It's the fourth of August 2012. The atmosphere in the Olympic Stadium crackles. Already Jessica Ennis and Greg Rutherford have won gold medal that same evening. Mo Farah takes his place at the start of the 10,000 metre finals. Just 25 laps of the 400 metre track stand between him and victory. The athletes ready themselves, the starting gun goes, the race starts…
Imagine you're Mo in the middle of the race. You've been running fifteen minutes already. It's starting to hurt. You feel the pressure of the runners behind you. You think back to past failures at the Beijing Olympics. Can you do this? Doubt creeps in. You set your mind on the prize. You think of the Union Jack being raised, the national anthem, a gold medal, the applause and celebrating with your family. You push on… At 27 minutes 30.42 seconds you cross the line to win gold.
How do athletes persevere? They set their eyes on the prize ahead. Tonight we're thinking again on how followers of Jesus persevere in trials. We'll see that James says we are to fix our eyes on the prize ahead.
In verses 2-4 James showed us we persevere in trials knowing God uses trials for good. To make us more like Jesus. In our passage tonight, James changes the perspective: the promise of reward keeps us persevering in trials. James gives us three truths we need to know when we're facing trials: Know your prize; know your enemy; know your Father. My first point: Know your prize. By I mean know what you're target is when you're in the midst of trials. Come with me to verse 12 to see the prize James sets before us:
"Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him."
True blessing comes from persevering in the trial. We said that trial here means any difficulty in life that may threaten our trust in Jesus. It may be battling with illness, the struggle in the workplace, losing a loved one. But why is it blessed to persevere with Jesus when life is tough?
James says that when we've stood the test, followers of Jesus will receive the crown of life God has promised. The crown is probably a reference to the laurel wreath ancient athletes would receive for winning a race. But this is a crown of life. The prize is eternal life. Just as Mo Farah kept his eyes on the prize in the heat of a race, no doubt we would do well to keep our eyes on the prize in the heat of trials. How do we do that? We've got to keep reminding ourselves of what God has promised us everyday. Mo had no guarantee of winning the race. But, to followers of Jesus, God has given us new life. He's promised us heaven…if we keep trusting in Jesus.
How do we keep our eyes on the prize? There's nothing like reading your Bible in the mornings to set your eyes on the prize. As you drive to work in the mornings, turn the radio down, and spend some time thanking God for his promise of eternal life. In the midst of daily trials remind yourself of the future God has promised you.
I have a friend who live in London. As he commutes to work, whenever he sees the Shard, he reminds himself of heaven. I'm not sure what the Geordie equivalent is? Maybe everytime you cross the Tyne Bridge think of the prize God has promised you? Let's just dwell on what the prize is a little more. One day there'll be no more trials. One day we'll enjoy a new creation in our resurrection bodies. We won't be sitting on clouds playing dull harps. It's going to be a real place. But the great prize will be being with the one we love. James says God gives life "to those who love him."
Persevering through trials shows we love God. Sticking with Jesus in the tough times shows what we really love. It shows our goal isn't just a comfy life. If we give up on Jesus at the first trial we face, perhaps it shows our love is somewhere else. Sometimes we might hear folks say, "I followed Jesus but what good did that do me? I still had a hard time so gave up on Jesus." Often it reveals, what people really wanted from Jesus is not Jesus, but a comfier life. And because they don't get that from Jesus, they gave up on Him. James says true followers of Jesus persevere in trials. Even though they may lose health, reputation, even life, what they really treasure is Jesus. So the thought of being with him keeps them going.
Alec Motyer writes this in his commentary: "We live by what we love; the shape of our lives is determined by what we love." Suffering often exposes what we truly worship. If we love comfort, we will shape our lives round that. And when comfort is taken away the basis of our life will fold. If we love Jesus, we will shape our lives around him. Even when trials come, the basis of our life won't fold. Because we can't lose him. Through trials God makes us more like him, and one day we will be with Him forever! Whether you're a Christian or sceptic, do see that if Jesus is not our prize, trials will always undo our foundations in life?
Trials keep testing what we love, and what we shape our lives around. Each trial brings a choice: do we keep trusting in Jesus, or do we give up. Take for example losing a loved one. As we grieve, we're tempted to think, "Does God really love me?" Or as we face the challenges of singleness or marriage, we may be tempted to think, "Is God right to say sex is only for marriage?"
Each trial we face, big or small, often comes with a whispering voice that says, "God is not really good. In fact he's put me in this situation. He's pushing me into giving up on him. He's pushing me into disobeying him. And it's not my fault. It's God's." Does that kind of internal conversation sound familiar? Where we paint God as the enemy in trials. James tackles that head on. He says to us God isn't the enemy. Sin is. This leads to my second point: Know your enemy. Look with me at verse 13:
"When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death."
God may test us, but he never tempts us. Why? James tells us God cannot be tempted by evil himself, nor does he tempt anyone else. So what brings temptation? James says the enemy is our evil desires.
