern church has neglected the ministry of healing which Christ committed to his disciples. Misunderstanding of the meaning of the admonition “pray over him, anointing him with oil” has doubtless kept modern Christians from this vital dimension of ministry. Actually neither Extreme Unction nor fanatical claims to healing powers is justified by the admonition. Rather, it is a clear call to prayer for the sick to be accompanied by medical assistance and by some visible assurance of the concern of the Christian community and of the presence of God.
But the healing ministry of the church should extend beyond care for the sick. The early church also practiced the ministry of confession. Intercessory prayer for those whose faults marred their Christian joy and effectiveness was the privilege of the fellowship of the people of God. Such prayer becomes a vital part of the ministry of restoration which is incumbent upon the Christian community.
Biblical preaching can best be done by discovering what the text said and what the text says. The first without the last reduces preaching to a lecture. The last without the first robs the sermon of its theological significance as the proclamation by the Spoken Word of the Revealed Word through the Written Word. The wise preacher finds what the text meant and then proclaims what it always means for his congregation.
This all too brief glance at some of the preaching opportunities in James is intended only as a “seed-bed.” These suggestions from James largely concern “what the text meant.” It remains for the minister, inspired to whatever degree possible by this treatment, to make his own study of the text and to use every facility of his imagination to apply the truths of the text to his people. Great preaching can never be “canned.” It must grow out of the needs of a people who are “church” to a minister.
There are those who insist that “preaching is dead.” There is the possibility, however, that the fault is not with preaching but with preachers. The challenge of this year’s January Bible Study is to renew the pulpit as well as to renew the study of God’s Word. Such a renewal is essential to the continuing ministry of the church.
Southwestern Journal of Theology
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