Summary: James teaches us about problems and faith already in the second verse of his letter. This sermon looks at problems and how we can count them as all joy in Jesus Christ.
Theologian Clinton Armstrong tells this story about a lunch that he had that pertains to the Epistle of James. He once had lunch with an expert in the philosophical field of ethics. Once they were done eating, they talked for a little bit longer and then paid the check. Just before they left, his friend slipped the silverware into his briefcase. The waitstaff didn’t see it, but Clinton did, and his face was in shock. The professor then told him, “What, I only teach ethics.” There was certainly a disconnect between knowledge and action here, wasn’t there?
As we begin our new series on James, we’ll see that his audience has the same disconnect. James the half-brother of Jesus writes about this very issue in the mid-40s to Jewish Christians scattered throughout the world. The Apostle writes his book to those who are lax in their faith and who are abusing the doctrine of justification. There is a disconnect between faith and action. He writes against the idea that since I am justified by faith that I can do whatever I want. Some saw this as reason to do nothing in their faith life. Others saw it as a free-for-all for their sinful flesh. Paul the Apostle is often confronted with the other side of this extreme: I am saved by what I do.
James writes to these Christians because he cares about them and their faith life. In his letter, he talks about faith. He shows how faith responds to God’s forgiving love in Christ. He shows what faith looks like in action, and right away in his letter, he does just that. In the second verse, he shows how faith sees and deals with problems. He gets right to it!
The Apostle begins his letter with a shocking statement to get our attention. His brother Jesus would often do the same thing with His teaching. He said things like, “Blessed are those who mourn,” “The first will become last,” “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut if off!” This sort of technique isn’t foreign to Scripture, and James uses it too. He says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” Really? Count my trials and problems as a joy? That’s not something that I would like to hear in the middle of a problem. I’m sure you wouldn’t want me to visit you in the hospital and say, “Isn’t this a joy?” You might throw me out of the room and rightfully so. We don’t think of problems as something to take joy in. But notice that James doesn’t say that problems are not painless, pleasureless, or uncomfortable. He doesn’t dismiss the fact or deny that trials can keep us up at night, twist and turn our stomachs, or cripple us with fear and anxiety. Often times, problems can do just that! In faith, he says, we see them differently. In faith, we can count them as a joy and as profitable. We’ll come back to this point in a little bit because James first teaches us about problems.
James says that problems are inevitable. As humans, we wish that this was not the case. We wish that they can be avoided, skipped, or eliminated altogether. But James chooses his words carefully here. He writes, “When you meet trials of various kinds”. He doesn’t say “if,” as if they might be optional or could be flatly avoided. Problems aren’t a “maybe” or “might happen” or “perhaps.” James says the word, “when.” Unfortunately, problems do come and they will come. They are unavoidable. They are going to happen. So the question becomes, “When?”
And that leads to the second thing that James teaches about problems. He says that problems are unpredictable. We don’t always know when they will come. He wrote, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” The word for meet can also be translated, “fall into unexpectedly” and can refer to “an unwelcomed encounter.” This word is the same word used in the parable of the Good Samaritan to describe how the man fell among thieves and was left for dead. “Meet” means “to fall into unexpectedly,” and that is how problems come, isn’t it? We don’t always expect them nor do always see them coming. They could happen later today. They can happen tomorrow. They could happen in weeks or months from now.
You can have that normal, everyday car trip that results in a life changing accident. You have that regularly scheduled check-up where the doctor says, “these numbers don’t look good.” You can get called into the boss’ office and she tells you, “Your office is being packed as we speak. We are letting you go.” It can be that phone call that delivers the terrible news of a death. You can face a betrayal from a person you never saw it coming from. Problems are unpredictable. They can be unexpected.