If you are anything like me, you’ve got a love-hate relationship with the mirrors in your home. You wake up in the morning to get ready for the day, you go into the bathroom, look in the mirror and wonder to yourself
did that zit really have to come out on the end of my nose
or, is that another wrinkle there beside my right eye
or, is that pot-belly sticking out just a bit more
or perhaps, not quite as much hair on top this morning.
There’s a mirror in the bathroom, maybe a mirror by the front door, maybe a mirror in the living room. Walking around your house is like watching your own life unfold in High Definition. And it ain’t always the prettiest picture – yea, some of us get a better deal than others – but most of us aren’t Narcissus. Most of us don’t spend our days in front of the mirror because we’re in love with our own reflection – we do so because we are preoccupied with what we perceive as problems –
how am I going to cover that zit,
maybe if I come my hair this way
eh – I don’t think the pot belly’s any bigger – what do you think, dear.
James the brother of Jesus brings up mirrors in the passage we’re focusing on today from the New Testament – which is actually kind of curious since for the vast majority of people in ancient world, mirrors were not an everyday object. And any mirrors that did exist didn’t exactly give you a high definition window on your own body or life. The ancient world knew nothing of the silvered plate-glass of modern mirrors. The mirrors that did exist were highly polished metal surfaces. This lack of mirrors meant that most people didn’t actually know what they looked like. Maybe that makes you pine for ancient days – we wouldn’t be so preoccupied with those little so-called imperfections we see each morning.
In any case, James brings up mirrors – and he does it in order to try and make a point. He writes: “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in the mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they are like.”
This passage brings us to one of the huge preoccupations of Jesus’ brother. Throughout his letter James pounds away on the point – faith must come to expression in action. You can’t just hear the word – you’ve got to do it. Genuine faith in God comes to expression in words and deeds – it’s as simple as that.
You can’t worship the God who loves the homeless and the refugee – and then go on your merry way ignoring the homeless and the refugees.
You can’t pray to the God who saves his children from slavery – and then go and ignore those who are bound by addiction or fear or anxiety.
You can’t draw close to the God who created man and woman – and proceed to take no heed of his invitation to right living.
How does James draw the mirror into this discussion? Well, he sets up a figurative parallel.
The person who hears God’s word, but doesn’t do what it says;
the person who listens to what the scriptures say but don’t live it
that person is like someone who stands and looks at himself in a mirror, and then goes away, forgetting what he looks likes.
James suggests that there’s a kind of self-deception going on. Those who listen to the stories of God and his people, those who participate in worship, those who sing their heart out in the community of faith – these may think they are caught up in the life of faith. But if they walk away from the hearing of those stories, and from life with God’s people, and then don’t live in ways that are consistent with those stories and consistent with the identity of God’s people, then they are deceiving themselves. It’s not faith, but something else.
James puts it this way: If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
From this perspective we can understand James’ preoccupation, throughout his letter, with action.
He insists that we not be angry.
He tells us to control our tongues.
He implores us to care for orphans and widows.
He tells us not to be jealous of what others have.
At the same time, though, reading this letter you almost come to the point where you’re saying to yourself – enough already, James. Enough with the law. Enough with the rules. Enough with telling us how to live. Isn’t Christianity a religion of grace? Isn’t it about God’s love for a broken and hurting world, a love extended in spite of our failure to live well together? Isn’t it, to go back to the familiar language of that old reformed slave trader – isn’t it about the amazing grace that saves a wretch like me? Well yes, James might say – it is about grace – but that doesn’t mean our words and actions don’t matter. True faith in God; genuine love for his Son Jesus, necessarily comes to expression in a particular way of life.
Which brings us back to that mirror again – the one we spend so much time looking into. James says to his readers – those in the first century but also to us in the twenty-first century – he says to us: “But those who gaze into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.”
The language James actually uses here is actually stronger than our NRSV translation suggests. It’s more like this: “Gaze intently into the law.” It’s the same word used of the disciples who ran to the tomb and gazed in intently looking for the body of Jesus. James wants us to look into God’s word with some level of intensity – he wants us to put in real time and energy reading the scriptures. Doing so, he believes, will lead to a transformation of our lives. Gazing with such intensity into God’s word and law, we will become more than just hearers – we will become doers – those in whom faith comes to full expression.
