Rounding Up the Strays

James 5:19-20

The sheriff called it nothing short of a miracle.
Leia and Caroline Carrico had been found in the woods 44 hours after they took a wrong trail and got lost. Over 250 people descended on the remote and heavily wooded region near their home in Benbow, in Humboldt County in Northern California. Leia, 8, and 5-year-old Caroline were found a little over a mile from their home, hunkered down under a huckleberry bush.
Footprints led them to the little girls
The girls said they had been following a deer trail when they got lost and decided to stay put. They survived by drinking fresh water from leaves. Leia described the long wait for rescue this way:
My sister cried the whole night and I told her to keep happy thoughts of our family. Caroline slept a little, but I kept watch on both nights.
The search team included law enforcement and military personnel. Using track-scenting dogs and helicopters to help search the rugged terrain, they found footprints that eventually led them to the girls.
After 44 hours Leia and Caroline were found safe and sound and returned to their parents. Describing the danger the girls were in, one official said this:
An 8 and a 5-year-old were by themselves in the woods, in the middle of cougar country, with bears and everything. We were stressed. We were concerned. It was palpable. (From the North Coast Journal.)
It’s easy to see how it happened. The girls took the wrong trail and got lost. Thankfully, they were found in time, and a story that could have resulted in tragedy instead had a happy ending.
It's easy to end up on a wrong trail
It’s easy for any of us to end up on the wrong trail. Sometimes it happens by accident, and sometimes we make foolish decisions that lead us to a dangerous place. When we wander off the path, will anyone come after us? If they do, will they get to us in time?
James is thinking about these questions as he comes to the end of his epistle. His letter seems to end abruptly. There are no final words of love, no fond farewells, no encouraging comments. Instead, he wraps up his letter with a warning, a challenge, and a promise. Let’s pay close attention to his words because one day we may find ourselves far off the trail, and we need someone to come for us. Or our Christian friends may wander away. Will we care enough to go after them?

The Danger Described

“My brothers, if any among you strays from the truth” (v.19a).
First, this is a warning to Christians. James writes to “my brothers,” referring to fellow believers. He uses the term “brothers” 15 times in this epistle, and each time it refers to the followers of Christ.
Second, this is a warning to every Christian. He says “if anyone” should stray. James isn’t aiming his words at a subset of his readers. He means for all of them—and all of us—to take his words seriously.
Anyone can stray at any time
Third, this is a warning against straying from the truth. The Greek term is related to the English word “planet.” Just as the planets wander through the skies, believers may wander away from the truth. Some have suggested James is thinking about moral or ethical lapses in a believer’s life, and not about theological error. But I doubt those two things can be separated. Good theology ought to lead to good living. Bad theology opens the door to bad behavior.
Perhaps the key to all this is the word “strays,” which is sometimes translated as “wanders” or “slips away” or “loses his way.” Those word pictures suggest something that happens unintentionally, like the two little girls who somehow got lost in the forest. When they left home, they intended to stay on the trail, but they took a wrong turn and went down the wrong path and ended up lost. I’ve known people who drifted away from the faith, but I’ve never known anyone who did it intentionally. It’s hard to imagine someone waking up and saying, “Today I’m going to ruin my life.” Perhaps there are people like that, but those folks are not in view in this verse. James is thinking about brothers and sisters who once fellowshipped with us around the Lord’s Table, but something happened, and now they are gone. Not only are they not in our church; they’re not in anyone’s church. They have wandered off the path of Christian fellowship.
This could happen to any of us. As a familiar hymn says:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it.
Prone to leave the God I love.
Sometimes people drift away because of disappointment with God. Very often the biggest barrier to faith is life itself. People may give up on God because they feel he has wounded them and can no longer be trusted. When you pray for your marriage to be saved, only to watch your husband leave you for a younger woman, that can cause you to question everything you believe. The same thing can happen when a child dies, or when you face false accusations, or when you lose everything you own. Because life can be terribly hard, we shouldn’t be surprised when some people can’t put on a happy face and come to church with us on Sunday morning. I do not say that to justify anything, only to observe that these things happen, and sometimes they happen to people we call “good Christians.”
Will you walk away?
Galatians 6:1 offers another scenario: “If someone is caught in any wrongdoing.” The word “caught” was used for a bird or an animal caught in a trap. It describes a believer who has been suddenly overcome by some temptation. Peter offers a perfect example. After boasting he would never desert the Lord, he ended up denying him three times. This verse pictures a believer whose leg is caught in a trap of sin. The bone is broken, and the person has no hope of escape. What will you do when you hear your brother crying for help? Will you walk away? Or will you try to help?
Let me make a pointed application. We are all just one stupid mistake away from ruining our lives. It doesn’t take much: one phone call, one email, one foolish comment, one reckless action, one thoughtless deed, one dumb mistake, one angry reaction. We’ve all been there. We said something, we did something, we went somewhere we had no business going, we replied to a text we should have ignored, we got into a fight with someone who fights better than we do. On and on it goes.
Don't think this doesn't apply to you
Don’t think this verse doesn’t apply to you. Our worst mistake would be reading this text and saying, “Oh, I know who James is talking about.” Don’t be so sure, my friend. Before you point your finger, look in the mirror. He might be talking about you.
Harry Bollback tells the story of a conversation he had with Dr. Lehman Strauss, a beloved Bible teacher, near the end of his life. Dr. Strauss asked Harry to pray that he might finish well because he had seen so many men make shipwreck of their ministry through foolish choices. When Harry asked if he had anything specific in mind, Dr. Strauss said no, but he was thinking of 1 Corinthians 10:11, “Whoever thinks he stands must be careful not to fall.” Dr. Strauss commented that only those who are standing can fall. That’s why he asked for prayer. I commend that attitude to you, and I commend it to myself. We need to take these warnings seriously.
Before we move on, we ought to ask ourselves how we respond when we see a brother or sister wandering away from the truth. Are we glad? Do we gloat? Or do we care enough to get involved? Perhaps the real danger is being so busy that we don’t even see our brother or sister wandering away. One day we turn around, and they are nowhere to be found. What happened? No one seems to know. We shrug and go back to our business.
But James has something else in mind for us.

