January 31, 2021
One of the most controversial and divisive words in years past and still to this today happens to be a word that shows up in our passage this morning – of course, I’m talking about the word religion. Few other words in the English language carry more baggage or evoke a wider range of thoughts and emotions than this word. For some of us, the word religion has positive connotations – it reminds us of positive memories from our upbringing from family rituals and traditions, or maybe it reminds us of positive experiences we’ve had in this church or in other churches throughout the years.
And yet, sadly for so many others throughout our town and nation and world today, the word religion comes with negative connotations.
And as you’d imagine, those negative connotations often come from a person’s own negative religious experiences, whether it be in their family, within a church or their interactions with religious people in everyday life. But yet, deeper than that, if I understand the frustration and disdain of religion correctly, it so often has to do with the hypocrisy or disconnect that the outside world sees within it. From the outside in, many onlookers see people who attend church, who profess to believe all these good and noble things, who wear crosses around their necks, have silver fish on the backs of their cars, but yet their everyday lives, their actions don’t seem to reflect their beliefs in any real sense. In addition, they see people who are just going through the motions, going through these religious practices and rituals, maybe even attending church on a regular basis, but yet with no real heart or meaning behind it. As Bono, the lead singer from the hit band U2 says, “Religion is when the spirit has left the building.” And for many people, that’s their take on things from the outside looking in.
Now to be clear, sometimes the hypocrisy that the church is accused of is fair and other times not so much. Yet nevertheless, it’s led to this cultural moment, where when people today are asked what faith tradition they belong to, or affiliate most closely with, one of the categories that’s growing the fastest is what is described as “spiritual, but not religious.”
That is to say, they believe in or see a need for God, or in some kind of higher power, or maybe to the point of believing and liking and following some of Jesus’s teachings, but yet don’t want anything to do with institutional religion or any of the baggage or hypocrisy that they believe comes with it.”
And I set all that up to say that though the word religion has been in many ways hijacked today, James from so many years ago, had a very different understanding of what religion meant, or in his words, what true religion, what pure and undefiled religion before God, the Father looks like. To summarize much of what we studied last week and scripture that we re-read this morning, real religion or true religious people are found in those whose beliefs line up with their actions, or as James puts it, people who hear the word, and then do something about it.
And in verses 26 and 27, James describes true religion by highlighting three things, three actions and points of emphases, ways in which we are to live out the word that we hear. And his aim here is not to create an exhaustive list, one that communicates that these are the three and only three things that ought to characterize our lives as Christians, but rather to paint a picture by including three things that really get at the core of true, authentic and pure religion. And they are rather specific, and possibly not what you think, and we’ll look at these one by one.
True religion is carried out by
Speaking Carefully, or as James implores us, to bridle our tongue.
Pursuing Purity, as or James reminds us, to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Showing Mercy, as James instructs us, to care for orphans and widows in their distress.
Three characteristics of the Christian life, of pure and undefiled religion. What’s important note is that James chapter 1 (that’s right, we’re four weeks in and still in James 1, we’re moving at a blistering pace here!) is in many ways an introductory chapter that sets up the rest of the book and each of these three characteristics, especially the first two are ones that James will come back to in greater detail later on his book, so we’ll move quickly through the first two, that is, Speaking Carefully and Pursuing Purity and then allocate more time towards the final one, Showing Mercy.
Let’s start with the first: Speaking Carefully.
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.
Wow, yet again we come across strong words from James. Here James seems to be saying that a person who does not bridle their tongue, even should they claim to be religious, is really following no religion at all.
Now, it’s hard to say exactly why bridling your tongue would make the list here for James, though keep in mind James, the author of this letter was Jesus’s brother, he grew up with him, learned from him and almost certainly witnessed much of Jesus’s public ministry and his teachings. And one of the things Jesus once said was, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” That is, our words and our speech are so often a reflection of our heart. And as you might imagine, Jesus cares very deeply about the state of our hearts. In fact, isn’t it so often the case that we say something biting or disrespectful or careless and then in reflection realize that something is not right within us – whether there is sin that needs confessing, or forgiveness that needs asking, or whether there’s pride or discontent or anger brewing from within? James seems to be saying true religion so often reveals itself through the words that we say, and the words that we don’t.