Reading here, you can’t help but think that James really has his brother Jesus in mind here. Yes, we ought to gaze into the whole story of God with his people – we ought to gaze into the whole rich diversity of scripture – read it with intensity. But especially perhaps, gaze with intensity at the living Word Jesus – the truly human one. And as you read of this Jesus, James says, as you consider
his acts of love,
his words of anger,
his way of humility,
his willingness to suffer,
as you read of his vindication through resurrection,
you will find yourself transformed. The fullness of faith will come to expression in your life – a faith that dwells not mere in your heart and mind, but a faith that inevitably works its way out through your hands and your feet, through your fingers and toes – faith that inevitably works its way out in your words and your actions. If that’s going to happen, though, James thinks we’re going to have to put in some intense time with Jesus and his story – probably more time than we presently spend looking at ourselves in high definition each day.
But even here, maybe we’re feeling like this is all a bit to much.
You ought to do this…
You’ve got to do that…
And while you’re at it, you better do this other things…
Here I think it’s really important to notice something specific James says. He doesn’t just say “gaze intently at the law.” He says “gaze intently into the perfect law, the law of liberty.” The law of liberty? With these words, James reminds us of a powerful truth articulated in God’s covenant with Israel and embodied in Jesus – that law and freedom go together.
Now we tend to think that law and liberty don’t go together. In many ways our culture perpetuates the view that law and freedom are opposed to each other. There is a widespread view in western culture that freedom means the absence of any kind of restriction on my life,
Freedom means defining my own life.
Freedom means not having to follow rules for living set up by anyone other than me.
Again, freedom means the absence of any kind of external restriction on my life.
James and the whole Christian tradition want to turn that on its head. According to James, as we gaze intently into the law, as gaze intently at Jesus, we will in fact find ourselves bound by the law and way of Jesus. And yet at the same time, being bound in this way, we will suddenly find that we are truly and wonderfully free.
The Canadian musician Sarah Harmer has a new album coming out in June. In advance, however, her record label has released a single from that album. It’s entitled, interestingly, Captive. The lyrics to the song suggest that this way of thinking isn’t completely foreign to us – even in our society there is some recognition that being bound and being free can be held together.
Harmer’s song opens with these words: “I want to be held captive/forget the way I acted/It’s just I’m out of practice/and distracted.” The song concludes with these words: “Fence me in and keep me close. Fence me in and keep me close to you.”
The song is sung from the perspective of someone who wants to know the delight and joy of life with beloved. But this one who wants to know the delight and joy of life with the beloved has messed up – she’s out of practice in loving – she can’t get it right, and because of that. the relationship fails. So she knows that in some sense to experience the delights of life with the beloved she has to be held captive – fenced in – in some sense bound in the relationship. Her won weakness and inability can be overcome if she is in some sense bound in the relationship.
A logic not unlike this is at the heart of the gospel. James describes it as the law of liberty. In the same moment, bound and free. In the same moment, captive and liberated.
James believes that as we gaze intently into the law – as we intentionally focus on Jesus’ word and way – we will find ourselves transformed – and we will found ourselves bound to Jesus and his way. But even as we find ourselves so bound to Jesus and his way, we will also discover that we have been set free:
set free for life in broadest sense,
set free for love,
set free for right living,
set free to become fully alive and truly human.
James writes: “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.” What is this blessing of which James speaks? Let’s be clear – this is no health and wealth gospel. James is most certainly not saying that if you follow the law of love embodied in Jesus he will give you stuff – you know, a nice house, a long life, a comfortable retirement.
Rather, James is saying that as you gaze intently into the way and word of Jesus, and as you intentionally follow his word and way – you will discover that this way is the way of freedom and joy – it is the truly human way. The blessing is intrinsic to the way of life. The way of life is the blessing. We are blessed of God as we live the truly human way – the way embodied in the one who fulfilled the law of love.
Sarah Harmer wants to be bound, to be held captive, to be fenced in, for the sake of the relationship itself – the relationship is the blessing. There isn’t some other blessing added on top of that. Being bound in the relationship means delight and joy and freedom from her own failures and inability.
So it is in a more fundamental way is it with life following Jesus.
To be bound to Jesus,
to be held captive to the law of love he embodies,
to live in ways consistent with the new life God has implanted in us through Christ,
is precisely to be blessed.
Of course, you can get some little sense of all of this looking from the outside in on Jesus. But looking from the outside, it’s sometimes hard to believe that being bound to Jesus, that being bound to his word and way, will mean true freedom. Which is to say that there is some risk involved here. Why? Because you cannot know that being bound to Jesus and his way is freedom and blessing until you actually go there – until you move beyond being a hearer, to being a doer. The promise of the gospel, the promise of James the brother of Jesus, is that as you take that risk – the risk of being held captive to the word and way of Jesus – you will find yourself wonderfully free, fully alive. Perhaps a risk worth taking?