A Word to the Wise

A Series on James' Letter to the Church

At Thornapple Covenant Church in Grand Rapids, MI, in the summer of 2014, our preaching pastor, Rob Peterson, planned a worship series on the book of James entitled “A Word to the Wise: Exploring the Themes in James.” The book of James is full of godly wisdom, wisdom that is needed today especially in order to develop Christian maturity and a healthy Christian community. Some of the questions addressed in James include these:

What do we do in the face of trials?

Why do words help and hurt so much?

Is patience possible?

Where can we find wisdom?

How do we handle money?

This series explored these questions and more as it looked to God’s Word in the book of James for a word to the wise (or the yet-to-be wise).

To accompany this series I worked with a group of twelve congregants ages 12-73 to each learn a passage of James by heart and present it before the sermon each week. Each presenter first offered a prayer of illumination, and then said, “Remember the Word of the Lord as it is written in James’ letter to the church,” and then proclaimed the text by heart with meaning and conviction.

This series also benefited from the work of Jessica Mix, who planned the music.

Week 1: Thriving in Trials


James 1:1-18

No one seeks out hard times or trials, but we all experience them. This sermon examined the reality of trials and suggested that trials are the place where God can be trusted most and where faith can thrive. The congregation was invited to reflect on their trials and hardship and find God’s presence there—a presence that sustains God’s people every day.

Suggested Songs

“Blessed Be Your Name” LUYH 343

“Your Grace Is Enough” LUYH 698

“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” LUYH 521, PH 356, PsH 486, TH 457, WR 68, GTG 475

Week 2: Listening Well


James 1:19-27

The focus of this sermon was on the call to faithful listening. Real faith is active in loving service through listening to others. The congregation was invited to affirm an active faith through their own practice of listening.

Suggested Songs

“Lying Lips: Psalm 12” LUYH 644, PFAS 57

“May the Mind of Christ, My Savior” LUYH 334, PsH 291, SWM 211, TH 644, WR 464

Week 3: No Favorites


James 2:1-13

Everyone has a favorite book, person, movie, or place. Favoritism is unavoidable. Yet James calls God’s people to avoid favoritism in the body of Christ, especially with regard to people who are perceived as being different. Everyone is welcome. The congregation was encouraged to move toward Christ’s way of relating to people—the way of love, mercy, and grace.

Suggested Songs

“Gather Us In” LUYH 529, SNC 8, WR 649

“All the Poor and Powerless” (All Sons and Daughters)

“Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love” LUYH 299, PsH 601, SWM 249, WR 273, GTG 203

Week 4: Compassion in Action


James 2:14-26

Much ink has been spilt on this passage from James. What is the relationship between faith and works? This sermon avoided the circular realities of the relationship between faith and works and instead let James’ passion that faith have works guide the preaching of this text. Faith-filled action is what James is after. The congregation was encouraged to evaluate their faith in light of this passage’s call to faith-filled action.

Suggested Songs

“The God of Abraham Praise” LUYH 39, PH 488, PsH 621, TH 34, WR 16, GTG 49

“Guide Me, O My Great Redeemer” LUYH 43, PH 281, PsH 543, TH 598, WR 501

“Your Grace Is Enough” LUYH 698

“Be Thou My Vision” LUYH 859, PH 339, SWM 161, TH 642, WR 502, GTG 450

Other Liturgical Elements

Joshua 2 was enacted earlier in the service, preceded by “The God of Abraham Praise” LUYH 39, PH 488, PsH 621, TH 34, WR 16, GTG 49, and followed by “Guide Me, O My Great Redeemer” LUYH 43, PH 281, PsH 543, TH 598, WR 501

Week 5: Lessons for Teachers: Watch Your Tongue


James 3:1-12

Words can hurt and words can heal. James wants teachers to know the power of words and he wants them to be wise with them so that the community of disciples flourishes. This sermon explores the power and place of words, exposing the congregation to the power of words and inviting them to become a community where words construct a stunning environment of hope and healing.

Suggested Songs

“Be Thou My Vision” LUYH 859, PH 339, SWM 161, TH 642, WR 502, GTG 450

“Spirit of God, Who Dwells Within My Heart” LUYH 618, PsH 419, TH 338

“I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light” LUYH 730, SWM 207, SNC 77, WR 248, GTG 377

“Take My Life and Let It Be” LUYH 863, PH 391, PsH 288, TH 585,6, WR 466

Other Liturgical Elements

“Litany for the Slandered” LUYH 645 was the congregational response to the sermon.

