Personal Postscript
by Jack Wald | February 16th, 2014

James 5:19-20

We come to the end of James’ letter this morning. When is the last time you wrote a letter? Have you wondered how the Bible would be different if it had been written on social media? In Acts 15:23–29 the Jerusalem Council met and sent out this letter:
The apostles and elders, your brothers,
To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:
Greetings.
24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
Farewell.

Here is the same letter on Twitter:
Heard U got mistreated by @baddies. SRY! We made NU rules 4U: 1 – NO Idol food 2 – NO blood 2B eaten 3 – NO choked meat 4 – sex B good. TKS CU @JCC.

The devolution of writing is painful to observe. We send emails and texts, but they are rarely works of art. Spelling and elegant phrasing is disappearing. But one of the greater tragedies of the death of letter writing is the loss to history. Emails, texts, and tweets are disposable communication. Letters last. Historians love letter writers because they have a source of information from which to work.

I am grateful that the Bible was written at a time when letter writing was the form of communication used and that we still have this letter James wrote that encourages and challenges us.

For three years we have preached in the first part of the year on the themes of his letter and now we come to the final two verses. (James 5:19–20)
19 My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

James followed the New Testament pattern of ending his letter with an exhortation to pray, which was the focus of the sermon last week, and now we read these verses. Don’t they seem a bit strange to you as an ending to his letter?

I view these last verses as a postscript, a PS., a last thought. It is as if James was finished with his letter but then had to say one more thing. “Before I forget, let me tell you this…”

James has had a lot to say and I am certain that there were many thoughts he had that he did not address in his letter. Why was this last thought so important? I think these last two verses are highly personal, coming out of James’ own experience. I talked about this last year but let me go over this again.

James was the half-brother of Jesus, same mother, different father, and he must have been a difficult older brother to follow. How would you have liked to have Jesus as an older brother and have to live up to the expectations his behavior created.

James stepped into the class at his synagogue and the Rabbi said, “So you’re Jesus’ brother. We’re expecting good things from you.” Jesus always had the right answer and then asked a penetrating question that revealed the depth of his spirit and mind. This was the benchmark for James. This was the standard against which James was measured and he always came up short.

At home when James took some bread and then lied, saying he had not taken the bread, Mary told him, “Why can’t you be more like your older brother Jesus. He doesn’t lie.” Jesus was always good, always obedient. What an impossible model to follow.

I don’t want to paint too dark a picture because having a competent older brother or sister is also wonderful, especially if they are kind and loving toward you. So I am certain there was deep affection between Jesus and his brothers and sisters, despite the difficulties of following in his footsteps.

When Joseph died, Jesus, as the oldest son, was expected to become the head of the family. But then Jesus left Nazareth and began traveling around as an itinerant rabbi. Was there agreement in the family he should do this? Did he leave with his family’s blessing?

All we know is that when reports began to come back that Jesus was healing people and casting out demons, his family was concerned.

When Jesus came to their hometown synagogue and spoke, the whole family was gathered with the expectation that Jesus would make them proud. But instead he offended the community who tried to kill him. Jesus escaped but his family had to live with the dishonor he had caused them.

Eventually James, his mother, and his siblings had enough and set out to bring him home.  (Mark 3:20–21)
Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

They went to take charge of him. They said, He is out of his mind. They obviously had talked a great deal about this and decided he was getting carried away and needed to be helped. Mark includes this incident with the arrival of the teachers of the law who came from Jerusalem to accuse Jesus of being linked with the devil. James and his family thought Jesus had gone mad.

In John’s gospel there is an insight into the relationship of Jesus and his brothers. The Jewish rulers in Jerusalem were threatening to kill Jesus and rather than being concerned or protective, James and his brothers mocked Jesus. (John 7:3–4)
Jesus’ brothers said to him, “You ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do. 4 No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.”

They dared him, taunted him, to go to Jerusalem and face his opposition.

This is all that is recorded in the gospels, but obviously there was much more.

Then Jesus was arrested, put on trial, and executed. Whatever James had felt, now his older brother was dead. He grieved the loss of his brother and, as happens at funerals, he probably focused on the good times and not the bad times. He grieved for his brother’s terrible death, perhaps regretting he had not reconciled with Jesus before it was too late.

If this is where the story of James in the gospels ended, we could expect that he would go through life, as he had been. He would go to the synagogue, work at his job, and raise a family.

When people began to be excited because of stories of Jesus being raised from the dead, James would have reacted like many of the Jews reacted. He would have resisted them. He would have been among those who persecuted the followers of Jesus. He would have stood up and told them he knew Jesus better than they did and that Jesus was a man, not a god. James would have been one of those who rejected Paul and resisted his message.

James was on a path through life but then something happened that set him in a new direction. Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Corinth: (1 Corinthians 15:3–8)
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

When, just a few days after Jesus died, the resurrected Jesus appeared to James, this became the turning point of his life. All of his life became measured by this appearance. Everything in his life became “before or after” this appearance.

