One of my favourite TV programmes when I was growing up was Happy Days, starring Henry Winkler as Arthur Fonzarelli; better known as ‘The Fonz’ or just Fonzy. It was a sitcom set in the 50s and 60s in the USA. Most of the action took place either in the home of the Cunninghams, where Fonzy lived above the garage, or in Arnold’s Diner. Well, as well as watching the show, I had a record which I liked to play. It was Fonzy’s Favourites. It was a compilation of songs from the 50s and 60s. There was the Happy Days theme. There was Bill Haley’s ‘ock Around the Clock’. There was Bobby Darin, singing ‘Splish Splash I was Taking a Bath’. The Five Satins and ‘In the Still of the Night’, Lee Dorsey’s ‘Ya Ya’. And as well as some other songs, there was Joe Jones singing ‘You Talk Too Much’:
You talk about people
That you don’t know
You talk about people
Wherever you go
You just talk, Talk too much
You talk about people
That you’ve never seen
You talk about people
You can make me scream
You just talk, you talk too much
Well, I’m sure you’ve met people like that. People who just talk too much. Perhaps you’re like that yourself, and your friends would say about you:
Yes, he talks too much. Yes, she’s talking all the time.
We know people like this. We might be like that ourselves. And it seems that this is not a modern problem, because listen again to what James wrote in verse 19 of chapter 1. He wrote:
My dear brothers, take note of this.
This is something we’re to pay attention to; and we’re to listen to this; and we’re to make note of it. So, perhaps you might want to take out a piece of paper and write this down or tap it into your phone:
My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.
Instead of being quick to speak, we need to be quick to listen. Quick to listen and slow to speak. Quick to listen to other people and slow to start talking ourselves. We’re to take note of this.
Perhaps this was a problem among the believers who first received James’s letter. Maybe they were going about, talking all the time about all the things that mattered to them, without stopping to listen and to pay attention to others in the church. So, James says:
We need to be quick to listen to one another. And we need to be slow to speak.
And there’s something else:
[We need to be] slow to become angry, because man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.
God wants us to live righteous lives; the kind of life where we do what’s right. But it’s very hard to do what’s right whenever we’re angry. When we’re angry, we say things we shouldn’t say. You know, there are those unkind words we say when we’re angry. Those hurtful remarks. And when we’re angry, we do things we shouldn’t do. And when we’re angry, we think things we shouldn’t think, as we sit there, fuming, and thinking all kinds of bad things about the person who has made us angry. God wants us to live a righteous life. He wants us to say and do and think what’s right. And anger doesn’t produce that kind of life. So, as well as trying to be quick to listen and slow to speak, we need to try to be slow to become angry.
I was listening to a podcast this week in which a man who has written a number of books about counselling Christians was being interviewed. And one of the things he said was very interesting. He said that even though people sometimes have complicated and complex problems, the very best help can come from a wise friend who is ready to listen; and who won’t say things they don’t know anything about; and who will love you over a long period of time. That’s what we’re looking for when we need help, isn’t it? Someone who is going to listen to me to try to understand what I’m going through. And I need someone who is not going to talk too much about things they don’t know anything about. And I need someone who will love me and not get angry with me.
And, of course, when we’re like this ourselves, we’ll perhaps find that people are coming to us. They’re coming to us with their cares and concerns and their worries. And they’re coming to us, because they’re discovered in us someone who is willing to listen in order to understand. And they’re coming to us, because they’re discovered in us someone who won’t just talk, talk, talk and who won’t give them a chance to say what’s on their mind. And they’re coming to us, because they’re discovered in us someone who is loving and kind and patient and who won’t get angry with them.
That’s the kind of person we need around the church. So, let’s make note of this. Let’s write this down so that we’ll remember this and pray about it. Let’s ask God to make us the kind of people who will be quick to listen, and who will be slow to speak. and who will be slow to become angry.
Verses 21 to 25
In the next verses — and I’m looking now at verses 21 to 25 — James goes on to speak about receiving and obeying God’s word. But first of all, he says to us:
Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent.
We’re to picture a person who is wearing shabby, filthy clothes and they have to take them off. Perhaps someone has been working in the garden and they’ve got all dirty. Or perhaps it’s a boy who has been playing rugby; and he’s covered head to toe in mud; and he’s walked home like that; but his mother won’t let him into the house until he strips off his dirty clothes. That’s what we’re to do with the moral filth and all the evil that clings to us. We need to strip it off. We need to take it off.
