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Author:Rev. Jeremy Segstro
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Congregation:Cloverdale Canadian Reformed Church
 Surrey, BC
Title:Reclaiming Religion
Text:James 1:26-27 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Reading: Zechariah 7

Text: James 1:26-27



  1. True Religion requires Self Control

  2. True Religion requires Social Concern

  3. True Religion requires Spiritual Caution


  1. Psalm 146: 1, 4, 5

  2. Psalm 12: 1, 3, 4

  3. Psalm 50: 3, 4, 5, 7

  4. Hymn 71: 1-2

  5. Psalm 94: 6, 7

  6. Hymn 67: 1, 6, 7


Words to Listen For: bandwagon, brush, Justin, card, armchair


Questions for Understanding:

  1. What is the argument about Christianity being a relationship, not a religion?  What’s wrong with that argument?

  2. What’s worse than our religion becoming worthless for us?

  3. What questions does Kevin DeYoung suggest we ask ourselves before we speak?

  4. Who are those in the church who show us what true religion is most clearly?

  5. Will Christianity survive?  Why or why not?

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Jeremy Segstro, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ,

When I say the word “religion” … what do you think?  What do you feel?

Does “religion” bring to mind the great cathedrals of Europe, where a sense of awe and transcendence is evoked in you as you gaze up at the stone columns rising over 100 feet, realizing how insignificant you are?

Or maybe “religion” for you brings up hurt.  Religion is something that has caused pain and suffering and war.  Religion is just smoke and mirrors - almost literally, to some people, as it means the smell of incense, the chiming of bells, a priest with a collar and a nun in a habit.

There are those who love God and love religion…and there are those who hate God and hate religion.

But, between these two extremes, a third view, a moderate view, has grown larger and larger.  

This is the view known as “spiritual but not religious.”  This is a group that hates religion, but claims to love God.

If you’re confused…don’t worry.  It’s confusing!  But to help…to make this real and concrete, let me introduce you to Ava Lee Scot - a New York city actress.

Ava was raised Catholic and Jewish, but she claims that she has gone beyond these traditions.  Ava studies Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic, but not the Bible, or any other religious text.  Instead, she reads tarot cards and runes, and attends no worship services of any kind.  She believes in a higher power, but doesn’t call this higher power “God.”

And Ava isn’t alone in this.  In 2015, 39% of Canadians described themselves in similar terms to Ava, and the numbers have only grown since then.

It seems that people want to be connected to something larger than themselves, but they don’t want any of the responsibility of religion.  They want to connect to something larger than themselves, something transcendent, and yet, at the same time, they want to be the largest person in their life.

Are you confused?  I hope so…because it’s confusing.

But unfortunately, this doesn’t just affect those in the world longing for something that is somehow both greater and lesser than themselves…but this kind of thinking has come into the church as well.

For many evangelical Christians, the term “religion” is negative word.  It brings up empty rituals, ceremonies devoid of meaning.  “Religion,” they say, is what is left when true Christianity, and true Christians, have left the building.  Religion is what remains.

But what if it didn’t have to be that way?

What if “religion” wasn’t a bad word, but instead something deep and meaningful? Something deeply and truly true?  Something living and active, rather than stale and dead?

Well, I put before you this morning that religion IS all of these things, and more!  And so, it is our task as Christians to RECLAIM(ING) "RELIGION"

We see that 

  1. True Religion Requires Self Control,

  2. True Religion Requires Social Concern, and 

  3. True Religion Requires Spiritual Caution


True Religion Requires Self-Control

What is “True Religion” ?  Or is there even such a thing?

You see… “religion” has not only been passed over for “spirituality” among women like Ava.  This isn’t the only attack.  If it was, then the church could weather it, and we would not have crumbled, and given up words like “religion” so easily, without a fight.

The issue is not only that we are attacked from the OUTSIDE, but from the INSIDE as well!  I can’t tell you how many well-meaning ministers and authors have joined the pitchfork wielding mob and added their voices to those who hate “religion.”

There is even a book on my shelf, a commentary, with some very useful things in it, that boasts the title “How to be a Christian without being Religious.”  And honestly, I feel a little sick to my stomach every time I see the title.

Ministers and authors that I respect have swallowed the kool aid and jumped on the bandwagon of “relationship.”  Christianity isn’t a RELIGION, they say, it’s a RELATIONSHIP!

