Tuesday, July 21, 2015

James: Patience, Suffering and Temptation

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was James 1:12-18 and 5:7-11:

When I met my wife Linda, she had a black lab, Vivian, and Vivi was really smart.  All you had to do was show her, or tell her, one time what you wanted her to do and normally she would pick it up right then.  That was a smart dog.  I’ve had some other smart dogs, but the dog we have now, Yogi, is not in that category.  And this isn’t just that he’s being ornery or stubborn, he’s just not that smart.  And to make it worse, he is part terrier and possibly some beagle, and so he likes to get his nose going and then just go.  So if given the chance, whether it’s the door being left open just a bit, or if he can find any way out of the backyard, he’s going to take the opportunity and take off and run as far and as fast as he can, until he’s picked up by the dog catcher and he ends up in doggy prison.
Now if Yogi was human, or perhaps if he was a little smarter, he might try and give some rationalization for what he was doing and why he ended up in trouble, because that’s what we try and do.  Perhaps he might try and blame the devil, with the proverbial “the devil made me do it” excuse.  No personal culpability.  Everyone else is responsible except for him, not even for giving in to the temptation.  Or he might even argue that the temptation was put there simply in order to try and bring him down because of who he is, and so not only is he not weak, it’s because he is so strong and so good that it even happened.  He is suffering unjustly.  Or he might even say, and we certainly hear this all the time, that it’s God who led him to this point, either to tempt him to see what he will do, or even worse in my opinion, is to say that God has led him to this, and not just led them to it, but actually pushed him through the door to run for all he is worth and to doggy prison, but that God will get him through it.  It’s that whole, “God doesn’t give us anything that we can’t handle” clich√©.  But regardless of what excuse is used for temptation and suffering, they all take patience, and for me with Yogi it takes patience for me so that I don’t try and kill him.  But what James tells us today is that all of this is wrong, and the truth is we simply don’t understand what’s actually going on.

Suffering is universal.  It’s not that one person has suffering and another doesn’t, we all suffer, although perhaps we suffer in different ways.  Temptation too is universal, even the most perfect people in the world are tempted by something.  But patience, that might not be universal.  I remember being at a restaurant called Ed Debevic’s, which was a 50s themed diner known for their surely and rude wait staff and their moto “eat and get out”, and one of the waitresses said to a table who asked her for something, “patience is a virtue, now hurry up and get some.”  Now is patience really a virtue?  James might say that it is, but even there I’m not totally convinced, because there are times when patience is a virtue and times when it’s not.

If you have called 911 for the police or fire department, and the dispatcher said “they’ll get there when they get there, just be patient.”  That would not be so virtuous.  There are times when we need things to happen immediately.  Likewise, if I was to say, after having already preached for more than a hour, I’ll be done in ten minutes, just show some patience, there too you might not be so patient.  But for a very different reason right?  There are times when we need something immediately and so can’t be patient, and there are times when we want something to end and don’t want to be patient.  I think that’s why when we go to the doctor we are called patients because we often sit so long waiting for someone to do something that they are reminding us what we need to be doing, being patient.

But, James is not really talking about the first type of patience, of needing something immediately, although it certainly plays a part; he’s more concerned with the second type where we want things to happen immediately, but they’re just not going to, they get here when they get here.  His example is the farmer who has to sit and wait patiently.  First they have to wait for the early rains that help them prepare the fields and allow the seeds to begin to grow and then they have to wait on the later rains to keep the crop growing, and what he doesn’t say he is they also have to wait for the rains to stop so that they can begin to bring in the harvest.  If any of those things go wrong, they are at risk of losing it all.

Our last church was in a small farming community, and in the two years we were there, the only people who brought in a crop were those who used irrigation so they could water the crops.  But they were few and far between.  Most were dry farmers and so they were dependent upon rains, that with the drought, simply never came, and so there were no crops to bring in, and no crops in a different time meant suffering.  Which is part of what James says where patience comes into play, in the story of Job.  Job suffers and also patiently endures, after all, we talk about the patience of Job, although we might argue about his patience eventually coming to an end, but his suffering also eventually comes to an end, and that is part of the point.

We might say that having to wait a half hour for our pizza to be delivered is suffering and we don’t have the patience to endure, but that’s neither patience nor suffering.  Suffering is something uniquely different, although harder to explain.  As I was preparing for today’s message, I read a quote that said everyone experiences pain, but that suffering is optional.  Which I guess says that we get to choose whether we are going to suffer or not, and I would have to say I would fundamentally disagree.  We might argue that sometimes the suffering goes on long than it needs to, and about people who sort of revel in their suffering, but I don’t think that if we chose to we would never suffer in our lives.  Just look at the flip side which might be compassion, which literally means to suffer with, which says that suffering is a reality that needs to be reacted to.  And as hard as it is to believe, especially when we are experiencing it, but suffering and pain can actually be helpful, they make us stronger, I might even argue that they make us better.  And the inability is extremely dangerous, as is seen with those with the very rare disease known as congenital insensitivity to pain, which rather than being something that we think would be great, is actually a life threatening condition.  Because when we can’t experience pain, then we don’t know when we are in danger, when we have injured ourselves, when we need to stop what we are doing or when we need to seek medical attention.  We often don’t think of pain as being something that keeps us safe and alive, but in fact it turns out it is.

