James 3:13-4:3; 7-8a
The Heart of the Matter
“We are free to do anything we want. But because I can doesn’t mean I should. There is a massive distance between ‘can’ and best.’ We’re addictive creatures. We try things, we experiment, we explore, and certain things hook us. They get their tentacles in us, and we can’t get away from them. What started out as freedom can quickly become slavery. Often freedom is seen as the ability to do whatever you want. But freedom isn’t being able to have whatever we crave. Freedom is going without whatever we crave and being fine with it.”
For those of you who read the book Sex God during our summer reading you might recognize this. This comes from the chapter where Rob Bell talks about lust. Lust is a powerful and it is controlling. It envelopes our minds until our lust for this object is the only thing we can think about. It is all consuming and soon feels all powerful until we sooth this craving by just taking a little bit. But then to take care of the craving we have to take more, and more, and more. Before we know it we are standing there neck deep in our lustful desire.
James doesn’t use the same words as Bell though. What Bell calls lust James calls bitter envy and selfish desire. Bitter envy is really being extremely jealous of what someone else has. Selfish desires are the things I want for ME. When these two things swirl around in our heads it leads to bad things. Bitter envy and selfish desires are what is really at the heart of this economic crisis. Verse 16 really nails our current situation. “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” Maybe it is better said like this, “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find economic crisis.”
In the study Enough that we are doing in Solomon’s Porch and Jackie Boles Bible Study we hear about two diseases that the US suffers from, affluenza and credititis. Affluenza speaks to the disease of wanting more and more. We are an affluent nation but we are not happy we that, we want more. The way we get more now is through credit. So we borrow to get what we think will make us happy. The banks are, or should I say, were, happy to lend us whatever we wanted because they were going to sell our loans to someone else. They did that so they could pass the responsibility and accountability on and make a ton of money doing it to feed their affluenza. At the heart of this matter though is bitter envy and selfish desires.
These diseases plague us because we are always wanting more to fulfill the American dream. The American dream is I can create the best life for me. I can take care of me first no matter who gets hurt in the process. Bernie Madoff was only thinking about the money he was making and not the people he was hurting. People trusted them with their money but he wasn’t thinking about them and the $13-$21 billion he took from them. It was selfish desire that drove him to this massive amount of money he defrauded from people. The affluent life he led drove his lust for more, until he was caught.
It is bitter envy that is driving most of the foreclosures in our nation. We are envious of what others have and we want them too. This envy drives us to make poor decisions. People did not take personal responsibility for their finances. In our hearts we really know what we can afford and what we can’t. But it is hard when the bank places huge amounts of money in front of us and tells us we can afford it. That bitter envy comes to the surface and we get so caught up in the moment that we cannot see beyond it. Before we know it we have bought too much house, too much car, or too many toys.
Dwight L. Moody once told the fable of an eagle who was envious of another that could fly better than he could. One day the bird saw a sportsman with a bow and arrow and said to him, “I wish you would bring down that eagle up there.” The man said he would if he had some feathers for his arrow. So the jealous eagle pulled one out of his wing. The arrow was shot, but it didn’t quite reach the rival bird because he was flying too high. The first eagle pulled out another feather, then another–until he had lost so many that he himself couldn’t fly. The archer took advantage of the situation, turned around, and killed the helpless bird. If we let bitter envy control us the one we hurt the most is ourselves.
There was a commercial for a minivan out a while ago. A father opens up the minivan door to tell his sons about the tree house he just finished building. He is covered in dirt, paint, and building supplies as he excitedly tells them he has completed the project. The sons don’t look as excited. One of them asks if it has leather seats, a DVD player, and an amazing sound system? The father reluctantly says no and the sons go about enjoying the luxury of the minivan instead. The father leaves dejected because his efforts weren’t enough to compete with the family car. There is another one where we are shown pictures of a family all doing their own thing. Dad is on the computer. The daughter is on the phone. One son is playing video games and shoos the youngest away. The mother pulls up and asks everyone to come take a ride in the new car. Suddenly, while driving down the road the family becomes one again. Enjoy the luxury of this car and all its features. Then as they sit there watching the sunset together the voice over guy says, “Bringing families together like never before.” Ahhh, the power of the minivan. It can bring families together and tear them apart. But at the heart of these commercials is the idea that if we have this minivan our life will be more complete, but will it?
Can we be satisfied in life? Can we reach a place of peace and joy? The Rolling Stones say no, we can’t get satisfaction. But James says yes. We can find satisfaction when we realize where our foundation truly is. When times are good we can find peace and joy in our stuff. The minivan does look like a great haven for joy, so does the boat, the vacation house, the new purse, and the new couch. Yet when times are tough and we can no longer buy more stuff we are left feeling empty and alone. That is where the road of bitter envy and selfish desires leads, emptiness. Soon the amount of stuff we need to fill the hole that our lusts have created is too much. So what are we left with?
In just a little bit I have the pleasure of baptizing Chris. He comes as a profession of faith. Unlike when we baptize children, a profession of faith baptism is done for someone who can answer the baptismal questions on his own. When we baptize a child we ask the parents these questions. But today Chris takes on that responsibility himself. At each baptism we ask either the parents or the one being baptized, Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sins? Do you accept the freedom and power God give you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?
We ask these questions because this is our base, this is our foundation, this is where we find our identity. Baptism demonstrates our primary calling as a child of God. At our core we are not a consumer. At our core we are not what our lusts tells us we are. At our core we are a child of God made in their image. When all the stuff goes away or is found to come up empty this is the reminder we need. We are not defined by our car, our house, our clothes, or our toys. We are defined by the water that was placed on our heads and washed over our souls.
Each week we say the Lord’s prayer and the Apostle’s Creed together. When I asked why we do this to some people their response was, “because you tell us to.” Thank you once again for following my directions but that is not the main reason. The main reason we do these things is because they are our part of our foundation. When we are feeling lost and alone or abandoned and distant, the words of the Apostle’s Creed remind us of what we believe and what our God did for us. When times are tough and life has hit you in the gut and knocked the wind out of you, the Lord’s prayer directs us to remember that God is here and will take care of us. These are our foundation and are reminders of our identity. When bitter envy and selfish desire comes up empty, our foundations in God carry us through.
James says that when life seems to be not giving us what we want we need to remember why. He says, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” We are too filled with thinking of ourselves. Our hearts do not match God’s. If you are catching a theme here it is that we are to be like God. James tells us that our tongues, our actions, and our hearts need to be like God. Then we will find purpose, joy, and true wisdom. The heart of the matter is we are to be like God and the only way to do that is to get as close to him as possible. “Come near to God and he will come near to you.” Let us draw near to God this morning as we stand together and say the apostle’s creed which is on page 881 in your hymnal…I believe…
And all God’s people said…Amen.