Well, like almost every grown-up, I have forgotten almost everything they taught me when I studied for my GCSEs. However, when we did GCSE English, we had to read some novels of a 19th-century author called Thomas Hardy. Not to be confused with the present-day actor of the same name.
Thomas Hardy wrote novels that often featured the lives of ordinary people who were just up against the most amazing difficulties. They were trying to pursue their family life, their relationships, their businesses, their communities, and stuff just kept going wrong. And it's clear that he believed in a very strong concept of fate – that ordinary human beings were just trying to move their lives forwards, and what you're fighting against is the tendency that things have to just go wrong for no reason. It makes for quite depressing reading, and yet it makes for reading that people find very easy to identify with because that is what life often feels like.
He wrote a preface to one of his books. Modern-day authors, they don't bother writing prefaces to their novels; they don't think they have any meaning worth sharing. But he wrote a preface to one of his books in which he quotes Shakespeare. He quotes a couple of lines from King Lear in which he says this: 'As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.' He pictures, as it were, a small group of boys, malnourished, probably not from a great background, slightly bored, and the game they invent is to find the most elaborate ways to torture and kill flies. You might think, 'Pick on someone your own size,' but that's the point – the fly can't fight back, so it just becomes a cruel sport to find inventive ways to kill the next fly. And he says that is what it is like for us human beings living on planet Earth. If there is a god, if there are gods (plural), we are like flies, and they are like those boys – they just have fun playing with us, hurting us, and destroying us.
Now, in the letter of James, we've been thinking about the trials of life that come our way, and the question we're asking is when life gets tough, what is God doing? What is God's involvement in the difficulties of life that come our way? Is it that God doesn't care? He doesn't love us enough to stop the things that are hurting us? Worse, is He causing the difficulties? Is He actually out to hurt us? Even worse, is it a spiritual version of what you get in some slightly toxic workplaces where you have an employee that the firm decides they don't really want to work there anymore, they have no grounds to dismiss them, so the strategy is simply to make their life miserable until they walk away? Is that what God is doing, deliberately pushing us away, hoping we will leave when life is falling apart? What is God playing at? That is the question for this morning, and our reading starts straight there, verse 13.
Trials and Temptations
'When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me."' Now, to understand that sentence, you need to realize one little thing, which is that in Greek, the language this was originally written in, a single word that occurs very frequently through James chapter one, but it has a really quite wide range of meaning. So, when you have to decide which English words to use, you might not always land on the same one. So, this word could mean trials, the hardships of life. It could mean testing, the opportunity to prove that something (in this case, your faith) is genuine, not fake. It could mean tempting, being presented with an invitation to do the wrong thing. It could mean any of those.
Now, James has been talking all the way through chapter one so far about trials and hardships, and it seems to me he's still on that theme. So, I think verse 13 reads like this: 'When in a time of trial, no one should say, "God is tempting me. God wants to trip me up. God wants me to fail."' So, there is a vital distinction in this verse. God does allow trials to come our way. God does use them to test our faith and refine us. But God does not lead us into sin, let alone be the direct cause of sin or evil. So, what is God doing? Well, we need to set the trials we encounter in the context of the story of the rest of your life. Set it in this context of God's plan for your life. We need to ask the bigger question, what is God doing? Where is your life going? And then, slot our understanding of trials into that bigger picture.
Now, if you're here as a Christian this morning, which is many of us, your life is a story of two halves. There's a before and after. Before you became a Christian and your life after you became a Christian. It's not quite as simple and neat as that because if you've been a Christian for longer than five minutes, you will know that the old ways do regularly creep back in. But your life is going in a very different direction now compared to where it used to go. If you're here and you're not yet a Christian, you're still investigating the claims of Jesus, obviously you've only got the stage one story so far, and you're being presented with an invitation to join us on the second half of the story.
So, we're going to look now at the two directions for life, and we will see where our trials fit into that.
The Road to Death (verse 14)
So, direction number one is the road to death. The road to death. Here's verse 14: 'Each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.' Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
There are three stages of this story of life.
Stage 1: Temptation
Verse 14: 'Each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.' Now, if you look closely, you will see that what James means by being tempted isn't quite what we mean in English. We mean being presented with a choice: will you do the right thing or will you do the wrong thing? There you go, what you want to do. James means that moment when a little switch flicks inside your head and your heart that says, 'I want it.' You've been enticed; the decision is now made in your heart. 'If I get the chance, I will. I'll take that thing, I'll lie about that, I'll push that boundary. If I get the opportunity and no one would discover me, that's what I will do.' It's that little decision in your heart that James means here by being tempted.
The language comes from fishing. James was probably not a fisherman. Remember, James is the brother of Jesus, son of Joseph, who was a builder. So, James was probably a builder, but his best mates were fishermen; he knew about fishing. So, 'dragged away,' that's the fishing net that has caught the fish and sends it away; 'enticed,' the fish has taken the bait and is on the hook.
