Hear and do the Word
Quarter: Jesus and the Just Reign of God
Unit 3: Live justly in the reign of God
Sunday school lesson for the week of February 2, 2014
By Helen & Rev. Sam Rogers
Scripture Lesson: James 1: 19-27
Today we begin the third and final unit for the Winter Quarter. Moving from Luke to James, our study enters new territory. The Gospels proclaim the story of Jesus, and the Letters (Epistles to an earlier generation) were written to help Christians answer the question, “So what?” This is particularly true for the letter of James.
Tradition identifies the author of this letter as James, the brother (half!?) of Jesus. The letter was addressed to the people of God scattered across the Roman Empire, who, for the most part, were probably Jewish Christians. Our earliest picture of James is with the family in Mark 3, when they come to take Jesus home because they believe he is mentally ill. He had a difficult time seeing Jesus as the Son of God. After all, they had grown up together. Sibling rivalry knows no bounds!
Something happened to change him! The crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus are the foundation stones of faith for all disciples, and James became a believer because of them. In fact, he eventually becomes the leader of the Jerusalem church, as seen in Acts 15, the famous Council of Jerusalem.
This letter was written by a man named James, seeking to encourage Christians living in a hostile world to live out the faith they proclaimed. As such, his message is timeless. In every generation Christians live as aliens in a strange and foreign land – if we fully understand whose we are! To show Christ to the world requires some very practical habits. In this regard, James is almost a “how to” handbook.
The three imperatives at the beginning of today’s lesson make the case: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger…” Too many speak before they listen. We want our point of view to be heard. We want to correct others, who have false or misdirected opinions.
A current example is the Congress of the United States. No one seems willing to listen to anyone. James says listen, then speak! In the Congress, in a marriage or in a church, our first responsibility is to listen. We would be surprised to discover how effective our Christian witness would be if we listened more. There is a power to the listening ear. (We recommend the book “The Awesome Power of the Listening Ear.”) Communication begins with listening, not talking. We can pick up on deeper needs if we take the time to listen.
One time in our marriage Sam, who is, after all, a professional “speaker,” was in counseling about some issues we faced. The counselor said something which has really stuck with us. He asked: “Would you rather be right or be loved?” If our task as disciples is to win friends and influence people for Jesus, try asking yourself that question. Instead of having all the answers, try listening to discover where people are in their lives. By listening, you are saying “I care about you.”
The third imperative of James is “slow to anger.” The connections between the values of listening, the danger of speaking too much, and anger is worth noting. Our imagination goes back to that Jerusalem Council where the decision was made to accept Gentiles into the Christian community. Don’t you think there were some heated words about keeping Jewish Law? Every male Jew had a daily prayer in which he thanked God he was not a slave, a woman or a Gentile! Knowing the passion of the apostle Paul about going to the Gentile world, we can well believe he used strong language to argue his point. We know in fact there was a very heated argument between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15 (after the Council) about taking John Mark with them to re-visit the churches. The result of the anger between them caused them to split and go separate ways: Barnabas took his nephew John Mark and Paul paired with Silas.
For James, anger is a barrier to the righteousness God wants his children to show. Immediately, the advice of James moves to all the issues of morality so prevalent in his world and ours. In other words, practice what you preach! Remember the poem, “I’d Rather See a Sermon?”
Next James urges his readers to not only hear, but do! The Hebrew word for hearing and doing is the same word! In the famous “Shema” of Deuteronomy 6 the assumption is made that hearing and obeying go hand in hand. James’ metaphor of the mirror reminds all of us how quickly we forget what we are supposed to be doing! We older people can identify with that pattern. We start to do one thing, then see something else to do, and only much later remember what we were going to do in the first place! Show and tell is not a bad paradigm for the Christian to practice. Demonstrate the faith, then talk about it! The most powerful witness is not argument, but living!
In the closing verses, James reminds us of what kind of religious practices God affirms. In a few words, Jesus said it in Matthew 25: “When you did it unto the least of these, you did it unto me.” (vs.40) For James, those who were on the margin of life were the widows and orphans.
Recently the Macon Telegraph ran an article about a new center called The Promise Center being built in a most needed area of the city. Statistics are daunting: the high school graduation rate is 38 percent, 48 percent don’t have a high school education, 19 percent of young men between ages 16 and 19 are not in school or employed, 71 percent of preschoolers have no day care, and the unemployment rate is 30 percent higher than rest of Bibb County. The center is jointly sponsored by United Way, Technical College System of Georgia, Bibb County School System, Mercer University, Wesleyan College, Boys and Girls Clubs and DFACS. Yet there is controversy about building such a center. What a promise to make a difference in the years to come!
James would heartily approve. What should the Christians of Bibb County do? Whatever it takes – including time, talent and treasure. “Be doers of the word and not hearers only.”