About 20 years ago or so, Bill Hybels became well known in evangelical church circles with his idea of the seeker-sensitive church. Hybels wanted us to create churches which were sensitive to newcomers who might come into the church, seeking after God. Often these people were unfamiliar with the church and Hybels believed that a traditional church service might seem odd to them. Threatening even. And so, it was important to make newcomers feel at home and relaxed and comfortable. You had to make it easy for new people to come to church.
So, you needed a decent carpark so they could drive to church easily and park their car easily. And the church shouldn’t look like a church which is unfamiliar to most people. Make it look like a cinema, with a big, bright lobby. Have ushers to show you where to sit. And don’t have pews; have seats, because that’s what people are used to. And the music should be suitable for modern people. And, of course, make use of drama and video, because that’s what modern people are used to. And tailor the message so that it suits the kind of people you’re trying to attract. Hybels said that the church needs to be seeker-sensitive. We need to be sensitive to the needs and desires and the concerns and the fears of the newcomer who is seeking after God.
Plenty of people have written and spoken about the seeker-sensitive movement. Some are for it. Some are against it. Whatever we make of it, Bill Hybels was right in this regard at least: we want to be a welcoming church; and we want to make newcomers feel welcome. No one should feel unwelcome in a church.
However, there’s one massive problem with the seeker-sensitive approach. One massive problem. And it’s this. They wanted to make newcomers feel at home; they wanted to prevent anyone from feeling uncomfortable or awkward.
However, the fact is that the Christian message is deeply, deeply unsettling. If anything is designed to unsettle us, and to turn our world upside down, it’s the Christian message.
What do I mean? At the heart of Christianity is the very clear message that all of us are sinners who are liable to God’s wrath and curse. And so, every single one of us needs to repent and believe. We need to turn away from our sins and we need to turn in faith to Jesus Christ because he alone can save us from God’s wrath and curse. That’s the Christian message and it’s disturbing, isn’t it? It’s disturbing to find out that we’re headed for condemnation unless we repent and believe in the Lord Jesus. Someone comes into church, feeling good about themselves. And they might been sitting in a comfortable seat, in comfortable surroundings. But then, if they hear that message, and they don’t yet believe, well, that message — which is at the heart of the Christian faith — will make anyone feel uncomfortable.
But it’s not only the message at the heart of the Christian faith which disturbs us. The Christian message is full of sayings — like the one we read a moment ago from James — which also disturb us and which turn our world upside down. Most of us here have grown up in the church, and we’re perhaps used to these things. But imagine someone coming into church for the first time and hearing what James has written here about poverty and riches. He’d start to feel giddy. She’d start to feel dizzy. James writes:
The brother in humble circumstances [and he means a believer who is economically poor] ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position.
That’s not the way people normally think. Normally we think that the one who is poor is in a low position. And the one who is rich is in a high position. But James is telling us that the one who is poor is in a high position. And the one who is rich is in a low position. Do you see? The message of Christianity turns our world upside down. So, yes, we want our churches to be welcoming. We want everyone to feel welcome when they come to church. We should do everything we can to make it easy for newcomers. However, we also have to face the fact that the message we proclaim here is a message which is often disturbing, because it turns our world upside down. This is not the way the world sees things. This is different.
And this is not the first thing which James has said which turns our world upside down. We’re only nine verses in, but he’s already said at least one other thing which is completely different from the way the world normally thinks. Back in verse 2 he said:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.
Most people will complain about the trials and troubles in their life. They regard them as an enemy or as an intruder who has come into our life and wrecked it. But James tells his Christian readers to rejoice in our trials. We’re to rejoice in them, not because the trials in themselves are good, but because the trials we go through can produce something good in us. They strengthen our faith so that we’re able to persevere in the faith. And over time we’ll become mature and complete believers, not lacking anything.
And James then went on to speak about wisdom. And one of the connections between trials and wisdom is that we need wisdom from God in order to know how to respond to our trials so that good will come out of them.
And then, James moves from trials and wisdom to poverty and wealth. And this new topic is connected to what has gone before, because all the sorrow that comes from having too little money, and all the sorrow that comes from having too much money, are part of the trials of many kinds which we may suffer in this troubled life. And then, of course, we need wisdom from God in order to view our poverty in the right way. And we need wisdom from God in order to view our wealth in the right way. So, that’s our topic for today. Poverty and riches.