Now, we might think that the little decision in your heart to do something wrong if you get the chance is a small thing, it's maybe a bit fun, it's maybe a bit naughty. But that little decision in your heart is not a small thing. Not for the fish it isn't. There's the little fish swimming in the sea, it sees its favorite food hanging conveniently at eye level in the water just in front of it, delicious, until the moment the fish bites and it realizes that was a bad move. The fish is now trapped; it cannot escape, and it is headed to the Chip Shop fryer. Or maybe you've seen the animated film Finding Nemo, the story of the little orange clownfish who one day says to his dad, 'I'm a big boy. I'm going to defy you. I'm going to swim out Beyond The Reef into the deep water,' until there is a dentist on holiday from Sydney who goes scuba diving with a plastic bag and thinks, 'That'll look good in my fish tank.' And the crisis for the whole of the rest of the film has been set.
By the way, if you haven't seen it, you have to watch it. Please note, although the decision to sin is serious, James is saying that being tempted to sin isn't in and of itself sinful. Please know that, because some Christians have really, really tender consciences, for which thank God (a dulled, blunt conscience is a terrible thing). But because of that, every time they feel tempted, they think they've blown it. It's not the same thing, okay? Stage one: Temptation.
Stage 2: Sin
The decision in your heart is likened in the language James uses to being pregnant with something. And the thing about being pregnant, the plan at least, is that you then give birth. And you give birth, verse 15, to actual sin, living contrary to what God would want. Well, after you've given birth to this little baby boy called sin, what does it grow up to become? And James says, 'Death.'
Stage 3: Death
"When it's full grown, it gives birth to death." It's like that fish on its hook after it's caught on the hook. What happens next? Well, it's on a road that terminates at the death of that fish. Biting that bait was not a bit of harmless fun, was not a choice that didn't matter. It's a road that heads to the fish being what one set of comedy sketch writers would call an ex-fish – a life rebelling against God's ways is a life heading towards death.
Physical death; unless Jesus returns, every one of us will one day die. It's where we're all heading; you can't stop it. You can delay it. And after you physically die, comes eternal death. You see, death isn't the end; there is life after death, whether you're a Christian or not. And left to our own devices, life after death is grim because it is more death.
We'll see in a moment that every good thing we have comes from God. That's in verse 17: 'Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights. If you love food, it comes from God. If you love music, that's from God. If you love having your friends around you, they're a gift of God. If you have your family, they're a gift of God, the warmth of the sun on your face, the gift of God. Green grass to sit on and spread your legs and enjoy some food, that's the gift of God. Sport is a gift of God. Every good and perfect gift comes from God, which means if you are to face an eternity without God, that is an eternity without any of those good things.
Occasionally, people say to me, 'I would love to go to hell because I would be there with my mates.' Well, I hope not, but it may be that that person's mates would be in hell. But if they are, they would not be anyone's mates because mates, friends, are a gift of God. It's grim. Temptation, sin, and death.
The Gift of Life (verses 15-16)
Stage two, the second direction for life, is the gift of Life. Here's verse 16: 'Don't be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the Heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.'
Again, there are three stages to this second story of life: conception, birth, and maturity. It's the same picture, just with different things.
Stage 1: Implanted Word
So, first, the conception is the implanted word. "He chose to give us birth through the word of truth." And we get it again in verse 21: 'Accept the word planted in you.' It's like a little seed that God plants in you to grow. It's like being pregnant again. It's like having an implant. If you get diabetes, they are able to put under your skin a little sensor that can monitor your insulin and sugar levels, so that you can take readings without having to prick yourself and do lots of tests. It's like God places a little implant inside you, something that will grow into something quite wonderful. God plants His word, the gospel, the good news of Jesus, in us, and it's going to grow.
But this time, notice, it's not our decision that this has happened; it's God's gift. He chose to give us this. It's God's doing. This time round, our bad decisions, the temptations, they were our own doing. This is God's gift to us, and it's a good gift.
Stage 2: New Birth
Well, those evil desires, the temptations, they give birth to sin. What does God's word give birth to? And the answer is, He chose to give us birth through the word of truth. We are born as we receive the good news of Jesus, as we respond, as we allow that word to do its work. This brings about a new birth. A new beginning so radical, it's like being born all over again and starting life from scratch.
Now, almost everyone I know who's lived long enough would say that's the most wonderful offer. "If only I could wind the clock back and start all over again." Well, you can. That is the gift that is offered to you if you receive and accept the word of truth. This is a complete fresh start, having the slate wiped clean. All your past failings forgiven, obliterated, not even a hint of burning on the screen. They're gone, as if they never happened.
And you'll find that you've changed. You start to hate things you didn't hate before. You now hate selfishness, you hate injustice, you hate seeing people exploited and hurt, and you hate it when that selfishness is in your own heart. It's not just hating things that other people do; you hate things that, before, you didn't care about. And you start to love things you didn't love before. You love the word of God, you love the people of God, you love God Himself, you love seeing the kingdom spread, you love seeing people helped and developed and encouraged. Your loves and your hates have changed. You're a new creature. The word of God giving birth to a little baby that, this time, is the new you.
