Sermon 01-26-14: “When the Going Gets Tough”

January 31, 2014

practically_perfect

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, his younger half-brother James did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah and Son of God. But James had dramatic change of heart: not only did he become a believer, in the year 62 he even gave his life for that belief. What caused the change in James’s life? The resurrection. As I discuss in this sermon, the resurrection changed everything for James. It ought to change everything for us.

Sermon Text: James 1:1-12

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

As I indicated in my children’s sermon, we know for sure that during Jesus’ earthly ministry, James was not a believer in his big brother. In Mark chapter 3, Mark tells us that after Jesus became famous around Galilee for his teaching, preaching, and healing, James, along with his other siblings, and his mother Mary, believed that Jesus had gone “out of his mind.”[1] Elsewhere, in John’s gospel, James and his brothers try to convince Jesus to go to Jerusalem and prove that he was the Messiah. Because, John says, “Not even his brothers believed in him.”[2]

And you might ask, “How is it possible that James wouldn’t believe that his older brother was the Messiah, the Son of God, and God in the flesh?” Can you imagine, your own flesh-and-bloodnot believing in you? Can you imagine?

Well… If you actually have brothers or sisters, of course you can!

Just last week, Lisa’s parents were on their way to Florida on vacation and they crossed over the Suwannee River. And so Lisa’s Mom texted her: “We just crossed over the Suwannee River!” Why is that important? Because crossing over the Suwannee River in Florida has been an inside joke in the family for decades! When Lisa was, like, 5 or 6 years old, she and her family were driving to Tampa on vacation, and Lisa was asleep in the floor of the station wagon—before we worried about seat belts, when kids used to lay on top of the hump between the front and back seat, you know? And she was sleeping on the hump when her older brother Frank nudged her awake: “We just crossed over the Suwannee River and you missed it! I can’t believe you missed it! Way down upon the Swanee River/ Far, far away” And Lisa would cry and Frank would laugh.

And the thing is they hadn’t crossed the Suwannee River yet, Frank was just saying that to upset her. Because that’s what brothers do. And later on, during that same car trip: “Hey, Lisa, we just crossed over the Suwannee River, and you missed it: Way down upon the Swanee River…” And the crying would start over again.

This is how brothers and sisters often treat one another. Even if it’s good-natured teasing. Even if it’s no teasing at all. Because brothers and sisters live in such close proximity, they often get on one another’s nerves. We can’t hide anything from our siblings. They know us better than anyone. They see one another at their best and worst. They can’t help but share the most intimate parts of their lives with one another. Notice how siblings are the ones who often write the gossipy tell-all books when their brother or sister makes it big. Because only they know the real person underneath all the glitz and glamor. Right? I’m not saying that Jesus was mean to his little brother, but it’s natural that James would feel as if he were in his big brother’s shadow all the time, and that he would feel jealous, that he would feel a rivalry with Jesus. It’s natural that he would want to cut Jesus “down to size” when so many thousands of other people were talking about how great Jesus was.

Yet, in spite of all this, James—even the little brother James—experienced a dramatic change of heart. So much so that he came to believe that Jesus was God’s Son, the Messiah, Lord over all the world, and, indeed, God in the flesh. So much so that he sacrificed his life because of this belief. In the year 62, after religious authorities gave him the opportunity to publicly renounce his faith in Jesus and disperse Jesus’ followers, James instead bore witness to Christ: “Why do you ask me concerning the Son of Man?” James said. “He is sitting in heaven on the right hand of the great power, and he will come on the clouds of heaven.” And with these words, they seized James, threw him down from the highest pinnacle of the Temple Mount, and, because he wasn’t quite dead yet, they clubbed to death.[3]

It’s worth asking: What would it take for you to believe that your brother was God in the flesh?What would explain the dramatic change in James’s outlook? How did he go from unbelief to a faith that was so strong that he sacrificed his life on account of it? One thing: the resurrection of Jesus. He really believed that his big brother Jesus had been resurrected. And Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 that the resurrected Lord made a special appearance to James, alone.[4] Nearly everywhere else, Jesus appeared to groups of disciples, but James has the distinction of having Jesus come to him by himself.

Jesus was taking care of his little brother: Jesus, the good shepherd, was living out that parable in which he leaves the 99 sheep and goes to rescue the one lost sheep.

One thing’s for sure: If this person identifying himself as the resurrected Lord wasn’t Jesus, James would know that better than anyone. But he saw Jesus and believed.

