Sermon 04-06-14: “Warning Against Worldliness”

April 12, 2014

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The metaphor that James uses in v. 4 to describe God’s relationship with us is powerfully intimate: God is our husband and we are his bride. Our worldliness, therefore, is like spiritual adultery: we are cheating on our true Spouse with other lovers. The good news is that God has given us the power to be faithful and overcome the power of sin and the devil.

Sermon Text: James 4:1-12

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

My wife, Lisa, and I first met while we were in college, because Lisa’s mom was working as the children’s minister at the church I attended during college. When we first started dating, Lisa asked if I wanted to go to Six Flags on a particular Saturday afternoon. In addition to riding the rides, she said, there was a singer that was performing in the park that afternoon, so we could see him first and then enjoy the park. HoweverI actually didn’t like this singer—at all. But I really liked Lisa. So of course I said, “Yes, I’d love to do that!”So, I showed up at Lisa’s house on that particular Saturday to pick her up. But Lisa wasn’t there. Her parents explained that she was running an errand, which was taking longer than she expected. But she’d be home soon. So I waited twenty minutes or so. And then when she got home, I had to wait a little while longer for her to get ready.

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Lisa’s lateness was not a problem for me, of course, because the later we were to the concert, the better, as far as I was concerned. So as we were on our way to Six Flags, I was looking at the time, and I said, “Oh, I think we’re going to be late for the concert!”And Lisa said, “You know what? We don’t want to go in late. Why don’t we just skip the concert and ride the rides?”

And I’m like, “Oh, O.K., if you insist, I guess that would be best.”

But here’s what I found out later: My friend Keith was at the church a few days before our Six Flags date, chatting with Lisa’s mom. Keith said, “Well, Brent must really like Lisa.”And Lisa’s mom said, “Why is that?”“Because he would never tell Lisa this, but he can’t stand this particular singer, but look…he’s still willing to go to the concert.”And it turns out that Lisa’s mom told Lisa that, and so Lisa arranged things so that she would be late and we’d miss the show!

Isn’t that sweet? I was willing to go to the concert because I liked Lisa—I mean, I liked liked her. And she was willing to forego the concert because she liked liked me. But it was no problem for me to go to the concert because I knew it would make her happy. And it was no problem for her not togo to the concert because she knew that it would make me happy. Win-win!

Because when you’re in love with someone, you gladly do things that you wouldn’t personally choose to do. You gladly do things that are difficult, or inconvenient, or costly, and you do them out of love—simply because you know that it would make the person you love happy.

Remember that old Foreigner song, “Feels like the First Time”? “I would climb any mountain/ Sail across a stormy sea/ If that’s what it takes me baby/ To show you how much you mean to me.” But that’s what it’s like to be in love with someone, right?

I share this because this idea gets at the very heart of what James has been saying throughout this letter. James has already told us to do many challenging things: to endure difficult trials, to control our temper, to become doers of God’s Word, to bridle our tongues, to avoid favoritism or discrimination, to put away selfish ambition and jealousy, to stop pursuing destructive pleasures. All these things seem so hard and unnatural. But why do we do it?

Now, James has certainly warned us about the reality of God’s judgment and punishment, but simply avoiding judgment and punishment isn’t the main reason we follow God’s law. Or it shouldn’t be. The main reason goes much deeper!

James gives us a clue to the main reason in verse 4, but it’s very easy to miss. Most translations say, ”You adulterous people!” But what James actually says is, “You adulteresses!” Now, keep in mind, he’s not talking simply to the female members of the church who may be committing literal adultery; no, he’s saying that everyone who’s unfaithful to the Lord in the ways that he’s been discussing is like a wife who has been unfaithful to her husband. So all of us, men or women, are capable of being adulteresses. While, for some of us, this might wound our male ego a little, how do you think our unfaithfulness makes God feel?

But if the Bible calls us adulteresses, what does that communicate about our relationship with God?

The Bible uses many metaphors to describe our relationship with him, and each one captures part of the truth of who we are in relationship to God. For example, sometimes God is our shepherd and we are the sheep—which might suggest, first, how dumb we are compared to God, but also how completely dependent we are on God to take care of us. Sometimes God is our military commander and we are his soldiers under command. We get our marching orders from God, and if we do what he tells us, he will ensure our victory. Sometimes God is our master and we are his slaves, which implies God’s total sovereignty over our lives. We therefore owe God our unconditional obedience, no matter what he says. And, always, God is our Father, and we are his beloved children, adopted into his family by faith in his Son Jesus.

