This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: James 5:1-6
Dear People of God,
There’s a children’s story of a rich emperor who liked to dress in fine clothes. He was so into his clothes that he would spend all his time and money buying new clothes and looking at himself in the mirror. He thought himself the grandest emperor of all. Then one day a couple of swindlers came in to town. They claimed to be the world’s most excellent tailors. They said they had an exceptional thread with which to weave fine clothing. In fact they claimed if you couldn’t see such fine clothes you either weren’t worthy of your office or you were a fool. The emperor was suitably impressed with such boasts that he commissioned the tailors to make him a fine outfit for the upcoming parade. He paid them a handsome sum in gold.
The tailors set to work immediately. A few days later the emperor, anxious to see his new garments, wanted to see the progress they were making. Suddenly he thought to himself, what if I am unable to see the garments, then I will be unworthy of my office. So he sent his most trusted chief official instead. The official went to see how things were going. To his surprise he found the two tailors working hard at the loom but there was nothing on it. “Do you like it,” the tailors asked the chief official? Not wanting to be thought of as unworthy of his office he said, “It’s absolutely gorgeous!” And reported back to the emperor on what a beautiful piece of clothing it was turning out to be.
Well, the emperor sent different officials and each one came back and reported how beautiful the non-existent garment was. Finally, the day came for the emperor to try it on. He was to wear it through the town and parade his fine garment for all to see. He went to the tailors to see his beautiful new clothes. To his surprise he saw nothing there when he entered the room. But the two tailors picked up the imaginary garment and proceeded to put it on him anyway. They “ooh’ed” and “ah’ed” at how beautiful it looked on him. The emperor, not wanting people to think him a fool or unworthy of his position, went along with the charade. He paraded himself through the town. Everyone who saw him was, of course, puzzled because he wasn’t wearing any clothes. But the people cheered and applauded all the same, not wanting to be considered foolish or unworthy of their place in the town. Finally, a little child piped up: “The emperor has no clothes!” At once the emperor realized it was true, but too full of pride he preceded along with the parade anyway.
This story is an example of how our riches and fine possessions can get the better of us. Our pride and envy and wanting the best can certainly cause us to behave foolishly.
The passage that we just read in James also addresses the folly into which wealthy people in the world can get themselves. Although the story of the emperor is cute and funny, in reality we can take pride in our riches to an unhealthy degree. The emperor foolishly lets himself get duped in our story. He gets swindled by a bunch of crooks. The sad reality is that we live in a society where quite often the rich can swindle the poor. James is addressing rich people in this passage about the dangers of misusing their money.
James sounds similar to some of the Old Testament prophets when he warns the rich about the judgment that is going to befall them. The passage was also meant to comfort those Christians who were being oppressed by the rich. Greedy, rich landowners back in those days took advantage of the poor workers who worked their fields. They refused to pay them for their work. The rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. James comforts them with the truth that the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. That is the theme of our lesson today: the cries of the poor have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.
The first point I want to make today comes to us from verse one of our passage. If we take a look at the first verse of our passage we will discover that rich people who use their money unscrupulously will get what’s coming to them. Verse one says, “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.” James is referring to the final judgment where God will judge the righteous and the wicked.
Psalm 58 is a good description of the wicked and the righteous.
“Do you rulers indeed speak justly? Do you judge uprightly among men? No, in your heart you devise injustice, and your hands mete out violence on the earth. Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies… Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns—whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away. The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. Then men will say, “Surely the righteous still are rewarded, surely there is a God who judges the earth.”
You may suspect that this passage describes the end times and it does. But God hears the cries of the oppressed now and has heard them at all times. The psalmist, David, writes this because even during his reign all was not well economically. There were unscrupulous rich people who took advantage of the poor in society. He is saying that in the end both the righteous and sinful will be justly rewarded.
By now you may be thinking, “Well, is it so wrong to be rich? What if I have some money? Does this mean I am going to burn eternally?” The answer is no. It’s okay to be rich but it is a responsibility. As Jesus said in the parable of the shrewd manager found in Luke chapter 16, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much”. Rich people have been entrusted with wealth to do good or evil with it.
James is writing this passage to non-believers. We can be rich and be Christian at the same time. There should be a difference between rich believers and rich non-believers. As Christians, we are not supposed to idolize money. It’s okay to work to be prosperous and want to have material possessions. The problem arises when we put too much desire on these things that they start to overtake us and it’s all we can think about. Money can become a god to us when we exist only to serve money rather than to serve God. We have a human tendency to forget about others who are less fortunate than us. We tend to forget about the poor and oppressed in society. It’s a great temptation for rich people to forget that they have been entrusted with their wealth. What we do with our wealth and riches is what God is concerned about.
Our second point comes to us from verses 2 and 3. “Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have horded wealth in the last days.” The old cliché is true: “you can't take it with you when you die.” So, what good use will you make of your wealth while you can?
When we turn on the television we are constantly bombarded with ads that tell us we need to have this or that and then our life will be fulfilled. We live in a consumer minded society. Sometimes these ads can create in us unhealthy desires for things we don’t actually need, causing us to hoard our money and save it for things we don’t need rather than helping those with greater needs. It is important for us to distinguish between our wants and our needs.
