Have you noticed how popular in recent times reality TV shows have become? It is interesting how the word "reality" is used. It is used in reference to situations that are sort of contrived and set-up where people are put in some sort of situation that is unnatural to see how they then will respond. And the rest of us just sort of sit and watch as what is supposed to be life goes by. I wonder about the value of that sometimes. I remember when I was a kid there was a different type of reality show. It was called "This Is Your Life." And instead of it being a situation where someone would be put in some circumstance for everybody to watch as he went through it, it was a situation where a person would be brought and surprised with the retelling of the story of his life. There would be people brought from his history - maybe his neighbors or his friends and his teachers, or whatever it might have been - and they would bring pictures and would tell about the life of this person. Everybody then would reflect on their own lives and how they were living. I wonder if there is not more value in the second of these approaches than there was in the first.
I know from our text that there must be a great amount of practical value in our taking the time to consider what our lives really amount to. James is such a practical part of the New Testament. Some have referred to it as "the proverbs of the New Testament." Another writer referred to it as "the gospel of practicality." This is a book which discusses our words and whether we put higher values on some people than other people. It is a book in which our treatment toward the less fortunate is considered. Practical things like our possessions and whether our faith leads to action are considered. And in the middle of that, here is the question that is raised in James 4: "What is your life?" If you take time to think about that, there will be some answers that have to come to the fore in our thinking, and these are always the beginning of steps toward doing a better job of living.
In the first place, this passage makes so clear that my life here, whatever else it may be, is brief. James refers to it as a vapor that appears, he says, for a little time and then vanishes away. Each of those three phrases helps us to understand. A vapor is something that is only like a mist or a fog. It is not there for long. It appears for a little time, James says, and then it goes, it vanishes. James is urging his readers to understand that in making their plans and in going about life, they need to consider that life is brief.
This is a thought, I noticed, that comes up so often in the wisdom passages of the Bible. Job, apparently, is someone who thought a lot about what life amounts to, and maybe it is because he went through such difficult circumstances himself. In Job 7 he says, "My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle." In verse 7 he says "My life is a breath." Neither of those things attach much other than a temporary or a swift movement of life. In Job chapter 9 he says, "My days are swifter than a runner (or a courier) who carries a message from one place to another." It is like a ship or a sailing boat that rapidly passes by. It is like an eagle swooping down on its prey. And then in Job 14, in the most familiar passage from the great book of Job, he says, "Man who is born of woman is a few days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers. He flees like a shadow and continues not." Life is something that can effectively be compared to a flower or a shadow. Neither stresses longevity, do they?
The Psalms also help us to see this point. In Psalm 90 there is the prayer of Moses, the man of God. In verse 10, Moses says, "The days of our years are seventy (three score and ten), or maybe by reason of strength, they will be eighty (four score)," but they are soon gone and we fly away." And then David also emphasizes this thought in Psalm 39. He says, beginning at verse 4, "Oh Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days. Let me know how fleeting I am. Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!"
Wise men, then, reflect on the shortness of life. I could almost guarantee you that you could talk to anybody in our building today - young people, you might want to notice this - and it wouldn't matter how old someone seemed to you, they would still say, "It has gone so fast! Where has the time gone?" I ran across a poem that said, "Look well to this day! For it is life; the very life of life. In its brief course lie all the verities and realities of your existence. The bliss of growth, the glory of action, the splendor of beauty; for yesterday is only a dream, tomorrow only a vision; but today, well lived, makes of every yesterday a dream of happiness and of every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to this day." Life can be a vision of happiness or of hope, even if it is brief. But this day has to be lived well. I want to be sure, then, that I am not merely involved in wasting my life. I want to try to make sure that I am making use of my time which really matters for something worthwhile.
John Piper has a little book that he has written in which he tells the story of a couple who worked - they decided to not raise a family, they decided to just work as much as they could and make as much money as they could and to retire as quickly as they could. So at about age 50 they were able to quit their jobs in the northeast part of the United States and move to Florida with all the money they needed. They fished, they rode their yacht around and they walked on the beach collecting shells. He wondered what they will do when life is all finished and they answer to the Lord. Will they show him the seashells that they have collected from the beach? There has to be more to it than that, doesn't there?