Week 6: Lessons for Teachers: Heavenly Wisdom


James 3:13-17

What is in the heart of teachers who offer Christ-centered wisdom to others? James is adamant that heavenly wisdom comes from God and births inner purity and outward peacemaking. The congregation heard the difference between two types of wisdom and was invited to seek the wisdom that comes from God—a wisdom that shows itself in gracious and considerate living.

Suggested Songs

“O Worship the King” LUYH 2, PFAS 664, PH 476, PsH 428, TH 2, WR 2, GTG 41

“Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” LUYH 579, PH 263, PsH 460, TH 38, WR 48, GTG 12

“God of Grace and God of Glory” LUYH 926, PH 420, WR 569, GTG 307

“May the Mind of Christ, My Savior” LUYH 334, PsH 291, SWM 211, TH 644, WR 464

“The Perfect Wisdom of Our God” (Keith Getty and Stuart Townend)

“We Will Run” (Gungor)

Week 7: Lessons for Teachers: Seek Spiritual Wholeness


James 4:1-12

Arguments, poor motives, and love for the world all add up to problems in the church. James calls the whole church to seek spiritual wholeness and to intentionally return to God. The congregation was graciously invited to return to God as the source of hope and wisdom because we need God to reshape our lives, making us whole.

Suggested Songs

“Come, Thou Fount” LUYH 521, PH 356, PsH 486, TH 457, WR 68, GTG 475

“I Need Thee Every Hour” LUYH 322, TH 674, WR 476, GTG 735

“What a Fellowship, What a Joy Divine” TH 616, WR 496, GTG 837

“Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” LUYH 693

Week 8: Our Plans/God’s Plans


James 4:13-17

Because of time constraints, this portion of James was not in the sermon series. However, if it were included, a focus on God’s will would be appropriate, including a reference to the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer: “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).

Suggested Songs

“O God, Our Help in Ages Past” LUYH 405, PFAS 554, PH 210, PsH 170, TH 30, WR 84

“Have Thine Own Way, Lord” LUYH 737, PsH 287, TH 688, WR 486

“Mayenziwe/Your Will be Done” LUYH 909, SNC 198

Week 9: Looking Out for Number One


James 5:1-6

James does not mince words in this text. A lifestyle of hoarding wealth and oppressing the poor are incompatible to the way of Jesus and the commands of the Lord. But how do these words connect with us? This sermon explored what it means to live justly and equitably as people who possess material wealth.

Suggested Songs

“All the Poor and Powerless” (David Leonard, Leslie Jordan)

“In an Age of Twisted Values” LUYH 662, SNC 61, GTG 345

“God of Justice” (Tim Hughes)

Week 10: Patience


James 5:7-12

This sermon looked closely at patience in the face of suffering and drew out James’ thought that God’s faithfulness to the prophets and to Job are reminders of God’s faithful love for us. The congregation was encouraged to remember God’s faithful care during past times of hardship as a well of encouragement in the challenges of today.

Suggested Songs

“Everlasting God” (Brenton Brown, Kevin Riley)

“Wait for the Lord” LUYH 480, SNC 96, WR 166, GTG 90

“Great Is Thy Faithfulness” LUYH 348, PH 276, PsH 556, SWM 194, TH 32, WR 72, GTG 39

“All Who Are Thirsty” (Brenton Brown, Glenn Robertson)

“I Need Thee Every Hour” LUYH 322, TH 674, WR 476, GTG 735

Other Liturgical Elements

Isaiah 40:28-31 was used as the responsive call to worship.

Week 11: Prayer of Faith


James 5:13-18

One of the most beautiful passages in the book of James calls for the sick to seek the healing prayers of the elders. This sermon examined what James meant by the prayer of the righteous and invited people to be open to the healing ministry of Christ through prayer. After the sermon, the congregation had opportunity to offer and receive prayers of healing for each other and for any who need the help of the Lord.

Suggested Songs

“O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” LUYH 590, WR 96, GTG 610

“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” LUYH 897/8, PFAS 254, PsH 579, SWM 172, TH 629, WR 473, GTG 465

Other Liturgical Elements

Isaiah 65:17-19 was used as the responsive call to worship.

