sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 04/29/2012
Video recording of the service available at http://www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand *you’ll want to skip to 35 minutes in for the start of the service, and an hour and 6 minutes for the start of the sermon*
[Bus chase story…]
follow the way of Jesus
& create breathing room
For the disconnected to connect
For the disfavored to find favor
& for the discounted to count.
The reality of the way of Jesus is that it involves testing, difficulty, trials and tribulations. It is a way filled with celebration and leading to resurrection life, but if we don’t know how to respond to the hard parts of the journey, we won’t be able to effectively create breathing room for others as Christ intends. Last week and this, considering what James, the brother of Jesus has to say about this in the first chapter of his letter.
God’s blessing on the man who endures testing! When he has passed the test, he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Nobody being tested should say, “It’s God that’s testing me”, for God cannot be tested by evil, and he himself tests nobody. Rather each person is tested when they are dragged off and enticed by their own desires. Then desire, when it has conceived, gives birth to sin; and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.
Don’t be deceived, my dear family. Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes down from above, from the father of lights. His steady light doesn’t vary. It doesn’t change and produce shadows. He became our father by the word of truth; that was his firm decision, and the result is that we are a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
Blessing – happy – beatitudes
Endures same word as patience earlier
Testing – same root word as trials, sometimes translated temptations, but only because ancient understanding was that tests and trials were occasions for temptation. Here seems to be an emphasis on the internal tests, rather than external trials and tribulations.
Identify confusion over “God tests nobody,” since we see references to God testing lots of people (Genesis 22:1 “Some time later God tested Abraham…”). Thus translators’ attempts to reduce confusion by making one tests and the other temptations.
I don’t think the tension between the two ideas (God tests vs. God doesn’t test) is a bad thing. There are times we experience God testing us for the sake of more life, surely. But James seems to be talking about the internal tests that come when difficulty stirs our sinful desires to get life from outside of the place that we are, instead of from God who is present with us in it. God isn’t interested in stirring those sinful desires. He doesn’t have them, he doesn’t do that. What is God interested in? We’ll get to that.
Ancient understanding of the stars as gods with powers to control fate. God is father of lights, giving good, perfect gifts, not fickle.
Notice the pattern in this passage. Life. Death. New creation. That will be important. Life, death, new creation. This is the Christ pattern, woven even into the words of this letter.
Notice also the two different procreation images. One of our desires giving birth to sin and eventually to death. The other of the Father giving birth to us as the first fruits of his new creation.
And right in the middle of all of it, the hinge on which it turns, the gravity around which everything orbits, the grace, the good and perfect gifts of God the Father.
Let’s begin there, with the goodness of God towards us. For James this vision of God is central to what it means to be a Jesus follower. God is a father who is showering his creation with good and perfect gifts, pouring out blessing upon blessing for the sake of blessing. Not a demented manipulator toying with his playthings for his own twisted pleasure.
This matters to us when we are enduring testing. Whatever form that testing is currently taking.
Because it can feel like God’s out to get us for reasons only he knows. Or punish us for our failings or sins. Or that he has left us hung out to dry in the wind because of our supposed uselessness to him.
It’s natural for us to wonder. It’s easier for us to attribute the pain we are experiencing in difficulty to an external source rather than an internal one. Ever stub your toe on a chair and then kick the chair out of anger at it? Stupid chair!
The same thing happens with even the simplest tests. Someone lets you down by doing something inconsiderate, thoughtless, rude, or even downright malicious. Along comes the testing. How will you respond? Graciously? Angrily? Bitterly? It’s hard. Demanding. Puts you in a bind. This isn’t how you’d planned to spend your energy and time.
Who’s to blame? Clearly, someone. And the simplest someone to blame is the inconsiderate, thoughtless, rude, malicious someone. Clearly, they are in some measure to blame for our suffering. But are they to blame for the testing that the suffering opens the door to?
Enough tests come, and it’s not just about the particular someones anymore. Why difficulty after difficulty? Why won’t it stop? Why me?
Who’s to blame? Must be someone powerful. Clearly, it’s God. Or at least, it seems pretty clear, as clear as anything can be in the kind of fog that tumbling into trials and tribulations wraps us in.
But James says hold on, maybe something else is going on.
Don’t be deceived, my dear family.
James says those pessimistic perspectives on trials, on difficulties, on testing are deceptions. Lies. Crafty distortions of the truth, close enough to be believable, but fundamentally false. The fearful whispers of darkness and death.
Don’t believe them, James says. Reject them! Resist them! Because…
Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes down from above, from the father of lights. His steady light doesn’t vary. It doesn’t change and produce shadows.
God is good, the giver of perfect gifts. So good that everything good comes from him. Every joy, every delight, every beauty, every wonder, every pure pleasure comes from him. Which means every thing that is not a perfect gift is decidedly not from him.
