From Folly Back to Faithfulness
Text: James 1:1-12
St. James of Jerusalem
1James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings ... So begins this epistle, written by James the half-brother of Jesus, with great humility and compassion. “A servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” But it wasn’t always so for this man. The first time we are introduced to him is where he, along with other members of the Lord’s earthly family, have come to put an end to Jesus’ foolishness. To call Him back to reason and to give up His Messianic pursuits which were causing the family ridicule and backlash from friends and neighbours. Familiarity breeds contempt, the old saying goes. But you could just as soon say that it breeds foolishness.
Now that James is a far cry different from the one we meet in the reading from Acts. There he could hardly be called foolish. Indeed, in the all important Jerusalem Council the parties from both sides of the contentious issue look to him for wisdom and happily abide by his enlightened words. So what happened to this man along the way?
At some point James came not to be embarrassed by Jesus, but to believe in Him as the Lord and Saviour promised in the Old Testament Scriptures. St. Paul records in 1 Corinthians 15:7 that after his resurrection Jesus appeared to James, specifically, after he appeared to his disciples. Acts 1:14 records that Jesus' brothers, who didn't believe in him earlier, were in Jerusalem devoting themselves to prayer with Mary and the disciples of Jesus as they waited for the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. James didn't only become a believer and a witness of the resurrection of Christ, but he is counted among the Apostles (1 Corinthians 9:5) and St. Paul even calls him a pillar of the church! (Galatians 1:18-19; 2:9). Indeed James became an important leader in the church along with St. John and St. Peter. He was well suited to make the concluding comments at the Council of Jerusalem as even just a cursory comparison of his letter with the teachings of Jesus, especially in the Gospel of Matthew, shows that James listened and absorbed the teachings of his brother and Saviour.1
He was a good man who was saved from some very foolish notions. He was a devout Israelite, in the best of tradition, who had his foolish presumptions removed so the wisdom of God in Christ Jesus could change his heart and life forever to the good. And that is why he humbly begins his letter to the church with these heartfelt words:
5If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. It is a call from one who has been there to those still stuck in it. It is a gracious invitation to struggling Christians being called away from folly and back to faithfulness ... back to wisdom.
Wisdom is the ability to reach and implement proper God-pleasing decisions when facing challenges. Many a teenager thinks themselves wise while arguing about anything and everything, with friends over the computer. Many college grads revel in their philosophical wisdom over coffee and debate late into the night. Many older individuals just assume they are wise because everything is going well for them at the moment. But real wisdom ... True God-given wisdom ... is only discovered when ideas and values are tested in the crucible of suffering. It is only when times are tough that wisdom shows itself true.
And that truest of all wisdom is to know not only that God gives generously to those who ask of him in faith, but that without trust in God’s faithfulness, a person has no solid foundation for life in this world. Only faith which trusts in God’s provision can expect to receive His blessing, regardless what we see before us.
It is the wisdom of Jacob knowing to ask a blessing of his heavenly sparring partner while they continued to wrestle. It is the wisdom to see that getting old doesn’t always mean getting wise, nor does passion prove an ideas worth. It is the wisdom of a man like James coming to see his utter foolishness in rejecting Jesus. The wisdom of repenting and serving His Lord and half-brother for the long promised Messiah He is. Wisdom is not looking to our self or our own understanding, but to the Word and promise of Jesus given to us freely every single Sunday in the gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation granted in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Did Jacob know that God would bless him? No, but He knew that God does bless people. Do old people know what the future holds? No! But they do have plenty of experience to know who has seen them through every part of the past. We can’t know any of this either. But wisdom understands you go where the blessings are and ask of the One Who offers them. You follow Him wherever He leads and trust He will continue to be the Wisest of us all.
Did James know where his decision to trust and follow Jesus would lead? Of course not. Although he likely had a pretty good sense of what might be in store, judging by what the world did to Jesus Himself. But only a fool refuses to act until they know everything that might possibly come to pass. What James, did understand is that there can’t be two allegiances within one heart. You cannot be committed to the ways and will of God and that of the world. No such divided person can persevere when things get difficult.
And things will get difficult for those who belong to Him. Trials and temptations will come and only a fool would think otherwise. And that is born out in the life and death of St. James, of Jerusalem. For according to Hegesippus, James spent his last minutes boldly confessing, "Christ himself sits in heaven, at the right hand of the Great Power, and shall come on the clouds of heaven." This only moments before scribes and Pharisees stoned him until one of them struck James dead with a staff. James, the former fool and skeptic died confessing Christ Jesus as his Savior. 2
12Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. In Holy Baptism God has given His struggling children the crown of life. Not because of our strength but because of His grace. In that grace we can follow Him and live confidently in this world of struggle and uncertainty. And it doesn’t get any wiser than that.