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Nicole and I live off the Eglinton West Corridor known in Toronto as Little Jamaica. We have a Chihuahua named Tito that I take for a walk daily (that’s my goal anyway). The thing about Tito is that he’ll only walk toward home, so I need to carry him as we’re outbound toward Dufferin. At Dufferin, I put him down and we both walk home. As we walk along, we come to a street that has been renamed after a local barber/bass player named Jimmy Wisdom. He was big in the local reggae scene back in the day and ran a barbershop on Eglinton for 50 years. He died in 2019, and one year later the city re-named part of Locksley Avenue “Jimmy Wisdom Way.”
Many of you know how my mind works (and you’re still here which is great!) and as Tito and I go along, I often reflect about the way of wisdom when I see the sign. “What is the way of wisdom?” “What constitutes the good life?” “What then, should we do?” as a group of people once asked. I think this question needs to be ever before us as followers of Christ.
What is the nature of our faith? What is the nature of God? What is the nature of our faith supposed to look like as we go through our days?
As I was thinking about these things recently and thinking about the letter of James, I smiled to myself as Tito and I walked along. I’d never put the two together, but of course, “Jimmy” is the diminutive of James. Jimmy Wisdom Way. James’ Wisdom Way. I’ve been reminded of this ever since.
Which is good because what we’re going to do is take the next several weeks to go through this writing by Jesus’ brother James. Now there is no scholarly consensus on who wrote this letter (or even if it is a letter for that matter) or when or to whom it was addressed. I’m quite comfortable to sit with this not knowing. For our purposes, I will be working from the premise that James, the brother of Jesus, the leader of the church in Jerusalem wrote it sometime between the Jerusalem Council that we read about in Acts 15 and his death in 62 (he was put to death in 62 AD).
The letter has often been ignored or given little notice over the last 2,000 years, though this has changed in the last few decades and is changing for us here now at Blythwood. Questions have been asked as I said like “Is it even a letter?” or “Is it Christian?” or “Is James forsaking faith for works?” Martin Luther famously called it “An epistle of straw.”
So why are we even looking at it?
I believe that to look at the words of Jesus’ brother, coming on the heels of an extended look at Jesus’ words, will do us good. Like Jesus in Matthew, James is challenging us to take our faith seriously. Sometimes he will make us feel uncomfortable and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes we need to be made to feel uncomfortable. This was a serious man. He had been through things. He lived through a time of great political instability. Three different emperors in just over a decade, including Caligula and Nero. He lived through persecution. Remember all the scattering of Jesus’ followers from Jerusalem. James never left. He lived in a time when economic disparity was great – wealth concentrated in the top 2 or 3 percent.
Plus ca change non?
James was known for having knees that someone compared to a camel’s. Calloused from being on his knees in prayer. He became the head of the church in Jerusalem. I remember watching a movie once where the Jerusalem Council was depicted. This is the story told in Acts 15 where the church got together to figure out how Gentiles were going to be included in things (remember up to that point everyone following Christ was Jewish). At the end of it all, they turn to James and he’s there with his beard and robe and hat and after everyone is finished talking, James speaks. “We should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God,” he said. “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” This is what was in the letter that was written as a result of that Council. Great, great line.
And there are many great lines in James’ letter. It’s full of advice. Sixty imperatives in 108 verses! We may blanch at advice depending on from whence it comes. We shouldn’t blanch at James’ advice. He lived it. He lived through it. He heard the words of his brother. He remembered the time (whether he was there personally or his brothers or mom told him) that they were looking for Jesus and went to the house he was in. When Jesus was told his mom and brothers were outside, he didn’t say “Oh hang on a minute everybody, I’ll be right back.” (the first century equivalent of “I need to take this call.”) He said, “Anyone who does the will of my Father is my brother and mother.” Do you think the family sat around and said “Remember the time he said…?”
There’s no false dichotomy between faith and works being set up in James. James takes faith so seriously and wants his readers to take faith so seriously that it becomes an all-of-life thing. There are three overarching themes going on in the book. The nature of faith is the first. The second is the character of God. What is God like? The third is the meaning of our day-to-day behaviour as Christians. The way of wisdom if you like. As someone has said, “James reminds us that genuine faith is more than a matter of simply acknowledging the right concepts, it is right living in accordance with those concepts.” I want to be part of a family of faith that takes its faith seriously – so that we take seriously what we do or how our faith is worked out in our lives together. Perhaps we’re more open to advice when we’re living under the type of strain we’ve been living under for over a year now. Perhaps living with hurts or questions or the unknown leaves us in a position from which we say “We are in need of exhortation and encouragement.” So let us be exhorted. The book’s been described as salty – but also joyous. Let us be encouraged. Let’s pray as we look at the opening of this letter.
