Pastor Chris Tweitmann
There is nothing worse than a bad ending.
A book, a movie, a concert, a sporting event, or even a letter,
starts in a promising way, captures your attention,
and then takes you on a stimulating journey of thought and emotion.
But it can all far apart – the experience can lose its luster
– the final impact will be dulled maybe even lost – if the ending falls short.
Like they always say, it’s not how you start; it’s how you finish.
So then, as we come to the end of the line with the book of James,
how does this letter written by Jesus’ half-brother to the Christians
scattered all over the Roman Empire and beyond, conclude?
We’re about to find out but let me just prepare us in advance,
James’ closing lines do not provide us with the typical ending
we find in other letters of the NT
– like the ones penned by the apostle Paul, or Peter, or John.
James will not offer us any parting words of fond farewell.
James will not extend to us a final, rousing prayer or a formal blessing.
No, James will finish what he has to say much like he began,
much like he’s been speaking to us all along
– with a word of exhortation delivered with a sense of urgency.
Up until now, James has been forcefully directive in providing both
wisdom and practical instruction in terms of what it means to follow Jesus.
And as we’ll hear, James, with these last two verses,
isn’t about to take his foot off the gas.
So, let’s buckle up for a strong finish
and make sure we pay close attention to James’ final words to us.
Here they are from chapter 5, verse 19 – 20.
With just two short verses, James concludes with an implied command
that simultaneously expresses both of an invitation and a challenge
– about the possibility of wandering away from the truth
and the promise of how bringing someone who strays
back to the truth is saving that person from death.
Let’s quickly break it all down so that we make sure we understand in properly.
First, let’s recognize the obvious, James is addressing believers – Christians
– and not non-believers, non-Christians with these parting words.
He writes to “my brothers and sisters”
or the actual, old-school form of address James uses is “my brethren.”
James exercises this endearing term for fellow Christians 15x in his letter.
Three of those times, he also attached the adjective, “beloved.”
That James is talking to professed followers of Jesus
is further confirmed by the phrase “if one of you”
“if one of you should wander from the truth”
– meaning is the wanderer in question is
someone from within the faith community, the Body of Christ.
James anticipates the possibility of a follower of Jesus
“wandering” or “going astray.”
The word translated here as “wanders” or “strays”
is the Greek word, planao (plah-now).
Our English word, “planet” derives from planao.
In the ancient world, of which James was a part,
it was observed that certain “stars” seemingly appeared
in different places and at different times in the night sky.
Today, we know these “stars” as our solar system’s planets.
We further understand that they travel in an elliptical orbit around the sun,
just like the earth.
But the ancients lacking such knowledge and understanding
perceived those “stars” or planets to be wandering in the night sky.
James is invoking this image to visualize how a believer whose life is in proper orbit around the Son – the Son of God – who is reflecting the light of the Son
– of the glory of Jesus Christ – can wander or stray off course
– out of proper orbit.
What’s implied here is a slow drift – a gradual falling out of alignment
and not a sudden jerk or shift in one’s relationship with Christ.
If we stop and think about it, much of James’ letter has been his effort to describe and deal with all the small, subtle but significant ways we can wander away from the way of Jesus – acting out of impatience, misusing our tongues, becoming self-centered, indulging compulsions towards greed.
These are all postures we can begin to adopt that ultimately,
James has warned us, will lead us astray from what he refers to as “the truth.”
By “the truth,” James does not mean doctrinal defection
as much as he does, relational compromise.
James repeatedly has been declaring to us
what we profess to believe about Jesus
must be embodied, practiced in how we live for Christ,
live like Christ with each other.
“The truth” James is appealing to is more than knowing the Word of God.
It is far beyond a confession of faith
– our intellectual and/or emotional assent to the Gospel.
“The truth” for James is a person – a relationship –
a relationship with Jesus Christ, with the Word of God made flesh.
And living according to, in alignment with “the truth”
is following – abiding in, witnessing to, and tangibly reflecting
– the way of Jesus – of Christ’s love and forgiveness,
His generosity and compassion, His sacrifice and service before and with others.
If we take away anything from this sermon series,
I hope and pray it is James’ revelation and understanding
that we must be professors without being possessors of Jesus Christ.
We can call ourselves Christians.
We can know what the Bible says.
We can profess to believe in the Gospel and to have faith in Jesus.
We can read Christian devotionals and books,
listen to Christian music and watch Christian movies.
We can adorn our house with crosses, Bibles, and scriptural verses
– all kinds of kitschy stuff from Hobby Lobby.
We can spend our time with other Christians.
We can work, give, and support
Christian organizations, causes, and mission projects.
