The Look That Changes Everything

Series: The Gospel for the Rest of Us

Sermon by Gabe Fluhrer on Jul 24, 2016

James 1:19-25

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As you’re sitting down, if you have a copy of God’s Word I invite you to turn to the book of James. We’re studying through the New Testament book of James in the evenings this summer. If you’re a visitor, a warm welcome to you again. We’re so glad you’re here; glad you’re with us. We find ourselves in James chapter 1 verses 19 to 25 and you’ll find that on page 1011 if you’re using a pew Bible; 1011. James 1, beginning at verse 19. This is God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word, and let us pray before we hear it together.

Our Father, we want to know a firm foundation because so often we feel like our feet are on sinking sand. We feel like it will give way at any moment. And so right now, we need You to do what only You can. We need You to open our ears and open our eyes to behold the wondrous things revealed in Your Law for the glory of Jesus who loved us and gave Himself for us, and by the power of the Holy Spirit sent from on high to make these things plain. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.


James 1:19. This is God’s Word:

“Know this, my beloved brothers:  let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

 

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”

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

I was reading through a rather interesting interview in study this week. It was on teenage prostitution, not a pleasant subject, and they were doing these interviews of a number of young ladies who had fallen into this horrible lifestyle with just terribly sad stories and they asked each one of them, “What was the one thing you wanted and never got? The one thing; if you could get anything from other people, what was the one thing you wanted but did not get?” And almost unanimously they answered this way. They said, “What I needed most was someone to listen to me, someone who cared enough to listen to me.”

And if we think about it, do you ever feel that way during the week, like no one listens to you? If you’re a young mother, I imagine this is your experience quite often. You feel like nobody listens to you. And when you get down to it, when you think about all the relationships you have in your lives, the thing that matters most is if we listen to each other. And if we’re honest with ourselves, in a relationship that matters the most, the relationship that we have with our heavenly Father, we often are not very good listeners. I include myself in that category. Tonight, James teaches us that we’re listening and looking into the Gospel, our key ingredients to change, he is pleading with us to listen; that’s what he’s up to.

Again, just to set the context for you, James is a New Testament wisdom book. That’s a technical term to describe a kind of literature in the Old Testament. The Psalms have wisdom literature, Proverbs, Song of Solomon. It’s wisdom that teaches us to live skillfully for the glory of God and James is a New Testament version of that. And he has been dealing with, over the past few weeks, our desires. And last week he pointed us to God who never changes, who never stops giving, and says, “Recalibrate your desires to Him.” He wants us to look at this God and recalibrate our desires to the God who reveals Himself in Scripture. And tonight what I want us to see is that James teaches us that we change by listening to and looking into the Gospel of grace. James teaches us that we change by listening to and looking into the Gospel of grace. And we’ll look at this text under two headings. In verses 19 to 21, listening to the Gospel. And then in verses 22 to the end of our text, 25, looking into the Gospel. So listening to the Gospel and looking into the Gospel.

  1. Listening to the Gospel

Look with me there again at verses 19 to 21. “Know this, my beloved brothers:  let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” Notice how James does this. He says, “Know this.” Is he referring to what came before or what comes after? The answer is, “Yes, he is referring to both.” He says, “Take all that I have said about trials and desires and how we deal with them and pay attention to that and to what comes next.” And notice how he frames it. I love this. James does not scold but invites because he calls us, “my beloved brothers.” He doesn’t just say, “You rampant, wicked, filthy, evil people, do this.” He says, “My beloved brothers, I love you enough to tell you what to do next.” So he says this is important; what has come before and everything that flows out of the rest of the letter; what comes next.