Resurrection changes everything. It changed everything for James, and it ought to change everything for us.

Do we believe that Jesus Christ suffered and died in order to forgive our sins and save us from an eternity in hell? And that he was raised from the dead in order to defeat death for us and give us eternal life? If so, hasn’t God has taken away the biggest things to be afraid of in life? If the resurrection happened, what do we have to be afraid of? Being thrown off a mountain? Being clubbed or stoned to death? Being lit on fire? Being fed to the lions? Being crucified upside down? Being beheaded? Because James and the other apostles faced all these things and more. And even today, Christians around the world are experiencing persecution and death in larger numbers than any other time in history!

What do we have to be afraid of?

God has given us the power to face death without fear, and yet we are so often afraid of so many smaller things. Why are we so afraid to endure the hardship and pain and suffering and trials that come our way?

I’m asking myself these questions, too, by the way.

But James isn’t telling us simply not to fear those things. He’s saying something much stronger: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.”[5] And he goes on to say that it produces wisdom and faith.

I don’t know about you, but these are hard words for me:

Consider it nothing but joy when you get laid off? Consider it nothing but joy when your business fails? Consider it nothing but joy when you flunk an exam? Consider it nothing but joy when you get sick or face a medical emergency? Consider it nothing but joy when you face separation or divorce? Consider it nothing but joy when you’re lonely or depressed?

Is James really saying that?

Yes. He is. How could he not be? After all, Jesus Christ suffered the worst trials, the worst pain, the worst suffering on the cross—completely voluntarily—because he loved us that much. And God the Father transformed that suffering into the source of humanity’s greatest joy! Do we not believe that God has the power to do the same with our suffering?

Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, wrote a famous book about his experience as a survivor of Nazi concentration camps during World War II. He survived Dachau and Auschwitz. Even in the face of evil and suffering at its worst, Frankl said, he and his fellow prisoners in these death camps had a choice. He wrote:

Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.[6]

What Frankl is saying is that no matter what happens to us—even if it’s the gas chamber—we always have the freedom to choose whether or not that circumstance will crush our spirits or become an opportunity for spiritual growth. As a Nazi concentration camp survivor, Frankl would know whether or not that’s true better than anyone. And no one is standing on higher moral high ground in saying so, because he saw evil, suffering, and human depravity at their worst!

The apostle James would agree with him! But he would say a little more: Our heavenly Father is the One who will take the worst trials that come our way and transform them into something good for us! When we go through trials, we can be confident that it’s for our good. I watched a scientific atheist one time debating a Christian over the question of God’s existence, and the atheist couldn’t make a convincing case that God doesn’t on scientific grounds. So finally in frustration he said, “Well, how can you believe in a God who allows so much suffering in the world.” Because in our modern mindset we can’t conceive that suffering could actually be good for us. We think, if God is really there, surely he would protect us from all trials and suffering. That’s not the Bible’s perspective, and it’s not James’s perspective. James knows that sometimes the best, most loving thing that our heavenly Father can do for us is to let us go through trials and suffering. Because through those trials, through that suffering, God will give us patience, wisdom, and faith.

In fact, James would say, there’s a kind of patience we can only learn through trials. There’s a kind of wisdom we can only learn through trials. There’s a kind of trust in the Lord that only develops through trials.

Let me give you a recent example of how the Lord transformed a trial into something good for me. Last month, I came to you and told you that our church was facing a budget crisis: We needed to have our best month of giving in the history of our church in order to pay our bills and meet all our financial obligations. This was a test for me—it wasn’t the biggest test ever, but it was a test. Any time I face a problem that I can’t solve by simply working harder or longer or burning the midnight oil—by relying on my own strength, my own wits, my own resources—is a test for me. As I told you, if our financial problem was going to be solved, it was only going to be solved by trusting in the Lord.

Truth is, I really want to avoid trusting in the Lord as much as possible. I want my faith to be like that fire extinguisher locked behind that glass door. It’s there if I need it, but I don’t want to need it. You know? But if that fire extinguisher stays locked behind that glass door, how will you know if it works… unless the Lord makes sure we have to use it.

So I trusted and prayed. And you trusted and prayed. And something amazing happened. We needed our best month ever and we had our best month ever… We blew it out of the water, in fact. We exceeded our best month ever by $10,000.

