************ Sermon on James 1:26-27 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on October 15, 2006
I What is NOT True Religion
A What is true religion? What does God, our Father, look for? What kind of religion pleases Him? To use the words of James, what is religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless?
The Bible is filled with commands and stories of unacceptable religion. The first story of unacceptable religion is found already in Genesis 4 – the story of Cain and Abel. Cain and Abel both brought an offering to God as an act of worship. Remember what the Bible says?
(Gen 4:4-5) The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, (5) but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor.Cain was angry and downcast because of this. God told him, "If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?" (Gen 4:7). So, obviously, Cain was not doing what was right. Sin was crouching at his door like a lion about to attack its prey (Gen 4:7).
What is unacceptable religion? God tells us directly in the first and second commandments:
(Ex 20:3-5) "You shall have no other gods before me. (4) "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. (5) You shall not bow down to them or worship them ..."
What is unacceptable religion? When Moses was on Mount Sinai the people became impatient. Aaron made a golden calf with the people's offerings. Then the people said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt" (Ex 32:4). When Aaron saw and heard this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, "Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord." So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. When God saw this He announced to Moses that He was going to destroy the people.
What is unacceptable religion? There is a little known story in Leviticus 10.
(Lev 10:1-3) Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. (2) So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. (3) Moses then said to Aaron, "This is what the LORD spoke of when he said: "'Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.'" (Cf Num 3:4)God was not honored by what Nadab and Abihu did.
What is unacceptable religion? King Saul was commanded by the Lord to attack and destroy the Amalekites and everything that belongs to them. However, Saul decided to spare the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice them to the Lord and he insisted that in doing so he was obeying the Lord. Remember's Samuel's immortal response?
(1 Sam 15:22) "Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams."Samuel further announced that the Lord has rejected Saul as king.
What is unacceptable religion? The prophets and priests of Baal called on the name of Baal to send down fire. They danced. They shouted. They slashed themselves with swords and spears. They engaged in frantic prophesying. "But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention" (1 Ki 18:29).
What is unacceptable religion? Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of property. As an act of worship they took some of the proceeds, pretended it was all the money they received, and put it at the apostles' feet. Ananias was struck down and killed and three hours later the same thing happened to his wife (Acts 5:1-11).
What is unacceptable religion? If you do not do what is right, if you worship another god or an idol god, if you do not honor God, if you do not obey God, if you lie to God, then your religion is unacceptable to God. Your prayers and offerings and songs mean nothing in such situations.
B What is true religion? What does God, our Father, look for? What kind of religion pleases Him? What is religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless?
Many times we are tempted to define religion by the rituals we associate with the practice of our faith. And, as long as we do those rituals, then we think our religion must be, has to be, pleasing to God. I am talking about rituals like: going to church twice on Sunday, sending our children to Catechism and Church School and youth programs, attending Bible Study, contributing to the church budget, having a daily quiet time, enrolling our kids in the Christian school, and so on.
These rituals are important to us and we place a lot of importance on observing them. But do they lie at the heart of true religion? There is a danger with thinking rituals lie at the heart of pure and faultless religion. Sometimes we go so far as to think that we gain points with God by following these rituals, that we even have done something to earn salvation.
Do you notice what is missing when we define religion as ritual? We can be so busy doing all the expected activities and rituals that we neglect or ignore such things as piety, holiness, humility, an intense sense of wonder and awe about God and His power and His grace, a strong desire to serve God in every possible way, and a personal relationship with our Creator and Redeemer.
II What is True Religion
A For the last couple of months we've been looking at the book of James in the evening service. In one of my earlier sermons in this series I mentioned that James often quotes Jesus (sermon on James 1:9-11), that he has a large number of parallels to or with the sayings of Jesus. The first chapter of James contains ten similarities to the sayings of Jesus. And, you will find similar parallels in the rest of James too.
In James' definition of true religion we are to hear echoes of what Jesus said and taught. Speaking of false prophets, Jesus said, "By their fruit you will recognize them" (Mt 7:16). James speaks to us this morning of fruit – of the fruit of being a Christian, of the fruit of living out the faith, of the fruit of being a doer of the Word, of the fruit of living as a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. If you truly are a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, if your religion is real and sincere, then three fruit should be evident in your life: you care for orphans and widows, you control what you say, and you keep yourself from being polluted by the world. Today, we have time to look only at the first category.
B The first fruit of religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: "to look after orphans and widows in their distress" (James 1:27). In the Ancient World orphans and widows were weak, helpless, and defenseless. They were totally at the mercy of others. And, they were often preyed upon by others.
Remember the story of the widow of one of the prophets at the time of Elisha. She cried out to Elisha,
(2 Ki 4:1) "Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the LORD. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves."This kind of thing happened quite often in the Ancient World.
In another passage, Jesus warned the people about the teachers of the law:
(Luke 20:46-47) "Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. (47) They devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely."Did you catch that? "They devour widows' houses." They take advantage of a woman who has no man to stand up for her.
True religion, "religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress" (James 1:27). Orphans and widows. Our social safety net looks after orphans and widows but in many places around the world they continue to be weak, helpless, and defenseless. True religion looks after the weak, the helpless, the defenseless.
Starting today we have a special opportunity to do this. For the next three weeks we are asked to focus on world hunger. For the next three weeks we are asked to focus on those who don't even have a crust of bread. Think of how weak, how helpless, how defenseless these people are.
