************ Sermon on James 4:13-17 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on January 7, 2007
"The Lord Willing"
Subtopic: Conformity to the World
Title: Three Monkeys
Once upon a time there were three monkeys standing on a seesaw. Above them hung a bunch of bananas. The three monkeys all scampered toward the high end of the board in order to reach the bananas. As they did, the high end tilted downward and became the low end. The monkeys then scampered back to the other end, with the same result. Whereupon, the brightest of the three had an idea: he would stay at one end of the board and wait for the other two to run to the other end and raise him up. Consequently, the bright monkey reached the bananas by not conforming to what the others were doing.
In his letter James spends considerable time and effort warning Christians against the sin of conforming to the ways of the world. Instead of being like every other monkey, instead of following the lead of every other person, those who are Christians are to be different. We are to stand out. We are to live and act as God's holy, redeemed, and sanctified people. We are servants of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ and our faith is to make a difference in the way we live (cf James 1:1).
What sort of things does James have in mind? Unlike the world, Christians are to rejoice over trials and tribulations because such things build up one's faith. Unlike the world, Christians don't judge people by their wealth or lack of wealth. Unlike the world, Christians keep their tongues under control; they don't gossip and lose their temper. Unlike the world, Christians do not covet and are not jealous of their friends and neighbors.
In the passage before us this evening we are told that unlike the world, Christians do not arrange their lives as if God does not exist and as if they are masters of their own destiny. We are to keep God in the picture as we make plans and dream about the future. This definitely is something we should keep in mind as we stand at the start of a new year.
I A Three-fold Mistake
A To make his point, James looks at various merchants and businessmen as examples of what Christians are not to do.
There were three kinds of merchants at the time of James: the old Hellenistic mariners who never left the sea and shipped and sold cargo from port to port; the caravan traders who used camels, mules, horses, and wagons to bring and sell goods from one city to the next; and local shop-keepers who traveled abroad to find merchandise for their stores and businesses. James condemns an attitude found in all three kinds of merchants – an attitude he must have seen in the church as well.
B Listen to what these merchant traders say back and forth to one another:
(James 4:13) "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money."These traders pick the day of their departure – "today or tomorrow." They pick the city they will visit – "this or that city"; and one can imagine them pointing the town out on the map. They determine the length of their stay in the city – "a year." They state what they will be engaged in – "carry on business." And they even state the profit they assume they will get – "and make money."
C As far as James is concerned, these merchant traders are speaking out of arrogance and pride and are making a three-fold mistake. James tells us, and the Christians of his day, that we cannot forget three things: first, we cannot forget God; second, we cannot forget that man does not know tomorrow; and third, we cannot forget that life is short.
The merchants, first of all, forget and neglect God. They arrange their lives as if God does not exist and as if they are masters of their destiny. In their work they act as if there are in control. In their plans they sound like they are in charge.
James believes in a providential God. All things are ruled and controlled by this God and not by us. All things are in His hands and not ours. Leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty, come to us not by our own efforts but from the hands of God. Says James, "Every good and perfect gift is from above" (James 1:17).
Christians who believe in a providential God include Him in all their plans and hopes and dreams.
Secondly, the merchants forget that we do not know tomorrow. James says, "Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow" (James 4:14). James has an Old Testament proverb in mind as he says this:
(Prov 27:1) Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.
This is true, isn't it? We do not know what will happen tomorrow. For that matter, we don't know what will happen tomorrow or tonight or even one hour from now. We are not God or like God in that we know what the future holds. We are human creatures and no more. From our point-of-view, the future is uncertain and undefined.
Topic: PlansWe don't know tomorrow. And, it is foolish to pretend that we do.
Subtopic: Of Man, Presumptuous
A Gallup Poll conducted before the 1948 presidential election wrongly predicted a win for Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey. Shortly after the announcement that it was Harry Truman who actually won, George Gallup was stopped by a policeman for driving the wrong direction down a one-way street. Reading the name on Gallup's driver's license, the policeman grinned broadly and exclaimed, "Wrong again!"
The realization that we don't know the future should cause us to cast our trust in God and not on hopes and plans and dreams. We can live only by faith in God.
Thirdly, the merchants forget that life is short. They thought that life was secure, established, and enduring. They just assumed that they would always be around to accomplish their plans, to fulfill their dreams, to see their hopes realized. James says, "What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes" (James 4:14). James is thinking of the Mediterranean mists. These mists are present in the cool of the morning but when the sun comes out they are quickly burned away. Or, as the psalmist puts it:
(Psa 90:5-6) You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning-- (6) though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered ... (10) The length of our days is seventy years-- or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
James' point is clear. The uncertainties of life – how long it will last, what it will bring us – and the providence of God upsets the best laid hopes and plans and dreams. Man is not in charge of his life and cannot pretend that he is. Ultimately, birth and death, hopes and dreams, success and failure are not up to us but up to God. He is in control! He is in charge!