Now if I was to ask you if you could give a gift to someone, and this gift would give them some pleasure, some moments of bliss, but would also give them pain, suffering and cause them to die, would you choose to give it to them?  I’m guessing that most of us would probably say no, we would never do something which would cause pain, suffering and death for someone else, maybe even for someone who was an enemy.  And yet that very gift is given every single day, and many of us have given it, because it is the gift of life.  So if we have chosen to have children, we have chosen to give a gift that will ultimately result in death, and will also have pain and suffering, sometimes for the child and sometimes for us as the parents.  But it is a gift that we also revel in, a gift given to us by God, it’s that gift of hope and of new life.  But the question that James is grappling with comes from those who say that not only are the good things we receive from God but that the bad things are given to us by God as well, and James says that’s not the case.

“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above,” James says, which comes immediately after he says that God does not tempt us.  But the way I see that, although James doesn’t say it directly, is that if perfect and generous gifts come from above, that means that imperfect gives do not come from God, which means that neither suffering nor temptation are given to us by God.  As I already said, that stands in stark contrast to what we hear all too often.  In fact, perhaps it stands in contrast to something that we say every single week in worship, because during the Lord’s Prayer we say “lead me not into temptation.”  So aren’t we asking God not to tempt us?  That’s certainly how most people think about it.  But James tells us that’s not the case, that temptation comes not from God, because we do well all by ourselves.  That Yogi sees that opening that allows him to run and he takes it, and the results are not caused by God, or by us, but by himself and the results of his actions. Now one possible explanation for what we say in the Lord ’s Prayer is a matter of punctuation.

There is no punctuation in Greek, and so as translators are working they have to decide where punctuation should be added.  So just as an example, Ephesians 4:28, could say, “Let him that stole, steal no more.  Let him labor with his hands.”  Or with a simple change in punctuation it could say, “Let him that stole, steal.  No more let him labor with his hands.”  So if we change the punctuation we could be asking God to lead us not into temptation, but simply lead us and deliver us from evil, because it is our inclination to fall into temptation of our own accord, not because either God, or the devil, makes us do it.  And the problem with temptation is that we are all tempted, but by different things, we all give into temptation and temptation leads death.  Actually what James says is that desire “gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.”  Or as Paul says, the wages of sin are death, but what saves us from that is Christ.  And this is where patience comes back into play.

First because if we practice patience, then we are less likely to fall into temptation.  I don’t even want to say be led into temptation, because that again puts the blame and responsibility for it on someone else, but James says, “One is tempted by one’s own desire.”  There is a rule in finance that on major expenditures, or even sometimes on some small ones, to not do anything for 24 hours, which helps us from making major mistakes with our money.  The same might be applied to other things, to have patience in our lives, especially with those things that tempt us.  Because usually the temptations that get us in trouble are not things that we’ve thought about for a long time, but instead those that are spur of the moment.  That’s not to say that there aren’t temptations that we give into after thinking about it for a long time, but, at least in my experience, that’s not where the majority of temptation is found.

And so we are called to show patience in the face of temptation, and to show patience in the face of suffering and we show patience in waiting for Christ.  Because what we know is that all temptation and suffering will end, either because they will run their own course, or because we will pass on to our eternal reward.  But what makes Christianity different in the face of temptation and suffering than other religions is our answer to it.  Every other religion also recognizes suffering as part of a human condition, and this is not to slight other religions, but what they have to offer in the face of suffering is philosophical answers.  Even if they have suggestions, such as Buddhism which in the four fold truths says that all suffering comes because of our own desires, and we must therefore overcome our desires and separate ourselves from them, that still starts as a philosophical proposition that later calls for action.  Now as an academic I’m all for philosophical answers, things that make us think, or make me think, but how do they actually apply to our lives, and separating ourselves from everything and everyone I don’t think is the answer.

But what Christianity offers are not just philosophical truths, but instead we offer a person.  And that person is Jesus the Christ.  That makes us fundamentally different in our belief.  We offer someone who dealt with temptation and overcame it, someone who saw suffering and suffered.  The word excruciating literally means out of the cross.  We offer someone who saw and experienced death, someone like us, someone who could bring us into right relationship with God and with each other, not just because he told us what to do, but more importantly because he showed us what to do.  He lived out his faith, he lived out God’s love, he put the rubber to the road, and it is from his example that James, the brother of Christ, saw his guide and saw how we were to live it out, and sought to pass that on through his letter.

Now what we have been talking about when it comes to James was how we too live our faith out, and what I often struggle with is making sure I say how to live it out, but what does that look like today?  I don’t think saying, “so to be a devoted follower make sure you are tempted, but realize it doesn’t come from God, to know that we will suffer, oh, and make sure you are patient throughout it all.”  That is probably not a useful message.  So instead here is a different take.  The truth is we are human and that means that we are going to suffer, and we are going to be tempted, and we are going to fail, but here is what happens in the midst of all of that as well: God is present for us.  Christ is present for us, because what sets us apart is that the answer to suffering and temptation is not some philosophical statement, it’s the person of Christ, who came to us from God because God so loved the world.  Suffering is not redemptive.  God can bring something good out of it in the end, but God did not cause it to make us better or to teach us a lesson.  God can redeem it, but suffering in and of itself is not redemptive.  It’s to know that suffering is not the end, to know that temptation and even failing are not the answer, that God has the final answer, and that through it all God will be with us.  That the result of sin is death, but the result of Christ is life, and life abundantly.  That every generous and perfect gift comes from God, and that in fulfilment of God’s own purposes God gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits for all of creation.  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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