I’m Ready to Die

As people get older, you sometimes hear them say, “I’m ready to die.” Does this mean there is something wrong with this person? Is he suicidal?

In my own life, God has given me eighty-eight wonderful years. At this advanced state, I find my body is wearing out. Not long ago my doctor asked me to see a specialist in order to evaluate a particular discomfort I was having. I found the specialist to be pleasant, and he prescribed several physical tests and x-rays. However, I told him I did not want to take those tests. This surprised him, for he felt these procedures were necessary in order to find what might be wrong. So he asked me, “Is there a chance you might be depressed?” When I told him that I was not, he asked why I refused to take tests that might prevent me from dying.

“Well,” I said, “I am an old man. When the Lord is ready to take me, I will go to heaven, not because of any thing I have done, but because of God’s grace. He made it possible by sending his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to die for my sins. Doctor, you are a gifted physician. Yet, when this life comes to an end and we are with God through Christ, that is better than anything this world can offer us.”

The doctor stared at me and then asked me to come back for one more appointment. I left him with the reassurance that I would return and he needn’t worry about me dying from self-infliction.

At my next appointment, we didn’t talk much about medicine. Instead we talked about eternity and some of the doctor’s personal concerns. I tried the best I could to give him a clear presentation of the salvation that has been offered to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. I offered to meet with him again and pursue this matter further. I have yet to hear from the doctor and, as far as I know, Jesus Christ has not yet been received. But that is okay, for the seed has been sown, and the Holy Spirit will take it from there.

I believe that I am anxious to go home when the Lord is ready to take me. Two thousand years ago, an old man by the name of Simeon told the Lord he was ready to die. I mentioned in my sermon two weeks before Christmas that the Bible gives us some beautiful stories surrounding the overall Christmas story. We talked about Mary and Elizabeth. Today’s text has another one of those stories. It is about Simeon.

Simeon was a righteous and devout man. He had received a promise that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah. Eight days after Jesus was born, Joseph and Mary took him to the temple, as a requirement of the Law, to present him as one of the Lord’s own. This consecration of the Lord was very important for people who were God-fearing and wanted to please God.

While they were in the temple, Simeon took the baby in his arms and said. “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation . . .”

Simeon was saying, “I am ready to die; I am ready to go home.” Isn’t this story a beautiful part of our Christmas message? Simeon was anxious to let them know that this baby was God’s greatest gift. This child was God’s only begotten Son who had come to take away the fear of death. But his purpose on this earth would also pierce Mary’s heart as well. How she must have understood this as she stood beneath the cross of Jesus and saw his hands nailed to the cross.

“I am ready to die,” Simeon said. This is God’s gift when Jesus Christ lives in our hearts and we have received him. Then we, too, do not have to fear the grave.

Death is a concern to me to some extent. I hear people say from time to time, “I am not afraid to die, but I am concerned about how I am going to die.” That statement is true for me too. I don’t want to spend some agonizing weeks or months actively dying. That is something to be concerned about.

I am very attached to my loving family and don’t want to leave them. As a result of my wife’s stroke, she needs my care. Because of this reason, I would like to stay with her until she is taken to God.

I have had many great experiences serving in the ministry. I had a wonderful time as a young person, as a college student, and a seminary student. And what a great time I’ve had with a wonderful congregation who at times have had their problems but clung to their Savior.

In that sense of the word, death is more than deliverance and pain, for it has been conquered in Jesus Christ. Without our Savior, we are not prepared to stand before God Almighty, for he alone can speak on our behalf. Without our Savior, we will not go to heaven. Jesus told us in his Word, “In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, would I have told you? I go to prepare a place for you. Where I go, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3). God is not a universalist.

When Thomas said, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”, Jesus replied, “I am the way, (THE way, not a way), I am the truth, (THE truth, not a truth), I am the life (THE life, not a life)” John 14:5-6.

I am the way, and the truth, and the life. NO ONE comes to the Father but by me. Though I don’t understand these words, I still believe them. And on the basis of this promise, I can say “I’m ready, Lord. I’m ready to die.”

The funerals I have conducted have three parts to them. One part deals with the eulogy, for we need to acknowledge this person who has lived a long life. Generally speaking, no matter how bad the person has been, some good thing can be said about him.

So I say a few words about the one being laid to rest. Then I speak a good text from the Word of God. Often it is the one I just quoted to you: “I have gone to prepare a place for you. And if I have gone to prepare a place for you, I will come and get you.” The Word of God actually has hundreds of texts referring to death being conquered in Jesus Christ. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? Thanks be to God who has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 15:55-56).

For the third part of the funeral, I spend ten minutes or so telling the people what Jesus Christ has done. Then I ask the people, Are we ready to die? Have you received Jesus Christ as your Savior? Do you know that he has conquered death for you?

Many of them will perhaps say, “Yes, I do. Jesus is my Savior. I am ready to die.” However, some of those present will not be ready to die. A funeral is a marvelous chance to share the gospel with a person who will face God alone because he has rejected the Christ.

I am ready to die. That’s not a morbid statement; it is victorious. I am ready to die! Not because of my life and anything that I have done, but because of God’s grace.

I am ready to die. With that certainty, I can enjoy life here on this earth while I wait for the Savior to come.

We need to be ready. And we need to be concerned that our friends and our relatives are also ready. When the time is right, it is our God-given obligation to tell them so they will not live with the false hope that everything is all right and we are all going to heaven. For this is not the case.

Meet the Grandparents

I don’t know about you but I have found that watching the late-night news can be a very poor sedative. All the frightening and worrisome reports of Isis terrorists, the ebola epidemic, economic uncertainties, job layoffs, racial unrest, health care costs rising, scandals in government and the church, never-ending Mideast tensions, global warming, rising crime, changing social mores, and the morals of our society can keep a person awake at night. It can make one wonder what kind of world our kids will face when they grow up. Some days we may even feel hopeless, like we’re on a runaway train, and the engineer seems to have jumped off somewhere along the way. How can a Christian stay at peace in the midst of all the things going on around us? How can we sleep at night?

God has a word for us that I found very helpful when the world is looking crazy and out of control, and we’re having doubts about the future. It is the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. Although it looks like something to be skipped over to get to the really interesting stuff, it is so much more than that. It’s a reassuring walk down memory lane. Jesus’ long list of grandpas and grandmas covers a lot of history.

The opening line begins, “The genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, son of David, son of Abraham.” We first meet Abraham in Genesis 12. The world is broken into pieces because of humanity’s sin. God calls upon Abraham and makes a promise to him Ð that He is going to bless Abraham and make him a blessing to the families of the earth. From his descendants would come a blessing to the world. God is setting off His promise.

Then we come to the second name in that statement Ð King David Ð who was promised that his family line, his dynasty, would stand forever (II Samuel 7). After we meet Abraham and David, the genealogy snakes its way through 42 generations and finally is completed as we see the name at the end Ð Jesus who is called the Messiah, the Anointed One.

Again and again, as we look at the history behind these names and the way Matthew has broken them into three segments of history, it appears that circumstances would cause God’s plan to Abraham and David to fall by the wayside. We see the Israelites experiencing famine, so they go to Egypt and become slaves. They appear to be a lost nation. However, God eventually brings them back to the promised land. Later they are deported to Babylon and then they come back from Babylon. They face oppression by the Greeks and the Romans. Life just doesn’t add up for them, and it seems the odds are heavily stacked against those promises ever being fulfilled.

Then we read the last name in that list: Jesus, called the Messiah. There He is Ð in the manger at Bethlehem, the blessing to all families of the earth, the King promised to David. God seems to be saying to us in this genealogy, See! I did it! Just like I said I would. There’s Jesus. I kept my word. The famine couldn’t starve it, four hundred years of slavery couldn’t kill it, forty years of wilderness wanderings could not stop it, weak humans lacking faith couldn’t get in the way, unfaithful kings could not destroy it, Babylonian captivity couldn’t end it, and political oppression could not kill it. I had my way.