And notice what we’re going to see – it’s centered on something. What he’s telling us, pay attention to; it’s centered on something. And he says, “Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” What does he mean by “quick to hear”? In a moment he’s going to show us more about this, but in a nutshell, it means listening to the Word of truth that he talked about last week, this Word of truth, the Gospel. He wants us to be quick to constantly hear the Gospel. And if you think about it for just a minute, people who are quick to listen are people who have experienced grace. Let me try to work that out a little bit. When we’re quick to speak, why do we do that? Are you a quick to speak kind of person? I think that characterizes me pretty well. I know what I want to say and I want to say it and we have a hard time listening. If we’re quick to speak, what is it saying? It says that what we have to say is more important than what we’re listening to. All over the Old Testament, through the Proverbs, the Proverbs extol the virtue of somebody who very patiently listens. And we know that from daily experience, don’t we? Somebody who listens well is somebody we’re attracted to and we want to spend time with.

Be Quick to Listen and Slow to Speak

And James says this. He says, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak.” Why? Because the Gospel is the death of the primacy of our own opinions. In other words, if we’re always thinking that our opinion matters most, the Gospel lays waste to that. It says the most important thing we hear is not what comes out of our mouths but what comes out of God’s mouth to us. And he gets even more practical. He says if you’re quick to speak, likely then you’re quick to anger. And isn’t that a characteristic of the age in which we live. People get angry and frustrated very easily. Maybe that’s you. I know that’s me. Anger is something I think that particularly a lot of men struggle with. We get frustrated too easily; we get angry too fast. And we have to be clear about anger because we can tend to put it in watertight compartments. “It’s really, really bad,” or, “Hey, I’ve just got to vent, got to get it off my chest.” The Bible doesn’t do either one of those extremes. It says anger has a place in our lives and everywhere across the Scriptures righteous anger is commended. Look no further than the temple cleansing incident. When Jesus goes into the temple, it’s not like He’s kind of speaking in inviting tones to the people. He drove them out with a whip of cords. He was angry.

But here’s the problem. So oftentimes our anger is not the same reason that our Lord got angry in the temple cleansing. He was angry because God His Father’s glory had been diminished. When we get angry and we get frustrated, so oftentimes we are angry because our glory has been diminished or we perceive it’s been diminished. And James says that kind of anger is not the kind of anger that has any place in the life of those who follow Jesus. And so what he does then is he says this. He says as you listen, as you’re quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, that’s how you begin to change. And notice how he points that out to us. He gives us two reasons. “For,” verse 20, “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” In other words, our unrighteous anger doesn’t lead to righteousness that God approves of. Things that God approves of – that’s what righteousness means here. Those things that are in conformity, that adhere to His Law. Let me give a very practical example of that in this day and age. When people seek to take revenge on law enforcement officers killing them at will, that will not bring about justice in our system. That’s James’ point. Same kind of thing happened in the 1st century. He says if we think vigilante justice because of our anger at injustice is the way to bring about justice, he says it will never happen. That is not the way the righteousness of God is produced.

And he tells us why. He says, “Don’t pay attention just to the injustice outside of you.” And it’s there, and it’s real, and we should pay attention to it. He says, “Don’t pay attention just to that.” Remember, he’s speaking to “my beloved brothers,” his fellow Christians. He says, “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness.” It’s not just the injustice out there that’s the problem; it’s the filthiness and rampant wickedness in here, in our hearts. Once again he brings us back to the heart. He says anger in speech is often sinful from us and the solution is very simple. He says, “Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness.” This is an interesting Greek verb there. It’s literally putting off dirty clothes. That’s kind of the image that’s captured there. If you’ve ever had muddy clothes on, you can’t wait to get them off. Well, some of you kids don’t. you love to have them on for a while! But if you’re older and you have dirty clothes on, you can’t wait to get them off. James says, “Think about sin like that. Think about sin as something that clings to you that you don’t want and you have to do the hard, daily work of putting it off like dirty clothes.”