Stage 3: Renewed Creation
And what does the new you grow up into? The answer is a renewed creation. "He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all He created."
If you've ever tried growing tomatoes, you will know they take a lot longer to flower and develop on the plant and ripen than you expect. At least, that's the only experience I've ever had. Some people manage to produce thousands effortlessly, but not me, and I suspect not most of you. I'm told the trick is to feed them, but I could never be bothered, so maybe that's where I've gone wrong. But eventually, in kind of late October, you get one red, juicy tomato on the plant. Now, if you're me, you know that that is your crop for the year. But that's not the way it's meant to work. That one is meant to signal that there are more on the way. That is your clue to start searching the BBC Good Food website for recipes that use tomatoes because in two weeks' time, you will have them coming out of your ears.
Try growing up as I did, and many of you did, in a country that grows bananas. They go ripe one stalk at a time. We used what we used to call a 'panga' to cut through the stalk, and then you have 200 bananas to eat in the next two weeks. One is the beginning of many.
Well, giving people new life in Jesus is just the beginning. Romans 8 says that the whole of creation is groaning, waiting to be set free, and when Jesus returns, the whole creation will be made new, and we will live in a world that is totally unspoiled, that is perfect in every way.
Let me tell you, if you want to solve global warming, here's what you do. I mean, there's all kinds of stuff you can do in the short term, right? That's just sticking plasters. Here's what you do: Follow Jesus, be born again, and you will live in a world that is never too hot, never too cold, forever, and every other thing that is broken is gone. Morocco will never have another earthquake (that is groaning in the pains of childbirth), and one day, the pains of childbirth will be gone, and the whole of the North African coast will be earthquake-free. There will be no floods, no rivers with dams that burst, that sweep people away. That'll be gone, a thing of the past. The whole creation will be made new.
So there are two very different stories here for human life. One is the decision to go wrong in your heart, which gives birth to actual sin, which leads to death, physical death in the first instance, followed by eternal death, until God picks you up off that road and gives you something wonderful. He plants His word in your heart, which gives birth to a whole new us, a new life with a complete new start, and when that plan grows up, it flowers into a whole new world for us to enjoy.
Applying to those still investigating
Let's just look together for the last few minutes at how this lands in our daily lives.
Let me first of all speak to those of us here who are still investigating the Christian faith, trying to decide if that is for you. Your life without Jesus may feel fine. Please hear the diagnosis that James gives in to the desire to live for me is actually to be caught in a trap, hooked on a line, and trapped in a net. The lifestyle you enjoy without Jesus may feel fine and quite good, but it is bait, and the hook behind the bait is a road that leads you unstoppably towards death. Your life is not fine.
But God has a gift he would like to offer you. He'd like to offer it to you this morning, and that gift is the gift of new life in Jesus and the gift of a place on a road leading unstoppably to a renewed world. All you need to do is receive the word; it's a gift. Receive the message of Jesus, accept the Jesus of the scriptures, and your life is instantly on a very different story.
Applying to Christians
Now, to those probably the majority of us here, certainly many of us who are already Christians, what is God doing when you have trials and life falls apart? Is He trying to hurt you? Is He trying to make you flat on your face? Is He trying to incite you to walk away from Him? Is God trying to do those things? No!
If you turn away from God because life is tough, that's something that you do, that's your choice, and actually, it's the old approach to life creeping back in. Don't do it; that is the road to death that God has rescued you from. We know what God's plan is, don't we? Verse 16: 'Don't be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the Heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.'
God is good, but here's James's point: God is consistently good.
He made the stars; he's the Father of the heavenly lights. This is not a God who is blown off course by your circumstances, and unlike them, he doesn't change. You might be singing in your head at this point, 'There is no shadow of turning with Him.' That's where that song line comes from.
You remember that yellow ball thing in the sky? Yeah, we had it a bit early September – the Sun. It's gone away again now. It makes it nice and warm; it's lovely to sit outside, but it can be a bit too hot. So, often, if you want to sit outside on the beach, in a cafe, in your garden, what you do – you get an umbrella, and you stick it up, and it takes about 20 minutes, but finally, you have arranged the umbrella correctly so that everyone in your party who wishes to be out of the sun is out, and everybody who wishes to be in the sun is in, and it's lovely. And then, another 20 minutes passes, and what happens? There, the sun has moved! And all of a sudden, all the people who want to be in the sun are in the shade. I don't want to be in the shade or in the Sun, so your next 20 minutes is trying to adjust the umbrella again so that the balance of shade and sun is exactly right. Rinse and repeat.
God is not like that. He does not change like shifting shadows. The God whose plan is to bring you to the New Creation, the God who started that plan by giving you new life, is not at the next moment going to turn on you and absolutely now hates you, and his mission is to destroy and hurt you. He's just not going to do that. God is not a man, said the oracle we heard from the book of Numbers, that he should change his mind. God hass decreed to bless, so he cannot curse. Everything that happens is part of His plan, His wonderful plan to bring you new life and then into a wonderful eternity.
God is good, but He's not just good; He's good all the time.
God is good all the time. All the time, God is good. Amen