Not Walking the Talk
JULY 5, 2023
I’m preaching at our home church next Sunday.
I would ask for your prayers, but since I write these letters way in advance, it’s too late to pray for me. By the time you read this, I will have preached a truly great sermon . . . or not.
Our pastors asked me to participate in their ongoing series on the book of James. That’s not my favorite book of the Bible, but my church is my favorite church, and our pastors are my favorite, so I said I would do it. They assigned me James 5:7-12 on patience, which is not my best quality. I told them that asking me to preach on patience was like asking me to preach on how to grow hair or stop smoking. They said it would probably be good for me and refused to change the assignment.
One of the hardest things about being a preacher is preaching on a subject one isn’t living. For most of my life, I’ve heard from preachers that we should never preach on a subject we weren’t living. That’s insane! Whoever dreamed that up was probably drunk. If preachers in general, and me in particular, took that admonishment seriously, sermons would be far shorter, or most preachers (me included) would probably give up preaching altogether and go into vinyl repair.
Martin Luther said that the book of James was “an epistle of straw.” If you’re looking for his commentary on James, forget it. Luther never wrote one. Luther knew James was true (he had a high view of Scripture, including James), but he knew that if James were not taught in the context of the whole counsel of God (e.g., Romans, Galatians, etc.), it could become a field day for legalists. Their favorite pastime is beating up on Christians. Frankly, James is often used that way. (I must say that that hasn’t been true of my pastors. Every sermon in the series has been clearly based on the doctrines of grace. Once you get grace, you can work on what that does for believers in living out the love we have experienced.)
But then, I suspect that the real reason Luther never wrote a commentary on the book of James is not altogether different from my discomfort in preaching a sermon on patience. Don’t read James for your evening devotions, or you won’t get much sleep. Best to read the Psalms before you go to bed (and even then, you have to be careful).
Before you criticize me for my hypocrisy in preaching on patience when I’m not altogether that patient, let’s talk about it.
At the risk of rationalizing my own sin, impatience has an upside. For instance, the squeaky wheel really does get the grease, impatience with our sin often leads to less sin, and impatience with laziness and poor work habits sometimes leads to excellence. But that’s not what James is addressing in this text. James is speaking to Christians going through some very difficult times. James is talking about problems that can’t be fixed, solutions that are hard to come by, and how life sometimes deals us cards that have to be played with the only hand we have.
Are you in a situation like that? Maybe your marriage is so bad that you don’t think it can ever get any better, your kids have rejected the Christian faith you taught them, you have an abusive boss or friend, you have been criticized for convictions you’re not willing to change, you have been given a scary medical diagnosis, or you want to be married (or single), and it’s just not happening. What do we do in the face of those places where prayers don’t seem answered, and the heavens are silent?
James teaches that Christians can be patient, knowing that we can stand hell if we know we’re going to get out (James 5:7-8), if our Father has the keys to hell (James 5:7, 11), if we aren’t alone in hell (James 5:11b), and if there are diamonds in hell (James 5:11).
That’s the sermon I plan to preach unless I rewrite it, but it begs the question: How can an impatient preacher preach a sermon on patience? So that you know, that question is for all of us. How can someone proclaim that they’re a Christian when much of their life doesn’t match how a Christian should live? How can we dare witness for Christ when we’re so often un-Christlike? Shouldn’t Christians remain silent about our faith until we “walk the talk”?
I’m here to help. I’ll preach that sermon on patience even if I’m not patient, just as you should bear witness to Christ even when you’re not very Christlike. Let me tell you why.
First, lots of luck finding a preacher or a Christian good enough to walk the talk. Maybe Paul? But he wrote, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost”(1 Timothy 1:15). Paul also wrote, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). The evil Paul didn’t want to do is exactly what he did, and the good he so often wanted to do, he didn’t.
Paul, go sit on the back pew.
How about Peter? Galatians 2 points out that Peter was a hypocrite and remained that long after he became the church leader. Well, maybe we’ll get David or Jeremiah to preach. And if you’re into women preachers, Rahab might be a dynamite preacher. Now that I think about it, though, probably not. There is David’s horrible sin and Jeremiah’s cowardice. If Rahab preached, it might get a crowd, but probably not a good idea to have a preacher who is a prostitute. We could ordain the disciples and have them preach, but I’m reminded that they all ran when the going got tough.
So, you all go sit on the back pew, too.
In fact, on further consideration, only Jesus can get in the pulpit and talk about anything he wants. Jesus is the only one good enough. So, the trick is to let those who hear the sermon or experience our witness know that it’s all about Jesus, not us.
Second, if a sermon or a witness doesn’t emphasize forgiveness, junk it. Ephesians 4:32 says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Forgiveness is irrelevant to those who don’t think they need it. Christians know they need it, and any witness that suggests that following Christ is doing the right things, saying the right things, and acting in the right ways, isn’t a witness to Christ. It’s just religious nonsense.
Hypocrisy isn’t just failing to live up to what we teach. It’s more than that. Hypocrisy is teaching things that aren’t true and then pretending to live up to those untruths. Jesus didn’t die to make us nice, obedient, and pure. Jesus died to make us his. When that biblical message is proclaimed from a pulpit, even an impatient preacher can preach on patience, and a flawed witness can speak about Jesus. When I preach on James’ teaching on patience, it is a great opportunity to bring up a subject more important than patience—forgiveness.
Third, truth is truth no matter who speaks it. Both Hitler and Mother Teresa used multiplication tables. Those tables aren’t less true because Hitler used them. Just so, God’s Word is true. I often told the congregation where I served as a pastor, “If you know me very well, you know that the subject of the sermon is a subject with which I struggle. I will place myself, with you, under the authority of God’s Word.”
My late friend, Grady Wilson (Billy Graham’s associate), would sometimes preach at the church where I was a pastor. He often held up his Bible and said, “I didn’t say it! God said it!” Grady didn’t say it, but I would add, “And if I were God, frankly, I would not have said it.”
And then, finally, an impatient preacher and a sinful witness can preach and witness because God isn’t finished yet. Hebrews 4:12 teaches, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” One of the difficult things about being a sinful Bible teacher is that one blushes a lot. But the upside is that one also gets better if one is faithful in teaching biblical truth. In fact, I’m more patient now than I have been, but you should also know that that probably has more to do with getting old than Jesus. As I add years to my life, I don’t push as hard, yell as loud, or nit-pick as much as I used to. It’s just not worth the effort. But with that being said, after writing this sermon on patience, I will probably become a very patient and spiritual giant.
Okay, okay, maybe not. If I don’t get better, there is comfort in the realization that Jesus still likes me, impatience and all.
I often think of my late friend, John DeBrine, who taught me so much. But there was one area where we disagreed. John was a major Boston Red Sox fan and even served as the Red Sox chaplain for a while. A Red Sox player once was quite vocal about his Christian faith. The problem was that his batting average was below 200. John said to him, “Son, if I were you, I wouldn’t talk so much about Jesus until I got my batting average up to at least 250.”
I would have told him to keep talking about Jesus and add that Jesus likes ball players whose average is over 300 and also those who can barely and rarely hit 200.
Jesus loves patient and impatient preachers, and obedient and disobedient witnesses, the same. That’s crazy, but nevertheless, true.
He asked me to remind you.