Back in July on the Wyoming horseback trip, we were going through rugged mountain country. We were asking the cook to tell us some funny stories of previous trips. The cook told us that one time they had a woman on the trip who was a totally city girl. She was out in there in the spring and the flowers were all over the meadows in the valley they were riding through. She asked the cook, “How in the world did you guys have time to plant all of these flowers.” The cook said she turned to look at the woman just make sure she wasn’t cracking a joke. The gal was serious. She really thought they had been planted by the outfitters. Now we laugh at that…at least I’m hoping we’re all laughing. If not someone explain it. But I think there is something to this woman being clueless about wildflowers. Think about this folks. The only flowers this woman had ever seen were the ones planted by people.
What if our reality is off? Like we’re just as clueless. This morning’s message is about wealth. Think about it, if all you and I have ever seen is a world where the reality is that wealth is where we find security, meaning, worth, power and and control in our lives. Living for wealth acquisition is the highest goal. If I could just make more money life would be easier. If I could just win the lotto I’d be set. If I had the money like Buffet and Gates I’d never have to worry again. And Jesus would turn around on his horse and look at us, “What?! Are you serious?”
It’s so easy to laugh at that woman but we might have more in common with her than we think. Today James is introducing a massive paradigm shift for these young believers. He’s about to tell them, “Everything you think you know about poverty and wealth is completely off.”
POOR: Let’s read verse 9: “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation.” There is all kinds of poverty and wealth but the emphasis in this passage is on material wealth and money. The lowly brother who lives in poverty. Poverty is such a relative term. Three billion people in the world earn $2/day. So that’s around $700 / year. Three billion people. That’s poverty. No jobs, no medical help, no safety net. Now I say it’s relative in America because the poverty line is around $60/day. $60 before taxes. Do the math, right? The cost of living is so much higher in the states. That’s almost impossible for one person to live on and that figure was for three in the family. Three living on $60/day. Anyone who is living on this is poor. It’s almost impossible to make ends meet here in America. It’s such a vivid word to use for someone who is poor, “lowly”. Insulting. Demeaning. You just don’t go around saying that in our culture. But in the eyes of the world someone who is poor is “lowly”. He uses an image. Lowly. Can you see it? What does lowly look like? You can’t make ends meet. If you are less than a week away from financial ruin this message is for you. If it’s a struggle to get food on the table. If you’re working 2-3 jobs not for spending money but just to keep the electric on, James is talking to you. If you are on welfare. James has you in mind. Because you know what he’s talking about when he says “lowly”. You know that stamp this world puts on you.
SPIRITUAL POVERTY: Listen to what he has to say to you. I say to you. “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation.” Now we don’t get to boast much so when we do get permission we need to pay attention. Jesus himself said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.” It’s the same thing that James just wrote. Jesus was introducing the idea that there is a such a thing as spiritual poverty and wealth. What is spiritual poverty and spiritual wealth? Great question. The essence of spiritual poverty and wealth is defined by a person’s relationship to and connection with God. The person that has no relationship with God is in danger of eternal judgment and hell because of their sins before God. That is the greatest form of poverty! That’s as “lowly” as it gets. The kicker is no one, and Jesus means “No One”, can do anything to change that spiritual poverty on their own. We can’t do enough good. We can’t buy our way in, think our way in, force our way in, or schmooze our way in. That’s poor. That’s lowly. It’s such a reality people will do anything to stop feeling it but it will always be there. This poverty is what people are trying to make go away but nothing of this world will touch it.
SPIRITUAL WEALTH: Now the blessing comes when someone recognizes and by faith believes that THE only path out of this poverty is through Jesus. When that moment of faith comes the Spiritual wealth of Heaven and the promises of God comes pouring into that person’s life. This wealth Jesus says is more real than any wealth in the world. This is the exaltation James was writing about. Exaltation literally means altitude. “Let the lowly brother boast in his High that’s coming.” As a verb it is lifting up. Giving Dignity. Exaltation and the Kingdom of God is synonymous with Spiritual Wealth. What is that wealth? God the Spirit dwells in that person. That person receives a new identity as a son or daughter of God. No limits to receiving grace, love, mercy, patience, forgiveness. Used by God to reach others. Fulfilling life that has an impact not just for this life but for all eternity. His incredible great power available to us. Exalted status.
