Monday, February 27, 2012

Is My Faith Real?


14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?  Can faith save you?  15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
18But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.”  Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.  19You believe that God is one; you do well.  Even the demons believe—and shudder.  20Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren?
21Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?  22You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works.  23Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God.
24You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.  25Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?  26For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.             James 2:14-26  (NRSV)
Mirages are an interesting phenomenon.  They don’t only occur in the mind of a thirsty wanderer.  The scientific reasons have to do with a dense layer of hot air rising from ground surface, reflecting the image of distant objects. 
The problem with a mirage is that it disappears when you come up close to examine it.  It was only a reflection, not the genuine article.  There is no fountain of gushing, cool spring water for the thirsty traveler.  There is only more heat, frustration and despair. 
Just like mirages offer empty hope to a desperate traveler, there is a "faith" that never delivers.
The deception of a mirage-type faith is perhaps the saddest story of all.  So close to the real thing (like the traveler seeing the oasis), yet as far as forever from real, genuine satisfaction. 
There are many people in this country who will tell you they are “Christian”.  In fact a random sampling of Americans reveals something like 55% of adults who claim to be Christian.  The problem is that many are of the mirage faith.  If 55% of American adults were actually Christians, this country would be a very different place in which to live!
For some, faith is summed up like the animatronic figures at Disney.  When you walk up to the “Hall of Presidents” you can meet Lincoln, Washington – all of them.  They are so life-like, moving, talking; they stand up and sit down, gesture.  They move and talk like real people.  It is an amazing, lifelike engineering feat of computers and motors.  They look and act quite real.  They are not!  It is only the appearance of life on the outside.  Inside they are quite dead; they’re merely imitations of the real thing.
What makes the difference between mirage faith and real faith?  How can you tell if your faith is genuine?  James gives us the measuring stick:

GENUINE FAITH REVEALS ITSELF IN DEEDS OF LOVE

There are many good translations of verse 14.  Mine would be:  "What is the use of declaring your faith to the world if your actions don't correspond?  Is that the kind of faith that saves?" 
James contends that True Christianity is when a person is willing to serve Christ on Christ’s terms!  "Mirage faith", on the other hand, only becomes involved to the degree that is comfortable. 
An old real estate sales maxim says that the first three principles of selling real estate are location, location, and location (in that order)!  For faith, the first three principles are involvement, involvement, and involvement - involvement with Christ daily, involvement with His church daily, involvement with His world, sharing His love.
We are converted to Christlikeness according to v.15, 16.  Jesus spent His life serving, giving and telling.  On a desert hillside Jesus fed thousands with a few sardines and pieces of bread.  That was no mirage; it was an act of genuine faith. 
He wrapped a towel around his waist and washed 12 sets of filthy feet. That was no mirage; it was an act of faith in the principles of servanthood. 
On a hill outside Jerusalem He died an agonizing death.  It was more than just being an example....He became the gospel, living it out in faith, defining the meaning of love.  It was the ultimate expression of receiving the Father's word, and submitting to His will in deed. 
Genuine faith reveals itself in deeds of love.  What could it possibly mean to ACCEPT Christ, if not to accept His lordship over your life; to accept His defining the meaning of your life? 
Genuine faith reveals itself in deeds of love.  Once you nail down that principle you find there is an incredible bonus to giving your all to Christ.

YOU FIND there is ETERNAL LIFE IN THE KIND OF FAITH THAT REVEALS ITSELF IN LOVING DEEDS.

Verse 26 (faith without works is dead) is the key to this principle.  James uses the negative to illustrate the positive.  He tells us a very simple but accurate fact.  The body without spirit is dead...So is our faith without works. 
That fact teaches the opposite also: When the body has a spirit it is alive.  When faith is not a mirage there will be loving deeds sprouting out of that faith; the faith is alive and pulsating.  It is like the budding limbs on a young tree.  The sprouts on the limbs don't cause the tree to be alive; they simply announce the reality that there is life. 

Like a tree producing fruit

A friend of mine owned an orange grove in McIntosh, Florida.  His family room had a huge window that overlooked his life's investment.  After the freeze in December of '83, he told me that the only trees that would survive were the ones that were producing fruit.  The rest would have to be plowed under. 
But what tree will be alive, and never put forth leaves, or fruit?  If it is truly alive, it must!  Yet it is true that there are many folks today who are never putting their faith to the test. No faith means there will be no fruit!
 James’ teaching doesn’t leave room for that:
18But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.”  Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
Simply saying you are a Christian, and associating yourself with a church does not mean there is genuine faith.  There’s got to be more…

