As we have looked at the letter of James these past weeks, we have been confronted with his strong language and his sometimes radical demands. We heard him say that we should consider it all joy when we face any kind of suffering. We heard him insist that you cannot be both a friend of the world and a friend of God. We heard his almost incendiary comment that the human tongue is a fire that has been set on fire by hell itself. Every step of the way James has been in our faces – pushing and prodding us to a deeper life of faith – pushing and prodding us to live in the way of the risen Jesus. Admittedly, his language is often exaggerated, over the top – but whatever he’s doing, James will not let us off with an easy, comfortable faith that lets everything stay the same.
Today James is at it again. We begin this morning in verse fourteen of chapter four where the Apostle has this to say: “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
Now when I first read these words this past week, I thought: Is this a message we really need to here? Is it really edifying for us to hear that our lives are like a mist that evaporates in the morning? Is it really helpful to our Christian life to be told that our existence is like a wisp of smoke that fades quickly to nothing? At some level, in fact, this seems totally at odds with our faith in Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus calls us to lives of significant service; he calls us to a radical love of neighbour; he calls us to build meaningful relationships. If my life is an evaporating mist – my reaction might well be: What’s the point? If my life is finally as substantial as a wisp of smoke, why even try to pursue anything meaningful in life? Shouldn’t we just throw in the towel even before we’ve started?
Some might have a different reaction to these words. For some the realization that their life is finally just an evaporating mist might lead them to try and desperately to fill up their lives. These might respond with words something along the lines of that the Trooper song from 1977 – We’re here for a good time, not for along time. That’s not to say that those who respond in this way are necessarily going to live that clichéd life of sex, drugs and rock’n roll, or women, wine and song – or whatever. No, some will try desperately to fill their short, fading lives with meaningful substantial pursuits. The possibility that our life is a vanishing vapour, that our life is finally insubstantial, leads some in a desperate search for substance and fullness.
It seems to me (and I can’t claim to be an expert in this) – it seems to me that the great majority of people don’t follow either of these two options. They don’t throw in the towel or desperately try to give life meaning. Rather, most of us simply ignore the thought that our life is nothing more than a wisp of smoke from an extinguished candle. It’s a threatening thought, isn’t it? If we took seriously the thought that our lives are just a vapour – nothing really – we’d probably be immobilized by anxiety or immobilized by the fundamental impossibility of life. So most of us just ignore this idea – and get on with the everyday.
Now just to confuse matters this morning – let me say this. I don’t think that James means hat he says. James writes: “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” But I don’t think he actually means it.
Now there is some precedent in the scriptures for what James is saying. How could we ignore those classic lines from Ecclesiastes: “Meaningless, meaningless, says the Teacher. Utterly meaningless. All is meaningless.” The author of Ecclesiastes, writing in the wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Bible, looks out on life and sees how difficult, unpredictable, and short life can be – and from that everyday perspective he can’t help but conclude that life is insubstantial. If a tornado or a car accident or disease or some other calamity can take away everything we have – sometimes in just a matter of seconds – is there anything else we can conclude except that our daily pursuits, and our lifetime achievements, are essentially meaningless.
But as much as there’s a scriptural precedent for the sentiment expressed by James, I don’t think he actually believes what he says. I don’t think he actually believes that our life is so meaningless or insubstantial.
Ok, maybe I should adjust what I’m saying. It’s not exactly that James doesn’t mean what he’s saying. These words of James offers are an aphorism, a saying. He might have picked it up from someone else or have made it up himself. But in any case, this aphorism, this saying, can be interpreted in many different ways. All by itself this saying doesn’t have an obvious meaning. “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” What James is actually saying, I think, is that a certain kind of life is meaningless – a certain kind of life is an evaporating mist.
In verse 13, James writes: “Come on you merchants – you people who say that ‘today or tomorrow we will go to this or that town and spend a year there doing business and making money.’ Come on, what are you saying? ‘You don’t even know what tomorrow will bring’. How can you make these kinds of plans?”
In this passage James is talking to travelling salesmen, to those who run import/export businesses, to entrepreneurs trying to increase their market share. He’s writing to business people who are developing strategic plans to better their bottom line – those who are setting out five year business plans and making ten year revenue projections.
And what does James say to them. Does he tell them they shouldn’t be making plans at all? No, it doesn’t seem like he does. Rather, the problem with these merchants is that they have lost all perspective. Above all, they have completely forgotten that all of their planning, and all of their preparations, and all of their expectations, are under God’s care and direction.
