“true religion is not merely work but a humble receptivity to God’s word so that it can develop deep roots within us, shaping our character until the natural result is the sort of good that James extols. “
Sunday, February 8, 2015
Mirror Mirror On The Wall... Looking intently into the Perfect Law that brings Freedom (James 1:19-27)... Shedding Light On The Epistle Of Straw: finding a Faith That Works In The Book Of James (Part 4)
You’ve gone to a shopping mall. It’s busy and as you walk along you catch a glimpse of someone in the crowd who looks vaguely familiar. It’s one of those embarrassing moments… Is it really someone you know…. You are not sure… so you double check by glancing over at them and they seem to be in the same boat as they are glancing over at you. You catch their eye for a moment and then you both turn away in indecision. What are you going to do now… You could wave and smile and they will return it with a blank stare. Who knows they may be looking at what’s behind you and you got in the way, and you’d look foolish, or you could simply walk away and risk that awkward encounter latter on when you meet again and they have you on for snubbing them.
So you turn and wave and smile… and Whew!! you’ve got it right you must know them because they wave and smile at you. You take a step towards them and they take a step towards you. You keep going and extend your hand to greet them as you approach and they do the same thing although it’s the wrong hand, this could be awkward. Then just as you get right up close bang your figures hit the glass and you realise that you’d seen your own reflection in a wall of mirrors and hadn’t recognised yourself.
Now I know it seems really silly. In our world where we are surrounded by mirrors and screens and fixated with taking selfies and posting them online and seeing ourselves is an everyday occurrence. We know what we look like; in fact our culture is almost obsessed with what we look like. I posted this picture on line as a joke or social comment… I call it being selfie conscious. But when James was writing mirrors were not an everyday item, they were rare precious items owned by the rich. They were also usually just polished metal not the silvered glass of modern mirrors. Glimpsing the occasional blurry distorted reflection was not enough to ensure people knew what they looked like. James uses this metaphor to talk about what it is like to be people who hear the word of God but do not put it into action. He implores his readers not to stare in the mirror but to look intently into the perfect law which brings freedom and to put it into action in their lives.
Scholars see the part of James we had read out to us today as an introduction to what is in the body of the book. He had already broached the main issue in verses 9-11 when talking of trials he had specifically mentioned poverty and wealth. The Christians communities James is writing to were dealing with the tension and challenge of being a mix of both rich and poor. Paul had to deal with the same issues in 1 Corinthians, where the rich and free would come to a church meeting eat in the dinning room and then the slaves would come when they could and find themselves seated in the outer courtyard. In the body of the book that we will be looking at over the next few weeks James deals with showing favouritism to the rich and important, not putting faith into action in terms of simply saying God bless you and letting people go away hungry and also the very real damage that the tongue and words could do to the Christian community. He also deals with how the church had allowed themselves to be conformed to the standards and behaviour of the society they found themselves in rather than the radically different way of being the Kingdom of God together. In this introduction James is holding up a mirror to the church to show them the issues that they are facing.
He starts here with a proverb about relationships. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. This is not unique to James or to scripture it is common wisdom. It is helpful about being a community together. One of the things I like about Waitangi day is that as well as celebrate people actually sit down and listen and talk about the issues facing Maori and Pakeha in this nation. We celebrate where we’ve come together but also acknowledge as a country we have made mistakes and we still have a way to go. It is also a good example of what James says about human anger not bring about the righteousness that God desires. Human anger cannot bring about real justice. It tends to drive people apart. James’ sage advice is that instead of speaking in anger we need to humbly listen to and receive the word that is planted within you. In terms of New Zealand that is the treaty of Waitangi as a living document, in terms of what James is saying to the church it is the gospel.
One of the prerequisites for humble listening says James is that we get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and the word used for get rid of here is the word used of taking off a garment. In the book of Zechariah as the people have come back to Jerusalem and re-established the temple as a sign of a renewal of God’s covenant, the prophet says to Joshua that he should take of his old robe with its dirt and put on the new robe. In the New Testament it is picked up as an image of God giving us a new life a white garment to replace the garment soiled by all our wrong doing. It fits in with what James had been saying about resisting temptation, if we approach the word of God with our own self-interests and desires in mind then we will not allow the word to have its way in us.