The argument goes a little something like this: Jesus Christ came into this world to restore the relationship between us and God.  Jesus Christ took down the Pharisees, the religious elites.  He blew up the system because it was broken, and made it all about love.

Now, on first glance, this isn’t such a crazy argument.  It doesn’t sound drastically different from how I preach.  But here’s where it’s wrong - it presupposes that religion has nothing to do with relationship.  It presupposes that religion is rotten to its core, and that the Pharisees were the embodiment, not of everything WRONG with religion, but the embodiment of religion itself.  These are assumptions made with no proof.  There is nothing to these assumptions, and, in fact, Scripture speaks against them.

Take a look at our reading from Zechariah

Now the people of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regem-melech and their men to entreat the favor of the Lord, saying to the priests of the house of the Lord of hosts and the prophets, “Should I weep and abstain in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?”

And what did God say?  How did He respond?

Verse 5 - “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted?  And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves?”

The issue was never that our God is against “religious ceremonies.”  Ancient Israel WAS to fast and mourn.  This was the RIGHT RESPONSE to the exile!  It is as we sang in Psalm 50 - With all your sacrifice, I find no fault.

The issue wasn’t the fasting or the mourning or the sacrificing…but the issue was the HEART!

True religion…and it does exist…true religion boils down to three things: the HEAD, the HEART, and the HANDS.

The issue in Zechariah’s day wasn’t the HANDS…it was the HEART!  It’s not that what they were DOING was WRONG…it’s that they were doing it all, as hollow people.  “Men without chests” as C.S. Lewis puts it.  The head was there, the hands were there, but their HEART was woefully absent.  When they fasted and mourned, they did so for THEMSELVES, not out of love for God, or for their neighbour.

And so…the foundation of the law, the capstone of God’s law…it’s gone - like a pillar with no base and no roof.  A strange solitary obelisk in the desert.  It serves no purpose, it is WORTHLESS.  That’s the empty and offensive “religion” of Zechariah’s day.  Not true religion.

And what does the idea of “relationship” do?  A relationship fills in the hollow chest just fine…but it does away with the head and the hands!

A slab of stone in the desert, ONLY a foundation with nothing built on it.  Just as worthless as a pillar.

And so, when “religion” is attacked…it is a FALSE VIEW of religion.  Men without chests are attacked!  Those who mindlessly perform rituals with no sincerity, with no love.  And so the people who attack this view of religion…honestly…we should join them in their attack…but in this, we must correct their target.  For the issue is not true religion.

And we must also defend against those who say it is all about relationship.  This is just as wrong as the former one.  A distinction without a difference - replacing incomplete religion with incomplete religion.

Religion is NOT men without chests.  Religion is not a lone pillar or a flat paving stone.

So what does true religion involve?  This is the question of the book of James.  Now, James doesn’t go very deeply into the HEAD of religion…this he has left for the Apostle Paul.

All of the deep and wonderful theology.  It is VERY IMPORTANT.  It is ESSENTIAL.

And this…well…we are very good at this.  As Reformed Churches, we are very “Pauline.”

But I’m going to challenge you, and that includes myself as well….I’m going to challenge all of us, not to be LESS “Pauline” but to be MORE “Jamesian.”

We are very good at the head…but sometimes our heart and our hands lag behind.  We are the type of people that James is addressing.

And so James, here, as well as throughout his letter, addresses the issue of THE TONGUE.  Now, you might not immediately connect the tongue to the heart, but we’ll get there soon enough.

Verse 26 - If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue, but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless.

That is a very harsh statement that James makes here.  Anyone who thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue…he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.

We have all met Christians who are like this.  They speak a little rashly, maybe without thinking.  They speak a little harshly, maybe without loving.  

You probably have someone in your mind right now.  A face maybe.  And I hope…I hope and I pray, for the sake of your very religion…that the face you are picturing is your own.

This sermon, this text is not meant for you to go home and quickly send the livestream link to your 10 most loud-mouthed friends.  The person in your life who needs to hear this sermon the most…IS YOU!

And lest you think I’m painting with too broad a brush, thinking that everyone struggles this way…flip in your Bible one page over…James 3:2 - if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.

If you claim that you are in complete control of your speech, then you are claiming to be sinless.  Is that what you want to claim here this morning?


