Sermon 02-02-14: “Sin and Temptation”

February 8, 2014

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In Part 2 of “Practically Perfect,” our sermon series in James, I talk about “tests” again—except this time about those tests that we fail. The Bible calls these failures sin. It might seem overly negative, and certainly out of step with our culture, to focus on sin. But if we don’t first hear the “bad news” about sin, we won’t be able to comprehend the good news of Jesus Christ, who came to save us from our sins!

Sermon Text: James 1:9-18

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

About once a month, I have recurring nightmares that have to do with being back in high school or college. These kinds of dreams are very common. Maybe you’ve had them too. One of mine goes something like this: I’m back in college. I signed up for a class at the beginning of the semester that I had no interest in whatsoever. And the truth is, I blew off the class all semester long. I haven’t attended the lectures. And I haven’t done any of the homework. I have no idea what’s going on in the class. And suddenly here it is, the end of the semester: it’s time to take the final exam. And I’m completely unprepared. So much so, in fact, that I don’t even remember what lecture hall or classroom the class meets in.

It’s at this point that I wake up and breathe a sigh of relief. Because if I didn’t wake up, I would surely fail the test.

In this week’s scripture, James continues to talk about tests that we face—and he talks about tests that we fail, and why we fail them.

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You might recall from last week, James told us something that shouldn’t surprise any of us: Are you ready? Bad stuff is going to happen to us in life. We are going to suffer. We are going to face trials over and over again in life—big trials and little trials. Some of you faced a trial last Tuesday getting home in the snowstorm. And God bless Eric Haymans! I was following Wendy’s and Eric’s posts on Facebook. He was in traffic for 18 hours! Eric said, “After a while, you just have to laugh about it.” And I thought, “Well, that’s a good attitude.” If you can learn to laugh in the midst of an experience like that, well… It seems clear that you are passing that particular test.

See, that’s something else that James told us in last week’s scripture: Every time bad stuff happens, every time we suffer, every time we face trials of any kind, God will use it for our good: to teach us patience; to teach us wisdom; to teach us to depend on the Lord more and more. It’s not that God necessarily causes these things to happen. But given that the bad stuff is going to happen anyway, you better believe that God always has the power to take that bad stuff and transform it into something good.

Didn’t we see one example of that yesterday morning at the benefit for Tracy? This latest trial that the Chitwoods faced was related to the cost of this very expensive medicine that Tracy needs to take each month to treat her cancer. Even after insurance paid its part, they were looking at bills of over $2,000 a month for this pill! Who can afford that! So some people from this church had an idea. Maybe we can do something to help. But what can one little church do?

Well… God showed us, didn’t he? It’s not a matter of what one little church can do, it’s a matter of what our mighty God—our fortress, our rock, our strong tower—can do when we put our trust in him! When we just sort of get out of the way and let him take the lead! Amen? That benefit breakfast raised over $17,000 for her! Amen? Hallelujah!

Who did that for us? Who gave this gift to us? Who’s responsible for that? It’s no one other than God. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above,” James tells us, “coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Every good and perfect gift.

Of course, it’s easy to see how God is responsible for good and perfect gifts when God gives us something that seems impossible otherwise—like $17,000 from a benefit breakfast. When we receive a gift like that we suddenly become aware of how incredibly good God is, and we celebrate that, and we praise God for his blessings.

But consider this: What if $17,000 were pocket change for us? What if we never had to struggle financially? What if we never had to sweat making ends meet? Would we be able to recognize that our money, our possessions, our financial security was one of many good and perfect gifts that our heavenly Father gives to us? Or would we think, “I did this on my own. I earned this. I deserve this. This is mine.”

When I went to Kenya for the first time last year, I taught theology, doctrine, and church history to a group of about 40 indigenous United Methodist pastors. My fellow Methodist pastors there had nothing by our standards. None of them earned a salary for their church work—they collected a little bit from the offering each week—but keep in mind that the congregation they ministered to was poor. They supported themselves by working other jobs. Insurance, benefits, forget about it. Education? Seminary education… few of them could afford it. None of them held church in proper church buildings.

By contrast, back here in the States, this Methodist pastor is tempted to worry that I don’t have enough. I’m tempted to compare myself to other people and think, “Why do they have more than I do?” I’m tempted to resent other people’s success.

I’m about a thousand times wealthier than my fellow pastors in Kenya, but, brothers and sisters, they have so much more than me! They have treasures in heaven, “where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” When they pray the Lord’s Prayer each week, they may not know how they’re going to receive their daily bread, but when they receive it, they know exactly where it comes from: their heavenly Father.

Which goes to show that we don’t just face a trial or a test when bad stuff happens, but also when good stuff happens. When things are going our way. When we find success. When we prosper. That’s why James reserves such harsh words for rich Christians, as we see in verses 10 and 11: “But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.”

He’s not saying there’s anything wrong with being rich in and of itself; he’s not telling these rich Christians that they have to sell all of their possessions and give their money to the poor; it’s just that wealth can be a test that we easily fail, a temptation that can lure us into sin—as much as any other temptation. And as I implied in my discussion about Kenya, most of us Americans—including most of us in this congregation—are pretty wealthy, at least relative to the rest of the world. So we need to be careful! We need to be humble. We need to say to ourselves, “Wow! God has really blessed me. Since all of this stuff I have isn’t going to last anyway, how can I use these resources to make a difference for eternity. How can I use these good and perfect gifts for God’s kingdom?”