And so in response to this, as you and I consider how we bridle our tongues, our tongues which are a reflection of our hearts, it’s worth reflecting back on the famous phrase that we heard again this week from verse 19.
James says, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” Or as Eugene Peterson puts it so well in his Message translation, “Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear.”
Now, for time’s sake, we’ve got to move on, though if you want to review my flash cards from earlier, you are welcome to do so ☺
Yet be thinking, who in your life do you need to practice this with, being quick to listen and slow to speak with? And what might that look like? “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”
True religion speaks carefully by bridling its tongue. That’s the first characteristic. Here’s the second:
Pursue purity. James says, 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, [includes] keeping oneself unstained by the world.
This one I find interesting. True religion is found, or lived out through seeking personal purity, personal holiness, and what James is reminding us here is that in order to do so we need to guard ourselves against those things in our world today that might compromise our purity and holiness.
Of course, there’s a tension here. We live in this world and we can’t just hide, or at least we shouldn’t hide in our holy huddles. I’m reminded of what Jesus reminded his disciples on the night before his death – “Be in the world, but not of it.” Live in this world, but winsomely and thoughtfully consider how you’re being influenced or shaped by it, and if so, guard yourself from it.
There are so many areas in our life where we need to take this heart. One example for many of us has do regarding the realm of entertainment and discerning what shows or movies we should or shouldn’t watch.
Christian author Brett McCracken, wrote an article titled “Should I Watch This? 5 Questions for the Discerning Viewer” to help people more thoughtfully and objectively consider a question that I think many of us ask on a regular basis, “Should I watch this? That is, does it honor God and does it move me closer to personal purity and holiness?”
One of his questions I found particularly helpful was his first question, a simple one, where he asks “What makes you ask the question?” That is, if there’s any doubt within us, we should pause and reconsider and reflect why that doubt, whether that be a nudge from the Holy Spirit or the work of your conscience, exists in the first place, and then to err on the side of caution.
And so that’s one way in which we can keep ourselves unstained from the world – thoughtfully considering what we should take in as part of our information and entertainment diet. And here’s another – how about our friendships? It sounds so obvious, but who we spend time with, the people who we are closest to, will often have a great impact on our personal purity and holiness, either helping us grow in it or compromise it altogether.
Christian author Jackie Hill Perry has some great advice on our friendships, when she says this:
Get friends that make:
Sin look bad
God look big
Grace look tangible
I love that. And her choice of words is very intentional. Find friends that make “sin look bad” – not find friends that don’t sin, because Lord knows, if that’s your standard, you won’t have any, but find friends that make sin look bad, that make sin look strange, that make sin look like the exception and not the norm, and people that react to their sin with sorrow and repentance. And yet at the same time, find friends that make God look big and grace look tangible, friends that in our sins, and struggles and shortcomings, point us to the goodness and greatness of God and the unending supply of grace of Christ, whose mercies are new every morning.
Isn’t that a beautiful picture of friendship? What if you approached a friend in your life and told them, I want to be this kind of friend to you, one who makes sin look bad, who makes God look big, and grace look tangible? That kind of intentionality and follow through would have to cultivate life giving, God honoring and transforming relationships over time, and in addition, would move us closer to as James commands us, to keep oneself unstained by the world.
That’s the second characteristic. True religion pursues purity by keeping oneself unstained by the world. Here’s the third.
Show mercy. James says, “27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.”
True religion is lived out by showing mercy and care and compassion towards those in our society who are often the most vulnerable, sometimes neglected and in need of it.
And here it’s important to once again note that James here is not trying to create an exhaustive list, one that says that orphans and widows are the only two people groups we should care about or if to communicate that we should forget about or turn a blind eye to the poor, or those with disabilities or the immigrant among us. That can’t be his intention or purpose here. Rather, he’s simply trying to paint a picture of what true religion looks like.
Nevertheless, he does intentionally name orphans and widows. When it comes to orphans, churches have an incredible opportunity and maybe I could even say, responsibility, to step in and fill the gap through foster care and adoption, and providing a home and family structure for kids who do not have one. In fact, a few years ago, a group of churches in Colorado started Project 1.27 (named after this verse in James), as they noticed that there were two numbers out of wack: One being 875 adoptable children in their state and the other was 1,500 churches sitting in the Denver metro area. And so over time, they stepped in and filled the gap as churches met the need through adopting kids in need.
