Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 27, 2015
James 5:13-20 Commentary
Comments and Observations
If I were to preach on this text, the sermon might be titled “The Prodigal Project.” I would basically skip the first 6 verses and focus on verses 19 and 20. I would adopt that preaching strategy, not because those first verses are irrelevant, but because those last two are so painfully relevant for many people in the church today. I also think there are textual reasons to focus on those last two verses. Some scholars believe that the entire letter of James ends with an exclamation point in those last two verses. “The Prodigal Project” is really what the Epistle of James is all about.
Here’s the crying contemporary need that drives my approach to this text. A few years ago the pre-eminent Christian pollster George Barna discovered that there are over 8 million young adults in America who have wandered away from the church, if not from the truth taught by the church. Today there are probably many more, since other polls reveal that some 25% of the American public are “nones,” that is, people who when polled about their religion, check “none.” Many of them are people who have wandered away from the truth they were taught as children. And they aren’t all young adults. Every Sunday untold numbers of middle aged and senior citizens sit at home all alone, estranged from the church of their youth because something happened to them in church once and they have never gone back.
But we don’t need statistics to tell us about those who have wandered from the truth. We know them personally. They are our friends and neighbors, our uncles and nieces, our brothers and sisters, our children and our grandchildren. We’ve wept over them; we’ve talked to them; we’ve prayed for them; we’ve done everything we can think of to bring them back. Nothing has worked and we don’t know what to do anymore. In many cases they have been gone so long and are so far away that it seems there is no hope for their return.
Well, the very last words of the most practical letter in the New Testament send us a message from God about the wanderers and the “nones.” There is a wonderful promise and a solemn obligation in these words. “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring them back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the way of error will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” Do you hear the promise there? No matter how far that loved one has wandered from the truth, no matter how filled with sin his life has been, that person can be saved from death and her sins will be covered in the sight of God. Here’s the obligation—“bring them back,” “turn a sinner from the way of error….”
As I said briefly before, that’s the aim of this entire letter. James has been writing to call his church back from the foolishness and error that does not live by God’s will. He has been very practical about that, and very hard hitting. James is not soft on sin, but his purpose was not to moralize or condemn. His last word tells us what he really wants. He wants to keep people from wandering away. Now that the letter is over, he calls the church to join him in that mission, to take up where he left off, and to follow in his footsteps as he pursues the prodigal project. “Bring them back… turn a sinner from the way of error….”
James envisions a church very different from today’s church. In a world that values individual privacy, today’s church is often a place of benign neglect. We look the other way when people wander. We practice the now rejected policy of the US military—“don’t ask, don’t tell.” I’m not talking about gays now; I’m talking about not intervening in the lives of anyone who wanders. We don’t want to meddle in other people’s affairs. “Hey, if that’s what they want to do, let ‘em. It’s no business of mine.”
Well, yes it is, says James. These fellow church members are your brothers and sisters. James calls for a community that takes responsibility for errant members and works together to reclaim them. Their blood family probably can’t reach them because of family dynamics. But you are God’s new family, the blood-bought brothers and sisters of those who wander. It’s up to you, their new spiritual family. You can do what their natural families can’t do.
James is optimistic about the prodigal project. He doesn’t consider failure an option. He won’t consider the possibility that they are too far gone to be saved. “Remember this,” he says, reminding his readers of something they already knew, of something so close to the heart of the Gospel that every Christian knows it. We just need to remember it. Anyone who repents and believes in Christ will be saved from eternal death and have even a multitude of sins covered with the blood of Christ. James calls us to be a church that believes that gospel promise, and does something about it.
I want to make some practical suggestions about how to fulfill our obligation, but first I want to focus on this great promise. “If one of you should wander….” That’s an important thing to consider. It could happen to you or to me. James is writing to members of the church, to people who believe the truth and are trying to live by it, to people who haven’t wandered. But, he says, if you ever do wander and someone comes after you, don’t think you are beyond rescue. And when you are the rescuer, don’t get all high and mighty about the wanderer. It could happen to you, too. So, be humble and gentle.
Apparently this was a real problem in the early church, as it is today. It’s not only James who writes about it. You find references to this in Romans, Ephesians, II Thessalonians, II Timothy, Titus, I and II Peter, I John, and Revelation. In fact, this theme goes all the way back to the words of Jesus, who said some heartwarming things about it, which I’ll talk about later. As long as there has been a church, folks have wandered away.
And as long as there is a church, the church must go after its prodigals with this promise spurring us on: “Whoever turns a sinner from the way of error will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” That first part of the promise echoes the old Proverb. “There is a way that seems right to a person, but the end of it is death.” When people wander from the truth, they see the old way as restricting and life destroying, and they are convinced that their new way leads to life. Not so, says James. It leads to death, but that is not their inevitable end. Jesus can save them from the death they have chosen.
Indeed, says the promise, Jesus’ death will cover a multitude of sins. When the wanderer turns back to Christ, his sins, however many they may be, are completely covered. They don’t drag along like the chains of Christmas past in Dickens’ Christmas Carol. It is possible to have a whole new beginning, because the past is cancelled. I’ve never forgotten that scene from the movie, “The Godfather Part 3,” where Michael Corleone, a ruthless mafia don, is talking to a priest. Michael has killed and had people killed for decades, including the searing final scene in the original “Godfather” film when, as Michael stands as godfather at his nephew’s baptism, his minions are simultaneously massacring the other crime family bosses in New York. Later after his brother Fredo betrays him, Michael has his own flesh and blood sibling murdered as well. So when in the third movie the priest offers to hear Michael’s confession in order to redeem him, Michael replies, “I am beyond redemption.” James, echoing Jesus, says, “No one is. Even a multitude of sin can be covered.”
