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The Coming of the Lord

March 21, 2021

To help you and me understand poverty in its truest sense, Robert Heilbroner, a prominent U.S. economist, described some of the luxuries that most Americans would have to abandon if we were to experience true poverty:

And so, moving from one part of the house to the next, he describes the following:

First, the living room: get rid of the beds, end tables, lamps, T.V’s, no magazines or books. Keep a few old blankets, a kitchen table, a wooden chair and a radio.

In the kitchen, the box of matches may stay, a small bag of flour, some sugar, and salt, maybe some potatoes, an onion and a can of beans. Everything else - the meat, the fresh vegetables, the canned goods, the crackers and candy, must go.

In the bathroom, the running water is shut off, in the closet, one pair of clothes is kept, and finally, as if so far this wasn’t jarring and sobering enough he says this. And as the house itself, that will have to be taken too. The family can move to the toolshed …

Then, after having all of that taken away, then, we might just have a better understanding of true poverty.

Now, I don’t share this story to overwhelm you with guilt or shame, or to make us feel bad for enjoying what we have.

And neither do I share this story with the primary purpose so as to give us some healthy perspective and increase your sense of gratitude and thanksgiving for what we have, although I suppose that would be a perfectly good thing to aim for.

Rather, I share this story, so that you and I might be more able and willing to see ourselves, to identify ourselves in our passage today.

James begins our passage this morning by saying, “Come now, you rich people.” And I’ll admit, when I hear those words, a part of me thinks to myself, “Okay, he must be talking about someone else, I can just skip this part and move on.”

But yet, maybe just maybe, now with this U.S. economist’s words in mind, these words might be for us as well.

This morning, we continue on in our sermon series the book of James, a series that we’ll wrap up next Sunday.

And this morning, as we now reach chapter 5, we come to two passages that each seem to be addressing two different audiences.

In the first section, verses 1-6, the passage is addressed to, as we just mentioned, “rich people.”

And in the second section, verses 7-11, the passage is addressed to, a group of people given this simple term of endearment, the “beloved.”

And based on how these words and ways of addressing groups of people have been used in past chapters of James, our best understanding is that James is addressing wealthy non-Christians in the first section and likely poor Christians in the second.

And the two passages come together in some ways to create one unified whole, tied together by that connecting word “therefore” in verse 7. The unified idea being that there are rich landowners that are misusing their wealth to oppress the poor.

And so in light of this, in first section, verses 1-6, James gives a blistering word of condemnation to the rich oppressors, followed by a hopeful word of encouragement to the poor oppressed in verses 7-12. And though you and I might not neatly fit into either of these categories – the rich oppressors or the poor oppressed – nevertheless, there are important lessons and truths from both passages that we can learn from and apply to our lives today.

So all that said, let’s dive in.

James says, 5 Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.

We’ve mentioned a time or two before that James as a book has been described as a “beautiful crafted punch in the gut,” and in many ways he has saved some of his biggest punches towards the end here, as he tells these rich people to weep and wail because of the miseries that are coming upon them.

Now, why exactly does James have such blistering words of condemnation for these rich people?

Well, as he says, 2 Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you.”

Notice that last phrase “their rust will be evidence against you.” This is a key phrase, the problem isn’t so much with their riches or clothes or gold and silver, per se. Those things in and of themselves are so often good things. Rather, what seems to be the problem is that they’ve rotted, they’ve been eaten by moths, that they’ve collected rust.

That is to say, they’ve accumulated so much wealth, so much stuff, that much of it is going to waste, much like a shriveled tomato in your fridge that you didn’t eat quite fast enough or a bike that’s useless after being left out in the snow and rain.

This is, in part, what seems to be the problem in James’s eyes. And from our understanding of the cultural context some 2000 years ago, James is speaking quite literally here, as wealth in their day often consisted in commodities such as grain or oil or garments, items that could literally, rot and waste away.

And here James seems is saying, this is unbelievable, you’ve got all this stuff, much of which is going to waste, when all the while there are people right around you who are desperately in need of the abundance you hoard.

On one hand, I’m convicted by all of this, for as I wrote this, I noticed that there are books on my bookshelf that I’ve never read, and Lord knows, there’s certainly got to be a cheaper way to decorate than through unread books.

