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The Spitting Image
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JAMES 1:13-2:13

james series title slide no sub 640x480When you got up this morning, it’s pretty likely that one of the first things you did was to look in the bathroom mirror. You check yourself out, see the bed head hairstyle (not a problem for me), take stock to make sure all your parts are in the right place.


But there’s another thing we subtly examine when we look in that mirror and that is our family resemblance. We all look like someone from our past—maybe you got your dad’s nose or your mom’s eyes, for example. Maybe it’s a particular shape of the chin or the roundness or oval shape of your face. Maybe somewhere in the distant past there was a relative who had that weird ear thing going on. The mirror reveals a lot about who we are and where we came from.


When we look a lot like someone, it’s common for people to say that we’re the “spitting image” of them. Looking at old photographs can do that—we recognize the resemblance. But what does spit have to do with it, we ask? Well, actually, the term “spitting image” is actually a transliterated mashup of the words “spirit and image” (say them fast and you get “spitting image”)—it’s a way of saying that one reflects the spirit (personality) and image (physical characteristics) of that relative in that old photo.


Then again, spit does have something to do with it for many of us. As an adoptee, the only people I can point to with certainty as my blood relatives are our kids. For folks like me, it’s now possible to literally spit into a cup, send that off to a lab, and find out where you’re from and to whom you might be related. Ancestry and other services like it can make connections to your past and those you resemble–literally a spitting image—for good or ill.


Millions of people have submitted their DNA for these kinds of tests. For some it’s a curiosity, but for many others I wonder if it’s really a symptom of our culture’s increasing search for identity. Identity is big these days—phrases like “identity politics,” and “gender identity” have entered our lexicon. At Annual Conference a couple of weeks ago, we were asked to introduce ourselves at the microphone by giving our name and our “preferred pronouns by which we identify.” It’s an interesting phenomenon—an indicator that here in the 21st century, we’re struggling to figure out who we are. In many ways the question is even more basic—What does it mean to be human?


James offers some reflection on our true identity. Indeed, one of the primary reasons James writes his Epistle is to help the scattered church remember who they are, who they resemble, and from where they have come. This is the goal of the whole gospel for James, which we see revealed in 1:12 – to “receive the life God has promised to those who love him as their reward.” To embrace the gospel is to find your true identity—to live the life for which God created us.


As we said last week, James acknowledges that living the Christian life involves some testing, but it’s not God who tests or tempts us. Instead, as he says in 1:17, God offers us “every good gift, every perfect gift,” and the greatest of those gifts is “birth by the true word” (v. 18). We are a people who have been born anew by the gospel of Jesus Christ and are thus “the first crop of the harvest of everything he created.” We have been given a new birth to once again reflect the image of God.


This is a vitally important point—renewal in the image of God is always the point of the gospel. We tend to think that the goal is about getting into heaven and about life after death, but time and again the New Testament writers are reminding us that the real purpose for Christ’s coming in human flesh is to renew humanity and all of creation. The image of God in which we were created was distorted by sin and enslaved by death, but Christ has come to liberate us from those enslaving powers—his grace saves us, shapes us, and remakes us. He is the perfect image of God, and the work of the gospel of grace is to help us to embrace the family resemblance!


This is the purpose of “true religion” for James—we find it in 1:20—it’s about “producing righteousness.” That word “righteousness” has a lot of nuance and meaning in the Greek with connections to justice, justification, and being put right. But if you sum all of that up, “righteousness” really means “a life conformed to God’s image.” That’s the end product of grace, the family resemblance of disciples. We are designed to be the spitting image, the spirit and image of God, most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ. This is the life God saves us for.


With that goal in mind, James then addresses what that life, that family resemblance, looks like on the ground. In this section we see James laying out some of the themes he will flesh out in the rest of the letter and, right out of the gate, we get an important one—that people who resemble Jesus will regulate their speech. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to be angry” (v. 19). James will say that our ears should be quick to listen to the word of God, but also to listen to others in order to understand. In fact, this is a direct reflection of the character of God. Numerous Old Testament passages refer to the patience and slowness of God to become angry. Psalm 103:8, for example, says, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”


Anger and wrath do not produce a life conformed to God’s image. Our culture of rage is indicative of humanity’s brokenness and failure to reflect the image of God. The people of God are called to be different—to be more attuned to listening to God and slow to speak; especially slow to become enraged! This is especially true in a reactive culture where people feel like they have to voice their opinion on everything and when winning an argument is more important than maintaining a relationship. Silence is often our best approach. When Jesus was falsely accused, he remained silent—his silence confounding his enemies. Righteousness is more reflective than reactive! James will later talk more extensively about how to control our speech so that we will more reflect the spitting image of God than spending our time spitting venom.