The Rescue Required

“And someone turns him back” (v. 19b).
The phrase “turns him back” is sometimes translated “convert.” It has the idea of seeing someone speeding down a dark road late at night. They are heading for their own destruction because they don’t know the bridge is out. Inside the car, people are laughing and talking and playing music, little knowing they will soon be dead. But you know! So you set up a roadblock, you flash your lights, you stand in the way so they will have to stop or run you over. You scream and shout and wave your arms. You do it because you are the only thing standing between them and death.
If you belong to Jesus, you are a member of God’s Search-and-Rescue Team.
Will they stop?
No one knows. Perhaps they won’t even see you, or perhaps they will think you are some nut in the darkness and go speeding by. But if you can get them to stop and listen, perhaps you can turn them around. If you do, you have saved them from death.
Who is qualified to do this? James uses two very general terms to describe those who wander away and those who bring them back. He says, “If anyone strays … and someone brings them back.” Anyone can stray, and anyone can bring the stray back home. He doesn’t limit this to the pastor or the elders or other church leaders. The ministry of search-and-rescue belongs to the whole body of Christ. There are some people the pastor can’t reach. The elders can’t rescue everyone. No, this is a job for every believer. If you belong to Jesus, you are a member of God’s Search-and-Rescue Team.
There is such a thing as an "unconverted" Christian
We must go to them because they have gotten lost and followed the wrong trail, and they will not find their way back on their own. Have you ever tried to stop someone you loved from doing something really stupid? It may have been a foolish choice, a dumb business move, or it might have been a relationship that was obviously bad for them. Perhaps you saw a friend starting to be unfaithful in marriage, or perhaps that person wanted a divorce for a trivial reason. Or you could see them slipping into alcohol or drug abuse. Or you realized their anger was out of control. Whatever it was, you tried to step in and help them see the light. You wanted to save them from making a terrible mistake. To make matters worse, you could see it, but they couldn’t. No matter how much you talked or pleaded or argued or yelled or reasoned with them, they just didn’t get it. I suppose all of us have been there.
The conversation might go like this:
“Get out of my life.”
“I’m only trying to help you.”
“If you want to help me, leave me alone.”
“I’m your friend.”
“You’re no friend if you act like that.”
What do you do when the people you love reject your advice and get angry when you try to talk to them? If you say nothing, things will get worse. But if you say something, things may get worse anyway. In that situation, it’s easy to write people off: “Go ahead. Be a fool. Jump off that cliff. See if I care. I warned you. I hope you hit the bottom hard, so it knocks some sense into your head.” You say that and then you shake the dust off your feet and move on down the road.
This is not easy work
I am only pointing out that it will not be easy to do what James is asking us to do. He is not suggesting our efforts will always be crowned with success. Not everyone will love us when we try to turn them back to the truth. But that is not the issue in this passage. The question is, will we care enough to get involved?
When Jesus spoke to Peter in the Upper Room, he predicted both his coming fall and his eventual restoration: “Simon, Simon, look out! Satan has asked to sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And you, when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). Pay attention to these words: “When you have turned back.” It’s the same verb found in James 5:19. The King James Version says, “But when you are converted.” Some people have stumbled over that statement, but I think it is accurate. It is possible to be an unconverted Christian. I didn’t say “unsaved,” I said, “unconverted.” Peter was saved, but in some deep sense he was not yet fully converted to the Master’s use, and that explains his tragic failure. True believers may stray far from the Lord, and when they do, they need to be turned back (converted!) to the Lord. That’s the meaning of James 5:19.

