The message of James in our text today is one that no person should overlook or disregard. The message in this text is one that, if heeded can alter how we live our lives today and every day for the rest of our lives. I doubt that the lessons I am about to share with you are new in any sense of the word. Rather, this message is a reminder, a word of warning or caution for those who are so busy living from day to day they forget how completely fragile and uncertain is this thing called life. Simply stated, James says that our lives are like mists or like the stream of smoke that dances into the air when a candle is extinguished. It is here today and gone tomorrow; it is here one minute and gone the next.
Look around the world at large and around your own life in particular and you will see that this word from James is true. There are loved ones whose presence is as central to our lives as our own breath; and yet one day we look around and death has snatched them away. Life is fleeting and uncertain. Look at the flood waters of the
The book of James reminds us that we should not take tomorrow for granted. We should not put off until some later time those matters of the spirit that each one of us needs to resolve. Is your house in order today? Is your soul right with God today? Are you living today in such a way that it is apparent that you understand that you can be here today and be gone tomorrow? What is your life? That is the question I set before you today. Do you understand that with all of our wealth and learning and social status and long-range plans, you and I are nothing more than a mist that vanishes away?
Notice that I am not even referring to the material things that surround and adorn and edify our lives. I am not suggesting that our jobs can be terminated or that our marriages could unexpectedly fall apart. I am not speaking of the possibility that our finances could unravel or our health could break down and send us into a prolonged sickness. Any or all of those things could certainly occur without any warning whatsoever. But none of those things, as serious as each one of them is, cuts to the level to which James is pointing in this passage.
James is not saying your job may be here today and gone tomorrow; James is saying that you and I can physically be here today and physically be gone tomorrow. What is your life? It is like a puff of smoke that rises into the air and then quickly vanishes away.
I raise this matter with you today because I had a stunning brush with death recently under the most bizarre of circumstances; and when I managed to survive that unexpected episode all I could think about was this verse in James and the reminder that my life is nothing more than a mist that can be snatched away or snuffed out in the twinkling of an eye.
Last Sunday Peggy and I traveled to Virginia Beach where we planned to take a few days off and recover from the pace and pressures of life. We hadn’t had a break from our schedule of preaching, pastoral work, writing, teaching and traveling for quite a while. I hadn’t taken a day off, except for sickness, in a few months. It was a relatively slow time here at the church and it was the break between the winter and spring quarters at the seminary; so it was a good time to get away for three days. We left Sunday after church and returned late Wednesday evening. However, I almost did not return at all.
On Monday afternoon we went to see a movie: The Pink Panther starring Steve Martin. One of the ways in which I relax is by watching movies: westerns, comedies, James Bond thrillers and all the films in the Pink Panther series. An actor named Peter Sellers had played the lead role in that film series, but he died several years ago, and since that time no new films had been made. When I heard that this new film was coming out I was anxious to see it so we went that Monday afternoon.
I should say from the outset that the film was very good. In fact, at some points it was so funny that I could not stop myself from laughing. That is when the trouble started. There was a scene in the movie that got me laughing at a point when I had popcorn in my mouth. I can only imagine that a kernel of popcorn got lodged in the air passage in my throat. At first I was simply laughing; but suddenly I was gasping for air and I could not breathe. Add to that the fact that I was heavily congested in my chest and at some point while I was laughing and gagging for air I also started coughing and something from my chest also got caught in my air passage.
I don’t know just when I passed out, but according to Peggy — who was sitting to my left during the movie — my head and then my body began to slump down and sink to the right. I lost consciousness and I have no recollection of what happened next. The next thing I remember was Peggy standing over me in that dark movie theatre calling my name and asking me what was wrong. I was seated in such a way that she could not get behind me to do the Heimlich maneuver, so she just grabbed me and tried to pull me up from my downward slide.
In that instant, whatever was caught in my throat either popped out or went down; I cannot say which one. But I came right back to consciousness. I assured her that I was all right. We finished watching the movie. And all the way back to the hotel where we were staying we kept remembering how close I came to being dead and how close she came to being a widow. I assure you that my dying while we were on vacation was not a part of our agenda. And dying because a kernel of popcorn got lodged in my throat was something that has never crossed my mind.
I have always imagined my death in some spectacular fashion; cut down by an assassin’s bullet while leading some great crusade for justice, or dying from some deadly disease contracted while doing ministry among an impoverished group in Calcutta or the Congo. That’s the way to die! But choking to death on a kernel of popcorn in the middle of a Pink Panther movie while on vacation in Virginia Beach was not what I had ever imagined.
That is when it occurred to me that my life is only a mist, a vapor, a puff of smoke that vanishes away. I had a full schedule of things that I was planning to do, but I was reminded that life is like a puff of smoke. I have established a lifetime of personal and professional accomplishments; but a kernel of popcorn reminded me that my life is like a mist that rises into the air and evaporates. Take all the books I have written, all the degrees I have earned and all the awards I have received and here is the sum total of all of them according to James; my life is like a puff of smoke that is here one minute and gone the next.
This lesson does not apply to me alone; it applies to every person who hears my voice today or who hears or reads or views this sermon at some point in the future. You, too, are subject to the quirks and circumstances of life. And since that is the case, says James, there are some lessons you should learn and some attitudes you and I should adopt from this day forward. James concludes this passage not by saying how fleeting our lives are. Instead, he ends by saying three things:
1. It is by God’s will and not our own that we are able to face each new day
2. It is sinful to think that we can accomplish anything in life without God’s gracious assistance
3. The greatest sin of all is to know the good that we should do during our fleeting lives and not do it because we are putting it off for a later time.