“Therefore,” says James, “with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you” (v. 21). People who are the focused on the spirit and image of God are humble—they recognize that they have been saved by the gospel because they needed saving from slavery to sin and death. James here implies that those who have been saved need to make sure their own spiritual house is kept free of moral filth and the growth of wickedness—he has already spoken about how that wickedness grows in verse 15—temptation leads to sin and sin leads to death. Those who focus on living the image of God recognize where their own temptations lie, their “not-yets” as we said last week. But rather than just use our own willpower to overcome temptation, James urges us to “welcome the word planted deep inside” us—to listen deeply to the gospel, which reminds us again and again what we were created for. The gospel reorients our internal wiring, pointing out the resemblance of God in Christ, the one who saves and restores us.


It’s this gospel, this word, that James urges us not only to “hear” but to “do” (v. 22). We listen to the gospel, hear it deeply, and then act according to that word. That’s the purpose for which we were created—reflect God’s righteous character and stewardship. If, on the other hand, we only hear the word and don’t do it, we engage in a kind of self-deception.


For James, the word, the gospel, is a mirror in which we see our true faces. It’s where we discover our true identity. We need not search for an identity or invent one, in the gospel we discover who we really are: we are people made for a purpose; sin has distorted that purpose and led us into slavery to death; but God has overcome sin and death through Christ and made us new. We now live for that new purpose, that original purpose—to be gospel-shaped and gospel-proclaiming people. We reflect God’s glory to the world.


To hear the gospel and not live it out, however, is to forget our true identity. When we turn the gospel into something to be debated, or we distort and twist it to our own purposes, we wind up creating our own image. We decide who we are based on how we feel. We become the center of the universe and we push against God’s will. We forget who we are. Instead of obeying the word, living the gospel, we instead engage in debate—much like the snake in Genesis 3 who said to Adam and Eve, “Did God really say…?” We question God’s word instead of obeying it. We aspire, like they did, to be something more than God created us to be.


When we dive deep into God’s word, however, we see the truth. We see the gospel as the long story of God, played out in both the Old and New Testaments, liberating people out of slavery. That’s why James calls the gospel “the perfect law, the law of freedom” (v. 25). The gospel liberates us to become the precisely the people God intended. True freedom is found only in Christ. That’s an important note on the Sunday before Independence Day. We love to celebrate our American freedom; to celebrate our identity as Americans. But James would call us beyond that—to live our freedom in Christ. That our real pursuit is not so much “happiness” as it is “holiness,” righteousness, and Christ-like character.


Roman mirrors were not made of glass but of polished bronze. That meant that the image one saw in the mirror wasn’t completely accurate in detail. James wants us to take a good look at ourselves in the mirror of the gospel—to be reminded that our family resemblance is to Jesus; to be like him in all that we say (or not say) and all that we do. Such people know who they are, says James, and know who they resemble. They are “blessed in whatever they do.”


In verse 26, James returns to the theme about controlling one’s speech. Those who are devoted to God control what they say, otherwise they mislead themselves and others. Blessing, on the other hand, is the fruit of obedience. True religion is that which recognizes our true identity and treats others the same way—as image-bearers of God. That’s why James points to orphans and widows—the very least and most marginalized people in first century culture—and says that true religion is that which cares for them in their difficulties. We see them as people of worth, people whom the gospel is always for.  The gospel doesn’t divide people into false categories of rich/poor, important/unimportant—it is all about treating everyone as being of sacred worth, and keeping the world and its values from contaminating the image of God in each person.


In the next section, James gives a practical example—that believers are not to show favoritism. They are not to favor the rich over the poor. That’s looking at people with a different identity than they have in Christ. Instead, James says in 2:8, we do well when we fulfill the “royal law” found in the scripture—to love your neighbor as yourself. Anything else makes you a lawbreaker. There’s no such thing as obedience by degrees. When we find our identity in the gospel, we will treat others as people made in the image of God and, in doing so, we will help them to live up to that image for themselves.


James sums all of this teaching up in 2:12—“In every way, then, speak and act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom.” We will be judged by the identity we have in the gospel, and about how we lived it out. We will be judged by the amount of mercy we have shown to others, seeing them as people created in God’s image. We show mercy because we have received mercy—and God’s mercy toward us overrules any judgment we would proclaim over others.


Looking in the mirror is a daily habit—James encourages us to look deeper. To focus each day on remembering who we are; remembering our family resemblance to Jesus—to reflect his spirit and image in all that we say and do. We are to see others as he sees them: as people who need mercy and the identity that the gospel proclaims. We don’t go into the world spitting bullets, but as the spitting image of Christ.


May our words, our actions, and manners, and our attitudes reflect the family resemblance! Amen.

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