Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 29, 2021
James 1:17-27 Commentary
I suspect that many of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers consider ourselves reasonably self-sufficient. At least some of us were raised in solid homes and received better-than-average formal educations. Many of us have good jobs that support comfortable lifestyles. Since we have worked hard to get where we are, we naturally see our current station in life as at least the result of our hard work.
Of course, Christians know, as James insists in verse 17, “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights.” Yet it is not easy to fully live out of that truth. It is easier and more natural for reasonably “successful” people to assume that we have gotten ourselves to where we are.
What is more, at least some of us also proclaim James 1 to fairly “successful” hearers. While God’s kingdom is made up of people from every place in life, including socio-economically, at least some of this Commentary’s readers speak to economically prosperous people. Not a few of our hearers may also assume they have at least largely gotten to where they are on their own. So, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might spend beneficial time exploring resistance to any sense of complete dependence on God for every good thing.
Of course, James is speaking primarily about Jesus’ friends’ complete dependence on God for the faithful obedience that the apostle describes in this Sunday’s Lesson. The good and perfect gifts that he describes are gifts of godliness and holiness that are an integral part of a faithful response to God’s good and perfect gift of salvation.
But Jesus’ friends’ sense of economic self-sufficiency easily spills over onto a sense of obedience “self-sufficiency.” We naturally suspect that, for example, we are quicker to listen than to speak and become angry (19) just because we work hard at being nice.
John Calvin spoke of God’s “double grace:” “By partaking of [Christ], 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, by leading into that claim of every good gift as coming from God by alluding to the suffering his letter’s readers are enduring, James may at least hint that misery threatens that sense of complete dependence. 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. Temptation is not one of God’s “good and perfect” gifts (17). It is instead, as James asserts here, the product of unchecked “evil desire” (15).
James 1’s proclaimers want to cultivate the love the apostle feels for those who read it. He addresses his readers in all times and places as his “dear brothers [and sisters]” (19). That suggests that he has a close relationship with his suffering first readers as well as. Even the apostle’s later use of almost harsh language with those to whom he writes may arise 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 Lectionary appoints for this Sunday by asserting that God’s gifts to God’s adopted sons and daughters include God’s choice to rescue God’s adopted children. God elected, he writes, “to give us birth through the words of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (18).
It is a claim James packs with theological riches that resonate with Scriptural images. The “birth” to which he 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. Yet, God does not just choose to rescue God’s adopted sons and daughters. God also graciously sanctifies us so that we may become, by the power of the Holy Spirit, increasingly like Jesus.
James’ list of the first three gifts of obedience which God gives God’s people involves our tongues. Hurry to listen, he insists, and slow down your speaking and becoming angry. Or as The Message so memorably paraphrases verse 19: “Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear.”
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might ask 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 it be because while 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 often far less noticeable and so far more treacherous?
What is more, as my colleague Stan Mast notes, when we spend all our time using our tongues to speak and express anger, we may have neither the time nor the ability to hear God’s Word of truth that gives life. That is especially important to remember for those who live in a noisy culture. So many voices and noises compete for our attention and affection. When we constantly join our own voices to that cacophony, James at least suggests, we cannot 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. There he insists that Christians’ failure to speak carefully and wisely contradicts our claims to follow Jesus. We may even be so busy talking that we fail to hear God’s gracious call to care for people who are vulnerable, as well as do justice in an often-unjust world.
But, of course, as the apostle adds in verses 22 and following, it is not enough to just listen to God speaking. That easily leads to the self-deception that is the assumption that God cares about our listening instead of also our obeying. God, insists James, did not graciously give God’s adopted children 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 grow in our obedience to the heart of the law that is fully loving God 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 way that those who merely listen to God’s Word are like people who forget what they look like right after seeing their image in a mirror. It is, of course, a ludicrous idea, unless something is seriously medically or emotionally wrong with a person.
We might compare hearing but not obeying God’s word to someone telling us we have a piece of spinach caught between our teeth. Even after someone points it out to you, you turn and walk around all day as if you never saw the embarrassing string. You never bother to pluck the spinach out of your teeth because you forgot it was even there.
Of course, hearing as well as obeying what we hear is also one of God’s good gifts to us. So, James’ “children’s message” about forgetting what we look like may say something about the ridiculousness of people’s natural state. Without God’s redeeming work, even God’s most mature beloved people are like stubborn toddlers because we naturally refuse to obey God’s word that we hear.
Yet this assertion is subject to the homiletic distortion that is moralizing. So, James 1’s proclaimers may want to end their presentation on it with a reminder that among God’s best gifts to God’s children is both the desire and power to look after widows and orphans in their distress, as well as to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world. This is not just a wonderful thing to do. It also closely mirrors God’s deep passion for society’s most vulnerable citizens.
The book Lee Sparks and Kathryn Hayes Sparks edited entitled, Craddock on the Craft of Preaching, quotes the master preacher 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 even constitutes the first stage of it]. The Bible does not 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 is ‘God dug out my ear.’ You don’t just listen—it takes an act of God to really listen (my italics).”
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