Now, secondly, as for widows, it’s important to keep in mind that James here is writing a pastoral letter to a specific group of people at a specific moment in time, and chances are there were lots of orphans and widows in their midst in need of care, and chances are he was speaking into an existing need.
And here’s where their church and our church share something in common: we have a significant number of widows in our church family that we are called by God to love and support and care for. And so while it’s possible that the call to care to orphans feels distant and overwhelming, caring for our widows is about as practical and possible as it can get for us.
The other night about a half dozen of us from our church got together to discuss how we best care for and support some of our oldest, most seasoned members in our congregation at a time when it’s particularly helpful, a season in which we are still in many ways distant from each other and one in which many of our oldest members are isolated and staying close to home. And as you might imagine, many of our oldest members are widows or widowers. And before I share thoughts and ways in which we can best care for our oldest members and widows, I first want to say thank you for your heart in already doing so in so many ways. You are all have been an inspiring example to me in this area so thank you.
Even still, I hope you’ll allow me, as an amateur on this one, to briefly share some of the simple things I’m learning about how to best care for the widows among us:
Write a card. Like a physical, snail mail, postage stamp kind of card. After all, who doesn’t love getting a card in the mail? Recently we resurrected a penpal ministry that we started almost a year ago where we pair up one of our kids with one on our older members and they send letters and pictures and scripture verses and encouraging words back and forth. It’s awesome. Kids, if you want a penpal, let me know.
Gift gifts, make window visits, shovel snow off sidewalks, remember anniversaries, check in over holidays, and here’s one my favorite: share your family.
One of the things I’ve learned in these last couple years of ministry is that, after sharing scripture and sharing time together in prayer, one of the very best things I have to share is my family, in Callie and Noah. Whether that includes taking them on visits, sharing photos or simply keeping people updated on how they’re doing. In fact, with one of the widows I visit, we’re at the point where we can barely sustain much of a back and forth conversation and so one of the things I’ll do is I’ll grab my phone, find a cute Noah photo, and press it against the window for this woman to see. And her eyes just light up. Friends, one of the very best things we can share with our oldest members and widows is our family.
That’s the third and final characteristic of true religion. Showing mercy, by caring for orphans and widows in their distress.
Speak carefully, pursue purity, and show mercy. That’s what James says is pure and undefiled religion.
And I’ll finish with this. Maybe you’ve been feeling this over the past 20 minutes or so, and I certainly felt this in writing this sermon, but I feel like I just gave you a massive to-do list, a list of rules and commands and things to do, which feels a lot like … oh, what’s the word, how do you pronounce it … religion! Ah! I would hate for you to leave here thinking that my intention or that James’s intention is that religion is simply a list of things you do, as if there’s a works-righteousness aspect to all of this, that we’re right with God or accepted by God on the sheer basis of what we do.
One of the things I’ve said in past weeks is that James is a bit of strange book in that it doesn’t mention Jesus all that much, but nevertheless, I’m convinced that Jesus is right there, written in between the lines, pointing us to a true religion, that’s centered around Jesus and what He has done for us.
Here’s what I mean. One of the central and core truths of Christianity is a doctrine known as adoption. Yes, adoption. The idea is this simply this, the gospel invites us into a new family, and makes us, as Christians, as a church, family. That through the blood and sacrifice of Jesus, he creates a new family, a spiritual family made of followers of Jesus. And because of Jesus, we now call God, our Father, in fact, James snuck that Father language right into verse 27.
27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:
And even more, we refer to those in our church family as brothers and sisters in Christ, in fact James will refers to his audience over and over again and brothers and sisters, and that’s not by accident. It’s a reminder and points to this reality that through Jesus, the gospel makes us family.
So, friends, why do we care for orphans and widows in their distress? Here we have two groups who are living and experiencing the loss and absence of family – whether it be through a father or mother or husband or wife. Well, it’s because you and I as spiritual orphans, were once welcomed into a new family of our own. With God as our father, with our fellow members as brothers and sisters. We’re simply welcoming them into a family that we were welcomed into ourselves.
In the end, that’s true religion. Not a list of rules of what to do or not do. But rather, gospel truths, through the person and work of Jesus, that have everyday implications. A religion of people who hear this glorious word of truth which has the power to save our souls and then do it.