The Gospel for the Rest of Us: Get Real

Sermon by Gabe Fluhrer on April 23, 2017

James 5:12

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As you’re sitting down, if you’ll take your Bibles and turn to the fifth chapter of the book of James; you’ll find this on page 1013 if you’re using a pew Bible. Just one verse tonight as we are racing to the conclusion of this New Testament book. James chapter 5, and we’ll be studying verse 12 this evening. Before we hear God’s Word, let us ask Him to bless our time together. Let’s pray.

 

Our Father, we want You to be our treasure. We name You our High King but we treasure other things and we have other kings. And so tonight, what we need is to have our hearts readjusted to make You alone are pure delight. Would You do that by Your preaching? Would You do that by the reading and the preaching of Your Word and would You do that in a way that we know You’ve met with us? And so we ask all this in Jesus’ name, amen.

 

James chapter 5, beginning at verse 12. This is God’s Word:

 

 “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”

 

The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of the living God shall stand forever and ever. Amen.

 

Chuck Swindoll tells the story of a young man in Long Beach, California who decided to go by his favorite fried chicken place one day – never a bad idea! – to get some lunch for him and his date and he got the bag and he went out to meet his date and he opened up the bag and it turned out that the employee who was supposed to give him his bag full of his lunch actually gave him a bag full of cash that was to be deposited in the bank; something like $1,000. So the guy very quickly rushed back to the restaurant, went to the manager and said, “Hey, here’s the mistake; here's the money.” And of course, the manager was just blown away by such honesty. And he said, “Listen, I want to call the paper. I want to tell everybody what an honest guy you are.” And the man turned bright red and said, “Please, please do not do that.” The manager was puzzled! He said, “Why not? Why wouldn’t you want me to do this?” And the guy said, “Well, the problem was, the woman I was meeting for lunch wasn’t my wife.”

 

Now we may not have that problem, I hope we don’t but have you ever felt like a fraud? Have you ever felt like you’re just two steps away from being found out, from being exposed, the real you, and you’re certain that if somebody finds out, if everybody finds out the real you, then it’s game over? James has good news for us tonight if we feel like that.

Here’s the context! This is one of those verses, this whole book has these verses, where commentators come to it and they say, “What in the world is this verse doing here?” James has been talking, as we talked about last week, about the Lord being compassionate, of the Judge standing at the door, patient; then all of a sudden he talks to us about oaths. It seems to come out of nowhere. This verse is actually a bridge and a summary and we’ll talk about that more in a second. It’s a bridge to the final section of James’ letter, but it’s a summary of almost everything that’s come before, as we’ll see. And the main point of what James is teaching us tonight is this – he holds out the promise to us of a genuine life while warning us about the penalty for a fake life if we could put it that way. So those will be our two headings. The promise of a genuine life and the penalty for a fraudulent life or a fake life. So a promise and a penalty.

 

The Promise of a Genuine Life

 

Look back there at verse 12. “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no.” Now if you remember, we’ve talked about this before, James had paid attention to his half-brother’s sermons. And we have exhibit-A of that right here. This reads almost exactly like Matthew 5:37, the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says this. “Let your ‘yes’ simply be yes and your ‘no’ be no. Anything more than this comes from the evil one.” So both Jesus and James expressly condemn oaths of any kind. And if you read the rabbis who are writing about the time of Jesus and James, you find a pretty uniform opinion among them as well that oaths were something that Jewish people didn’t do and Jesus and James say the same thing. Why? Why shouldn’t we swear oaths? Well, think about it. By definition, when you’re swearing an oath or asking somebody to swear and oath, you are saying to that person, “You are not trustworthy. Your ‘yes’ does not mean yes; your ‘no’ does not mean no. So I need an oath as kind of an insurance policy that you’ll actually keep your word.” That’s the problem with oaths!

