Mirror Images

Over the next three weeks, we are going to be reading and studying the Letter of James: five short chapters, the whole letter can be read in 20 minutes, but it doesn’t read like a letter. It reads more like wisdom literature, like the Old Testament Proverbs. It is a sermon in the form of a letter, but it is one of the most forgettable sermons. Point after point after point with no illustrations, no stories. Out of the 180 verses, there are sixty imperatives. 60 commands: Do this, don’t do that.

The salutation tells us that the letter is from James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. We don’t know which James. Tradition says that it is James, the brother of Jesus, but we have no evidence or claim in the letter as to the identity of James other than that he is a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ. The letter is written to the twelve tribes, scattered among the nations. This is symbolic language telling us that it is a general letter to all of God’s people, who trace their place in God’s family all the way back to Abraham. Scattered…things had not gone the way God’s people had thought God promised when he told Abraham, “You will be the father of many nations.”

(Look in the spoon) Do you remember what happens when you look at yourself in the bowl of a spoon? You are upside down, right? I used to wonder when I was a kid whether the spoon really was showing me the way I really was, and I just thought I was right-side up. Maybe our world really is upside down. I think James would say, “Yes, look again.”

The letter of James offers us a mirror to see ourselves and see the reflection of the upside down, Kingdom-way that Jesus taught.

The first chapter really contains 3 sermons:
When bad things happen, what are we supposed to believe?
What is wrong with being wealthy?
How can you know if someone is really a Christian?

When bad things happen, what are we supposed to believe? “Count it joy!” says James. Really? That is seriously upside down.

She was expecting her first son, when at 20 weeks the doctor gave her the devastating news that he had a rare condition and would not survive his first breath. She and her husband, all of their family and friends, were shocked. No one knew what to say. There was nothing anyone could do. The condition meant that she also began accumulating extra amniotic fluid, so not only did she look pregnant, she looked 40 weeks and counting pregnant. Unknowing strangers commented day after day on her being ready to give birth at any moment, and she smiled graciously and said, “I am treasuring these days.”

They were not joyful days. But, in the affliction, she found joy.

She found joy in knowing that God was not causing her suffering. James writes, “When facing affliction, no one should say, “God is afflicting me…..Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above.” God only gives good.
She found joy as her relationship with God deepened. She read Scripture and prayed more. She talked about her faith more. She drew strength from her church as her church family struggled alongside her. She counted it joy every time he flipped within her, even as she grieved deeply, she knew that this experience was refining her faith, as a fire refines gold.

Joy is counted when affliction strengthens and deepens our faith. I have seen it over and over again. I have lived it with you. When the struggle is too much for us to bear, and we get to a point of crisis. And we have to decide, will I despair, or will my faith persevere, will I lean in and depend on God? When struggle drives us toward God, we are blessed because God has promised abundant life to those who love him.

Which takes us to the second question James addresses, “If abundant life is promised to those who love God, what is wrong with being wealthy?” Again, the kingdom way is upside down.

He was a humble man, and he had done well in business. He and his wife bought a small house when their first child was born. They added on rooms for their other 3 children as they were born. When you walked into the house, it was like walking back into 1955. Carpet, furniture, decorations, simple and all kept pristine. His clothes were 100% polyester and would never wear out. She was similarly unconcerned about the latest and greatest. They drove old cars, loved their old house, and worked hard. They loved when I came to visit because it gave them an excuse to indulge in their favorite treat – enjoying a bowl of ice cream together.

They raised their children simply, and, honestly, when their children were growing up that was all they could do. Their wealth had come in their later years. Their children had done well early in their careers, and they lamented to me their lack of faith, and their grandchildren’s lack of anchor as they had never experienced hardship.

Being wealthy is an affliction because it allows us to be tempted to place our trust and loyalty in money and stuff and things rather than in God. We are tempted to believe we are self-sufficient – we don’t need God, we are tempted by pride to be believe we are specially blessed by God, and we are tempted to allow the search for money and things to take the place of searching for God in our lives. James gives us the metaphor of a weed blooming in a field. Those who are wealthy, who have enough to eat and a place to live and clothes to wear have to remind themselves of their mortality, otherwise they will be like a weed that grows and blooms in a field – it will be beautiful, but its roots will be shallow, too busy to put down roots. It will put all of its effort in the bloom, and when the sun’s heat beats down on it, and the earth has no water to give, its beauty will fade and it will die.

The affliction in being wealthy is that we don’t have the advantage of being poor. The poor aren’t focused on the beauty of their blossom in the field, they are reminded of their mortality and don’t take tomorrow for granted. The poor are concerned about having a place to put down roots and grow. So, they are blessed as their struggles drive them toward God for that place to grow and flourish.

Affliction and struggle, poverty and hardship drive us toward God, and open us to changing our looks in the mirror, to being remade in Christ’s image. I didn’t realize how many mirrors we had in our house until I went through chemo. I was forever catching a glace out of the corner of my eye in a mirror and being unnerved by there being a bald person I didn’t know right beside me and me not even realizing it.

Which takes us to the third sermon in the first chapter of James:

James says, “If any one hears the Word, hears about the Jesus Kingdom-way, and is not a doer, that one is like a person who sees his face in a mirror, and forgets what he looks like as soon as he walks away.”

The first hearers of James’s sermon knew this was absurd. For millennia the only reflections people saw of themselves was in still, dark water or in polished volcanic, glassy stone. Then in the bronze age, people began smoothing polished discs of metal – bronze, copper, silver – into mirrors. In the 1st Century though, at the same time James is writing, there was a new development called. If you put lead or gold leaf on the back of the glass, the reflection was so clear! After never having an idea of what they really looked like, how could a person after seeing themselves in a mirror, ever forget?

In the same way, if you hear the word, how could you not do the word? Christians are to reflect Jesus in their lives. Jesus is recognizable in true Christians. And James teaches that the one who truly reflects Jesus is quick to listen, slow to anger, filled with compassion, and unstained by the world.

Quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. The mark of a true Christian is a person who listens to opposite points of view without getting angry. Listens, without concern for responding. Listens only to understand. In our politically charged, COVID frustrated, unstable world, I am not sure that there is a more important lesson from James. If we are truly Christian, we are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.

And filled with compassion. The mark of a true Christian is a person who cares so deeply that as they listen, they empathize rather than criticize. The true Christian listens, without concern for judging. Listens, only to support.

Quick to listen. Slow to speak. Slow to anger. Filled with compassion. And the true Christian is unstained by the world. I was right when I looked in the spoon and wondered if the upside down image looking back at me was the way things really are. The world will tell us that God judges and sends calamity. But God only gives good gifts. The world will tell us that the rich are reaping God’s rewards. But wealth is a temptation that tries to lead us away from Christ rather than a reward for our faithfulness. The world will tell us not to listen to the least, the broken, to blame the poor, to be angry at the whining of the needy and the demands of the poor. The world tells us they deserve it. The world will tell us that compassion is weak and humility foolish. But the world is upside down. Take another look in the mirror. A good, long look and remember. Remember whose image you bear, for you are called to reflect the image of Jesus Christ our Lord, who offers us only God’s good gifts, who calls us to place our trust not in the treasures of this world but in eternal treasures that do not have to be dragged by a U-Haul to our grave, who listens and is slow to anger, who has compassion and came to dwell amongst us in the world, but was unstained by it. Is the reflection clear? Can you see Jesus in your life? May we be mirror images of our Lord.