James is addressing the rich in this passage reminding them that they will have to give an account for the wealth that they have hoarded. The rich landowners were hoarding their wealth and the common workers were suffering in destitution. Their only avenue for justice was to cry out to the Lord for vengeance on their rich oppressors. James reminds the poor that the ungodly rich will get their just judgment when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead. He is asking them to have patience, to wait on the Lord who metes out justice in his own time. Let God the Almighty who has poured out his gifts to all people, be the judge. God has entrusted rich people with the responsibility of caring for poor people. It is their job to share with those in need; it is not their job to use all their money amassing possessions for themselves. In fact, all their possessions are just going to waste away after they are gone. Our passage says that the corrosion of their wasted stuff will testify against them. James uses very strong language to remind people of the dangers of hoarding wealth that God has given to us.
The same applies for us today. The rich have a responsibility to care for the poor and make sure that basic human needs are met. This does not mean that we should all have equal wages for unequal work, but those who have riches do have a responsibility to care for the poor. If we are in a position of wealth, we have the responsibility of making sure people are treated fairly and justly so that all people can have their basic needs met. We are not supposed to cling to our wealth so that no one else benefits from it.
James may be quoting Jesus from his famous Sermon on the Mount speech in Matthew 6: 19-21 where he says,
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
In other words, Jesus is saying you cannot serve both God and money. When we serve money it produces greed, envy and other unhealthy desires. When we serve God with our money it means we are rich towards God. We use our money for good, God honoring causes.
The third point comes to us from verse 5. We live in a society of luxury and indulgence. Verse 5 says.
“You have lived on the earth in luxury and self–indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.”
James is again referring to the rich landowners who were abusing the poor. They were living in luxury stuffing their faces with food. James uses the imagery of cattle that are going to be slaughtered. If you’ve ever been on a farm you will notice that all cows do is eat. They are oblivious to everything that goes on around them. They eat and eat and eat and get fatter and fatter. Oblivious to their fate, they eat right up until the time they are going to be slaughtered. James describes unscrupulous rich people the same way. They keep getting wealthier and wealthier and they will keep doing it until judgment day. They are like cattle being fattened for the slaughter.
We can take this discussion of wealth to the national and international level as well. We North Americans live in a society of luxury and indulgence. This is in sharp contrast to those in the developing world. According to some recent statistics, 3 billion people worldwide live on less than 2 dollars a day. 1.2 billion people worldwide live on less than one dollar a day. In some developing countries, the situation is so desperate that parents are forced to decide which of their children to feed and which of them they will let starve. Now contrast that situation to life in our country.
What do we spend our money on? Luxurious housing? Expensive vacations or leisure activities? Our children’s activities or maybe our pets? The United Nations Development Program estimates that the basic health and nutrition needs of the world's poorest people could be met if wealthier nations gave an additional $13 billion a year. Now that sounds like a lot of money but animal lovers in the United States, Canada and Europe spend more than that on pet food each year! I’m obviously not saying that we shouldn’t feed our pets or enjoy the money God allows us to have but let’s put our riches into perspective here.
Even in North America there are children who live in poverty. This should not be. We have the responsibility as Christians to use our money wisely. Our hearts should go out to the less fortunate. Everything we have is a gift from God. It is not ours to begin with. God has blessed our nations with abundance. We need to be wary of living affluent lives to the point where we are living in luxury and indulgence. We need to remember that we have a responsibility to those who are poor and oppressed in our own country as well as developing countries all over the world. Remember that they too are made in the image of God and as God’s people we have a responsibility to care for them.
Now you may be hearing all of this and thinking to yourself that I probably live very affluently compared to other nations. We have much to be thankful for. Maybe you’re feeling guilty for having too much. Remember that Jesus came to give his life as a ransom for many. In other words Christ paid the ransom price of his own life to free us from guilt and sin. We are saved by the grace of Jesus Christ and that grace allows us to respond to what he has done for us. We have the opportunity to use the gifts that God has given us to serve a greater good. That is to bring justice to a world where oppression and suffering are great. As God’s people we look forward to the day of his return when he will make things right. In the meantime the Lord hears the cries of the oppressed and so should we.
Order of Worship
Welcome and Announcements
We Come to Worship God
Opening Songs of Worship
PsH 453 Let all Things Now Living
PsH 239 Amid the Thronging Worshipers
Call to worship: Psalm 100
Hymn of response: PsH 487 How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds
Romans 1:7b “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Hymn of Praise: PsH 246 Come, Thou Almighty King
We are Reconciled before God
Confession of sin
Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart and mind and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen
-The Worship Sourcebook
The Assurance of Pardon: John 3:16
Guide for Grateful Living: Responsive reading of the law PsH 1014
Song of response: PsH 262 My Faith Looks Up to Thee
We Hear the Word of God
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture reading: James 1:1-6
Sermon: The Cries of the Poor
Prayer of Application
Almighty God we ask that you listen to the cries of the oppressed. Right what is wrong in this world and in our lives and may your kingdom come in all its fullness and may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen
Hymn of Response: PsH 296 We Give You But Your Own
We Respond with Our Offerings and Prayer
Prayers of the people
We Go Out with New Hope
Benediction: Numbers 6:24-26
Doxology: PsH 637 Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow