Marked by the World

Read James 1:19-27 to start.

How do you feel about winter? Maybe you enjoy it. Maybe you endure it and just hold on waiting for spring. Even if you do like winter, I’m sure there are some aspects of winter that you don’t particularly appreciate. Myself, I don’t like the bitter cold, it bothers more than it used to. And I don’t like slush, it’s lousy to drive on, and worse to walk through. And I don’t like road salt. I appreciate that it serves a useful purpose, but when you’ve had a few cold days in a row and the trucks have been out salting the roads and the parking lots, then the salt gets everywhere. You drag it in on your boots, even if you are careful to wipe your feet. It gets all over the vehicles, and it gets all over your clothing. If you wear black pants in the winter, you know it’s only a matter of time until those white stains get all over them. Even if you are careful, the salt gets on you, and it leaves its mark. And you may not even realize it.

A few weeks ago, during this very meeting, I happened to sit with one leg crossed over the other, as I do sometimes, and I noticed that there was a salt stain on the back of my pant leg. Presumably I had brushed against something on the way in, and picked up the salt at that time – hopefully I didn’t put on dirty pants that morning. I brushed it off as best I could, and then made sure they went into the wash when I got home. The salt was present, but I had not noticed it. It’s not like my pants were soaking wet or covered in mud. The salt was subtle, but it was still there.

It got me thinking that the salt on my pants is a lot like the influence of the world. The last verse of the passage we read to start came to mind, the idea of being unspotted from the world. That’s more of a challenge then you might realize. For that matter, it’s more of a challenge than you might want to admit. The world is very good at spreading contamination. It befouls whatever it comes into contact with. It may be flagrant and obvious, or it may be small and barely noticeable, but the contaminating effects of the world are undeniable.

When we think of being unspotted by the world, we might think that means to avoid intentional, blatant sinful behaviours and lifestyles. And yes, if one calls himself a believer but is wilfully wicked, then that person is either a liar or has a poor understanding of what it means to follow Christ. It should be apparent that if you live and speak and act in a manner that is no different from the people in the world around you then you are hardly free from the world’s contamination. If you are marked and defined by worldliness and sin, then clearly you are not unspotted by the world. Rather, you are drenched in it.

If one goes out walking on a wet day, and while passing a puddle a car should happen to drive through it and the spray soaks you, well, you might not say you were ‘spotted’ by the dirty water. You are instead soaked by it. It’s not the same as getting a few drops, it’s worse.

If we live like the world, if we call ourselves by Christ’s name, and if we profess to be following Him, then we should not be offensive and sinful in our day to day lives. We should be different from the world. If we are not, then that should be a noticeable problem and one that we as believers should actively avoid. I would hope that we know this already. I’m going to assume that we all know this already, even if our behaviour may not always reflect that. If I have to tell you that a believer should not be living a sinful lifestyle, well, then, if you don’t know that already, then I don’t know what to say.

If someone calls themselves a Christian, but they behave like a violent, foul-mouthed drunk, then it is not hard to identify that there is a problem, and what exactly that problem is. Everyone sees that, everyone who comes into contact with that person knows about it. It’s not something that can be ignored. Not like something less noticeable. Not like something that the world is perfectly fine with.

The passage talks about being unspotted from the world, though. That feels different from being soaked by the world, or immersed in the world, or smothered in worldliness. Like the salt on my pants as I described to start, or a splash from a puddle on the farther side of the street, like that tiny splat of ketchup that ends up on your shirt and you can almost wipe it away, but not entirely, it still leaves a mark. Being spotted by the world is small and seemingly insignificant like that.

I say seemingly, because any transaction between God and Man is significant. God has said that sin is offensive to Him, because it falls short of His standards, and that includes sins both small and great. We see and we recognize that large and noticeable sins are a problem, but we might forget about smaller ones. God, however, does not.

If you go outside and fall into a mud puddle, that can’t be ignored. You have to go and dry off, put on some clean clothes, take care of the mess before you can really go about your business. If you went to do your grocery shopping and you were dripping wet, they’re probably not going to help you at the store. But if you have a bit of salt stain on the back of your pants, or the sleeve of your coat, no one is going to be the least bit concerned. That’s normal. No one is going to care. But dripping wet or slightly stained, in either case you are not clean.

The world does not have the same standards as God. And why would it? God made the world, and all that draw breath in it only do so with His permission, and while He is sovereign, He allows people to do as they will, up to a certain level. God does not exercise absolute control over what we chose to do. He lets people behave wrongly, He lets them rebel against His rules and His laws. And so they do, and so do we all. This world is filled with rebels, with those who have little to no interest in following God, in serving God, in loving God, or in knowing God. If we are like the world, if we are spotted and contaminated by the world, then we will fall short on following, serving, loving, and knowing God.