When we watch the Super Bowl later today, we will undoubtedly see some players kneeling in prayer—“Tebowing”—when they score a touchdown. We will see some players pointing heavenward when they catch a touchdown pass. We will hear some players in post-game interviews thanking God for giving them confidence or strength or power to win the game.

And that’s exactly as it should be! These players, in their own way, are recognizing the fact that every good and perfect gift—whether it’s the skill to make an acrobatic leap in the air to intercept a pass, or the strength to return a kickoff for a touchdown, or the wits required to read a defense and call an audible at the line of scrimmage—“Omaha! Omaha!”—every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from our heavenly Father, who gives generously to all his children, without finding fault.

In doing so, these players are resisting the temptation to say, “This is me! Look what I did! Look how great I am!” When tempted to take credit for themselves, they’re showing us where credit really belongs.

Most of us could probably learn something from their example.

James wants us to know that embedded within every trial we face is a temptation to sin: As we just discussed, when we’re tested by success and prosperity, we’re tempted to forget about God, to steal the credit for ourselves, to imagine that we did it on our own. When we’re tested by financial difficulties, we’re tempted to doubt that God will really provide for us. When we’re tested by marital difficulties, we’re tempted to believe that there’s some other persona coworker, a neighbor, a friend of the opposite sex—who really understands us and loves us. When we’re tested by the death of a loved one, we’re tempted to doubt God’s love for us. When we’re tested by the shocking news of mass murder, genocide, or natural disasters, we’re tempted to doubt God’s justice, or even his existence.[1]

James wants us to know that temptation to sin is everywhereand that sin is a deadly dangerous spiritual problem for everyone: James borrows an analogy from marriage and childrearing to say that temptation conceives and gives birth to sin, then sin grows up and gives birth to death—spiritual death,separation from God, hell. And of course the rest of the Bible agrees with him: God warns Adam and Eve in the Garden that if they sin by disobeying him, they will die. And they do. In Romans 6, Paul says that the “wages of sin is death.” In Romans 7, Paul speaks from the point of view of someone who has not been born again—and describes the destructive, addictive nature of sin in the starkest terms: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I know that nothing good dwells in me… For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…” Paul describes the power of sin as “waging war” within our minds and “holding us captive.” Finally, he says, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Do you see how out-of-step this idea is with our culture? Our culture tells us that there’s nothing really wrong with us—that our biggest problem, our biggest sin, is that we fail to be who we truly are inside. And if only we could get in touch with who we really are deep down inside, then we would be O.K. I’m a big fan of the Beatles and John Lennon, but Lennon’s classic peace anthem, “Imagine,” is air-headed mush—with an incredibly gorgeous melody. But the lyrics are ridiculous: Lennon says that if only we got rid of external things like religion and churches and institutions and governments and nations, then we would all be able to get along with one another and have true and lasting peace.

Oh please!

I started watching The Walking Dead on Netflix during Snow Jam 2014 last week. And I can’t say I love the show, although I’m glad that it helps our local economy. But one thing the show gets right is human nature. I mean, the show imagines this post-apocalyptic world in which a handful of human survivors are fighting to save humanity from the threat of zombies. They have every incentive to get along, to work together, to cooperate against the threat of a common enemy—yet they are continually squabbling amongst themselves over petty things, the same things we fight about on this side of the zombie apocalypse. They can’t get along very well with one another, even when failing to get along means certain death.

That seems exactly right to me! Our biggest problem isn’t zombies, governments, religions, human institutions, or anything outside of us: the biggest problem is right here, in our hearts. And the name of that problem is sin. And the Bible teaches that if we don’t solve that problem, we will never know true peace.

And we the church also need to remind ourselves that sin is our biggest problem. We have a hymn in our hymnal that says, “Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidet me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.” And that’s a beautiful and true sentiment. Jesus Christ accepts us and forgives us just as we are when we turn to him in faith and repentance. By all means. But that’s just the beginning of what it means to be a Christian. We are missing the point if we think that Jesus Christ wants us to remain “just as we are.” Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery two things: both “your sins are forgiven” and go and sin no more.”

Being a Christian is a process of continually recognizing and repenting of our sins—of changing and growing and becoming more Christ-like.

If that process is not happening in our lives right now, it is worth asking whether or not the process ever began in the first place! Or maybe we got started some time in the past. But we stopped listening and obeying the Lord, and our hearts have now grown cold. And we need to repent and turn to him again, and ask him again to forgive us and give us his gift of saving grace.

I confess that all this talk of sin sounds like bad news. I sound like John the Baptist and less like John the Methodist, if you know what I mean. But if we don’t first recognize the bad news of our sin, we’ll never comprehend why we need the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The good news is that our Lord and Savior came into this world in order to live the life of sinless, perfect obedience to our heavenly Father—the life that we were unable to live for ourselves—and to suffer the penalty of death and hell for us, which our sins so richly deserved.

Thank you, Jesus, for doing that for me. Thank you, Jesus, for saving me from my sins. Thank you, Jesus, for giving me the power, through your Holy Spirit, to free me and heal me from sin’s destructive, dangerous hold over me. He wants to do the same for you.

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”


[1] Most of these thoughts come from Douglas Moo, The Letter of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 72.

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