Hello friends! Today we finish the book of James. Yesterday was James' (in)famous(?) speech about faith and works whereas today James turns his holy gut punch in the direction of the arrogant and the rich.
Though it's assumed that this isn't James the Just, the brother of Jesus, who actually wrote this I'm still moved to read the section about the "power of prayer" when thinking of James. James. According to Hegesippus, a second century theologian, he wrote this regarding James:
"But Hegesippus, who lived immediately after the apostles, gives the most accurate account in the fifth book of his Memoirs. He writes as follows:
... [James] alone was permitted to enter into the holy place; for he wore not woolen but linen garments. And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people."
Prayer is an easily forgotten spiritual practice, at least for me. I often put it on the back burner and say I'll come back to it when I have more time. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of the Church of the Resurrection, noticed this to be true in his congregation as well and for 3 years every series he preached included a prayer card to be hung up around the house. For example, a waterproof one that would hang in the shower that was a prayer remember baptism and a prayer of thanksgiving attached to the fridge. He noted that the daily prayer life of his congregation went up over double in those following three years. Where can you hang up prayer cards around your house to help remind you to pray more often? What difference will that make? Let's discover the power of prayer in today's reading.
Scripture to Read
Questions to Consider
What is your response to "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble?"
What is your reaction to the concept of prayer having power?
- Commentary -
Of all the commentary I read for these sections I found this one to be the most interesting (and easiest to understand.) It speaks about James 5: 7 - 10, which relates to another eerie prediction of the end of the world and the coming of Jesus. However, where James differs from Paul in this regard is that James still has his eyes attention on the world in front of them. Remember how Paul would encourage people to not get married or have kids or even worry about eating because Jesus was coming soon? James, possibly in reaction to that letter (they didn't get along, by the way) writes aggressively that such thinking is foolish. We have work to do here until Jesus comes! For the full commentary, I invite you to read and be inspired by the wonderful work of Dirk Lange, Assistant General Secretary for Ecumenical Relations of the Lutheran Church.
"Many scriptural texts can be read in isolation of their context and still provide some meaning.
However, some texts, like these verses from James, benefit greatly from reading what precedes it (if not orally in the congregation then at least in the pastor’s sermon preparation). James is looking forward, to the future, with hope. But what is this hope? And what does this hope mean for the community of faith on the Third Sunday of Advent?
The past two Sundays, the community has heard the readings from the final chapters of Romans where Paul is developing what it means to live like a Christian, led and molded by the Holy Spirit. Is James now proposing that we simply “hope” for some future coming, eyes directed heavenward, as if we did not have to be concerned about this life? Definitely not! The key passage that eliminates a pie-in-the-sky hope (waiting for Jesus to return on the clouds of heaven and make everything “right”) is verse 9, “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.” Our hope may actually be judged! What type of hope is James writing about, what type of hope will pass the judgment?
If we look at the preceding verses (especially chapter 4:11 up to our pericope reading), we discover some surprising statements. (Note: these verses do not appear in the Revised Common Lectionary though they are read in the Roman lectionary and the older Episcopal lectionary). The hope that James describes is not looking upwards to some heavenly salvation nor is it looking inwards to some spiritual illumination but it is looking the other, our neighbor, directly in the face.
And this looking is done in a non-critical manner (we are not judges of the law, 4:11 — can this person be useful to me? Does he/she fit my definition of a human being, etc.). It is not done in self-interest: engaging activities simply for the sake of making money (4:13-15). These verses are like echoes of the Sermon on the Mount. We come to the realization that James is probably heavily influenced by both Jesus’ Sermon and by Paul’s interpretation. Why worry about tomorrow? (Matthew 6:34). The hope that is proposed is a hope that is grounded in the Lord and on what the Lord desires. The focus of this hope is not ourselves (whether we are gazing outwards or inwards) but the Lord and how the Lord wants us to live in this life.