So, the next time a crisis comes my way in which I’ll be forced to trust in the Lord, do you think I’ll be just a little more confident that he’ll see me through? Do you think my faith today is just a little bit stronger than it was before? Of course it is!

And maybe you’re like, “Brent, that kind of trial isn’t like, you know, a concentration camp or a terminal illness. What if a trial we endure ends up killing us?” Well, then we get heaven. Someone once said that from the perspective of eternity, the worst trials we face in life will seem like one night in a bad hotel.

So consider it nothing but joy when you go through trials. Is there a message there for you and me?

Of the five branches of the military, the U.S. Marine Corps has been the most successful over the years by far when it comes to recruiting. And they’ve been successful not by telling us what a great adventure we’ll have, or that we’ll gain important career skills, or that we’ll get to play with the coolest technology, or that we’ll get money for college. Instead, they’ve been successful telling us how incredibly hard it is to be a marine. And I’m not at all saying that the other four branches aren’t also hard; I’m just speaking of the Marines’ marketing strategy. Think about the Marines’ message: “The few. The proud.” “We don’t take applications. Only commitments.” “There are a few who move toward the sounds of chaos… They are forged in the crucible of training.”

As strange and counterintuitive as it may seem, the Marines’ recruiting pitch is: “Join us if you have the guts, but just know it’s going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.”

It reminds me a little of Jesus’ recruiting pitch: “Take up your cross”—this instrument of torture and death—“and follow me.” “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”

Doesn’t that sound hard? Then why do so many preachers and churches make it seem so easy? We make it seem like being a Christian is just a matter of walking down the aisle on Sunday, making a profession of faith, praying a prayer, getting confirmed, getting baptized… Once that’s over with, you can just get on with your life. Or… we make it seem like being a Christian is like purchasing fire insurance for eternity: what you do between now and then is completely up to you. Or… we make it seem like being a Christian is good but optional, because all religions are the same, and the truth of the matter is that God’s not really going to judge anyone or send anyone to hell. So follow Jesus or don’t follow Jesus. God doesn’t care. We’ll all be saved in the end.

No, I wish the church was at least as honest as the Marines! Because following Jesus is hard. There are Christians all around the world who, like James, are being persecuted, arrested, tortured, and killed because of their faith. That’s incredibly hard.

Closer to home, there are Christians like the Griffiths family, who sacrificed a comfortable, prosperous middle-class life in the States to serve the Lord in Kenya. And that’s hard. There are Christians who sacrifice their time and energy to serve the Lord, as our youth did yesterday in Clarkston and people from Hampton UMC do all the time. And that’s hard.

There are married Christians who are fighting to honor their wedding vows and save their marriages instead of throwing in the towel and getting a divorce. And that’s hard. There are single Christians who are making the deeply countercultural choice not to have sex outside of marriage, even when it seems like no one else is making that choice. And that’s hard.

There are Christians, like some of you in this church, who are choosing to tithe, which means to give 10 percent of their income or more to the Lord, even though there are so many other things they could do with their money. And that’s hard. There are Christians who, in spite of their busy schedules, have made prayer and Bible study and weekly worship a priority. And that’s hard.

There are Christians who are fighting one day at a time to resist the temptations of destructive habits and addictions. And that’s hard. There are Christians who are facing serious illness with courage and faith and even a sense of humor. And that’s hard.

Have you found that being a Christian is hard. Well… Congratulations! That means you’re doing it right!

What hard thing is the Lord asking you to endure right now? May he bless you with the patience, wisdom, and faith to see it through. Amen.


[1] Mark 3:20-21, 31-35

[2] John 7:1-9

[3] Scot McKnight, The Letter of James (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 21-2.

[4] 1 Corinthians 15:7

[5] James 1:2-3 NRSV

[6] Viktor Frankl, Mans Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon, 2006), 66.

4 Responses to “Sermon 01-26-14: “When the Going Gets Tough””

  1. Cindy and Keith Allen Says:

    Brent,
    Thank you so much for sharing God’s message through this media. Keith and I have been blessed so much by your thoughts and writings. We feel as though God is truly speaking to us by your messages.

    Although we miss you in Alpharetta Vinebranch, we know you are doing great things for God in your new church.

    May God continue to bless you, your family and your new congregation.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, a timely message. I’m stressed out over my kids, especially my 18 year old daughter. A “hard” thing. Don’t see exactly what “good” is likely to come of this, but at least it should be working some endurance in me! Thanks for this message. (By the by, God must not have intended for the Broncos to win last night!)


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