D Perhaps there are some here this evening who are exactly like the traders and merchants James is speaking about. Farmers, doctors, students, teachers, ministers, nurses, dairymen – everyone of us in fact – can so easily act and think and hope and plan as if we have control of our own future. Farmers and dairymen, for instance, can make plans to farm "X" number of acres or milk "X" number of cows. Students can make plans to study long and do plenty of research so they can enter college. Athletes can make plans to practice hard. Ministers and evangelists can plan to make calls and plant the seed of the Gospel. We can draw up plans for our retirement or our new house or next summer's vacation. We can decide it is time to have a baby or another baby. In all of these plans it is so easy, too easy, to forget God's providence, to forget we don't know tomorrow, to forget we will not be around forever.
II Our Total Dependence Upon God
A James offers a remedy to all those Christians who so easily forget these things. He says, "You ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that'" (James 4:15). "If it is the Lord's will." Or, another way to put this, "the Lord willing." This is a reminder that all things depend upon God.
In the Ancient World nothing was done without first consulting the gods. The insides of animals, the words of prophets and priests, the appearance of various omens were all taken into account before doing or beginning anything. In their paganism the Ancients knew better than most of our neighbors – that all things depend on God. Likewise, many of the Jewish rabbis never thought of starting any enterprise, of making any plans, of going on any journey without first saying "The Lord willing." They realized that plans and hopes and dreams need God's blessing before they can be reality; they realized that a man's very life and breath comes from God alone.
B The Apostle Paul knew we cannot neglect or defeat the providence of God. So he sought the Lord's will in any and every situation. He expressed no hopes, no plans, no goals without first stating or assuming the will of God. When Paul, for instance, left the Ephesian church he said, "I will come back if it is God's will" (Acts 18:21). To the Christians at Corinth Paul states that he would visit them in the near future "if the Lord is willing" (1 Cor 4:18) and "if the Lord permits" (1 Cor 16:7). Paul hopes "in the Lord Jesus" to send Timothy to Philippi (Phil 2:19) and to visit them himself as well (Phil 2:24).
C In previous generations Christians were moved by a sense of God's sovereignty and providence. They often used the phrase, "the Lord willing," in their daily conversation. For a while, the Latin equivalent ("Deo volente" or its shortened form, "D.V.,") was added to just about everything by the pious Christian.
A number of years ago I read some letters written by Ruth's aunts while they were teen-aged girls. I was impressed by their sense of God's ways. More than once they wrote, "the Lord willing."
D "The Lord willing." This kind of talk is not popular in today's society. People are so independent, so self-sufficient, so wrapped up in themselves. They answer to no one, acknowledge no rule but their own, and resist all infringements of their individual rights. This is sinful, stubborn pride at work. The modern man and woman want to believe or assert they are in control – not God!
During the first years of a marriage the central problem or issue is "Who is in control?" or "Who is in control of what?" Many marriages end up on the rocks because this issue is never really settled.
We see the same issue with little children. One of the first words a child learns is "No." And sometimes, they say "No! No! No! No!" to everything. Time for bed - No! Eat your vegetables - No! Pick up your toys - No! Time to take a bath - No! They are merely trying to assert themselves. They are trying to be in control. Quite often, a teenager's struggles with parents also revolve around the issue of control.
Modern man is the same way with God. He wants to assert himself. He wants control over against God.
"The Lord willing." We rarely hear such talk anymore. Yes, quite often it became nothing more than a sort of magical formula to guarantee success. Yes, many people appended it to their thoughts without really meaning it. Still, though, I am convinced that today we have lost something when we fail to say it. We have lost a sense of God's sovereignty. We have lost a sense of God's providence. We have lost a sense of God's control. We have lost a sense of our total dependence upon God.
No one likes the thought of being in someone else's hands. No one likes the thought of someone else being in control. Yet, the reality is that we are in God's hands, that upon Him we are totally dependent for life and breath and every good thing.
III Putting into Practice
A James wants the Christians of his day, he wants us, to acknowledge that God is in control. It is not enough to say or to think "the Lord willing." As I said before, this is not some kind of magical formula that will guarantee success. We not only have to say it or think it but we also have to LIVE IT! The point is that our words and our actions must not contradict each other; what we say and what we do must be in harmony with each other; we must not be hypocrites.
B "The Lord willing." How can we put this belief into practice? How can we live this?
First of all, in any and every situation ask yourself, "What does God want me to do? What is His will for my life?" Young people should ask this as they pick a college to go to. Young adults should ask this as they decide on marriage. We should ask this as we pick the school our children go to. We should ask this as we consider another job or look for another job. We should ask this as we consider serving on church council, the school board, city council, a committee. It isn't only ministers and Christian school teachers who must follow the Lord's leading and answer His call. We all must discern the will of God for our lives.
Secondly, we are to pray, pray, pray. Our asking – and that's what we mostly do in prayer – our asking shows our total dependence upon God. Our asking is a daily reminder that we need the Lord's blessing and leading. Ask the Lord to guide you in all your ways.
When we think about it, the issue in the passage before us is this: Who is in control, God or man? Who has the final say, God or man? We, as Christians, know: God is in control, He is in charge! Now, in this new year we must show this in our lives.
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