Furthermore, God’s not like the sun moving through the sky, making things look one way in one part of the day, and another later on. No, he’s like a steady noonday sun. Everything lit up, shadow-less.
God is neither causing our suffering, nor is he trying to obscure our vision so as to confuse us.
The truth is just the opposite. God is leading us by the hand into the most blessed of blessings. God is shining pure clear light on the world so that we can step forward on well lit ground.
So what, then? What are we to make of all this testing, all these trials?
Well, James says that for the person whose life is given to the master, Jesus, whose life has come under the authority of the strong and risen Christ, these difficulties that lead to testing are part of the road to resurrection life. They are harbingers of blessings, not curses.
God’s blessing on the man who endures testing! When he has passed the test, he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.
And what is to blame for the testing?
Nobody being tested should say, “It’s God that’s testing me”, for God cannot be tested by evil, and he himself tests nobody. Rather each person is tested when they are dragged off and enticed by their own desires.
Our own desires, it seems, are the real culprits. In this case, James seems to be referring to those desires within us that have their roots in the old, sinful, broken creation that Jesus came to rescue us from. Lust, anger, envy, greed, gluttony, pride, sloth, and the like.
James pictures those desires seducing us in the midst of difficulty. Inviting us to embrace them for the life they promise us, instead of looking to God for life in the midst of our difficulty.
Back to our simple example. Someone lets us down by doing something inconsiderate, thoughtless, rude, or even downright malicious. They are to blame for their lack of consideration, or thoughtlessness, or rudeness or malice. But they are not to blame for the testing, the trial that ensues. The blame for that lies squarely on those broken desires still alive within us.
[DC, illness, etc…]
And if we surrender to their seduction, sin is conceived. And grows up in the world. And eventually spawns death, all on its own.
Contrasted with that is the way God gives birth to new creation life.
He became our father by the word of truth; that was his firm decision, and the result is that we are a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
No seduction or deception here. God declares that he is our Father with his firm decision. He desires it, and he makes it so. Our broken desires give birth to death; God’s desire makes us his children. He speaks new creation into being in us the way he made the first creation, with his word. Through Jesus, the word made flesh. The word of truth.
…and the result is that we are a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
Do you know the purpose of fruit? It is to be an attractive enough and sweet enough container of seeds that some animal will pick it up to eat it and carry it away so that the seeds are spread and new trees grow up everywhere.
And do you know what ripens the fruit to make it sweet? It is essentially a dying process stimulated by an organic hormone called ethylene. And in that dying it becomes sweeter and sweeter, less tart. More and more attractive, colorful. More fragrant. More and more likely to be carried away and buried under ground to grow up into a new, life giving tree.
(Interestingly, an ancient technique for ripening a fruit is to wound it…)
Something like that is happening with us when we undergo trials and tests. Each test brings broken old creation desires to the surface as they attempt to seduce us, to make us turn from God for our life and search life out in something else. To get revenge instead of to forgive. To lust to get instead of to love to give. To nurse bitterness instead of lavishing generous grace. To curl up in sloth instead of working tirelessly for a harvest. To be envious of others instead of grateful for God’s good gifts to us. And on and on.
If we give life to those desires by welcoming their advances, the new creation parts of us shrivel and die. But if we starve those desires, and endure the tests, holding on to the way of Jesus and his good news, those desires die in us, and through the agency of the Holy Spirit, we ripen.
God’s blessing on the man who endures testing! When he has passed the test, he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him….
God is interested in transforming the broken world with the resurrection life of his son Jesus, and he’s invited us into that life and into that mission. So he’s present with us in the testing, knowing the trial that it is. Enduring with us as we endure. It’s a strange endurance, because we must endure until we die to any particular desire. God is dying with us as we die to those sinful desires. And when we die, we’ve passed the test, and we receive the crown of life. Just as Christ Jesus has done before us.
Holy Spirit, help us see Christ with us in our trials!
Holy Spirit, help us see Christ enduring with us as we endure!
Holy Spirit, help us endure until we have died to ourselves, as Christ already has before us.
Holy Spirit, help us hold on until nothing has a hold on us except the love of God, that we might bow low to receive the crown of life.
Holy Spirit, help us to become with our Savior the first fruits of God’s new creation, so that in our dying to ourselves, the seeds of God’s kingdom can be scattered near and far and resurrection life can sweep over the face of the earth!
1. Save some seeds in your wallet or purse. Eat a piece of fruit, clean and dry the seeds, and place them in your wallet or purse, someplace they will remind you regularly of this passage.
2. Write the word “endure” somewhere you will see it often. If you’re in the midst of testing produced by difficulty, remember that your most important job is to simply to endure. To not prematurely end the testing by letting your own desires drag you off the way of Jesus.