James 1E – Part One: Becoming Listeners

This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on September 9, 2012. To listen to the audio, just click on this link – James 1E.

This morning we are going to begin to look at James 1:19-27.  We will likely spend three weeks in this passage – talking this morning about listening, next week about speaking, and then finally about anger.   I want to treat this passage, in which James gives these believers counsel about how to enter into new communities, by asking and answering the following questions:

  1. Who is God
  2. What is the Gospel
  3. How are we called to live in light of these things.

God Listens.

God’s Desire to Know and Be Known:  19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry

I want to begin to look at these verses by asking, “Who is God”?   God, whose word tells us to be “quick to listen” is the ultimate listener.  We are more than conquests to God. The coming of Christ to become a man – to live in this world as a man – is the ultimate listening.  Jesus didn’t just come to set up a technicality so that we could be officially forgiven.  God wanted to know -and wants to know us deeply.  That thought appears all the way back in the Garden of Eden, where God walks with the man and the woman in the cool of the day.  Jesus, as a man, continually spent time in prayer speaking to God – and in the word listening to God.

God’s desire is to know us and to be known by us.  This is not to say that God is somehow limited in his knowledge of us – (Scripture says that God knows us to the depths of our hearts) – but rather that God’s delight is in the process of communication – of back and forth with us.

God Calls Us to Be Listeners of the Word.

Be an Engaged Listener, Not a Dead Hearer:   Therefore, get rid of all moral filth, and the evil that is so prevalent, and humbly accept the word planted in you which can save you.      God plants his word in us in order to begin a conversation with us.  We are called to listen – to receive the word of God.  We are called to interact with God about his word.  How are we to do this?

We begin by asking questions… “What is the word saying to me?”, “How am I meant to respond?”, “What needs to be healed in me?”, “How am I to believe differently or to honor God?”.    We become engaged listeners by asking these questions.  Just as a good listener in a conversation picks up on what is important and asks questions.  In fact, when we do not want to listen to someone, we are careful not  to ask questions.

If we look at the word and we do not ask any questions – if we do not engage the word but assume that we already understand all that it says – then we are not listening in even the most basic way.

Listen to Receive with Humility What the Word is Saying:   Asking questions of the word is the most basic kind of listening.  But James demands more than this of his readers… 22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.   James tells us that, unless we see how the word is calling us to become new people, we are deceived.  Unless I come to the word as a broken person whose life is not holy but needy, I am blind.  Unless I recognize that I need to be changed and healed, I am approaching the word arrogantly.  Put another way, if I can read or hear the word and be self content, I am deceived, and I am not listening.

But James also says more than this.  If I hear the word and understand my need, and even desire healing, but refuse to respond in any way – even to cry out to God and ask for healing – then I am willfully deceiving myself.   I am choosing to forget what I have heard.  I am not receiving the word with humility, but I am pushing the word away.  God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.

Note:  We need to be careful here to make a distinction between hearing the Gospel with conviction – and the kind of guilt-mongering, manipulative moralizing that sometimes passes for preaching.

Look (Listen) Intently to the Gospel:   The man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does.     This requires some explanation.   For James and these Jewish believers, the Law was a good thing.  James wrote this letter before all of the controversy about whether Gentiles should be forced to perform parts of the Old Jewish Covenant (agreement).   James wrote before the letters of Paul.  Paul was trying to keep the Gentiles from receiving circumcision and from returning to the Old Agreement of the Old Testament – the “Do this and you will live” agreement.   So when James talks about, … the perfect law that gives freedom, he isn’t suggesting that they, or we, are still under that Old Agreement.  Rather,  James is saying that the work of Jesus has transformed the Law and made it  perfect, or complete, or finished.  The Law has been transformed.  The code of requirements of the OT Law have been fulfilled by Jesus.  Now, where the Law talks about righteousness…

~ God is not saying – Do all these things and you can live and be acceptable to me.

~ Instead, God is saying – Now that you are a dearly loved child of mine, because of the work and sacrifice of Jesus, I want you to be set free.  The Law, now no longer condemns you because you are somehow unclean – now it points you away from the things that lead to death and towards the things that set you free.  Sin distorts our lives, leads us into misery.  God says, “Do not murder”, not to ruin our good time, but because murder makes us miserable and guilty, and harms others.

So then, what does it mean for us to listen intently to the Gospel?  When I read or hear the word, I need to hear it in a particular way.  I need to hear the word, not as condemnation (e.g. “I haven’t done enough to please God”), but as the Law of freedom, (e.g. “Jesus Christ has set me free from condemnation – and now I want to practice freedom from sin.”).

Notice what James says, that we are to look intently – to continue to look – not to forget – and to put our freedom into practice.  The promise is that God will bless us as we do this.

God Calls Us to Listen to Others.

And So, We Must Be Listeners:   These believers, who are moving into hostile communities, are to begin to be lights to the world by becoming listeners.  James makes a play on words here, “Be quick to listen…”.  But listening isn’t something we can do quickly.  In a sense James is saying to these believers, “Hurry up and slow down and listen to people”.

This is the imitation of Christ:  to give of ourselves to be listeners.  Why?  Because part of what is most broken in people is that they aren’t known – aren’t understood.  We were made by God to be known.   And so when these Jewish believers move into these hostile situations – and when we find ourselves in the situations of our lives (at work, at school, with our families), one of the most powerful ways that we can show the beauty of what God is like – that we can express the Love of God – is to listen.

And We Have Not Been Listeners:  As the church we need to stop here and confess what a bad job we have done at being listeners.  The church has been all about outreach and presentation and argument, in a way that has made it clear that we are more interested in conquest and winning arguments and being right – than blessing or loving people.  We have cornered people with our pre-made presentations and lectured them – knowing nothing about them.  We have left people with the impression that all God cares about is conquest.  We have done violence to people in the name of winning arguments and getting converts.  This is one reason why the church is sick, and why, in many places, the church is not characterized by the love of Christ.

This morning we want to see…

  1. that God is a Listener who listens intently to us.
  2. that we also are called to be listeners – to know and love other people in that way, and
  3. that, as we listen to God’s word and hear the Gospel of God’s favor and freedom, our lives will be transformed and we will become increasingly free.
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