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Sermon # in the series: Practical Spirituality: James
Scripture: James 1:26-27
Speaker: Pastor Fred Provencher

Introduction: what does it mean to be spiritual?
In this passage James challenges anyone who might consider themselves “religious” with three concrete tests. It is strange that he uses the word “religious” because it is a rare word in the New Testament for the same reason it is a rarely used word in American culture, it is very general. It could be connected to religious rituals in general but to no one faith in particular and James might be using it for that reason. I don’t know many people who label themselves “religious” but I have met a number of people who consider themselves “spiritual.” So if we read James as saying “if you consider yourself spiritual,” it might make more sense.

James describes what he calls pure and faultless faith with three characteristics. First he gives a negative trait and then two positives.

Controlling our tongue is evidence of a new heart

James 1
26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 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.
If you can’t keep a tight reign on your tongue then your religion or your spirituality or your person code of ethics, is worthless.
This hardly seems true. You can do a lot of nice things without saying nice things. I can image someone saying “sometimes I just get angry and stuff comes flowing out of my mouth. I make up for it by what I do. And isn’t that what matters? Isn’t real faith about doing and not just talking? Sticks and stone, right?” So why does James put such an emphasis on our words? The answer lies in the words of Jesus in Matthew 15. Jesus is arguing with a group of religious leaders about clean and unclean food and about ceremonial washing. He says that it is not what goes into our mouths, but what comes out of them that makes us unclean because what we say comes from the heart. Look at Matthew 15:16-20

16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

You cannot control your tongue without changing your heart, at least not consistently. In this way your tongue is a good indicator of what is in your heart and your heart is a good indicator of how close you are to God.

Transition: whatever you might think of your level of spirituality, if you can’t control your tongue your faith is not working for you. In the same way James asks us to check our hearts regarding the helpless people in our culture.

If our faith is real we will care for the helpless

26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 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.
James says we are to look after widows and orphans in their distress. Why would he single out these two members of society? First, they were often coupled in the Old Testament as a word picture of helpless people. And second, they were actually among the most helpless members of society. There was no societal safety net in the first century, no way for most women to work if they were alone. They were vulnerable. If God is at work in your life you will start to feel compassion for those in need. It will not be a political idea, or something you do to get good public relations. It is moving in your heart because that is the heart of God. He has a special place in his heart for the vulnerable and the helpless. Look at Psalm 68.

Psalm 68:4-6
4 Sing to God, sing in praise of his name,
extol him who rides on the clouds[b];
rejoice before him—his name is the Lord.
5 A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
is God in his holy dwelling.
6 God sets the lonely in families,[c]
he leads out the prisoners with singing;
but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.

This is not a minor point with God. In the first chapter of Isaiah, the prophet takes his own people, the Jews, to task for ignoring widows and orphans. He calls the nation “Sodom and Gomorrah” but notice his accusation has nothing to do with sexuality.

Isaiah 1:10-17
10 Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the instruction of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
11 “The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the Lord.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats…
17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.[a]
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.

Those who do not get a fair shake in our culture, those who are treated unjustly, those who are fatherless, those who are alone — God has a special place in his heart for them. I think it is because the vulnerable have no one to hold onto except God. They know their desperate need for him while those with good standing and money in the bank may feel that they don’t need God. In truth we all need God for everything. He wants us to love the poor because he wants us to see ourselves in the face of the poor. So when his people have no compassion, when they refuse to see, he stops listening.
Of course our biggest problem is that we choose not to see. As far as we know everyone gets treated fairly in America. Everyone has the same rights, the same access to good schooling, heath care and protection from the police. It is only when you talk to someone who is different, someone who can’t get a job or who isn’t treated fairly in court that you think otherwise. You might think that America’s racist past is in the past. Then, a white supremacist shoots a group of brothers and sisters in Christ, simply because they were black. We have a special challenge – to start to see what we do not see.

Transition: we have to be culturally sensitive when we consider the helpless. At the same time, we can’t be formed by our culture.

If your faith is working we will be formed by God not the culture.

26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 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.

The word polluted or “unstained” has a cultic feel. If you read the Old Testament (especially the boring parts in Leviticus and Numbers) God tells the people about the purity laws for his temple. You would be unclean if you had an open sore, unclean if you touched a dead body, unclean if you ate something not kosher or even touched a dish that had come into contact with something unclean. But remember what Jesus said. He changed this: it is not what goes into us that pollutes us, but what comes out of us. The only way to be clean is to have a new heart and the only thing that can purify our hearts is the presence of Jesus. The only way that Jesus will rest in your heart is if you invite him to be there.
Change your heart but submitting your life to Jesus. Receive him and allow him to form your character – that is the only way to remain unpolluted from the world. Yet we are called to live in this world, to talk with people in this culture without having our words condemn us or embarrass him. We are called to live in this world so that we can visit the helpless in their distress. If our hearts are right the programs will follow. We are called to live in this world even as we seek to be formed by another world, the Kingdom of God.

Conclusion
The challenge is to examine our hearts. How many conversations have you had in the last week that you would not want anyone to overhear? How much compassion do you have for those who are different from you, you are vulnerable or treated unjustly? How about your hopes and dreams? Are they formed by your relationship with God or by the culture around you? These are James’ diagnostic questions, ones we need to ask if we want to know the true state of our spiritual lives.

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