 

Our Words Show the Condition of Our Hearts

And so what James is saying to us here is this, very simple. He’s returning to our speech, as he’s done so often throughout this letter. He says our words show the condition of our hearts. And so if we’re those who need to have oaths made from us, if people requires oaths of us, something’s wrong and it goes much deeper than our speech. And that’s the point here! Maybe the most shocking statement in this verse are the opening words, “But above all.” Okay, why would he say that? We’ve talked about the main theme of James being genuine faith. Has he just shifted all of a sudden and said, “No, actually, the main point of everything I’m saying is don’t swear falsely.” Is that what he’s saying?

 

No, I think what he’s doing here – this is what I meant when I said it’s a summary – I think he’s summarizing everything that’s come before. That’s why he says, “Above all.” And he uses oath swearing as kind of a window to speak into our lives about truth telling because his concern for genuine faith, all throughout the letter, he’s also told us that our words express the conditions of our hearts. And therefore, if we’re really understanding the Gospel, if we’re really following the Lord, he says our genuine faith will reveal itself in genuine speech, in truth-telling speech. Therefore, if we need oaths, we’re not living according to the Gospel. Maybe we haven’t understood the Gospel. Maybe we’re faking it. That’s what James is saying. And faking it, having to cover yourself up by your oaths, is a form of unbelief, which is the very opposite of genuine faith that he’s been teaching us about through this epistle. So that’s why he says, “Above all, if we have to swear an oath, we haven’t understood the Gospel.”

 

Why Do We Fake It?

So what’s the promise here then? James holds out to us a promise of a genuine life which is the opposite of faking it. And before we understand the promise, we need to understand, “Why do we fake it? Why do, so often, why so often do we fake it with other people?” Or put it this way. We’ve talked about this before too. Any time you and I walk into a room, whether consciously or unconsciously, the first question we ask as we look around the room is, “What do these people think of me? What do these people think of me?” And that leads right into why we fake it. I think there are a couple of reasons at least. We fake it because we’re afraid of what others will think of us. We exaggerate our accomplishments so that they’ll think better of us. We act like everything’s fine but it’s really falling apart. We fake it because we’re afraid of what others will think. And these are all species of what James is talking about here. Why do we do this? Why do we exaggerate ourselves? Why do we make oaths necessary? That’s after all why they’re there – because we tend to be non-truthtelling people in our speech. Because we’re insecure.

 

Why Are We Insecure?

Why are we insecure? Because something other than Jesus is Lord in our lives. And anytime we replace Jesus with another lord, that other lord, what the Bible calls an idol, always lets us down. That’s why we’re insecure. We never know if it’s going to come through for us. Our idols don’t make promises to us like, “Great is the Lord and His steadfast love remains forever.” No, whatever our idol is, it never makes promises to us, and therefore we have to be insecure about whether or not that idol will actually come through for us. Take success. We’re insecure about our success because we never know when it’s going to stop. We never know if we’ve got enough and if we’re ever going to run out and when we run out will people understand and know the real us. Will they know that we’re frauds?

 

Our Fear of Not Measuring Up

Another reason we fake it is because we’re afraid that we don’t measure up. That starts in childhood, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s a father who never said he was proud of you. Maybe it’s the laughter of kids you remember from your middle school or high school days where you didn’t measure up. And that fear of not measuring up has driven so much of your life and so you begin to fake it. You begin to put on a different persona; you begin to make yourself something you’re not because we are terrified of people finding out who we really are. That’s what James is warning against.

 

Now the common theme here is fear – fear of men, fear of not measuring up. What’s the solution? What’s the solution to this kind of fear? And the answer is very simple – Jesus. Jesus is the solution to this kind of fear. I think that’s why James quotes His words here. Because here’s the thing about the Lord Jesus Christ – He is the most genuine person you will ever meet. When you read His words, even if you’re not a Christian, they stay with you, don’t they? After all, even people who don’t accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior will say that He is the greatest ethical teacher to every walk the face of the earth. His words are powerful. And that’s because He is the most genuine person we’ll ever meet. And therefore, what Jesus is up to in our lives is making us – this is the burden of James’ letter – making us people who have genuine faith in Him who become genuine, authentic, real people.

 

Jesus Makes Us the Real Us, By Being Real With Us

How does He do that? He sees your sin and your failure, and mine, and He speaks a word of forgiveness over our lives. When we fake it, we become less than human, don’t we? We become something other. We become plastic people – people adjustable, malleable to any situation. And Jesus is at work to bring out the real us because He is not ashamed of the real us because He is remaking the real you and me into one that He can hold up as a trophy of His grace. So Jesus makes us the real us by being real with us. He never tells us anything but the truth. That’s why we can trust this Book. He will never speak anything but the truth to us. So that’s the promise of genuine life held out to us. It’s a life depending on Jesus. It’s a life bringing ourselves to Him knowing that He will make us the real us. He tells us, as a matter of fact, “You don’t measure up,” neither do I, but He loves us anyway and He’s not through with us yet.

 

The Penalty For A Fake Life

 

That brings us to the second point here that James brings us – the penalty for a fake life. Look at the last part there in verse 12. James says do this, “so that you may not fall under condemnation.” Those who swear oaths are admitting they can’t be trusted. They’re admitting there’s something wrong there with their speech. And again, we’ve got to go deeper with James here. He’s using a very surface symptom to diagnose a deep problem in our hearts. And here’s what he’s saying to us. Remember the last section. He said, “The Judge is standing at the door.” He’s reminded us that in the coming, in the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit two-thousand years ago, the last days have begun. And therefore, the next event is the return of Christ. And so what James says is this. He says, “Remind yourself that if we are those who need to swear oaths if we are admitting that the real us is not getting out there, there’s a penalty. There’s a penalty for that fake life.”

 

If we don’t have genuine faith, we will not be with Jesus forever. This book as a whole is a warning about that. We must have the kind of faith James is commending to us. It’s all a gift of grace. But it shows up in how we speak and how we live our lives. And James says if you choose a life of fraudulence if you choose a life of deceit if you choose to spurn the love of Jesus – condemnation, judgment. And that’s why we love Jesus, isn’t it, if we’re Christians? Because He loves us enough to tell us the truth. So often when we deal with Jesus, what we do is this. All of us do this! We remake Him into our own image, don’t we? Jesus is like a really good version of us when we think about it. He’s us but better! And so we take some of His statements. We water down some of the things He says to us. But He is not like us. He is holy!

 

You think about when Peter caught all those fish. What is the first thing he did? You would think that with an economic windfall like that, with Jesus standing in the boat, he would say, “I’m rich! This is awesome!” What is the first thing he did? “Depart from me, Lord. I am a sinful man!” When we meet the real Jesus, He is not only love and goodness and truth and beauty – He is all those things. He is also the fearsome Judge of all the earth. He is also the one who alone has the right to judge everybody here and everybody who has lived, is living, or will live. And James says if we choose the fraudulent, fake life of putting on a front, of being those whose hearts have not been changed by grace, if that’s what we choose, he says condemnation awaits; everlasting punishment. That’s what’s at stake! That’s how serious this issue is. That’s why it’s kind of a summary here of everything he’s been saying to this point.

 

Is There Good News For Frauds?

Now the question you may ask is, “Is there good news for me because I am that double-life person? I do feel like a fraud. I do feel like if somebody were to really discover who I am then I could never show my face at 1390 North State Street again. Is there good news for people like us who, if others found out what we said at home, the way we talked to people, what we have looked at, even worse, what we think about – is there good news?” James says yes. Because here’s also one of the burdens of his letter. Remember he told us back in chapter 2 verse 1 that Jesus is the “Lord of glory”? And he’s told us also in chapter 1 as well that Jesus was raised from the dead, that we have faith in Him by a gift of God’s sheer grace. In other words, God saves frauds. Jesus died for all of our half-truths, our exaggerations, our false speech. In other words, He died for everything that makes oaths necessary. He dies for fake people like us. And all we have to do is come to Him, and He’ll get real and we’ll get real. He died to make fakes real people. That’s good news. He died to make people like us, so often who are frauds, and says, “No, I am going to show you the real you and I am going to make the real you safe for others.”

