At Bible Class on Saturday of last week, Massood asked a question about how the Bible gave advice in practical living. There was a great debate about this in Farsi, which I didn’t understand, but I take all questions seriously, so that’s what I want to talk about today.
At the moment, the New Testament reading on Sundays comes from the Epistle of James. I love the Epistle of James because I made it my special study when I was on retreat in Fetlar 10 years ago.
James was one of those common names – there are lots of James in the Bible. You might think it would be James the brother of John and son of Zebedee, but, no, he was killed by Herod Agrippa in 44 CE, which is too early for the writing of this encyclical. The James who wrote this letter was almost certainly James the brother of Jesus who became an important leader among the Christians in Jerusalem after the death of Jesus.
The letter picks up many of the themes that Jesus talks about in his ministry, and develops them. He also draws on religious writings in the Old Testament and other spiritual writings, and then he has a way of conveying wisdom in just a few words. It’s like he has been studying all these sources and made them his own. The letter incorporates much practical advice – the sort of real-life application that I think Massood is looking for.
In today’s reading, James offers lots of practical advice.
Firstly – he encourages generosity. Because God is utterly generous, we should be like that, whether that means giving money or hospitality or service or love and attention. And we offer that through God our Father.
James has a description of God in this first paragraph that I want you to notice. He talks of God as “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” This is important in theology because it describes God as the source of all light – and he means moral light here – God is truly good. And then it says that God is what God is, and God doesn’t change. At the end of the service, we’re going to sing the hymn “Great is thy faithfulness”, and the first verse of that hymn is based on this statement.
Great is Thy faithfulness,” O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not
As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.
In the second practical point in the letter, James tells us to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger”. This is good advice that we all need to consider every day. Don’t commit yourself to words before you fully understand the situation. When we respond with anger, that is often unhelpful, and is more likely to provoke the situation than to lead to a peaceful and productive solution. It means you are less likely to be doing God’s work.
Then, James encourages us to “be doers of the word”, not just hearers. When we become Christians, we need to live it, not just hear it. Having faith in God and committing yourself to follow Jesus is great, but then you have to learn to live God’s way. Discover what God is like, and then take on those characteristics. And if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.
James then uses the image of the mirror, which is a metaphor he uses regularly in his encyclical. He says you can look in a mirror in passing and immediately forget what you see, but looking at God’s law, you need to study it and learn from it. Did you notice the words of the George Herbert hymn we sang – our second hymn? The second verse is based on this part of the reading from James. It was written 400 years ago, so it is in very old-fashioned language. But George Herbert develops the idea. He says you can look on glass – that means looking at a mirror – and you see the image of yourself. But if you look deeper, you might catch a glimpse of heaven.
A man that looks on glass,
on it may stay his eye;
or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
and then the heaven espy.
But George Herbert then reflects on what God is like and what that means for us.
All may of thee partake;
nothing can be so mean,
which with this tincture, “for thy sake,”
will not grow bright and clean.
A servant with this clause
makes drudgery divine:
who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
makes that and the action fine.
And what Herbert is saying here is that however lowly we are, whatever humble tasks we take on, if we do it in God’s name, and do it in God’s way, and dedicate the tasks to God, then we are doing well and good.
And that process of hearing God’s word, looking at the life of Jesus, studying and reflecting on it, and discovering new aspects of the truth, is one of the reasons why we study the Bible and learn from the life of Jesus. Just as James does, just as George Herbert does.
In the last section of today’s reading, James says true faith is characterised by caring for orphans and widows who are distressed. In our day, that means caring for those who are poor and marginalized, for those who are struggling in any way, those who need extra care and support: people who have impairments, people with a diagnosis of mental illness, people with dementia, people who are escaping violence or danger.
The letter of James is a really practical book of the Bible if you want to learn about how God wants us to respond to his love for us and how to live our lives. We will be having more passages from James over the next four weeks in the Sunday service, and I encourage you to read it and study it because it is full of helpful advice. And then maybe, with George Herbert, we can pray “ teach me, my God and King, to see you in all things and whatever I do, to do it for you.”