There is this reality that the poor have an easier time embracing the truth of spiritual poverty. If you are poor you know what it is to be in need and not be deceived. You know what it means to need help and to have to ask for it. That step of faith in Christ is not a foreign step. And God speaks to the poor, “This poverty, this material poverty is not your true reality. In my kingdom you will no longer be called lowly, You are my child.” All of His promises are “yes” to you. It doesn’t matter what town, what family, what school or no school, what job or no job. God is proclaiming through James to any Christian living in poverty, “Just hang on because I have started to lift you up. I’ve just begun. This material poverty isn’t the true reality. Just hang on. Persevere. Endure. Let Him perfect you. There is a day of exaltation coming.”
WEALTH: In verses 10-11, James goes on to address those who are wealthy. These verses are a direct quote from Isaiah 40: “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:6–8 ESV).
It’s interesting how much James likes to use visuals. And more importantly, universal visuals that transcend language and culture. We’ve all seen flowers bloom. And this summer we’ve seen the sun scorch those same flowers in a day or two without water. We can plant flowers. Do all this care for them but one brutal summer day or two and they’re gone. Temporary. Fragile. Weak. That’s the natural lesson about flowers.
The spiritual lesson is that wealth and flowers are the same. This world doesn’t think so. It’s clueless. This world exalts wealth. You can find all kinds of lists of wealthy people. Wealthiest people in the world. Wealthiest Americans. Wealthiest Canadians. Wealthiest Men. Wealthiest Women. Wealthiest movie stars. Wealthiest Athletes. Wealthiest pastors…and the list goes on. Oh, yeah there are pastors who literally compete for who gets paid the most. But you never find a list of the world’s poorest person. The world’s poorest American. The world’s poorest man. The world’s poorest woman. No one envies them. Can you imagine how demeaning and insulting it would be give out a trophy to the world’s poorest person? Oh, but when this world sees the list of the wealthy nearly everyone envies them. Fawning over them to give out awards. Right? It shows how clueless we are about wealth.
And Christ along with James says, “NO!” It’s just the opposite. Anyone who has wealth better be warned. It’s a fading flower. It doesn’t last. What is fascinating is that throughout the Bible I can’t think of any warnings to the poor. But the number of warnings to rich and wealthy is scary. The reality is that Jesus didn’t view poverty as dangerous but he did view wealth as dangerous. Listen to some of these quotes from Jesus:
“How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.””(Mark 10:23–25 ESV)
“Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully,and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.””(Luke 12:15–21 ESV)
“‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”(Revelation 3:15–18 ESV)
Jesus says a person with wealth will find it hard to believe the true reality that they are poor spiritually. They will find it virtually impossible to acknowledge they have nothing, offer nothing, and are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. A recent study showed that the wealthy out drink the poor by 27%. Jesus said material wealth makes people think they are secure and gives them a sense of permanence – eternity. Makes them feel like God – superior and powerful. I’m exalted. A U.C. Berkley study found that people who drive luxury cars are four times more likely NOT to stop for pedestrians when the law requires it than those who drove in less expensive vehicles.
So what does boasting in humiliation really mean? It’s the greatest wealth management tool ever invented. It’s a call to embrace the spiritual truth of our poverty and Christ’s wealth is the only wealth that matters and to forever proclaim that to this world. When you hear a wealthy person talk about how needy and broken they are it’s arresting. It’s staggering. Humiliation is embracing the call to deny ourselves power, and that we deserve comfort, deserve possessions and destroy the illusion that says we are secure because we have wealth. Take wealth’s name in vain and mock it by professing faith in Christ and His wealth is far greater and more real than any wealth I have amassed. The Inheritance in Christ is more real.
What’s interesting is that James doesn’t condemn people for being poor or for being rich. The church is always going to have poor people and rich people. Billy Graham is in the top 10 list of most wealthiest pastors. It’s how we view our poverty and wealth and manage the wealth God has given us on this earth and in the life to come. Most of us in this room are in reality wealthier than 90% of this world. We’re fools if we don’t think this sermon isn’t for us. Fools. I wonder how many of us are on the wrong Wealth Management program. You get excited about your bottom line cumulative wealth here on earth but you have no clue about the bottom line status of your wealth in heaven. Figure it out because Jesus said it’s almost impossible for a wealthy person to enter into heaven.