In One Ear ...
In One Ear ...
Text: James 1:19-27
I know this sounds weird, but have you ever driven down the street, seen a face and wondered if your face looked like that? I looked in the mirror this morning to comb my hair and shave. I know what my face looks like. I think. I mean, I recognize myself in the mirror and in photographs. But if I were asked to draw a picture of my face now? Not a clue. The problem is ... Well, a few years back I heard motivational speaker Don Lonie quote a limerick: “I know how ugly I are. I know my face ain’t no star. But I don’t mind it, cuz I’m behind it. It’s folks out front get the jar.” The problem is, I’m behind it. I can’t see my face, and so, walking away from the mirror I forget what I look like.
Well, that’s an illustration that James uses in our text for this morning: we look in the mirror and straightaway forget what we look like. But let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?
Maybe it’s because I’m paying more attention these days, but have you noticed how divisive and argumentative our discussions have become lately? I tried to point out that in a particular situation there may be shades of gray – that is, there are factors we haven’t considered. The response I got back was that it were no shades, no gray areas, you were either one or the other. And if you were the one, you were the enemy, regardless of your reasons. We choose up sides and start screaming our bumper sticker politics, our bumper sticker morality, or our bumper sticker religion at one another. None of us, it seems, takes any interest in trying to understand the other. We have ceased to think deeply, analytically, or critically. We have become reactionary.
If we use the almost constant protests across the river as an example, we see people screaming at one another, justifying their physical assaults on others – they deserve it, they’re the enemy. We see innocent people caught in the middle – I watched a video where an elderly gentleman was driving through Portland, heading to a shop or a doctor’s appointment or taking his wife to have her hair done, some innocent errand. His route happened to take him in an area where a protest was taking place. Trying to follow traffic law, he wanted to go straight through the intersection. But a black-clad female with a bullhorn was screaming in his face to turn the corner. She refused to listen to his explanation, began swearing at him, telling him that she was in charge and that he had to do as she told him. As he finally gave in and turned the corner, other thugs began to kick his car and beat on it with their fists. There was no listening, no civility, no interest in conversation – just anger and screaming. It appears to me that, as a society, we have lost the ability to try to understand opposing viewpoints. We have lost empathy - the ability to put ourselves in the place of others and try to feel as they do, or think as they do. We have lost the ability to listen – we only pause momentarily before we go on yammering and hammering, and pity the person who tries to get a word in edge-wise.
Christian, listen! Where Jesus said, “Truly I tell you ...”, and Paul said, “Here’s a trustworthy saying”, James says, “Listen. Take note.” Or he begins a sentence, “Brothers ...” He’s addressing you directly, “Listen, Brother ...”
Listen. Take note: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry ... I grew up hearing this: God gave you one mouth and two ears so that you’d listen twice as much as you speak. Now, I don’t know if that’s actually true, but James encourages us to listen first. Be quick to listen and slow to speak. What does that really mean? It means that you hear first, you understand - or try to understand - before you start running your mouth. If you listen, you may hear the other person’s heart, and discover that you shouldn’t speak. One of the things we all need is someone to hear us, to recognize that we have pains, feelings, anxieties, joys, triumphs, that we are human too. C. S. Lewis wrote a book titled “Til We Have Faces”, arguing that we need people to recognize us, to see us, to pick us out in a crowd because we, too, have a face. We need people to see us; we also need people to hear us. They may see our face, but they can only hear our heart. Our own humanity is at stake – and we deny the humanity of others when we refuse to see them or refuse to hear them. Being quick to listen is to recognize the existence and personhood of another.
I need to add that quick to listen also means to listen fully – let them finish before you jump in and jump on. We hear partially, sometimes, and then assume we know what they’re saying. With incomplete information, then, we’re apt to completely miss their point. In our Facebook age, that means reading more than the headline, more than the first line. It means reading fully with intention – we want to understand. We sometimes - often? - get into angry arguments because we haven’t even taken the time to define our terms. We end up talking past each other, refusing to even consider that we might actually be talking about different things.
But there’s a problem that I see right away: the person who actually does this is likely to get left out of conversations. If you actually took the time to hear what another person is saying, and take the time to understand before you respond, you may get left behind. It’s those who don’t listen well, who assume they know where someone is going, who jump in quickly. People who listen well and seek to understand are often quieter, slower in conversations, and leave silent gaps that the rest of us don’t deal with well. There’s a good side, though, they are less likely to become angry over what someone says. Poor listeners, who speak before they understand, are more likely to become angry and start raging over things.
And human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires of us. Remember the first part – God wants you holy, mature, complete. God wants to bring order, shalom, to your life. Happiness is not God’s first concern for you - righteousness is. And what moral filth keeps us from listening, understanding and growing? Pride, for one thing. The word James uses also means vulgarity, greediness, avarice. It’s the thing that causes us to think we know more than we do, or better than others. We’re right and everyone else is wrong. When someone gives us a Scripture or Biblical teaching, we reject it so we can do what we want to do. The opposite, James encourages, is humble acceptance of God’s word. This opposite is gentleness, humility, and consideration – good manners. It’s the recognition that you don’t know everything, that you don’t always know best, that others may know more than you, and that you still have a lot to learn. Don’t let anyone fool you – an advanced degree does not mean you know more than others. It means you’ve had your ignorance exposed to people smarter than you.
