“Remembering Who You Are”
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, July 30, 2023
Reading: James 1, 19-27
This is one of those scripture passages that hardly needs to be followed by a sermon. It pretty much stands on its own. Should we just go into the next hymn? Actually, I think this is one of those sermons that God sent me to preach to myself! I don’t know about you, but whenever I think that I’m finally getting my bad habits under control – like losing my temper in traffic, or letting stress get the better of me in a challenging situation – then something will happen to make me acutely aware that I still have a lot of work to do! Just when I think I’m advancing in my faith journey, a trial comes along to prevent me from becoming a little too proud of myself.
In the verses leading up to this passage, James is referring to just that: the Christians’ response to being tested. Last week we heard about how Abraham was tested, and so if God would test Abraham, we can’t imagine that we should be exempt! All the early Christians suffered tremendous trials: persecution by the political and religious leaders, and even rejection by their families and communities. They knew they were in the right, they knew they had done nothing to deserve this treatment; it was just because of their Christian beliefs, so the persecution and rejection were acutely unfair. I’m sure many of them responded in the same way as many of us respond when we are being mistreated. They lashed out in anger, shouting or becoming aggressive. Or they muttered and murmured complaints and slander about the ones they felt hard done by.
James says that when they are experiencing trials and tests, they should not be so quick to unleash their fury. They should be slow to anger, slow to speak, and quick to let the other person have their say, even when it seems unfair. Why? Because this will be a witness to who they are in Christ. When tested do they respond with anger? Do they lose control of their tongue and lash out at the one testing them? If so, that does not jibe who they are in Christ Jesus. It does not fit their new identity as people redeemed through Christ Jesus, which is who they really are since becoming Christians.
As kind of a funny example, he uses the idea of a mirror. Of course, in our culture we’re surrounded by mirrors, windows, photographs, and a myriad of other ways to observe our own reflection on a regular basis, probably way more often than we should. But it’s nothing special for us to see what we look like. Most people don’t even go out of the house in the morning without checking themselves in a mirror. But in those times, mirrors were not common and very few people had portraits painted of themselves; so, the opportunity to observe one’s own appearance would cause quite an impact. Finding out what one actually looks like to others, the image would become imprinted in their mind, unless, of course, they are completely blasé or apathetic to the experience. Then they might walk away and forget what happened.
James says that the experience of meeting Christ and becoming His follower should have the same impact. They suddenly see who they really are. And if they are apathetic about the experience and take it for granted the way we do when we pass by a mirror, then they will walk away as though nothing happened and it will not change their lives in the least. Once they know their true identity in Christ it changes everything, so if they then go and act the same as they did before, if they lash out in anger when faced with trials, they are reverting to their old selves, and acting like they have forgotten altogether who they are in Christ.
We are all tested in various ways throughout our lives. Sometimes, little things during our day will try our patience (“it’s one of those days!”); sometimes we’ll go through extended periods of real difficulty and testing; these are the times when it seems nothing is going our way and can sometimes go on for years at a stretch.
Who we say we are may not always be an accurate representation of who we really are. How we respond to trials will show us who we really are; they are like a mirror that shows us our true identity. We may say we are devout Christians, but when someone provokes us do we respond with love as Christ commanded, or do we respond with our first angry instinct? Do we use these trials as a time to exercise and strengthen our Christian character, or as an excuse for acting on our basest instincts? Do we respond to trials in the same way when we’re 68 as we did when we were 18? Or have we learned over time and through experience that the best thing is to trust and obey God?
As we journey with God over the years our characters and our response to testing should change. When others get on our nerves, it tests our patience. How do we respond to this kind of trial? Lashing out in anger or maliciousness, James says, is not a Christian response, and as we walk and grow on the Christian journey, this kind of response should become much less frequent, and when we do react, we should be able to catch ourselves quicker (even though none of us can ever expect to be perfect – there are still some people in my life who make me so angry that the most loving thing I’m capable of is just keeping my mouth shut, and according to James, that’s the first step).
We’ll never be perfect, but one solid biblical truth that has often been misconstrued is that God accepts us as we are, no matter where we have been, what we have done, just like the father accepted the return of the Prodigal Son. That is absolutely true. Absolutely anyone, who has done anything, anywhere, at any time, is loved unconditionally by God, and can return to God and have all their sins forgiven and be accepted by Him as his precious child. I am living, breathing, walking proof of that, but I’ll save the juicy stories for another day!
