Sermon: Acts 12:1, 2
Pentecost 4 – June 17, 2018 – Rev. Steven J. Radunzel
A number of years ago at our Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in Mequon, WI it was the night before graduation. The choir had held its graduation concert, and students and family awaited the graduation service the next morning. There was one of the seminary graduates, his name was James, who was of course looking forward to his own graduation from the seminary the next day. He had much to look forward to. He had been assigned as a pastor to one of our churches in Ohio. He was engaged and was planning to be married the next month.
But it wasn’t meant to be. Returning home to the seminary residence following a graduation celebration he was killed in a car accident that night. It’s impossible to imagine the grief and devastation for his family and fiancé who were looking so forward to his graduation and ordination as a pastor. And a congregation in Ohio never got to meet its new pastor.
Such a shocking situation inevitably raises questions like, “Why did God allow this to happen?” Why would this happen – a young man completes college and then three years of seminary training and an intern year, potentially has many of years of service for the kingdom of God, and then is taken from this life on the night before graduation?”
Today in our sermon series on the twelve disciples we’re going to talk about another man named James, James the Apostle, James the brother of John. Sometimes he’s referred to as James the Elder to distinguish him from another disciple named James whom we call James the Younger or James the Less.
James the disciple has something in common with James the seminary student. He also died very early. After training with Jesus for three years, being a witness of Jesus risen from the dead, filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, only a few short years into his ministry he was put to death by King Herod because he was a Christian. If we look at the story of James the disciple we again might ask the question, “Why would God allow this to happen?” “Why would Jesus train James for three years and then allow his death so soon at the hands of King Herod?” There were so many more years he could have served the kingdom of God.
We don’t know a great deal about James from the scriptures. As a matter of fact the only scripture reference that talks about James alone is this one from the book of Acts about his death at the hands of King Herod. Otherwise James is always mentioned along with his better known brother John. But this issue of James’ early death is important for us to consider. Christians sometimes bear the cross for their faith, and,
short or long time, God uses them just as he desires for his kingdom. Today we consider
JAMES, THE FIRST DISCIPLE TO DIE
In the lists of the disciples in the Bible James is always listed with that first group of four, Peter, James, John, and Andrew. James is always listed before his brother John probably indicating that he was older than John. James and John were fisherman along with their father whose name was Zebedee. It appears also that this fishing business in Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee was a joint venture along with Peter and Andrew.
It seems that this fishing business was a rather successful one as they employed hired men. The fact that James and John are often referred to as the sons of Zebedee indicates that their father was a rather prominent, perhaps even wealthy, man. The Zebedee family had some prominence in Judea and Galilee because we remember that on the night of Jesus’ trial John was able to get access to the high priest’s courtyard because he was known to the high priest.
James was prominent among the disciples. He was in that inner circle of disciples that were at Jesus’ side at some crucial events. It was Peter, James, and John who were with Jesus when he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, Jesus’ first resurrection miracle. It was Peter, James, and John who were with Jesus on the Mt. of Transfiguration when Jesus shined with his divine glory for a short time. And it was Peter, James, and John who went furthest into the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus when he prayed in such agony. Even though we don’t really hear James speak or learn as much about him as Peter and John, it’s clear that he was a trusted and very important disciple for Jesus.
There are two significant scriptural accounts about James that give us some insight into what he was like. Both accounts are in connection with his brother John, and neither incident is very flattering for James.
The first one involved James and John and their mother. On more than one occasion there was arguing and fighting among the disciples about which one of them was the greatest or most important. It may surprise us that such petty arguments could exist among Jesus’ disciples. They even had such an argument on the night before Jesus was crucified. But such weaknesses simply tell us that these men were just that, human beings, and sinful human beings, not exempt from pride and a desire for power and prestige.
James, along with his brother John, also fell into that category. Mark in his gospel tells us that one day James and John came to Jesus asking that they be given the two most prominent positions in Jesus’ coming kingdom, one sitting on his right and the other on his left. It’s clear that at this point the disciples, including James and John, had a very wrong understanding of the nature of Jesus’ kingdom. Matthew in his gospel fills in some more interesting details of this request. It was not in fact James and John who directly made the request to Jesus. It was their mother who made the request for her sons. And it doesn’t take too much imagination to conclude that James and John put her up to asking Jesus.
Jesus said to James and John, “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” In other words if you want to be so closely connected to me in my kingdom then you will suffer also what I will suffer. Naïve James and John of course said, “Oh, yes. We can!” And Jesus responded, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with.”
Another incident unflattering to James took place while Jesus and the disciples were traveling through Samaria. To begin with the Samaritans and the Jews didn’t get along. Jesus requested to enter one Samaritan village to proclaim God’s word. But the people refused. When James and John heard of this they asked Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” Jesus rebuked them for their foolish and vengeful suggestion. But it was likely this incident that earned for them from Jesus the designation as the Sons of Thunder.
It would seem that James, along with his brother John, had a fiery personality. He possessed zeal for God’s kingdom. While his fiery zeal may have been misplaced and misdirected early in his training, it’s probably the very characteristic in James that Jesus would refine and use.
It could very well be his fiery zeal for the kingdom of God that caused him to be the first disciple to die as a martyr. In Jerusalem in those early days of the Christian church fiery James was probably well known and a thorn in the side of the Jews who did not believe in Jesus and to King Herod, the grandson of Herod the Great. None of the Herod men had any use for Jesus or his disciples. When he had the opportunity Herod grabbed James first and had him beheaded.
That day when Jesus warned James that he indeed he would drink the cup that Jesus would drink and be baptized by his baptism, he certainly was not imagining a sword putting him to death. But that was the cup that James drank for being so closely associated with Jesus and zealously defending him. It was the cross he bore. It was how he glorified God.
Why did God allow James to die so soon and in this way? Our human reason says James could have served the kingdom of God so much longer. Our human emotions say that’s such a terrible way to die.
But James serves as a reminder to us that sometimes we will bear a cross for being a Christian. God is glorified when we do bear crosses for him. James paid the ultimate price, bore the heaviest cross. He literally gave his life for his Savior. Jesus once told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
Few of us have had to bear very serious crosses because we’re Christians. That day may come. And if and when it comes our prayer is that God will make us like James, with zeal, to bear our cross and glorify God.
God could have used James in this world for his kingdom for perhaps another forty years or even more. But he called him home to heaven. And we can be assured that God used him in this world exactly the way he desired.
I don’t know why James the seminarian died on the night before his graduation from the seminary. I don’t know exactly why James the apostle died so soon after his ministry began. We don’t know exactly why we are here alive in this world when so many others, including Christians, die so soon in life.
But we do know this: God has loved us in Christ Jesus with an everlasting love. He sent his Son Jesus to save us from our sins. Through faith in Jesus he has promised us eternal life. And what we also know is that if we are here God has a reason for us to be here. He will use us for his kingdom. He will use us for his purposes. Our times are in his hands. The LORD once told the people of Judah through the prophet Jeremiah, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.”
Our times are in God’s very gracious and powerful hands. Let us faithfully call upon him, pray to him, hear his word, and grow in our faith. He will listen to us. He will use us as his people for his purposes. And in his wisdom, at just the right time, when his purpose for us is fulfilled, he will take us to himself in heaven. Amen.