By Pastor Tracey Leslie
James 3: 13-18
I’m going to start my sermon this morning with an illustration that I hope doesn’t offend anyone with an overly energetic dog. You all know that Britt and I are big dog lovers.
I was actually sitting in my rocker in my home study this week, praying, thinking, reflecting on this sermon, and looking out the window. The windows in the parsonage study are perfect for “people watching.” A couple was walking down the street with two large-breed dogs… though I use the word “with” rather loosely. The dogs were out in front, the leads were long, but quite taut. One dog would give a little lunge periodically, yanking his person’s arm in a manner that made my shoulder hurt as I watched. Now, I’m sure these dogs were fond of their people. But it was pretty clear this was not a pack walk. Those leashes were nothing the dogs welcomed. It was a device that, just barely, restrained them from going off in their own thoughtless, live-in-the-moment direction… which could have involved running in front of a car, jumping into the dirty pond, barking at a neighbor or chasing a cat or squirrel up a tree.
And as I watched this display, I suddenly realized: that’s it; that’s what the Book of James is all about. And I will explain at sermon’s end.
You see, when I was a child, growing up in a very conservative, Evangelical portion of the country, I remember hearing adults get into, sometimes heated, arguments about whether Christian salvation (which they interpreted solely as getting into heaven when we die) was dependent on faith or works. They would hurl scripture verses at one another the way I toss my dog’s rope across the room; usually pitting Paul and James against one another like two gladiators in the coliseum. As a child, I thought this debate must be pretty significant. Sensing their deep investment, I was anxious for someone to resolve it lest it endanger my everlasting soul.
But here’s what I’ve come to realize: there is no debate because faith and works are two sides of the very same spiritual coin.
This month your pastors are preaching a sermon series on the book of James, a piece of New Testament wisdom literature. Now, if you missed church last Sunday – or if you just need a refresher because, honestly, I rarely remember what I say a week later – here was the gist of my sermon: that wisdom is the knowledge and practice of what is necessary for godly or up-right living, i.e. righteousness, which is, very simply, about being in right relationship with God and others. And that wisdom, revealed through our words, actions and attitudes, emanates from our hearts when they have been implanted with God’s word. God’s Word, planted in our hearts, yields a harvest of righteousness.
But here’s where things get tricky. God’s Word can sometimes be difficult to interpret. So, this morning, I’d like to invite us to look at three words in this scripture passage from James that are often misunderstood but very important and critical to understanding what the writer of James is communicating.
The first of those words is “gentleness.” Now, it’s tough in our English bibles to get a good understanding of the word because sometimes it’s translated “gentleness” and sometimes it’s translated “meekness” and those are words that can be understood very differently in English. The word James uses here is also used by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. Most English bibles interpret Jesus’ 3rd beatitude: “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.” But it is the same word that appears here in James and it would be much better interpreted as “Blessed are the gentle for they shall inherit the earth.” Now, think about that statement. Who do we think of as having authority on earth? Well, those who are strong, right? Politicians and military commanders and business leaders who, frequently, do whatever it takes to claw their way to the top. And, it was no different in the ancient world. Military commanders and politicians believed they could conquer and take ownership. But Jesus says, “Wait a minute: in the end my heavenly Father will give the earth to those who are gentle, not overbearing and overpowering.” A good definition of this Greek word we translate as gentle or meek is this: “a strength that acclimates itself to the weakness of others.” Let that sink in. Gentleness is not wimpy. Gentleness is about managing our strength in righteous ways so that we do not overpower those who are weaker. Instead, we honor them. We acclimate ourselves to their situation and conditions. So, James writes “show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” Friends: the gentle are not weak pushovers. In fact, they are strong; but they don’t use their strength to gain power or honor for themselves. They use their strength to do good for others, particularly those who are weak and vulnerable.
The second word I’d like to call our attention to in this passage is one in verse 14. Many bibles interpret this Greek word zelos as envy; others as jealousy. And, as 21st century Americans, we often use those words interchangeably. But they are not interchangeable. Jealousy is, in fact, a good quality. One who is jealous guards and protects what is in their care. So our God is a jealous God because God guards and protects us as his own.