Like seed from a farmer’s hand

Jesus told a parable about seed that was scattered.  True, some of the seed grew and took hold in good soil.  But there was some (much) that only sent down a shallow root, and when the shoot came up it quickly withered and passed from the scene. 
You see that played out many times over in churches across the nation today.  A person makes a "profession of faith"...but it is only a mirage.  They never bother to send down deep roots, joining in the Bible Study program of Sunday School regularly, or worshipping often.  They starve that little seed to death and the faith possibility becomes another statistic of back-door syndrome. 
It takes a mature tree to bring worthwhile fruit.  You cannot expect a seedling to bear crops; but seedlings that won't grow aren't worth the effort to water, feed and weed. 
The point is not vague here.  James is telling us that unless we are willing to grow in Christ, allowing the faith to become works, we are the false professors.  Our faith is empty, dead, without hope! 
You may be a long-time church member, or have never joined a church.  Frankly, church membership is not at question here.  I met a man once who reportedly was a member of the church I pastored.  He hadn't worshipped there in many years.  I was his pastor, and had never met him. 
He told me his philosophy was to "do as much good to as many people as he could...and even though that didn't include going to church, he and 'the ol' Master' had a real good understanding about it."  Pious-sounding words from a church member?  More like a smoke screen for the reality of wanting to be free enough to answer the "call of the Bass and Rainbow Trout" on Sundays. 
There is a balance between "faith and works" that will make a true believer want to be close to his Lord in worship.
The rituals you went through to join a church identified you with a local body of people; and that is good.  I recommend it!  But it is the deeds of love, born of an "alive faith" that identifies you with Jesus and the Father.  It tells the others if His Holy Spirit is within you. 
How can I know I have a genuine faith, and not a mirage?  How can I be sure?  Look at the examples James gives: 
Abraham was justified... (that means God accepted him) on the basis of his faithfulness.  God asked Abraham to burn the bridge behind him, leave his home and follow God out to the wilderness.  Abraham said, "Alright, I'll go." 
That was faith.  But it was the loading of the camels, the endless ridicule he endured that was works.  I can picture the scene: Abraham and Sarah packing up the family stuff, and the neighborhood wag leaning over the fence; "Hey, Abe...Don't you know there's snakes out there in that sand?  I know another fool that went out there without a map.  He never came back.  Abe, maybe you'd better reconsider this."  But he went.  Faith came alive in deeds. 
Another example was Rahab the harlot who burned her bridges behind her.  When the children of Israel were marching her way she made the decision to throw in with God's people, and she helped the reconnaissance team Joshua sent. 
Think of the scene inside the walls of Jericho that night.  "Sister Rahab, are you nuts, girl?  Here we are inside the most fortified city in Canaan.  Those silly Jews don't know how to fight; all they can do is walk around the outside.  You'd better reconsider this; the city fathers aren't going to like it when they hear you've been helping those spies." 
But Rahab hung in there, and those silly Jews kept on marching seven days around the walls of Jericho.  And then 7 times on the 7th day....and the walls came down.  The faith of Rahab, a common streetwalker, is chronicled in her genealogy in Matthew's gospel (ch 1).  Rahab's grandson was named Jesse who had a son named David, King David.  And out of the lineage of David was born a king in a manger... Jesus.  Rahab had faith.  She put it all on the line in deeds.

How can you know for sure that your faith is alive? 

Throw yourself wholeheartedly into deeds of loving service to others.  I guarantee you will know inside of a month what is genuine and what is mirage.  Where do you start?  Begin with forgiving your neighbors, and fellow church members. 
Ø Start to give OF yourself, instead of concentrating ON your own needs.  That is the model Jesus gave us. 
Ø Start to depend on the Father to supply what needs to be given.... Don’t concentrate on what you don't have to give. 
Ø But, most of all...Do Start!
Near the end of the Civil War one of the northern generals was instructed to back off – to retreat and wait.  He wrote to President Lincoln, I believe if the battle is pressed now we will have the surrender of Lee within a month.  Lincoln simply wrote back, Then let the thing be pressed!  It was a final turning point in the war. 
How can you know for certain that your faith is genuine, and not a deceiving mirage?  Let the thing be pressed.  Get yourself involved in loving service to others.  JOIN IN...GET BUSY.  A true conversion in faith will take over your life, your family, your pocketbook, and you'll never feel so alive! 
Are you alive?  Or does the world seem dead-end with only struggle in sight?  Do you find no joy other than gratifying your desires, collecting toys and trophies? 
Do you ever have questions about the strength of your commitment to Christ?  Occasionally a person will get involved in a church, and there’s no change.  There’s no joyful satisfaction to being involved in the things of God.  The problem there was the “cart before the horse.”  You can not work yourself into having faith. 
Faith is a gift from God.  I invite you today to make a commitment in your heart to the Author of faith, Jesus Christ.  Then the works – the good deeds you do – will be a matter of joy, not a matter of trying to work your way into heaven.  It can’t be done!
In this church we offer you an opportunity to press the thing, to make an outward sign of your inward commitment.  That's where good works begin. 
Come in this invitation time to offer yourself as His SERVANT.  If you're ready, we are ready to join with you..... gladly. 
And I can guarantee, on the promise of God's Word that if your faith is genuine in coming, it will not be a mirage, it will lead to a trail, like tracks in the sands of loving deeds, pleasing to our Father in heaven. 

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