But, in the end, what we actually believe
and whom we truly worship and follow,
will be evident, will be judged, by how we practically and functionally live
– what we say, what we do,
how we exercise the resources we have been given,
where we dedicate our attention and our time,
and how we engage and interact with others
– loving, forgiving, and serving – not just the people we like or agree with
– but especially, the people who may be strangers and even enemies to us.
And one last time, James’ emphasis on
what we do versus what we say isn’t some work-based righteousness.
It is not earning or meriting our favor with and forgiveness from God.
We are saved by grace alone – by nothing we can say or do but only by what God has said, what the Lord has done for us in Jesus Christ.
But to be saved by grace alone is to live – to exist
– to operate – to live by grace alone.
It is not just to be rescued or resurrected
but to be redeemed and to be reconciled by grace alone
— to be shaped and formed by the Spirit of God
in how we think, speak, and act so that in following Jesus
we become like Christ to each other.
By implication in verse 20, James cautions that
those who wander from the way Jesus
make more than just a minor mistake
but a grave error – one that risks death.
This causes our eyes to widen and begs the question.
Is James implying our deliverance by Christ is not secure and certain
– that we can somehow lose our salvation?
In an ultimate sense
– meaning the promise of our final salvation to a life beyond death,
the answer is “No.”
We are eternally secure thanks not to anything we do or don’t do
but because of what Jesus has done for us.
Our salvation is not a nebulous, mental state
– because of what we believe or the result of our good behavior.
We are saved by a permanent, world transforming, life-changing event.
On the Cross, Jesus has covered and forgiven our sins through His death for us.
Through His Resurrection, Jesus has conquered the power of sin, death,
and the devil and is carrying us from the end of existence as we know it
across the threshold to the possibility and assurance of everlasting life.
This is an eternal shift – not a temporary or transitory state.
And nothing we do or don’t do changes what God has done for us.
If we aren’t saved by any act of righteousness,
then we cannot lose what God gives to us – our salvation – by our sin.
The permanence of our salvation is a corollary of the unconditional love of God.
We are embraced by a God who in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit
holds us with a promise and a determination to never let go.
And the strength of the love and grace of God cannot be overcome by anyone who might want to snatch us away – including our own waywardness.
But here’s the thing, while we cannot lose our salvation,
we can fail to fully exercise the salvation we have been given in Christ.
Instead of living out of and being transformed by the grace of God,
we can choose to wander in the wilderness of grumbling and disobedience.
Instead of learning to abide in the full and abundant life that Jesus offers us,
we can choose to go astray in seeking to make a name for ourselves
and building our lives on other foundations that Christ.
But being forgiven, being saved by God in Christ does not negate
facing and learning from the consequences of our sin – of the decisions we make and the actions we take apart from the counsel of the Word and the Spirit.
While our final destination is not in jeopardy, the trajectory and experience of our journey can be unnecessarily hard and even tragic along the way.
Because God our Father is perfect in love, is love itself,
God will, if we do wrong, rebuke and redirect us
rather than eject us from His family.
However, out of this same love for us – not to forsake but to redeem us,
our infinite, all-powerful Father will humble, disciple, correct, and eliminate all that is wrong in us, all wrong that has been done by us.
When James speaks of error and even of death – this is what he is talking about.
Not being cut off by God but rather cutting ourselves off from God’s grace.
Not of God condemning us to death
but us choosing to remain in death – the death borne of our sin
rather than to live out of the resurrection – the new life we have in Christ.
As works in progress,
no Christian is immune to potentially wandering from the way of Jesus.
As sinners gradually becoming saints,
we remain easily distracted by the temptation of quick fixes,
no-pain solutions, and the allure of blaming someone else for all our junk,
we are often forgettable of where we’ve been
and how far the Lord has carried us thus far,
we are well-practiced and therefore struggle to be taught
that worrying and fear cannot add a single hour or day to our existence,
that all our busyness and ceaseless activity doesn’t prove we are alive, it only denies us the opportunity to discover the peace and joy of truly living.
We are all prone to stray in thought and action from the way of Christ.
Wandering can manifest itself in not being physically present
– drinking the kool-aid – the myth that you can be a follower of Jesus
without being a part of the Church.
If the Church is not humanity’s creation by rather a work of the Spirit, and if the Church is not a building or even a congregation but is, according to the Bible, the Body of Christ, how can one follow Jesus if one is part of the community of faith?
But wandering also can manifest itself even when we are not physically AWOL.
We can be present but still not really there.
We remain relationally distant or fenced off.
We don’t sing. We don’t pray. We don’t read our Bibles.
We don’t interact with others.