A couple years after Britt and I were married, we went to a mall in Erie. There was a booth in the mall with pictures. An attractive young lady was in charge of the booth. Britt was very fascinated with one of the pictures and leaning in closely to look at it. The young woman approached him and stood very close to him. Ignoring me, she began to talk to Britt, a bit giggly at times, at one point touching his shoulder, clearly flirting with him right under my nose. I gave her the look… and rightfully so. Britt is my husband. I am jealous for him.
But envy is a different thing entirely. Envy means that we want what is someone else’s. It was especially egregious in the ancient world where they believed in limited good. There was only so much good stuff to go around. So, if you tried to take more than your fair share, I wouldn’t get what I rightfully deserved. Envy is dishonorable.
But, you may have noticed that, when I read this verse from James this morning, I used the word “zeal,” also an acceptable translation of this Greek word zelos. There is zeal or passion that accompanies both jealousy and envy. Zeal can be a good quality when used in pursuit of righteousness. But zeal is a very bad thing when we use it to pursue the stuff of this world that pits us against one another and inspires us to use any strength or assets we have to our own advantage, regardless of who we harm in the process.
So you see, there is a connection between gentleness and this word for zeal. Righteous zeal causes us to seek right relationship with God and with others, such that we respond with gentleness, able to soften and restrain ourselves in the presence of those who are weak and vulnerable so that we honor them.
Finally, James affirms a connection between peace and righteousness. Peace is another word we often misunderstand. We fight wars in order to attain peace and we all know how well that works out. Now, I’m not making a political statement here that all wars have been unnecessary. I’m simply making the layman’s observation that war doesn’t result in peace across the board because there is always a winner and a loser. But the biblical meaning of peace is that of wholeness and well-being and restoration of relationships. Specifically, it is God’s gift through which we are reconciled to God and to one another; brought into right relationship with God and others.
So friends, I hope the examination of these three words have allowed us to see that God’s Word implanted in our hearts – if it is properly understood and interpreted – leads to wisdom and righteousness; and that when it is righteousness that we are zealously pursuing, it will be revealed through gentleness and result in peace.
“So where do the dog walkers fit in?” you might be asking. Don’t worry; I didn’t forget about them.
Friends: some Christians are like the dogs on those leads. Their faith is like a restraint. They haven’t broken loose; but they certainly don’t enjoy it. It prevents them from running astray and harming themselves or others; but it doesn’t mean they’re not still distracted by all that stuff. And while they are in the company of their people, their attention is clearly elsewhere. Certainly they are fond of their people; but the only thought they appear to be giving them is that they are their restraint. They are not really walking with their people.
And that’s what Christianity sometimes looks like. People kind of want to be with Jesus. They’re fond of him and they assume the restraints of religious rules will help them be a little nicer and stay out of trouble. But they’re not terribly attentive to Jesus; there are lots of other things vying for their attention and causing them to lunge and pull in their own direction.
Years ago, Britt and I had a dog named Charis. Initially, Charis was a little headstrong. But eventually, Charis found great joy in her training time with Britt and me. She discovered that she could please us and it delighted her. She began to relax. She became so well trained that we didn’t need to hold her leash during the walk. She was contented walking alongside us as Britt or I would, periodically, put down our hand and pet her head. As she became so deeply in tune with Britt and me, she began to be better tuned in to other people, too. She eventually became a therapy dog whose engagements with the patients were sometimes described by the nurses as miraculous. She was a big dog but, without any command from us, she learned to lie down when children approached so they would not be intimidated by her or scared. She was a good dog; but not because she felt threatened or fearful. She was a good dog because of the nature of the relationship she developed with Britt and me and her relationship with us also helped her develop wonderful and helpful relationships with other animals and people.
Friends: there’s no debate about faith or works. They are two sides of the same coin. We don’t do good works to get into heaven when we die. But, when we have the wisdom to seek a right relationship with God and others, we begin to treat others honorably and do good works; not out of fear, but out of love. Christianity isn’t a belief system. It is a relational system. It is all about our relationships with God and others.
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