Christmas is the fulfillment of God’s promise. His rescue plan accomplished. This genealogy is a reminder that our God keeps His word through the Christmas story. I find it interesting how He does it. What an interesting, ragtag bunch of grandparents of Jesus are listed here. In reality they are not-so-great grandparents. A lot of dirty laundry is found amongst those names. Each one of them is a kind of weak, clay-footed pilgrim whom God chose to use. Abraham lied to save his own skin early on. He told Pharaoh that Sarah was his sister Ð not his wife Ð for fear of his life. Jacob was a swindler. Judah sold his brother Joseph to the Ishmaelites. Rahab was a prostitute. Tamara played the role of a prostitute to trick her father-in-law. Bathsheba was an adulteress, and David was an adulterer and murderer. Solomon, even with all his wisdom, had hundreds of wives and started worshiping idols, which created great hardship for the people of Israel until they were ready to rebel and divide the kingdom. Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, followed in his footsteps and drove the North away from the South causing all sorts of political implications and worries for the future. We see Manasseh who sacrificed his own children to the idols.

Following the deportation to Babylon comes a long list of ordinary people who are not kings. They live under the oppression of the Greeks and the Romans. It seems rather hopeless that God will use this group for His purposes at the manger.

Have you ever wondered why God used ordinary people? Why did God keep an entire Old Testament to attest to their blunders and foibles, and then remind us of them again in this New Testament historical list?

I think it’s rather simple. Perhaps God knew that people like you and me, down the line, would watch the news and worry. We would look at life Ð totally out of control Ð and wonder if God has deserted us. He wants to make sure that, when we see the world getting crazy and wild and seemingly out-of-control, we remember He is still there, calm and in charge, and His purposes will be accomplished. The proof is the last name on the list. In spite of His not-so-great grandparents, the last name on that list is the first one that was promised to Abraham. It is Jesus, the Messiah, the one for whom they were waiting. The birth of Jesus is a promise kept, a plan fulfilled, God having His way. The list shows us that He is more powerful than any obstacle thrown in His way, stronger than any circumstance or any weak, clay-footed pilgrim. God is powerful enough to use any person for His purposes. His will will be done.

What is the story behind the promise anyway? The name of Jesus tells us. It means “to save.” A few verses after the genealogy, Matthew tells us that the angel told Joseph, “. . . you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The world was broken and lost in the Garden of Eden. However, God promised Adam and Eve that He would restore their relationship. The world was broken and needed to be put back together again. It needed saving. God’s promise of redemption came to fruition in that manger. And this Child in the manger grew up and died on the cross for your sins and mine so that we could have a restored relationship with the God who loves us. God raised Him up on the third day and promises that everyone who trusts in Him will have eternal life. Life forever in relationship with Him!

We thank God for this list of not-so-great grandparents and the reminder of this long history preceding Jesus that Matthew included in the front of his Gospel. He has given us a big picture to minister to us. When we lie awake at night sometimes, worrying about the future and thinking about our kids’ future, wondering if we’re on a runaway train and God has deserted us, this is good news. It tells us that history is His story. God is faithful and in control, and He has the final word. In fact, He has written the end of the story. That Savior, who arrived as a humble baby in a manger, will one day make a return in power and glory over this whole world. Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. Evil will be vanquished and creation will be restored.

That is why we tell the world it is important to say yes to Jesus now and follow Him. Those of us who have said yes to Christ wait for His reappearing in power and majesty. This list of grandparents reminds us of His return and calls us to put our trust in Christ, in His promises and power. No matter how dark things may seem some days, God keeps His word. We can live confidently with the knowledge that He has the final word. Jesus promised that the one who endures to the end trusting in Him shall be saved. He told us, “In this world you will have tribulation; but fear not; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). “I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you” (John 14:18). Trust Him.