And while it is true that God loves us as we are, it’s also true that God doesn’t leave us as we are. The father did not accept the prodigal son back just to let him keep wallowing in the pigpens (sorry, I’m just assuming you all know the story. If you don’t I recommend reading it). No, he cleaned him up, put a robe on him, a ring on his hand, and turned him from a hired hand into the son he was born to be! After receiving that kind of loving, gracious treatment, do you think the son went back to being the insolent boy that he had been before? No, I’m sure he began to behave in a way that demonstrated he was truly a son now. God loves us and wants to transform us from common sinners, into sinners who have been redeemed! That’s who we are!
I remember back in 2006, I was settled in a church down in Nova Scotia and attended the annual maritime conference. The keynote speaker that year was Rt. Rev. Peter Short, who was the moderator of the United Church of Canada at that time. I’ve never forgotten the story that he told using the analogy of a recycling centre. Talking about how you throw all these tin cans, empty bottles, dirty containers, and torn up newspaper – all this stuff that is really trash – into a recycling bin. It’s no longer any of use to anyone, but they take that trash and turn it into something new, maybe even something beautiful, definitely something useful. Peter said that the church is like a recycling centre: when we’re tired, unhappy with how our lives are turning out; when we’re disappointed with ourselves or feel like we’re useless or unlovable, God wants to take our old, used up lives, and turn us into something that is beautiful, good, and useful for service in His kingdom on earth!
Now, this does not mean we will all become perfect, cookie cutter Christians, with pasted on smiles like Christians are often portrayed on TV shows like The Simpsons; there was a show about 10 years ago (it didn’t last more than one season) called GCB – which stands for “Good Christian…and you can guess what the B stands for…” (It’s not “ladies”). These are all smiley, fake Christians, who acted the way they thought Christians were supposed to in public; but it was all a show, and underneath they were just superficial, judgmental, spiteful Bs!
So, I’m not talking about living fake or double lives: one person in public, another altogether in private. Because God also sees us in private, and his judgment is more important than what other people think. If my temper flares up in the car, maybe nobody is in the car with me, but I know that God sees my attitude and behaviour, and I’m not happy with myself. I am not behaving like a person who has been accepted, forgiven, redeemed, loved, and called by Jesus!
So, we really live our best lives, and we will in turn feel most happy and fulfilled, when we remember who we are; that we are followers of the Christ who has redeemed us, who gave his life for us, and who has called us by name to follow Him.
James says, “the person who looks into the perfect law of freedom, and goes on with it, not being a hearer who forgets, but a doer who does the deed – such a person is blessed in their doing.” They may feel that their anger is righteous – and maybe it is – and it may feel momentarily gratifying to express that anger; but it will be more gratifying over the long run to not give in to the temptation to blow up in anger, because that is not who they really are anymore. The gospel, when lived and not just heard, will transform every area of their lives and they will see over time the new, Christ-like identity that they have taken on.
James’ remedy for them is the same for us: the scriptures, the message about Jesus and who we are in Him – it is “the perfect law of freedom.” To us that sounds like a contradiction in terms. How can a law be associated with freedom? Isn’t the law something that restricts your freedom; something that stops you from doing what you want?
Well, consider this: there was a study done one time with school children, to see whether constructing fences, restricting the limits of their movement, was detrimental to their psychological wellbeing; if it made them feel caged in, or if it limited their development. The results of the studies showed that while the children in a playground without a fence clustered as a group safely near the centre of the playground, the children in a playground with a fence, marking clear boundaries of where they could go and where they couldn’t, ran freely throughout the entire playground. Knowing that the fence provided safety for them, it enabled them to live and play fully in the space they were given, much more so than the children with no boundary.
That’s what God’s law is like: by seemingly restricting our “freedom” in some ways, it actually opens up far greater, genuine freedoms in all other ways. And the point is this: when we look unto this law of God, which is for our good, it will change us, and change us for the better. God gives us His word, his law, because it works, and it works for our good and the good of the world. When that happens, God’s blessing – that is, God’s enrichment of your life in all kinds of new ways – will surely follow.
God’s law is intended for our good. The controls that we are called to exercise over our attitudes and behavior in our lives – such as controlling our anger, controlling our tongues, etc. – may seem as though they limit our freedom, God has given them to us to allow us to live more abundantly, to live more gratifying lives of purpose and meaning. We can access the power of the gospel to live new, transformed lives: lives that are distinguished – not by anger and bitterness and violence – but by those fruit of the spirit we know so well: peace, love, joy, and even patience. Amen.