If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue, but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless.

James isn’t pulling any punches here - this word “worthless” is the same word used in Acts 14 for those in Lystra who worshipped Paul and Barnabas as Hermes and Zeus.

If you believe in God, but let your tongue run wild, it is just as foolish, just as useless, just as empty, as if you would call a human being Zeus and bow down before him.

It is the same word used in 1 Corinthians 15 to describe our faith if Christ had NOT been raised from the dead.  If Christ has not been raised, you are still in your sins and your faith is futile.  Your faith is WORTHLESS.

If you believe in God, but let your tongue run wild, it is just as foolish, just as useless, just as empty, as believing that a man in a grave could raise you from the dead.  That a man who is dead and gone could somehow transform your death into life, but couldn’t do it for himself.

I could keep going, there are many things labelled in the Bible as “worthless” but I think you get the idea.

A lack of self-control can tear down everything you have built, everything you believe, and rob you of heaven.

And why is this the case?  Why is the tongue such a big deal?  After all, you might think that, among all the sins we could commit…speech isn’t the worst of them…

Well, as with so many things in this life, as with so many things in the church…Jesus is the answer.  Turn with me to Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6:43-45

“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.  The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

The tongue isn’t really about the tongue.  Think of the tongue like a mirror.

The mirror isn’t about the mirror, the mirror is about what is reflected in it.  

So too the tongue…our speech…is about our heart.  If your speech is bad, if your speech is corrupt, YOU are bad.  YOU are corrupt.  If you are careless and reckless and evil with how you speak, your heart is careless and reckless and evil, and the consequence of an evil heart is an eternity in hell.

But there’s more to it than that…if you can believe it.

It gets WORSE from here.

Because what is truly shameful, what is truly sobering, is that it is our speech not only makes our religion worthless FOR US…but it can make our religion worthless FOR THE WORLD.

Our words…for so many people, can “make it or break it” when it comes to Christianity.  The way that we speak has a direct impact on how they view God.  How they view the church.  How they view what it is we do and who we are.

And let me be clear…I’m not talking about how often we evangelize.  That’s not what is in James’ mind here, nor mine, though of course we SHOULD evangelize.

But Kevin DeYoung, a name you might recognize - he’s a Reformed pastor, professor, and author…Kevin DeYoung puts this in such a simple and yet powerful way.

He says, and he’s writing about social media, but it could apply to in-person speech as well…he gives a few questions to ask ourselves before we say something.  Before we post something.

Question 1: Am I making it harder for all sorts of people to hear what I have to say about more important matters?

Does my passionate stance on this minor thing negatively or positively impact my passionate stance on more major things?  Have I pushed people away by what I say about the government, and then they aren’t around when I speak about God?

A good question.

Or what about this one?

Am I speaking on matters upon which I do not have special knowledge and for which no one needs my opinion?

Am I saying this because I want to be heard?  Am I speaking on this because I want people to think I’m widely knowledgeable?  Maybe I should listen a little more than I speak.

Or this one, that cuts right to the heart of it all

Am I animated more by what I am reading in Scripture or by what I am seeing on the news and in social media?

Do I talk louder and more passionately about political issues than spiritual ones?  Am I more on fire about Justin is doing…or what Jesus has done?

Your speech, your self-control…this is a direct picture of your heart.  You don’t need a CT scan to see your heart…you just need to listen to what you’re saying.  This will give you a pretty good picture of what’s going on down there.

Your speech can render your religion worthless for YOU and for THOSE WHO HEAR YOU.  Be careful.  Be cautious.  Be self-controlled.

But, as we heard, religion is not only relegated to the heart.  Christianity is not ONLY a relationship.  It involves head heart and hands.  In addition to self-control, we must also have social concern.  Our second point.

In our first point, we focused a lot on ourselves, and that’s fine.  Because religion is something personal.

Religion, true religion, is something between you and God.  But it’s not ONLY that.  True religion isn’t ONLY between you and God.

Religion is personal, but what we get wrong, is that we equate “personal” with “private.”

And those outside the church don’t make our confusion any better - they make everything worse.  They say: “you can be religious…but don’t let me see it!  You can have any view you want, I’m tolerant, I’m loving…but I don’t want to hear anything about it EVER.”

