Sermon by Pastor Tom Brown · Oct 15, 2023

If were to walk in late to this service and tell you that I was late because I was just hit by a 20 ton semi truck while walking across the street, what would you think?

You wouldn’t believe me because a face-to-face encounter with a moving semi-truck will leave a mark on a person.

Isn’t the same true of a face-to-face encounter with the God of the universe?

That kind of thing changes a person.

Turn with me to James 1:27.

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.

True Religion 

The word religion is a mixed bag in our world.

Many people today will tell you that they are spiritual, but not religious. They want to avoid the negativity associated with religion. Many think of religion as a system of rules and rituals designed to separate a person from the world and make them an insider among the holy. This kind of religion conjures negative images of hypocrisy, judgment and division.

That’s not what James had in mind when he used the word.

In the Greek, the word is thrēskeia: worship, as expressed in ritual acts.

For James, religion is worship.

“Worship is the proper response of all moral, sentient beings to God, ascribing all honor and worth to their Creator-God precisely because he is worthy, delightfully so.” -D.A. Carson

Everybody worship something, whether you are religious or irreligious.

In a broad sense, religious is “the ascribing of highest worth. Whatever you value or love the most—whatever is your greatest source of significance and security—you are worshipping in your heart” – Tim Keller

It is the “obedient action motivated by the beauty of who God is in himself.”

The right of definition resides in the one being worshipped. 

When you say, “to me religion, should be . . . “, that is great, as long as you are the one being worshipped.

But if we are worshipping a living reality, we can’t talk like that. We must say, “to God, religion is . . .”

We must, because God is the father.

  • He is the source of all things – as creator, he is the father of everything.
  • He is the head of a family – he is adopting sons and daughters into an eternal family.

Because of his supreme glory as creator and because of his gracious love as father, he is worthy of the right of definition.

So we don’t say, “to me church should be . . .”

We say, “as best as I understand it, to God church should be . . .”


“If what you call your “faith” in Christ does not involve taking the slightest notice of what He says then it is not Faith at all—Not faith of trust in Him, but only intellectual acceptance of some theory about Him.”

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity


True Religion in James 

Some important aspects of religion as seen from God’s vantage point are revealed to us in John 1:26-27.

Much of what goes as religion is undesirable in God’s sight.

For example:

Verse 26.

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

There is worthless religion. And there is true religion.

To God religion should be pure and undefiled.

Pure comes from the Greek word katharos: without mixture and therefore clean.

Undefiled comes from the Greek amiantos: without stain.

What does religion that is pure and undefiled look like?

In an explanation that is not exhaustive, but contains important elements, James gives us two marks of pure and undefiled religion.

  1. Visit orphans and widows in their distress.
  2. Keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Orphans and widows are mentioned together 31 times in the Old Testament. Many of those references include a third category – the refugee.

For example:


He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.

Deuteronomy 10:18


What do they have in common? 

All three have experienced a loss that severely impacts their quality of life.

A widow has lost the protection, provision and comfort of a husband.

An orphan has lost the protection, provision and comfort of parents.

A refugee has lost the protection, provision and comfort of homeland.

Husband, parents, homeland – these define much of our sense of identity, to lose any of them is a disorienting and tragic loss.

What does the Bible say about the widow, the orphan and the refugee?

Don’t harm them or take advantage of them. 


“You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child.”

Exodus 22:21-22


Don’t deny them justice. 


“You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge,

Deuteronomy 24:17


Provide for them. 


10 Then you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the Lord your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the Lord your God blesses you. 11 And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your towns, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you, at the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell there. 12 You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt; and you shall be careful to observe these statutes.

Deuteronomy 16:10-12


Why? What is behind these commands? 

The golden rule. Remember you were a refugee . . .

But more than that.

God loves them.


Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God settles the solitary in a home.

Psalm 68:5-6a


He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.

Deuteronomy 10:18


God takes them on as his concern.

There will be judgment for those who cause, increase or ignore the needs of the vulnerable. 


Do not move an ancient landmark or enter the fields of the fatherless, for their Redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you.

Proverbs 23:10


Those who lack protections, provisions and comforts. Those who lack the means to take care of themselves. Today that includes foster kids, refugees, disabled people, war vets and the poor.

If we want to know what God considers as authentic and pure worship here’s one answer:

Look after those who lack the ordinary means of protection, provision and comfort.

God loves them.

How does God take care of them?

By asking you to keep an eye on them.

He expects us to visit. The word here is episkeptomai: to inspect, to go see.

This is the opposite of our natural inclination.

When God appears to Cain and asks him where his brother is, Cain replies, “am I my brother’s keeper?”

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus tells a story of a man who has been mugged and left severely injured on the side of the road. Two different men, respected leaders, pass by on the opposite side of the road, turning their eyes. A third man, an outcast, sees the body on the road and stops to inspect, to go see the man.

A mark of true worship is an inclination to go see those who are suffering.

To check on them. To go out of my way to see how they are doing.

Jesus calls that mercy.

In the Old Testament, God told the people of Israel who he had rescued from their displacement and enslavement in a foreign country to care for refugees because they had been cared for in their need.

The New Testament gives an even greater pressure, a greater impulse to care for the vulnerable.

Gospel Change 

The only way we can live up to that is through the grace of the gospel.

If religion is what many people think it is, a list of rituals and rules I follow that make me better and separate from the unclean world – I have earned a place of separation, I’m set.

If religious is what Jesus says it is -the rituals and rules that Jesus successfully followed in order to save the unclean world (including me) – I haven’t earned anything. I am simply an undeserving object of mercy.

I’m stuck in my sin – without protection, provision or comfort. I’m completely vulnerable. Completely dependent on someone else to help me.

The more I understand and accept that, the more I love that mercy.

The more I love that mercy that flows from Jesus wounds into my heart, the more I want to pass it along to others.

To worship God is to do what pleases him.

What pleases God is to take care of orphans and widows.

This kind of religion is beautiful.

It is the religion that caused George Muller to open an orphanage and devote his life to caring for the needs of tens of thousands of children.

It is the religion that moved Katie Davis, a young single missionary in Uganda to adopt 13 young girls as her own.

It is the religion that has transformed those in our church family who are setting up homes for refugees from Afghanistan, teaching English at the IRC, fostering and adopting kids, collecting donations for wounded vets, serving the disabled at Freedom Hooves Therapeutic riding center.

This call to compassionate religion is not James laying a heavy burden on our shoulders.

It is him reaching into our hearts, opening up a valve and releasing the flow of God’s merciful love into the our world.

Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown