“Look in the Mirror”
August 30, 2009 - Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
A Papa Burger and a root beer is just the thing when you’ve come down from the mountains after a backpack trip. Both our youth group and our family think a stop at the A&W in Oakridge is the perfect ending to time in the Cascades. But there is one thing about that restaurant that always bothers me. There is no mirror in the men’s room.
Here I am, grimy and dirty. I haven’t showered for awhile and I just want to wash my hands with soap and warm water and comb my hair after wearing a hat for a couple days straight. But over the sink is just blank wall. I can’t see myself. How am I supposed to part my hair and lay it down straight? I make an effort, but I’m pretty sure that it’s all crooked and that I look like a geek (or maybe just more of a geek than I usually look). Why can’t they put in a mirror?
As we turn today to the epistle of James and read his image of looking in a mirror, it’s good to remember that most people in the ancient world were in the position I’m in at the A&W. There were no mirrors hanging in every home and public restroom. There were no shiny shop windows or mirror shades or cosmetic cases in which to catch a glimpse of yourself. Only the relatively well-off could afford polished metal mirrors and even then the image was much more blurred and distorted than we’re used to. Many people only saw themselves occasionally in a basin or pool of water.
So, unlike for us, who see our own faces constantly every day, it was not the case in James’ time that everyone was familiar with what he or she looked like. It really could happen that a man would look in a mirror and then walk away and forget just how his face appeared. James is concerned with the spiritual equivalent of that forgetfulness, of not remembering how and who we really are as followers of Christ.
You might say that’s the subject of James’ whole epistle, to help us as Christians not lose track of our identity. The community to which James wrote had heard the Gospel. They identified themselves as Christians. He did not need to teach them about Jesus. They’d heard it before. But he did need to remind them of what it means practically.
The practical bent of James made the letter questionable. It was one of the last bits of the New Testament to be clearly accepted by the Church. It seems to challenge all that Paul says about being saved through faith because James emphasizes works. The reformer Martin Luther is famous for calling James “an epistle of straw” and wishing that it was not in the Bible.
We’re not quite sure which of several Jameses who appear in the New Testament wrote this letter. But the longest standing identification is with James “the brother of the Lord,” who appears in Acts 12, 15 and 21 as the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He’s mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel and was probably one of Jesus’ half-brothers, although some would prefer to see him as a cousin. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us he was put to death by the high priest in 62 A.D.
So this letter was written in Jerusalem, at ground zero of the Christian faith. The Jerusalem church and other nearby Jewish Christians had very little reason for confusion over the basic facts of the Gospel. They could talk to eyewitnesses of the Resurrection. Some of the Apostles remembered for them what Jesus did and said. They had all the basic truths of Christianity down pat. The only big question that remained was what James addresses in his letter: What were they going to do about it? As Francis Schaeffer put it, “How shall we then live?”
Yet James understood what can happen and has happened so often in the Church. We can forget who we are, and if we don’t remember who we are, then we won’t know what to do. We imagine faith is something we can do without remembering where it came from.
So in verse 17, James goes right back to the beginning, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights…” He’s reminding them that their salvation, their faith in Christ, everything they are and have, is a gift, a gift given by the same loving Father who created the sun, moon and stars. And unlike those constantly moving and changing heavenly spheres, God does not change. This is the foundation, this is the unshifting beginning of who we are.
“He chose to give us birth,” says verse 18. Anyone who thinks that James is all about works, all about earning salvation, needs to look at these two verses. No, it all begins with gift. It all begins with what Jesus called being born again. We start with God, not with our own efforts. Contrary to what a century of existentialism has tried to convince us of, we do not make our own selves nor create our own destiny. It’s all a gift from above and it came to us “through the word of truth,” the Word which is and is about Jesus Christ.
With that firmly in mind, however, James does turn directly to the practical. “O.K.,” he thought, “if you are people born again by the truth of God’s Word, then don’t forget to listen to it.” That’s why verse 19 says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…” Though that sentence moves quickly to the interpersonal concern of anger, the focus at the beginning is on listening to the Word, hearing what God has to say in Christ and in the Scriptures.
If we are really listening, supposes James, then we will understand what verses 20 and 21 say, that angry talk and all other kinds of evil behavior are not what God wants for us. What God desires is at the end of verse 21, that we “humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”
There again, James is not suggesting that good deeds will save you. It’s the Word which saves you. It’s God’s gift of the living Word Jesus that brings salvation. But in his metaphor of the Word planted in us, he shows that salvation is more than just being rescued from hell and getting to heaven. Like the rose bushes we planted outside there last week, James expects the Word in us to grow and blossom and even bring forth fruit.
So we come to what may be a familiar saying in verse 22, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” In King James language, “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only.” If God is the source of our faith, if He’s given us new birth, if He’s placed His Word in us, then it will make a difference in how we live. Getting the Word planted in us is the root and beginning, but it needs to grow. It needs to grow into changed, holy lives.
Because we drive down Bailey Hill Road almost every day, our family has been watching and talking about the construction and changes made there this summer. Just this last week trees and small shrubs were planted in the newly created dividers down the middle of the street. What we’re wondering is if all this will actually accomplish what it’s meant to Will it keep young people from crossing the road at the wrong places, in the middle of traffic? Or will middle and high school students continue to dash across the street wherever they please, trampling little plants that are not yet big enough to be an effective barrier?