Nuclear or biochemical wars are no threat to God. Yoyo economics don’t intimidate Him; immoral crazy leaders have never been able to derail His plan. History is His story. His will will be done. We know the end.

The family tree in Matthew is an encouraging word from God to those of us who sometimes lose hope and lie awake at night worrying. It is His Good News. It is God telling us, See, I keep my word. I always have; I always will. My son, my daughter, trust me. Now go to sleep; I’ll stay up and keep watch and stay in charge.

Merry Christmas!

Pressure Points: Retaliation

David Hagler, an umpire in a recreational baseball league, was once pulled over for driving too fast. He tried to talk the officer out of giving him a ticket by telling him how worried he was about his insurance rates and how he normally was a very safe driver. The officer said that if he didn’t like receiving the ticket, he could take the matter to court; and off he went.

At the first game of the next baseball season, Dave Hagler was umpiring behind the plate and the first batter was Ð can you believe this Ð the policeman. As the officer is about to step into the batter’s box, they recognize each other. After a long pause the officer asks, “So how did that ticket thing go?”

Hagler replied, “You’d better swing at everything.”

Sweet revenge! Isn’t that what we sometimes say revenge is sweet?

Or is it?

Most of us are reactors. When someone has wronged us, we retaliate in like manner. The temptation is to get even. A little children’s poem says, “Tit-for-tat, sugar for fat. You kill my dog, I kill your cat!” Some people live with the philosophy: I don’t get mad; I get even. Sometimes we get even with our words. Winston Churchill, who was known to be quite sharp tongued, had a feud going with Lady Astor. She said to him one time, “Winston Churchill, if you were my husband, I’d poison your dinner!” And Churchill replied, “Lady Astor, if you were my wife, I’d eat it!”

The pressure to retaliate is natural to all of us, and we are often encouraged by others as well to get even. Many movies and novels are about retaliation. Some of us have even been raised to hit back. All these things work on us, and it is easy to get caught up in it.

When my son, Samuel, was in elementary school, he was constantly being bullying by a kid at the bus stop. As I listened to the stories each day, I became angrier and angrier. Finally one day at the dinner table, I said to Sam, “Pop him one!” Of course my son looked at me like he couldn’t believe what his pastor/ father had just said to him. Later, my wife took me aside and gave me lessons on how to coach my son in making decisions in life. I deserved it.

The pressure to retaliate is in us all. But we need to be ask ourselves if retaliation solves anything. What you think about that question? It seems that when we do not practice self-restraint, things just escalate, and the vicious cycle keeps going. If I’m hanging on to grudges and bitterness, wanting to get even, I can find myself becoming poisoned within and turning into a bitter person.

James writes about this kind of thing in the last chapter of his book as he addresses some people who were being picked on by those who were wealthy and in control. He first takes on the oppressors as he pronounces the future judgment on their lives, almost like an Old Testament prophet. “Weep and wail for the miseries coming to you.” This sounds like an ominous prediction for these folks when they have to stand before God.

He goes on to tell them, “Your riches have rotted.” Your material possessions are temporary. You have been taking advantage of others, and it will be your undoing with God. You have committed fraud, selfishly hoarding for yourselves.

He goes on to say, “You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.” He is addressing some rich landlords who were not paying daily wages to their workers, many of whom were in these little, rural congregations. The book of Deuteronomy calls this a travesty of justice, for it meant that the worker’s family probably would not eat that night.

James compares this mistreatment of these innocent laborers to murder. He thinking of some old Jewish writings. To take away a neighbor’s living is to commit murder. To deprive an employee of wages is to shed blood. The land owners will face God’s judgment someday, and it will not be good.

The members of these little congregations had to be excited when they heard this message of hopefulness Ð that the day is coming when God will make things right. You can almost hear them cheering James on: Preach it, preacher! Tell them Ð judgment is coming! God is going to make things all right in the end. Let them have it!

But then James turns to those in the little congregations who were being mistreated. He knew about the temptation to retaliate in some way, become bitter, and get their pound of flesh. So he says to them, “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.”

To be patient means to be long-suffering. Someone described being patient as taking a long time for your thermometer to boil over. It means to develop a long fuse. Someone once wrote, “Patience is letting your motor idle know when you feel like stripping the gears.”

James tells us, Be patient when you’re taking it on the chin. Be like the farmer who plants his crop and then waits patiently for the rains to fall and his crop to grow. As God has shown patience with us, we are to be patient with others. The Lord is coming again, and He will make things right! I am reminded the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 12:7, “Don’t return evil for evil. Instead, live by this: ÔVengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19). He repeats it again: “You also must be patient.”

“Strengthen your heart, for the coming of the Lord is near.” How does one strengthen their heart? I remember the story of David as he came home from battle in the wilderness with his little army. Most of what they had was stolen including their wives, and everybody was upset. But David strengthened himself in the Lord. He turned to the Lord in prayer and sought direction. As we turn to the Lord in prayer, as we turn to the Lord in His holy Word, the Holy Spirit has His way with us, and we begin to experience the fruit of the Spirit, which includes love and patience.

James adds: Watch your mouth! “Do not grumble against one other.” Isn’t it funny how, when we have been hurt by outside sources, we can take it out on those closest to us. It’s like we know they will take it from us. James seems to be telling us to come together and stick together. Don’t turn on each other during times like this.

And then he says, By the way, look to the heroes of old as your mentors. Let the prophets be an inspiration to you. See how they served God with their suffering and patience! Remember that, as you go through hardships, you are in very good company. The mistreatment of God’s people is nothing new. Remember Elijah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah. They took it on the chin, but God took care of them as they went through their trials. See how they ran the good race. They didn’t quit. They kept serving God’s purposes.

Then he talks about another hero: Look at the endurance of Job. We sometimes talk about the patience of Job, but I’m not sure that is an accurate description. Job does not really come off as patient when you read about him in the Old Testament. He constantly wrestled with God and asked why these things were happening to him. But what is interesting to note is that through it all, Job kept believing in God. He did not renounce God. He kept running the race. In the end, God put it all back together for him.

Finally James says, “. . . you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” He is pointing to God’s redemption plan at the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. God is not some unfeeling, distant, cosmic entity. Just look at that cross. This God cares about you! He knows what is going on. He has not forgotten you, and He will not turn away from you. He is a God of compassion and mercy.

So that is James’ coaching to the folks who were taking it on the chin and being picked on. In essence, James is teaching them an alternative to retaliation as he points them in the direction of patience and endurance. There is your alternative! Those who follow Jesus Christ are called to be different from the world around them. The world says retaliate. Yet Jesus says otherwise, and James reminds us His words.

Now, let me ask you a personal question. Who has been acting like an enemy toward you, taking advantage of you? Who has hurt you along the way, and now you nurse a grudge against them? It is easy to retaliate and hold a grudge. However, James gives us an alternative. He tells us that when we are taking it on the chin, choose to be different as a follower of Jesus. It is not the easy way, but it is the Jesus way. How about, instead of hitting back, we give up our right to get even and actually forgive that individual as we have been forgiven by Christ. Didn’t Jesus teach us that?

I came across a story in a book called God’s Outrageous Claims. It tells the story of Terry Anderson, an Associated Press reporter in the 1980s, who was held hostage in Lebanon for nearly seven years. He was chained to a wall in a filthy and spider-infested cell. Terry suffered through sickness, endured mental torture, and longed for his family. He was ground down by a dull ache of incessant boredom. Through it all, though, he was given one book Ð the Bible Ð and as he devoured it in search for words of hope, he became across what appeared to him to be outrageous words of hopeless na•vetŽ. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said Ôlove your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44).