We show up when we feel like it and we exit out the side door.
We don’t introduce ourselves. We don’t want to be contacted.
We don’t get involved.
We prefer to observe – to watch from the back.
Sometimes this is how we enter our relationship with Jesus from the start
– passively – as spectators rather than as participants.
Sometimes we wander to the back
– we move from being participants to spectators
because we’ve got hurt or wounded somewhere along the way
– maybe even by those within the Church
– and so it’s just seems safer to keep our distance, to stay aloof.
As spectators rather than as participants,
we convince ourselves the life Jesus offers to us
– the grace, the love, the forgiveness, the generosity of Christ
will just rub off on us and take root and sprout in us by osmosis.
But that’s not the way of Jesus.
Jesus is mover and a shaker.
Jesus shows us in our lives and says:
“Come and see” “Follow me.”
“Go and tell others what I’ve done in your life.”
“Do even greater things than I have done”
– works of healing and restoration,
of inclusion and integration, of compassion and advocacy.
Christ is clear – what He wants to teach us,
what He purposes to do in and through us
will not happen as long as we are spectators
– it will only happen as participate
in the work of His Kingdom by being a part of His Church.
Some have argued,
“Going to Church doesn’t make you a Christian
any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.”
And that’s true.
But we avoid wandering from Jesus not by going to church
but rather by together being the Church
– encouraging and supporting each other as we seek
– not alone – but together to worship and serve the Lord
– to yield and abide our lives to Jesus
– to learn and to grow according to the Word and the Spirit
– to witness to Christ through our love and care
not simply for each other but to the neighborhood and the world around us.
Living like that doesn’t happen when we are alone.
On our own, we get distracted or preoccupied with other stuff.
Without the accountability and empowerment of community,
we end up having a lot of great intentions
but very little consistent practice and maturity in the faith.
Practicing our faith is never meant to be alone, isolated, vulnerable.
We wander, we go astray from the way of Jesus
when we cut ourselves off from the Body of Christ
– whether by being physically absent or relationally unengaged.
All of this brings us to the final bow James puts on his letter.
Keeping in mind that all followers of Jesus
can wander and go astray, James charges us
with the responsibility of looking out for one another.
James ends by assuring we understand that
it is not enough that we follow Jesus as individuals
– that we attempt to indulge in a transactional, private faith.
God calls us together into the community of Christ
because we are intended, we need to walk by faith together.
Notice James’ caution here isn’t for us
to first and only watch out for ourselves;
it is to pay attention and assure
that our brothers and sisters are still with us
– and as needed, to be willing to pursue and bring back
anyone who wanders off or goes astray from Christ.
While we do indeed have a Good Shepherd who goes before us,
we must stick together and look out for each other as the sheep.
In other words, part of our calling as followers of Jesus is search and rescue.
We need to search – meaning we need to remain attentive
and to recognize when someone has wandered off
– someone who is noticeably missing who usually is present
– again, physically or relationally.
We need to search – meaning we need to really listen,
to have our spiritual radar up and to notice
when another Christian’s behavior seems out of character,
when his or her habits and patterns of decisions begin to negatively change, when another believer is drifting away from looking to and following Jesus.
First, we need to search but then, we need to rescue.
We need to do more than just search
and we need to initiate a rescue attempt for those who get lost
because those who drift away are often unaware they have wandered off,
because a straying person cannot find their way back on their own.
To be clear, any rescue effort we undertake doesn’t ultimately depend on us.
In the end, it is God alone who saves – who corrects and restores anyone.
But the instigation of that rescue is required by us.
It is required by each of us because Christ intervenes and works
through those through who follow Him
– the community of faith, His Body, the Church.
Search and rescue work isn’t easy. It can be unwanted – rebuked even.
If somebody doesn’t want to be found;
it can be a demanding task to try and find them.
There is always the risk that in trying to reach someone
who has wandered off or gone astray,
that they’ll bite you even as you try to help them
in their woundedness.
Search and rescue can appear to be a thankless job.
And that’s why most of us, tend to avoid it – don’t we?
We notice a brother or sister who is missing
– we talk about their absence out loud
but we don’t pursue them
because we tell ourselves
it’s none of our business.
We watch as a brother or sister
starts talking and acting differently
– not being like themselves
– dimming or even snuffing the light of Christ within
– but we don’t say anything convincing ourselves
it’s between them and the Lord.
I want you to imagine for a moment
that you started on a hike in the woods with a bunch of people
and then you eventually turned around and realized you were lost.
Picture being alone in the dark. Totally disoriented.
Tired. Hungry. Thirsty. And imagine if no one came looking for you.
