Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 19, 2021
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a Commentary
My friend whom I’ll call Wayne is struggling to submit to God (4:7) right now. In fact, that struggle has produced a fairly deep crisis of faith in him. Yet to Wayne’s credit, he’s honest enough to share that struggle with me as well as seek my help in becoming more submissive to God.
Wayne recently told me, “If God isn’t good, then I don’t want to submit to him, even if lands me in hell.” In addition to startling me, his assertion made me ask myself, and eventually him, questions like, “How do you understand God’s goodness?” and “How do you understand submitting to God?”
Wayne’s understanding of God’s “goodness” largely revolves around God’s gift of eternal life. His questions about the fate of those who have never heard the gospel are part of his exploration of God’s basic goodness. Wayne can’t understand how a good God would condemn anyone but a few particularly bad folks to everlasting punishment.
I have tried to unpack with Wayne a biblical definition of God’s goodness. It is as an ongoing project. But what both saddens and intrigues me is the link he has forged between his understanding of God’s goodness and his willingness to submit to God.
I must admit to an initial repulsion at what seems to be Wayne’s arrogance. Since he is young both in years and in his faith, I had to figuratively bite my tongue to keep me from saying, “You arrogant pup! Who are you to try to tell the eternal Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of heaven and earth what is ‘good’ and what is unjust?” But the Holy Spirit won the battle for my tongue (that time at least!). So I simply asked him what he thinks divine “goodness” might look like.
My conversation with Wayne got me to thinking about James call to “submit” ourselves “to God” (4:7). It particularly struck me that none of us naturally want to submit to God. Whether we’re 19 or 96, we want to choose who will be our lord. Since we naturally assume that we know better than anyone else what is good, we also assume we should be our own masters who submit only to our own insights and judgments.
Christians confess, however, that sin so affects every part of us that is also stains our moral judgments. While God created our first parents for joyful and loving submission to God’s will, they chose to submit to the evil one rather than God. They lost, among other things, the sense that voluntary submission to God is the straightest and shortest path to the shalom that God intends for both our neighbors and us. Our first parents’ children like Wayne, this Lesson’s proclaimers and I are still trying to find our way back to that road.
The God who creates and cares for us graciously calls us to back to that path of godliness. One way we walk it is by voluntarily submitting to the Lord. After all, it’s the way of life that most closely mirrors that for which God creates us.
Voluntary submission to God is, in fact, part of the “wisdom” (3:14, 17) with which God graces God’s adopted sons and daughters. Such wisdom is, as we’ve noted before, not the “intelligence” to which our culture generally links it. Wisdom is, instead, God’s gift of looking at God, the world, and our neighbors from God’s perspective. 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). After all, 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 don’t just, after all, naturally assume that we’re our own gods. We also naturally assume that we’re our neighbors’ superiors. Figuratively bowing before God requires the death of feelings of superiority and the resurrection of our view of our neighbors as those whom God creates in God’s image.
The rest of this Lectionary Epistle helps encourage its hearers to submit in that way. It insists that submission is not some ethereal principle. Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson may 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 priorities of the evil one, after all, reflect a kind of “wisdom” that our culture sometimes embraces, but is actually foolish in its “disorder and … evil practice” (3:16).
Nor is there room in submission to God for the perpetration of the kind of violence 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.
This week’s lesson from James’ proclaimers may want to consider and explore with their hearers how submission to God also involves a kind of submission to our neighbors. Those who submit to God don’t do things that harm our neighbors.
I think this speaks into the current debate over whether to wear masks. Some Christians choose not to do so because, at least in some cases, they question masks’ effectiveness. But what if Jesus’ friends who wish to submit to God asked a whole set of different questions about masks?
For example, how do I love my neighbor? Will my wearing of a mask make him or her if not safer, then at least more comfortable around me? Those who submit to God don’t first ask about our own rights. We relentlessly ask how we can more fully love our neighbors as much as ourselves.
Of course, proclaimers’ persistent fight against moralizing marches right through this week’s lesson. It is, after all, tempting to add James 3 and 4’s marks of wisdom and submission to a divine “honey-do list.” So this lesson’s proclaimers want to relentlessly ground our 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 checklist 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.
In chapter 3:18 James gives particular prominence to the submission to God that is “peacemaking.” It’s one of God’s attributes that a world that’s so deeply riven by conflict certainly desperately needs. But 3:18’s allusion to “sowing” peace suggests that 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 also 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 God’s adopted children until the day God draws us 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, consistently testify 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 God’s closeness of which submitting to God’s will makes us more aware.
In his book, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, Stephen Ambrose writes about Thomas Jefferson’s ambiguous relationship with slavery. Among other things, America’s second president seems to worry about the effect the demand for slaves’ submission would have on their owners’ children.
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!