Can you imagine how outlandish that command must have seemed to Anderson after spending 2,455 mindnumbing days in cruel captivity?

Love whom . . . ? Pray for whom . . . ? Show kindness toward those who brutalized me? Exercise compassion toward those who callously extended none to me?

Anderson was finally released on December 4, 1991. As journalists clustered around peppering him with questions, they asked what his ordeal had been like and what his plans were for the future. But then one reporter called out the question that stopped Anderson in his tracks. “Can you forgive your captors?” What an easy question to pose in the abstract, but what a profound issue to ponder honestly amid the grim reality of harsh injustice.

Anderson paused. Before the words of his response could come out of his mouth, the Lord’s Prayer coursed through his mind: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Then this victim of undeserved suffering spoke. “Yes,” he replied, “As a Christian, I am required to forgive, no matter how hard it may be.” We forgive.

How about repaying unkindness with kindness? How about praying for your enemies, as Jesus said?

I know what you might be thinking Ð like I sometimes think: I’ll pray for them all right. I’ll pray for the Lord to wipe them out. Maybe we need to begin our prayer by asking God to help us love them as Christ loves them, and then pray for their welfare, for their blessing.

I’ve discovered over the years that it is difficult to stay mad at someone who I am praying for. Remember, Jesus who did not retaliate but took the punches of people without striking back. He told Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Put away your sword. Don’t you think I could call an army of angels to save me from this?” Then He went to the cross and as they hurled insults at Him, Jesus responded “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” He did not retaliate, this One who said, “Follow me.” His epitaph could well read, “The hurt stops here.”

You can do this Ð be patient and endure under fire Ð because you know you’re filled with the Holy Spirit of God. The Apostle Paul tells us God didn’t give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power of love and self-discipline. You are not on your own. You are spirit powered, dear friend. And it’s not a matter of can I not hit back, but a matter of will I not hit back. It’s a choice you make ahead of time. I want to follow Jesus.

Realize, though, that this is not an overnight sensation. It’s a matter of training versus trying. I have a friend who just completed a marathon. He couldn’t have just gone down to the race, signed up, and run it. He had to spend a long time training for that race. Jesus, when He calls us His disciples, is calling us into training. He is getting us ready for those moments under fire when we’re taking it on the chin.

I don’t know about you but I find James’ words challenging. Still, if Jesus is Lord and Savior of my life , then I need to take Him at His Word and walk in His footsteps knowing this is God’s way.

Let us not talk about love on Sunday and then hit back on Monday. Leave the vengeance to God. You just keep letting your light shine for Jesus Christ.

Pressure Points: Conflict

A funny story: A man was out in his boat in the Pacific Ocean. It went down, and he managed to swim his way to a deserted island where he survived for many years, wondering if he was ever going to be rescued. One day, as he was out on the beach, he saw a ship coming toward the island, so he made a fire and caught the attention of the ship. As it started coming toward him, a little boat came in to rescue him. He couldn’t believe his good luck!

When the sailors were on shore, he showed them around the island a little bit. One of them said, “I noticed you have three buildings on this island. What are they about?”

He said, “Well this first one over here is my house. That’s where I live.”

“Very nice. What’s this second one? ”

“Well, that where I go to church.”

And then someone asked, “What’s that third one?”

“That’s the church I used to go to.”

Maybe you’ve heard that statement before. It can be a painful statement, for behind it can be a story of a conflict and some real hurt inflicted on an individual. People don’t generally join a church with the intention of causing fights and hurting others. I’m not sure anyone sets out to be the cause of disunity in a church community, but it does happen far too often.

I recently came across a news headline that really startled me. The headline read, “Pastor Tasered by Music Minister.” Wow! That sounds like some very serious conflict.

Maybe you’ve heard this humorous story about the woman who came home from choir practice early one night. Her husband was very surprised to see her so soon because she usually came home late, so he asked, “What brings you home so early?”

