James 1:1-4 (NIV) James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. 2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” How many of you are familiar with that old proverb? It has been around for a while. Some attribute it to Joseph Kennedy, father of President John F. Kennedy. Others say it originated with Knute Rockne, famous Notre Dame football coach. Today it is often used in motivational presentations and self-help books. It encourages the human will to tough it out. Or some say it can be interpreted to mean when the tough gets going one should bail out so as not to appear less tough than one pretended. Again, the onus is all on human strength and determination which is weak and unreliable at best. God’s word before us in the opening words of the letter the Holy Spirit caused James to write as we heard in the epistle reading a few minutes ago has a totally different take on God’s people going through tough times. As we wind up our theme for the last several months, “The lies we believe” and today’s focus on, “Life should be easy”, God’s word before us would have us trust, “WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, GOD GETS HIS PEOPLE GOING”. I. He has them accept trials as faith builders. II. He has them focus on the end (goal). It is so short, let me share James’ words with you again.
There were at least three James in the life of Jesus on earth. Two were apostles. The one who wrote the words before us was most likely his half-brother, James. This is amazing in view of the fact that James along with the rest of the family at one time thought Jesus was out of his mind and they wanted to rescue him from himself. But then the risen Jesus appeared to James and spoke words which worked faith in him in Jesus as his Lord and Savior, just as Jesus had taught. Now James could refer to himself as a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ. What a turn around. But that is the powerful working of the Holy Spirit through the amazing Gospel. As a result, James became a leader in the church in Jerusalem, well known and highly respected especially in the Jewish Christian community. That community was scattered among many nations after Stephen was martyred and persecution set in. James remained in Jerusalem and was inspired to write this letter to the dispersed Christian community. Unlike Paul’s letters written to a specific congregation or city, James’ letter was to Christians in general. All the more it applies also to us, by God’s great grace and the powerful working of the Holy Spirit, followers of our Lord and Savior, and servants also of our Lord Jesus Christ. So we listen well.
James began with what we today put at the end of a letter or email, a greeting. It has the root meaning of joy. Thus it sets the pace for the entire letter which is a call for true Christian living for those who know and believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It also sets the pace for the first challenge James put before these dispersed Christians and before us. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of any kind.” He was writing to faithful followers of Jesus. Shouldn’t life be easy for them? Yet, here they were forced to leave their beloved home and live as immigrants in foreign lands that often were not very welcoming. That was one trial. But then there were all the other trials common to people living in this sinful world. Illness. Financial challenges. Frustration over things not going as hoped or planned. Death, their own or a loved one. Sound familiar? Surely Satan whispered into their hearts and minds, “Throw in the towel. Give up on God and this Jesus fellow. You can’t trust him any more than Adam and Eve could. If you follow him, life should be easy. And yours is not.” At times the going was tough. What or who could get them going?
God’s powerful message of joy in faith in the risen, living Christ. This is not a giddy joy which says, “Oh, what fun that I have terminal cancer or a just lost my job or my family.” Job did not have that kind of joy either as is mentioned later in this letter. But there is joy in faith, in an assurance that Jesus will keep his promise and always be there to guide and empower. It is not a matter of pulling oneself up by one’s own boot straps, but a matter of our living Savior pulling us up from the mire and muck of trials sometimes even sent by God, but with a loving purpose. James wrote, “because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” Something like having strong muscles demands exercise, so a strong faith in the face of trials needs faith builders. As we heard in the children’s message from Hebrews 12, God as a loving Father, sends tough times to build up the spiritual muscle of faith in Jesus. Easy times too often are God forgetting times as Jesus taught in the parable about that man who had good times. His world view was take it easy, eat, drink and be merry. That’s why God disciplines those he loves. In view of that I have been known to say when facing tough times with tongue in cheek, “Lord, don’t love me quite so much.” But down deep he convinces us in his almighty word that it is for our good, especially spiritually and eternally. I am so grateful the Holy Spirit had the writer to the Hebrews also add in chapter 12 that no discipline at the time seems pleasant. No, the tough times can really hurt and weigh down. Somewhere I came across this soul searching question: Are we going to let trials define us or refine us? Think about that for a moment. When going through tough times, do those times consume us? It is very easy to fall into that trap. Believe me, I know. Rather, trust that God is using those times to refine, burning away all the sin trappings and purifying faith in our Savior. In the end God’s promise remains true that somehow all things work together for good to those who love God who are called according to his purpose. Always easy? Absolutely not! But always for our good, especially for our eternal good. So when the going gets tough, God gets his people going. He has them focus on the end (goal).
“Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” Jesus once said that whoever endures to the end will be saved, that is, have the result of all that Jesus did to save lost sinners, the crown of life that will never fade away. On that end or goal is where James encouraged his readers to focus. Or rather, that is where God directed their focus, especially when faced with trials in this sinful world. In the hour of death or should Jesus return to judge the living and the dead in our life time, the goal is always growing in a maturing faith toward the complete package that can appear before the judgement seat of Christ. That means first and foremost being into the only tool the Spirit uses to keep stretching toward that goal as a runner stretches for the finish line, a picture Paul used in one of his letters. To put it into today’s view, it is football season once again. I remember the practices before the season began. Not at all easy. Hot. The final wind sprints of the days seemed about to kill me. Muscles racked with pain. The trials of the sport. Was it at all worth it? When game day came it was. When the mark was put in the win column it most certainly was. Well, when the game day of life rolls around the faith building trials we endured and God used for our good will most surely be worth it. “Come, you blessed by my Father. Take the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” “He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Now, it is true we don’t want to be so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good. Like James, we are servants of Jesus, living to serve him and others in the same love with which he served us all the way to the cross. At the same time, when the going gets tough, and it will at times, go back to God’s word and let him get you going with focus on the end, the goal of life with him in glory forever.
What a good place to conclude “The lies we believe”, focused on the truth of God’s love for us in Jesus, even and especially when the going gets tough. God help us never lose that focus. Amen.