(James 5:12-20)

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I was reading a book on preaching some time ago and came across a very profound statement in the footnotes. [Charles Campbell, Preaching Jesus, p. 222]. The author suggested that what people really needed was a truthful community. That means a community of people who are tied together by their value of the truth. It would suggest a people who can be honest with one another, a people without pretense, a people who are not duplicitous or manipulative, a people who are connected to something bigger than themselves.

In the final words of James letter, he wraps up all the themes he’s been presenting: friendship with God, righteous behavior, endurance in trials, controlling one’s speech, humility, caring for the needy. He wraps them up into a vision of a truthful community ... Read James 5:12-20.

No Swearing and Cursing – In our day we think of swearing and cursing as foul language, but that’s not always been the case. Certainly there is a sub-species of language and words that is just crude. It’s immature. However, swearing and cursing is language that invokes the divine and the spiritual. Ancient cultures, like James’, depended on spoken words uttered in the presence of witnesses. When those words invoked the name of God or of heavenly realities, “by heaven,” then some sort of gravity was attached to those words and they were considered true and binding.

James, following the teaching of Jesus, is making the case that the need to use oaths to back up our credibility suggests that we are not truth-tellers at all times. So the instruction is simple: Just let your no mean no, and let your yes be yes. Mean what you say and say what you mean. That fits for those who are “hearers and doers of the word.”

So we’re fine if we just refuse to make oaths and don’t say things like “Gosh Darn and Gee Whiz?” No, that’s being nitpicky. The lesson is much deeper than this. Our language is littered with revealing phrases like “I’m going to be honest with you ...” or “Okay, here’s the truth ...” as if anything else said was somehow not true? Our written language and much of our dialogue is duplicitous and misinforming. We live in a day and age of legal, careful speech that we can twist and bend through loopholes and technicalities. Euphemisms stand in for that which is wrong or horrible – a layoff is a “downsizing,” casualties mean death, free expression means rudeness.

As disciples of Jesus, we will have to learn to maintain our native tongue. Our native language is truth and we need to practice its vocabulary even though we are often in situations when some other language is spoken.

But what about cursing? It’s the opposite of swearing. Cursing invokes the divine in order to do harm to others. What’s odd about our age is how people who have no regard for spiritual things will summon the divine to condemn others. There are those who do not believe in God or prayer, but certainly seem to believe in hell because they expect others to go there.

Prayer and Praise – The language of a truthful community is plain speech. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t spiritual. Those who are in distress do not resort to cursing, they pray! They don’t even paste on a sappy smile – they pray. When we are distressed we might even be tempted to lash out and vent our anger. James has already warned us that such abuse of language is like a spark that sets a forest on fire.

But praying appeals to God. It speaks the truth about God and about ourselves to God. Many of the Psalms are prayers from the hearts of oppressed and distressed believers. Hear me, LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and oppressed – Psalm 86.

The alternative is to praise God. Psalms were prayers and they were also songs. (We make too much of a distinction). Those who are happy and cheerful tell the truth about it by praising God who gives good gifts. Telling the truth, the simple truth, means learning to praise God. It takes us outside ourselves. [Tom Drane – We noticed that Tom knew how to do this. He gave thanks to God and praised him for all things. And he never begrudged or cursed his situation. Why? Because he trusted in God and he had learned to speak the truth.]

Calling and Care – A truthful community is not just about words, it is about actions. Truth is embodied. Those who are weak are encouraged to summon the elders. This empowers the sick and the weak. There is a trust in God’s power and a confidence in the role of elders as those who minister in prayer. Care is shown in the laying on of hands and the anointing with oil.

Some have no problem with this, but for some of us it is much harder. Why? The answer is revealing to the way we often form community ...

[Rabbits are different from cats and dogs because they are not hunters. They are often what is hunted. Its hard to tell when a rabbit is weak or sick. It’s a survival skill. If they can appear okay, then they are less likely to be attacked.]
Maybe this is why we don’t want to admit our weakness or admit to being sick. We don’t want to be pitied. We don’t want to be shunned. In a truthful community, we do not pity and we do not view the weak as burdens on limited resource, for God’s resources are unlimited.

According to James, the sick are empowered to summon (to call) the elders – Do this, and do not assume that they know your need without a sign. There is no shame in weakness for it is an opportunity for God’s grace to be on display. Praying, laying on of hands, the anointing with oil or other tangible demonstrations of care should not concern us. What ought to concern a truth-telling community is the horrible philosophy of survival of the fittest. Let us refuse to be rabbits or wolves. Let us be truly human.

Sharing and Saving – Sometimes it is impossible to cover up our physical weakness or illness, but what about the illnesses and weaknesses that are not a matter of DNA, cells, tissues, joints and bones? What of the illnesses of spirit, heart, thought, attitude. We can hide these, but they can be just as destructive and just as contagious as any virus. James instructs us to tell the truth. To confess our sins to one another.

But that’s risky, if I confess my sin, then that gives you power over me. But the sin already has power over you. And if anyone takes advantage of the confession, then we too fall under God’s judgment. The confession of sin is a practice that a truth-telling community deals with reverently. It is in the presence of God and we are all humble. So our response to those who confess is to forgive.

But that forgiveness means that we all live in truth as a truthful community. We cannot take that truth lightly. James encourages us to reach out to the person who drifts from the truth. What’s called for here is not the self-righteous meddler who wants to fix everyone else. What’s called for is the loving and honest communication, prayers, and presence of the brother or sister who striving to save someone who is in danger. The goal is to restore the sinner to speaking and living the truth.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 21 September 2008

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