James 1:1-18, Psalm 46, Mark 9:20-27
This is the first sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. You can find the audio of this sermon here: soundcloud.com/washingtoncitycob/james-jacob-temptations-and-trials-september-24-2017 . *Note* The audio differs from the text.
Yesterday, I was working on my sermon right up until I had to leave for French class. I realized, at 1:20 when I needed to leave, that I hadn’t eaten anything. I hadn’t even thought about food. Now, I didn’t have any time to sit down and eat the leftovers that were sitting in our fridge (which I wasn’t avoiding, I just didn’t think about). I hastily slathered together a PB&J and threw it in my bag, hopped on my bike, and rode away, eating in the 5 minutes I had before class.
Remembering to eat. Thinking ahead about cooking before supper time. Those are parts of adulting that I seem to struggle with. Adulting, if you don’t know, is a 21st century term for grown up responsibilities. Adulting. Thankfully, I have a partner who loves to cook and is usually quite hungry well before the meal, so we eat, despite my poor adulting skill in this area.
Adulting is hard. When you are not a kid, you need to pay your own bills, figure out transportation, make sure you get places on time, and you are the one responsible for keeping pets and kids alive if you have them. You can’t really opt out of adulting for long and even doing so for a short time has consequences. Dirty dishes must be cleaned some time; binge watching a season of a tv show could feel like a digital hangover at work the next day.
Yet there are good things about adulting. Adulting has rewards! Choice and autonomy, such as getting to paint my walls yellow and my stairs green. We also get the fulfillment of mastering skills and accomplishments, producing things like meals for friends, writing songs, or planning events. Shortly after we moved to DC, I bought a bunch of camping supplies that we needed and put them all in a single tote. Rather than scrambling to find what we need, I knew I could just pull out my camping tote. Camping competently feels like happy adulting. It feels kind of awesome; I understand it might be strange if you don’t find organizing gratifying.
Today we start our sermon series on the book of James. I think that one way to describe James could be that it offers up practical ways of adulting after Jesus. Adulting after Jesus is following Jesus in a way that seeks maturity, or growing up in Christ Jesus. James has been referred to as the Proverbs of the New Testament. It both talks about wisdom and is understood to be a form of wisdom literature like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. James’ emphasis on virtues and right action, particularly under times of pressure, is similar to Greco-Roman wisdom literature, but its flavor is more Jewish (Wall, 1997).
James is also understood by some to be like midrash, a Jewish tradition where texts are used to interpret other texts; James appears to engage both the Hebrew scriptures (which would have been his and his audience’s bible) and Jesus’ sayings on the Sermon on the Mount (Wall, 1997).
Why study James together for 10 weeks? Logistically, James was easily broken up into 10 parts. We also happened to have 10 weeks from the date we wanted to start a sermon series until Advent. So that tells us why 10 – but why James? In the same way that the early Brethren loved the Sermon on the Mount for being both profound and practical, the early Brethren also appreciated the praxis (faith that involved action) found in books like James (Bowman, 1995). M.M. Eshelman said that “the Brethren preached the ‘necessity of doing, as well as the necessity of saying’” (Bowman, 1995, p. 77).
Like the early Brethren, at Washington City COB, we prioritize the words of Jesus found in the gospels, and use other NT writings and the Hebrew scriptures to build up our faith journey following Jesus. Our last sermon series was on the Sermon on the Mount, so this time, we thought to prioritize one of the letters to the early church.
Studying large passages of scripture, or whole books of the Bible in a cohesive way, can build up our community, and also increase our biblical literacy. We can build up our knowledge of the historical and literary context, something that really helps our interpretation. Since I am first in the series, I’m going to spend a few more minutes on the literary and historical context of James before I get back to James’ practical guide to adulting after Jesus.
