Home » Various Sermons » James 4.1-10: Lancelot’s Failure in the Grail Quest and True Repentance.

James 4.1-10: Lancelot’s Failure in the Grail Quest and True Repentance.

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?   You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.  You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.  Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?  But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”  Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.   Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.   Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.   Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” – James 4.1-10

In the previous section of James (3.13-18) we spoke of the Wisdom, of the non-wisdom and Yahweh’s Wisdom.  Moreover we spoke of the desire to have the right wisdom, of the envy that and strife that goes with that.  James here continues with that that idea at first, of how much problems that our desires can make for us, that is the danger our desires, but he moves on further.  And discusses our need for repentance and our need to be followers of God not followers of the world.  As James writes he echoes not only Jewish wisdom in this portion, but also the prophets of the Old Testament as he calls his readers and as he calls us to repentance.

Lancelot is often called the greatest knight in courts of King Arthur, and this is even with most people knowing of his famous love affair with Queen Guinevere.  And for the most part Lancelot never does have to deal with this sin of his, however when the quest for the Holy Grail came Lancelot along with many of Arthur’s other knight took up the challenge for the Grail.  Up until now Lancelot was easily able to hold onto his status as the greatest knight in all the realm, if not so to speak Christendom.  However for once Lancelot found himself unable to keep his status quo in this quest, he found himself suffering defeat after defeat, humiliation of the likes that he had never known.  At one point he even misses the grail because of his choosing to sleep.

In the end while Lancelot might be able to say he’s the greatest knight of the world, he cannot say he’s the greatest knight of Christ.  Even as the quest forces him to realize that he is sinning with his affair with Guinevere he still never once goes to God about, instead resolving to remain in his own strength to stop the affair.  But, within a short matter of time it continues.  Lancelot chooses to remain a part the world, oh he desires to be faithful to Christ, but he doesn’t want to give up the sin which has become so much a part of his life.  Lancelot realizes why he failed the quest, but it’s until after the fall of Camelot that he truly realizes the powerful effect of sin.

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?  You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.  You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” – James 4.1-3

James begins here by asking his audience what the simple question of what causes quarrels?   When looking at the beginning of this chapter, we see James hasn’t moved from his topic of the previous verses but in this next step has merely shifted the focus, verse eighteen spoke greatly of peacemakers and here then begins to explain the need for such a group[1].  Instead of what they ought to have as James explained in the previous verse his audience has all the opposite, not peace, but quarrels, no fruits of rightness, fruits of sin, they had missed the point[2].

Of course one might ask the question of what were their problems, something that’s quite debatable, after all are his readers presently much too zealous or are they having too many “private disputes,” or perhaps is it most likely mere envy[3]?  James use of quarrels or better yet wars helps in parts to show how far envy can break apart the community[4].

James however is for the most part quiet and what are the exact reasons for their fighting and this points to where his attention is more focused that on their selfishness and bitterness, not on whose right or wrong[5].  He does however give what his reason for their fighting is.  He tells us that our desires battle and war within us.  It should be noted that James quite interesting enough never gives the reason for strife or our sinful thinking as some form temptation from demons, instead he puts the blame fully on us[6].  The word desire here is the greek word hēdonē and it has the idea of pleasure, but not any pleasure, “sinful, self indulgent pleasure[7]!”

This word in appears in such verses as Luke 8:14: “And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” Or Titus 3.3 “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.”  Or even Peter’s words in his second epistle (2.13): “suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you.” Each time this is negative, and interesting enough though James isn’t the first one to bring hint as desire as the origin of sin[8], “In pleasure there exists even a malevolent tendency, which is the most complex of all the emotions.  In the soul it is boastfulness, love of money, thirst for honor, rivalry, and malice.” (4 Maccabees 1.25-25)

With verse two James words harkens back to his earlier words in 1.14-15 “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”  And we begin to see how these connections can be made that is desire leading to murder, when we such a negative emotion have its full weight its power can lead men to do things they wouldn’t have done otherwise[9].  He looks at audience in two ways, he sees them in wanting to have what they don’t, and “coveting” that which they cannot get hold of, again these desires  of their, become something very dangerous, it helps to show how desire could the cause of sin[10].

While James’ reader might not be killing themselves, yet they are already fighting and warring,  before things gets to worst James wants them to remember to keep in check, their desires, to keep in check their wanting of that which they simply cannot obtained[11].  This James ends his sentence so to speak with “you quarrel and fight,” bringing us back to verse one and former a Jewish chiasm of sorts[12].

James finishes verse two and moves right in verse three with “You do not ask.”  James points his readers to look toward God, who gives all, and if we remember the previous set of verses this mean if one does not have Yahweh’s wisdom, then they ought to turn to God for this wisdom[13].  After all if one looks at what James has already discussed, people wanting to be teachers (3.1), those having pride in their wisdom (3.13), people who want to lead in the church, but who do not have the right type of wisdom[14].  We can remember James 1.5 “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”

James’ audience however though they were asking was only doing so in the wrong sort of matter, they weren’t asking for wisdom because they knew they needed, but because they were envious of those who had it, and even if they had gotten this wisdom, it wouldn’t been used to serve God, but once again to see others get jealousy at them[15].

“You adulterous people!  Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?  Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.  Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?  But he gives more grace.  Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”” – James 4.4-6

James moves from his previous theme and begins here, a new section and here we have as Moo puts “the beginning of one of the most strongly worded calls to repent that we find anywhere in the New Testament[16].”  Moreover James words strongly echo those of the Old Testament prophets, whose message were so often a call for repentance.  After all look at just looking at few of the prophets one is reminded that often Israel was liken to an adulteress such as[17] Hosea 3.1 “And the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.”” Or Ezekiel 23.45 “But righteous men shall pass judgment on them with the sentence of adulteresses, and with the sentence of women who shed blood, because they are adulteresses, and blood is on their hands.”” Simply put as spiritual adultery was a major sin for Israel, it is still a major sin for the church, you become God’s enemy[18].