Take for example being in a traffic jam. In a traffic jam we might end up getting angry, even blaming God for putting us there. Why do we get angry in small trials like traffic jams? There's nothing morally wrong in a traffic jam in itself. The writer Paul Tripp says such trials rob us of what is precious to us: time, money, comfort. Do you see what drives you to that anger? It's not God. No. It's your sin. It's the "all about me attitude". Even when we face trials we are right to be angry at. The kind of things God is angry at: death, illness. We're often not angry with God at these things, but we're angry at God that he let them come our way.
James says in verse 14 temptation comes from our own unchecked evil desires. In verse 15, he says those unrestrained desires conceive and give birth to sin. And sin results judgment and death. Look how James personifies those evil desires. Evil desires want to entice you and drag you away. It could be that James is tapping into the picture of the seductress we read in Proverbs 9. Known as Folly she calls out in Proverbs 9.17:
"Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious!" But little do they know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of the grave."
Sin looks good. It often feels justifiable. But really it's death. Your sinful desires are out to mug you. How might that work?
Or imagine you're at work. People are gossiping over lunch about a colleague. You start to line up your own piece of tittle tattle. You start to think, "This will help me fit it. It's only a harmless piece of gossip." Do you see how our evil desires so easily justify themselves? What's the application? Be on your guard against your evil desires. Battle them. Tell yourself sin is out to mug me. God, my Father loves me. He's given me life and knows the best for me. We've got to halt those evil desires before they conceive and result in sin.
Secondly, I think we've got doubt our desires at times. For example, at the start of the weekend we might think, "I need to chill from reading the Bible and prayer." Where does that come from? Is that a right desire?
Thirdly, we've got to know that battling evil desires are part of following Jesus. There's nothing wrong with being tempted. Jesus was tempted. It's how we deal with those temptations. It's how we deal with the choices our trials throw up. Christian maturity is measured not in the frequency of temptation, but the infrequency of giving in.
We've got to know our enemy in trials. When we're faced with a choice of trusting Jesus or disobedience, we've got to know where that sneaky voice saying, "Give up" is coming from. God isn't tempting you. It's your evil desires out to mug you. James says, don't be deceived: Sin is your enemy; God is your Father. Sin is out to mug you; God loves you. This leads to my final point: Know your Father. Come with me to verse 16:
"Don't be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows."
What is God like according to James? He's the God who gives good gifts. He's doesn't tempt us. He's the God who provides for us. He is the Father of the heavenly lights. When you look at the stars we're reminded of God's awesome power over creation. The way he continues to provide for creation. And it's all a gift. We don't deserve the good things he gives us. They're all gifts.
When I worked with students I was often struck by the generosity of the East Asian students I met. Giving gifts is a big part of the culture. When they came for dinner they'd often bring gifts. Upstairs in our house, my wife and I have a box full of chopsticks, Jade trinkets, and some Beijing Olympics mascots. I only need to look in that box to remind myself of my friends' generosity. The gifts God gives us can't be fitted in a box! Your life is full with them: friends, family, church family, the food in your fridge, the list goes on.
James also tells us God does not change like shifting shadows. I think he's saying unlike the moon and stars which shift, God never shifts. He never changes. But if you're trusting in Jesus, God's goodness explodes onto another level. Look with me at verse 18:
"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're trusting in Jesus tonight it's because God chose you. You didn't earn your relationship with God. There was nothing smart or clever about you. God in his undeserved kindness chose you. He chose to give you birth through the word of life – that's the gospel. Jesus bore the punishment for your sin on the cross. Jesus bore the judgment for all your me first attitude. All the times you've failed to love God. Instead of death, you may have eternal life. God has paid for and promised you the crown of life. Right now, you are a first fruit of that new creation. The church is the first sign of God's plan to remake our broken world.
Let me show you some firstfruits. Here's a lemon tree. You might think so what? But this isn't any old lemon tree. It's a first fruit from John and Pat's greenhouse. The small fruit here a sign of what is to come. It's a foretaste of the harvests that will come in the future. So if you're trusting in Jesus tonight, you are a sign of God's plan to come. The small crowd here is tonight is a foretaste of the vast crowd that will worship the lamb, Jesus who gave them life. That is the good news you must preach to yourself when you're in trials. Don't be deceived. Sin is your enemy. God is your Father. He is a Father you can walk through trial with.
Let's wrap up. When Mo Farah is in the race he set his eyes on the prize. So when we're in the midst of trials what should we do? James says know your prize. Keep persevering with Jesus because one day he will give you the crown of life. James says know your enemy. When trials give you the choice of trusting Jesus, or disobeying, know that sin is the one tempting you. Unchecked sin leads to death. James says know your Father. God doesn't tempt you. In Christ, God has chosen you. He's given you life. Keep going for one day you will receive the prize.