The second thing that is true about my life is that my life is a precious and wonderful gift from God. It is not just a brief thing. It is a wonderful gift from God himself. Remember the time when the apostle Paul had the opportunity to address the philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens? Here was the cultural and the educational center of the world where people discussed ideas, and he had the wonderful opportunity to talk to those people, to address them, to say something on behalf of the faith that he held as a Christian. It is interesting to me that he used that time to emphasize to his hearers that life is a gift. In Acts 17, verse 25, he said of the God who made heaven and earth, "he is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything." Notice that God is the giver of life. In I Tim. 6, verse 13, he makes the same point - that God gives life to man. Life, then is to be thought of, not as something that just accidentally happened, not as just something that is a weird turn of circumstances, but instead, as a wonderful gift. If you were to ask Jim and Joyce today whether life is a gift, they would smile and tell you that in the case of two little girls, it sure has been. Life is a wonderful gift.
It is a sad thing, then, when something happens to the human mind, and when we begin to think that life amounts to nothing and when our hearts grow so hard and so stubborn about things that we, rather than thanking God for his gift, want to insist that he had nothing to do with it and we owe him nothing. In Isaiah 29, Isaiah rebukes the scoffers of his day, "Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, 'Who sees us? Who knows us?' You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, 'He did not make me'?" That is how a lot of people are using the gift of life.
If we regard life as being a precious gift, then we are led to ask ourselves a couple of questions. The first one has to do with "What's its value?" The Bible emphasizes the idea that the God who made us in his image (Genesis 1:26, 27) holds us accountable for respecting the sacredness of life. In Genesis 9, verse 6, after the flood, God emphasized that point. For us to be people who merely regard life as a light thing and who never give it a serious thought would be to make an awful mistake.
The other thing that we have to recognize about the gift of life is that it must have a purpose. There has to be some meaning to it. If God gave it to us and then held us accountable for respecting it, it must have a purpose. Solomon, after being blessed with everything and having tried everything, apparently sought for some secret to happiness and fulfilment in his life. He tried all the "under the sun" things, as he called them, that he could, and everyone of them turned out to be a futile and useless effort to find meaning. Finally, he gets to the end of the whole exercise, and he says, "Let's hear the conclusion of the matter." Fear God and keep his commandments for this is the whole duty of man, which he follows up by emphasizing that the reason that's important is that God will bring every work into judgement and that he will decide the goodness or evil of things based on what we have done. Life is certainly not very long in comparison, but it is a wonderful gift.
A third thing for me to realize about my life is that it is a one-time journey. In our confused religious world that seems like a strange statement to some folks. In some circles in our world today, there is the idea that we are merely a part of the whole, and that life sort of recycles us, that we move out of our bodes only to be moved into some other kind of body. It might be a reptile or it might be a bird or it might be a plant - depending on how you have lived. The idea is that we are reincarnated - that we are re-used, in other words - and that are souls keep going through that process until finally we do a better job of living and we somehow are given some sort of release. It is amazing how many people are influenced by that idea.
The Bible, though, emphasizes that we are making one journey through this world. In Hebrews 9, verse 27, the Hebrew writer says, "It is appointed unto man once to die (not over and over and over, but once to die) and after this the judgment." Even our deaths have meaning, because in Romans 5, verse 12, Paul explains that the reason behind this experience is that sin entered the world and that God has worked, even at the cost of his Son, to remove the thing that holds us in bondage so much. My journey through this world will be a one-time journey.
Some of you have heard parts of Longfellow's poem that he titled "A Psalm of Life." I know you have heard one of the stanzas of it. It says, "Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal; dust thou art, to dust returnest, was not spoken of the soul." What you may not realize is that a little later in the poem, Longfellow makes his point. "Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime, and departing, leave behind us footprints on the sands of time. Footprints, that perhaps another, sailing o'er life's solemn main, a forlorn and shipwrecked brother, seeing, shall take heart again. Let us, then, be up and doing, with a heart for any fate; still achieving, still pursuing; learn to labor and to wait." Don't get caught up in the meaningless idea that life is just a useless circle that goes on. Do something with your life, now, he is saying, to be a blessing. Life is a one-time journey.
And then, it is important to realize that my life here is certainly unpredictable. This is another of the things that James is stressing in James, chapter 4. He says, "Those who are saying today or tomorrow (in other words, assuming a time frame) will go into such and such a town (they are assuming a place), will spend a year there (they know just what is going to happen), will buy and sell (we know what we are going to do), and we will make a profit (we know how it is all going to turn out)." James makes fun of that and says "You don't even know what tomorrow will bring."
