Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 23, 2018
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a Commentary
The scope of this Sunday’s Lectionary Epistle makes the lesson somewhat awkward. It, after all, spans parts of at least five paragraphs and two subject headings in most English Bible translations. This lesson also simply omits most translations’ second half of verse 8.
That awkwardness will leave at least some of us searching hard to discern one theme that overarches the lesson. Certainly both wisdom and division are prominent themes. But I’d suggest another central theme of this Sunday’s Lectionary lesson is “submission to God” (4:7).
Of course, preachers and teachers may want to be a bit cautious about publicizing that theme. I, for one, after all, can’t remember the last time I heard anyone use the term “submission” in any kind of positive way. At least some 21st century’s citizens think of submission as a barbaric practice that we wisely abandoned at least 40 year ago. We often connect submission to the kind of subservience that white males for all too long imposed on people who are female and/or black and/or materially poor.
That’s why it’s so important for those who proclaim this Lectionary Epistle to immediately emphasize the voluntary nature of the submission to which it summons us. The God whom we worship in Jesus Christ is not like some rich white man who imposes submission on us. Nor is God inviting us to do something that’s only good for God or God’s cronies.
The God who creates and cares for us graciously calls us to submit to the Lord because it’s the way of life that most closely mirrors that for which God creates us. Our first parents chose to submit to the evil one rather than God. Yet voluntary submission to God is the straightest and shortest path to the shalom that God intends for both our neighbors and us.
That voluntary submission to God is part of the “wisdom” (3:14, 17) that God shares with God’s adopted sons and daughters. Such wisdom is, as we’ve noted before, not the “intelligence” to which our culture generally links it. It isn’t even, as one scholar notes, sitting around thinking wise thoughts and saying smart things. Wisdom is, instead, God’s gift of looking at God, the world and our neighbors in a way that God looks at them. Such wisdom, in turn, prompts a certain way of living that includes submission to God.
Yet those who preach this week’s lesson from James will want to explore with hearers just what it means to “submit … to God” (4:7). We may want to note that it at least includes submitting the way we act, talk and think to God’s loving inspection. We might think about wisdom as somehow “running past God” every idea we have for an action, word and thought. Instead of asking what’s best for us, those who submit to God consider what God says is best for our neighbors and us.
Of course, submitting to God requires adopting a counter-cultural posture towards both God and our neighbors. We, after all, naturally assume that we’re our own gods. We don’t naturally bow ourselves before or submit to anyone but ourselves. We also naturally assume that we’re our neighbors’ superiors. Figuratively bowing before God requires the death of our feelings of superiority and the resurrection of our view of our neighbors as those whom God has created in God’s image just as much as God created us in that image.
The rest of this Lectionary Epistle helps shape that. It insists that submission is not some ethereal principle. Those who proclaim James 3 & 4 will want to quickly note that submitting ourselves to God especially concretely affects the way we talk to, act toward and think about our neighbors.
For example, there is, insists the apostle, no room in submission to God for “bitter envy and selfish ambition” as well as boasting or denying the truth (3:13). Those, after all, are the priorities of the evil one. They reflect a kind of “wisdom” that our culture and society sometimes embraces, but is actually foolish in its “disorder and … evil practice” (3:16). Nor is there room in submission to God for the kind of killing, coveting, quarreling and fighting that James grieves in chapter 4:2. Rather than building the kind of community for which God longs, things like envy, selfish ambition and boasting break down relationships.
Those who preach and teach this week’s lesson from James may want to consider and explore with their hearers how submission to God involves a kind of submission to our neighbors. Those who submit to God don’t do things that harm our neighbors. Nor do we long to have what our neighbors have that we don’t. Those who submit to God in one sense learn to be more and more content with both our well-to-do neighbors and what they have.
Of course, preachers and teachers’ relentless fight against moralizing marches right through this week’s lesson. It is, after all, very tempting to add James 3 and 4’s marks of wisdom and submission to Jesus’ followers’ laundry list of “shoulds” and “oughts.” So those who preach and teach this lesson will want to relentlessly ground their proclamation in the nature of both the God who gives it and the well-being of those who receive it.
That grounding becomes even more necessary when we read, study and proclaim the positive signs of submission to God. After all, the list of those attributes is even longer than our text’s list of acts of foolish rebellion against God and our neighbors. James 3:17 alone lists eight characteristics of those who submit to God. They’re “peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere [and] peacemakers who sow in peace.” Add to that 3:13 and 4:6’s calls to humility, as well as 4:2b-3’s invitations to proper prayer, and you have a moral laundry list that’s long enough to keep even the godliest person both hopping and feeling guilty.
Those who proclaim this week’s epistolary lesson won’t likely have enough time to extensively address each facet of submission to God that James lists in it. However, we might note some things about a few characteristics.
Among the most intriguing of James’ insights is “humility that comes from wisdom” (3:13). Those who are wise stand humbly before both God and our neighbors. We recognize that we are God’s creatures and that our neighbors also bear the precious image of God. Such humility leads to a life of service to God that in part manifests itself in service to our neighbors.
In chapter 3:18 James also gives particular prominence to the submission to God that is “peacemaking.” It’s one of God’s attributes that’s certainly desperately needed in a world that’s riven by so many conflicts. But 3:18’s allusion to “sowing” peace suggests that our work for peace may take a long time to provide a harvest. Those who are wise learn that peace generally comes only after much prayerful patience and work.
James ends this lesson on submission to God by asserting, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you” (4:8a). Neither assertion is particularly easy to understand. Satan and his henchmen, after all, relentlessly chase and tempt God’s children until the day God draws them into God’s eternal presence. The devil’s “flight” often seems temporary at best.
Nor is it particularly easy to know what James means when he says, “Come near to God and his will come near to you.” The Scriptures, after all, offer consistent testimony to God’s refusal to abandon God’s adopted sons and daughters for even a moment. But perhaps nearness, in light of what James say, refers to the kind of nearness that is the sense of both God’s joy over us and God’s closeness that submitting to God’s will makes us more aware of.
In his fascinating book, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, Stephen Ambrose writes about Thomas Jefferson’s uneasy relationship with slavery. Among other things, America’s second president seems to worry about the effect the demand for slaves’ submission would have on the children of their owners.
Ambrose notes that while Jefferson owned slaves, “no man knew better than Jefferson the price Virginia paid for slavery, most of all in what the system did to young [white] men. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he wrote: ‘The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and the most degrading submissions on the other.
‘Our children see this and learn to imitate it . . . If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave [whipping was generally accompanied by shouting and cursing and rage, all of it aiding the whipper in thinking that the slave deserved whatever he was getting], it should always be a sufficient motive that his children are present. But generally it is not sufficient.
‘The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.’ Jefferson knew whereof he wrote, and he knew no prodigies in this matter.”
Yet Jefferson didn’t live long enough to learn to submit to God in a way that allowed him to stop making slaves submit to him.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!