It probably goes without saying, but it is not your alarm clock that wakes you up
each morning. Your alarm clock can ring all day and all night, but if God does not reach down and wake you up with a finger of his love your clock will do you no good. James tells us that it is by God’s will that we go about our daily tasks. It is by God’s will that we earn our daily bread. It is by God’s will that our dreams are fulfilled, our prayers are answered, our fears are overcome and our lives unfold day by day.
I know there is somebody here today that is not ashamed to say “The Lord is blessing me right now — He woke me up this morning and started me on my way.” It was the Lord who gave you health and strength and food and clothing. It was the Lord that opened doors that no man can open and closed doors that no man can close. Somebody here ought to be able to say, “The Lord is blessing me right now. Life is not ours to control or determine; it is by God’s will that we make our way through life.
This first point about living by the gracious will of God is followed by this second observation; it is sinful to take credit unto ourselves for the things that happen in our lives. It is arrogance to assume that the plans we make concerning our future are cast in stone simply we have written them on our date books. Boasting about what we have accomplished in the past or what we intend to accomplish in the future, without any reference to God’s gracious will, is a great mistake.
This word applies in one way to those who are younger and whose ambition and aspiration about the future is keen and pressing It is possible to get so caught up in the daily grind of living and making a living that you fail to include God as part of your life. There is time for work, time for parties, time for romance, time for academic preparation, time for political involvement, time for all the things this world considers important. But are we leaving time for God?
This word applies in another way when the achievements of a lifetime of hard work start rolling in. At this point, it is our own spoken pronouns that announce to the world who or what we think is responsible for our success. How many times has any one of us been overheard giving ourselves credit for what has happened in our lives? Look at what I have done – look at how far I have come in life – look at what I have made of myself. Never a word is spoken about the role God has played in our lives; never even the slightest suggestion that anybody beyond ourselves had a hand in our success.
I wonder if anybody can recall as clearly as I can where your life began. How many of you gathered here today were born to wealth and power and privilege; how many of you were “born with a silver spoon in your mouth?” That does not describe my beginnings. I was born into a two-room apartment in the back of a house owned by the man for whom my father worked. I was raised in a basement apartment by a single mother who was abandoned by her husband when I was ten-years-old. I lived a wild and rebellious life during my teen years, defined primarily by fighting and drinking.
I don’t know how I managed to survive my teen years. I don’t know why I am not in prison or in the grave. I don’t know how I got from the gunfire and gang fights of Chicago’s south side to this pulpit in Cleveland or to a Ph.D. degree and an active life as both a pastor and a professor. Most people who started out where I started out did not end up where I am today.
Now we come to the challenge and test of my character as a Christian and as a human being. How do I account for the course my life has taken? Do I stand up and tell you to take note of the things I have done? Do I point a finger at myself and boast that I have accomplished these things by my own hard work and determined effort? Or do I learn a lesson from James and have the humility and the honesty to declare; “I’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord, trusting in His holy word; He’s never failed me yet?”
Consider these two points again; every day we live is another gift to us from the gracious will of God who holds our lives in the palm of His hand. Everything we have or ever will accomplish in life should find us giving credit and glory to God; and not boasting about what we have done on our own. After all, what is my life but a mist that rises up and vanishes away? That leads us to this third and final point; if there is any good thing that you and I should be doing with our lives we had better do it while we have the chance, because tomorrow is not promised!
Is there some good deed you have been intending to do, but time and the pressures and circumstances of life kept pushing it to the back burner? Have you been intending to volunteer some time in an area where your involvement could make a difference? Have you been planning to make a donation to some worthy cause that badly needs that financial gift you have been planning to give but have never gotten around to doing so? Is there a broken relationship you have been meaning to restore with a word of apology or a show of forgiveness on your part? Is there some good that you know you should have done by now, but you kept telling yourself that you would get around to it soon – later – after a while – as soon as you get a certain project out of the way, and so on?
Let’s not stop with work and worldly concerns; let’s focus now on the things of God and the life of the soul. Have you been meaning to spend more time in prayer and Bible study? Were you planning to start tithing a portion of your income to the Lord? Were you wondering whether or not your salvation was secure since your relationship with Christ was so erratic and irregular? “I am going to join the church,” someone says to himself, as soon as he can get around to it. “I know I should join the choir or some other auxiliary,” says another busy soul; and I will just as soon as I get a few more things in order.
Does that sound like anyone here today; telling God what you are going to do for God after you have done everything that needs to be done for yourself? “Yes, Lord, I will take care of your business just as soon as I have taken care of mine.” Who are we and what are our lives that we should put off until some future date, sometimes a distant date in the future, actions we should have taken care of yesterday? We are a mist that rises up and vanishes away. We are a puff of smoke that is here one minute and completely gone the next. Take it from me; we are a kernel of popcorn away from the graveyard.
It is a sin, says James to know the good things we should be doing but not doing them because we are putting them off for a later time. Perhaps I should remind you once again of my favorite anonymous poem; it seems to fit this moment and this message.
I have only just a minute,
Only 60 seconds in it;
Forced upon me, didn’t choose it,
Didn’t seek it, can’t refuse it;
So it’s up to me to use it,
Have to suffer if I lose it,
Pay a price if I abuse it.
Just a tiny little minute,
But eternity is in it.
What is my life? It is a mist that rises up and vanishes away. It is frail and vulnerable, and my 6’ 5” body can be brought down by a kernel of popcorn that weighs less than an inch. It is not me that keeps my life going; it is the God within me and the God around me and the God beneath my feet.
Thank you, Lord, for bringing me back from the brink of death and back to active consciousness just six days ago. Thank you, Lord, for reminding me and allowing me to remind others that without you I can do nothing. Finally, thank you for reminding me that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Marvin McMickle is Senior Pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio.