Come Near to God and He Will Come Near to You
James 4:1 – 10
Come Near to God and He Will Come Near to You
Context is king!
Many of you know that my kids and I like to go to Bunnings. Or perhaps I like going to Bunnings and my kids have little choice in the matter! But one time I was there with our daughter Heidi, She must have been about 4 or 5, and we were playing around a little bit, and so I bent down and said to her, “I bet I can beat you to that checkout up there, ” And before the words are out of my mouth, she’s off!, as fast as her little legs can carry her, towards the checkout, calling out, at the top of her voice “Daddy, please don’t beat me, Please don’t beat me.”
In that moment, the entire store fell silent, and every eye in the place turned to glare at me, this monster of a father, who was about to beat his child, in the middle of Bunnings.
“Daddy, please don’t beat me.”
Context, is important!
In fact, the message they drum into you at theological college is “Context is king!”
And Greek, is one thing,
But context is king!
Not much is more important, when it comes to understanding and applying any part of the Bible, than coming to grips with its context. I imagine, that if you’ve been around church much throughout your life, or if you’ve hang around with Christian people, you will have heard some of these extravagant promises of God, that we’re looking at in this teaching series. They’re are encouraging, inspiring parts of the Bible.
They say the kinds of things that we probably want to hear, like our promise for this morning, in the first half of James 4 verse 8, Come near to God and he will come near to you.
That sounds like something that most of us would like, doesn’t it?
Whether we’d call ourselves a Christian or not, presumably we’re here this morning because we interested in finding out about the things of God, and to have God come near to us,
And so to have God promise, in his Word, in the Bible, t to come near to us, well, that sounds like a promise that I’d like to claim,
But context is important.
It makes the difference between me getting arrested for child abuse in Bunnings, or not!
And it can make the difference between us understanding and applying a promise from God, like this one in James 4, or misunderstanding it, and potentially trying to make God say something that in fact he never said.
Claiming a promise, that someone has actually never made, that’s a sure fire recipe for disappointment and hurt, isn’t it?
If you’re at a wedding, and you were to misunderstand the couple’s marriage vows, their promises to each other, and you came to the conclusion that one of them was making those promises to you, well it’s all downhill from there, isn’t it?
Yet for those who understand those promises rightly,
For the couple themselves, as they receive the promises,
For the friends and family who hear those promises being made, as the culmination of perhaps years of investment in relationship, understanding the promises rightly gives great encouragement, great comfort, great assurance.
And it’s that comfort, and encouragement, and assurance that I pray we receive from hearing God speak his promises.
But we absolutely want to make sure that we understand their context, and what in fact God is actually promising.
What’s wrong in the church to whom James is writing?
Perhaps when we read it through earlier, you wondered if things could really as bad as they seem, in the churches to whom James, Jesus’ brother, is writing.
James is writing to Christian people, the opening of the letter makes that clear, and yet did you notice what’s going on among these group of Christians scatted across the world?
fights and quarrels, verse 1.
desires battling within you
Coveting, verse 2, Jealously wanting what others have.
Wrong motives verse 3.
And that’s all pretty strong language, but we know no-one’s perfect.
But did you notice the beginning of verse 2? You desire but do not have, so you kill.!
Have things got so bad among the Christians dispersed across the Roman Empire that they’ve taken to killing each other?
Well, presumably if Christians were in fact murdering each other, James would have a bit more to say about that situation than what we find here!
And in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, the words for fights and quarrels were more commonly used for verbal and relational conflict, rather than physical violence. Much as those words have the same meaning today.
If you came to me and said that you’d had a fight with your best friend, my first thought wouldn’t be that you’ve beaten the living daylights out of them,
But it’s pretty clear that James wants to highlight the danger, that that is what is possible.
Your heart’s already there, even in your actions haven’t followed yet.
Think of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, if you’re familiar with that, in Matthew 5, Jesus equates getting angry at your brother, with murder.
And that seems to be the thought that James is echoing.
And James is Jesus’ brother, remember.
I don’t know, maybe he even lay in bed at night, trying to get to sleep, listening to Jesus practice the Sermon on the Mount!
Perhaps not! But my point is we shouldn’t be surprised that this reflects very closely Jesus’ own teaching.
See, what’s wrong?
What is the issue that James is trying to address in this part of his letter?
Why does he hold out this promise of coming near to God?
Why does he sense that there needs to be a coming near?
What has caused this apparent separation from God in the first place?
Well, its’ pretty clear, isn’t it?
James’ readers are slipping back into the patterns and priorities of the world;,
Envy, covetousness, seeking after pleasures, which leads to verbal arguments, to fights, to quarrels, and ultimately, if left unchecked, even to murder.
The danger is real.
Pursuing an affair with the world breaks fellowship with God
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God
This language of “the world” is shorthand for a culture and society opposed to God.
It’s life lived as if there is no God, or as if God doesn’t matter.
James isn’t saying, you can’t be friends with people in the world.
Some Christians have taken these words to mean that.
We were talking about this passage in staff meeting on Monday, and somebody said they’d had a conversation just the day before, with a Christian person, who thought these words were a command to Christians, to cut themselves off, from people who aren’t Christian, and even from other Christian people who don’t seem to be very good Christians!
Well, we’d all be living the life of a hermit if that were the case, wouldn’t we?!
No, the problem is not contact with the world, but taking on the priorities and desires of the world.
Friendship in the Greco-Roman culture of James’ era, meant a lot more than friendship in the Facebook era.
Friendship meant having everything in common, sharing everything that you had, what one writer called “both spiritual and physical unity.”
And when you share everything with the world,
Then you are out of step with God,
You have aligned yourself with the world, against God.
And if the world is life without God,
Then friendship with the world for the Christian person, is living life as if there is no God.
It’s talking like the world,
Looking like the world,
Spending your money, like the world does,
Spending your time like the world does,
Thinking about others, the way the world does,
Thinking about yourself, like the world does,
So completely inappropriate is it, for a Christian person to live like that, that James reaches back into the Old Testament, and pulls out the word that God used to describe Israel, when they turned away from him, and lived like the world.
You adulterous people, James says.
In seeking friendship with the world,
In seeking after the world’s priorities instead of God’s,
In your selfish envy and self-promotion, you are committing spiritual adultery.
You are God’s man, or God’s woman, and yet you are engaging in an affair with the world.
An extravagant promise of God; The promise of himself.
And so to this problem, an affair with the world that sees envy, and desire, and selfish ambition, James offers a solution, an extravagant promise from God.
Come near to God James says, and he will come near to you
This is the solution, the appropriate response, when confronted with the terrible reality that you have engaged in an adulterous affair with the world.
And of course, you don’t have to be quarrelling and fighting and killing, to be in need of coming near to God.
Whenever pride rears its ugly head,
Whenever envy and jealousy rise,
Whenever our motives are impure, and we cannot see past the tantalising call of our pleasures,
We need to hear this promise.
Come near to God and he will come near to you.
This isn’t really a new promise from God.
Time and time again in the Old Testament, God called on his people to return to him, to draw near to him, so that relationship could be restored.
Hosea, Zechariah, Malachi, they all offer the promise of restored relationship with God himself.
The American pastor and author John Piper has written a book called “God is the Gospel.” Some of you will have read it. It’s available free as a PDF on the web, if you wanted to read it.
In the book, Piper reminds us, that the very best thing about the message of Christianity, is the offer of a relationship with God himself.
And here, God holds out that offer, that he’s already made in the gospel, he holds out the promise of himself, to Christian people, who are engaging in an affair with the world.
Now we might think it natural enough for God to make this promise of relationship to Christian people who are doing everything right,
But that’s not who James is writing to, is it?
And of course, that’s not us, either, is it?
We don’t always get it right.
We’re tempted by the world and its priorities.
And yet even to these Christians, God promises himself.
One of the books that I read as a kid contained the line “comparisons are odious.” The line actually comes from a strange and wacky book from the 15th Century, but somehow it made it into a children’s story!
“Comparisons are odious.”
It’s a phrase that’s always stuck with me, but just, putting that aside for a moment! Compare yourself to these Christians!
If you are worried that God seems far away.
That the state of your life separates you from God,
That your selfish envy, and wrong motives, and the drive for pleasure and position, or possessions, exclude you from God’s presence and from relationship with him,
Look at these people!
Christian men and women, enthralled in an affair with the world.
To them, this extravagant promise is made. Come near to God and he will come near to you
You are not too far,
Too entrenched in your ways,
Too enrapt in an affair with the world,
For your relationship with God to be made right.