James had been set on a course and Jesus appeared to him to redirect him. Jesus turned a sinner from the error of his way and saved him from death.

James understood that religious choice is not like a menu in a restaurant where you choose from a variety of meals. You can order chicken or fish, a salad or steak, tea or coffee. It does not really matter what you choose, all of these are good for you. But the stakes are much higher in religious choice. We are all distanced from God. We are all imperfect followers. We are all sinners. Among all the choices in the religious menu, which will save us?

From his own experience, James understood that only God can save us. Only God can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Jesus had always raised questions in James’ mind but now he knew that Jesus was God in the flesh. He had thought Jesus was just his brother but then he discovered Jesus was his Savior and Lord.

There is nothing more important than making the decision to follow Jesus. Those who set out on pilgrimage to Jesus are loved with an intense love. The intensity of this love is seen in Jesus’ warning to those who try to pull any of his children into sin. (Luke 17:2)
It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.

The intensity of this love caused Jesus to appear to James and redirect his path. He saved James and James ended his letter with the encouragement that we should do to others what Jesus had done for him. (James 5:19–20)
19 My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

Over the years James had seen some of those who set out as followers of Jesus fall to the side. These final verses in his letter remind us that there is nothing more important than helping someone back on the path that leads to eternal life. This is a rescue from certain death to certain life.

How can we do for people what Jesus did for James? How can we “turn a sinner from his ways?”

First of all, we need to persevere in our faith. How can you help someone find the path if you have lost it yourself? You cannot rescue someone if you have fallen away. Persevere and grow in your faith. The brighter your light for Jesus shines, the more light you provide for those needing to be rescued.

A fireman makes sure his equipment is in good working order before stepping into a burning building to rescue someone. Ladders, water hoses, air masks, axes, all these need to be in good shape. A fireman needs to be in good physical condition to carry heavy equipment and sometimes people. So a fireman has to stay in shape, lifting weights, doing anaerobic exercise. A fireman needs to update training on the equipment used. The better prepared a fireman is, the more effectively he can do his work. A fireman who is out of shape and improperly trained will put himself in danger as well as be unable to rescue those who are in trouble.

If we are to “turn a sinner from the error of his ways,” we need to be growing in our faith, reading our Bible, praying, drawing closer to Jesus, allowing the Holy Spirit to work in us to transform us, cooperating with the Holy Spirit in his work. If we are limping along in our faith, we will be little help to anyone else who is in spiritual danger.

We need to set a good example. We need to let the light of Jesus shine in our lives. When someone has wandered from the faith, our lives can be a beacon of light showing that person where life can be found. At some point the attractiveness of the world will be less brilliant and the light of Jesus in your life will show the way to come home.

Second, we need to pray.

In the verses from last week, James used the example of Elijah, “a man just like us” who prayed for it to stop raining and it stopped raining. He prayed again for it to rain and it rained. James wrote: (James 5:16)
The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

Our prayers are powerful as well. But we have to allow God to answer our prayers in his own time. This means we have to pray and pray and not give up praying.

In my early years as a follower of Jesus, I read a book by Dwight Moody titled, Prevailing Prayer. Moody was a 19th century evangelist in the US and Britain and this book contains story after story of how the prayers of people were answered. Here are two of those stories.

A wife resolved that she would pray for her husband for his conversion. He would not tolerate any discussion of Christian faith so she resolved she would pray for her husband every day for one year. Every day at noon she went to her room and cried out to God. The year passed and there was no change. She prayed for six months longer and at the end there was no change. The question arose, “Should I give up praying?” But she said, “No, I will pray for him as long as God gives me breath.” That day, when her husband came home for dinner, he went upstairs. She waited and waited but he did not come down. When she went to his room, she found him on his knees, crying out for God’s mercy upon him. She knocked and knocked until the answer came.

Moody also tells the story of a mother in Connecticut, in the northeast of the US, who had a son in the army, fighting in the American Civil War. It broke her heart when he left because he was not a Christian. Day after day she lifted up her voice in prayer for her boy. She afterward learned that he had been taken to the hospital, and there died, but she could not find out anything about how he had died. Years passed, and one day a friend came to see some member of the family on business. There was a picture of the soldier on the wall. He looked at it and said, “Did you know that young man?” The mother said, “That young man was my son. He died in the late war.” The man said, “I knew him very well; he was in my company.” The mother then asked, “Do you know anything about his end?” The man said, “I was in the hospital, and he died a most peaceful death, triumphant in the faith.” The mother had given up hope of ever hearing of her boy; but before she died she had the satisfaction of knowing that her prayers had prevailed with God.

Paul Miller, in A Praying Life, talks about our prayers for someone as an unfolding story. As we pray, we get new insights and our prayers become redirected. We see changes in ourselves and changes in the person we are praying for. Paul says that when we stop praying for someone, it is like putting down a book without reading the final chapters.