“Oh,” she said despondently. “We had to call off choir practice. The organist and the choir director got in a huge fight about how to sing ÔLove Divine.'”

If you’ve ever been in the middle of a church conflict, you know it can be a real pressure cooker with a lot of tension in the air. Today’s passage has something to say to that. James is writing about some church fighting going on way back in the early church. We don’t know exactly what it was about, but he asks, Where are all these conflicts and disputes coming from? What’s behind all this? And then he points out the causes.

The first things he points to Ð we could call self-centeredness Ð are the cravings, wants, and covetousness that go on in each person. Conflict arises, you see, when we don’t get what we want. When we allow our selfish nature to rule our life, it’s going to lead to conflict. James talks about those cravings inside us as a self-indulgent appetite. When an unrestrained appetite takes over a person’s life, it’s going to lead to differences between individuals resulting in conflict. When I insist on my way, conflict will happen. I once read this little statement: The secret of every discord in Christian homes and churches is that we seek our own way and our own glory.

We also have certain wants, and we covet things. Sometimes I set my heart on something that doesn’t belong to me. In the churches James is writing to, the conflict was probably over leadership positions in the church. He seemed to be concerned about who was going to be teaching and who wasn’t, the prestige and the power that came with the position. If I begin to pursue that kind of thing at all costs, running over other people and hurting them to get what I want, then I am going to create a major conflict, and it’s painful for everyone involved.

So we have cravings, selfish wants, and covetousness at work under the heading of self-centeredness. When you think about it, what causes these conflicts and disputes? To take it even a step further, this self-centeredness could best be described as sinfulness.

Eugene Peterson, who is one of my favorite authors, once wrote this statement that I’ve copied and kept near to me. “Each congregation is a congregation of sinners. And if that isn’t bad enough, each has a sinner for a pastor.” The first time I used that with a congregation, they all said, “Amen!” That you are, pastor! Anyway, self-centeredness.

James also points out that they seem to have forgotten to be people of prayer. He says, “You don’t have because you don’t ask. And those of you who are asking, ask wrongly (with wrong motives).” He’s talking about “prayerlessness.” They are out of touch with God. They want these things, but haven’t touched base with God. They have not taken time to touch base with God and ask, What is your will in all of this, Lord? Or they are treating God like a genie who satisfies selfish wishes instead of praying for His will to be done. Unfortunately, we often come to God wanting our will to be done. James is telling us this “prayerlessness” in our midst is behind the conflict, meaning they were not turning to God!

And finally James talks about worldliness. He begins describing a life turned away from God, an unfaithful life, a lifestyle of pursuing selfish agendas. And he addresses them as adulterers. That’s very strong language isn’t it? That’s the kind of language Old Testament prophets used when the nation of Israel would chase off after other idols and gods, and the prophets would try to call them back to God. “Turn back to God, you adulterers.”

James saw these people turn from God to the world and its values in terms of how they were running their lives. They had become friends with the world. He said, You cannot be friends with the world or you’ll be an enemy of God. They were chasing after the values, the idols of the world and leaving behind loyalty and obedience to God, living like the rest of the world around them. And so they end up playing politics in the church, verbally attacking one another and rallying others to their cause, squabbling amongst themselves, and then just shrugging it off as normal behavior. That’s the way the world operates.

James points out that when we act like that, we are not acting like God’s people. We’re acting in opposition. He says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that He has made to dwell in us.” He created us to have a relationship with Him. He wants us, and He yearns jealously to be at the center of our lives. He doesn’t want to share us with anything or anyone else.

So we have James in the first few verses holding up a mirror, so to speak, as he points to self-centeredness and prayerlessness, and worldliness and tells us these are causing problems in relationships within the body of Christ, in the congregation. And then he turns to what we need to do about it. He moves from what causes the conflicts to how to get them stopped. How do we nip them in the bud and avoid them altogether?

