The Gospel for the Rest of Us: How to Waste Your Life

Sermon by Gabe Fluhrer on March 26, 2017

James 5:1-6

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I want to extend a warm welcome again to all our visitors here for the Day School strings – grandparents, parents, family friends. So good to have you with us. And students, that was wonderful. Thank you so much for playing so beautifully and helping us worship Jesus well. Just a special place is the Day School and that’s on display for us tonight.


We’ve been studying through the New Testament book of James and will continue that this evening. We’re in James chapter 5, verses 1 through 6. You’ll find that on page 1013 if you’re using a pew Bible. James 5, verses 1 through 6. Let’s go to the Lord in prayer!


Our Father in heaven, You’ve given us one life. We don’t want to waste that life. We want to live for Your glory. And when we walk out of here tonight, and maybe even inside us right now, there are a million different competitors for Your glory. And so we pray that You would fix our minds and our hearts upon the true riches of Christ this evening. We pray in His mighty name, amen.


James 5, beginning at verse 1. This is God’s Word:


“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.”


The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of our God shall stand forever. Amen.


How would you like to have this nickname, “The Most Hated Man in America!” Want to know how bad it was for this guy? The one thing, I think that then-candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump agreed upon, was they both said this guy was absolutely without a doubt the worst man in America. Was he a serial rapist? A murderer? No. Who was he? He was Martin Shkreli, a disgraced hedge fund manager. He is probably most remembered for raising the price on a vital drug for those with weakened immune systems from $13.50 a pill to $750 a pill, lining his pockets along the way. Eventually, he and his business partners were busted for securities fraud, but as it always goes with this kind of thing, he easily posted his $5 million bail, pulled his hoodie up over his face, and walked out of the courtroom. Greedy, super rich people; they’re nothing new. James knows about them. He’s going to tell us about that tonight. But he’s going to do what he’s been doing through this series for all of us. He’s going to make us uncomfortable. He’s going to make us uncomfortable because he’s going to show us that we’re all prone to this kind of greed, this kind of self-indulgence, this temptation to waste our lives.

How We Waste Our Lives

The section where we are here, we’re concluding the third of three sections in this book, all of which have two main themes – the greatness of God and the weakness of man. And last week we studied that wonderful passage where James told us your life and my life is fleeting. They’ll be gone like mist on a morning. And tonight he turns around and says, “If your life is that fleeting, don’t do this,” if you want to say. Don’t do these things that he’s going to unfold for us tonight. And when we read this passage, it’s probably one of the most strongly worded texts in all of the New Testament. It sounds like an Old Testament prophet. It feels like we’ve flipped back to the book of Isaiah. But what James is going to show us is how to avoid wasting our lives by remembering who we are in Christ. And we’ll look at this text under two headings. How do we waste our lives, in the first place, in verses 1 through 3 – love material things more than anything else. That will do it. How do we waste our lives? Love material things more than anything else, verses 1 through 3. And then in verses 4 through 6, be unconcerned about the poor. Be unconcerned about the poor and we will waste our lives.


Love Material Things More Than Anything Else


First of all then, love material things more than anything else. Look with me there again at the text. “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.” First question – Who is James talking to? He’s switched the tone. And I think the clearest answer is, he’s talking to rich unbelievers. And then we have to ask, “Well why would he say that to a letter written to a bunch of Christians?” A couple of reasons. I think it was to comfort them. After all, some of them have likely been oppressed by these rich people James is talking about. But I also think it’s a warning for all of us to be careful, to beware the bewitching allure of wealth.


Riches Don’t Last!

His language is strong, like I mentioned, throughout this passage, and he sounds the alarm this way. Here’s what he’s saying to us over and over again. Riches don’t last! And, if you live for them, if that’s what your life is about – stuff, money – James says we will be judged; miseries are coming. Weep and howl, he says. Now, why does he put it like this? We’ve noted before in our study on James that he echoes the words of his half-brother Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount time and again. And this is one of those passages where, if you flip back to Matthew chapter 6 verses 19 to 21, it’s almost the same exact thing. Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where thieves can break in and steal and where moth and rust corrupt. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” James takes the same tact and they’re both focusing on money and clothing. Why those two things? Because those are two things that seem so certain. Don’t they? You can look at the way somebody dresses and you can almost instantaneously tell, “That person has money.” Or, you can look at their lifestyle and say, “That person has a lot of money.” And here’s James’ warning to us. He says money and clothes, they can disappear overnight. Isn’t that what happened in 2008? Don’t we remember reading stories, it was like 1929 all over again – people jumping out of buildings who had lost millions of dollars over night.


And what about when you move? We’ve moved a few times. We moved here a couple of years ago and we do this every time we’ve moved – you purge stuff. It’s probably one of my wife’s favorite times of the year! So we were purging all this stuff, putting together these piles of things to donate, and sure enough, there was clothing in there that at one time just looked great and we thought was awesome. And there it is, in a pile, to be donated. And here’s what James says to us. “Everything you’re wearing, everything that’s on TV, everything the models are wearing, everything we see glittering in window storefronts – it’s all going to be on the donation pile at some point. That’s where it’s headed.” And if you live for that kind of thing, James says you’re going to get eaten up like being burned with fire.


And he summarizes it this way. He says, “You stored up treasure in the last days.” We’ll come back to that phrase, “the last days,” at the end, but here’s his simple point. It’s kind of the end of an indictment. He’s saying, “Look at how fleeting life is!” That’s what he told us last week. “Look at how uncertain riches are, wealth is, clothes are, health is. Look at all that and recognize that at the end of the day if that’s what you’ve lived for, you’ve stored up a bunch of stuff for the here and now. And that’s it!” And our lives will be over before we know it. And then as Jesus asked in Luke 12, “Who then will those things be? Whose will they be when we die?” And James reminds us here by going after the greedy rich that it’s easy to kind of look at a guy like, or hear about a guy like Martin Shkreli and go, “Of course. I mean that’s awful! Who would want a guy like that?” But what does this warning mean for us?


The Power of Wealth

Lest we think that I’m just up here, I hope not being self-righteous saying, “All you greedy, filthy rich people,” let’s bring this home to all of us. Think about all the problems you face this week. Just stop and think; do a quick catalog. Now ask yourself this – How many of those problems would go away tomorrow if you had more money? Doesn’t that show us the power of wealth? And as one author put it, he summarized the Bible’s teaching on this subject this way. He said, “We resemble what we revere, either for ruin or restoration.” The four “R”s. “We resemble what we revere, either for ruin or restoration.” His point was this. And this is exactly the language of the Psalms, isn’t it? If you begin to worship stuff and money and possessions and wealth, you will become like them – dead and lifeless; to our ruin, James says. But if you revere Christ, more and more He is transforming us into His image Paul reminds us. So the first way to waste your life, for all of us to waste our lives, is to love material things above all else. That will kill us now and forever.


Be Unconcerned About the Poor


Now James says, in the second place, here’s another way to waste our lives – be unconcerned for the poor. Look there again at verses 4 to 6. “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.” The first problem James notes here when we’re unconcerned for the poor is that these greedy, rich people had defrauded the workers of their wages. It was literally a matter of life and death in this culture. That’s how you got your daily bread. You worked, you were paid, you bought whatever you needed to make your bread, you ate, you got up the next day, and it started all over. And these rich owners back in James’ day had defrauded the workers of their wages. And we say, “Well I’m not a landowner.”


I was thinking about this, this week. If you look at the tags on your clothing, most of them don’t say, “Made in the USA” do they? They say places like Bangladesh, Haiti, India – places where workers do not enjoy the same protections that our workers here in the United States enjoy. And here’s James’ question for us. He doesn’t say go boycott all these companies. He asks, “Do we even care?” Do we care about the faceless, oftentimes underpaid, overworked people who sew our clothes together? Do we care that they don’t enjoy the same standard of living that we do? And James says a wasted life is a life that doesn’t care about any of those things, that doesn’t care about those kinds of people.


And then he goes on in verse 5 and says that phrase there, “you lived on earth.” Whenever you see that in the Bible, pay attention. That’s always contrasted with the heavenly life we get through Jesus. Life on earth versus heavenly life. And what James is saying here, this is the person who lives only for luxury, for all the creature comforts. This is somebody who has no self-control, doesn’t care about others, doesn’t care about using his or her money to bless others, wants more of it, wants to use it on himself and that’s it. Again, we could multiply examples from the headlines, can’t we? Bernie Madoff, Robert Allen Stanford – all of these Ponzi Scheme folks who built investors for billions, had their fifteen different mansions. And we think about that and we go, “That’s easy! That’s easy to despise those kinds of people.”


Our Love of Comfort

“But what about us again?” James says. I love to be comfortable. I love to have air conditioning. I love it when things go my way. I love it when my life works out the way it should. I love when I have good food and obedient children and a spouse who never disagrees with me and life going my way on autopilot. And James says that kind of a mindset ends in a Bernie Madoff kind of scandal. It’s not two different kinds of things; it’s two different degrees of the same kind, James tells us. And what James is doing here, he’s pleading with us, isn’t he? He says, “If this is what you’ve got, all we’ve got is what we have here on earth.” How sad is that? How sad is it to think about if we live just to be comfortable, to have more money, to have a bigger retirement account, to have a yacht, to have a second home, if that’s what we’re living for and that’s all we spend our time doing, James says we’re on earth and that’s the end of it! When you die, that’s it! And James says, “Don’t buy that!” Don’t buy it!