Context and Background to James
So, to recap James is understood to be both wisdom literature, a form of midrash, and a letter. Some people throughout church history have maligned James as not being very Jesus-y and not very theological. One commentator says that James is “among the most neglected books in the New Testament” (Wall, 1997, p. 545). Martin Luther, the reformer in the 1500s, really did not like James because Luther was all worked up about grace and works. James emphasizes that faith needs to be put into practice; you can’t just say you believe this and that about God—you need to live it. Luther was like, believe! Believe! Believe! So he couldn’t appreciate James very much.
Before Luther’s time, another person in the middle ages changed how English speakers understood the letter of James. Though your bible says James, the book we are studying should be called Jacob. The Greek says Iakubus. Jacob also makes much more sense, since Jacob was a common Jewish name, not James.
How did it happen that the name Jacob became, as one writer puts it, “so Gentilized”? “In the 14th century, John Wycliffe made the first Bible translation into English and translated Iakobus as James. (However, in both the Old and New Testaments he arbitrarily used the name Jacob for the patriarch). In all future English translations, the name stuck, especially after 1611, when King James I sponsored the translation then called the Authorized Version but since 1797 called the King James Bible” (Wilson, 2017). Ask people who speak other languages what this book is called in their language and it will sound more like Jacob than James. During our series, we’ll keep calling it James for simplicity’s sake.
When we think about Jacob/James, we should remember that the audience is Jewish Christians. “To the twelve tribes of the Dispersion,” we read. In that era, Jews were scattered throughout the Roman empire. Jews who followed Jesus as Messiah often still worshipped in a regular Jewish synagogue, until the tension got to be too much. Some Jewish leaders, particularly those under the Sadducees, persecuted Jewish followers of Jesus. This was sometimes violent. However, the persecution most likely during James’ letter was “low-level persecution such as social rejection and economic boycotts” (Davids, 1994, p. 1357). Until part-way through the 4th Century, Christians were sometimes persecuted by Jews, but were largely persecuted by Romans. Jews were also persecuted and oppressed by Romans. After Christianity became the state religion in the 300s, Christians persecuted Jews for centuries.
Church history and a good portion of scholars think that the author James is Jesus’ brother James (known as James the Just). This James is referenced in the book of Acts. He was the church leader in Jerusalem and he had some big disagreements with the apostle Paul on circumcision and how “Jewish” new believers who were Gentiles needed to become. (For more on that, read the book of Acts 15 and 21).
Because of early oral tradition on who James was and what his teachings were, church leaders in the 200 and 300s continued to affirm that the letter of James was a book that should be part of the church’s scriptures. Thus, it is one of the 66 books in our bible and we are studying it today.
Trials, Temptations, and Perseverance
I said earlier that one way to describe James is that it offers up practical ways of adulting after Jesus. It has instruction to follow Jesus in a way that seeks maturity and growing up in Christ. James’ readers are having a tough go, being socially excluded and economically marginalized. They’re living in a place where societal values laud the powerful, the strong, and those with material wealth or social prestige. The readers know that Jesus taught his followers different values.
Recognizing the struggle, James writes, “Sisters and brothers, whenever you face trials and challenges (since I know that you are), consider it pure joy. Why? Because it makes you stronger in Jesus—the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let this endurance have its full effect—keep on moving forward. The spiritual adulting and persevering through the low times, the difficult times, this will bear fruit. Then you will be mature and complete, lacking nothing.”
James continues, “If any of you need wisdom in how to get through your struggle, ask God—who gives generously to all without finding fault—and it will be given to you.” Following Jesus, adulting after Jesus, isn’t easy. When we don’t want to adult after Jesus, when we feel like living out the Jesus way is exactly not what we want to do, James says that God is ready. Ask and you will receive (this echoes Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount; Mt 7:7-11).
What stands out for me here is that, when we ask for help, our generous Creator will not find fault, but will provide the wisdom and strength that we need. God’s not going to chide you for struggling! James says, “Ask and God will say, I’ve got you.”
“Ask in faith and never doubt,” James continues. Never doubting—I don’t think that this means never question our faith, but that when we do question, we should look to God in a way that says, like the father in Mark 9:24, “I believe, help my unbelief!” When following Jesus gets hard, it is so easy to question, “Why am I really doing this? Why am I trying to not prioritize status or money? Or why am I choosing to engage a person that I’d rather just be angry at? Or, why exactly am I committed to a rag-tag group of Jesus followers called Washington City Church of the Brethren? Lord knows, that the world’s wisdom says none of these are worth doing.” Yep, Lord knows. But we’re following another type of wisdom. Ask in faith, “Lord, I want to believe, help my unbelief.”
Sisters and brothers, we all face challenges in following Jesus’ way, when we’re tired and weary of choosing kindness, mercy, forgiveness, service, and love. We are called to keep going—and to trust that God can use the difficulty to make us more like Jesus.
There will be times when we don’t want to be adulting after Jesus, when it is easier to choose a path that is bitter or greedy or prideful or spiteful. But James says that these challenges are opportunities—good things—and that overcoming them makes us stronger followers of Jesus. When it comes to adulting after Jesus, the struggle is real. Yet, we are not alone and God is ready to give generously to us during our struggle, if we ask. What are you struggling with? Ask and God will generously give you wisdom, without judging you.
An Upside-Down Kingdom
One of the books that I’ve wanted to read for a while, that I’ve heard about since I joined Anabaptist circles, is The Upside-Down Kingdom. And that was even before I met the author, Don Kraybill. I want to read it because the title’s metaphor is quite perfect; Jesus’ values turn our world upside-down. The Sermon on the Mount makes that very clear and so does our passage in James.
James says this audacious thing, “Let the believers who are lowly, or in humble circumstances, or—let’s just say it—who are poor, be the ones who boast. Why? Because God is raising them up! The poor are in the high position.” This upside-down value sounds similar to Jesus saying, “the first will be last, the last will be first.” James continues and says, “The rich among you should boast too, because they are being brought low!” The NIV paints it strongly, “the rich should take pride in their humiliation!” Humiliation isn’t normally what one takes pride in.
I think James is saying, that the community of Jesus followers need to proclaim their upside-down values! There are rich Christians and poor Christians (we’ll hear more about the dynamics between them in later chapters). Both rich and poor Christians need to be boasting that God is on the side of the weak and poor, and that riches are as ephemeral as wildflowers.
James continues with words about temptation. The temptation isn’t specified. What could it be? Temptation to stop persevering in the faith? Temptation to give up on the way of Jesus, which exalts the poor over the rich? It’s not clear. But what James tries to make clear, in a way that contrasts the positively-framed trials that we need to persevere through, is that temptation is our own doing. Temptation involves conscious steps in a direction contrary to what God has designed for our well-being. James cautions the early Christians, “the beloved,” not to be deceived. We oversee our own integrity. If we open ourselves up to corruption (in money, in relationships, or anything else), we can’t blame God. God doesn’t tempt; as James said earlier, when we are struggling and weary in doing right, when we need wisdom, God is graciously ready to provide abundantly—without judging us!
Adulting after Jesus
Sisters and brothers, adulting after Jesus is hard. Persevering in love, mercy, peace, forgiveness, kindness, humility, and simplicity—these are things that our culture says we should not do. Being concerned with personal integrity is also not highly valued right now. But at Washington City Church of the Brethren, we are following the upside-down way of Jesus.
Whether you are exploring Jesus for the first time or you’ve already committed to Jesus, you might be getting the sense that the struggle is too real and you’re wondering whether you should walk away from this Jesus thing. Sisters and brothers, God is ready to give wisdom, strength, and the courage to persevere; God gives generously, without finding fault, if we ask. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief. Let’s keep on adulting after Jesus. AMEN.
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you
Bowman, C.F. (1995). Brethren Society: The Cultural Transformation of a “Peculiar People.” Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Davids, P.H. (1994). James. G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, & R.T. France (Eds.), New Bible Commentary (pp. ). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Wall, R.W. (1997). James, letter of. R.P. Martin and P.H. Davids (Eds.), Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments (pp. ). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Wilson, M. (2017, April 27). James or Jacob in the Bible? Biblical Archaeology. Retrieved from