George Zimmerman shoots down Treyvon Martin. Regardless of your take on the shooting, it’s a tragic situation. It points to the brokenness of our world. Syrian forces pillage villages and execute hundreds of their own citizens. Rarely have we seen such suffering in our world. As many as a dozen tornados rip through the Dallas/ Fort Worth area destroying homes and businesses. It is a reminder of the chaos in our world.
We live in a tough world. A world filled with trials. These trials leave many people, including some of us, as victims. Some of us here this morning are nursing wounds from some trial that we are going through.
On Sunday mornings we are exploring the book of James. And in chapter 1, James acknowledges this reality. He admits that the world is filled with trials. In fact, some of James’ readers are victims of trials: 2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. (James 1:2-3 ESV) James is writing to people who are experiencing “trials of various kinds.” Their faith is being “tested.” Just like today, even then, the trials of the world left many as victims.
It is not surprising then, that James follows this description of a world filled with trials with a description of the way we often respond to trials: 19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19-20 ESV). It is not a coincidence that just after talking about how we are faced with trials, James addresses the issues of rage, bitterness and anger. Don’t we often respond to suffering with rage, bitterness and anger?
But James says that God calls us to react to trials not with rage but with righteousness. Anger, James says explicitly, does not produce the righteousness of God. And this righteousness, he says implicitly, is the goal of our lives. When James writes about “the righteousness of God,” he means “the righteous behavior God expects.” In the Bible, someone is righteous if they treat others and God in a right way. And that, James is saying, is the goal of our lives. We are to pour our energies into living in a right way with God and a right way with others. This is especially true in a world filled with trials. James is saying that God is calling us to be people who react not with rage but with a commitment to doing the righteous thing in this broken world.
But how do we pursue righteousness? James addresses this next: 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls (James 1:21 ESV). To live rightly in a chaotic world, there’s something negative we do and something positive we do. We could put it this way: We respond with righteousness by removing the unrighteous wardrobe and receiving the righteous word. First, James urges us to “put away” or to “take off” “filthiness” and “wickedness.” If we want to treat God and people right in this hurting world we have to first remove unrighteous attitudes and actions. We take them off like removing a filthy wardrobe. Second, we “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” This word is the Word of God. We need God’s word to get inside of us and transform us so that we can be the righteous people which this world so desperately needs. We respond to the trials of the world not with rage but with righteous living. This righteous living involves us removing unrighteous attitudes and actions and receiving the word of God which can empower us to make a difference in the world.
But how do we receive that Word? How do we let God’s word get deep down so that we are empowered to live a righteous life? James answers that question with these words: 22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. (James 1:22-26 ESV). In summary, James is saying this: We receive the righteous word by hearing it and heeding it. We hear God’s word with our ears and we do that world with our hands and our lives. It’s not enough to just know and hear God’s word. We also have to heed it. We have to put it into action. James is saying that if you want God’s world to transform you you’ve got to act on it in this trial-filled world.
Tony Jones writes this: “A common theme in modern Christianity has been that head knowledge is how one becomes more adept at following Christ: the more you know, the better you’ll do. But in fact, that hasn’t proven to be true. Instead, it seems the Christian life is more like being a baseball shortstop: A young player can watch videos, read books by the greatest shortstops of all time, and listen to coaches lecture on what makes a good shortstop; but what will make him a truly good shortstop is getting out on the field and practicing. The only way he’ll really get a feel for the game is to field ground ball after ground ball, to figure out when to play the ball on a short hop, when a pull-hitter is at bat, and how far to cheat toward second base when the double play is on. The more practice he has, the better he’ll be. Getting a ‘feel for the game’ in following Jesus is much the same…” If you really want to make a contribution in this trial-filled world, you not only need to hear God’s word. You’ve got to get out on the field and put that word to practice. You’ve got to get out there in the midst of the violence and the turmoil and the chaos and start practicing what you’ve been reading. That’s the only way you’ll ever really become righteous and thus able to make any difference in this word.
But what exactly does that look like? What would it truly be like to heed God’s word in this hurting world? James answers with these final words: 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27 ESV). Of all that James might have concluded with, it’s remarkable that he ends up here. James highlights two groups: orphans and widows. In the ancient world there were no two groups more victimized by the trials of the world than these two. Orphans had no parents or adult figures to fight off trials for them or help them recover when trials hit. Widows had no male figure to fight off trials or help them recover when trials hit. Both were alone in the harsh and hurtful world. And James says that heeding the word of God, putting God’s work to practice, essentially comes down to caring for people like this. We could put it this way: We heed the righteous word by caring for victims of trials in the world. We wind up where we began. We began with James pointing out how we are often victims of trials. We end with James calling us to go back into that world and help others who are victims. James doesn’t just want the church to gather together and nurse our wounds and tell each other how bad life’s been. He wants us to get back out there where others are also hurting and to do something about the suffering out there. That’s ultimately what it means to live as a righteous person.
While Paul Knight, a preacher from Grand Forks, North Dakota, was visiting Ethiopia, he had the chance to meet the little girl his family had been sponsoring through Compassion International. The little girl and her mother lived and worked in a one-room home that also functioned as the local bar. During Knight’s visit, the place started filling with rowdy men from the community. Suddenly, Knight’s translator took him by the arm and said, “We have to go now.” Knight looked back at his sponsor child, a ten-year-old girl, and said, “Wait!” The crowd was getting louder, and his translator firmly said, “It’s not safe for you. You must leave now.” ”But what about my little girl?” Knight asked. “Will she be safe?” The translator said, “It’s not really safe, but this is her home.” Knight, alarmed, asked, “What does that mean—it’s not really safe?” The translator replied, “It means exactly what you think it means.” Knight began to cry. “What can this little girl do?” Grabbing his arm, the translator said, “We teach the girls to do this: scream and run to the church. When you get to the church, you will find love and safety. The church will shelter you. So when they feel threatened or vulnerable, they scream and run to the church.”
I’m thankful that the church in Ethiopia could be a safe haven and a refuge for girls like this so victimized by the trials of this world. But I think James paints an even better picture. I don’t think James is addressing girls like this and telling them: scream and run to the church. I think James is addressing churches like us and telling us: when girls like this scream, you run to them. James doesn’t just want the afflicted running to the church for shelter. He wants the church running to the afflicted to shelter them. He wants the church sprinting to those who feel threatened and vulnerable. In this broken world, he wants the church bringing safety to them. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
I know of no ministry that does this better than Agape. Highland has a long history of partnering with Agape to serve orphans, widows, and others in great need. Executive Director David Jordan is with us this morning to share how Agape, through FIT, Powerlines, and other initiatives, is putting God’s word into action, especially among those who widows and orphans.
You may not be able to run to those in need today. But you can support those who do. By giving generously today, you are heeding God’s call to serve those victimized by the trials of this world. We need to raise $129,000 today to fund the 20 world and urban missions which Highland partners with. Every one of these ministries is running to those in physical and spiritual need. You can help them do this job by giving deeply and generously this morning.
 Tony Jones, The Sacred Way (Zondervan, 2005), 31.
 Matt Woodley, “Church2Church,” Leadership Journal (Spring 2011)