Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 2, 2018
James 1:17-27 Commentary
Those who dare to preach and teach James must be theologically disciplined. Its interpretation is, after all, perhaps more than that of any other epistle, if not any New Testament book, especially vulnerable to moralizing. Even a quick scan of contemporary sermons and writings reveals not just a love for the book, but also a stubborn temptation toward shrinking James into a shopping list of do’s and don’ts.
That’s why those preach and teach James 1 might firmly ground their presentations in verse 17’s: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” After all, that foundation helps preachers and teachers as well as our hearers see the obedience to which James 1 calls its readers as, among other things, one of God’s good gifts to God’s adopted sons and daughters.
In his August, 2015 Center for Excellence in Preaching Sermon Commentary on James 1, Stan Mast notes that John Calvin spoke of God’s “double grace.” “Christ was given to us by God’s generosity,” the Reformer wrote, “to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely that by being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a judge a gracious Father, and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s Spirit, we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life” (italics added). The epistolary lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday speaks to that “second” grace.
Of course, James leads into that claim of every good gift as coming from God by at least alluding to the suffering his letter’s readers are enduring. In chapter 1 he speaks extensively of “trials.” For example, in verse 2 he invites his readers to “Consider it all joy … whenever you face trials of many kinds.”
Yet James also asserts that none of the temptations that arise from those trials come from God. Just as God cannot be tempted, he insists, so God can’t tempt anyone. Temptation is, not after all, one of God’s “good and perfect” gifts (17). It is instead, at least James asserts here, the product of unchecked “evil desire” (15).
As we study James 1, preachers and teachers want to note and share the love the apostle feels for those who read it. James, after all, addresses his readers in all times and places as his “dear brothers [and sisters!]” (19). That suggests that has has some kind of relationship with his first readers as well as, by God’s grace and extension, with all who hear what he writes. James will later use strong, almost harsh language with those to whom he writes. Yet perhaps that arises from how much he both treasures them and longs for them to follow Jesus with not just their hearts, but also their obedience.
James begins the lesson the lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday by asserting that God’s gifts to God’s adopted sons and daughters include God’s choice to save us. God chose, says James, “to give us birth through the words of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (18).
It’s a claim that’s chock-full of theological riches that resonate with other Scriptural images. The “birth” to which James refers echoes Jesus’ call to Nicodemus to be born again (John 3:3-7). Talk about “firstfruits” reminds us of God’s invitation to God’s Israelite people to bring their first harvest, their best produce to the Lord. James uses those images to remind his readers that God graciously chose to give them new birth, to give them entry into God’s kingdom so that they might be a kind “first and best fruit” of God’s redeeming and sanctifying work.
Yet, of course, that’s not the only good gift God graciously shares with God’s people. God, after all, doesn’t just choose to justify us. God also graciously sanctifies God’s children so that we may become, by the power of the Holy Spirit, more and more like Jesus.
The first three gifts of obedience which God gives God’s people involve our tongues. Hurry to listen, James insists, and slow down your speaking and becoming angry. Or as The Message so beautifully and memorably paraphrases verse 19: “Post this at all intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear.”
James 1’s preachers and teachers might ask just why the apostle begins his description of God’s good gift of holiness and righteousness with the tongue. Why not begin, for example, with the heart, eyes, hands or feet? Might the apostle begin with the tongue because he’s seen how immoral and destructive uncontrolled tongues can be? The scars we inflict on each other with our hands and feet are visible and identifiable. The scars we cause each other with our tongues are far less noticeable and so, perhaps, far more insidious.
What’s more, as Mast notes, when we spend all of our time talking and getting angry, we may have neither the time nor the ability to hear God’s Word of truth that gives life. That’s important to remember for those who live in noisy places. So many voices, sounds and noises compete for our attention, affection and loyalty. If we’re constantly joining our own voices to that cacophony, James at least suggests, we’ll be unable to hear the full beauty of God’s truthful word.
In fact, the apostle views the control of our tongue as both so central to our life of faith and such a good gift that he returns to it in verse 26. We plan to think more about the tongue when we consider James 3 in a few weeks. But for now it’s perhaps enough to note that the apostle insists that our failure to speak carefully and judiciously belies our claims to follow Jesus. We may even be so busy talking that we fail to hear God’s gracious call to care for homeless and loveless people, as well as do justice in an often-unjust world.
But, of course, as the apostle adds in verses 22 and following, it’s not enough to just listen to God speaking. That, he points out, easily leads to the self-deception that is the assumption that God cares just about our listening instead of also our obeying. God, insists James, didn’t graciously give us new birth so that we could act like spiritual newborns the rest of our life. God has brought us into God’s kingdom so that we might gratefully respond by growing in our obedience to the heart of the law that is loving God above all with everything that we are, as well as loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves (which is a whole lot!).
In fact, the apostle goes on to point out in a vivid and provocative way that those who do nothing but listen to God’s Word are like people who forget what they look like right after seeing their image in a mirror. It’s, of course, an absolutely ludicrous idea, unless something is seriously medically or emotionally wrong with a person.
Hearing but not obeying God’s word is a bit like, says my colleague Scott Hoezee in his April 24, 2015 “Understanding Temptation,” in Groundwork, getting some chocolate frosting on your face while having desert. You see it when you look in a mirror, but then turn and walk around all day as if you never saw the embarrassing smudge. You never bother to wipe the chocolate off your face because you forgot it was even there.
Of course, not just hearing but also obeying what we hear is also one of God’s good gifts. So James’ vivid “children’s message” about forgetting what we look like says something about the ludicrousness of our natural state. Without God’s redeeming work, we’re ridiculous because we naturally refuse to obey God’s word that we hear.
Yet this assertion too is subject to the distortion that is moralizing. So those who preach and teach James 1 may want to end their presentation on it with a reminder that among God’s best gifts to God’s children is the both desire and power to look after widows and orphans in their distress, as well as to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world.
In the book Lee Sparks and Kathryn Hayes Sparks edited entitled, Craddock on the Craft of Preaching, they quote Fred Craddock as saying, “The Bible takes listening very seriously. The Bible term for ‘listening’ is translated most often as ‘obey’ [as if listening leads seamlessly to obedience, or maybe even constitutes the first stage of it]. The Bible doesn’t know the difference between ‘listen’ and ‘obey.’
“Listening is fundamental, but it is so hard to do. We have marvelous mechanisms for not listening. The Bible recognizes this. Recall that marvelous passage about the suffering servant in Isaiah 50:4b-5, ‘Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord opened my ear and I was not rebellious.’ The wording literally is ‘God dug out my ear.’ You don’t just listen—it takes an act of God to really listen.”
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