What does the world have to offer? You probably have a good idea, but I’ll read a couple of verses from 1 John chapter 2 to remind us. 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. 17 And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever. That’s what the world offers. The world offers desire, and the world offers pride. What makes me feel good, what makes me look good, what offers me enjoyment, what I would like right this minute, that is what the world offers. It might be enjoyable, it might be fun. But it’s all temporary. It passes away.

Not only is what the world has to offer entirely in the short term, and let’s face it, compared to eternity, everything is short term, but what is in the world lacks merit. The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, those are all entirely selfish, base concerns. There is no consideration of value there, of what is worthwhile, of what is beneficial for others, or what makes the world a better place. There certainly is no consideration of God’s will, of what He would like us to do. That is not even on the world’s radar.

The contrast is apparent. The world is selfish, temporary, and small. God is gracious, eternal, and vast. The world is in a state of decay, and everyone and everything in it is likewise on a downward spiral. Not that I’m saying that things are getting worse and worse, and that the world was generally okay a little while ago. Things in this world have been bad for a very long time. If you need a timeline on that, remember that the first child born on this planet murdered his little brother. I don’t care how bad things might be now, since the day sin entered the world, things haven’t been okay.

Sin entered the world, and death by sin. Why would you want to be spotted by that, to be contaminated by that? Why would you want to be like Demas, who forsook the Apostle Paul in his imprisonment, having loved this present world? Why would you want any of that? Why would you want to be polluted by its influence, and be stained by sin, by decay, by rebellion, and by death?

James advised his audience in verse 21 that we read earlier to lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness. Those are big words, to be sure, not words that we use on a day-to-day basis. They describe what is wrong with this world, and the instruction is to distance yourself from the corruption that this world brings, from the dirtiness and abundance of rubbish that the world is filled with.

As we said before, it’s easy to see the big problems. Not so easy to see the smaller ones. Big problems, obvious problems, those need to be dealt with. But so do smaller ones. Like the salt stain that you don’t se at first, being spotted by the world may not be noticeable at first. It may not be apparent to you nor to the people around you. God sees, of course, but we do not see through the same eyes as He does, we look on the outside, whereas God looks at the heart.

So what’s the big issue with being spotted with the world? I’d like to continue with the salt metaphor to describe that problem. Salt is more comparable to worldliness than you might realize. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made to me.

You might be thinking that Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount that His listeners were the salt of the earth, and that was not a bad thing. Rather, that salt losing its savour, that was the bad thing. Salt rendered flavourless, which was a common enough occurrence in the ancient world, because the salt they used was not pure, so it was entirely possible that if salt was not stored properly, if it got damp, the sodium chloride could dissolve away, leaving only the impurities, which were of course not much good for anything. Something called salt that isn’t salty won’t do much to flavour your soup. It’s also no use as a preservative. Christ’s salt of the earth comparison has to do with having a certain appearance but being useless for the intended purpose.

My comparison instead looks at all the negative connotations of salt. Salt can add flavour, and salt is useful for preserving foods. This time of year it’s great for dealing with ice on roads and walkways and parking lots, but salt actually has a lot of problems. Everything positive and useful about salt can also lead to serious problems. Too much salt in your diet is going to lead to water retention and high blood pressure. That’s a slow and hidden problem, you can’t look at me up here this morning and tell that my blood pressure is above normal. It is though, and it has been for years. One of the things I do to control my blood pressure is to avoid using extra salt in my food, to limit the salty foods I eat, and generally to look for alternatives that have less salt and sodium.

Salt is also toxic at certain levels. That’s why it works so well as a preservative, it kills bacteria. It does this by drawing water out of the bacteria and that of course damages the cells, inhibiting their growth and reproduction. Certain foods can be kept for years with the right amount of salt. Salt kills more than just bacteria, though. Excess salt spread on roads in the winter washes off into the ditches and fields, and there it damages plant roots. Not a big deal if the dandelions won’t grow, no one is going to complain too much about that. It’s more of a problem if potatoes or wheat or corn or something that people actually want doesn’t grow because there is too much salt in the soil.

Worldliness is much like that, but of course rather than being toxic to plants and bacteria, it is toxic to the things of God. If one is occupied by things of this world, if that consumes your time and energy, if that draws and holds your attention, then what is left? We know that you cannot serve two masters, that is not possible, that is not going to work. God does not say “Serve me a little when you feel like it, and that will be fine.” No, He says “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.” That is not a partial step or a half measure. God wants all of you, and being occupied with this world inhibits and weakens that relationship.