When James promises us,
When God himself promises us, that he will come near to us, it’s the promise of relationship,
The promise of accessibility.
The promise from God himself that he is determined that nothing hinder our fellowship with him.
“Draw near to me”, God says, “and I will be there.”
Here is the promise, from God’s own lips, of prayers being heard.
Have you ever wondered, are my prayers heard, am I just speaking into the ether out there somewhere?
Well, here is God’s extravagant promise, to be near, to hear.
Can I be comforted, in the midst of turmoil?
Here is God’s promise, to be near in comfort.
Can I know God’s will, can I know what’s right?
Can I walk in obedience with God?
Here is God’s promise to be present with his people
Years ago someone gave me a little notecard that said, “If God seems far away, Guess who moved?”
The sentiment’s right, isn’t it?
Here is God’s extravagant promise of relationship and access.
What is it to come near to God?
So what actually is it, to come near to God?
Sometimes I’ve heard Christians use this language and mean something like, “Come into a church building.” You might have heard that in church, “we are now, coming near to God.”
But we know that God doesn’t live in church buildings, particularly, which is good for us, who gather in somebody else’s building!
And we don’t have to read too much else in James’ letter to get a feel for what was happening in their church gatherings, and so it’s pretty clear that the problem of selfish envy and an affair with the world wasn’t going to be solved simply by turning up to church on Sunday.
For other people, God’s nearness is about feelings or imagination.
“Feel God’s presence, and God will be near you” they say.
But it definitely doesn’t seem like James doesn’t think that our feelings or imaginations are able to bridge the chasm, that our selfish envy has carved into our relationship with God.
You read verses 1 to 6, and simply imagining, or feeling, the presence of God, doesn’t seem anything like a solution to the problem, does it?
And similarly, to come near to God, isn’t an invitation to salvation, for people who aren’t Christian. James has Christian people, very firmly in his sights, we’ve seen that.
And so we turn the verses around this promise, to see what it means for someone,
A Christian person,
Someone who is disoriented and confounded by the burden of selfish envy,
Someone like us,
To work out what it looks like, to receive this promise, and to come near to God.
Coming near to God means submitting to God
And it starts, we see, with submission to God.
Having quoted from Proverbs chapter 3 and verse 34, God opposes the proud, but shows favour to the humble, James gives a string of commands, of which come near to God is one, and all of which show what it means, to come near to God.
Verse 7, submit yourselves, then, to God,
The same idea expressed differently in Grieve, mourn and wail, verse 9,
And again in verse 10, humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
See, we don’t have to decide for ourselves, what it means to come near to God.
It’s not up to me to decide, “Well, I like to come to God, this way”,
And for you to say, “Well, for me, there’s this other means of coming near to God, that kind of works for me!”,
No, we’re told exactly what it is to come near to God, in order that he might come near to us.
Here is an extravagant promise from God.
The promise of God himself.
Come near to God, and he will come near to you
And here is the means of receiving this promise for yourself, Christian brother or sister,
Instead of submitting to the devil, submit yourselves, to God
Instead of submitting to the devil, resist the devil,
Instead of feeding your sin and your selfish envy, grieve mourn and wail, see your sin the way God sees it,
See your sin the way it really is.
Humble yourselves before the Lord,
Come near to God.
The word for submit in James’ original language is literally “obey.” It’s the word used to describe Jesus as a 12 year old boy, obeying Mary and Joseph in Luke 2.
Some of you will be familiar with the novel “The Shack.” In the story, the character Papa, who is the God figure, says to the human character, Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience;, it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we, the Trinity, are submitted to you in the same way.
And yet that is entirely at odds, with what James says here,
It’s entirely at odds with Jesus’ own example,
And it’s entirely at odds with what the word itself means!
Literally this word submit, means to “put in order under something or someone”
To submit to God means to place ourselves under his lordship, and to commit ourselves to obeying him in everything.
This is a voluntary act of placing yourself under someone else’s authority,
To come near to God, is to submit to his priorities.
Which is the exact opposite of what we see played out in those earlier verses of the chapter, isn’t it?
They’re all about what I want,
What happens when it’s my priorities I want met,
Seeking after my own pleasure.
Coming near to God, means seeking what he wants for me,
Submitting to his will,
It is, really, to pray, and live out the prayer, “your will be done”.
