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March 15, 2017: The Implanted Word
The book of James can be a tough read! You are in very good company if you have ever struggled with it. Martin Luther, the 16th-century German theologian and reformer, described James’ letter as an epistle of straw. At first sight it appears to be all about law. I recall taking it with me as a vacation assignment and reading it all the way through several times, hoping it might get better with each reading! The more I read, the more there appeared to be a series of tasks, a moral inventory, a book of “shoulds” and “oughts.” There are a number of ways we might be tempted to respond to it. We could look at all the apparent “shoulds” and all the “oughts” and attempt to lower the bar and somehow water it all down. We could also just walk about feeling utterly defeated by our inability to live as James is instructing. There is, however, a third option that begins with asking the question: “why did James write it?”. What on earth is happening within the community that James is writing to?
James, most probably the brother of Jesus, was now, following the resurrection and Pentecost, the undisputed leader of the Jerusalem church. This community was founded about 15 years after the resurrection and quite possibly James was the most influential Christian leader of the day. James’ church and the Jewish followers of Jesus scattered beyond Jerusalem lived in the midst of a collapsing world. Although the church as a whole was growing and spreading across the world, the believers in Jerusalem and further afield were feeling all sorts of pressure. How did the church respond? They were performing badly under stress! In their anxiety and fear, their inclination was to collude with the world. So there is gossip and backbiting and a lot of complaining. Economic instability has resulted in a tendency for the “faithful” to seek favor with the wealthy, which in turn means holding back on generosity and generally looking out for number one. And all of this was rationalized by the mistaken notion of “cheap grace” (that is, “I can live my life exactly as I please because God has forgiven me”). James is writing to a community who, under the pressures of life, has lowered the bar on what it means to follow Jesus. The church in Jerusalem now looks very much like the world, with a little bit of monotheism thrown in. So what is James’ solution? James tells them, “Receive with meekness the implanted word [my emphasis], which is able to save your souls.” (James 1:21).
What is the Word? Really the question is, “Who is The Word of God?”. The Word is the person of Jesus as He is revealed in the Scriptures. Martin Luther wrote, “Scripture is the manger in which the Christ lies. As a mother goes to a cradle to find her baby so the Christian goes to the Bible to find Jesus. Don’t let us inspect the cradle and forget to worship the baby.” The Word is, at the same time, the person of the Holy Spirit who carries The Word into our hearts and causes us to see Jesus and thereby know the Father. The apostle Paul talked about the implanted word too. He said, “When you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”(1 Thessalonians 2:13). The Word is described in Hebrews 4:12 as “living and active” because Jesus is living and active. When that relationship becomes stale, it becomes a dead word. As James is writing this letter, the church in Jerusalem is in danger of losing its personal relationship with Jesus. People have drifted into a kind of mental assent to the person of Jesus but they are not living in relationship with Him. The Word is still acknowledged but is not implanted. And this is not a healthy trajectory. It was not a new condition. Jesus had said of the leaders who were trying to kill Him, “You seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you.” (John 8:37).
So how does one move from cultural Christianity to a living faith propelled by what James calls “the implanted word”? James offers us some practical advice:
1. Slow down and receive: James says “receive” the implanted Word. The Greek verb he chooses is very particular. It really means “to welcome.” It is not “receive” like you receive a blow to the head. It is “receive” in the way that you would receive a friend. It is that moment when you stop, lift up your head and, before you have said a word your eyes have said, “it is so good to see you!” And for that to happen – for us to be able to welcome the Word in that way – we have really just got to slow down. I would strongly encourage you to slow down and enter that living dialogue for yourself through a daily habit of Bible reading. I have used several different approaches over the years, and I am currently using the “Bible in One Year” app. Whatever habit you find works for you, Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) would encourage us to “store up [God’s Word] in our hearts, and refresh [our hearts] often...” And in this way, David wrote, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105). In slowing down, I have sensed the Lord say very quietly, “Drew, talking to Me, allowing My word to be implanted within you, is inextricably linked with your capacity to really trust Me.” I have found this to be very true!
2. Look in the mirror: James goes on to counsel what you do once you have received the Word. “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing." (James 1: 22-25) When James talks about our looking in the mirror, it is not about shaming us but about being very honest about our very pressing need for the mercy of God. That will always result in humility – which is to recognize that we really do need saving from ourselves. James writes very particularly, “Receive with meekness [humility] the implanted word which is able to save your souls.” Don’t push past the last three words as if they were written for someone else. Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “When you read God’s Word, you must constantly be saying to yourself, ‘It is talking to me and about me.’” It might, however, be easy to get stuck there. Often, all we can see are all our own shortcomings. That is exactly where the enemy would like to trap us in a vault of shame. But this is not, mercifully, the Lord’s plan.
3. Anticipate propulsion: We are encouraged to look in the mirror so that we, in humility, can receive the mercy that saves us. And when we receive His mercy, we are flooded with His grace, which now propels us to action. Billy Graham wrote, “The word of God hidden [implanted] in the heart is a stubborn voice to suppress!” This is when, as James points out, we find ourselves coming alongside widows and orphans [James 1:27]. This is where we find ourselves speaking the Father’s words of love, affirmation and encouragement to a complete stranger in a check-out line or a colleague at the water cooler – who, right up until the moment you opened your heart and experienced that Spirit-led propulsion, thought that he or she was entirely invisible to God.