The Lowly Brother
In verse 9 James refers to the brother in humble circumstances. By using the word ‘brother’, it’s clear he’s referring to a fellow believer. A man or a woman. The word translated by the NIV as ‘humble circumstances’ means lowly. Mary the mother of the Lord Jesus used this word to describe herself when she sang:
My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
It refers to someone who is not regarded as very important or very significant in society. It’s even someone who is used to being oppressed by others. This is a weak, humble, lowly person. In this context, it means economically poor, because James contrasts this person who is in humble circumstances to this other person who is rich. So, we’re to think of a believer who is poor.
Probably many of James’s first readers were very poor. In the early days of the Christian church, the church was persecuted by the Jews and many of the Jewish believers who lived in Jerusalem had to flee for their lives. We read about it in Acts 8. Probably they had to leave behind most of what they once owned. And it’s likely as well that many Jews who were converted to faith to Christ were also disowned by their families and disinherited. So, many of the first believers would have been very poor. In fact, when you read Paul’s letters, you’ll see that sometimes he addresses slaves. And in both letters to the Corinthians he refers to a collection he had organised for the poor. And in his first letter to the Corinthians, he reminds his readers of what they were when God called them. He said:
Think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not may of you were influential; not many of you were of noble birth.
The Christian church was made up of people who were poor and insignificant and who didn’t have any influence in society. It was made up of believers in humble circumstances. Poor men and women.
And no doubt those early believers knew what it was like to be disregarded and mistreated and even oppressed and persecuted by their neighbours. But here’s James writing to them now with a message to encourage them and to re-assure them: Yes, you might be poor. You might be lowly. The world might despise you. But listen to me, says James:
You ought to take pride in your exaltation. Whereas other people may take pride and boast about their wealth and all that they have, and though the rich may look down on you because you’re poor, and though you may be tempted to look down on yourself because you’re poor and have nothing, I’m telling you this, says James:
You ought to take pride in your high position. Though in the eyes of the world, you’re in a very low position, nevertheless the truth is that you’re in a very, very, very high position.
What did he mean? He doesn’t say anything more about their high position in chapter 1. However, later on, in chapter 2, he again comes back to the theme of poverty and wealth. And in verse 5 of chapter 2, he says this:
Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith [or rich in matters of faith] and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?
There are three things here: First of all, these poor Christians are in a high position because they were chosen by God. Though the world may have rejected them, they can say to themselves:
God has chosen me.
And we can say that to ourselves, every day. Though the world hates us — and the world’s hatred for the church will only increase over time, since what the world believes and what we believe are so radically different; whoever thinks that being a Christian will make life easier for us needs to realise that being a believer means being on a collusion course with the world — so, though the world hates us, nevertheless I know this to be true:
God chose me. Long before the world was made, God knew me; and he set his love upon me; and in due course he called me through the preaching of the gospel, because he wants me to be with him for ever and ever.
Isn’t that remarkable? The world might reject us, but we know that the One who made the heavens and the earth and all that they contain loves us and chose us for himself.
Secondly, James tells us in verse 2 of chapter 5 that God chose these poor Christians to be rich in faith or rich in matters of faith. The poor believer may not have much money in the bank. He might not be paid very much. His house may not be very impressive. He may not be able to go on nice holidays. But God chose him, God chose her, and he enabled them to possess what so many other people do not possess. He enabled them to have faith. And faith is the key to so many other spiritual blessings, because whoever has faith in Jesus Christ the Saviour receives from God one spiritual blessing after another. We may not have much in the eyes of the world, but we have so much more because God has given us faith in Jesus Christ.
And thirdly, James tells us that God chose these poor Christians to inherit the kingdom. Poor believers might have been disinherited by their family because of their faith in Christ. Nevertheless, they are going to inherit something far, far better, because they’re going to inherit eternal life in the new heavens and the new earth where all of God’s people will live with him for ever. We may not have much in this world, but we have something wonderful, wonderful waiting for us in the life to come. And in the meantime, we trust God to look after us in this life, because we know he chose us to be members of his people.
And so the poor believers needs to remember that, though in the eyes of the world we are nothing, yet in fact, we are highly exalted because we have been chosen by God to be rich in matters of faith and to inherit his kingdom.
I’m reminded of the story of Joseph from the Old Testament. Do you remember how he became Prime Minister of Egypt. And then his brothers came to him in search of food. They didn’t know what had happened to Joseph. They didn’t know he’d become so important. And when they saw him, they didn’t recognise him. And so, they came to Egypt, with money to buy food, because they didn’t have any food of their own because of the famine. And do you remember? The second time they came, Joseph arranged for them to be brought into his house. And he’d prepared a feast for them.
