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August 16 lesson: Living Faith

August 02, 2020
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Living Faith

Summer Quarter: Many Faces of Wisdom
Unit 3: Faith and Wisdom in James

Sunday school lesson for the week of August 16, 2020
By Rev.
Ashley Randall

Lesson Scripture: James 2:14–26
Key Verse: James 2:26

Purpose: To recognize that living faith produces fruitful, faithful service

A Good Long Life

Abraham. Father Abraham. Father Abraham had many sons. If you grew up going to vacation bible school or summer camp, no apologies if you suddenly find this song stuck in your brain. Abraham is one of the most important characters in the story of God’s covenant relationship with humanity. Around one-third of the book of Genesis is devoted to relating the story of the covenant God established directly with the Hebrew people through Abraham.

Abraham’s influence does not end with the close of the Hebrew scriptures, though. Abraham is mentioned by name around 70 times in the New Testament. Both Jesus and his adversaries refer to those who are – or claim to be – “children of Abraham.” So it seems worthwhile to rehearse his story as we prepare to consider what James has to say about faith and works.

We are first introduced to Abraham (who is called “Abram” at that point) as one of the sons of Terah. Terah and his family live in Ur, but Terah decides that he should move to Canaan. He packs his family and starts the move, but when he gets as far as Haran, he decides to settle there.

It is here that the Lord speaks to Abraham, Leave your land, your family, and your fathers household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2). And Abraham packs up his family and goes to Canaan.

When he arrives, he finds there are already people living there. Nevertheless, “The Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘I give this land to your descendants,’ so Abram built an altar there to the Lord who appeared to him” (12:7). Abraham explores the area, building altars and worshipping the Lord until a famine impacts the area.

Abraham keeps going south (and west) until he gets to Egypt. As an immigrant and an outsider, he is concerned about his safety. He tells his wife, Sarah (“Sarai” at that point), to tell people “you are my sister so that they will treat me well for your sake” (12:13). Abraham’s hunch was right. People do recognize Sarah’s beauty. She gains the attention of the Pharaoh, is taken into the Pharaoh’s household, and Abraham profits materially from the situation.

Things don’t go so well for Pharaoh. “Then the Lord struck Pharaoh and his household with severe plagues because of Abrams wife Sarai” (12:17). When Pharaoh questions Abraham, he admits his deception, takes his wife and all the possessions he has acquired, and heads back toward Canaan.

After negotiating the resolution of a family conflict with his nephew, Lot, the Lord speaks to Abraham again: “From the place where you are standing, look up and gaze to the north, south, east, and west, because all the land that you see I give you and your descendants forever. I will make your descendants like the dust of the earth” (13:14-16a).

Lot finds himself in trouble. Abraham comes to his rescue. On his way back to his family, Abraham encounters Melchizedek the king of Salem and the priest of El Elyon.

Abraham receives a blessing from this mysterious character and makes him a gift of one-tenth of everything he has with him.

The Lord appears to Abraham again, this time in a vision. Dont be afraid, Abram. I am your protector. Your reward will be very great” (15: 1b). But Abraham is concerned. He doesn’t have any children – no heirs – no one to carry on his family name. “The Lords word came immediately to him…. ‘Your heir will definitely be your very own biological child.’ Then he brought Abram outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them.’ He continued, ‘This is how many children you will have’” (15:4-5).

It is at this point – after Abraham has abandoned Canaan because of a famine, after he has conspired with his wife to deceive Pharaoh, after he has arranged with his nephew, Lot – that we are told: “And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15:6). The Lord reiterates the promise of land and children. Still Abraham seems skeptical: Lord God, how do I know that I will actually possess it?” (15:8).

The Lord gives instructions to Abraham to prepare for a formal covenant by sacrificing several animals. “After the sun had set and darkness had deepened, a smoking vessel with a fiery flame passed between the split-open animals. That day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram: ‘To your descendants I give this land’” (15:17-18a).

