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Monday, August 15, 2011

"Soiling the Sacred Name" - (08/14/11)

James 2:1-10 (Message #4 in James Series)
August 14, 2011

            My mother used to know all the old Broadway show tunes and most of the words, especially of the old love songs.  I can remember her many times sitting down to the piano and playing and singing those old songs one after another.  I can’t remember hearing her sing this particular song but I’m positive that she knew it because it was a big hit in its time, and I think I learned it from her.  The following article is from Wikipedia.
Harrigan” is a song written by George M. Cohan for the 1907 Broadway musical, Fifty Miles From Boston.  It celebrates, and to some extent mocks, his own Irish heritage.  The song was later performed by James Cagney and Joan Leslie in the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biopic [biographical movie] of Cohan’s life.

Who is the man who will spend or will even lend?
            Harrigan, that’s me!
Who is your friend when you find that you need a friend?
            Harrigan, that’s me!
For I’m just as proud of my name, you see
As an Emperor, Czar or a King could be.
Who is the man helps a man ev’ry time he can?
            Harrigan, that’s me!
H, A, double-R, I, G, A, N spells Harrigan.
Proud of all the Irish blood that’s in me;
Divil’ a man can say a word agin’ me.
H, A, double-R, I, G, A, N you see
Is a name, that a shame never has been connected with.
Harrigan, that’s me!

            Mr. Harrigan was very proud of his name.  To him it was a name with a clean record, with no shame attached to it.  Some of us wish we could say the same thing about our names, because a good name is very important.  Just think what it would be like to go through life with a last name like Hitler, or Manson, or Bundy, or Dahmer.
            A name like one of those would be a badge of shame, even if you weren’t related to that horrible person in any way.  In school you would likely be teased, ridiculed, and abused.  Later on it could be a problem when you apply for work or try to go into military service.  A bad name is hard to outrun.
            In our text for today, James talks about the importance of the name by which the world knows those of us who are Christ-followers.  He says that there are things that people sometimes do that bring dishonor to that name, and drag it through the mud.  Turn in your Bibles to James chapter 2 and let’s see what he has in mind.

Verse 1: My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.
  • This section starts with, “My brethren…”  Thus, we are reminded again that James is addressing this letter to Jewish Christians, like himself, who have been scattered abroad as a result of the persecution against Christians back in Jerusalem.  You will also observe that James’ often uses this expression, “my brethren” (11 times, or some form of it, “brethren, my brethren, my beloved brethren”) when he either wants to change subjects or to make a strong point (cf. 1:2, 16, 19; 2:1, 5, 14; 3:1, 10; 4:11; 5:12, 19).
  • “Do not hold your faith in… Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.”  But how is that even possible?  How can a genuine Christian play favorites with people, accepting some and rejecting others, people that Jesus loves and for whom He gave His life.  A spirit of favoritism is incongruous with the teachings and the personal example of Jesus himself who loved all with whom He came in contact.

Verses 2-4: 2For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty (lit. shabby) clothes, 3and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? 
  • James gives a down-to-earth example of how this might have been playing out in the Early Church.  The Christians have come together for a worship service.  (Note: the location is unimportant.)  Two visitors show up for the worship service at the same time.  One of them is obviously wealthy.  He has the look and the smell of wealth.  He wears the clothes and accessories of a wealthy man.  Following the custom of that day, he wears several gold rings on every finger.  But right behind him walks in a man who is obviously poor.  His clothes are tattered and worn, and maybe not even very clean.  His sandals are worn and patched.  He needs a shave and a bath.  He has no jewelry of any kind.  What are you going to do?  How are you going to approach these two men?
  • For many people the wealthy man would be the more desirable one to have in your church.  One might reason, “Just think of all the good he could do if he decided to make this his church home.  He would be an amazing trophy of God’s grace.”  On the other hand, you look at the poor man and think to yourself, “He smells bad and people will not want to sit near him.  And besides, he’s probably just here to see if he can chisel some money out of our Deacon Fund.  Maybe I can get him to sit in the back, out of sight, and the pastor can handle him after the service.” 
  • James poses the question in verse 4: “[If you do this]…have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?”   What we have here is a division between profession and practice.  James is saying to his readers, on the one hand you profess to believe in Christian equality, that all men are equal before God.  But on the other hand, you are pandering and showing deference to those with power, wealth, and rank.  By this action you are proving yourselves to be biased judges with false values and self-serving motives.  James accuses them of being, literally, “evil-thinking judges.”

Verse 5: Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom, which He promised to those who love Him?
  • To what is James referring?  Is he saying that poor people are more spiritual than rich people and that God likes them better?  Are they heirs of the Kingdom just because they are poor?  Does that mean that poor people go to Heaven but rich people will go to hell?  No, of course not!
  • Abraham Lincoln once said, “God must love the common people because He made so many of them.”  James is just saying that those who grant special treatment to rich people fail to understand that God “has chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom, which He promised to those who love Him.”   In fact, this is very reminiscent of Jesus’ own words in Luke 4:18 on the occasion of His first sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor.”  Then shortly after that in Luke 6:20-26 we read: 20And turning His gaze toward His disciples, He began to say, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.  21Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.  22Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man.  23Be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in Heaven.  For in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets.  24But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full.  25Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.  26Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets in the same way.”  
  • James is simply pointing out that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is especially dear to the poor because in it there is a welcome for the man who has none other to welcome him, and through it there is a high value placed on the person whom this world regards as having no value.  In Christ’s eyes every person has infinite worth.

