United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

"Are You Captured?"
By Rev. Mike Capron
March 5, 2017

James 3:13-4:12

  1. Welcome to the Wilderness!
  2. This is the first Sunday of Lent. We will be in Lent for 40 days, mirroring Jesus’ 40 day temptation in the wilderness.
  3. And so, today we are going to speak about temptation.
  4. No, that’s not really true.
  5. The truth is that we are going to talk about sin.
  6. If, when I said that, there was some little tiny voice inside you that rolled its eyes and whispered to you, “We don’t need to talk about sin. We are doing fine.”—then you are in exactly the right place.
  7. Because we aren’t only going to talk about sin. We are going to talk about pride. And we aren’t only going to talk about pride, we are going to talk about total depravity.
  8. So get ready.
  9. But before we do all of that, I need to say something else.
  10. We are going to talk about sin, but sin is not really the place to start.
  11. Love is always the place to start. Just like love is always the place to end.
  12. In Matthew 3, the verse before Jesus is led by The Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, his heavenly father says something very loving, very proud about him. The voice from heaven says that “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
  13. The facing of temptation, the facing of our sin must be absolutely grounded in confidence about the love and mercy of our God.
  14. Otherwise our self-examination is doomed to destructive failure.

  15. I don’t know you very well yet. I don’t know what kind of challenges you faced this week or what brought you here this morning.
  16. But if you are here, feeling fragile, feeling unworthy, feeling unloved.
  17. Then I want you to tune out everything else I am going to say for the next ten minutes and just remind yourself over and over again how much God loves you.
  18. Love is the foundation for everything we do in the spiritual life.
  19. So relax into God’s love as we head for the hard stuff…
  20. So, sin. If we are going to speak about sin, we need to ask one of those big historical questions: Are people basically good or evil?
  21. The Bible and our Presbyterian heritage say evil.
  22. When good happens, it is an exception to be remarked upon, not something usual to be expected.
  23. If you really want to say that people are basically good, then I suspect a few things are in play.
  24. First, you happen to be living in relative peace and security where you don’t feel your life is in danger.
  25. You are, for example, living in New Jersey instead of Syria.
  26. Second, you will likely have a roof over your head and some idea where your next few meals are coming from.
  27. Third, you probably have at least some semblance of a supportive community of friends and family—you don’t feel like a despised outcast, at least most of the time.
  28. Fourth, you probably think God grades on a curve.
  29. If I look at all the people in this room and I consider all the evil stuff that is going on in the larger world, then I might think we are basically good too.
  30. I’d certainly like to feel that way about myself.
  31. But… if I deeply consider the holiness of God… if I reflect on the fact that Jesus was tempted just like we are but never sinned… if I consider his death on the cross for the sake of my sins and for the sins of all of us…
  32. Suddenly, I am aware of a stark contrast between a perfect and holy God and myself.
  33. Suddenly, I am aware that I am a sinner.
  34. I too am part of what our tradition terms ‘total depravity’. There is no part of me which has not been affected by the taint of sin. Intellect, emotions, will, body… the whole thing is affected and corrupted by the same things that have affected each and every other human being (except Jesus) since we washed out of the Garden of Eden.
  35. And the instant I say that, there is that little voice in my head, which says… no, no, it can’t really be that bad.
  36. We call that part of us pride.
  37. Here’s a little paragraph from the founder of Presbyterianism, John Calvin. The section is entitled, “Man by nature inclines to deluded self-admiration
  38. Here, then, is what God's truth requires us to seek in examining ourselves: it requires the kind of knowledge that will strip us of all confidence in our own ability, deprive us of all occasion for boasting, and lead us to submission...There is, indeed, nothing that man's nature seeks more eagerly than to be flattered...For, since blind self-love is innate in all mortals, they are most freely persuaded that nothing inheres in themselves that deserves to be considered hateful.
  39. In other words, we think too highly of ourselves and we love to be flattered by others. That is our pride and our vanity.
  40. I note that it is pride at the root of the devil’s temptations for Jesus.
  41. Even though he is tempted by appetite, religious faith and political power, all these are preceded by a question about his identity which was rooted in vanity… “If you are the Son of God then…”
  42. Let’s dig into James. I will start with 3:13-4:1.
  43. 13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?
  44. In verse 13, James speaks of two kinds of wisdom.
  45. Wisdom from above manifest gentleness, peacefulness, mercy and good fruits—even “willingness to yield”. “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
  46. Wisdom from below is different: bitter envy and selfish ambition, boasting, falsehood, disorder, wickedness, conflict and dispute.
  47. I think that one of our problems is that when we hear words like the ones on that list, words like ‘wickedness’, we think only of the big, spectacular events, like the holocaust.
  48. But ask yourself this… in addition to the camp guards and mass murderers… how many file clerks and railroad workers did it take to make the holocaust happen?
  49. And as soon as I brought up the holocaust, that little voice inside us said, “The holocaust was awful. At least I’m not as bad a Nazi.”
  50. Are you starting to see the pattern? Are you starting to get how pride works?
  51. Your pride is always ready to tell you that you aren’t as bad as someone else.
  52. And the moment it does that, you sit up just a little straighter. You feel just a little better about yourself. At least for a few seconds. At least until you think about someone who might be better than you. Then you try to think about why they really aren’t any better or how they had some advantage you didn’t have, etc. etc. etc….
  53. This is completely the wrong reaction. The only truly wise and right response to total depravity is humility.
  54. Listen now to our second James reading…
  55. Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
  56.  Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says,
  57. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
  58. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

  59. Verse 10 bears repeating: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” 
  60. What does it mean in your life to humble yourself before the Lord?
  61. Only you know, of course. You and God.
  62. But it is certainly rooted in the foundation for everything. It is rooted in love.
  63. You can only humble yourself before God if you understand that God loves you.
  64. And you can only be humble around other people if you understand that God loves them just as much as God loves you.
  65. Now, if you look around this room… if you consider most members of your family, it is easy to imagine God loving them.
  66. But there are other people it is harder to imagine God loving.
  67. God loves your boss who is a jackass just as much as God loves you.
  68. So God loves your ex as much as God loves you.
  69. God loves your family member who is an addict and who has been lying and destructive just as much as God loves you.
  70. And yes, God loves Donald Trump just as much as God loves you.
  71. Wait, can you hear it? Can you hear that voice within you saying “No way.” God does not love ______________
  72. That’s the voice of your pride talking. That’s the voice that wants to take comfort from you being better than someone else.
  73. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
  74. It is true that there are a lot of people in the world who have done a lot of terrible things.
  75. God is going to deal with those people in God’s own time in whatever way God chooses.
  76. The God who knows all about each of us is our righteous judge—the God who is untainted by pride and vanity.
  77. I’m not here to talk about all those other people in the world.
  78. I’m here to talk about you and me and our pride.
  79. I’m here because I want to work on my own spiritual life and I want to work with you on yours.
  80. I’m here because I don’t want any of us to be captured by our pride—or by the snares of the devil.
  81. I’m going to be leading our Lenten study and this sermon forms the foundation of that study.
  82. We are going to look at Biblical resources and practical techniques for communicating with people who have hurt us and people who disagree with us.
  83. That’s why I called it, “KEEPING YOUR CALM IN A TIME OF (POLITICAL) TURMOIL” with the ‘political’ in parenthesis.
  84. Most of what we speak about will apply in the realm of politics AND family  AND church AND work.
  85. And it will be distinctly non-partisan. If you are looking for a primer on how to fight the current administration, look elsewhere.
  86. But if you are looking for ways to trust God more and worry less, come.
  87. If you are wondering how to communicate more effectively with your spouse, come.
  88. If you are wanting to surrender more of your prideful self to God and become more Christlike in your inner self, then come.
  89. And may God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit grant us all abundant wisdom from above as we humble ourselves before our loving Lord.
  90. Amen.