When we finally manage to get back to the rest of the group,
wouldn’t we wonder why no one came,
how could it be that no one seemed to notice you were missing.
Now imagine that someone from the group says, “Oh, we realized you were gone but we wanted to sensitive to your feelings. We felt it really wasn’t any of our business. We thought you might be embarrassed if we came looking for you.”
Imagine someone else adds, “Yeah, it did seem a little odd to us that you went off by yourself like that, but we figured you had your reasons and we didn’t what to be judgmental of your choice to do that.”
Imagine someone furthers says, “Of course, we knew it was dark and cold and a bit stormy out there for you by yourself so even though we didn’t actually come looking for you, we were praying for you to be okay the whole time.”
How many of us would want to hike with this group of people again?
How many of us would entrust our wellbeing to a company like this?
My friends, to see a brother or sister wandering off in a dangerous direction,
to discover that a beloved child of God has gone missing
and to do nothing about it is a tragic dereliction of our duty as followers of Jesus.
We’ve developed within the community of the Church,
a practice from our broader culture – that of privatized religion.
That what you believe is what you believe.
That your relationship with God is your relationship with God
– and not necessarily mine.
But with his last breath,
James is here to tell us, there ain’t no such thing as private religion
– my personal, independent relationship with Jesus and yours.
His closing words harkened all the way back to
when Cain defiantly asked God about Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The answer then, the answer here in James, and the answer still today is
“Yes, yes you are. Yes, yes we are.”
You and I, we together as the Body of Christ, are responsible
not only for our own faith, and our own fight with sin,
and our own perseverance in the faith
– but we are also responsible and accountable for our neighbor’s faith,
for our brother and sister’s fight with sin, and perseverance in Christ.
The love of Jesus compels us
to the ministry of the search and rescue of each other.
James isn’t calling us to sit in judgment over one another
in the name of getting someone right with God.
James isn’t telling us to publicly guilt and shame each other back to Jesus.
James is urging us to carefully and wisely discern
the health of the Body and each member of it
– and to be willing to go looking for and not leave behind
those who wander off or get lost.
James is imploring us to care enough
to never give up and to humbly confront
even as we radically accept and patiently encourage,
a brother or sister who has strayed
or gotten off track from the way of Jesus.
We witness an example of this kind of
search and rescue operation James is commending
to us in the life of Peter – who wandered
and went astray from Christ – not once but twice.
First, when Peter denied Christ three times.
And the second time, when Peter segregated himself
from the Gentile believers in order to avoid trouble
with the Jewish Christians.
In both cases, Peter was directly
and lovingly corrected but not condemned
and graciously restored back into the fullness
of his relationship with Jesus as well as fellowship with others.
James himself is a byproduct of search and rescue thanks to Jesus.
We must remember that James was not an early adopter
in terms of coming to believe and follow his half-brother,
Jesus as the Christ.
During Jesus’ earthly ministry,
James accused his older brother of being out of his mind.
And it doesn’t appear James came to believe
and follow Jesus until after Christ’s resurrection.
James does not even appear to have been
at the cross as Jesus hung there and died.
For care of their mother, Mary, is given
at the cross to the apostle John
and not a member of Jesus’ biological family.
James was a late bloomer – a post resurrection believer.
And yet, clearly, Jesus did not give up on him
but instead relentless embodied, as Jesus does
for all of us, humble patience and tireless love
in turning us back to Him.
As we come to the end of James’ letter,
his closing words should remain with us
– incisive and enduring in their call for us
to be more than professors of the Gospel of Christ
but possessors and sharers of heart, the way of Jesus.
To follow Christ through our work as intercessors and not accusers
– searching and rescuing, loving and caring for each other.
I am convinced as we listen to this word from James that the Spirit has put at least one person on our hearts who we suspect or know has wandered off or gone astray – someone who has lost sight of Christ, someone who is heading in a direction, down a path that will not bring them closer to Jesus but instead take them farther from the light of His love, grace, and truth.
The question is, how is the Lord calling you to seek that person out?
How is the Holy Spirit directing and empowering you
to reach out and make contact,
to intervene and point the way back to Jesus?
Don’t let this word from James fall on deaf ears.
Let us together, by the grace of God,
through the wisdom of His Word, and the inspiration of His Spirit,
help each other in keeping the pace as we follow Jesus together,
spurring each other in moving forward,
carrying each other when we struggle,
lifting each other up when we stumble,
and not leaving anyone behind
– coming back when someone has gotten lost or just stopped moving.
Let us rejoice together in the knowledge
that when we answer the divine call
to search for and rescue each other we are not only participating in
but extending for all to see, God’s salvation at work in this world. Amen.