When someone turns away from faith in Jesus, God does not turn away. God continues to work in that person’s life to bring him or her back on the path to his kingdom. God’s love never quits. When we pray for people and persist in prayer, not giving up, we are working with Jesus to rescue that person.

Third, we need to continue to be a friend to that person, patiently encouraging a return to faith in Jesus.

If we get irritated and cut off our association with someone who turns away from faith, we lose the opportunity to work with Jesus in bringing that person back to faith. It is important that we stay in relationship, keeping lines of communication open. If the person who has turned away from faith, cuts you off, don’t react. Continue to be open to any opportunity to engage with that person. Let the other person shut his door but keep yours open.

Speak the truth in love. Don’t nag. Don’t be preachy. But be ready to share the right word at the right time. Sometimes this may mean we need to speak strongly.

The writer of Hebrews was writing to Jews who had become followers of Jesus but when persecution came, thought they could reduce the pressure on them by returning to their Jewish faith. They reasoned they would still be following the same God, just not identifying with Jesus. The writer of Hebrews wrote strongly in his letter to them. He talked about the supremacy of Jesus. He spoke of what Jesus had done for us. And then he challenged them: (Hebrews 6:4–6)
4 It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, 6 if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

Keep communication open. Exhort. Pray. But most of all, keep love for that person in your heart. Ask God to help you grow in your love for that person so all that you do will be done out of love.

Fourth, keep hope alive.

We don’t know anything about the life of the thief on the cross next to Jesus who asked for help in the last moments of his life. Was there a mother and father who had prayed for their son for many years? Perhaps a wife? An aunt or uncle? He went to the cross to die for his sins but discovered the man next to him was doing that for him. It is never too late for God to work in the life of someone.

One of the most significant experiences of my life was seeing a chemist with my company come to faith at the end of his life. Ed DeVries was born in Friesland, in the north of the Netherlands, in 1927. His parents were strict Calvinists and Ed rebelled against his religious upbringing for most of his life. He hid from the Nazis during WWII, emigrated to Canada and then the United States after the war. He wanted nothing to do with Christian faith, was disdainful of religious belief. He was a brilliant man but no one accused him of being a pleasant man. His wife divorced him when he could not comprehend why she would object to his having affairs with other women.

At the age of 69, Ed developed colon cancer and one day came to me to say he was leaving the company. I asked him why and he said that he was going to die. He began to sob and I held him in my arms. I asked him if it was finally time for him to consider his relationship with God and he asked the most incredible question, “Why would God want to have anything to do with me after I’ve ignored him all these years?”

Ed and I began to read Scripture together. He studied it on his own – to the complete and utter amazement of his colleagues at work – and Ed returned to the faith of his youth, just three months before he died.

I was in Chicago, at a pricing seminar, when I received word that Ed had died and from that day on, I have had a sense that Ed is watching me, making sure I am honest and authentic in my faith.

Did his mother and father pray for Ed until the day they died? I would guess that was the case. They died, not knowing how Ed’s story would end. But at the end of his life, I had the privilege of seeing him come home to Jesus. I was able to read the final chapter of his life.

Last summer I was talking with a man who has worked with abandoned children for the past 56 years. I was telling him about my anxiety for the future of the children at the Village of Hope. We were standing in a room with pictures on the wall of all the different groups of children who had grown up and left his home and he began telling me stories of some of these children. The stories he selected were of children who left his home and rebelled in their young adult years. To look at their lives in those years would lead to discouragement. But then he told me the rest of their story.

One story I remember is of a young man who went to a Bible School in the US. He dated a young woman, was considering becoming engaged, but then after graduation he left for San Francisco and entered into the gay scene. For the next eighteen years he was part of the gay community. But then he left that lifestyle, renewed his relationship with the woman he had dated two decades earlier, they were married, and he has settled down. He and his wife are part of a good church, doing very well together.

As I listened to these stories, in the dimness of the room, I felt there was a great light. God’s wisdom was on display and I learned a great lesson from this man. Be patient. Pray. Wait to see how God will work.

Jason Gray is releasing a new album in March and I watched a Youtube video of one of the new songs, Love Will Have the Final Word. Listen to some of the lyrics,

Sorrow may close a chapter
but the story will end with laughter
‘cause the worst thing is never the last thing
no the last thing will be the best thing

Of all the things I ever heard
let me remember when it hurts that
love will have the final word
As long as God is on his throne
I am carried by the hope
that love will have the final word

Who are the people you are praying for? Who are the people you love who need to know they are loved by Jesus? Do you have friends that have drifted off the path to Jesus? Keep loving them. Don’t give up. Be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit for when you need to exhort and encourage. Keep praying. Wait for the end of the story.

As long as God is on his throne
I am carried by the hope
that love will have the final word