Receive With Meekness the Implanted Word

And he doesn’t just leave it there. He doesn’t just say, “Stop doing this.” And this is so important to grasp. When the New Testament tells us to change and outlines for us what change looks like, it never just says, “Stop doing this” because God knows our hearts so well that if we just hear, “Stop doing this, stop doing this,” we’re not going to stop doing this. That’s how sin works. Instead, it also tells us what to do instead. James says, “Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness” and do what? Not wrath but reception. “Receive with meekness the implanted word which is able to save your souls.” And we want to look at James and say, “Isn’t that order backward? ‘Receive with meekness the implanted word.’ Why would we receive something that’s already implanted in us? Why does he put it in that order? Why did the Holy Spirit inspire James to put it in that order?”

And I think there’s just a couple reasons at least. James’ language here is rich with Old Testament background. And if you think about it, if you go back to Jeremiah 31, that great promise of the new covenant in the Old Testament, when we're getting to the apex of the prophets and God, is telling His people, “I’m going to judge you. I’m going to send you into exile.” And then He says, “There’s a time coming when I’m going to make a new covenant that is not like the covenant I made with your fathers. I will” – what? “Write my Law on their hearts.” One of the chief marks, the chief characteristics, even one of the best characteristics of the new covenant under which we are living in Jesus is that God takes our hearts and changes them. “And he writes his Law on them.” What does that mean? It means that as the Holy Spirit works in our lives we begin to, more and more, desire what God desires and hate what He hates. We begin to love sin less and love righteousness more. And James picks right up on that and says it’s implanted and yet, and yet you and I have to receive this word with meekness.

Why does he do that? Because in the strange economy of God’s grace – and here’s, again, we’re right up against mystery. Just get used to me saying this a lot – “I don’t know. I don’t know how this works out.” God is totally sovereign, He implants His Word within us, and yet we are called upon everywhere in the Bible to keep on receiving that, to keep believing, to keep repenting, to keep every day taking in that Word – we’re going to talk more about that in a moment – even though it’s implanted, even though salvation is all of grace, the means God uses to work out that salvation in our daily lives is a humble, listening to God’s Gospel of grace. That’s how change happens.

And it results in something. Look at the end of verse 21. “Which is able to save your souls.” The actual better translation there is, “to save your lives.” James is not just talking here about getting people to heaven. He’s passionate about that, but what he’s getting at here is this implanted Word, God’s work in our lives through His Gospel, by the Spirit, this implanted Word is a whole Gospel which restores us to being whole people and eventually will restore the creation wholly – W – H – O – L – L – Y. Everything will be touched by this Gospel. It’s able to save, to restore, to renew us, body and soul. That’s the great and glorious promise of what it means to be a Christian. It’s not just heaven when you die, friends. It is that, but it’s so much more than that because that’s not the end of the story. The end of the story is that caskets, and black, and mourning, and graves, and losing loved ones is never the end of the story. It’s resurrection. We will be restored, body and soul, and becoming a believer in Jesus now and having our souls brought from death to life by the Gospel is a foretaste, a faint foretaste of the restored wholeness we will all experience one day when the resurrection happens. The Gospel is not a shortened, shrunk, flattened Gospel; it’s a full Gospel. It’s everything. It encompasses everything. That’s what God is after. That’s what He’s up to. So James tells us about the power of this Gospel as we listen to it.

  1. Looking Into the Gospel.

Then he tells us in verses 22 to 25 what happens when we look into it. Look there at verse 22, at looking into the Gospel. “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” So James, to tell us about how the Gospel is lived out, what it looks like, turns to the extended metaphor of a mirror and gives us two kinds of people. That’s what we have here – a tale of two kinds of people. We have the person who glances at the mirror. James says the mirror is like God’s Word. And remember, back then he doesn’t have mirrors like you and I have. The way that the ancient world had mirrors was to take silver or bronze and to polish it very, very highly so that you can get a faint reflection of yourself in the mirror. That’s why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “Now we see in a mirror dimly,” because he would have been looking at a piece of shiny silver or bronze and it’s not the same thing as looking in reflective glass like we have today.