So these ordinary men, who had come to buy food, were suddenly in the Prime Minister’s residence, eating from his table, surrounded by luxury. Back home they had nothing to eat, but now, they’d been brought into the Prime Minister’s home and they were given one good thing after another to enjoy. That’s how we’re to regard ourselves, because Christ the King has called us into his kingdom. And though we may be poor, and though we may be disregarded by the world, nevertheless he is very kind towards us and he pours out on us one spiritual blessing after another. We may not have much in the bank, but the Saviour has filled our hearts with thanksgiving and our mouths with praise because of his kindness to us.
So, the believer in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position, because the King of kings and the Lord of lords has called us to belong to him.
The Rich Brother
In verse 10, James turns his attention to ‘the one who is rich’. And I think we should take it that he’s referring now to rich believers. So, just as he was addressing poor believers in verse 9, so now he’s addressing rich believers in verse 10.
And James’s message to the wealthy believer is this. And again, this is at odds with the world. This turns the world upside down, because normally rich people not only have money, but they have influence and they have power and they have prestige in society. But this is James’s message to wealthy believers:
You should take pride in your low position. Yes, in the eyes of the world, you’re in a high position because you’re so wealthy. As far as society goes, you’re the man at the top. However, you should realise that you’re really in a low position.
What does James mean? In what sense is the rich man in a low position? He goes on to explain. Look at the rest of verse 10:
But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower.
And he goes on in the next verse to elaborate on this image. Look with me at verse 11:
For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed.
Providentially it’s been very hot this past week. And perhaps you’ve had to go into the garden with a hose or with a watering can in order to water your flowers, because you know what will happen to them in this heat if they don’t receive enough water. They’ll dry up and wither and die. The flower that once looked lovely, and which everyone admired, will soon die. Well, says James:
In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business.
That’s the rich man’s low position. His low position is the fact that eventually he, like every one else, will die. For now, he’s regarded highly by the world. For now, many people admire him. For now, he’s doing really well. But one day, it’s all going to come to an end; and his wealth, his riches, won’t be able to stop that day from coming.
That’s a humbling thought. Do you remember from school the story of King Canute? Everyone was talking to him about the divine right of kings and making out to him that he was really something very special. However, Canute knew it wasn’t true. And so, in order to demonstrate to his followers that he wasn’t really that special or that powerful, he tried to turn back the tide. Of course, he knew he wouldn’t be able to do it. He knew he wasn’t really that powerful despite what everyone was saying to him. And despite what people may say to the rich man, or to the rich woman, and despite the way they’re admired and envied by society, the believer who is rich needs to remember that they’re not that special. And just as Canute couldn’t stop the tide, so the rich believer can’t stop the inevitable approach of death.
And, of course, when they die, their money and all their possessions aren’t going to help them. When they die, the only thing that will count is whether or not, while they lived on the earth, they possessed faith, because only those who possess faith will inherit life in the Christ’s everlasting kingdom.
The message of Christianity is disturbing because it turns the world upside down. Normally we think that the one who is poor is in a low position; and the one who is rich is in a high position. But James is telling us that the one who is poor is in a high position because he has faith and he will inherit the kingdom. And James is tells us that the one who is rich is in a low position, because he — like everyone else — will one day die; and all his wealth and all his possessions cannot help him then.
Here’s the thing. We need to take a long view of things. Often, we’re only thinking about what’s coming up today. Or what’s coming up tomorrow or in the next few weeks or months. We’ve got our calendars and our task managers and we’re thinking about what’s coming up soon. And, of course, most of the time we’re thinking about this life. But we’ve to take a long view. We’re to think not only about this life, but about the life to come. In this life, we may be poor. In this life, we may be rich. But there’s this life, and then there’s the life to come. And the poor believer who is suffering now, needs to remember and believe that there’s a glorious future waiting for us when Christ returns. The Bible talks about fullness of joy and pleasures for evermore in Christ’s eternal kingdom. And the trials and troubles of this life will be as nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed in us when Christ returns.
However, the rich person needs to remember and believe that all the wealth we might enjoy in this life will not help us in the end. And the key to entering Christ’s eternal kingdom is not money, or possessions, but faith in Jesus Christ.