On another hand, I’m encouraged by the ways you all have shared what you have, both in general, but also as the recipients of your generosity, as you all have shared so many toys and clothes with Noah. In fact, through the generosity of our church and our family, I think Callie and I have maybe purchased like three items of clothing for Noah in the first two years of his life. Which is unreal, and a crazy wonderful blessing.

All that said, I’m convicted and encouraged in different ways.

In addition, James’s words both here, and in our passage last week make me wonder about another major topic around finances and stewardship, and that is regarding savings and retirement and things of that nature. Like, is the bible, and is James against those kinds of things?

I wonder about this all the more in light of last week’s passage about planning, and that we should plan with a healthy dose of humility since you and I can’t say for sure what tomorrow will bring.

So all that said, is it biblical and wise and right to store up savings for a future day when there are needs everywhere around us?

Well, in short, yes, I think saving for retirement and other things is biblical and wise, and in addition, Christian financial planner Art Rainer, I think, nails it, in what he calls his 8 Money Milestones, these are 8 financial milestones or benchmarks that every Christian and every person would be wise to aim for over the course of their life.

For example, one of the benchmarks is pay off any and all debt. Another is save up 3-6 months worth of living expenses to serve as an emergency fund. Another is to allocate 15% of your gross income towards retirement. But yet, the first, is the most important and it’s the first for a reason. Step 1 is to Start Giving. Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

In other words, as Christians our first financial commitment ought to be allocated towards giving, whether that’s to our church or other ministries and non-profits and people in need. It’s a principle that the bible refers to as our “firstfruits,” that the first, of what we allocate, is our giving, and then to let every other financial commitment trickle down from there.

For example, for Callie and me, we aim to make giving our first financial commitment, then in some order, mortgage, food, retirement, diapers, etc. … then trickling all the way down to the point where we are looking at the budget saying, okay, with the remaining amount in our budget, will we put it towards an upcoming date night or an upcoming vacation? Because based on all those previous financial commitments we’ve made there likely won’t be money for both. And that’s okay, in fact that’s a good thing, because not only is it an act of faith and trust in God, it also helps to train our hearts and help us cultivate the joy and contentment of living on less. And of course, it’s worth mentioning, what a place of privilege it is to even get to choose between the two – so many people out there don’t have the luxury of having either.

The point is this - by making our giving our firstfruits, by making it the first financial commitment we make, it helps us to guard against the chance that as James says, our riches have rotted and that our gold and silver has rusted.

In addition, James highlights another problem, in fact, what seems to be part of the reason they are so rich in the first place, something we highlighted earlier, and that is, they’ve been either underpaying or holding back wages from the people who work for them.

The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out … 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.

To James, and rightly so, he sees this as an incredible injustice. These rich people, who were likely wealthy landowners with a slew of employees, had likely acquired at least some of their wealth and affluence through unfairness, oppression and fraud, holding back the wages of their workers. James even goes so far to say that they’ve murdered the righteous one, which may be his way of saying that they’ve indirectly committed murder by not paying their workers their daily wages, wages that they needed to purchase food for their families, and without it, may have led to starvation and death.

To James, this might have been the greatest injustice. Here these rich people live in luxury and pleasure, while their workers go hungry.

Now, I’m sure there are examples of this kind of injustice in our world both past and present, but yet, I wonder if we’d be better served through a positive example, a model of what the employer-employee relationship could or should look like from a Christian worldview.

I recently read a story that was titled “Changing Lives through Washing Cars,” a story about a man named Thomas Kim, who started a car washing company of all things, in part to, as he explains enrich the working class through economic opportunity and intentional mentoring.

It even starts in the interview process apparently, where instead of the usual questions such as asking about previous work experience, employers are asking prospective employees about their life aspirations, life goals, where they want to be in 5-10 years, things like that.

Now notice the difference between the employers that James describes verses the employers at this car washing company. One is looking at the employee, asking “What can you do for me? How can you serve me?” and yet the other is saying, “What can I do for you? How can we help you and equip you to realize your God given potential?” Remarkably different.

At this car washing company, the boss mentors these 19, 20yr old employees, taking them out to lunch, getting to know them. The team has monthly dinners, where employees share a meal, play games, celebrate promotions. They even pay for work before it’s done, which they say, demonstrates, the biblical principle of grace – with work motivated from out of a place of gratitude, rather than work motivated simply for a paycheck.

The owner, Kim, aims to create a work culture that is so different and countercultural that his team and his customers fall in love—not with him, but with the Jesus he follows.

Changing lives through washing cars.

Consider it the antithesis of the rich landowners James describes here in verses 1-6.

Now, at this point, you might be thinking, okay, well, I don’t own a business or have any employees, so how does this apply to me? Well, here, maybe think a little more broadly. That is, where in your life do you have a certain degree or power or authority and how do you use it? Whether it be the family who rents your property or the person who cleans your office building or school or the person who makes or serves your food at a restaurant? Do we treat them as a means to the end, as people who exist to merely serve us, or do we treat them as people whom God has put in our lives for us to love and care for?

Simply asking and reflecting on questions such as that may make all the difference.

All that said, that brings us to the end of the first section of our scripture today, which in some ways, might actually be the most depressing thing I’ve said yet, because if all of that is only part 1, then we’re well on our way towards a 40min sermon. But don’t worry, I promise, we’re nearing the end. I promise ☺

Part two, verses 7-11, as we mentioned before, are possibly best understood as being addressed to Christians, likely poor Christians, who worked under these rich oppressive landowners.

And so James’s charge to them is this:

7 Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.

And we can keep this second section short, because truth is, James’s initial words here are the core of his message to them.

7 Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.

Four times in this section he encourages patience – because that is what they need. Three times he calls them beloved – because that is who they are. And twice he points them to the coming of the Lord – because that is their hope. It’s the promise of Christ’s second coming, that day when he will one day return, where he’ll right every wrong and make all things new.

7 Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.

So friends, where in your life do you need patience? Or maybe we could say, a patient endurance, as James later says, we call blessed those who showed endurance.

Maybe you need patience for similar reasons as James seems to imply. Maybe you’re in the midst of a difficult situation at work, with a boss that asks for too much and gives too little, maybe your surrounded by injustice of some kind. James says, 7 Be patient until the coming of the Lord, a day when God will right every wrongdoing and injustice.

Or maybe you or a loved one are in the midst of a health scare, an untreatable diagnosis or faced with chronic and unrelenting pain. James says, 7 Be patient until the coming of the Lord, a day when God will give us renewed and perfect bodies, where there will be no more sickness, tears, pain.

Or maybe you, like James mentions, are like Job from long ago, a man who lost everyone he loved and everything he owned. Maybe you two feel like so much of what you cherished and held close has been taken away from you, maybe you feel like you can’t catch a break or are overwhelmed by the circumstances and demands and pressures of life, maybe you two are struggling with financial hardship like James’s readers were long ago James says, 7 Be patient until the coming of the Lord, where we’ll experience complete rest as we rejoice in the presence of our Lord.

7 Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.

Finally, there’s one more thing I want you to see these passages today and this is where we’ll finish for today.

There’s one dominant theme here that links these two passages together, and it’s that they both look ahead to and in light of certain future event, that is, God’s judgment or what is described here as, the coming of the Lord.

In both the addresses to the rich oppressors and poor oppressed, to the non-Christians and Christians respectively, James points forward to the coming of the Lord.

For the non-Christians, for the rich oppressors, it is a day and event to be feared and dreaded as James says, “weep and wail for the miseries that are coming upon you.”

And yet for the Christians, the poor oppressed, the beloved, as James affectionately calls them, it is a day and event to be longed for and hoped for, a day of joyful anticipation.

At the end of the day, the real question isn’t we are rich or poor from a pure financial standpoint, but rather how we feel about this certain future event, the coming of our Lord. Is it a day we hope will never come, as we try and cling to the treasures and pleasures of this world or is it a day we look forward to in hopeful and joyful anticipation?

In the end, it’s because of Jesus and all that this Easter season points to, that it can be a day we can all look forward to in hopeful and joyful anticipation.

It was Jesus who was born into poverty, lived the life of a vagabond, who lived and dwelt among us, living the life we should have lived,

It was Jesus who died the death we should have died, at the hands of rich and wealthy and powerful oppressors, having been betrayed by Judas in exchange for 30 pieces of silver.

And it was Jesus who rose again from the grave, his resurrection, the firstfruits, the first sign of the new creation, that day when Jesus will return and make all things new.

And it was Jesus, who said to his disciples, on the night before he died:

“Let not your hearts be troubled … I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.

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