But James says, “Think about what you do on a daily basis when you go to work.” Most of us, unless we’re really struggling with narcissism, just take a quick glance, make sure there’s no toothpaste on the tie, make sure the hair’s in the right place, take a quick glance at the mirror and head out the door for work. James says if that’s what you do with God’s Word, if you treat it that way, then things are not going to happen for you; change is not going to happen. You’re a hearer of forgetfulness. That’s how he ends up here. That’s literally what it means – a hearer of forgetfulness. And he says this to us because he doesn’t want us to be deceived. Notice his concern here; it’s pastoral. He’s not trying to shame us into listening better. He says, “Deception is possible. Don’t be deceived. Don’t be deceived by the fact that it’s very possible to sit and listen and never act on the Word.” And James says if that describes you then you’re somebody who had not yet understood in truth and received the Gospel of grace. If it’s just something you come in here and it’s just like glancing at the mirror on the way to work and you walk away and it never touches or changes your life, it has no implementation, you don’t act on it, then you’re not really listening James says.

Be Doers of God’s Word and not Just Listeners

And that’s because, if you look through the Scriptures, the prime mark of somebody who does not belong to God are people who forget Him. They forget His words. You look through the Old Testament and God says again and again, “You’ve forgotten me.” And if we just do that with God’s Word, if we hear it and don’t put it into practice, then we are those who’ve forgotten Him. And let me put it in a general principle. One author, I read put it this way. “Pay attention to what you pay attention to.” Pay attention to what you pay attention to. That’s what James is getting at here. If you treat God’s Word as something that’s not worthy of your attention, then it’s because you don’t know Him. That certainly is a testimony of a lot of us who maybe were raised in churches and hear it a lot and it never took root and when it finally did you think to yourself, this was my thinking, “How did I miss all this?” No, we have to be intentionally listening as James is going to tell us in a minute. But he says if what we pay attention to the most is our own opinions or the opinions of the culture makers or the thousands and thousands of other voices the vie for our attention every day, if that’s what we pay attention to over God’s Word, we need to examine ourselves. We need to ask if we’ve truly understood the Gospel.

And remember why James does this. He’s concerned that we know what genuine faith is. James is not a letter about saving yourself by works. It’s a letter of knowing what genuine faith looks like. And James says the mark of genuine faith is that it hears and then it acts. And that is not a perfectionistic kind of way. What do I mean by that? It doesn’t mean that you’re only saved if you put God’s Word into practice perfectly. James is never going to teach anything like that. The Bible doesn’t teach that. What it simply means is this. Is there a concern in your life to put into practice what you hear from God’s Word? Yes, you fail; yes, I fail. Yes, we stumble; yes, we fall. Is that desire there? Remember, James is talking to us about desires. Do we have that desire to put it into practice?

The Perfect Law of Liberty

And then James contrasts that right there in verse 25 with the doer. Verse 25, “But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” You see, he doesn’t just glance; he gazes. This man or woman gazes intently into the Scriptures, takes them in, meditates on them. Look at how James puts it. “The perfect law of liberty.” He’s not just talking about the legal demands of the Old Testament. Okay? He’s not just talking about all those laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. No, it’s much broader. He means all of God’s Word. He’s given us different terminology for the same thing here – the word of truth; the implanted word; the perfect law of liberty. They all equal the same thing. It’s the Gospel. It’s the story of what God has done for His people in this fallen world. It’s a perfect Law. It’s a firm foundation. The Word of God has no errors in it. And anytime we suggest that it does or scholars suggest that it does, they miss the context in which it was given. Jesus would have looked at you like you grew six different heads and turned purple if you suggested to Him that there were any imperfections in the Old Testament. James says the same thing about the New Testament. Everything’s perfect. God’s Word has no errors and no flaws and therefore, because it’s trustworthy because it’s worthy of all our devotion and trust, when we gaze into it, when we look into it deeply and with intention and we begin to meditate on it, that is when change happens.