He begins by talking about God’s grace. He says that in spite of all the things that are going on in your midst, God gives more grace. It’s not like God’s holding back. God is available. God wants to the fix this, and here’s how it can be taken care of . . . It’s kind of a recipe, so to speak, for building loving relationships in a congregation.

First of all, humble yourself. He uses a proverb from Proverbs 3: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Pride is at the heart of all our disobedience before God, and it is usually at the core of our relational conflicts. When our ego kicks in, it can really do some damage. Think of the letters of the word ego as standing for Edging God Out. James tells us to swallow our pride. Let it go. It’s nothing but trouble. Humility is the way to act.

That’s not an original thought with James, is it? When you look at the teachings of Jesus, such as the Sermon on the Mount, He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” But who are the poor in spirit? They are those who are humble enough to realize they need God. On more than one occasion, Jesus used this statement:

“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.” What does it look like to humble yourself? It’s to admit your helplessness, to admit your need for God, to actually claim, I’m not God. God is God, not me.

Then James goes on to say, “You need to submit to the Lord.” Submit is a military term having to do with the rank. God is the general, so to speak, and I’m the buck private. I am to follow His orders. I submit to Him. I surrender my will to His. He is my boss, my authority in life.

Oftentimes, when we are in the midst of conflict, we need to ask ourselves who is in charge of my life? We struggle with that issue, and we have to daily renew our submission to God. You are God; I’m not. Not my will but Your will be done.

James goes on to say we need to resist the devil. It’s a call to alertness. Watch out for the devil who is on the attack. He loves to play on your selfishness and your pride. He loves to see conflict in congregations for then we are busy focusing on each other and not doing what Christ has called the Church to do. Conflict is the devil’s playground. Basically James tells us to stand strong in the power of Jesus Christ and refuse to give in. Be alert! Stand firm, and satan will flee.

Then James says, “Draw near to God.” I think we sometimes forget what a wonderful thing it is to have access to God! This great God, who created the universe, is approachable and available. Why? Because we were given access through the cross of Jesus Christ. At that cross the gap between God and humanity was bridged once and for all. We have access to our heavenly Father as we place our trust in Christ. We can turn to Him in prayer, come to His presence in worship, open His Word and seek His direction for our lives.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

Finally, James tells us to get rid of the sin. He calls us to repentance. He says that if something is going on here, if you’re hurting each other, you need to confess this. Clean up your act! “Cleanse your hands” (outward behavior), and “purify your hearts” (inward attitudes). Repent, and seek God’s forgiveness. Fess up to your part in all of this. Come before the Lord with sincere contrition, with tears and lament and dejection. Humble yourself before Him, and He will exalt you.

Jesus once told a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector in the Temple. The Pharisees prayed, I’m glad I’m not such a bad person like that tax collector. The tax collector prayed, “Have mercy on me, Lord. I am a sinner.” Jesus asked the question, Who do you think walked away from that experience justified by God? It was one who humbled himself. Blessed are those who humble themselves, for they shall be lifted up.

Why should I work at not being a part of conflict in my church? The answer is very simple: out of love for Jesus Christ who loves His church. Unity matters to Jesus. Therefore, it matters to His followers. Jesus said to the disciples, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another (and don’t fight with each other). Unity and love shine and attract others to Christ. Christ is glorified and honored. Remember, Jesus said to let your light so shine before others that they see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Conflict and quarreling hurts the cause of Jesus Christ to reach people for the kingdom of God. It’s bad public relations, plain and simple.

Remember Christ’s prayer for the disciples and for us in John 17. He is praying for you in that prayer. Jesus prayed for us that we may be one. He says, “As You, Father, are in me and I in you that they may also be one in us that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

If you love Jesus Christ, if you have tasted His grace, if you have been overwhelmed by His love for you, you will be willing to do whatever it takes to not be an instigator of quarrels and conflict in the church that He loves.

My beloved, let us love one another as Christ has loved us.