This perspective is doubly underlined in the verses of chapter 5 that introduce our pericope. The objects of worldly hope are squarely condemned. But here, it is not a matter of judging from personal prerogative or prejudice. It is a matter of justice for those less fortunate, for the workers, the ones without privilege. Has the neighbor been “loved” as much as self?
Now, perhaps, we can understand better the “be patient… until the coming of the Lord.” This patience is not a personal virtue for by nature we all want things to happen right now, for us, in the best possible way. Perhaps we can have patience when we know that we are working towards a personal goal. Yet the patience that James is proposing is the patience given by the Holy Spirit. It is patience that is deeply rooted in faith. It is working, laboring towards a goal when one is not always sure what the goal is, what it will look like, or even what it will mean for “me.” Whether you, the reader, are in the northern or southern hemisphere, whether the sun is blazing on your land in December or the land is resting in a winter’s sleep, we all know the incertitude of nature: the seed, the entire crop, is planted but will the rain come? Will the weather be right?
The example James uses is one familiar to each of us. Today’s Gospel though gives another, more pertinent example. John the Baptist is imprisoned. He does not know what is happening. He does not know his end. He preached repentance and like many prophets he was rejected. He now waits and in his waiting he wonders: is this Jesus the one? John the Baptist exemplifies this patience lived in faith, the patience of “not knowing.” It should also be noted that Jesus’ response (about the blind seeing, the lame walking, the lepers being cleansed) clearly directs John’s hope in an earthly direction! John need not look for fireworks in the sky. The signs all have to do with the well-being of the other, the wholeness of creation and justice.
“Strengthen your hearts…”, James continues. This strengthening of the heart comes as the community lives and witnesses together. The patience in suffering is lived together as members of the community of faith watch over and care for one another. No words of slander, no grumbling, no back-stabbing, but always speaking and doing the good for the neighbor. In fact, it would seem that a characteristic of this patience is precisely a deep compassion and love towards the other as if James is writing, “slow down, seek first the kingdom of God, be attentive to one another, let all things happen in and for God, then all else will be given, God will grant all in God’s time.”
What is clear, of course, is the centrality of the Word of God. None of what James proposes here is possible through human strength, will or power. The patience and the hope are both grounded in faith, that gift of the Holy Spirit. Both have been given to the community, both however need to be nurtured, encouraged, formed. Isn’t this what James is attempting throughout his letter?"
Praying the Hymns
Our prayer today is kind of a hymn, but should be considered more of a poem or journal entry to be more accurate. To explain, this is attributed to Charles Wesley but is not set to music. The note in our hymnal says it was likely a diary entry after he first came to understand God's grace for himself. In other words this is Charles Wesley's version of his "heart being strangely warmed." I invite you read this prayer to yourself before carrying on with your day.
Where shall my wondering soul begin?
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
a brand plucked from eternal fire,
how shall I equal triumphs raise,
or sing my great deliverer’s praise?
O how shall I the goodness tell,
Father, which thou to me hast showed?
That I, a child of wrath and hell,
I should be called a child of God!
Should know, should feel my sins forgiven,
blest with this antepast of heaven!
And shall I slight my Father’s love,
or basely fear his gifts to own?
Unmindful of his favors prove,
shall I, the hallowed cross to shun,
refuse his righteousness to impart,
by hiding it within my heart?
Outcasts of men, to you I call,
harlots, and publicans, and thieves;
he spreads his arms to embrace you all,
sinners alone his grace receive.
No need of Him the righteous have;
he came the lost to seek and save.
Come, O my guilty brethren, come,
groaning beneath your load of sin;
his bleeding heart shall make you room,
his open side shall take you in.
He calls you now, invites you home:
Come, O my guilty brethren, come.
For you the purple current flowed in pardon from his wounded side, languished for you the eternal God, for you the Prince of Glory died. Believe, and all your sin’s forgiven, only believe--and yours is heaven.