When we hear the words ‘moral filth’ we probably automatically think of sexual sins. So, people talk about the moral filth that’s on the internet or which is on TV and which is in the books and magazine that people buy. Or it’s the kind of thing that happens late at night in some of the clubs in town. And, of course, that’s included in what James means by ‘moral filth’. But you see, to God, who is altogether holy, every sin is filthy. Every sin contaminates us and makes us unclean. And so, when James tells us to get rid of all moral filth, he means get rid of all sin in our lives.
And then, notice that the NIV refers to the evil that is so prevalent. James means there’s so much of it. It’s abundant. It’s abounding. Like the weeds in the garden which keep re-appearing, so sin and wickedness keep re-appearing in the lives of even believers. Or one commentator explains that sin is like an army with many soldiers. You get rid of one, and another comes at us. So, James is saying to us:
Come one now. You need to get rid of all those things which make your life unclean. And you need to keep battling against sin again and again and again.
So, there’s something else for us to note down. There’s something else we need to do. We need to get rid of all the sin in our life and the evil that is so abundant.
But that’s only the beginning. Because as well as that, we also need to accept or to receive humbly the word planted in you, says James.
As well as watching Happy Days when I was a boy, I’d watch war movies as well. So, the allies would parachute into enemy territory on some special mission to blow up a bridge or a castle or something like that. And at some point in the story, they’d pull out a radio and try to call their base back home in England. And often they’d ask:
Are you receiving me?
I’m speaking into this radio, but is anyone receiving my message?
That’s the preacher’s worry every Sunday. The preacher stands to preach God’s word. I’m speaking now. But is anyone receiving the message? Are people listening and accepting what they’re hearing? Do they believe it? Will they obey it? That’s why in the first main prayer I often ask the Lord to help us to receive his word with faith and humility. We need faith to believe what we hear. And we also need humility. And James mentions humility here in verse 21, because the proud person — the person who thinks ‘I know all this already’ or ‘I’ve heard it all before’ or ‘This is only for unbelievers’ is not in the frame of mind we need in order to receive God’s word. So, we need to humble ourselves before the Lord and confess that we need his word.
Do you remember what Paul wrote to Timothy?
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.
We need to humble ourselves before the Lord and confess: I need to be taught by your word; and I need to be rebuked by your word; and I need to be corrected by your word; and I need to be trained by your word. We need to humble ourselves before the Lord in order to receive his word.
And James also says that God’s word is planted in us. Think of the Lord’s parable of the sower and the seed. The seed is God’s word and it needs to be planted in our hearts. And we need it planted in our hearts, because only when it’s planted in our hearts will it bring forth fruit and make a difference in our lives. So, think of the Lord’s parable again. Some of the seed landed on the hard soil; and the birds of the air came along and picked it up and carried it away; so nothing ever grew where the soil was hard. And sometimes we can harden our hearts to God’s word. Or we can harden our hearts towards the preacher who brings us God’s word. That’s often a problem in churches. And when that happens, the seed of God’s word lands on a hard heart. And it can’t do any good when it lands on a hard heart. So, we need to ensure that we’re humble, and open, and we’re ready to receive God’s word.
Why do we need God’s word? Look what James says at the end of verse 21. He says:
humbly accept God’s word planted in you, which can save you.
I’ve said before that James is writing to believers. So, what can he mean when he says to believers that God’s word can save them? Surely they’re already saved?
There are two ways to understand what James means here. And both are true. Either he means God’s word is able to save us from the power of sin in our lives. And that’s true. God uses the reading and preaching of his word to sanctify us so that we become more and more holy, more and more obedient to the Lord. Week by week, month by month, year by year, we hear God’s word and God uses his word and the things we hear to change us. So, through the reading and preaching of God’s word, we’re saved more and more from the power of sin in our lives.
James might mean that. Or perhaps he thinking about how we need to persevere in the faith. We need to keep trusting in the Lord throughout our lives. We need to keep obeying the Lord throughout lives. We need to keep going. And how do we keep going? Well, God uses the reading and preaching of his word to strengthen our faith and to warn us of the dangers we may face as believers which might lead us astray. So, God uses the reading and the preaching of his word to enable us to keep going along the narrow path that leads to everlasting life in the presence of God.
So, here’s James saying to his readers — and he’s saying this to us as well:
Come on now. Get rid of any sin and wickedness in your life. Get rid of it. And pay attention to my word. Do that and God will lead you all the way to heaven.
But, of course, James isn’t finished with the topic of listening to God’s word. He’s got more to say about it. The preacher worries that no one is receiving the message. But the preacher also worries that no one is obeying the message. And so, James says in verse 22:
Don’t merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.
Isn’t that interesting? People can become sermon connoisseurs. You know what a connoisseur is like. A wine connoisseur is an expert in how wine tastes. He smells the wine in the glass. And then he takes a sip and he rolls it around in his mouth, trying to get all the flavours and get a sense of what the wine is like. And he perhaps makes a mark in his notebook. And then what does he do? He spits it out into a bucket. And then he does the same thing with another wine. Always tasting, tasting, tasting, but never drinking. And we can become a sermon connoisseur, always listening, listening, listening to sermons, but never once letting it go down into our hearts and work its way out into our lives in obedience. And so we all need to remember that sermons are meant to change us. So instead of merely listening to God’s word, we’re meant to do what it says. So, if there’s promise, we’re meant to believe it. If there’s a warning, we’re meant to take it seriously. And if there’s a command, we’re meant to do it.
And to reinforce his point, James uses this illustration of a man looking in the mirror. The man looks in the mirror and he notices that there’s a mark on the side of his face. Perhaps his hands were dirty and he didn’t realise that he’d transferred some dirt from his hands onto his face. Well, his face is dirty now. He sees that. And perhaps he thinks:
I must do something about that. I must wash that off.
But what happens? Instead of washing it off, he goes away and forgets all about it. That’s no good. Well, the man who hears God’s word and doesn’t obey it is just like that. He hears God’s word; and perhaps it points out something in his life that needs to change. But he then forgets all about it. And nothing changes.
But look at verse 25 now. This is what we’re to do. We’re to look intently into God’s word, which James calls ‘God’s perfect law’. But instead of just glancing at it, and reading it carelessly and casually and inattentively, we’re to look into it intently. This word ‘intently’ was used to describe what the disciples did when they went to the Lord’s tomb on Easter Sunday morning. Do you remember? They stooped down and peered intently into the tomb in order to examine it carefully. So, we’re to examine God’s word carefully.
That’s what our students do with their textbooks in school and in college. You see them, sitting at their desks, their heads bowed over their books, and they’re reading those books intently; trying to understand; perhaps taking notes to go over again on another day. They work hard to get to grips with their textbooks. Well, God’s word is far, far, far more important to the good of our souls than the things we read in school and college. And so, it deserves our attention and our concentration and our best efforts to understand it.
So, we’re to examine God’s word and we’re to continue to do this, says James in verse 25. I hope you read your Bible every day. And I hope you’ll continue to do it all your life. Some people, when they were young, were taught to read their Bible every day. But when they became older, and busier, they stopped. But we’re to continue to examine God’s word, says James. We’re to keep reading it ourselves. And we’re to keep hearing it preached. And we’re not to forget what we read or hear. And we’re not to be hearers only, because we’re to do it, says James at the end of verse 25. And the person who does God’s word, who puts it in practice, will know God’s blessing on their lives.
All through the Bible we read of people who knew God’s word, but who didn’t do what it says. From Adam and Eve in the beginning, right through to the end, there are people who knew God’s word, and they had his commands and his laws, but they didn’t do what God said they should do. And we read how their lives were ruined. And the lives of the people around them were ruined. Well, those things were written to warn us not to make the same mistake, but to be careful to do what God has commanded.
Verses 26 and 27
In verses 26 and 27 James summarises for us what true religion or what true Christianity looks like. And we shouldn’t be surprised that his summary in these verses matches what he’s said before. True religion involves keeping a tight rein on our tongue. Earlier he said we’re to be slow to speak; now he says we need to bridle our tongue. We’re to think of the way a rider will keep a tight rein on her horse in order to control the horse and prevent it from charging away. We’re to keep a tight rein on our tongue in order to prevent us from saying things which we ought not to say.
And what else? Well, look at verse 27. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: it’s to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted from the world. By orphans and widows, James is referring to the vulnerable and the weak, because in his day widows and orphans had no one to look after them. So, we’re to care for the vulnerable and the weak. It’s a very practical thing, isn’t it?
And then we’re to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world. We all know that temptation to become just like everyone else. Unbelieving friends will invite us to join them in doing things that we know aren’t right. We need to be careful, says James, to keep ourselves pure.
Of course, there was one man who did all of these things perfectly. There was one man who was always willing to listen to the people who came to him with their needs. And instead of being angry with them, even though he was often very busy, he was patient with them and kind.
And there was one man who who always, always obeyed God’s law and who, throughout his life, was careful to do whatever his Father in heaven said he must do.
There was one man who was always prepared to love and serve his needy neighbours. In fact, it was said of him:
A bruised reed he will not break.
The weak and the weary and the bruised and the battered were able to come to him for rest.
And there was one man who always kept himself from being polluted by the world.
Who is this one man? Well, I’m sure you know who I’m talking about. It’s the Lord Jesus. And whoever trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ has his Spirit living inside of them. And his Spirit is able to help them to become like him.