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ…” As famous as any one-named celebrity of our day. You know who they are. Cher. Madonna. Elvis (though you have to specify which one). The Bible specifies which James too – James the Younger, James son of Zebedee, or simply James. Brother of Jesus. Note here, though that James doesn’t trade on his kinship to Jesus. We’re talking about matters of faith and faith goes to the core of our identity. We often speak in terms of us being children of God and that’s right and good. James begins with another aspect of our identity. A servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It comes before where he’s from, what he does, who his parents or siblings are. “This is who I am,” says James and we might well hear a call that’s not explicitly made here but is nonetheless here – “Remember who you are!” Remember who you are, O follower of Christ. I was watching a preacher (T.D. Jakes) on tv recently and he talked about dropping his son off at college. One of the last things he said before he drove off, he called it out the car window, was “Remember who you are son!” James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. “The God to whom I belong,” is how Paul put it right before a shipwreck. Remember this no matter what is going on, and we’re going to read very soon that things will be going on. Before that, though we have “To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings” The twelve tribes were dispersed long before James ever wrote this. The dispersion started with the Assyrians. It continued with the Babylonians. Jerusalem – the city of peace – had been fought over or around at least for hundreds of years. For the first hearers of James’ letter, their legacy was connected to these 12 tribes. For us today who have been grafted into the story of God working redemption for humanity and all creation, we’re part of that legacy too. The stories. The songs. The poems.
This is one other thing I have to mention about James. His writing style is much different than the many letters of Paul we have in our Bible. Paul writes very linearly, building a case as it were, laying brick upon brick as he describes what it means to have life in Christ. James is more like Hebrew poetry. Images and descriptions or stories. Parallels or opposites. Someone has described James’ writing like someone throwing stones into a pond. This stone is one idea. Ripples extend. Another stone is thrown the same thing. Then he’ll come back to the original spot. Sometimes a stone skips across multiple spots.
It’s the same pond. The stones are being picked up off the same bank. The still point of faith is the same Christ, the unchanging one. Do we need to ask why we would look at this book? James starts off his letter with our still point – the Lord Jesus Christ. The still point of the turning world. How much do we need him? Our safe harbour in the midst of a storm-tossed sea. To the twelve tribes of the Dispersion and all who bear their legacy. Greetings. We’re scattered sure. The thing is, to recognize that we’re scattered means to recognize that we have a home. That we have a still point. That home is based not on where we are or what our circumstances may be, but on our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Check out this quote: “The twelve tribes are not phantom people; they are real and historical, the lived and raised families and died and sang songs that their poets wrote. We have continuity to, from, and with these twelve tribes. This means that there is something about the gospel of Jesus Christ that creates both… scattering and finding. We need to scatter in order to fulfill the journey task and the missionary task, but we also need to come home. We need a letter from home that tells us of the Lord Jesus Christ and of his welcome home greeting.” We are scattered and at the same time, we have a home.
We live between sorrow and joy. It is one of the most paradoxical marks of the Christian, I think – also one of the most honest when you consider our lives - that we are called and enabled to do this. My brothers and sisters.
“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trial of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that 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.” (2-3)
We’re not joyful in trials because we’re masochists – it’s because of this promise that testing produces fruit. The fruit of endurance, maturity, wisdom. This past year has been hard, it’s been a trial and we’re not sure when the trial is going to end. We’ve mourned a lot and there will be more to mourn I’m sure. Tell me this though, what kind of fruit has the last year produced? How have you been blessed in ways you were never blessed before? What kind of things have you come to thank God for that you never thanked God for before, or are thanking God for them in a new way with new eyes and a new heart? How have you learned from Jesus in entirely new ways? Jesus, we still point in a turning world. Let us endure together my dear friends, and let endurance have its full effect so that we may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. That we may truly say and give thanks as we wake up each day, “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” Lacking in nothing. Being ready for anything. That we may say along with the poet “If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere.” Even if it takes another summer. That we may have wisdom as we go about our days. Wisdom defined simply as this – “skill at life, particularly the ability to make sound judgements and speak the right words.” The Way of Wisdom, founded on the One who called himself the Way. The Wisdom Way. You can see why I like that street name so much!
Now you may be saying “That all sounds great but I don’t know if I can name ways in which I’ve been blessed or things for which I’m thankful. What should I do about that?”
The answer comes with the next stone that James throws in that pond. Ask. He’ll come back to this spot a little later in the chapter, verse 17 when he writes “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
If any of you is lacking in wisdom (and really who among us is not lacking in wisdom? We’re all in this together dear sisters and brothers) – ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly and it will be given you. Of course, James was familiar with the Hebrew poet who sang to God “You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing. The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings.” The Lord is just. Worthy of our trust. Because faith is not simply a matter of belief but trust, fidelity, devotion. James is calling for single-mindedness here. I like to think of it as giving God our full attention the way we want people to give us their attention when we’re talking to them. Nicole has pointed out to me my tendency to be looking around the room when someone is speaking to me in a social situation. “Stop doing that,” she’s told me. Wisdom. Ask in faith, in trust in our good God, never doubting that all God wants for us is good. Maybe the thing we’re doubtful of us is our own desire to live in such a relationship with God – one in which we are servants of God, one in which we consider God as the one to whom we belong. Maybe our desire for autonomy is strong. Maybe the belief that we know what’s best for us is strong, the belief that the way of wisdom is actually my way. Whole songs have been written about it.
Songs have also been written that go like this – Grant us wisdom. Grant us courage. For the facing of the hour. Asking in doubt is to be divided and tossed about like a wave, which is most subject to outside forces like tide and wind and storm. How much have we been reminded of how are subject to outside forces. Don’t let us be tossed about like waves. Right at the outset, James reminds us, remember your still point, your foundation, your harbour. May the trusting, devoted prayer for wisdom be on all hearts in these weeks to come and beyond. May this be true for all of us beloved friends. Amen.