If your Bible is still open to 1 John chapter 2, look one verse prior to what I read a few minutes ago. 15 Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. I mentioned Demas a few minutes ago, of whom we know little, other than he was an erstwhile companion of the Apostle Paul, and that he loved this present world. How much did he love this world? He loved it more than he loved serving the Lord, and that’s all that matters. But he did not always love the world so much. One does not go out on a mission journey, risking life and limb and liberty with Paul if one has no interest in the things of God. He may have thought that he loved God, and he may have wanted to do so. But he loved this world more. He made his choice, and now he is remembered as a tragic footnote at the close of 2 Timothy.

Demas may have been a decent and well-behaved person, he may have been a model citizen, a good neighbour, a helping hand in time of need, at least until the going got too tough. At one time he may well have been a better Christian than any of us here today. But he obviously was not free from the influence of this world, and eventually it dragged him down.

That reminds me of another comparison with salt. You see, salt is also cumulative. The story goes that the Romans salted the earth when they destroyed the city of Carthage in North Africa to make sure that it could not be rebuilt. That may or may not be true, but it’s one way to make sure that nothing is going to grow in an area for a very long time. And look at the Dead Sea, or other terminal lakes like Lake Van in Turkey or the Great Salt Lake in Utah, where water flows in constantly but only leaves by evaporation, and so the salinity builds up and up over the years, until the salt level is far above that of the oceans. The water comes and goes, but the salt remains.

The world’s influence is like salt in that way as well. It builds up and increases, not all at once, maybe not even at a noticeable pace, but slowly and steadily it accumulates. It gains place and prominence, and it is hungry and demanding. The world always wants more, it will seize upon every scrap of attention you give it, every moment of care you spend on it. The world will take everything, and not be satisfied.

The world’s influence was well described by the Lord in the parable of the sower. It’s probably familiar, I read a single verse from Matthew chapter 13, verse 22 He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful. What an apt picture of the world’s influence. The listener hears the word of God. Perhaps he receives it, believes it, and wants to follow it, but that doesn’t quite work out, not as it should. The cares of the world, those choke out the word. Like nasty weeds growing in your garden, all the nutrients and the water are sucked up by the thorns and there is nothing left to allow the desired fruit to grow. So it becomes unfruitful.

It’s worded differently in the other two gospels where this parable is found, but I find that phrase “he becometh unfruitful” to be sobering. For something to become unfruitful there is the implication that at one time it did indeed bear fruit. Where once there were useful results, now there is nothing. The cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches made sure of that.

How often have we seen that? How often have we experienced that in our own lives? When once we were ready to follow, ready to serve, ready to obey, but that drive, that purity of action is diminished and lost. The cares of the world creep in and overwhelm. Whether it is sudden or gradual, the world’s influence does tend to build up over time. It accumulates. And when it does, it crowds out any place we have for God. Our spiritual lives end up contained and constrained, and are squeezed into a smaller and smaller corner of our consciousness until there is nothing that remains. Nothing fruitful.

Look at Lot. When he and Abraham parted ways, Lot chose the well-watered plains of Sodom. That would be on the shores of what is now the Dead Sea, which could not have been nearly so salty in those days. No one would call those plains well-watered today. The salt there had not accumulated up to the levels that is has now. But wickedness, that had accumulated there in spades.

Lot moved to the plains of Sodom. But before long he was living within the city’s walls. His children married the locals, and his wife was so enamoured of the city that when the time came and they fled, she turned back against the angels’ warning and was turned into a pillar of salt. Lot did not plan to become influenced and turned aside and destroyed by the influence of Sodom. But he did, and he was. This world drew him in and devoured him. Did he even realize it at the time?

The saddest part is that many times we don’t even notice until it is too late. We often don’t see the world’s influence, nor do we notice how it acts upon us. Because we live in the world, and are surrounded by worldly people who do worldly things, we are not necessarily quick to identify the problem. Like that salt stain on the back of the pant leg, we don’t see it there, not at first. Maybe we don’t see it until it’s pointed out to us by someone else. Or maybe we don’t see it at all, or not for a very long time, when the stain has fully set and is not readily removed.

We know the nature of the problem. That has been laid out for us in God’s word. And thankfully, the same source provides us with the solution. The same passage, in fact, as we read to start, is a good place to look. If we look at verse 21 of James 1, after the part about superfluity of naughtiness, we read and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.

Do you know how to remedy the world’s influence? God’s word is both where we find the answer, and indeed is the answer. Filling our hearts and minds with scripture is an excellent defence against the contamination that surrounds us. Receive the engrafted word, it says.

What does that mean? To graft something is to implant it. It means to add something that is not going to be there otherwise. We think of skin grafts or bone grafts when a doctor takes tissue from part of your body that is healthy and implants it elsewhere to mend a damaged area. Or of a fruit tree where a branch from a particular variety has been added to another tree, so that it will bear the new, desirable fruit. God’s word is like that, if it has been added to us then we will bear spiritual fruit, or we are at least more readily equipped and able to do so.