The last thing he says there that these rich people have done is that they have “condemned and murdered the righteous person. He did not resist you.” James says that the rich have manipulated the court system. That word there for “condemned” is a legal term. It’s a term that means something like you have defrauded through legal means, these oppressed, poor people. And that’s the same thing as murdering them and it’s a difficult phrase to translate in the Greek there, but basically it reads, “You have condemned and murdered the righteous person, who does not resist you.” And James’ point here is very simple. The poor in this society had no redress when the rich manipulated, bribed, had judges show partiality towards them. They had no recourse for justice. Are we really that different?


Think about the O.J. Simpson trial. Do you remember what the bill for his dream team of legal advisors was back in 1993 this was? $50,000 a day for a trial that went on for eleven months. $50,000 a day. And during the middle of all of that, somebody asked O.J., “What would happen to you, do you think, if you were poor?” He didn’t even miss a beat. You can listen to the courtroom or the record in his jail cell. He kind of chuckled and said, “Oh, no doubt about it. I’d be in jail! If I was poor, I’d be in jail!” The money is what made the difference.


How Do We Use Our Gifts?

So here’s the question James is asking of all of us. Do we use our power, our influence, however small or great it might be, to bless others or to bless ourselves primarily? That’s the question! Do we use it to bless others or is life the Me-Monster for us – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it’s all about us. That’s James’ question for us here this evening! And if we do that, if we just live for ourselves, he says we’re wasting our lives.


Social Justice According to James

Now a question that comes up when you read this text is this. Is this kind of the social justice text of the New Testament? And I want to say a couple of things about that especially has you read the Old Testament and then the New. Here’s the deal! Social justice. Is this what James is talking about? No, for a couple of reasons. First, the term social justice is rarely, if ever, defined. In fact, I’ve been reading all week looking for a definition; haven’t found one that’s agreed upon. How I hear it being used in popular culture so often is, social justice means “equal redistribution of resources for everybody.” And friends, a term that can mean anything means nothing because everybody can coopt it. And that’s what’s happened, isn’t it? Is that what James is talking about here? No. James is using very specific examples, as did the prophets of the Old Testament. They used very specific examples. I’m fairly certain most of you sitting here tonight are not guilty of oppressing workers by not paying them wages for cutting your grass. Okay? That’s James’ point!


The Biblical Definition of Justice

And in the second place, in line with the Old Testament prophets, James is saying this. He’s saying, “Do you want to know what justice is? It’s equal treatment and a fair process.” That’s the Biblical definition of justice, regardless of your socioeconomic standing, your creed, your color, your class; none of that matters. Equal treatment; fair process. That’s the Biblical definition of justice. That’s what was not happening in James’ day. And yet, we don’t want to mute the strong language here, do we? What James is telling us is – “beware!” Watch out how you use your money! Watch out what riches can do to you!


Rejoice In God!

I came across a summary this week from Kevin DeYoung in one of his books; just a wonderful summary of a Biblical view of wealth. Here’s what he wrote about our wealth and our possessions. “Enjoy them the most, need them the least, and give them away most freely.” That’s the Biblical view of possessions and wealth and when you stop and think about it, read through the Old Testament – enjoy them the most. Just reading in Deuteronomy this morning and about seven or eight times in one chapter alone God says, “I’m going to bless you.” And then He says this, He commands, “Rejoice! It’s a command! Be happy in Me! Be happy in the abundance I give you. Rejoice!” “Enjoy them the most.” Here’s the sticker for all of us, isn’t it? “Need them the least.” See, it’s that step from the first to the second part, isn’t it? It’s when we go from enjoyment to a need of those things. “I can’t be happy unless I have…” And the last part, “Give them away most freely.” What a delightful summary of the Biblical view of money and possessions. So that’s how James told us how to waste our lives.