But…that's not the way it works…

DO NOT LET THE UNRELIGIOUS TRY TO DEFINE RELIGION FOR YOU.  It sounds so obvious, it sounds so ridiculous when you put it like that…but that’s what we have done, and so we are always on the defensive.

Christianity is something that we must share.  There’s no such thing as a silent Christian.  There is no such thing as a hidden Christian.  There is no such thing as a light under a bushel.  A light under a bushel is no light at all, but simply a smoking ruin - what remains of a once burning light.

And you might be strapping yourself in now for another call to evangelism…but that’s not what our text says, and that’s not what I’m going to say.  Evangelism IS wonderful, evangelism IS necessary…but what does James, our very practical writer say next?

Verse 26 - Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction

One of the ways to share our religion, one of the BEST WAYS, is to show social concern.  To have GENUINE SOCIAL CONCERN.

To care for those who are downtrodden.  To visit the orphans and the widows.  To visit the fatherless, the poor, the oppressed, those society has no use for.

THIS is the HANDS of true religion.  And remember, without all three parts…true religion simply crumbles.

We must show genuine social concern…first of all, because it is PURELY KIND.

We must always try to be NICE, but we must never fail to be KIND.  Kindness is tenderness and compassion rolled into one.

When we are NICE, we offer little more than a smile and then we walk away.

But when we are KIND, we open ourselves up to the life of the other.  Job’s friends (before they opened their mouths) were a good example of kindness.  They saw their friend was in deep distress, and then came to him.  In person.  They didn’t send a text message or a get well soon card, they made the trek to sit with him in person.

They tore their clothes, they wept, they sprinkled dust on their heads and sat on the ground with him in silence for 7 full days.

This is kindness.  To not cooly dismiss the concerns of another, not protecting your own heart, but truly trying to understand, opening yourself up to the pain and difficulty of the other person, getting down on their level, and then doing what you can to improve their situation.

And we see an example of this kindness built into the very structure of our church…and it’s not who you would immediately first think.

Your mind might jump to the volunteers at the local community kitchen.  To those who walk on the coldest night of the year.  And all of these are wonderful examples too…but it’s something even more fundamental…the deacons.

Look to the deacons to see what true religion is all about.  So much of the time, the deacons are working in the background…what most of us see is men collecting money, walking up and down the aisles.  But the calling of a deacon is so much more.

This is what our form for the ordination of deacons says - The Lord impressed upon His people Israel the obligation to show mercy to the needy.  God repeatedly commanded that the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow might eat within their towns and be filled.  In the old dispensation, the needy and suffering were protected and provided for by God’s fatherly love.  His ordinances taught the covenant people to imitate that love as beloved children.

When you want to see what true religion looks like…when you want to see what pure and undefiled religion looks like…don’t look first to the minister.  Don’t look first to the elders.  I know that’s where our mind tends to jump.  But look first to the deacons.

Deacons don’t just work on Sundays, collecting money in a bag.  Though this is the most visible thing that they do, it is the least important.  Because, though many of us never know it, the deacons go from house to house, visiting orphans and widows in distress.

The deacons go with open and tender hearts, looking for those who are struggling, so that they can show them kindness.  So that they can relieve distress and difficulty.

And so, deacons, from the pulpit, right now, I would like to offer you my sincere thanks for showing me, and the rest of us, what true religion looks like.  Thank you for your service to God, and your light to us.

We must never think that deacons are inferior to the other offices in the church.  That being a deacon is a stepping stone to becoming an elder.  That is completely false and completely offensive - to the deacons, to the church, and to God.

For what did we read in the form just now?

In the old dispensation, the needy and suffering were protected and provided for by God’s fatherly love.

We are to show genuine social concern, because it is purely kind…and also, because it is God-like.

We must do this because GOD does this.

Social concern is God-like.

Now, those who scoff at religion will take this and run with it.  Social concern is God-like?  Then why isn’t He doing anything about it?

What about the countless children who are suffering in the Middle East?  What about the women here in Canada who are trading sexual favors for drugs?  The widows and orphans…God doesn’t seem to care about them at all!

Suffering in this world has become little more than a weapon for non-Christians to wield at Christians.  Suffering has become little more than a hurdle for Christians to jump over.  Oh, the problem of suffering…let’s sit in our leather-backed chairs and discuss the philosophy behind all of this.