So there is hope for our efforts. But what can we do to turn wanderers back and bring them home? Think of the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. What did the Father do to get his son to come back home? Well, nothing, because that‘s not the point of that story. That story is about the way grace welcomes wanderers home. But the two stories just before the Prodigal are very helpful. Remember the story of the shepherd who goes after the one lost sheep and the woman who searches her house for one lost coin. Those stories show us that rescue begins when someone cares passionately about what is lost. The shepherd went out into the wilds and the woman turned her house upside down, because they cared. The problem with the modern church is that we don’t care enough about our wanderers. Out of sight, out of mind, out of heart. Rescue begins when our hearts are pierced with love for the lost, and our apathy is replaced with the passion of God for them.
Second, we should pray constantly for them. In the words just before our text, James talks about how we should pray for each other in all kinds of situations—when someone is sick, when someone sins. And he says that the fervent prayer of a righteous person is powerful in its effects. When was the last time you prayed for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, for a wandering child of the covenant? I met an old man in a suburban church where I was a guest preacher a while back. I had mentioned this whole subject, and he sought me out after the service. He was very old; he was stooped; he shuffled his feet when he walked; I could barely hear his croaky old voice. But he said, “My mission in life is to pray for our lost members. I do it all the time.”
Third, we should seek our prodigals, the way the shepherd and the woman did in Jesus stories. Like the shepherd, we should go out of our way, to places we wouldn’t normally go, in our efforts to find them out in the wild. And like the woman, we should turn over the house of God to find them before they leave. Be on the lookout for those who are lingering on the fringes, who hide in the corner, who are turning for the door. Seek them out.
How do we do that? Here are some simple, practical suggestions. Form a relationship. Learn people’s names. Strike up a friendly conversation. Make a call. Send a card. Drop by for a visit. Eventually we’ll have to say something about their wandering, about the error of their way, but that won’t work if we don’t have a relationship with that person.
Fourth, when they come home, we must welcome them with open arms, the way the father in Jesus’ famous story did. It won’t work if we’re like that older brother. Remember how he greeted his wandering brother? He wouldn’t come into the party. He stood outside and glared and questioned his father’s policy. By never saying a word to the returned sinner, he said in effect, “Where have you been? It’s about time. Is this for real? Will you stay this time, or leave again?” Jesus said, when a sinner returns home, this is how you must welcome him or her. Bring them back into the family with a ring and a robe and shoes and a party. Grace has triumphed. Welcome them back with open arms and celebrate the grace of God that gives life to the dead and forgiveness to sinners.
In my sermon on this text, I would invite the church to join the prodigal project launched by God long ago and thrust before us today by the last words of James. It’s not an option. It’s part of what the church of Jesus Christ must do. It’s what God does. It will be hard work. It will be frustrating work. But remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:14. Jesus has just told the parable of the wandering sheep and the persistent shepherd who leaves his other sheep to find the one who wandered. Here’s how Jesus ends. “And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the 99 that did not wander off. In the same way, your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” Listen to that. Believe it. And bring them back. It is God’s will.
Ed Kennedy is an underage cabdriver without much of a future. He’s pathetic at playing cards, hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey, and utterly devoted to his coffee-drinking dog, the Doorman. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery. That’s when the first case arrives in the mail. That’s when Ed becomes the messenger. That’s the premise of Markus Zusak’s young adult novel, I am the Messenger. (Zusak is also the author of the bestselling, The Book Thief).
Chosen to care, Ed makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary) until one question remains: Who’s behind Ed’s mission? After helping an even dozen lost cases at considerable pain and loss to himself, Ed finally meets the person who has made him such a miserable and wonderful messenger. At the risk of spoiling a powerful novel for you, I’ll tell what his “boss” tells him. “And why [did I choose you]? I did it because you are the epitome of ordinariness, Ed. And if a guy like you can stand up and do what you did for all those people, well, maybe everyone can. Maybe everyone can live beyond what they are capable of.”
The book ends with Ed coming to this astonishing realization. “I’m not the messenger at all. I am the message.”
If you use this illustration, be aware that the book is full of “adult situations” and language many church members will find objectionable. But what this ordinary slacker does to help lost folks provides lovely and gritty examples of ways we can reach out to the wandering in our own lives. Use at your own risk and for your people’s blessing.
I was guest preaching at an inner city church recently when I saw a parable. A little boy was assigned to light the Christ candle, but at the last minute he balked. Frozen by fear half way down the aisle, he said, loud enough for the entire church to hear, “I’m scared.” But his dad got up, took him by the hand, and led him to the front of church where he proudly lit the Christ candle. He needed someone he trusted to lead him down the aisle. So it is with God’s wandering children. It won’t be easy. We’ll have to be persistent, because without a relationship of trust forged over years of caring presence, it will be all but impossible to lead the wanders home.
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