Has there ever been a time in the history of the world when that is more clear than right now? The circumstance of even the whole cycle of news and events in our world can be turned by the actions of a few people who engage in a terrorist event. Life is, above all, unpredictable and uncertain. We get lulled into thinking that because we have lived the last year and things are going pretty much the same, and we are in our routine and in our rut, that things will always be that way. And then something happens that shakes us and wakes us up a little bit out of that situation.
There are two passages in the Old Testament that kind of emphasize this idea. One of them happens in the life of Isaac, the son of Abraham. Isaac is by this time an old man, and he calls Esau, his son, to him and he says, "Behold I am old; I do not know the day of my death." That is an important point, isn't it? None of us do. And then, as God is bringing his covenant people into the land that he has promised them, and as he is trying to urge them to understand that from then on their choices are going to have consequences. He is trying to enforce the terms of his covenant with them, and he says that if they forsake their commitment to him and if they ignore what he is telling them for their own good, they will be scattered out of the land. And he says in Deut. 28, verse 66, "Your life shall hang in doubt before you. Night and day you shall be in dread and have no assurance of your life." That would be an awful way to live, wouldn't it? Night and day your life being in doubt. But if life is a breath, that truly is always the case. It is uncertain and no one is really living realistically until he faces that fact. It only makes life more precious, not more dreadful.
And then a fifth thing that we might observe about life - my life here is a preparation for something. That is why life has meaning. It is a preparation for something beyond merely the here and the now. In Luke, chapter 12, there is a conversation between Jesus and Peter which leads Jesus to talk about when is a person truly blessed. When is a person, in view of the fact that life is uncertain - we don't know when it ends, we don't know when our Lord will come for us - when is a person truly blessed? And Jesus' answer is that "it is when a person has made ready." Making ready is the purpose of things. We are making ready for something - while we live and then even beyond.
Jesus told the story in Matthew 25 that we call the parable of the virgins - five young women who are wisely waiting for the bridegroom and the wedding feast and all of that. They have made preparation. They take oil for their lamps so that when he comes they will be ready for the celebration to start right then. And the five who are foolish don't take any supply to oil their lamps. They all go out to meet and they are all waiting. But five of them have prepared and five of them haven't. When the bridegroom comes, the unprepared ones say to the others, "Give us some of your oil." And they say, "That is not possible. Our oil is being used to light our own lamps. You will have to go buy for yourselves." So they go looking for themselves some oil for their lamps, and while they are gone, the bridegroom goes in to begin the feast and the door is closed. Those who have waited until it is too late to prepare come and the door is closed to them. Jesus emphasizes that we ought to watch because we don't know the day or the hour. That is the effect of realizing what our life here is all about.
The interesting thing to me in the New Testament is that this is not a fact that makes Christians fearful. It is not a fact that makes Christians full of anxiety and dread. It is actually those who live in view of what we are studying here that face life with confidence and a sense of expectation. The apostle Paul makes the point in Phil. 3 that his own approach to living in view of all the troubles and difficulties that he had faced is for him to have one great desire. Listen to what he says. "Whatever gain I had, I count it as lost for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as lost because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him." That is how to prepare, friends. Be found in him. If you are found in him, then you are ready. In Romans 8, Paul makes the point that in Christ Jesus there is no condemnation. The question for all of us becomes whether we are in Christ, whether we have placed our faith in someone who brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, whether it turns us away from sin and stubbornness, whether we confess him before all people, whether we are identified with his resurrection through baptism, and whether we are walking with him in the light. No one wants to look back on life feeling like he has wasted it all.
I conclude with these words from some unknown poet: "I looked upon a farm one day that once I used to own. The barn had fallen to the ground. The fields were overgrown. The house in which my children grew where we had lived for years, I turned to see it broken down and brushed aside the tears. I looked upon my soul one day to find it, too, had grown with thorns and thistles everywhere the seeds neglect had sown. The years had passed while I cared for things of lesser worth. The things of heaven I let go while minding things of earth. To Christ I turned with bitter tears and cried, "O Lord forgive. I haven't much time left for thee, not many years to live." The wasted years forever gone; the days I can't recall. If I could live those days again, I'd make him lord of all."
I thought it might be important for us on the first Sunday of the last month of the year to remember that we should answer the question, "What is your life?" If you are here today and you need to answer, "it is the Lord's," if we can help you in your response to him, won't you come while we stand and sing together?