This came home to me last week. I was sitting with a friend on a porch. I do that a lot at night. And he said to me, he said, “You know one thing the Lord’s been showing to me, Gabe,” he said, “I need to be more about meditation.” He said, “When I would meditate on God’s Word and think about it all day long,” he said, “my life was just better.” It doesn’t mean there weren’t hardships, but he said, “I just handled it so much better when I was meditating on it, when I was really sitting down writing out my thoughts, thinking about God’s Word.” And I started thinking about that and thought to myself and I look back on my life and yes, that’s when things have gone well, when I’m digging in, gazing intently into the Law of liberty.

The Power of God’s Word

So here’s James’ point – act upon what you hear. Listen, then act. And here’s the paradox. God implants, God gives us that Word. He saves our souls, our lives. It’s all of Him. But in that acting, the means He uses is the faithful daily reading and study and meditation of God’s Word. My friends, there’s no replacement for it. And that’s not legalistic, that’s not to shame you, that’s not to say that if you haven’t done that you should walk out of here and go, “Boy, Monday’s going to be awful because I don’t know where I’m going to fit in meditation.” I’m not talking about that all of us memorize the book of Ephesians tomorrow. Not a bad thing if you do that! But if you memorize Ephesians 1:1 tomorrow and begin thinking about it, the Bible tells us this Word is alive; it’s real, it’s living. It will begin to work in us and change us as God implants that grace more and more as we meditate on it, as we put it into practice - everything changes. That’s James’ point.

And that’s why coming here is so important week after week. We’ve said this before. This is the place to hear about reality, not our 24-hour cable news services. If you want to hear about what’s really real, listen to the Gospel. Come here week by week and get a reality check from God’s Word about what really matters, about eternal things, about things that last, things that will go on when all of our fading pursuits finally die away. This is what lasts. This Law of liberty speaks liberty into our sin, into our shame, into our failure, all of the things that take us away from God. The way of liberty is the way of listening. That’s James’ point. And if we persevere, he says, he will be blessed in his doing.

And that brings us right back to Psalm 1, doesn’t it? “Blessed is the man who does not walk or stand or sit in the counsel of the wicked.” What does he do? “His delight is in the law of the LORD, and on it, he meditates day and night.” And this takes us to the Gospel. There’s only been one Man who’s persevered, who’s listened perfectly, who’s put it into practice perfectly. There’s only one man who’s the blessed man of Psalm 1, and as we hear this morning of Psalm 112. There’s only one man who’s got riches and nations for an inheritance, who’s always listened, who’s always done His Father’s will, who’s never been a hearer of forgetfulness, and it’s Jesus. And if we miss that and we try to do this on our own steam, we’ll fail. If we realize He did that in our place, then, then we have resources for change.

Warning Against Anger

And in closing, let me mention two things where change should show up in our lives this week if we understand what James is saying. Let’s think about anger and speech. Here’s what anger tells us if you get angry quickly. Here’s the main thing a quick temper tells us. It tells us that something other than Jesus has gained first place in our hearts. Okay, why? Because when we get angry, when we get frustrated, what is that anger saying? It’s saying, “I didn’t get what I want.” Our youngest daughter, unlike our other two, has taken to expressing her frustration in rather loud squawks. And on our way to the beach a couple weeks ago, we had five hours of those frustrated desires! And it was a good reminder to me that so often when I’m frustrated and get angry I’m squawking before the Lord. Just like that, I’m a child who didn’t get what he wants. When we get frustrated, when we get angry, the Gospel gives us perspective. It recalibrates our desires. It tells us that our greatest need has been met in Jesus and therefore all our lesser needs will be taken care of as well so that we can relax in our Savior’s arms. The antidote to anger is Gospel grace.