But the metaphor in verse 4 suggests something even more intimate: God is, in some sense, our husband, and we are his bride. This image is found throughout the Bible. The Song of Solomon is literally an erotic poem that compares God’s relationship with his people to the sexual relationship between husband and wife. In Ezekiel 16—I’ll try to read this without blushing—listen to the way God talks to his people: “And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment. Your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare.‘When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine.’”[1] The Bible is not only comparing God’s love for us to the love that a husband has for his wife, it’s also saying that we had a great wedding night! I’m not making this up! It’s right there in the Bible!

This image of husband and wife is also found throughout the New Testament. John the Baptist calls Jesus the “bridegroom.”[2] Jesus refers to himself that way. Paul’s letters refer to the church as the “bride of Christ.” And in a little while we’re going to have Holy Communion, and I’m going to refer to Christ’s coming in “final victory,”and our “feasting at his heavenly banquet.”That refers to a heavenly wedding banquet in Revelation 19, when the angels sing, “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready.”[3] We are the Lord’s bride!

Some of you are fans of the singer Amy Grant. She got her start as a teenager, and she was the first contemporary Christian singer/songwriter to cross over into the Top 40. But she was constantly criticized by many critics inside and outside of church who accused her of just writing sappy love songs, like any other love song on pop radio, except she sang as if Jesus were her boyfriend.

But not so fast! That’s kind of what the Bible does too!

So think of your favorite romantic love song. What does it say? How does it make you feel? Doesn’t it make you feel good? Doesn’t it make you feel a sense of longing for the one you love? Let that song serve as a metaphor for our relationship with God; let it point you in the direction of God’s love. The Bible says that God’s love for us is like that—but as hard as it may be to imagine, even more intense! God’s love for us is even more intense and passionate than even the most intense and passionate love song!

And if all that’s true, if Jesus’love for us is like that, and our love for Jesus ought to be like that, then—getting back to that Six Flags story earlier—then what wouldn’t we do, out of love, for our Lord? Would anything be too much to ask for this Person we’re in love with? Would any burden be too great to bear for this Person we’re in love with? Would any sacrifice, even the sacrifice of our very lives, be too much to make for the Person we’re in love with?

If you’ve been in love before, you know the answer! We would do anything! And we wouldn’t dream of doing anything to disappoint the one we love, to break the heart of the one we love, or—God forbid—to betray the one we love, to literally cheat on the one we love!

And that’s what James is talking about here: sin is nothing less than cheating on the One we’re in love with. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of these verses captures this sense perfectly: “You’re cheating on God. If all you want is your own way, flirting with the world every chance you get, you end up enemies of God and his way. And do you suppose God doesn’t care? The proverb has it that ‘he’s a fiercely jealous lover.’”

Cheating on God should be unthinkable, and yet that’s what we do, time and again, when we follow our own selfish and sinful path that leads to destruction instead of the narrow and difficult path that leads to eternal life with our Lord. In the Old Testament, in the Book of Hosea, God tells the prophet to marry an unfaithful and adulterous woman because, God says, I want you to know how I feel when my people are unfaithful to me. God is in love with us, and our unfaithfulness breaks the very heart of God!

Brothers and sisters, can we just let that sink in for a moment?

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Derwin Gray was a star safety for the Indianapolis Colts back in the ’90s. He was born to teenage parents and was raised by his grandmother. He was poor. Or, as he said in an article in last month’s Christianity Today, he was “po”—P.O. He said his family “couldn’t afford the other o and r.”He decided at an early age that he was going to make something of himself—and he did, by playing football. Unlike most men in his family, he said, “I was one of the only [ones] who had not been to jail, who did not have a substance abuse problem, who had graduated from high school and college, and who did not have a child outside of marriage.”[4]

He said, “Football functioned as my savior. It gave me love: If I played well, I was loved by fans. It gave me an identity: I was Derwin, the football player. It gave me significance: I was somebody because I was a great player. And football gave me a mission. My mission was this: Derwin, you can go to college and make something of your life.”It was only later, when he started suffering injuries and his career was winding down against his will that he realized that this “savior”—this thing that gave him love, identity, significance, and mission—couldn’t give him what he needed most. And that’s when he gave his life to Jesus Christ, the world’s true Savior, and our Lord gave him everything he needed!