Live in Light of the Coming Judgment

How do we not waste our lives? To borrow the title of John Piper’s book. Why do we so easily fall into a lifestyle of self-indulgence, of greed, of being concerned only for ourselves? Why is that so easy? Isn’t it because we forget what we have and who we are? That is what James is pleading with us about tonight. He puts it this way. He says, “Remember who’s coming!” If you don’t want to waste your life, remember who’s coming. Three times in these verses James makes reference to the last days or the coming judgment. Now when you read that phrase, “the last days,” in the New Testament, without exception it refers to the time when Jesus came. Not in the future; in the past. When Jesus came, He inaugurated “these last days,” Hebrews 1:1. What that means is this. Because of the coming of Jesus, His first coming, the next episode in God’s dealings with His world is not another prophet, not another chance. The next episode is the return of Christ. That’s what we’re waiting for. And when Jesus comes – judgment. He comes as a Lamb to die the first time. He comes as a Lion to conquer the second time. He comes in weakness and in trembling and in dying on a tree the first time. The second time He comes in such a way, Revelation 6:16, that if you don’t know Him, the Bible says you will cry out to the mountains, “Fall upon us! Save us from the wrath of the Lamb!” And James says stop and think about that. Remember who’s coming. Don’t give in to the temptation to live just for yourself, just for the here and now. He’s coming, friends.


The Nature of True Riches

Do we believe that? Isn’t that – Presbyterians, “the frozen chosen.” And basically, we just don’t ever talk about the end times. I’m so thankful when David preached through Revelation. We just don’t hear stuff a lot about those things, do we? But can we all just be on the same page here – Jesus could come back right now! Right now! Could come back tomorrow! Are we ready to meet Him? Remember who’s coming! And then James implicitly in this text is telling us, “Remember your true riches!” Here’s one of the scandals of the Gospel. All the riches you and I have are spiritual in nature. That’s what Jesus means! “Lay up treasure in heaven.” Those riches that will never fade away, that we don’t see this side of glory. James says, Jesus says, God says, “Live for those! The spiritual blessings of being right with God, of having our sins forgiven, of remembering your identity tonight.” Can there be a greater possession that a Christian has than to know that He or she is an adopted child of God? Adopted into His family! Never to be forsaken; we’ll never be orphans again! God doesn’t have any bankrupt children, in that sense – never! Never will have children who go broke because He tells us, “I’ve lavished every spiritual blessing upon you in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” And if we live for that, James says, it will all be worth it.


Isn’t it amazing that the only way to find true joy is to stop looking for it wherever the world promises it for us, isn’t it? All the promises of wealth. Do we need any more stories of miserable rich people? No! And James comes to us tonight and says all of these blessings come, here’s that language again, “in Christ.” In Christ, by union with Him. Your life is “hidden with God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” Paul tells us. Everything He has right now is ours. Let that sink in. already Paul says you’ve been raised with Him in the heavenly places. You’re seated with Him. The riches of heaven are already ours. The Holy Spirit is the down payment of that so we know it’s true, it’s coming, and it’s going to be here before we know it. Take heart. Don’t give up! Keep fighting. What do we fight? Fight that temptation to think that things and more of them will ever satisfy us. Fight that temptation to think that if we’ve got more we are more. Fight the temptation to think that the people we don’t see who don’t have what we have mean nothing. They’re image bearers of God; He cares about them. Fight the temptation to be living only for yourself Monday to Monday. That’s what James is saying to us. And fight it with the weapons of Gospel joy, of the promise of what is coming to us in Christ. Friends, this is not pie in the sky theology. This is as real as it gets. More real than the pews we sit on is the reality of what Jesus has done. The tomb is empty. The riches are sure because He’s there in heaven! Here’s what He’s saying. Without Jesus, you may have everything but you really have nothing. And with Jesus, you may not have anything here, but you have everything you need.


John Piper tells the story of two missionaries his church supported, Ruby Eliason and Laura Edwards. Both were killed in a tragic car accident in Cameroon about fifteen years ago. Ruby was over eighty. She was a single woman. She had never married. Spent her whole life sharing the Gospel in Cameroon. Her friend, Laura, was a widow and she was almost eighty. Her husband died and so she went over to Cameroon as well and started sharing the Gospel with her friend Ruby. Here’s how they died. They were driving in a jeep, the brakes went out, and they went off a cliff and they were killed instantly. And John Piper asked this question. He said, “Did they waste their lives?” From one vantage point, we’d say almost certainly. Why would God let these two incredibly godly women die this way? That’s one viewpoint. But then let’s take the other one. Let’s take James’ viewpoint. For every day those women lived for the glory of God they did not waste their lives. And the way they went out, that’s up to God to decide.


But here’s what I want to ask me and all of us. How do we want our story to end? Do we want to die with people saying, “Did you see his car? Did you see his bank account?” Or do we want to die, as it were, careening off the cliff, holding onto Jesus? I want to go out like that. If I have to go, that’s how I want to go – living and dying for Jesus, off the cliff, into glory. What will the ending be for us? James says, “Don’t waste your life. Live it for Him. Live it for Jesus. And live it for Him alone.” Let’s pray!


Thank You, Lord, for words that pierce, words that convict. Help us, Lord, to live for You and Your glory alone. O God, keep us, every one of us in here from wasting our lives. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

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