The Gospel for the Rest of Us: Our Favorite Idol

Sermon by Gabe Fluhrer on June 19, 2016

James 1:9-12

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Again if you’re a visitor, welcome! Good to have you with us. We’re glad you’re here. We’re studying through the New Testament book of James. It’s toward the back of the New Testament there; it’s found on page 1011 if you’re using a pew Bible, 1011. And we’ll be studying together this evening James chapter 1 verses 9 through 12. James 1:9-12. Before we listen to God’s Word, let’s go to Him in prayer. Let’s pray together.


Father, there’s not a person here that doesn’t need You or Your illuminating grace this evening, and so we would ask the Holy Spirit to do what only He can, and that’s to open our eyes that we might behold Jesus who is chief among ten thousand and altogether lovely. Would You help us to see Him clearly and would You make Him to be exalted in our thinking and in our living as we hear Your holy Word this evening. We pray in His mighty name, amen.


This is God’s Word. James 1, beginning at verse 9:


“Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.


Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”


As we just heard, the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God shall stand forever.


I want you to think this week about the trials you have faced. What are the problems that have come across your desk, as it were? What are the big ticket items, the small ticket ones? Think of everything hard this week and now ask yourself this question, “How many of those problems would have been solved by more money? How many of those problems this week would have been solved if you had more money?” And when you stop and think about it and you put it in those terms, it’s easy to see why money quickly becomes our favorite idol. It seems to alleviate so many problems, seems to deliver instantly, and promises us no consequences for worshiping it rather than the true and living God. But James is going to offer us a different take on our favorite idol tonight in an unexpected way. James is going to use money and our use of money, he’s going to use that to teach us about hope.


And just to set the context again for you briefly, James is a New Testament wisdom book. Wisdom literature in the Bible is literature given by God that’s designed to teach us to live skillfully for the glory of God. And last time, James outlined trials for us and taught us how to live skillfully for the glory of God in the midst of all the trials and disappointments of this life. Tonight, James says, “Here’s what happens when you endure. Here’s the reward for endurance for those trials. And here’s hope.” If you’re looking for hope, James has it for you tonight. Here’s the main point of the passage before us. James teaches us to hope for a true reward in contrast to the fading riches of this world. James teaches us to hope for a true reward in contrast to the fading riches of this world. And we’ll look at this text under two headings. In verses 9 through 11, fading riches. Fading riches in verses 9 through 11. And then in verse 12, true hope or true reward. True reward, verse 12.


  1. Fading Riches


First of all then, fading riches. Look at verse 9. “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation and the rich in his humiliation because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.” James begins with a paradox, something that doesn’t seem to make sense. He calls the rich man lowly and the lowly man exalted. Why does he do that? Because to start off this section, this is part of the section that came before it, he’s got a new thought here. To start that off, what he does is remind us, as one commentator put it, that “all ground is level at the foot of the cross.” Whether you are rich or poor, the way you get into the kingdom of heaven is not by bribery. It doesn’t matter how much money you have or lack. The only thing that matters if faith and faith alone in Jesus. And James illustrates this paradox with this language from Isaiah chapter 40 and verse 7. “The grass withers, the flowers fall, so will the rich man dies in his pursuits.” He says if you want to understand this paradox better, look at the world around us. That lands for those of us who live here in Mississippi, doesn’t it? It does not take long for a few rainless, hot Mississippi days to burn up all that grass that you may have spent a lot of money on planting and trying to keep watered and try to grow. It burns it up very quickly. James says every time you see a dead branch, every time you see brown patches in lawns that you drive by around Jackson, he says think about earthly riches that way.


And you see, what he’s doing here is that he’s being counterintuitive with us again because it’s so easy to trust in riches, isn’t it? R.C. Sproul said, “The hardest thing about being a Christian is believing in a God you can’t see.” But we can see the bottom line, can’t we? The bank statement seems a lot more real, a lot more here and now than God so often does. And James says instead it’s this way. It’s very possible for somebody who’s poor in the world’s goods to be exalted and for somebody who’s rich in the world’s goods to be laid low. He says that’s very possible. And once again, it’s a question of faith. We mentioned this last time. James gets a bad rap as being kind of the New Testament book about works. You know everybody else thinks – “Paul, grace. James works.” That’s not the case at all. James is passionately concerned about our faith and so he wants to recalibrate our vision this evening to walk by faith and not by sight as regards our money, with respect to our wealth. That’s one of the most difficult areas of our lives to let go of control, isn’t it? That’s where we get tested in our faith.




