SCRIPTURES – Acts 15:12-22; James 1:1-12; Matthew 13:54-58
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing… Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. James 1
On this day when we are honoring the OWLS (Older and Wiser Lutherans) in our congregation, I especially want to remember and give thanks for the oldest OWL in our midst today: James, Jesus’ brother. He’s definitely an OWL: in his case, an Older and Wiser Lover of God. But, he didn’t have the best start.
Oh, you might think he did. Imagine having Joseph and Mary as your parents and Jesus as your older brother! James was brought up worshiping the God of Israel and learning His Scriptures, and that was a very great blessing. But, having Jesus as his brother was also a challenge. I imagine they played together and worked together and worshiped together, just as you did with your own siblings. But, when Jesus began His ministry, and especially when He declared Himself to be not only Israel’s Messiah but their God – well, that was too much for James. It was not only the people of His hometown who took offense at Jesus; so did James. He did not believe Him, or believe in Him. James did not turn from his opposition and unbelief until after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The risen Jesus made a special visit to James (see 1 Cor. 15:3-7), and this changed him to believing that his brother was his Savior and his Lord.
And then the great tests of his faith were over, right? As the brother of Jesus, he must have had great honor among Jesus’ followers and been greatly blessed by God! Well, he did rise to become the head of the Church in Jerusalem, and his being Jesus’ brother may have played a part in that. We are impressed by credentials, after all. But, God shows His favor in different ways. When God loves you He tests and challenges you with trials and hardships. He does so to challenge and strengthen your faith. James came to understand this, and so he later wrote, “Count it all joy when you meet trials of various kinds, for the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”
Of course, it is not easy to be joyful when you are being tried and tested. In our lives we want health, not sickness, and success, not failure. In our church we want happy people who agree with one another, not people who are arguing. Well, sorry, but Christ’s Church is filled with sinners. There will be disagreements and arguments! What you are arguing about and how you are dealing with it are what matters. And here is where we can learn from James.
The first great test of Christ’s Church family arose when uncircumcised Gentiles began being accepted as followers of Jesus and members of His Church. For centuries circumcision had been the way into God’s Church, the beginning of life as God’s child. Then, when uncircumcised Gentiles began being welcomed by some simply because they believed in Jesus, others began asking, “What, they don’t need to be circumcised? Does anything go? Is nothing required of Jesus’ followers?” Christ’s people were being divided from one another. It was not all that different from what we are experiencing today, as great changes from what used to be accepted are now being urged upon both society and the Church. What does God expect of us? What is right? Does anything go, as long as you just believe in Jesus?
James helped Christ’s Church in its first great test. How? Did the fact that he was Jesus’ brother give him some special wisdom or stature? No, it was God’s Scriptures. After he and the other Christian leaders meeting in Jerusalem heard how God was blessing Gentiles with His Holy Spirit, even though they were not circumcised, James stood and quoted the prophet Amos (9:11-12): “After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord.” James pointed out that God’s taking Gentiles as His people by faith alone and without circumcision was something He had long ago said He would do. They were to be received as brothers and sisters, then – not because this felt right to some, or because God’s people were not to be judgmental, but because God had said He would do this.
We thank God today for James because through him we learn that trials that test faith are a blessing when we respond, not on the basis of our feelings or what seems right, but by going to God’s Word for comfort, encouragement, and direction. Outward appearances and inner feelings can be so deceptive. Being rich doesn’t mean you are blessed by God, for riches pass away. Being a carpenter’s son and having brothers and sisters doesn’t mean that the man Jesus is merely a man. James learned to trust and follow what God says in His Word – and I bet that, when Jesus appeared to James after His resurrection, He took him through the Scriptures and taught him about Himself, as He did the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. We also are to listen to, learn, trust and follow God’s words. For, they are God’s eternal wisdom, given to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
But, they must be heard and followed. In the book that he wrote, which was perhaps the first book of the New Testament, James urges (1:21-22): “put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” God’s words save us from our sins by giving us the crown of life, which is God’s love and eternal life in Jesus; but they do so only as they are heard and believed and followed. God is then with us to save us.
James learned and lived out the words and life of Jesus, and because of this, it might seem that he did not have a great end. Because James was a very devout follower of the laws God gave to Moses, and also a believer in Jesus who taught that salvation was solely by faith in Him, he was seen by the Jewish leaders as a threat. And so, the High Priest had him brought before the Jewish ruling Council and condemned as opposing God’s Word. He was then stoned to death. James lived out the words of Jesus his brother: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5:11-12) Echoing this promise, James himself wrote: “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12) James stood the test, and so his end was actually great. God has given him the crown of life! May we follow him in that life of faith, to the honor and glory of Jesus, his brother and our eternal Lord. Amen.