So often James had called his audience by words like brothers and dear brothers, but now he shifts into adulterous people and our attention should rightly be caught[19].  Often we’re warned too not be too close to the world, not the be “friends,” lest we’re pulled down by it[20].  As 1 John 2.15 states “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”  Morever its unlikely that James readers were consciously not claiming to follow God, like Israel they probably thought they were doing right, but like Israel their actions were showing that this was far from the truth.  For instead of mimicking God they had chosen to mimic the world.

With verse five James seems to quote the scriptures, but these words James quote are found nowhere in the Old Testament, the dueterocanonical books, or any known Jewish text, leading some to suppose a lost work[21].  But then one might ask, is James referring to a certain passages, or instead the “Scripture as a whole[22]?”  It would seem that instead James isn’t quoting some lost work, but instead saying that James’ scripture as a whole make this statement.  James may well be relating that God as often seen in the Old Testament is one that is “jealous” god and thus will not tolerate spiritual adultery[23].

For example Exodus 20.5 says “You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,” again in 34.14 “(for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God),” or even looking at Zechariah 8.2 “”Thus says the Lord of hosts: I am jealous for Zion with great jealousy, and I am jealous for her with great wrath.”

The point is that James is saying that if our faith isn’t doing anything, then it becomes easier to give into desires, we need to be active, we need to pray often and seek Yahweh’s wisdom and with his help fight our “base desires[24].”

James tells us to be wary of what God is, but he also reminds us what God does.  While God might be a jealous one, he is also one that will help us, though he requires that serve Yahweh alone, and may well give us a reason to fear him; he is merciful and will give to us just what we need[25].  This time we do know where James is quoting from Proverbs 3.35 “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.” Pride never helps anyone, but God can and if we humble ourselves before God he will help us, He’s more than willing to.

“Submit yourselves therefore to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.  Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” – James 4.7-10

Now James begins to us an outline for as Richardson puts it a “spiritual exercise, in a sense a “how to” for repentance[26].”  Now James is asking his readers once again to repent and instead of being prideful to turn around and instead submit[27].  Moreover by submitting to Yahweh we place ourselves under his rule and we say we’ll obey him in all things, and thus we no longer follow his enemy[28].  As James asks us to resist the devil, we are reminded of the demonic wisdom of the earth and thus are reminded that instead of doing things our way, or the Satan’s way we instead need to do things God’s way[29].

Again then verse eight is positive and tells us to “Draw near to God.”  By calling us to draw near, James is calling us to the “basic call and claim of biblical faith,” and this drawing near remind us of the sense of forgiveness which God has in store for us who repent[30].  Moreover how lucky we are that God allows us to approach him (and will also approach us) and we can remember Deuteronomy 4.7 in this discussion[31]: “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?”  Then James gives his readers two commands to accompany this coming closer, this repentance.

That is to “cleanse our hands,” and “purify our hearts,” with the idea that our repentance is supposed to be all encompassing of our person and it not just one day repentance, but a truly drastic repentance[32].

With reading verse nine we find more going alone with this drastic repentance.   In short we are to change our mind-set toward God and in a sense we are to fight off our inner-self and our own “hypocritical attitude[33].” One ought to remember the Prophet Joel’s words in 2.12-13 “”Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.””  James wants us to have a deep grief a real pain in sin, James wants to see with our tears repentance that is actual[34].  James is no different from Paul as he tells his Corinthian believers that “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”

And also James speaks about our laughter, and in this sense James is once again reflecting his Jewish Wisdom, where laughter marked foolishness, and the man who instead of right living follows his own path of pleasure[35].  Note for example Proverbs 10.23 “Doing wrong is like a joke to a fool, but wisdom is pleasure to a man of understanding.” And Qohelet 7.6 “For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity.” And our extra-biblical wisdom sage Sirach (27.13) says “The talk of fools is offensive, and their laughter is wantonly sinful.”

Again the point to avoid being like the world and having the mentality that we do as we please, to “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” forgetting the fear of Yahweh and that he does Judge[36].  In so doing  as Moo puts it “perhaps presuming too much on God’s forging and merciful nature.”

James then finishes this section with the phrase “Humble yourselves before the Lord.”  While the prophets often spoke of Yahweh’s force humbling of the pride here James calls us to humble ourselves willingly[37].  By humbling ourselves we freely recognize to God that we know we need him, we need his help and that we know we cannot do it no other way[38].  And in this humbling James relates to us that “he will exalt you.”  These words are remarkably similar to Jesus words in Luke 18.14[39] “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.””


[1] Moo 179

[2] Richardson 172

[3] Johnson 275

[4] Durken 779

[5] Moo 181

[6] Richardson 174

[7] Moo 181

[8] Moo 181

[9] Johnson 276

[10] Richardson 174

[11] Moo 184

[12] Moo 184

[13] Johnson 277

[14] Moo 184

[15] Richardson 177

[16] Moo 186

[17] Richardson 178

[18] Richardson 178

[19] Moo186

[20] Richardson 178

[21] Moo 190, Johnson 280

[22] Johnson 280

[23] Moo 189

[24] Richardson 180

[25] Moo 191

[26] Richardson 183

[27] Johnson 283

[28] Moo 192

[29] Johnson 284

[30] Richardson 185

[31] Johnson 284

[32] Moo 194

[33] Richardson 187

[34] Moo 195

[35] Moo 195

[36] Moo 195

[37] Johnson 286

[38] Moo 196

[39] Johnson 286

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