The Pardon Promised

“Let him know that whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his life from death and cover a multitude of sins” (v. 20).
This verse contains lots of good news. James wants us to know that by God’s grace we can turn a sinner “from the error of his way.” We can help our brothers and sisters get right with God. And they can bring us back to the Lord when we stray away.
When we bring a believer back to the Lord, we save their life from death. The word “death” stands for literal, physical death, and it stands for all the ugly consequences of remaining in sin. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). That’s always true. By bringing them back to the Lord, we save them from an early funeral.
We save them from an early funeral
Finally, we “cover a multitude of sins.” Here is the best news of all. The image of covering sin looks back to the Day of Atonement, which the Jewish readers in the first century would certainly understand. To atone means to cover so that the sins are gone forever. Where sin is covered, all guilt is gone.
I have talked to people who thought their sin was so horrible that God could not forgive it. In those moments when guilt overwhelms us, we must decide what we believe about Jesus and his death on the cross. When he cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:30), did he mean it? Is his blood enough to cover all your sins? I love the words of Corrie ten Boom: “There is no pit so deep that the love of God is not deeper still.”
“There is no pit so deep that the love of God is not deeper still.”
We can say to our straying friends, “If you come back, all will be forgiven, all your sins will be covered by the blood of Jesus, and you will be completely restored.”
Let’s wrap up by thinking about the two little girls who were lost in the woods for 44 hours. The rescue team spent hundreds of hours looking for them. They searched in all directions, followed every clue, and never gave up. What the sheriff called a miracle was the result of a vast number of people working together, side by side, all with the same goal in mind: to find those little girls and bring them back alive.
They had no guarantee.
They did not know if they would find them.
They did not know their condition if they found them.
The story could have had a different ending. But hundreds of people went out searching, and they never gave up. They believed it was worth the time and the money and the effort. In the end, they were rewarded when they found those little girls safe and sound.
We must go after the strays in the name of the Lord
What the rescue workers did for the little girls, we must do for each other. We must not say, “It doesn’t matter” or “Someone else will do it” or “They deserve what they get.” If we love our brothers and sisters who go astray, we must go after them in the name of the Lord. There are no guarantees about how they will respond, but if we don’t go, how will they ever find their way back to the Lord?
We come again and again to moments of decision where we must decide whether to get personally involved. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). That’s what Jesus did when he died on the cross, paying the price for our sins, taking the death we should have died, turning away God’s wrath, setting us free, and giving us eternal life. There is no greater love than this. If Jesus left heaven for us, can we not leave our comfort zone to reach out to those who have gone astray?
Lord Jesus, forgive us for our callous indifference to the hurting people we see every day. Make us burden-bearers who are not ashamed to help those who struggle under a heavy load. Help us reach out to those who have gone astray that we might win them back to you. Amen.

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