TEXT: James 1:17-27
The American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, apparently, often complained that no one really paid any attention to what he said—especially during long receiving lines at the White House. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. As each person passed down the line and shook his hand, Roosevelt smiled and said, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.”
The guests responded with phrases like, “Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir.”
No one seemed to pay any attention until the ambassador from Bolivia came along. And this guy must have had a sense of humour, because he shook Roosevelt’s hand, then leaned forward and whispered, “I’m sure she had it coming!” 1
We laugh. But what about our own listening skills?
Husbands … are you like me? Iris could list probably a million things that she has told me—during the 37 years of our marriage—that have gone in one ear and out the other. (I was going to say she’d list a thousand things, but then I thought I’d better be more realistic).
Sure, I may have heard what she said … I may even have replied, “Yes, dear.” But I definitely was not listening.
Even outside the home, how often are we in conversations where we do more talking than listening? How often do you use the time that the other person is talking to think of what you are going to say as soon as they stop?
Yeah. I think that’s a pretty common human trait. Most of us like to hear ourselves talk. I’m not saying there are no good listeners among us, but—from my personal experience, anyway—when I think about the people I know who are really good at listening … I realize most of them have had to be trained to do that.
And you know, this penchant for flapping our gums extends even into our relationship with God. In a recent survey reported in the National Post, it was revealed that—every month—about half as many Canadians will read the Bible as will pray privately. In other words, we are twice as likely to talk to God than to listen to him. 2
Chapter one of the Epistle of James strikes at the very heart of this problem.
In verse 19, James writes: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, [and] slow to speak ...” While this is certainly good advice about how we should treat one another, it is—even more so—important counsel for our relationship with God. We should be quick to listen to what God has to say—at least as interested in listening to him as we are in speaking to him.
To put it another way, our communication with God needs to be two-way, not one-way. We should listen as well as speak. Doesn’t that just make sense?
Listening, however, is but the first step. The second step is acceptance—accepting what we hear.
This second step is laid out for us by James in verse 21: “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” In other words, “accept the word planted in you.” It is not simply a matter of listening, but also of accepting it and believing it.
Now, I can hear what a person is saying. I can listen with all my might. I can even understand 100% of what they are saying and where they are coming from. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with them.
Likewise, it’s not simply a matter of listening to God’s Word, or a matter of understanding what is being said and where God is coming from. It’s a matter of accepting it and absorbing it—of making it part of yourself.
There is one more step. And it might seem like a no-brainer. But it is the step that is most often bypassed.
Let’s recap James’s advice so far. First, listen to God. Check. Next, accept his Word. Check.
Now, the third step: DO something!
Let’s pick things back up at verse 22: “… be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
Don’t simply listen to the Word; do what it says! It is one thing to listen for God and to accept his Word—but to act upon it … Well, that is something else entirely.
But wait. You may ask: why do we need that last step? What’s the harm in skipping it? We are saved by faith, are we not? “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
We hear the Word … We respond in faith … We accept Christ, and we’re going to heaven. We hear it and we get it. What else is there?
To be sure, we don’t want to get sucked into the kind of empty, works-based religion for which Jesus so often berated the Pharisees. But we surely do want to avoid receiving the criticism Jesus levels as he quotes Isaiah: “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me …” (Mark 7:6; cf. Isaiah 29:13)
You know, folks, I’ve been doing this for a while. Between pastoral charges in Medicine Hat, Kamloops, and Calgary, I’ve been at this preaching business for over 20 years. And sometimes I think I’m finally getting the hang of it!
On those Sundays when I get to shake hands at the door after the service is over, most people—most weeks—express their appreciation for my message. Some tell me I’ve made them think. Some of them—sometimes—ask me what on earth I was thinking! And most say something like: “Great sermon. Enjoyed it.” Which makes me feel pretty good.
Although, I’ve never tried the “I murdered my grandmother” thing …
However—and you know this as well as I do—the purpose of preaching is not that people may be entertained, but that they may be edified and inspired and encouraged to respond in action.
Really, I think I can speak for all of my colleagues in every denomination when I say this: the highest praise that can be bestowed upon Christian ministers is not to tell them how much their sermon is enjoyed, but to let them see how well it is being translated into people’s lives during the other six days of the week.
It’s all well and good if the sermon is enjoyable and entertains people for one hour per week, but … what does it profit them, if their church-going has no power to influence their daily lives?
Several years back, the annual convention of The American Heart Association met in Atlanta. That year 300,000 doctors, nurses, and researchers gathered to discuss, among other things, the importance a low-fat diet plays in keeping our hearts healthy.
Anyway, a journalist decided to do some checking and found that during meal times, these health professionals (for the most part) consumed fat-filled fast food—such as bacon cheeseburgers and fries—at about the same rate as people from other conventions. When one cardiologist was asked whether or not his partaking in high fat meals set a bad example, he replied, “Not me, because I took my name tag off.” 3
It’s amazing (isn’t it?) how easily we can disconnect our behavior from our better knowledge. We can hear something, even accept it as true, yet never allow it to affect how we actually live.
Now, when we’re talking about doctors and medical researchers, that’s funny! But when we’re talking about our own ability to hear and accept the Word of God—and yet avoid living it … that is tragic.
As someone has said, there are a great many Christians who mark their Bibles, but all too few who let their Bibles mark them. It’s too easy to hear a Word from God and say, “Amen! I hear that, and I accept it as true,” and then let that be the end of it.
But to let God’s Word dwell in you, and grow within you, and swell within you until it motivates you to do something … That is when God’s Word ceases to be simply fertilizer! That is when it starts to bear real fruit.
Looking again at chapter one of James—in verses 22-25—we find him using a rather odd illustration to further his point. He uses the example of a person looking into a mirror. After telling us to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves,” James writes: “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.”
Catch that? James points out that all of us use mirrors in at least a couple of different ways.
There are those quick glances we catch as we rush by on our way out the door … and then there are those long, intense sessions where we examine ourselves carefully, taking in every detail.
Then he tells us that there are two ways of looking into the mirror of God’s Word. Sometimes, in a very superficial way—like when we grab a quick glance of ourselves in the mirror before heading out—we read a few verses and are proud of our accomplishment. Then, right away, we move from that listening phase into the talking phase of our conversation with God. When we do that, we are glancing in the mirror.
But we should be doing more than that. Time—extended and meaningful time—spent reading Scripture provides an opportunity for us to consider who God is, and who we are in relation to him. You can’t do that with a glance. No. That takes some real inspection; just like those times when you stand before the mirror, going over every little detail—every line in your face, every characteristic … looking—and truly seeing—the face peering back at you.
This is how we need to treat God’s Word: looking into it, and seeing ourselves—taking the time to really see!
Maybe that’s a scary thought. However, an amazing thing happens when we take time to truly listen, and truly examine ourselves, and then truly respond.
Listen to what verse 25 sounds like in the New International Version, where James’s words are rendered thus: “… whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.”
When we look intently into the mirror of God’s Word—when we hear the Word, and accept the Word, and then choose to do the Word—a transformation occurs. It really does.
And just in case you do not know what life looks like when God transforms you, James points it out in verses 26-27: “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
Now, that might sound like James has gone off on a drastic tangent, but when you understand where James is going—and where he is coming from—it makes perfect sense.
When you let God’s Word affect you, when you recognize it as a perfect gift coming down from the Father of lights—when you not only hear it and accept it, but also commit to doing it—it will cause you to seek God’s will for your own life. More than that, it will drive you to find new ways to help others—especially those who are not able to help themselves.
In a nutshell, here’s what I hear the Letter of James saying to us: when at last we listen for God, and accept what he says, and then act upon it … then we will finally be transformed into the disciples Jesus has called us to be.
Let’s accept that greater call—and that greater blessing!
1 Merrill, Timothy. Lectionary Tales for the Pulpit [Series IV, Cycle C]. Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 2003, p. 45.
3 Boston Globe [11-10-93] as quoted in PreachingToday.com