In today's world there are many other people we can also identify as being weak, helpless, and defenseless. The prisoner, for instance. Jesus says when we visit the prisoner we visit the Lord and when we neglect the prisoner we neglect the Lord (Mt 25:36,43). Have you ever thought of the life of the prisoner? You are totally at the mercy of others. You have no control over anything.
I received a letter this past week from Bethany Christian Services. This letter told me about a woman named Jill.
According to Jill, she "crawled" into Bethany's House just over a year ago. She was 40, unemployed, and her beauty marred by an addiction to meth. Unhappily pregnant, Jill was "within an inch" of having an abortion until she came to Bethany's House, our residence for women like Jill. To hear Jill tell her story, she will be forever grateful for the love and support she received at Bethany House.Jill, and those like Jill, certainly are like the orphans and widows of the Ancient World.
It was a rough road, but she committed her life to the Lord, made a beautiful adoption plan for her son, and has been totally drug-free for more than a year. Jill has reconciled with her family and has become such an advocate for our ministry that we hired her to live at the House as an assistant so she may help other women.
A woman who aggressively promotes atheism told her television audience that people who believe in God and the Bible have little social concern. We should be amused at her ignorance and angered with her arrogance, for the facts of history clearly contradict such an unfounded statement. In ancient days, no one denounced dishonesty, greed, and cruelty as did the prophets of God. And no one ever showed more compassion toward the poor and downtrodden than Jesus Himself. More recently, no one fought against slavery and injustice more than devout Christians like William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and Lord Ashley Shaftesbury (1801-1885). Largely through their leadership, slavery was abolished in England and the insane began to be treated in a humane way. Because of their efforts, little boys were no longer used as chimney sweeps, and working conditions in the mills, factories, and mines were greatly improved. Today, it is Christians who lead the fight against abortion, against slavery overseas, against genocide in Darfur.
Many of the elderly today are like orphans and widows in the Ancient World. The test of a people is how it behaves toward the elderly. It is easy to love children. Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children. But the affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless, are the true gold mines of a culture.
When we think about it, there are all sorts of people who are weak, helpless, and defenseless. Kids without dads, for instance. A famous college basketball coach recently said that out of the 15 young men on his team, 10 never knew their father. Kids and adults with AIDS is another group that comes to mind. Those with disabilities is another group.
C This past week I read an article in a recent issue of Harper's Magazine. The article's title is "The Christian Paradox." Depending on which poll you look at and how the question is asked, somewhere around 85 percent of Americans call themselves Christian. Israel, by way of comparison, is 77 percent Jewish. It is true that a smaller number of Americans – about 75 percent – claim they actually pray to God on a daily basis, and only 33 percent say they manage to get to church every week. The author concludes that most Americans believe we are a Christian nation.
But are we, asks the author? What if we chose some simple criterion – say, giving aid to the poorest people – as a reasonable proxy for Christian behavior? After all, in the days before His crucifixion, when Jesus summed up His message for His disciples, He said the way you could tell the righteous from the damned was by whether they fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner. What would we find then?
In 2004, as a share of our economy, we ranked second to last, after Italy, among developed countries in government foreign aid. Per capita we each provide fifteen cents a day in official development assistance to poor countries. And it's not because we were giving to private charities for relief work instead. Such funding increases our average daily donation by just six pennies, to twenty-one cents. It's also not because Americans were too busy taking care of their own; nearly 18 percent of American children live in poverty (compared with, say, 8 percent in Sweden). In fact, by pretty much any measure of caring for the least among us you want to propose – childhood nutrition, infant mortality, access to preschool – we come in nearly last among the rich nations, and often by a wide margin. The point is not just that (as everyone already knows) the American nation trails badly in all these categories; it's that the overwhelmingly Christian American nation trails badly in all these categories, categories to which Jesus paid particular attention. And it's not as if the numbers are getting better: the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last year that the number of households that were "food insecure with hunger" had climbed more than 26 percent between 1999 and 2003.
It is one thing if we as a nation claim to be Christian and do otherwise. It is an entirely different thing if we do that as a church or as individuals. After all, both James and Jesus are talking to Christians, to servants of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. I came across a poem this past week that speaks to this. It is entitled "The Praying Hypocrite."
I knelt to pray when day was done,
And prayed, "Lord, bless everyone;
Lift from each heart the pain,
And let the sick be well again."
And then I woke again one day,
And carelessly went on my way;
The whole day long I did not try
To wipe a tear from any eye.
I did not try to share the load
Of any brother on the road;
I did not even go to see
the sick man just next door to me.
Yet once again when every day was done,
I prayed, "Lord, bless everyone."
But as I prayed to my ear
Came a voice that whispered dear,
'Pause, hypocrite, before you pray;
Whom have you tried to bless today?
God's sweetest blessings always go,
By hands that serve Him here below.'"
And then I hid my face and cried,
"Forgive me Lord, for I have lied;
Let me but live another day,
And I will live the way I pray."
Do you hear what I am saying? If we ignore the poor and needy among us and around the world, our Father God will NOT accept our religion. Servants of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ must be doers of the Word and NOT just hearers of the Word.
"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress" (James 1:27). I cannot look in your heart but I do know I have never met nor served a church as compassionate as Trinity. Is this true for you as an individual? Does God accept your religion?
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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