Brothers and sisters, what or whom do you look to in your life to give you love, identity, significance, and mission? If it’s someone or something other than our Lord Jesus Christ, then you’re committing spiritual adultery against God. You’re cheating on our Lord! It’s as if you’ve taken a lover on the side.

I suspect we do this in any number of ways. We make “lovers”out of our careers—you’ve heard of workaholism. We make lovers out of financial success, or popularity, or academic success, or, as with Derwin Gray, sports, or hobbies, or beauty—the way we look, how much we weigh, our self-image. We make lovers out of dependence on alcohol or drugs. We make lovers out of people, or relationships, or sex.

I’ve said before and I’ll say again that we are facing a crisis among Christians, especially among Christian men, when it comes to internet pornography and lust. Some people have made a lover out of that! I posted something on my blog last week about strategies for resisting this temptation, and a friend of mine, Chad Holtz, chimed in in the comments section. Chad is a Methodist pastor in Tennessee who, according his own testimony, which you can read about on his blog, nearly destroyed his life because of his addiction to sex and pornography. It nearly destroyed his marriage and it did derail his ministry for many years until the Lord delivered him from that sin. He said on my blog that in his experience, repenting of a sin like that can’t really happen until we first admit that we “love our sin more than we love God.”

We have to first admit that we love our sin more than we love God.

James couldn’t agree more!

This sounds like a lot of bad news, but James gives us some incredibly good news in verses 7 and 8 that we need to hear today: “Resist the devil and he will run away from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” I like the way the English theologian Tom Wright puts it: “The devil is a coward; when he is resisted, with the prayer that claims the victory of Jesus on the cross, he knows he is beaten. His trick,” Wright says, “is to whisper that we know we can’t resist; he’s got us before and he’ll get us again, so why not just give in straight away and save all that bother?

“It’s a lie,” Wright says. “Resist him and he will run.”

Wright says that we resist the devil by “praying a prayer that claims the victory of Jesus on the cross.”So what does that prayer sound like? Maybe something like this: “Lord Jesus Christ, on the cross you defeated Satan and destroyed the power of sin that had held me captive. At this moment, however, Satan is once again trying to lure me into sin. He wants me to believe that I’m powerless to resist him, but he’s lying—he is, after all, the father of lies. So I claim the victory you won over him, which you’ve shared with me through your Holy Spirit. Enable me to withstand his attack until he runs away in fear. Thank you, Lord. Amen.”

Resist the devil and he will run away from you. That’s the first promise. The second promise is this: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” Remember: our relationship with God is like a marriage relationship. The first and most important key to a successful marriage is what? Communication. So if you’re struggling with sin in your life, let me ask: “How’s your prayer life?” I suspect most of our marriages would be in trouble if we spent as little time talking to our spouse each day as we do talking to God!

Many of you took part in our “Meaning of Marriage” Bible study, which just concluded last Sunday night. Our main scripture for all six weeks was Paul’s words about marriage in Ephesians 5, including these words: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Then Paul describes how Christ loved the church. Then, citing Genesis chapter 2, he says the following: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound,” Paul writes, “and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”[5] It refers to Christ and the church. What does that mean?

It means that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the greatest love story ever told. It means that God the Son, Jesus Christ, was so much in love with us, his beloved bride, that he willingly left his Father and his home in heaven in order to “hold fast” to us, to become one flesh with us.
“Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”[6] And what can separate us from God’s love? “I am sure,” Paul says elsewhere, “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[7]

Amen?

[1] Ezekiel 16:7-8 ESV

[2] John 3:22-30

[3] Revelation 19:7 ESV

[4] Derwin Gray, “Pro Football Was My God,”Christianity Today. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/march/pro-football-was-my-god-derwin-gray.html (accessed April 5, 2014).

[5] Ephesians 5:31-32 ESV

[6] Mark 10:9 NRSV

[7] Romans 8:38-39 ESV

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