Get ready for this. It’s big. Sarah has come up wither own solution for the problem of Abraham not having his very own biological child. She has a servant she acquired in Egypt, Hagar. She suggests that Abraham might be able to have a child with her. Hagar becomes pregnant and Sarah becomes jealous. Sarah complains to Abraham about Hagar’s attitude. He tells Sarah, “Since shes your servant, do whatever you wish to her” (16:6). Sarah is so harsh with Hagar that she runs away. Now a messenger of the Lord speaks to Hagar, Go back to your mistress. Put up with her harsh treatment of you.” The Lords messenger also said to her, I will give you many children, so many they cant be counted!” (16:9-10). She does return and “Hagar gave birth to a son for Abram, and Abram named him Ishmael” (16:15). 

The story skips ahead 13 years. The Lord speaks to Abraham again, affirms the promise that Abraham will have many descendants and that they will possess the land of Canaan. On this occasion, God renames Abram and Sarai so that their names reflect the nature of their transformation through their covenant relationship with God, and circumcision is introduced as a mark of the covenant.

God also assures Abraham that Sarah will bear him a son. “Abraham fell on his face and laughed. He said to himself, ‘Can a 100-year-old man become a father, or Sarah, a 90-year-old woman, have a child?’” (17:17). He assures God that Ishmael will do. God is undeterred. No, your wife Sarah will give birth to a son for you, and you will name him Isaac. I will set up my covenant with him and with his descendants after him as an enduring covenant” (17:19). God adds that he will also bless Ishmael, just in a different way.

Three strange visitors come to Abraham’s camp. He offers them generous hospitality. They foretell of Sarah’s pregnancy. Sarah overhears and she laughs. When questioned about her amusement at the preposterous prediction, she lies.

The visitors (now more clearly identified as messengers from God, or perhaps actually God) are on their way to deal with the injustice that has corrupted the people of Sodom. God decides to inform Abraham about God’s plan to address the situation, and Abraham becomes an advocate for leniency.

Lot, who is living in Sodom now, is warned to escape before the city and its neighbor, Gomorrah, are destroyed. Lot’s daughters conspire to ensure their future by taking advantage of their intoxicated father, before we return to focus on Abraham, again.

Abraham and Sarah – who is pregnant now, or soon will be – conspire again to deceive the King of Gerar, Abimelech, by telling him that they are brother and sister. Once again, the lie is revealed, this time when God appears to Abimelech in a dream.
Abraham admits his deceit, and again profits from the conspiracy.

A few months later, Sarah gives birth to a son. Abraham names him Isaac. “On the day he stopped nursing, Abraham prepared a huge banquet” (21:8b). Sarah notices Ishmael laughing and feels threatened. She asks Abraham, Send this servant away with her son! This servants son wont share the inheritance with my son Isaac” (21:10). “This upset Abraham terribly because the boy was his son. God said to Abraham, ‘Dont be upset about the boy and your servant. Do everything Sarah tells you to do because your descendants will be traced through Isaac. But I will make of your servants son a great nation too, because he is also your descendant’” (21:11-13).

The next morning Abraham gives them few provisions and sends them on their way. When they run out of food and water, Hagar is prepared to lay down and die, but God calls out to her, shows her a well, and continues to provide for them.

Meanwhile Abraham enters into a treaty with Abimelech, and lives “as an immigrant in the Philistines’ land for a long time” (21:34).

The story skips ahead another 12 or 13 years. The Lord speaks to Abraham again, but this time it is not an affirmation of the covenant promise. It is a test. Take your son, your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him up as an entirely burned offering there on one of the mountains that I will show you” (22:2).

Abraham gets up the next morning and prepares for the trip. On their way to the mountain, Isaac asks his father, Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the entirely burned offering?” (22:7b). “God will provide,” Abraham responds.

Once they arrive at the place, Abraham builds an altar, arranges the wood, binds his son, lays him on the altar on top of the wood, and prepares to use the knife on his son.

At the last moment, God’s messenger calls out to Abraham. “I’m here,” he says. Dont stretch out your hand against the young man, and dont do anything to him. I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me” (22:12). God provides a ram for the sacrifice. Father and son return home.