The Danger of Being Quick to Speak

What about our speech? If we’re quick to speak, and I say this as one who is, it reveals deep-seated pride, doesn’t it? Why are we quick to speak? Again, people who are quick to speak think they have all the answers. This is also why proud people never ask questions. Have you ever been around somebody like that? You spend some time with them and they never ask you a question; they just talk. That’s not really relationship, is it? “They don’t know anything about you. You know everything about them.” But when James is telling us to be slow to speak and quick to hear, he’s telling us, “Fight pride by the Gospel.” Let Jesus’ voice be more precious to you in His Word than your own opinions. Listen to that first. Let that be what seasons your speech – the grace of the Gospel.

And when we do this, the Word does something to us. It does something to us. Because of our rampant sin and wickedness, when we are listening to, gazing intently to, studying, meditating on this Word, here’s what it does – and it’s painful. It reveals our blind spots. The tricky thing about blind spots is you don’t know you have them; I don’t know I have them. I think one of the greatest inventions ever is on our car. It’s got one of those little warning lights on the side mirrors. That is just amazing to me because no more turning over and feeling like I’m going to run off the road. It tells me if there’s something in my blind spot. The Scriptures are our warning lights for our blind spots. It tells us when something is there. And we have them individually, we have the corporately, and when we look and listen carefully we’ll see ourselves as we ought because we’ll see ourselves in the light of the Gospel. And Jesus never exposes our blind spots to cause us further shame. He exposes our blind spots out of love to correct us and bring us back to Himself and say, “Choose the better way instead of the blind alley of idolatry. Choose Me. Come after Me. It’s better over here.”

And the last thing this firm foundation, this Word does to us, is it gives us the greatest story ever told. I was reading some research this week and one thing this researcher pointed out was that human beings, unlike other animals – maybe this is one of the defining marks of what makes us human – is that we tell stories. Don’t you love a good story? Isn’t that what we do around our family dinner tables, especially around the holidays? You’re always laughing, getting together talking; you’re telling stories. Here’s the thing about stories. What you and I listen to is what life is all about. Or, stated differently, life is about who or what you listen to. Because while all of us love to tell stories, all of us are always telling a story internally. There’s always a voice, right, and that voice will tell us, “You’re not good enough. You’ve failed. You’re a filthy, rotten sinner.” And some of those things may be true. All of us are sinners; that much is true. Whether or not you have failed, I don’t know. There is an inner monolog in each one of us; you are telling yourself a story to make sense of reality every single day. And James says, “I want you to pay attention to what you listen to.”

It reminds me of the words of the founder of “60 Minutes,” that wildly popular news, TV news show, Don Hewitt. Somebody asked him, “How did you come up with the idea of ’60 Minutes’?” You know what he said? He said, “My philosophy is simple. It’s what I tell kids to say to their parents. ‘Tell me a story.’” He said, “Don’t just give me facts. Tell me a story.” And what James tells us is this. If you want your desires to change, if you want your speech and your anger to change, you must change what story you’re listening to. And to do that, he invites us into the greatest true story ever told; the true story of what God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is doing in the world to redeem a people for Himself through the blood and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And James says if you’re quick to hear, if you’re slow to speak, when you receive that story with meekness and it’s implanted in your life, that’s when things change! That’s when story has power that is not only just the power that we have attached to stories; it’s divine power. The story, the true story of the Gospel changes everything for us.

So all of us are telling stories to ourselves and to each other every day. James says tonight, “Be quick to listen to the one, quick to gaze into that one, that unlike all the other stories, when you listen to it, changes your life.”

Let’s pray.

Father, we need to be better listeners to our spouses, to our children, to each other, to hurting people. Make us those kind of listeners this week because we’ve been much with You, we’ve listened to You. We understand we’re You’re beloved children, we’re beloved brothers and sisters of one another. Much sin remains. Weed it out. Change us. Help us to listen well to the true story of grace this week. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

©2016 First Presbyterian Church.

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