Coming near to God means radical repentance
Which, since this is a promise spoken to people engaging in an affair with the world, it means we’re talking about radical repentance, and the 2 commands in the second half of verse 8 make that pretty clear.
Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded
Coming near to God means radical repentance.
Sometimes on Sundays, as part of our gathering, we confess our sin together,
We admit that we need to repent,
And we thank God for the mercy he shows us in Christ.
And every now and then, someone will ask me why we do this, and in fact sometimes people suggest that we ought not do this, because, they say, “If we’re Christian people”, which most of us are, “If we’re Christians, if we’re already trusting in Jesus’ death in our place for a relationship with God,
If we believe that our sin and rebellion is forgiven because he took the penalty that we deserved, why do we need to repent again?
Why do we need to acknowledge our sin, if Jesus has paid for it all?”
And it’s a good question to ask, isn’t it?
If I have been purified, by Jesus washing away my sin,
Why repent of the sins I commit subsequent to that?
Is there any point in acknowledging my sin before God?
Well James says, “yes, there is!”
This is the language of repentance, and confession, and acknowledging my sin, and being grieved by my sin.
James knows that he’s writing to people who have already received the washing and purification that Jesus achieves on the cross,
He sees his audience as dearly loved children of God, and yet he also sees the seriousness of the sin they’re engaged in.
Something has to be done.
There has to be an acknowledgment.
There must be, a departure from sin,
A re-submission to God,
A washing and purification, not to achieve relationship with God,
But to restore fellowship to those who have already been brought into relationship with God.
All the commentators, draw the parallel from this passage, with the parable of the prodigal son.
Like the father in that story, God stands ready to offer himself in relationship,
Promises himself in relationship, to the child who would turn from his or her ways of selfish envy and pleasure-seeking, back to God’s pattern for life.
And notice this coming near to God, the putting off of sin, involves both external behaviour, wash your hands, and an internal attitude, purify your hearts.
Most likely James has got Psalm 24 in the back of his mind, which asks the questions, “who can come near to God?”, And king David, the Psalm’s author provides the answer, The one who has clean hands and a pure heart
Often at home, when we’re getting ready to sit down for dinner, my wife Kathy will ask our children, “Do you have clean hands?”, and then I often chime in, “Do you have a pure heart?”
And they all kind of look at me and roll their eyes!
Only one of those things is necessary if you want to sit down for dinner at our table, but both are necessary if we are to draw near to God.
Our actions and attitudes cannot be the same as those of the world.
The problem that James is trying to address, is not that his readers have never known God.
The problem is that Christian people can be double-minded.
Is there any one amongst us, who can say that we are always 100% devoted to God’s priorities.
I think not.
As long as we live in a world stained by sin and out of step with its creator, this is the description that will apply to us.
It’s a significant word in James’ letter, he may have actually invented the word in Greek! No one ever seems to have used this word prior to James!
Never let the fact that a word doesn’t exist stop you making your point!
Double-minded, someone who loves God, and yet also loves the world,
Double-minded, the Christian who flirts with the priorities and patterns of the world.
One of the most awful parts of my job, is trying to offer some help in marriages that have broken down, because one person or the other has engaged in an adulterous affair.
And often, this person commits starts this behaviour,
And they know it’s wrong,
If they’re a Christian, they know they are deliberately embracing sin,
They know they’re hurting their family,
But they are not willing to give up, their sinful behaviour, and their sinful desires.
What do we prefer to God himself?
So if we were to allow James to, twist the knife a little,
What desires, verse 1,
What wrong motives, what pleasures, verse 3, are you, not willing to give up?,
Am I, not willing to give up?,
What is it that puts you at risk of becoming an enemy of God, verse 4?
What is it, that is presently holding you back, from coming near to God?
And therefore, what is it, that is getting in the way, of God, coming near, to you?
Here is an extravagant promise of God, the promise of God himself, the very highest good of the gospel, and yet, my friend, Are you, Am I, Are we, so tightly holding on to something else,
Are our hands so tightly clutched around something else, anything else, that we cannot receive the great gift of God held out for us in this extravagant promise?
A position, a possession?
What could possibly be worth hanging on to, and thereby missing out on this promise of God himself?
Paul White was a CMS missionary in the 1930s, in what’s now Tanzania. Many of you will have read some of his Jungle Doctor books or comics.
In one of those stories, one of the characters relates the old tale of catching monkeys, by drilling a hole in a hollow gourd, putting a banana inside, and tying it up some place where the monkey will find it.
Monkey walks along, smells the banana, puts his hand in the gourd and grabs the banana, but now he can’t get either his hand or the banana out of the hole.
Monkey jumps up and down and carries on, determined to get the banana out,
Hunter comes along and scoops up the monkey,
Monkey soup for dinner!
I think it’s more of a fable, than a proven method of catching monkeys, but, we get the point, don’t we?
Is there something that you are hanging on to, that you are refusing to let go of,
Something that is stopping you coming near to God,
Something that gets in the way, of you receiving this extravagant promise of God.
Coming near to God is only possible because of Jesus.
James, as he urges people to come near to God, and purify and cleanse themselves, echoes the language of the Old Testament temple rituals.
It was the priest’s job to purify the people,
To cleanse them,
And animal would be sacrificed, and, it seems pretty gross to us, but the blood would be sprinkled on things, as a sign of cleansing and purification.
And just as that method of cleansing and purification could never really deal with the problem of sin, the cleansing and purifying attached to this magnificent promise, can’t on its own, make people right with God.
No, the only reason, that in this promise, God can call on people to cleanse and purify themselves, is because God has already provided the ultimate purification.
God is only able to make this promise, because he has already made the promise that deals with the root of sin;,
He sent his son to die on the cross.
We can’t deal with the ultimate cause of our sin,
We are, left to our own devices, opposed to God, God’s enemies.
Without God’s gracious intervention, not only would we be not able to come near to God, we wouldn’t want to!
There is no one, who naturally, has their heart set on the things of God.
To want what God wants,
To desire God, for who he is, requires the work of God in us, made possible through the death of Jesus.
The cleansing and purification that this promise calls for from us, is a re-cleansing, a re-purposing, if you like, of our lives.
It’s not the initial removal of the stain of sin,
It’s us removing whatever temporary blockages we’ve allowed to make their way into our fellowship with God.
But this extravagant promise of God depends on Jesus’ death in our place in another way too,
And that is,
Without him taking the punishment for sin and rebellion that we deserve,
Without him stepping into our place, so that we could be declared not guilty in God’s eyes .
Even if we wanted, to come near to God,
And even if we could,
And if God did, in response, come near to us,
What would happen?
We would be utterly consumed, by God’s righteous anger!
The 18th Century preacher Jonathan Edwards, is perhaps most famous for a sermon he preached called “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.”
His point was that on our own, we cannot come to God,
We have no access to God,
We can expect nothing from God, except the right and just punishment for our sin and rebellion against him,
For God to draw near, when we’re like that, is frightening.
The only reason that the thought of God coming near should not fill us with fear, is if God has already brought us into relationship with himself through Jesus.
And so do you see, that this promise of God’s own presence with us, is in fact, a wonderful gift of assurance?
Here is the guarantee, that Jesus’ death in our place is enough.
If you’re a Christian here this morning,
Here is the assurance, that when God looks at you, he doesn’t see your sin and rebellion,
He doesn’t see you as someone deserving of judgment.
He sees you as someone to whom he wants to come near
Here is God’s own promise, that you can be welcomed, and have relationship, and access to him.
Here is God’s promise, that you have nothing to fear, from the creator of the world, reaching out his hand, and beckoning you to come in.
When I was in primary school, sometimes the Deputy Principal would come and knock on the classroom door, and then talk in hushed tones to the teacher while we all looked on.
For most of the year 6 boys, those times when the deputy would turn up in our class, were, slightly anxious moments.
We would wrack our brains trying to recall if we had broken any rules, done something wrong, and more importantly, if anyone knew, that we had.
All of us that is, except my friend Matthew.
He was never anxious when the Deputy Principal visited,
The hushed conversations at the front of the classroom never sent him into a spin, trying to recall what he might have said or done at lunch time.
See my friend, Matthew was the Deputy Principal’s son.
And so the presence of the father who loved him was never a cause for fear.
In fact he quite enjoyed it, when his father turned up in our class!
That’s the difference it makes, when you have relationship and access, when you’re known and loved.
And here’s the extravagant promise, from the Father who loves us, Come near to God and he will come near to you.