Just a quick aside: the Greek phrasing is “the implanted word.” It makes me wonder, though: Is God’s word implanted in us? Have we seeded our garden with God’s word, so that it grows within us and transforms the way we think, act, and speak. Think about it: the implanted word.
Going on: Do not merely listen to the word, and go on your merry way. God doesn’t speak to entertain you. God’s word is fundamentally transforming. It ought to change you from the inside out. If you think you’re a Christian just because you read the Bible, or hear someone else read the Bible, you’re deceiving yourself. Now, just a quick note: James is not talking just about human conversation, and us learning to listen to one another. That’s vital. But, he’s primarily talking about being quick to listen to God’s word, being quick or eager to hear. Don’t let God’s word go in one ear and out the other. And the call to hear the word is a call to understand what God is trying to tell us, and to understand what God wants of us. What does God want us to do, or to be? Listen carefully to God. Quick to listen, slow to speak.
And then do. Obey. Otherwise, you’re like the guy who looks in the mirror to comb his hair, or the lady who looks in the mirror to put on her make-up, and walking away forgets what they look like. But, instead of a mirror - which only reflects - the one who looks deeply and intently into God’s word ... will be blessed. There’s that word again, that “beatitude”. James’ second “beatitude.” The first was in v.12, Blessed is the one who perseveres ... for he shall receive the crown of life. Now blessed are the ones who look intently into God’s word. That Greek word makarivos - makarios - the gift of the king. God himself honors those who study his word, and they will be blessed in what they do.The perfect law that gives freedom. Think about that. The law that restrains sin sets free the holy. Some months ago, we talked about how the law was written to restrain sin, and how the holy ones, transformed in their thinking, need no such restraints. Rather, the law sets them free. What law is like that? The law to love God, to love your neighbor, to love one another. Love does not bring harm except in the act of healing. Love does not steal, gossip, murder, envy, and so it needs no law telling it not to do those things. Love seeks the good of the other, is proud, not jealous, of the success of the other, wants to give good gifts rather than take. The perfect law that gives freedom is the law of holiness – Be holy, because I am holy (Leviticus 11:44, 45). And the perfect law that gives freedom is a law of do, rather than don’t. It is a law of action rather than of preventing action. God wants us to be and to do, not just to hear and to believe.
You see, our usual definition of religion has to do with belief. What do you believe? And that’s important. It does matter what you believe. But what you believe is not all that matters. And people generally consider themselves religious because they believe something and not other things. Like it or not, religion is a matter of doctrine, of belief, and statements of what we believe and don’t.
But, if you consider yourself religious, what difference does it make in the way you talk, the way you think, they way you act? In short, what difference does it make to the world that you believe, or that you are “religious”?
James will have more to say on the subject of the tongue a bit later in the letter, but right now he is on the matter of the evidence of your religion, and going back to being slow to speak. What difference does it make what you say you believe if you don’t control your tongue? If you’re always sniping at people, lashing out in anger, gossiping and spreading false rumors and innuendo, smearing people’s good name, or complaining about every little thing, nobody’s going to care what you have to say about what you believe. One of the most hypocritical things I ever heard in my life was someone asserting that the only spoke the truth when they were trashing another person. When that person became upset, the smug response was, “Well, the truth hurts.”
No, it doesn’t! The truth heals. The truth brings life and grace. The truth that hurts should remain unspoken. If you have a painful truth, keep it to yourself until you can find a way to make it a healing truth. If you are unkind, I don’t particularly care about your religion. If you lack self- control, particularly control of your mouth, James charges that you are deceived and your “religion” is worthless.
What keeps your religion from being worthless is when what you believe, what you say, translates into action. What keeps your “faith” from being worthless is when it moves from your head to your heart and then to your hands. And that third step is critical in a world guided by emotion. I have complained that we feel more than we think. In fact, we seldom ask people what they think; we ask how they feel. How do you feel about ...? We’re not interest in reason, but in emotion. Our politics are guided by emotion more than by rational thought. We feel something, but don’t give much thought, if any, to the consequences of working out our feelings. We need to feel; we need to think. But we can’t stop either of those places. It’s not enough to believe; it’s not enough to feel sorry for ... to want something to be done about ... Your believe must go the third step – to “do”.Pure, clean, undefiled, uncorrupted religion, James says, the kind that God accepts follows from belief, to feeling, to action. To look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. That is moral pollution, by the way. And it doesn’t mean that we don’t get our hands dirty. The Salvation Army has a motto: Heart to God; hand to man. That’s the way we should live.
That our belief in forgiveness should result in our being forgiving;
our belief in mercy ought to result in our being merciful.
That we have received grace should humble us and make us gracious.
That we have been shown compassion should make us compassionate.
And then we will be blessed in what we do.