Everything Comes From God

And let’s think about that for just a second. Deuteronomy 8:18, God makes clear to the Israelites, “It is Me, it is I, rather, who gives you the power to get wealth.” Everything you have, not just for Israel, for everybody, everything you have comes from God. He owns it all, He gives it to us, therefore we are stewards not masters of our wealth. If you confuse those two, if you begin to think of yourself as a master rather than a steward, idolatry results. Therefore, like maybe nothing else in our lives – maybe nothing else but I think this is true – maybe like nothing else in our lives, the question of wealth and what we do with it forces us to answer the worship question. What we do with our wealth shows us where our true church membership is. It shows us whether we are worshiping Christ or we are worshiping our favorite idol. And money is the easiest idol to latch on to and the hardest one to let go of. And James wants to turn that kind of thinking on its head. He says instead of boasting in our functional gods of wealth and pride and power and position and all of these things, he says to boast in spiritual riches which you can’t see. “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation,” he says.


How is that possible? By remembering what money is. By remembering that it’s like flowers of the grass that burn up. By remembering that all the things we amass, all the things we save, all the bottom lines, all the bank statements when we die, that’s the end of it for us. I believe it’s the Widener Mansion in Philadelphia, we used to drive by it, it was the mansion of George, I think it’s Widener, who died aboard the Titanic; one of the wealthiest men in America. And that mansion is a shell now. It was beautiful in its day to behold and it’s still a massive edifice to see, but guess what is living there now? Ivy. Roots growing through the walls. James says that’s what all our wealth, all our possessions are like. And knowing this will have one of two effects. It will either cause us to do protection or cause us to experience liberation. You see, if you realize wealth is transitory and you realize it’s gone in an instant as James says, you’re going to do one of two things. You’re going to start to protect it and say, “The more I get, the better it will be.” Jesus has a parable about that in the gospel of Luke. He talks about a rich man who says, “I’ve got all this stuff. I’m going to build bigger barns. I’m going to finally have enough space for all my stuff.” And what does Jesus say? Something I hope I never hear. And as somebody who struggles with the idolatry of money, this just lands with me. Jesus says, “You fool, tonight your soul will be required of you, then whose will these things be?” You build all these bigger barns; they don’t last. That’s one option – protect it all, hoard it, become more enslaved to it.


Liberation from the Idolatrizing Power of Money

Or, liberation. When you realize that money is to be stewarded, that it’s a good servant but a poor master, you begin to have a liberation from the tyranny that it has over so many of us and over so many parts of our lives. We’re free to use it for God’s glory when we’re liberated from its idolatrizing power. So James begins by telling us about fading riches. He says if you want a Biblical view of wealth, start here. And let’s be clear, being wealthy is not a sin. Some people, some Christians even, teach that today. “If you’ve got more than you need to live on and you spend more than you need to live on, you are sinning.” That is unbiblical. Some of the wealthiest men who have ever lived happened to be some of God’s choice servants – Abraham, David, Solomon, Job. The Bible is not anti-money. It is, as Paul put is, anti-the-love-of-money, which is the root of all kinds of evil. Not money; it’s the love of it. It’s the protectionism spirit. It’s the “this will make everything okay” about our money that causes us to stumble.


  1. True Hope


And so James says, “Here’s what fading riches are.” Now he recalibrates us in verse 12 towards true hope. Look with me down there at verse 12. “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” There's only a few times in the New Testament outside of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that we read that word, “blessed.” This is one of them. Maybe only two other times. I think it’s John chapter 20 and right here in James where it says, “blessed.” Here’s a blessing for you. This is a promise of God for you. And this blessing, James says, is the kind of blessing that’s only going to reach its full potential at the end of all things. It’s a blessing that starts now, sounds like a down payment, but it doesn’t reach its fullness until the end of everything. It’s a blessing that is partly here but mostly future. And James says, “Blessed is the man who is steadfast under trial.” Whether the trials we saw like last time or, interestingly, isn’t it fascinating where James puts this? Right after he talks about money he says, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial.” Have you ever thought about riches as a trial? That being blessed with more than enough might be a trial of your faith? It is, isn’t it? Will we be faithful stewards? It’s so much easier to trust in money. It is a trial of faith. And many people say, “Well I’d really like that trial right now at this point in my life!” James says, “Careful what you wish for because it’s still a trial and we must remain steadfast under it.”


Our Future Inheritance

And that’s the rub, right? That’s what’s hard. We don’t know how to remain steadfast. We don’t know what that looks like. So James reinforces our faith by pointing us to our hope. He says, “If you want to remain steadfast” – and if you’re honest with yourself this evening, that’s the hard thing here in this text. We’re not steadfast under trial. Is there any hope for people like us, like me, who love money and comfort and these kinds of things so often, so often more than I love Jesus? Is there any hope for people like us? James says, “Let me point you to your hope.” He says, “For when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life.” We could also translate it, “the crown that is life.” What does “the crown of life” refer to? Well, very simply it’s our inheritance which Christ has secured. It’s eternal life. It’s the blessed hope of resurrection and being with God forever and experiencing all of His riches. All of that is packed into this little phrase, “the crown of life.” That’s what we receive when we run the race by God’s grace and by His grace alone. So James says if you want to endure trials as he showed us last time, you have to know God’s help in the present. You have to know that when you call He will answer, but if that’s where you stop, he says go further. Look at your hope. It’s not the bottom line. It’s not the things of this world which pass away like grass that is burned up on a hot, July Mississippi day. It’s not that! It’s a future inheritance.


Do you know that the New Testament always presents our greatest inheritance as totally future, totally future? What we receive in this life, Jesus assures us, is what? Tribulation. Not inheritance in this life. Tribulation, difficulties, hardships. Totally future hope at a level we can’t even possibly fathom. And James points us there. James shifts our hope. Notice what he’s done – from money in the present to looking to the future crown, which is so much better. And the only way to break the spell that money has over our hearts is the true and living God. You see, that’s what the inheritance is – Jesus! Being with Him. Being with the Triune God forever and ever. As we’ve said before, if you are heavenly minded in this way, you will be the most earthly good. As you recalibrate, refocus your attention and your hope on that which is to come and not that which is here, which is fading, that’s what breaks the spell, as we go by faith to God and say, “I need an antidote for what has bewitched me.”


Crown of Life Promised

But notice what James says as well, how he finishes this verse, which God has. This word is so sweet – “promised to those who love him.” Here’s the Biblical principle friends, from Old Testament, from Genesis to Revelation – how do you get an inheritance, God’s inheritance? Do you get it by works? Never. Inheritance always and only comes through promise. Inheritance comes through promise. It is secured by God and by God Himself and therefore it can never be shaken, it can never be taken, and it’s all of grace. Jesus promises the crown of life to those who endure in Revelation chapter 2 and verse 10. And if you were to flip over to Revelation chapter 4 when John witnesses haven opened up, do you know what he sees? Love this scene. Can’t wait to experience this scene. He sees the saints taking their crowns and doing what? Casting them before God. Why would they do that? And that is the same crown being spoken of here, metaphorically of course. Why would the saints take the crowns and cast them before God? Because they’re saying to Him, “Your reward to us is all of grace! You’re rewarding, in one sense, Your own work! You’ve done it, God, not us! We’re not the reason we’re here. We weren’t smarter. We didn’t try harder. It wasn’t because we had some natural ability that we get inheritance and others perish, that we receive this crown and wear it proudly and fold our arms and say, ‘Well done me!’” They don’t do that. They take it off and throw it at the throne of Jesus and God and say, “It’s all You from start to finish.”


And this promise is for those that love Him. And that’s where it gets hard again because one of the hardest things about being a disciple of Jesus is having your desires reordered. That’s our problem, isn’t it? Our loves aren’t in the right place. We love what we shouldn’t love and we don’t love what we should love. That’s our problem. Why do we sin? Because we love things we shouldn’t love. Our loves are disordered. Is there hope for people like us with disordered loves? James says start here. Think about inheritance by grace and by grace alone. Think about that, focus your hope on what is certain by God’s promise coming to you, and let that reorient you around what it means to have wealth and to steward it well.


And that brings us to what we need to think about here tonight about Jesus and wealth. How do we break that spell? Is there hope for greedy people like us? And isn’t it funny that nobody here – I certainly don’t under I started studying this – I don’t think of myself as greedy. But when it comes down to it, that’s one of those sins that when we start to look at our lives we realize that we really are. One pastor told a story. He was preaching a series on the seven deadly sins and his wife said, “I’ll bet the least attended sermon will be the one on greed because nobody thinks they struggle with it.” And we do, don’t we? Is there hope for people like us? Is there hope for people with disordered loves? Yes. By faith, we begin to trust Jesus with our money more. How do we do that?


We’ll only do that as we realize and meditate on this. Here is truth and goodness and hope from the Gospel that just pours forth from these verses. Think about this. Jesus is the only God in history who has all the riches of the universe at His disposal. Other gods claim that. Jesus is the rightful claimant to that. He really does have it. He’s the only God who has everything and gives it all away for people like us, enslaved to money, enslaved to greed, so that He can make us eternally rich all by His free grace! He’s the only God out there who does that – “who is rich and becomes poor,” as Paul tells us, “for our sakes that we might be rich in him.” Think about it this way. It is the reversal of the Savior’s fortunes that secures our heavenly fortune. He gets what we deserve. He takes our place. He becomes poor so that we can become rich forever. That’s already ours and it will never be eaten up by moths, Jesus says, it will never be taken away by rust because it’s secured by the God-Man, Jesus Himself! He’s our inheritance. It’s sure; it’s certain. Our put another way, my friends, the only way we get the crown of life is because He wore the crown of thorns. Because He wore the crown of thorns, we get the crown of life. Because He suffered in our place for those of us who are disordered in our loves and says, “I love you enough to die for your disordered loves so that I can reorient them, so that I can make them more focused on Me and My kingdom and use what I’ve given you towards that end.”


You see, when we understand our future hope and the resurrection life Jesus gives us, it just starts to spill out and it’s going to spill out in greater and lesser degrees. You may say, “I don’t feel like it’s spilling out of me. I feel pretty dead to these things right now. I’m not even sure I love Jesus more than I love money.” Go to the cross. Come back here again and again. You’ll say, “I don’t feel it.” Keep going. He’ll give grace. The feelings will come. Just go. Go to Him. Go to that cross and see the riches He has expended for you. And He is never waiting, as we saw last time, with folded arms saying, “Why can’t you just get over this sin once and for all?” He patiently woos us back and patiently reorients us around Him and His love. The King of love breaks the spell of our love of money and He empowers us to become generous.


What do I love more than Jesus?

So that’s the hard question we finish with tonight. What do I love more than Jesus? What we love reveals what we hope for, right? What we love reveals what we hope for. The greatest news is, again, Jesus patiently makes us more hopeful in Him. He wants us to hope in Him over these things that fade away. He’s not testing you in the sense of saying, “I wonder if he’ll get it right this time.” He may be taking things from you. He may be putting you through tests that way. It’s always because He loves you, never because He hates you, never because He wants you to fail. Our Father is not a bad parent. He never cheers against His children. He patiently woes them back and says, “I will make Myself your greatest love.”

When they excavated Pompeii, you remember that city from ancient Italy, they recovered a body that had been embalmed by the ashes when Mount Vesuvius exploded. And here’s what they found. Because the ash was so hot it had almost perfectly preserved the body. And what they found was the body of a woman whose feet were headed toward the city gates to run away from the oncoming lava, but her body and her face were turned backward and so were here hands, reaching for something. What was she reaching for? A bag of pearls. Whether she dropped them or somebody else dropped them, death was at her heels and all she could think about were the fading riches of this world.


And you see, here’s the point of that. Like all idols, our world’s riches that they offer us so easily, the world’s riches cause us to die for them. We work ourselves to death. We spend things we don’t have and become so anxious that we put ourselves in an early grave because of all our worry about money. We die for the idol. And here’s what Jesus does. It’s just the direct opposite and it’s so wonderful. Jesus is the only God who dies for us. Idols force you to die for them. Jesus offers you a God who dies for you. He offers us a Gospel that tells us that God gave away His riches to make you rich. And when that comes, when that lands, and pray for it too, then the words of the old hymn start to make a lot more sense. One of my favorite hymns. Here’s how the last stanza goes. “Hast thee on from grace to glory, armed by faith and winged by prayer. Heaven’s eternal day's before thee, God’s own hand shall guide us there. Soon shall close thy earthly mission, soon shall pass thy pilgrim days. Hope shall change to glad fruition, faith to sight, and prayer to praise.”


Let’s pray together!


Father, thank You for taking disordered people like us and slowly but surely and with great patience and love reordering our loves, reorienting us around Jesus. May that happen this week. We’ll walk out of here and go right back to our idols if you don’t intervene and so we beseech You to do that, that Jesus would be more beautiful and believable than the bottom line this week. We pray in His mighty name, amen.

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