Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
September 30, 2018
Text: James 5:16, O.T.: Psalm 124, N.T.: James 5:13-20
Imagine a church where you could share the deepest shadows in your heart that darken your relationship with God. What would it take for Christians to be freely accepted for their warts and blemishes with joyful love and compassion?
Our nation is in the season of casting blame for the behavior of public leaders that we are fearful will define our national policies. Our skill at analyzing reasons for our disenfranchisement makes assumptions about motives and character that leave everyone impoverished. We demand perfection from others in a world that’s imperfect. Too many thrive in looking for others’ failings. Where does all this finger-pointing take us?
Some say finger-pointing and blaming is the cost of democracy’s checks and balances. It’s a necessary evil that protects us from tyranny.
Others claim its naïve to assume people’s goodness.
Whether negative social commentary is necessary, or whether we’re naïve, the cultural environment of scapegoating is detrimental to our community. A national culture defined by discontent affects the deepest places where husbands and wives live, and where children and parents love one another and find joy.
Worldly controversy can swamp the Christian spirit with hopelessness. We yearn to experience joy in life. Yet our yearning seems in vain. How many times do church members identify with Ecclesiastes in their disgust over the condition of our national rhetoric?
“Vanity, vanity, all is vanity and a striving after the wind.”
There’s more to life than vanity. God is giving us a greater life. It isn’t found in striving for perfection amid life’s imperfections. It lies in accepting our shortcomings and experiencing God’s presence.
Both are possible in a healthy relationship with God.
A healthy relationship with God accepts the imperfection in all people, especially ourselves. A healthy relationship with God begins by examining our own shortcomings and limiting our analysis of sinfulness to ourselves.
Jesus said, “Don’t look for the speck in another’s eye and not see the log in your own.” Those of us with a healthy relationship with God stay focused on the log in our own eyes. Period.
When we begin and end with our own acceptance of our failings, we’re ready to experience God. Experiencing God involves first recognizing your spiritual impoverishment. Only through humility be acknowledging your sin can you be enriched by experiencing God.
Jesus said in His first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Accepting your spiritual impoverishment allows you to know God’s enrichment of your life when He draws near to you.
But there’s another dimension, to experiencing God beyond humility. It lies in our view of the distance between heaven and earth.
Dallas Willard writes about the spiritual impoverishment of modern life in his book The Divine Imperative. He wrote we’re taught by academics that space between heaven and earth is empty – void of life and purpose. Pictures of earth from the moon and the space station depict a black darkness surrounding our planetary home. Nothing exists in the dark emptiness except what was created by humans who sent it into orbit around the earth.
In the modern world, where God lives in our popular conception, God’s presence lies beyond the twinkling stars. Heaven is a kingdom God inhabits billions of light years away. It’s beyond our comprehension that God monitors the daily events of 7 billion people on earth from such a distance. He’s the holy other – far, far away – whose incredible distance prevents us experiencing Him.
Willard proposes a difference vision of space. That view comes from Jesus.
Space isn’t empty. It’s inhabited by God. God daily interacts with us. God’s presence with us is, in fact, heaven.
No human institution like academia or our government, or even the Church, can replicate God’s presence with us. Neither our education, nor government, nor Church is more valuable than God’s presence. No social event, no form of entertainment is a substitute for God’s presence with you. When you begin with the awareness that space around earth isn’t empty, it’s filled with God’s presence, you are on the path to experiencing God.
God is with you! That’s what Jesus shows us. His name, “Immanuel” means “God with us.” Jesus moves and travels in and among us in this world in our time and our space. We are surrounded by His presence day and night.
He is continuously present.
We must quit thinking of Jesus as a material being who is trapped in the Bible’s pages for us to comprehend His continual presence around us. He lives beyond the Bible’s pages and is ever present to those who seek Him.
Jesus essentially says that to Nicodemus in John 3. As Dallas Willard puts it, “To be born ‘from above’ in New Testament language means to be joined with a dynamic, unseen divine reality in which all humanity moves.” Whether or not we know it, we are moving, living, breathing in God’s presence all the time.
