Sunday, June 22, 2014


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 22, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Deuteronomy 11: 1-9
James 1: 1-8

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

I decided this week that I wanted to preach about hard times. I wanted to look at what it means to go through hard times, what they are all about, and so I was perusing through the epistles and came across the letter of James. I read the beginning, and then kept reading the entire letter. There is alot of good in it. . . despite the fact that Martin Luther wanted to take it from the Bible, saying that it was an epistle of straw, mostly because it challenged his salvation through faith alone ideas. . . there is much in James that is about the reality of living a life as a follower of God, and that life is shaped by the idea that faith without works is dead. Though these words are the most famous from the letter, they are found in context. He opens with words about struggle because his audience is no stranger to struggle. It is these opening lines about struggle and endurance that will give shape to my message this morning.

1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:
2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6 But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8 for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. [1]

Even the opening of the letter puts things into context. Look at who the letter is addressed to, "The 12 Tribes in dispersion." Yes, the letter is addressed to the Jews, who since the hard times of the Babylonian exile have been scattered to the wind. A series of empires followed the Babylonians. . . Persia, Macedonia, The Ptolemy's, and finally the Roman, which brings us to these first generation Christians who at this time were all Jews. For almost 1000 years the Jews have not had a country of their own. They have been ruled, subjugated, and often oppressed by this series of powerful empires. Without the autonomy of one homeland, they have become spread throughout the world, with no land to unite them, only a culture, a history, and The Law to give them any identity, I would say that is the definition of struggle, at least group struggle. And surrounding the time of Jesus' life and death, or actually following them the time of persecution for Jews in the Empire was heightened. It would be easy to lose hope, to lose faith, and to worry that God has finally removed His favor. If we think about the famous line from James about "faith without works" being dead, it makes a lot of sense within the context of the audience of this letter, those 12 tribes. . . they, as a people,  have been given that similar advice before. Then works was called law. . . and the book was Deuteronomy.
Paula read for us this morning one of the passages from that book that gives this message. There are many. . . it is a constant refrain. . . follow these directives so that you "may live long in the land." One could easily take a simple message from this. . . here are some rules to live by, live by them and things will go well, don't and they won't. . . and then you could also extrapolate further some of the historical realities of it all and say that since the 12 tribes of Israel have been dispersed across the world, then they must not have lived according to these commandments.  You may begin to make those deductions, and many people have time and again, but often reality is much more complicated than any easy truism like that. It is always easier to blame than to go forward. And so it is, it would seem that struggle is not always used for punishment. Struggle is not always the result of bad behavior or sin. . . think about it, if it was then would Jesus have been tried? Would Jesus have been flogged? Would Jesus have been Crucified, for he was flawless? There must be more to it. . . there always is. The truth is the answer to why things happen, why struggle happens isn't so easy to answer, but this passage is not suggesting a reason for it happening or a thing or person to blame, but instead is talking about what is needed to get through it. . . and that is endurance.
Endurance is an interesting word. If you look it up in the dictionary you'll get that it means "The ability or strength to continue or last, especially despite fatigue, stress, or other adverse conditions." That's it right, the ability to last. The origin of the word is pretty cool and interesting too, it literally means to exist in time, like en-for in, and dur- like duration, time. Time, this world, the tangible world, just living in it is to endure. . . Shakespeare put it in much more artistic words when he wrote, To be or not to be, that is the question, whether 'tis nobler in the minds to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. . . to die to sleep." Yes to live is to endure. Life is difficult and hard. . . though there is good in it, it is slow, the clock ticks slowly, and things take time. Life takes time. And so enduring becomes a real essential to life.
