I preached this sermon last Sunday evening, June 5, 2016, at a Prayer and Healing Service. The first half of the homily came from the manuscript that follows. The second half was an extemporaneous reflection on prayer.
Sermon Text: James 4:1-8a
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. However… I 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.
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 to go 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?
James gives us a clue to the main reason we do it in verse 4, when he says, “You adulterous people!” In other words, we commit adultery against God.
If that’s true, what does that communicate about our relationship with God?
It communicates that it should be exclusive and intimate and a lot like being in love. It should be, in other words, a lot like a marriage relationship. The Bible often uses marriage as an analogy for the relationship between God and his people. In fact, the New Testament calls the Church the “bride of Christ,” remember?
I’m a big music fan, and all the classic love songs—“Faithfully” and “Open Arms” by Journey are two of my favorites. What about you? What’s your favorite 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.’”
So how do we cheat on God?
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 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.
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!
[Sermon concludes with an extemporaneous reflection on prayer. See video.]