The story of Abraham is almost complete. Sarah dies and Abraham purchases a burial site for her that will also become his final resting place. Abraham also arranges to secure a bride for his son. Abraham marries again, too. Keturah gives birth to six sons. Before he dies, Abraham makes it clear that Isaac is his heir. The rest of his sons receive “gifts,” but they are sent away. “Abraham lived to the age of 175. Abraham took his last breath and died after a good long life, a content old man” (25:7-8).

Word and Deed

James has already made it clear that it is not enough to merely accept the word of God: You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves” (1:22). Those who experience the fullness of God’s blessing are those who not only receive God’s wisdom, but who are guided by it in their daily lives – in their relationship with God and with one another. They discover that the “perfect law” sets them free from bondage to their cravings and free to live into the gracious abundance of God’s kingdom. And when a person is walking blamelessly – in a way that honors Gods will and purpose – that path leads to righteousness, justice, and equity. These are the characteristics that mark a covenant community – a community where people are living in right relationship with one another.

The test for whether a community reflects the nature and character of God is how it treats those who are most vulnerable. The world’s value system may be based on money, power, and pleasure, but those who choose to participate in God’s beloved community love their neighbor (and particularly those most in need) as themselves and they express that love in practical ways, by what they say and what they do.

James expands on this theme in the opening of chapter 2. While it is not part of the assigned reading for the series, it’s important to notice the concern James expresses for the preferential treatment some are showing the wealthy persons who join them for worship, especially as it contrasts with the dishonor they are showing the poor. Here is a clear indication that they have adopted the agenda of the world and its priorities, rather than the values of God.

James wants his readers to understand that when they discriminate against others – particularly when that discrimination is based on worldly standards – they are failing to fulfill the “royal law:” “Love your neighbor as yourself” (2:8, also Leviticus 19:18). According to James, when they show favoritism to the wealthy at the expense of the poor among them, they are committing a sin and they are just as guilty before God as someone who commits adultery or murder (see 2:10-11). James calls again for believers to consistently connect hearing and doing: “In every way, then, speak and act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom” (2:12).

From here, James raises the question: “My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith cant save anyone, can it? (2:14). He presents a couple of hypothetical situations where there is an encounter between a believer and someone in need and declares that words alone are not enough. Those who follow Christ are called to act. Those who follow Christ are called to show love in practical ways.

Near the end of his ministry Jesus told a parable to illustrate the final judgment. People are separated into two groups: righteous and unrighteous. The basis for the separation seems to surprise each group, but particularly, the unrighteous: Then they will reply, Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ Then he will answer, I assure you that when you havent done it for one of the least of these, you havent done it for me’” (Matthew 25:44-45).

This is consistent with what Jesus said earlier in his ministry. He has warned his followers: Watch out for false prophets. They come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are vicious wolves…. Therefore, you will know them by their fruit” (Matthew 7:15, 20). For James, the “fruit” is the practical acts of service for those in need.

Words are not enough. Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter” (Matthew 7:21). Doing the will of God is following the way of wisdom. When people follow the way of wisdom, it transforms the character of the community and the quality of the relationships in that community.

Even though James is clearly influenced by the teaching of Jesus, he chooses to go back to the example of Abraham as a paragon of one who demonstrated faith through faithful action. This is particularly interesting – and to some extent perplexing because Paul in another context is calling on the example of Abraham to prove that faith alone is the basis of salvation (see Galatians 3:6-18; Romans 4:1-25).

It is worth noting that Paul and James are writing to congregations who are living through different circumstances. Most of the members of the congregations to which Paul is writing are not of Jewish descent. There are other missionaries who are spreading the message among the congregations Paul has planted that in order to follow Christ, it is necessary to first convert to Judaism and be circumcised. Paul believes this is nonsense, so he points to this verse in Genesis, And [Abraham] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15:6). Paul reminds the Galatians that this occurs before Abraham is circumcised.