And so James writes, that when we face trials we should consider it joy. Yes and that is line one of the letter, after the introductions. It's like dear 12 tribes. . . take suffering as joy. . . so much for dazzling with truth gradually, beating around the bush, easing into it. . . no when you suffer be happy about it. . . and the reason that you should reckon suffering as joy is because it produces endurance. It produces then the ability to make it through those hard times, or to be even more basic, it makes it so you can live. . .  you know live in time, where life takes place. Suffering makes it possible for you to live. Suffering adds life. He says, when endurance has its full effect. . . you will be "mature and complete, lacking in nothing." Amazing words. Strong words. Words that give hope. . . for life is full of suffering, both on a personal and on a group type level.
There is no doubt that there is much suffering in the world. There is no doubt that it seems that we as Americans are struggling, but how many of us see that struggling as a joy, as something strengthening us, as something preparing us for the next piece of life to come along. No instead we are often trying to figure out why we are suffering, to blame, to avoid being blamed, rather than allowing the hard times to prepare us for the future. This passage seems to say that these hard times are about looking ahead to a time, not an easier time necessarily, but to a time where we are much stronger, much readier, much more mature and complete and lacking in nothing than we are today, so that we can endure. That which doesn't break you makes you stronger. . . that's true. . . and we know what stronger looks like, but breaking is more frightening. . . it looks like splintering, division, and weakness. . . things falling apart. . . funny how that cliche so fits the truth of what breaking looks like. How much division do we see? That's not the struggle, that's the breaking, the quitting. . . struggling is a joy, for it brings endurance, quitting brings nothing.
What about here? Here in this church. It may just be summer time, but we've been consistently less in number week to week. We've had some good folks, some good friends move away, some friends move on, and some friends in the hospital, unable to be here. When there is less of us, our resources are also lessened. We have less money as a church to do the things that we want to do. We worry about the future. . . and when you worry about the future, people tend to hold on tighter, to try to avoid the hard times, the real struggle. . to hold on to the status quo, the past, the comfort of the way it has been, because the way it may be is much too frightening. . . That is the natural response, the human response, but James is pointing out the Christian response, the faithful response, and it looks to the present struggle as joy, the future struggle as more joy, and the possibilities of it all as something to be endured and through that enduring real maturity and wholeness will take place. James is giving us those words of comfort. . .and we'll take them, even though our struggles are so much less in scale compared to the dispersed, persecuted, first Christians who were all Jews living in the latest Empire to hold them in its hands.
Ok, so we are supposed to endure it, great, but what are we supposed to do to do that, how do we get through it, what do we do to make it? Look at where James goes next: "If you are lacking in wisdom (if you don't know what to do) ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given to you." The way forward will be given by God. . . for it is important for us to remember, that the way to here has also been given by God. The big key message of Deuteronomy, isn't just following the law, that's a big part of it, but the bigger part of it, the most important part of it, was remembering who you are, who God is, and what God has done. This is the God who has brought you out of Egypt, this is the God who has been with you all along, this is the God who died on the cross, this is the God who defeated death, and this is the God who has always given generously and ungrudgingly, and he will again, believe.
James says, "ask in faith, never doubting." Ask in faith. . . we have to believe that our asking will make a difference. We have to believe that God's will being done is what we want. . . for God's will is perfect. He says that doubt is like being tossed by the waves, being tossed in the wind. It certainly echoes Psalm 1, which we read as our Call to Worship this morning, doesn't it. The path of the wicked, for them it is not so, they are just blown by the wind, rather than being planted, rooted by the waters. Doubt and faith, Sin and hope. . . these are completely connected. They are what matters. Without faith and hope none of it matters, none of it. It is simply a return to the pagan notions of conflict, that the world is in conflict, with the powerful fighting against the powerful, and the weak used as pawns in the game. That is what the world thinks, but we will learn endurance, because we will know that God made this world and is in control of it, from that we will believe that God's will is going to happen, we will from that take hope because God loves us, and is deeply concerned about our well being. . . and will do for us what is best. Let us not look backward, but forward in hope, in faith, in love, and so through our endurance taking its full effect, will bring us to maturity and completeness. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jas 1:1-8). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.