Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga., on August 9, 2009.
We don’t serve God to gain His acceptance; we are accepted so we serve God. We don’t follow Him in order to be loved; we are loved so we follow Him.
—Neil T. Anderson
One of the final acts of worship each Sunday is the pastoral blessing. I offer a prayer for each of us as we depart to serve Christ in the world. One of the phrases in that blessing is, May your lips speak God’s word. The purpose of that part of the blessing is to pray that our souls would be open enough, that our lives would be transparent enough, and that our hearts would be prepared enough, to allow God to say something through us that somebody else needs to hear. This really is not something that you can claim. It is hard to assume that I am going to go out this afternoon and be God’s mouthpiece and say things that people should hear from God. But there are those moments when we say things that seem to come from somewhere else that are just what somebody else needs to hear. The amazing thing is that we often do not know when we have done it, and we often don’t know when it sticks.
I imagine each of us could tell of a story where someone said something to us that was a blessing, a challenge, a direction— a word that came to us—that we may never have even told that person about. Yet, for us, it was a word from God.
I remember a fourth grade Sunday school teacher. I don’t even remember the woman’s name, but what I do remember is that she told us a story about her husband and a situation in World War II. He was a Marine who had been on the island of Guadalcanal. She talked about a very difficult night that he spent and how he learned about prayer, and I always remembered that. But the other thing she taught us was a verse. She taught us to memorize the verse of scripture that is the old King James equivalent of James 1:22, “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only.” That has stuck with me all of my life.
I don’t have a way to do a thorough examination but it does seem that in almost every culture, in most of the world’s major religions, and across all ages, there are different ways of expressing an expectation that a person’s life ought to be consistent with what a person says, believes, and does. All of these should be part of a whole.
One of the great clichÃ©s in our time is, If you are going to talk the talk then you have to walk the walk. At the very heart of the idea of hypocrisy are the things that we say we believe but they are not a part of what we do. We know that we are, in some way, supposed to do what we believe in. James says, “Be doers of the word, not hearers only.” Don’t just merely hear it and say, “That sounds good; I agree with it,” but we must also do it.
In our culture, one of the great changes that has taken place over the last 50 years is the wide variety of things that people believe in. Even in a town like Rome, you can find a tremendous variety in what people say they believe religiously. One of the things that we have come to believe is that a person needs to be consistent. Whatever you believe, you should act on. Today, as we look at this particular passage of scripture, we need to remember that it is not simply that I am consistent about some opinion or that I am consistent about some conviction that I hold, but that I am a doer of the Word. It is not just anything, but it is the Word.
To be honest, we have lived in an age of Bible abuse. Many people have been abused by the Bible in a variety of different ways. People have tried to force upon us the idea that we have to say certain words about scripture, that we have to believe certain things that other people tell us about scripture or else they tell us we don’t believe in the Bible. A lot of us have actually pushed back against this, believing that if you don’t leave enough room for the Living Lord Jesus Christ to speak to you that you make it too wooden and too easy to force people into things that they don’t really know what they are saying. In this push back where we hope, expect, and demand the ability to have some religious freedom to follow the dictates of our own conscience as we interpret scripture, sometimes it is very good to affirm what we really believe about the Word.
We believe that the Bible is not just a book. We believe that in the Bible we hear the truth about God. We believe that when we read the words in the Bible we can actually hear God’s voice speak to us. There are other religions and other sacred books in the world, but we are Christians because we believe this to be true. We believe that it is true when it describes what is wrong with the world. “All we, like sheep, have gone astray.”
It is true in what it describes about the world when it says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
We believe the Bible is telling the truth when it talks about the remedy for what is wrong with the world. “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that through his son, the world might be saved.”
We believe it is true about how God wants his children to live. There are certain ways we are supposed to act. We can go back to the Ten Commandments. We are not supposed to bear false witness. We are not supposed to steal. We are not supposed to murder. We are not supposed to commit adultery.
You can to go the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.”
You can go to the Letters of Paul where he talks about, “Therefore, put on kindness and treat each other this way.” We are Christians because we believe the Bible is true about life, sin, God, and the way God wants to act in our lives.
When we talk about being doers of the word, some people may think it is redundant, but I think it is important to remember. It is not simply being consistent with opinions that we have or being consistent about personal convictions, but it is being consistent with the Word. Be ye doers of not some belief; be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only. Once we have that firmly in our conviction, then we have some sense of what it is that James is trying to tell us. There is supposed to be consistency between what we believe and the way that we act. We would like for people to judge our faith by what we believe in our head or in our heart. We would like to be able to write it out on a test and say, I believe the right things. My church believes the right things. Therefore, we are right and everybody else is wrong. But that is not what it says. The way we act is the true measure of our honest beliefs. It is not what we say we believe, but it is the way we act. You can always tell what a person believes by the way they act. If we are inconsistent, then we believe that it really doesn’t matter what we do. If we are inconsistent, we believe that all that really matters is what happens in the head and it doesn’t matter what happens in the world. Unless our lives match our faith, we have to wonder if we have heard the Word at all.
Very early in James’ letters, he talks about, “Faith without works is dead.” Somehow, if we are Christians, what we say we believe and what we do parallel and mirror each other. There is no other way.
We often miss something in this particular passage. Near the end of James 1:22-26, it says, “But the man [person, individual] who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues to do this, not forgetting what he heard, but doing it, will be blessed in what he does.” Sometimes we think this is just strictly about rules. Shame on us because our lives did not match our faith. What we fail to recognize is this: There is blessing in the doing. It is not simply a matter of God saying, “Shame on you” when we fail, but there are so many things that God wants us to know and experience that are good for us that are only found when we do them.
It amazes me sometimes when people come to a place in their lives where they honestly and genuinely forgive someone. Someone has truly hurt them, and it is so overwhelming to them that in the forgiveness was the blessing. Maybe someone finds out that all their lives they thought the conversation about it being more blessed to give than to receive was just somebody’s way of trying to trick them into giving. Then one day, they gave without thought, without trying to measure it out, without trying to figure out what they were going to get in return. They were stunned by the blessing they received.
A person may be having difficulty with a friend or family member, and that little verse comes back, “A soft answer turneth away wrath.” They decide that instead of arguing back and escalating the conflict, they are going to give a soft answer. It is like, “Newsflash!” All of a sudden the conflict doesn’t have to get bigger. Peace can come.
A person loves an enemy, never having imagined that, in some part of that, there can be a blessing. They discover that God was hiding there, waiting for them, if they would just do the Word.
We do it to ourselves. God’s blessing is waiting in obedience. The things that God tells us to do are for our benefit. They are for us. When we do the Word that we have convinced ourselves is true and have told others that we believe, then the blessing comes and we are smacked upside the head and we understand it, really, for the first time.
All Christians are called to this obedience. All Christians are called to be doers of the Word. If it only stays inside of us and never gets out into our lives and in our actions, we really have to wonder what we have heard. When it becomes the blessing—a part of what our hands do, what our mouths say, where our lives go, where the energies that God has given us are invested—then we realize that we only thought we knew what it was to be blessed by God.
“Be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only,” not for the sake of being a good person and being able to say how good we are, but for the sake of uniting our lives with God and finding God’s joy reflected in all the doing.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.