Let me ask you to remember that although this follows Abraham’s willingness to leave Haran and “go to the land that I will show you;” it also follows (and precedes) Abraham’s deception concerning his relationship with his wife as well as the other questionable choices Abraham makes along the way to becoming the father of a great nation. In fact, the example of Abraham’s life seems to more clearly illustrate Paul’s greater claim that our salvation rests entirely on God’s grace: “Gods righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him” (Galatians 3:22).

On the other hand, James is writing to congregations who are primarily immersed in Judaism. They have also been deeply impacted by the crucifixion of Jesus. For them, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his “only” son has been one of the interpretive motifs for understanding and proclaiming what God has done for us. Abraham’s bold action becomes the fulfillment of God’s gracious choice of Abraham decades earlier. “In fact, his faith was made complete by his faithful actions” (2:22b).

Following the example of Abraham with that of Rahab the prostitute is another interesting choice of James. She is certainly not a paragon of virtue; still James commends her for connecting her faith to practical deeds of service.

The defeat of the city of Jericho is the beginning of the story of the conquest of the promised land following the escape of the Hebrew people from Egypt and the wandering in the wilderness. Rahab’s affirmation that “the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth below” (Joshua 2:11) is a sign of her faith, but her hospitality, her protection, and her advice on how to avoid capture are the actions that led to the defeat of the city and the rescue of her and her household.

Rock O’ My Soul

There is another song about Abraham you may have learned in vacation bible school or at summer camp: Rock o’ my soul in the bosom of Abraham. Oh, rock o’ my soul!” It is an old African-American spiritual that was first documented by William Francis Allen, in the 1867 collection Slave Songs of the United States. As an elementary school child, I’ll admit I was more focused on making sure I did the motions correctly than I was on unpacking its meaning.

The song’s primary motif comes from Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke16:19-31). Jesus sets the scene succinctly: “There was a certain rich man who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day. At his gate lay a certain poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich mans table. Instead, dogs would come and lick his sores” (16:19-21). 

After these rather graphic details, Jesus moves quickly on: “And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom” (16:22a, KJV). The rich man also dies, but goes to a place where the dead exist in torment. The rich man pleads with Abraham to “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because Im suffering in this flame.” Abraham explains that his life of leisure has won him no special privilege in the afterlife; whereas now after years of being on the receiving end of terrible things – like neglect, indifference, and dishonor, Lazarus is being comforted.

Abraham’s special relationship with God makes him not only our common ancestor, but also provides us an intimate connection to God. For centuries, the bosom of Abraham has represented a place of security, both in life and after death. Resting in the bosom of Abraham has served as an image of resting in a place where the evil one could not reach and where the righteous rest securely.

A child of Abraham being comforted in his arms connects with the common experience of a sick, frightened, or wounded child resting safely in the arms of his or her father or mother. If we don’t remember a specific experience, our imaginations recreate the memory of awakening from a bad dream, calling for our parents, and being caught up in the security of their arms and rocked back to restful sleep.

The African-American spiritual incorporates all of these images and adds this rocking motion to the comforting rest in Abrahams arms. Perhaps you can imagine how these images might comfort someone living as a slave – trying to survive in a world of cruelty, injustice, and great darkness. Even in the face of evil, a child of God can take comfort in the gentle, steady, soothing rhythm of being rocked in the safe space of Abraham’s embrace.

May we learn to see the needs of those around us. May we respond in acts of faithful service. May we commit ourselves to putting our faith in action through practical acts of love. May we learn to give ourselves and all that we value to God and to one another. May we learn to move to the gentle and steady beat of Gods love as we hold one another close through these days of trouble, trial, and tribulation.

Discussion Questions
  • How would you explain God’s acceptance of Abraham in spite of his flaws and lapses in judgement?
  • Where have you seen deference shown to those who are wealthy among people of faith?
  • Who is God calling you to “rock in the bosom of Abraham”?
Rev. Ashley Randall is pastor of Garden City UMC. According to his count, the Bible says Abraham actually had eight sons – not as many as Jacob, but then Jacob had four “wives.”

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