Sermon

James 4:13-17, 5:7-11

Don’t Be So Sure

By Richard Niell Donovan

When I was growing up in Kansas, I often heard the amusing phrase, “God willing and the creek don’t rise.” People would tell you what they were planning to do, and would then say, “God willing and the creek don’t rise.”

What they meant, of course, was that they had plans, but circumstances (either God or the creek) might disrupt their plans. God might have other plans, and his plans would supersede their own.

Or the creek might rise. In most cases, that was just an amusing phrase. But my best friend lived on a farm on the far side of a creek. The road that led from the main highway to his house was a public road, but it led only to his house. The county was obligated to provide a road to every house. There was no house beyond Bill’s house. Therefore the county was unwilling to spend much money, and they built a low concrete bridge that flooded when the creek rose.

“If the creek don’t rise,” was not an amusing phrase to Bill. Many was the night when he would come to that crossing in the dark only to have his headlights shine on water flowing swiftly over the bridge. The bridge itself, a slab of concrete which had no guardrails, was invisible. Sometimes that happened when he was trying to get to town. More often it happened at two o’clock in the morning when he was trying to get home.

Whenever it happened, the questions were, “If I try to cross this bridge that I can’t even see, will I misjudge and drop a wheel over the edge? Will the water drown the engine and strand me in the middle of the bridge? Will the flow of the water be so strong that it will wash me off the bridge into the creek? Can I make it? Will I regret it? Will this cost me my car? Will this cost me my life?”

Bill, being the “can do” guy that he was, didn’t spend many nights parked on the wrong side of the bridge. He usually gave it a “go.” To my knowledge, he always made it. He wiped out a few cars in other ways, but he always made it across the bridge, but the phrase, “if the creek don’t rise,” was a real issue for him.

I often heard the other part of the phrase, “God willing,” used by itself. Almost anyone might say, “God willing and the creek don’t rise.” That was just an amusing phrase that acknowledged that they were not in complete control of their lives. But religious folk sometimes used only the first part of the phrase, “God willing.” They would say, “I’ll be there at seven, God willing.”

When used that way, the phrase had a more serious edge to it. Frankly, it sounded a bit ominous. God might throw all kinds of roadblocks in their way. People could get sick. They might have a car wreck. They might die. Whenever I heard the phrase, “God willing,” I thought of all the bad things that God might do to interrupt plans. I never imagined that God might do something wonderful that would interrupt plans. Perhaps it was just me—my limited vision—but I think not. When people said, “God willing,” most of them sounded as if they were allowing room for some tragedy in their lives.

I am sure that these religious folk who used this phrase, “God willing,” did so because of the scripture text that I read from the book of James. James warns:

“Come now, you who say,
‘Today or tomorrow let’s go into this city,
and spend a year there, trade, and make a profit.’
Whereas you don’t know what your life will be like tomorrow.
For what is your life?
For you are a vapor, that appears for a little time,
and then vanishes away.
For you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills,
we will both live, and do this or that'” (4:13-15).

This is a troublesome. I am uncomfortable with some of the people who use this kind of language. Sometimes, the people who say “God willing” strike me as overly pious. I am a religious person myself. I am a Christian. I am happy to be known as a Christian. I try to live by faith. But, sometimes, the people who frequently say, “God willing” strike me as overly pious and make me uncomfortable.

But not always. I have known people who used this kind of language who didn’t bother me. The words were the same. What made the difference? Why did some of these people make me uncomfortable and others, saying the same words, didn’t.

I think that the difference is that some people who use religious language convey uptightness and judgmentalism, while other people who use religious language convey love.

• Sometimes, religious people give you the impression that they are looking for something wrong in you. But other religious people give the impression that they are looking for something right in you.

• Some religious people give the impression that they don’t really love anyone—God, others or self. But other religious people just overflow with affection for you and the whole wide world. I hope that I won’t embarrass her, but I always feel that way when I am around Dorothy Compton. She just seems to love everybody. And that love makes all the difference. If people love us, we don’t really care what words they use. And so I have friends who say, “God willing,” and it doesn’t bother me in the least. In fact, I am glad to be with them. Their deep faith and affection draw me to them, because it is such a source of warmth and strength. Love makes the difference.

We can learn some lessons from this passage in James. One lesson has to do with our priorities. James says:

Now listen, you who say,

“Come now, you who say,
‘Today or tomorrow let’s go into this city,
and spend a year there, trade, and make a profit'” (4:13).

We don’t mind talking about money, do we? We might not be comfortable talking about Jesus, but we sure are comfortable talking about money.

Americans love money. A century and a half ago, the French statesman Alexis de Tocquesville visited the United States. As a result of that visit, he wrote a book, Democracy in America, that was full of on-target insights about Americans. Among other things, he said of America:

“I know of no country, indeed,
where the love of money
has taken stronger hold on the affections of men.”

A century later, William Costello told us about the Hartford heresy. Hartford, Connecticut was known as the insurance capital of the world. Costello said:

“This is the Hartford Heresy.
Economic, material security,
life insurance, endowments, annuities
take the place of a providential destiny,
so that ultimate values are not built upon a rock whose name is Peter,
but upon a rock whose name is Prudential.”

James interjects a new note into this money-loving world. He says, “Don’t talk so much about all the money that you are going to make. Don’t focus so much of your life and energy on things. Instead, place God at the center of your universe, and let your life revolve around him.” That is a message that we need to hear, and James says it clearly.

James also reminds us how tenuous life is. He says:

“You don’t know what your life will be like tomorrow.
For what is your life?
For you are a vapor, that appears for a little time,
and then vanishes away” (4:14).

This text took on new meaning for me when the doctor told me that I had cancer. People in my family tend to live nearly forever. The ones who don’t take care of themselves live into their late seventies. The ones who do take care of themselves live into their nineties. I take care of myself better than most, and always planned to be around for a century. If you are going to be around for a century, today isn’t very important—you always have tomorrow. Now I have decided that today is important—and that I had better have some fun as I go along. James was right.

And finally, this text reminds us that God’s plans are greater and more important than our own. He says:

“For you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills,
we will both live, and do this or that'” (4:15).

That puts things in perspective. God’s plans are bigger than ours, and we always need to leave room for them.

Juliette Brault, a young woman in the lovely province of Normandy, France, was excited. She and her fiance, Georges, (the final “s” is correct) had big plans. They would be married on June 6, 1944.

Planning the wedding was a great joy. They scheduled the church, and talked with the priest. Even with the shortages brought on by the war, Juliette managed to find a beautiful wedding dress and white shoes. They carefully gathered scarce food to serve at the wedding dinner. They chose their best man and maid of honor and carefully drew up a guest list. While they could not travel far, they planned their honeymoon and the little house that would be their first home. They left nothing to chance, because this would be a day to remember forever.

But unbeknownst to Juliette and Georges, other people were also making plans. President Roosevelt, General Marshall, and the Pentagon staff were making plans in Washington. Prime Minister Churchill, General Eisenhower and thousands of others were making plans in England. Resistance leaders in France had received coded radio messages, and were making plans. It mattered not how precisely Juliette and Georges planned their wedding. It mattered not how carefully they rehearsed. It mattered not that they had worked so hard to gather supplies. Their plans were about to be swallowed up in a greater plan.

On the day that they had planned the wedding, the Allies bombed their town. Georges was missing. The wedding dress and shoes were ruined.

Fortunately, Georges turned up later, and the couple was married on June 23 in a garage. The mayor called it “love in the ruins.” Juliette wore a pair of brown shoes donated by a U.S. Army officer. They served army rations at the wedding dinner.

While Juliette and Georges would have preferred their wedding as planned, they were not resentful. Still living near Utah Beach fifty years later, Juliette says, “Not only did the Americans liberate us but they made our marriage.” (Fred Coleman, “The Americans Were Amazing,” U.S. News and World Report, May 30, 1994)

We make plans—every day. But God is making plans too. The more that we push God into the background, the more disrupted we will be when His plans overwhelm ours. Include God in your plans—by prayer and an openness to His will—so that we will be able to cope with his greater plans.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2006 Richard Niell Donovan