All along in this sermon series we have said that James is a prophet much in the mould of Jesus. Perhaps James has in the back of his mind, here, a parable of Jesus:
Jesus said to his disciples: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods, And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample good laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Both James and Jesus are not so much preoccupied with the fact that we make plans – they don’t have a problem with our making plans. They are preoccupied, rather, with the fact that we are forgetful of God’s presence – that we are forgetful of God’s law, that we are forgetful of the truly human life we are invited to live.
This past week we had the first study in our Summer of Spirituality. And one of the interesting things we stumbled over was that phrase ‘the real world’. We use it all the time – “that’s not how things work in the real world.” But what is the real world? Dennis Okholm, the author of the short book we are reading shares a story told by one of his college students. “As a high-schooler, this student of mine had come back from a week at a Christian camp, it was clearly an enlivening experience, and she told her father that she knew it was time to come back down from the mountaintop and into the real world.” Her wise father answered her, “You were in the real world.” That is, the mountaintop experience of Christian community that she had experienced at camp more closely approximated the world as God intended it when he created the cosmos.”
Where is the real world? Is our worship together this morning the real world – or are we only in the real world once we pass out of those doors? Is it the real world when we gather for prayer, or only when we’re back cleaning the house or filing a report at the office? Is it the real world when we spend time reading the stories of Jesus and the first Christians, or only when we’re reading the Gazette? Is it the real world when we are exploring ancient practices of Christian spirituality, or only when we’re filing our tax returns?
The problem James saw with those ancient merchants is this: That in determining how much their caravan would be able to carry; in planning how many months they would spend here or there – in all of their planning they thought they were living in the real world. In all of this they thought they were dealing with the most important matters – with things vital to life – with things essential to their wellbeing. They think the real world is the world of their planning and preparation and activity.
But, to put it in language common to a younger generation – all of that is so not the real world. The world of politics, and the world of the workplace, the world of university studies, the world of bank books and bottom lines – all of it is so not the real world.
James’ point is that if we pursue all of these different activities without reference to God’s loving intention for us and our world – then our life is an evaporating mist. If we engage in career planning or estate planning or holiday planning or family planning without reference to God’s desire for us – then something vital is missing. Vital – it’s a great word. It comes from the Latin for life. If God is missing from our decision making and planning – then the animating feature of human life is missing.
It’s hard to read James and not feel like he’s beating up on us a bit. He seems to be telling us everything we are doing wrong. He seems so preoccupied with the fact that we can’t get anything right.
But all of James’ negativity can be cast in absolutely positive terms. You see, above all James wants us to live in the real world. Above all James wants us to live lives that are substantive, full, and free. The closest he comes to be constructive and positive in our passage for today is when he tells us that we should think and speak as follows: “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”(repeat)
You’ve seen those two letters that that show up on wedding invitations and elsewhere – the letters D.V. Those letters represent the Latin words Deus Volente – which mean Lord Willing. If God allows it.
We will get married in September – Deus Volente.
We will travel to Paris next year on holiday – Lord willing.
We’ll celebrate our 50th anniversary next month – Lord willing.
Now there is something faithful about entrusting our lives to God in this way – although these words can also become just another way of ‘whatever will be will be’. But even if we use that phrase in the best sense possible, that’s not what James is talking about.
The letter of James is a thoroughly ethical and moral letter – from verse to verse to verse he is preoccupied with our obedience to the law of God – he is preoccupied with our following the way of love revealed in Jesus. And what he means with that phrase is revealed in verse seventeen (expressed again negatively): “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it sins.”
But to turn James’ negativity on its head we go back to James’ earlier invitation to gaze into the law of liberty – his invitation that we fix our eyes on Jesus, who embodies the law and love of God. When we look at Jesus, says James, it will suddenly become very obvious what it means to live the truly human life. Even more, though, when we gaze intently at the risen Jesus, listening to his word and following his waywe will suddenly discover that we are living in the real world. What does the real world look like? What does it look like when our lives become substantive, full, and free. James thinks its pretty obvious, really.
We live in the real world when we act as peacemakers – overcoming conflict through reconciliation.
We live in the real world when we use our tongues to praise God and to build others up in faith and love.
We live in the real world when we patient in the face of suffering, knowing that the future belongs to Jesus.
We live in the real world when we take care of widows and orphans – those who are most vulnerable in our society.
We live in the real world when we treat everyone, regardless of wealth or class or anything, with the same love and respect.
We live in the real world, as we’ll see next week, when we pray together.
That’s the real world – it is the world created and revealed in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord. When we live in this world, our life becomes so much more than a vanishing mist – our lives become substantive, full, and free. That’s precisely the promise of life in the real world – lives that are substantive, full, and free. Through Christ our Lord.