One of the criticisms of the book of James is that it focuses on salvation by works but this is not the case, here we see that James is very aware that the word has been planted in us like a seed. Last week we saw James talk about Gods purpose for us was to be born by the word of truth and here it that is echoed in the gospel being like a seed that is planted within us that we need to look to and nurture so that it may do its work in us. David Nystrom says James deals with the central paradox of the faith: that God’s gift to us also lays upon us the responsibility of moral behaviour.
Then James turns to that wonderful metaphor of the mirror, and the person who looks at the word of God and does not put it into action is like someone who glances at the mirror and then goes away and forgets what they look like.
Rather, James says, we should look intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continue in that not forgetting it but putting it into action. One of the major issues in the New Testament is the relationship between the Old Testament law or Torah, the first five books of the bible and the gospel. We particularly think in terms of Paul talking of the law being there to show us our need for God and salvation in romans and also that Jesus was in conflict with the Pharisees about their ridged legalistic keeping of the law. It is usually summed up as them being about the letter of the law and not about the spirit of the law. We can tend to forget that Jesus actually said he did not come to do away with the law but rather to fulfil the law: That the law had to do with the compassion and mercy of God rather than ridged keeping of rules and regulations. Jesus summed up the law in the two commandments love the lord your god with all your heart, all your mind and all your strength and love your neighbour as yourself. When James talks of the perfect law that bring freedom he is talking of the gospel of Jesus Christ, how Jesus fulfilled the law.
Using the metaphor of the mirror the word of God is able to show us who we are. The limitations of a mirror in James day was that it showed a blurry distorted image of what we looked like and even in our day a mirror can only show what’s on the outside. But the word of God shows us what we are really like. Now can I say when I looked at this passage today it showed me something’s about myself I did not like. That goes beyond the fresh wrinkles round my eyes and the fact that more hair seems to grow in my ears and nose than on top of my head these days when I look in the bathroom mirror. The passage challenges me about anger and how I use words and what I say actually matters.
But the perfect law that gives freedom does not simply leave it there. It is better than any mirror because it also reveals to us the very character and love of God. It shows us that by the grace of God we have been put right with God through Jesus Christ and it shows us the image that God desires us to be conformed to.
There is a scene in the 1985 movie Mask that illustrates this. The movie tells the story of Rocky Dennis, Rocky’s background is pretty hard. His mother is part of a motorcycle gang. But his solo mum loves him dearly and he grows up being a loving and caring person. Rocky has a fatal disease commonly called Lionitis which meant that the bones in his skull continue to grow and his face is monstrously distorted, and the bone growth was slowly exerting pressure on his brain. In one scene the gang visit an amusement park and Rocky goes into the hall of mirrors and comes across one mirror that is curved in a way that when he stands in front of it his face appears normal. He calls his mother over to look. The word of God does that for us it invites us to see the image of what we can be in Christ and as we intently look at that the spirit can conform us to it.
James then ties that back to the issues he has been addressing by talking about what real religion is. WE can think it has to do with rites and rituals, what we do here on Sunday and outward appearances but James speaking to a church wrestling with division and problems of inequality and trying to differentiate their behaviour from the world around them. He says that it is about reigning ones tongue in. and the care of the least and the vulnerable in the community. And not being confirmed to the image of this world, but to be confirmed to the image of Christ that we see as we stare intently at the word of truth… One scholar sums this process up like this “true religion is not merely work but a humble receptivity to God’s word so that it can develop deep roots within us, shaping our character until the natural result is the sort of good that James extols. “
Our churches vision is that we may be an authentic, vibrant sustainable community, growing as followers of Jesus and inspiring others to join us on the journey.” I know to fulfil that goal we need to hear James word about looking intently at the perfect law that brings freedom. That is both and Individual thing, the discipline of personal bible reading, but also a community endeavor, for Christians to grow we need to part of a small group that focuses on studying the scripture and helping each other apply it to our lives. In the reading I’ve been doing about churches that have turned around stagnation and decline one of the key elements is the growth of the spiritual lives of their core members, as they grow in their relationship with Jesus through studying the word together they grow in their vibrancy and that can lead to energy needed for renewal, out reach, justice and growth.