My guess is that all this expense and road work won’t accomplish a thing unless the students are regularly reminded of its intended purpose, their own safety. Unless they remember that a young boy was killed on that road a few years ago, and that the same could happen to any of them, all the concrete and greenery in the world won’t help.
That’s what James is saying here about the Word of God. It’s been planted in us, but it won’t do a bit of good unless we remember that God has given it to us to save us, to convert us, to transform us into the people we really are in Christ. So with verse 23, the metaphor gets switched again, and we are asked to take a good, long, lasting look in the mirror.
As I suggested was very possible back then, James imagines a person who looks at herself in a mirror and then goes away forgetting what she looks like. That’s what a Christian is like who reads or hears some convicting truth of Scripture and then fails to do what it says. She’s forgotten who she is.
Throughout the epistle of James we find a theme that began in verse 19 and continues in verse 26. Controlling one’s tongue is evidence of who we are, that we haven’t forgotten our looks in the mirror of God’s Word. It can be telling when it’s forgotten. The summer after my first year of graduate school I worked for a friend with a small construction business. Part of the work was to haul construction debris and such to the dump. One day as we drove our truck up the hill, I remembered that I knew someone who worked there. A part-time associate pastor at our church also drove a caterpillar tractor at the dump site.
As we were unloading our load of broken concrete and drywall, I saw our pastor come riding over one of the mounds of garbage. I waved and pointed him out to my fellow worker, who had made this run many times before. He looked at me and said, “That’s your pastor? I can’t believe it. He’s got the foulest mouth of anyone up here. He’s always yelling and cursing at everybody. I can’t believe he’s a preacher.”
I learned a lesson that day about what happens if you look in the mirror and then forget who you are. I’m still learning the lesson of what James calls keeping “a tight rein” on my tongue. It’s easy to forget. It’s so easy to walk away from prayer and Bible study and get angry with someone who upsets me. It’s going to be very tempting to be singing and praying good and beautiful words of praise for this hour and then in the next hour, as I get on a plane, to curse the poor service and lack of leg room and all the discomfort of air travel. James calls me to remember who I am.
That’s why James says in verse 25 that the Christian who “looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what was heard, is blessed in what one does.” Look intently into God’s Word. It’s not a law that takes away our freedom. It sets us free from all the sin and evil which binds us. It sets us free to do the good that God desires. It’s not a bad rule of life to look into God’s Word at least as often as we look in the mirror, meaning every day.
Much of the misery we cause for ourselves would be alleviated if we only put into practice what James teaches us here. It’s the same as Paul said in Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” Keep looking in the mirror. Just like being honest about the pimples and blemishes or the wrinkled skin and the gray hair or the big ears and crooked nose you see in the glass, we want to be honest about what God’s Word shows us about ourselves: the pride, the anger, the lust, the greed, the spiritual laziness that hides behind the quiet green eyes in the mirror.
A recent statement on “The Covenant Church and the Bible,” talks about just how we read Scripture. And part of that is captured in two wonderful short sentences: “We do not just read the Bible. The Bible reads us.” We ought never to think that Bible study is just about examining the text and figuring out what it means. Real, complete Bible study leaves you with the sense that you have been examined, that God’s Word has read the book of your life in detail. God held up a mirror and showed you things about yourself that you may not want to see.
Yet James has one more concern in our text. It’s a theme that also carries on throughout his letter. The reflection of yourself you see in God’s Word is not a merely private vision. If you take God’s law as merely a program of personal improvement, you’ve missed a big part of the picture. Personal holiness is important. Quit swearing. Stop smoking. Don’t get drunk. Tame your lust. Let go of greed. Increase your faith. Live in hope. That’s all good and well and right. But in a cliché probably used too often, it’s not all about you.
Yes, says James in verse 26, if you don’t get a hold on your tongue, your “religion is worthless,” but then verse 27 goes on, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…” Personal holiness comes back at the end, “and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world,” but the big deal here is public holiness, care for others, especially others in need. That, says James, is the kind of religion God accepts.
“…look after widows and orphans…” That’s the fruit God wants to grow from His Word planted in us. That’s the mirror He’s holding up to the way you and I live our lives and handle our money and schedule our calendars. That’s the sort of religion He means us to practice along with prayer and study and worship and personal devotions.
It’s a James sort of mirror being held up in the discussion some of you have been having about Shane Claiborne’s book Irresistible Revolution. It’s looking in that mirror that has some of us filling the food pantry barrel in the narthex, or volunteering to feed people under the bridge, or creating a plan to use our church building as an emergency shelter in cold weather. That’s “pure and faultless” religion, and I believe an honest look at ourselves in the mirror of God’s Word shows we would do well to practice still more religion of that sort.
At least one large evangelical action group has asked pastors to preach on the health care debate this Sunday, to preach against the health care reform plans being argued by our legislators. I’m going to out on a limb and say that I refuse to do that. Instead, I’m going to ask us to consider that public issue and all the other issues of public righteousness that we encounter by letting them be reflected in God’s mirror. Let us just ask ourselves today: What does “look after widows and orphans” mean in a debate about health care? How pure and faultless is our religion unless we are concerned about those who have no care? How will we listen to the Word and then do it in our opinions and our votes on public policy?
Look in the mirror. Remember who you are. A sinner, saved by the gift of God, the grace of Jesus Christ. Remember that without Christ you are poor and wretched and lost. With Him you have everything. That’s what the mirror shows. And looking in the true and perfect mirror of God’s good Word, let yourself become more and more what you see there, rich in Christ and rich in His love. Look in the mirror.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj