Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Moving beyond Reality TV"
(or “Itching like heaven”)

Message preached September 2, 2012
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon James 1:17-27

Order of Worship

listen to this in mp3 format

It’s a shame they didn’t have television back in the days when Jesus walked with his disciples on earth. Imagine the possibilities! Think about how reality programming might have covered that eventful extended weekend when our Lord and his followers were really put to the test. Can you picture an episode of “Cops” cruising with the Temple Police force the night they arrested Jesus? Or “Judge Judy” when he came before the Sanhedrin? Or “The Bachelor” when Pilate asked the crowds to choose who would be the one? The fallout from that event could have provided grist for several weeks of talk shows.

From Jerry Springer to Dr. Phil, there might have been in a mad dash to bring together the man who lost his ear that night with the disciple who cut it off. Talk about a ratings bonanza! What more appropriate a setting could there possibly have been to vent the anger aroused by that crazy affair? Let it all hang out for the whole world to see! Bring in some relatives and friends to fight it out on stage. Can you hear the cheering of the audience?... After that they could have put them all on a desert island to see which one would walk away with a million dollars. Of course, given the time period, the losers would’ve retired to a cross rather than a comfy resort hotel....

Maybe it’s a good thing they didn’t have television back them. What do you think? Lost amid all the hoopla might have been the cautionary words of Jesus: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

Reminds me of what brother James had to say.  “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness.” (1:19‑20)   Simple, to the point, and very difficult to do. Brother James is full of such direct and demanding advice. He doesn’t beat around the bush. He calls ‘em as he sees ‘em. Sometimes his words feel as comfortable as a well-worn pair of blue jeans. Other times what he has to say scratches our skin, and the fit may be a bit tight. Well, for better or worse, my friends, we’ll be walking with brother James the next few Sundays in worship.

Now, don’t let me get lost in trying to figure out who, exactly, brother James was. All this New Testament letter says about him is his name, “James.” Tradition has it that he was James, the “brother of Jesus.” Now what it means by “brother” is not all that clear, but I won’t go into all those details. This “James, brother of Jesus,” became a key leader in the early church in Jerusalem, perhaps even more influential than the disciple Peter. He was known for being a “good” man, sometimes referred to as “James the Just.” People looked up to him. What he had to say would’ve been considered a “must read” by the early Christians. It was good wisdom.

Whether these plain and simple, though challenging words actually flowed from the pen of this “James the Just,” the “brother of Jesus,” I don’t know.  Perhaps they are a compilation of his words, pulled together at a later time. Maybe we have the wrong “James.” Does it matter? What’s important is that we listen through them for the greater “author” who gives these all-too-inadequate words “authority,” whom we believe blows through these pages as surely as this Holy Wind of God blows through, in-spirits, inspires our all-too-flawed and messy lives. In the Spirit, this “James” becomes our “brother James.”

You see, we (not just those folks way back then) are too easily blown about by one wind or another. I hope I’m not just talking about myself here. Have any of us have been caught up in the latest “Big Brother” challenge, actually caring about which person wins the prize at the end? Backstabbing and manipulation are par for the course, which shouldn’t shock us. That’s how the world turns, no matter how hard we try to pretend otherwise. The prevailing wind blows in the direction of self-centeredness and greed. Are we going to unfurl our sails and get blown away like everyone else? Do we race after the award money at the end, like the rest of the crowd, no matter the cost?...

Want some real wisdom? Listen to brother James.  “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.” (1:9‑11) While there is something comforting in those words, they also scratch our skin as we put them on. They force us to ask: By what wind are we allowing ourselves to be propelled? Are we like the waves of the sea tossed wherever the winds of our society blow, or are we traveling by the breath of God? That’s a question we need to ask every day.

Temptation, you see, is a daily affair. Okay, let’s stop having a one track mind when it comes to that word “temptation.” There are plenty of other ways we are pulled away from God in this world. Sex just seems to get the most press. If the greatest commandment is to love the Lord God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and the second greatest is to love your neighbor as yourself, then any wind blowing the opposite direction is temptation.

Perhaps you recall the old acronym “J..O..Y.” It’s a plain and simple method of prioritizing our life in Christ, listing the significant “stuff” in the order of their importance to us, the order we need to place them in our lives if we are to unfurl our sails and race with the wind of God. “J” stands for “Jesus,”  “O” for “Others,” and “Y” for “Yourself.” I know that when I get them messed up, when the arrangement becomes reversed somehow, then I am missing what together these letters spell: “Joy.”

What is it that pulls you away from God today? What leads you to forget that the One who created you, and who saves you, even exists? A huge chunk of our days are lived in such forgetfulness. What is it that pushes your ego front and center, with all its demands for self-gratification at the expense of others? What leads you to forget that others around you, with their own needs and hurts, even exist? Temptation is whatever blows us away from what is right and true. Temptation promises happiness, but cannot deliver. Only “Joy” can.

“Blessed (truly happy, full of joy) is anyone who endures temptation,” our brother James writes. “Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” (1:12)  A “test.” How interesting!  Brother James goes on to say that God is not the schoolteacher passing out the test for us to pass or fail. “God himself tempts no one, but one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved.” (1:13c‑16)   So writes our brother James.  Plain, simple, direct ... and, sometimes, it itches like heaven. (Bet you thought I was going to say itching like something else!) These words are blowing us in a different direction.

            Speaking of a "test," if indeed the person who wrote these words was "James, the brother of Jesus," "James the Just," he faced his biggest test later in life when he was brought before the high council and asked to deny Jesus.1   This he refused to do, which led to his death. I wonder if that’s not what our brother James is referring to by "temptation" - i.e. whatever leads us to deny Christ in order to save our own skin. In what little ways do we deny Jesus every day? Ouch! That question itches like heaven, doesn’t it?

Reality TV shows scratch an itch in our society, apparently. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so popular. Of course, manipulation and hype are the order of the day. How else do you explain a program like “Jersey Shore” (are people really that shallow)? This wind doesn’t just blow around on its own, you know.  It has some help along the way. Furthermore, we have to set our sails in such a way as to be propelled by it. I mean, we talk about how disgusting it is for people to vent their innermost demons on national television, but there’s a market of willing watchers - isn’t there?

There’s a difference between voyeurism and real listening. All these supposed “realistic” TV shows tap into a temptation to be voyeurs, which I define as sneaking glimpses of the intimate lives of others to gratify our own need for intimacy. Call it “Joy” spelled backward. Real listening involves a connection with someone, being invested, caring about them as a person, not as a piece of entertainment. I could say the same thing about listening to God, couldn’t I? Real listening involves a connection with our Creator and Savior, being invested, caring about God as God is, not as someone to entertain us.

And our brother James encourages us in this. “Be quick to listen,” he writes, “slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”  (1:19‑21) And then James makes the necessary next step which insures that our listening is not just voyeurism.  “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 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.”  (1:22‑24)

The irony of focusing upon “me, myself, and I” is, according to our brother James, that we ultimately have no idea who we really are. The present winds of our society blow in the direction of self discovery and self fulfillment, but the crazy truth is that when we focus solely upon that mirror we lose track of what we’re really looking for. However, as we listen for God to speak, and as we listen to others through the heartfelt ears God gives us, and we then act upon what we hear, we recognize and remember who we really are.

I do have to warn you, though, it itches like heaven... Thank God!

        1 Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, shares a brief account (cf. chapter 9, #1).  Eusebius, a fourth century church historian, has a more extensive and colorful (more legend than reality?) account.

©2012 (adapted from 2000) Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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