Sermon 02-09-14: “Hearers and Doers, Part 1”

February 13, 2014

practically_perfect

Being “doers of the Word,” rather than hearers only means that we must first trust that the God’s Word is relevant for our lives today. If we’re prepared to submit to God’s Word, we shouldn’t be surprised that doing so is often incredibly difficult. As I argue in this sermon, one of the main ways in which we fail to “do” God’s Word is in the area of witness and evangelism.

Sermon Text: James 1:19-27

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

Well, it wasn’t much of a Super Bowl last week, was it? The only thing interesting about it was the halftime show. In case you didn’t see it, the headliner was Bruno Mars, and by all accounts he did quite well: he was singing and dancing and playing drums and jumping up in the air and falling down and doing splits. It was very impressive. Then he was joined onstage the band the ’90s band the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And when they came out everybody was jumping up and down, like this, the whole time. What if I preached my sermon doing this for 25 minutes. That would be quit impressive! But I’m already tired, so I’ll stop!

So it was impressive that the band jumping up and down and playing their instruments.

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Except, as it turns out, they weren’t playing their instruments: their instruments weren’t plugged in—as some people on the internet were quick to point out. The band later confessed that while the vocals were live, the instrumentalists were miming to a prerecorded track. In other words, they were pretending… faking… going through the motions.

In today’s scripture, James’s main concern is about Christians who are pretending, or faking, or going through the motions… People who genuinely believe in Jesus Christ, but are living in such a way that their words and actions don’t match what they profess to believe as Christians.

“Be doers of the word,” James says, “and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” And then James gives an illustration of what someone is like who hears God’s Word but doesn’t put it into practice. He says that that person 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.

Looks at himself in a mirror and goes away and at once forgets what he looks like.

Excuse me. I’ve just got to do something… [Take a “selfie.”] The Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2013 was the word “selfie.” Surely you know what a selfie is? If you have teenagers you know what a selfie is. Of all of Apple Computer’s innovations, surely the most revolutionary was giving us a smartphone that has a camera lens not simply facing away from the user, so we can take pictures of other people—any boring old camera does that—but also one facing the user, so that we can see ourselves onscreen when we snap a photo of ourselves!

My point is, in this age of the selfie, the idea that we could forget what we look like is unimaginable! We have this device in our pockets and purses that makes sure of that.

Back in James’s day, as hard as it is to imagine, most people didn’t even own a mirror! Few people had portraits painted. People didn’t see what they looked like nearly as often as we do—so it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that they might forget what they looked like if they weren’t paying attention.

By contrast, what’s it like for the person who hears God’s word and then puts it into practice? He is someone who will be blessed. He will be happy. He will know true joy. Let me read verses 23 to 25 in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message: “Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like. But whoever catches a glimpse of the revealed counsel of God—the free life!—even out of the corner of his eye, and sticks with it, is no distracted scatterbrain but a man or woman of action. That person will find delight and affirmation in the action.”

James is saying, in so many words, that instead of holding our smartphones in front of us in order to see what we look like, we hold God’s Word in front of us, and we let it show us what we look like and who we really are. God’s Word is the most effective mirror of all. It will reveal to us, not who we are on the outside, but who we are on the inside—if only we dare to look into God’s Word! If only we have the courage to let scripture shape us, mold us, guide us, change us! Really good things will happen if only we’ll do that!

So, I guess this is as good a time as any to plug a Bible study that I’m offering beginning Sunday, February 23, from 5:00 to 6:30. Childcare provided. It’s a Bible study about marriage, and the main scripture is Ephesians 5:21-33. And we’re using this profoundly good Tim Keller book, The Meaning of Marriage, as our guide. And I promise you, God changed me as a husband when I looked at myself in light of the scriptures using this book. That’s a fact! The Bible has the power to change us because God himself, through the Holy Spirit, speaks to us through it!

In verse 25, James uses an unusual phrase to describe God’s Word. He calls it the “law of freedom.” The law of freedom. We might think that sounds like a contradiction in terms: We think of laws as those things that restrict our freedom—like that ridiculous law in Barnesville, Georgia, that says you can only drive 55 miles per hour on Highway 41 and not 71 miles per hour. Actually, that’s not quite right. The law doesn’t say that you can’t drive 71 miles an hour in a  55 zone. You can! You’re welcome to do that! But, as I learned a few weeks ago, you will pay $174 for the privilege of doing so!

Now, not all laws are silly… Think about the law that says which side of the road to drive on. Most of the world drives on the right side of the road. But in the British Isles, in most British Commonwealth nations, and in former British colonies, they drive on the wrong side of the road—I mean, the left side of the road. In Kenya, a former British colony, they drive on the left… But having seen Kenyan traffic up close, even driving on the left isn’t a hard and fast rule—more like a helpful suggestion!

Still, if we didn’t have a law about which side of the road to drive on, chaos would ensue! If we didn’t have a law, accidents and near-misses would happen much more frequently. Every day would be like Snow Jam 2014! And even if there were no accidents, you’d be so worried and cautious, you wouldn’t be able to go very fast for fear of disaster. “God’s law,” the Bible, “is like that. By restricting your ‘freedom’ in some ways, it opens up far greater, genuine freedoms in all other ways.”[1] When you think about it, God made us. Only God knows what’s best for us; we don’t—and he’s told us what’s best for us in his Word. For some reason, we want to keep second-guessing what God has told us! Because we know better. “Did God really say, ‘Don’t eat the fruit off of that tree? That doesn’t make any sense. Come on… What’s the harm? One bite.”

If, like me, you follow what’s happening in our United Methodist Church, you know that nearly every week these days one of my fellow Methodist pastors is breaking church law—or at least advocating the breaking church law when it comes to our church’s doctrine on human sexuality. And they want to say, “The Bible isn’t clear.” I’m sorry, I disagree! That’s wishful thinking. No one thought the Bible was unclear about sex until around 1971! It isn’t so much that the Bible is difficult to understand as it is difficult to obey. It’s not just same-sex relationships… We have a crisis among men in our churches when it comes to internet pornography. We have a crisis among single people when it comes to premarital sex and living together before marriage. We have a crisis among couples when it comes to adultery and divorce.

But I’m not meaning to simply zero in on that kind of sin… While James’s words would certainly include that kind of sin, he even refers to more mundane sins that trip us up like sinful anger and failing to control our tongues—gossiping, putting people down. See, all this bad stuff went on back in the first-century church, too!

No… Submitting to God’s Word is hard. Well, that’s why Jesus says it’s like taking up your cross—an instrument of torture and death. It’s not easy; it’s painful sometimes; but if we will submit to it, James says, we will be blessed. Our lives will be enriched in any number of ways.

I have spent enough time in my life not following God’s Word to know that following it is a much better plan for life. Can I get an Amen?

Now… I want to begin talking about the one of the most important ways in which the contemporary church fails at being “doers of the word and not hearers only.” I’ll say more about it in Part 2 of this sermon, but I want to get started today.

I believe these words apply to Hampton United Methodist Church… And also to Alpharetta First United Methodist Church, where I spent six years… And the United Methodist Church in general. And plenty of other churches and denominations in America and the Western hemisphere while we’re at it.

I confess that I’m part of the problem, and, well… maybe you are, too. Because this problem relates to a failure to keep the promises that each one of us made when we joined our United Methodist Church. So, do you remember the promises you made when you joined this or some other Methodist church? You promised to support this church through your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness. “Witness” was added eight years ago, so maybe you didn’t say that word when you joined, but it was understood that witnessing was part of your duty to serve our Lord Jesus Christ. To be a part of fulfilling our church’s mission, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Which comes from Jesus’ own Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

Witnessing means “sharing the love of Jesus Christ with others, in order that they, too, would become disciples of Jesus Christ.” We witness both through word and deed. It’s a part of what it means to do evangelism. As one writer said, “There’s one thing that both Christians and non-Christians agree on: they both hate evangelism.”

And, frankly, it shows… Since 1964 our country has grown two-thirds, from a population of 192 million to a population today of 322 million. Meanwhile, in that same time period, the Methodist Church, the second largest Protestant denomination, has declined by a third, from about 15 million members to 10 million today.

And our church at Hampton has grown a little over the years, which is better than most churches around here. But we’re in an area that has grown significantly—and will continue to grow! I mean, Pinewood Studios, the James Bond people, moving in… and it’s not like all those zombies are going to die off any time soon!

But these are just numbers.

I want to say, of course, that I don’t care about numbers. But that’s a lie. I care a little. But I don’t want to care very much about numbers. Because if I let myself care about numbers too much, I’m mostly caring for the wrong reasons: because I’m vain and proud and competitive. And if the numbers look good, it’ll make me look good.

No… What I want to care about instead—and what I want all of us to care about—are all the souls not counted among those numbers. And look… I’m not talking about “sheep-stealing,” which is the number one way churches around here grow. You know… Methodists become Baptists who become Presbyterians who become non-denominationals who become Pentecostals who become Methodists again… when they join our church. Since they were Christians the whole time anyway, that’s not really making disciples!

I say let the Baptists reach whoever they will. And let the Berea Christian church reach whoever they will… And guess what? There will still be plenty of men and women, and boys and girls left over who haven’t yet said “yes” to God’s gift of salvation, which God has freely made available to us through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus.“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

Do we hear that word? Do we really believe that word? Because if we believe it, it ought to change us. It’s not the kind of information that we want to keep to ourselves! This word demands that we share it with others!

This word tells us how all of us, apart from Christ, are lost and separated from God because of our sin, and bound for God’s judgment and hell after we die. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and “The wages of sin is death.”[2] But God sent his Son Jesus to ransom us from death and hell by his own blood: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”[3] Christ paid the penalty for our sins on the cross: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”[4] Now, for those of us who “confess with our mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in our hearts God raised him from the dead, we will be saved.”[5]

As a result, we no longer have to fear the thing that most people fear more than anything: which is death. We say with the apostle Paul, “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?… But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[6]

But not only does Christ give us hope for the future, victory over death and everlasting life, he gives us a new quality of life now: Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”[7] Paul describes it as new kind of life: “[W]e have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”[8]

Do we hear that good word? What will we do with it?

Next week, I turn 44. I will be celebrating my birthday, but I will also be celebrating the 30th anniversary of my new birth… that weekend on a youth retreat in Black Mountain, North Carolina, when God showed me who Jesus Christ was and what he did for me, and I responded by placing my faith in him. I trusted in him. I made a profession of faith, and my life was changed.

I heard that good word 30 years ago. And I felt such peace, such acceptance, such love. I couldn’t keep it inside. I needed to tell everyone. I wanted everyone to experience this same gift of amazing, forgiving love.

Brothers and sisters, I’m hearing this word again, as if for the first time, and, based on what you’re telling me, some of you are, too. Are we going to do something about it? What are we going to do?

I’m going to say more about what we can do next time… In part 2 of this sermon.


[1] N.T. Wright, The Early Christian Letters For Everyone (Louisville: WJK, 2011), 12.

[2] Romans 3:23; 6:23a

[3] Mark 10:45 NIV

[4] 2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV

[5] Romans 10:9 NIV

[6] 1 Corinthians 15:55, 57

[7] John 10:10

[8] Romans 6:4

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