Week 12: The Forgiveness of God


James 5:19-20

The ending of James can seem like an afterthought, but in all likelihood the ending is the whole point of the book. James wants followers of Jesus to both know their need for forgiveness and their need to be forgiving. If we do that we will be people who live truly wise lives.

After a brief homily on the text, all the Scripture presenters took turns proclaiming their paragraph(s) to the congregation. After the final two verses were spoken, we ended with a prayer of response.

Suggested Songs

The songs this week repeated selections from past weeks of this series.

“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” LUYH 521, PH 356, PsH 486, TH 457, WR 68, GTG 475

“Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” LUYH 579, PH 263, PsH 460, TH 38, WR 48, GTG 12

“Take My Life and Let It Be” LUYH 863, PH 391, PsH 288, TH 585/6, WR 466, GTG 697

“God of Grace and God of Glory” LUYH 926, PH 420, WR 569, GTG 307


(written by Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence)

Friends, I invite you to join me in your hearts as we respond, in prayer, to James’ epistle.

God who spoke the world into being,

we thank you for these words from your servant James.

May they move in our hearts, compelling action,

transforming us into people of Word and deed,

people who are peace-loving, kind, considerate, merciful, and sincere.

We are reminded by James of our tendency to speak too quickly,

of our ability to burn forests with a word, to turn a ship with a phrase.

Holy Spirit, give us self-control to be people who are slow to speak and quick to listen.

We are warned by James not to show favoritism.

May your Spirit fill us with lovingkindness toward our neighbors—

poor and rich, young and old, beautiful and homely.

We have heard James’ warnings to the rich.

God, we—rich, middle-class, and poor—

request your wisdom to guide how we use our money.

We need wisdom for every aspect of our lives!

So we ask, in faith, that you provide it, for we all are in need.

We have been chastened to submit to you, God.

May our friendship with you color every aspect of our lives

as we seek to draw near to your love.

We are corrected by James for our tendency to forget the harmony of faith and works.

Jesus, may your life be an example—

your words and teaching

in combination with your acceptance of the outsider, the sick, the poor, and the despised.

And today, Lord, some of us are troubled,

and so we pray that you will right wrongs, heal relationships,

provide work or vocational guidance, and comfort us with your Spirit.

Some of us are sick, or our friends or family are sick.

And so we pray for healing, for perseverance, for wisdom in medical choices,

for patience in the face of suffering.

And we are reminded that all good gifts are from you alone,

and we praise you for our gifts:

the resources you’ve given us to serve you and to build your kingdom,

the way your Spirit is at work here and in each of our lives;

the gifts you’ve given that simply delight: stories, music, jokes, rivers, hugs.

We praise you for people who have, in our own lives,

brought us back to your path.

And we pray for those we know who have turned from the grace that you give so generously.

We are reminded by James to persevere under trial.

And so we ask for perseverance to stand the test,

and for patience as we wait for your final redemptive act.

Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.

Concluding Notes

This project was compelling, encouraging, and challenging. Because I worked so closely with the Scripture tellers, I had the opportunity to see their own lives challenged by the text. One of the tellers first said, “I don’t like my passage!” (even though she had chosen it), but later communicated how challenging speaking those words were.

On the final Sunday we received much positive feedback about how the experience had been for the congregation to hear an entire book of the Bible told with energy and enthusiasm (appropriate enthusiasm, I might add). Several people mentioned that they had never heard an entire book of the Bible at once. One congregant said to me, “Thank you. I can’t stop crying.”

Our congregation experienced a resurrected text—a text that lived through spoken word. It’s analogous to the difference between reading Shakespeare, hearing Shakespeare read flatly, and seeing Shakespeare performed in the theatre. Scripture comes from a culture with a vibrant oral tradition. Let’s not forget that. In fact, let’s celebrate it and invite God’s Spirit to breathe life into these stories and letters as we proclaim them in our congregations!

Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence lives with her husband and two children in the western suburbs of Chicago. She serves as the associate pastor for spiritual formation at the Evangelical Covenant Church of Hinsdale, Illinois, where she preaches and leads formation and discipleship programming for children and adults. Joy holds a M.Div. from Calvin Theological Seminary and MCS from Regent College (Vancouver). She’s always on the lookout for new and old ways to tell God’s story as well as wild foods she can feed her family and friends. She has written for many organizations, including Christianity Today International.

Reformed Worship 119 © March 2016, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.