 

How Do We Get Real?

That leaves us with the last question here. “How do we get real? How do we get real?” In two easy steps. No, there’s more to it than this, but at least two things. First of all, we get real with God. Have you done that? This is what sin does. Sin does two things. It makes you either think of God as a grandfather who kind of does not care what you do or how you live your life. Or it makes you think that He’s so harsh that He’ll never accept you. And the difference in the Gospel is not a middle way between those two things; it’s a completely different way of relating to God. The Gospel tells you that the moment you get real with God, His grace and His mercy come showering forth upon you. But we’ve got to be real with Him. If you cannot be honest with God, you’ll never be honest with other people. And getting real with God means owning this double-life before Him, owning our sin, not excusing it, saying, “That is me. I am a fake. I am a fraud. Not only that, God, I am a rebel. I have known what to do and said no. I have run away from You. I have chosen my own way. And here’s the other thing I’ve done, God – I’ve done that with the full knowledge that I shouldn’t be doing that. And I’ve done it anyway.” God says the first step is to get real with Him.

 

And again, here’s where we’ll find a cardinal difference between Christianity and everything else. Every other world religion tells you to clean yourself up and then come to God. Jesus is the only God who says, “Come to Me; then I’ll clean you up.” It’s the complete opposite of every other way and every other system of belief in relating to God. The order in the other world religions is, “Clean yourself up, then come.” Jesus says, “Come, then I’ll clean you up. Come as you are.” “If you tarry till you’re better, you will never come at all,” as the old hymn writer puts it. And that’s the insanity, right, that we find in our own hearts. Jesus doesn’t say, “Okay, now that you want to get real, here’s ten steps that you need to do before I’ll come and meet you.” He says, “Come to Me right now tonight, where you are.” That is one of the best things about being a Christian. You can begin where you are, right now. Even if you’re not a Christian, you can come to Him where you are right now. And if you are a Christian and say, “This is me! I’m the fraud,” He will start working in your life tonight! Right now! No need to delay!

 

We Must Begin to Get Real With One Another

The other way we get real is by beginning to get real with one another. As James is closing this letter, what he’s doing is this. He’s inviting us to imagine a community where words are so truthful that all we need is “yes” or “no.” No duplicity, no covering up our true intentions. And he says this kind of community is only possible as it’s gathered around the cross, as it’s gathered around the crucified and resurrected Savior who died to take away our sins of speech. He is calling us to become the kind of people who are not fake. That should be the church. This should be the one place where we don’t need to fake it.

 

Now, are we that kind of place? Just remember, we’ve talked about this before. Everybody thinks their church is friendly, welcome, open and welcoming. Everybody thinks that! We need to ask others who’ve come, “What do we really think about First Presbyterian Church?” Are we a place where people feel safe to be real? That when the wheels fall off our lives – and can we all just own the fact that that is coming? I don’t know when it’s coming for you; I don’t know when it’s coming for me. The wheels are going to fall off. The winter storm is coming. And when it happens, will this be a place where we are safe enough around each other that when that hits we can gather and show the love of Jesus? No matter what that is; no matter if it’s somebody we’ve known and loved and they’ve been here for years and it turns out their child is a homosexual – are we still going to love them and their child? Are we going to love people who have different ideas about things than us? Are we going to, in other words, be the kind of people who, no matter what happens around here – I’m not talking about no accountability of course. The Gospel holds that up for us as well. But I’m talking about the kind of place where we don’t have to put on a mask when our lives aren’t perfect. Because if we’re honest, nobody in here has that kind of life. Or, as one author put it, “Everybody’s normal until you get to know them!” Right? That’s all of us.

 

Refuse to Shame Those Who Fail!

So then how do we become this kind of a safety net for folks? Let me just give two things. Refuse to shame those who fail. Refuse to shame those who fail. Remember what shame is. Shame is the intense feeling of three words – I don’t belong. We need to be a place that refuses to do that to people when everything falls apart. That’s how we become a safety net. And let’s put it this way. When somebody blows it, even big time, the first thing we should say is not, “How could you?” but, “Me too. It could have happened to me.” And not in a smug way, not in the way we kind of always cover that, “But for the grace of God there go I.” But also in the way of, “You know, if God wasn’t upholding me right now, I would fall into the absolute sin you could think of.” All of us would. The only reason we haven’t is because of His sheer grace. So when somebody else falls, we should go to them with all kinds of sympathy and say, “Me too. That could have happened to me. I am you.”

 

Become A Safe Place!

The other thing is, becoming a safe place, refusing not to shame those who fail, but refusing to pretend like everything is perfect; being honest when it’s falling apart. That’s got to start with somebody. That’s got to start with each other here. That’s why we have these D-groups. It’s a smaller community where we can make this place that kind of place. To make this place where, when we fall apart when things aren’t going well, we don’t have to come in here and put on the plastic smile and say, “I’m great! Life is awesome!” And that will be hard in this age, right? Nobody posts on Facebook, “My life is falling apart. My day is awful. My kids are rebelling. My marriage is a wreck. I yell at my spouse. My work isn’t going well. Have a nice day. Smiley face. #blessed.” Nobody does that, right? That is not how we do it! And that’s because Facebook projects an image and that kind of thinking will map itself right into our community as Christians unless we say, “No, this is the one place where everybody realizes we’re all messed up.” That’s not to excuse the mess; it’s to say we all have it so we can be honest with each other and we can all say, “Jesus is not finished with us yet.” And because He’s not finished, there’s hope for everybody, all of us.

 

It reminds me of something I read about Tom Hanks recently. I love watching basically anything with Tom Hanks in it. His newest movie, “A Hologram for the King,” is about this middle-aged businessman who is sent to Saudi Arabia on a special assignment. And Hanks had this profound interview talking about how deeply he identified with the main character in this film. Here’s what he said. “No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here?’” Have you ever felt that? You take a step back at your life and you go, “How did I get here?” He’s saying that about the main character, “How did I get here?” And he continues, “When are they going to discover that I am in fact a fraud and take everything away from me?” That’s the premise of the movie. Now Hanks went on to explain his own identification with this character. Now let’s remind ourselves who Tom Hanks is; – two Academy Awards, seventy movies. People have said he is the greatest actor of his generation and he’s got the awards, he’s got the hardware to back it up. He’s got the respect of just about everybody in Hollywood. You know, everybody wants to see Tom Hanks. Here’s what he said. This interview was a few months ago. “It’s a high-wire act that we all walk. There are days when I know that three o'clock tomorrow afternoon I’m going to have to deliver some degree of emotional goods and if I can’t do it, that means I’m going to have to fake it. And if I fake it, that means they might catch me at faking it. And if they catch me at faking it, well then it’s just Doomsday.”

 

Terrified of being found out. And if you feel like that Doomsday is coming for you, here’s what James says to you tonight to us if you’re afraid of being found out as a fake. He says we can become truly genuine people because Jesus saves us from the only Doomsday that really matters. Or put another way, to quote one author, “Get real with God because you’re worse than you think you are and Jesus loves you anyway.” Let’s pray!

 

Father, thank You for loving us enough to be real with us, to tell us that if we go our own way, condemnation awaits, but to also promise us that if we acknowledge and own our sin, You have grace, You have mercy – mercy that we can’t even fathom this evening. Would that be showered on everyone here? All of us who lead our double-lives, our fake lives, our plastic lives. Make us real people. Make us a community of real people that is safe when life falls apart. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

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