God surrounds us in space. There’s no distance between God and earth. He’s continually present – omni-present. We’re in His Kingdom right now. He is in heaven and we are in heaven in His presence. He created the world and it was good because He is in the world.
He is with us. We don’t need to crave a perfect world with perfect people.
Heaven isn’t beyond the stars. Heaven is God’s care in the here and now in our imperfect world. We don’t need to yearn for a better world, with perfect world leaders guiding us with perfect justice and righteousness. The best world we need is here and now because God is with us.
Jesus whole purpose was to teach us this basic truth about life. It’s captured in William Kethe’s hymn from the Genevan Psalter: “O worship the King . . . whose robe is the light, whose canopy space . . . Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite? It breathes in the air. It shines in the light. It streams from the hills. It descends to the plain, and gently distills in the dew and the rain.”
Did you hear in this hymn how God’s presence bathes the world in His blessing. We need air, light, and water to live. God’s presence among His creation is our reassurance of His power and might that protects and renews life.
When you have this powerful sense that God is moving about you, prayer isn’t to a distant being whose attention you need to grab from among 7 billion other requests for His attention.
When you know God’s goodness and blessings daily shower you with all you need to live, you don’t spend time thinking of God as a heavenly policeman who’s only purpose is to find fault in you. Your whole view of life isn’t obsessed with finding fault in others or in life’s injustices.
Certainly, they are real. But they’re not the driving thought that dominates you. What lifts you from such a narrow, hardened view is God with you. He is with you. Christ is beside you to give you joy.
God’s love surrounds us daily. It’s the air we breathe. He’s closer than we know. His purpose is fulfilled each day in those who trust Him. Those times when you lose your grip on His presence are when you’re afraid He isn’t near enough to hear your prayer.
In Genesis 21:17-19, Hagar was afraid that her desperate child would die of thirst in the desert. She turned away from her child for fear to watch him suffer. As her son wept, God opened Hagar’s eyes to see a well of water. It had been there, like God. But she hadn’t seen it in her fear. God hadn’t left her or her son alone. He was with them, just like God is with you.
In Psalm 34 we read, “The righteous cry and the Lord hears. He delivers them from their troubles.” This is God’s word. He don’t renege on His word. Christ cries from the loneliest place on earth for His Father’s blessing, “For they know not what they do.” The God who is eternally present heard Jesus’ prayer on the cross, just like He hears ours. Easter is His joyful response.
James letter is written from that conviction in God’s joyful presence in our world. God’s joy in being with us is the grace that lifts us from guilt’s dark shadows into His arms. His blessing is the love that leads each Christian to give thanks together. We don’t look for other’s faults. We pray from the healing and new life God has given us in the joy of Jesus Christ.
I had a church member who meditated on James 5:16 during the final weeks of her life. It was an agonizing time for her. She was away from the congregation she loved on the final journey of her life.
Her eyes twinkled like the stars in the sky and her smile shined with the glory of God when she sat in her pew with the congregation Sunday after Sunday praising Jesus Christ. But her eyes equally twinkled from her bed at home, when the elders of the Church came to pray with her in her final days.
She was a woman who reveled in the continuing presence of Jesus Christ among us. But in her final days she was led by her joy in God’s presence to remind her church family of an important spiritual truth. We, her friends in Christ must rejoice in God’s presence. “The prayer of a righteous person has great power in its effects.” She was at home, awaiting the resurrection day, but He was with her, and us. She taught us that in her humble joy.
A congregation of faithful, grateful, and humble hearts that genuinely prays with one another does so from its deep sense that God surrounds it with His blessings. His abiding presence preserves our safety and frees us from looking for faults in each other and the world in which we live. Such a congregation is bathed in God’s love and joy.
Humble servants among us remind us that fellowship in Christ prayerfully builds one another in faith, hope, and love. It sees the blessings of God’s presence in each other and offers thanks and praise to a land that yearns for joy!