Verses 6-7: 6But you have dishonored the poor man.  Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court?  7Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?
  • “But you have dishonored the poor man.”  We don’t usually think in those terms, do we?  Normally we are more concerned that we don’t dishonor or offend the wealthy and powerful.  We don’t usually think about the fact that we can also easily offend a poor person if we aren’t careful.
  • Secondly, James here argues against favoring the rich unbelievers by also pointing out that they were the very ones who were dragging the Christians before the Jewish tribunals that were allowed and recognized under Roman law.  Given the context here, no doubt this was for debts.  They were the ones who were persecuting the believers. 
  • In verse 7 James uses a third argument.  He says, “Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?”  To which name is James referring?  I believe he is speaking about the sacred name of Jesus Christ, and the honorable name “Christian,” which has been attached to the followers of Christ for many centuries.  In Acts 11:26 we learn that during that year while Paul and Barnabas ministered together in Antioch this word “Christian” was first used to describe Christ’s disciples, who previously had been called, “The Way” because of Jesus’ claim in John 14:6 to be “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  James says that these rich men who were taking the Christians to court were “blaspheming the fair name.”  To “blaspheme” is to call vile and dirty something that is sacred and pure.  It usually refers to a sin of words, but it can also imply wicked deeds.  In this case, both their words and their deeds were a wicked insult against the Lord Jesus Christ and His Church.

Verse 8: If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF,” you are doing well. 
  • Here James refers to the “Royal Law.”  What is that?  We know about the Law of Moses.  Is it the same as The Royal Law?
  • The word “royal” has to do with kings, and queens, and royalty.  A law made by a king is automatically a “royal law.”  Back up in 2:5 James spoke about the poor being “…heirs of the Kingdom, which [Christ] promised to those who love Him.”  So James is speaking here about King Jesus.  One day Jesus was asked, “Master, which is the greatest of all the commandments?”  What was His two-part answer?  He responded, “The first commandment is, ‘Thou shalt love the LORD with all thy heart, mind, soul, and strength.’  And the second is like unto it: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’  On these two hang all the Law and the Prophets.” 
  • James says that if we are practicing this “royal law” from the lips of King Jesus, we are doing very well.  The clear implication, however, is that if his readers are practicing favoritism and showing partiality then they are definitely not carrying out the royal law of Christ!  The one precludes the other.  He states this firmly in verse 9.

Verse 9: But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.  
  • In Matthew 7:12 Jesus taught, “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”  But if we show partiality and treat rich people better than poor people, then we have broken this “royal law” and are not treating our neighbor the way we would want to be treated.  In other words, if we were in their place we would feel offended and hurt to be treated as second-class people just because we are not as wealthy as other folks.  If that happened to us when we went to visit a church, we would never darken the door again, and perhaps never return to any church again.
  • “…and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”   Here James is not referring so much to the Law of Moses as to what the Early Church called, the “didache,” the collective teaching of Christ and the Church (although Leviticus 19:15 does deal with the subject of showing partiality).  The whole spirit of Christianity is contrary to partiality.

Verse 10: For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. 
  • Among friends, lovers, or spouses can 100 truths outweigh one lie?  Can 100 acts of faithfulness outweigh one act of treachery?
  • You see, in our fellowship with Christ the transgression of one precept of the Christian rule of faith is a breach of the whole thing, because it breaks fellowship with Christ, the One who is the object of our faith.
  • Or to put it another way, how many times does a person have to lie to be considered a liar?  Once.  How many times does a person have to cheat to be considered a cheater?  Once.
  • James wants his readers to understand that this business of favoritism and partiality on the part of the Christians is not a “little sin.”  It is a “big sin” in God’s eyes, and should not be underestimated.

            For me, the most powerful phrase in this whole text is James’ comment in verse 7 about those who were blaspheming the fair [beautiful, lovely] name by which you have been called.”  That just jumps out at me.
            I can’t help but wonder what actions or attitudes there might be in my life that bring shame and reproach on the name of Christ and of His Bride, the Church.  How many times have I acted, or reacted, or spoken out in harsh and unkind ways that in essence “blaspheme His sacred name”?  I’m ashamed to have to admit that I’ve been guilty many times.  I’m just grateful for the amazing grace of our loving Lord who is willing to forgive us and cleanse us.  But that grace can never be used as an excuse for bad behavior and rotten attitudes.

            Have you ever done something that you know would bring dishonor to Christ and to your Christian testimony if it were ever to become public knowledge?  How did it make you feel?  What did you do about it?

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About Me

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Since 1994 I have been the pastor of Sellwood Baptist Church in Portland, OR. Before that I was a missionary in South Brazil for many years. Until just recently I have also served as a police chaplain with the Portland Police Bureau. Now, however, God has a new assignment for us. My wife and I have been appointed with WorldVenture and are preparing to move to Ireland to help plant a new church in Sligo, a small city in NW Ireland. I'm married to Ramel, a crazy, beautiful redhead that I love more than life itself. We have three great kids, Jonathan, Chris, and Simoni who have given us ten wonderful grandchildren. We are truly blessed.

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