It’s not a guaranteed thing, mind you. Effort is required. Look down to the next few verses, I’ll read those again 22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. 23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: 24 For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.

I’ve done this. I’ve gone and looked in the mirror, and noticed that something needs to be fixed. Perhaps my hair is sticking up or there is something on my face. Normally the thing to do is to correct that right away, and generally I would. If I saw there was a smudge on my face or a spot of mustard at the corner of my mouth, I would deal with it at once. Hair, though, is sometimes a bit trickier. You might have a piece of hair that is sticking out at some ridiculous angle, and you pat it down and go on your way, but little do you know that the hair stayed in place for all of 11 seconds, and you’ve spent half the day looking like your head is hosting a post-modern art expo.

It’s a good idea to glance at a mirror fairly often. Otherwise you may not notice a problem, a problem that you could easily fix, if only you were made aware of it. And of course, that you are willing to do something about. Spiritually we don’t have a literal mirror, but the Bible is what God has give us in order to show us our way, in order to illuminate all our dark corners. In Psalm 119, verse 105, the Psalmist says that God’s word is a lamp unto his feet and a light unto his path. That is an apt description of how scripture is intended to be used. Not merely as literature, or history, although those are both also valuable applications of the Bible, but as a guide.

It says in 2 Timothy chapter 3 that all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, yes, but also for reproof, correction, and instruction. The word of God steers us in the way we need to go, and puts us back on track when we derail.

You need to hear God’s word, whether the reading of it, the study of it, or the preaching and teaching of it, ideally all of those, and on a regular basis. And you need to pay attention to it, to respond to it, to act on it. If scripture shows you something that you need to amend about your behaviour or your life, you need to heed that. If say if, but really, it’s not an ‘if’ situation, it’s not a question if scripture will show us where we need to change, it will, for none of us are perfect. No matter how hard we may try, we all have plenty of room for improvement. Frankly, and I’m speaking for myself here, many times we don’t try all that hard. How much correction and instruction we need!

It’s a continual process, though. To return to the salt comparison from before, you don’t brush salt off your clothes once and it’s gone forever. It comes back. Like the Jordan River bringing water continually into the Dead Sea, increasing the salinity, the world’s influence does not stop. It may wax and wane from time to time, but it does not cease entirely. Not in this life.

In a way, we are like ducks in a pond. No, not that we waddle and enjoy eating more bread than is good for us, although that might be true, but like ducks we spend so much of our time in an environment that is filled with hazards. Ducks spend a lot of time in water. They fly, but they also swim. They may get much of the food in and around the water, but they can’t breathe under water, of course. In areas where there are large fish, snapping turtles, or alligators, those will prey on ducks on the water. On land as well they are vulnerable to any number of predators, and their only real defence is to fly away. But a duck can’t fly if it’s soaking wet.

Ducks don’t get soaking wet, though. You’ve no doubt heard the expression “Like water off a duck’s back” which describes how water doesn’t stick to ducks. That’s because they have something called a preen gland, located near the tail. The gland excretes oil, which the duck spreads throughout its feathers with its bill, cleaning off any debris or dirt at the same time. Ducks have to maintain their oily plumage on a continual basis, or their feathers would start to absorb water. If you watch ducks for any length of time, you’ll see them cleaning themselves regularly. When your primary defence is flying, you need to keep your feathers in working order, or when danger comes, and it will, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble.

We live in this world, and so this world will influence us, and contaminate us, without rest and without mercy. Therefore we need to continually be in the word of God, hearing it and doing it, in order to combat the world’s blight. As it says, going back to James 1, in verse 25 But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.

We can’t merely look once into God’s word, into the perfect law of liberty, as the verse says. We need to continue therein. The world is not going to leave us alone, it seeks to bring us down to its level. We can’t glance at the Bible from time to time, or listen with half an ear to 40 minutes of preaching once a week, and expect it to have any effectiveness in our lives. Not when the world is waiting at the door. We need to be doers of the word, not hearers only. We need to continue in it.

The world will get its filth on us, that much is certain. We need to clean that off, or more accurately, we need to let the Lord clean it off. The truth of scripture, and the willingness to obey it, acts as the ideal, as the only repellent for the world’s influence. If we remember that, if we act accordingly, we can be effective and useful followers of Christ. Otherwise we will be marked and spotted by the world. If we are not both doers and hearers of the word, the world’s pollution will build up and up and become increasingly toxic. Then our religion will be in vain, and we will find that we have become unfruitful.

What’s worse, if we are not in God’s word, we may not even realize it.