But let me challenge you here…when you hear about suffering in this world…whether it is those who suffer overseas, or those who suffer right down the street…by all means, get down on your knees before God and cry out.  But don’t go from your knees to your armchair.  Don’t go from prayer to philosophizing.  Go instead…OUT INTO THE WORLD!

Stop asking “Why would a loving God not step in?” and ask yourself “Why would I as a loving Christian, as a member of Christ’s body, not step in?”

Why isn’t God doing anything?

     HE IS!  God is doing amazing things, so many of them directly and behind the scenes, giving hope, giving life, giving strength.

Why isn’t God doing anything?

     HE IS!  God has commissioned His church to do these things.  God has called YOU to be His hands in this world.

And don’t throw it all back on the deacons…they are a picture of true religion, but they aren’t meant to do it alone.  Instead of looking at the deacons and giving them a round of applause, we should look at the deacons and say, “I WANT TO DO THAT!”  I want to be like you!

Because this is true religion!  This is who we are called to be!  We BEAR THE NAME OF CHRIST as Christians…how can we think that it is acceptable to not act like Him?  We must act as our God acts - protecting the strangers, sustaining the orphans and the widows.

True religion involves self-control, social concern, and finally, spiritual caution.  Our third point.

Now this point will be very brief, as spiritual caution is something that we are pretty good at, I think.  Or, at least, this is something that we hear of quite often from the pulpit.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

This is, typically, what we view as religion.  This is the HEAD of religion, and this is what society has such an issue with.

Because religious people don’t buy into every fad, because religious people haven’t adjusted to society in terms of sexual ethics, or, because we haven’t used our pulpits to proclaim the slogans of this world, bringing in politics and covid and systemic racism…the world thinks that we are out of touch.  The world thinks that we are old-fashioned and backwards and judgemental.

If religion is to survive, they say, if religion is to survive, you have to relax, you have to go with the flow, you have to change to meet the needs of society.

     If you don’t bow down at the altar of transgenderism and proclaim that men can be women…you won’t make it.

     If you don’t bow down at the altar of abortion and proclaim my body my choice…you won’t make it.

     If you don’t bow down at the altar of consumerism, of free love, or any of these things…you won’t make it.

To repeat a point I made earlier…when we listen to garbage like this…we are allowing the unreligious to define religion for us.

“It won’t last!”

Well…Christianity has lasted. Christianity has survived…the Roman empire, who killed our Saviour and tried to systematically destroy all His followers.

Christianity has survived the Dark Ages, when disease and war and famine and corruption destroyed so much of Europe, not to mention the abuses that began to grow in the Catholic church.  Attacked from inside and outside…but still we persisted.

Christianity survived Renaissance Humanism with their focus on moral autonomy, with the focus being dragged down to earth, and the human ability to better themselves without God.

Christianity survived the Reformation, when the church split into so many tiny fragments, searching for truth and faithfulness.

Christianity survived the Enlightenment, which was Humanism magnified a hundred-fold.

Christianity has survived the Modern Era, when a Creator was traded in for Evolution, when science and archaeology claimed that they disproved the existence of God.

And Christianity will survive this Post-Modern Era, where feelings are facts, and opinion is King.  Where victimhood is social currency, and religious tolerance extends everywhere except for Christians.

WE WILL SURVIVE, and we do not have to allow ourselves to be polluted by the world for this to happen.  Because we are on the side of truth.  We are on the side of reality…and reality will always win.

And so, as defenders of religion, as lovers of true religion and everything it stands for…we must stay pure.  We must stay pure in our doctrine - sitting UNDER the Word instead of OVER it.  Not twisting and corrupting Scripture for our own ends, but allowing ourselves to be transformed by it.

We must stay pure in our speech - being a light of truth in the darkness of this world, revealing a beautiful and loving heart.

And we must stay pure in our social concern - truly being the hands of kindness, truly being the hands of God to those who are suffering.

This is what is means to be religious…and I am not ashamed to say it…I AM RELIGIOUS.  Christianity isn’t simply spirituality.  Christianity isn’t simply a relationship.  Christianity is a religion, and it is far greater than anything this world has to offer.

Whatever the cost, beloved, we must hold on to what is true, to what is good, and to what is beautiful.  We must have, hold, and defend true religion.


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Jeremy Segstro, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright, Rev. Jeremy Segstro

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