The Sixteenth Sunday After Trinity September 26, 2004
7, 27, 400, 412
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Dear Fellow Christians:
Life in this sinful world is treacherous, always shifting and unstable. Nothing temporal is ever completely reliable. You know this to be true, but God help us if we fail to acknowledge and appreciate this fact and if we fail to act upon this understanding. Since life on earth is so unstable we need a special place to center ourselves, a sure horizon on which to focus. We need something solid and permanent, a certain, unchanging point of reference and stability.
There is but one such place. That one sure, certain point of reference is now and always will be our unchanging Lord and his perfect Word. Here we can always find certainty in an uncertain world, confidence in a world of apprehension, serenity in the midst of anxiety.
We turn, therefore, once again this morning to a study of that Word of God. This morning we find some rock solid words that can give us not only certainty and comfort, but also the zeal and courage necessary to follow through on those words—to be doers of the Word and not hearers only. The text on which we will base our study this morning is found in the Epistle of James, the First Chapter:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. Of His own will He brought us forth by the Word of Truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures. So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted Word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
So far the perfect, holy, certain words of our God. Ingest these words. Make them your own, for they are indeed the words of life eternal. In reverent awe we therefore pray, “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth!”
Dear fellow servants of our Lord Jesus, recent television coverage of the Olympic Games in Athens brought to mind something that happened in the last Olympics from four years ago—specifically in the women’s all-around gymnastics competition. For some reason the greatest female gymnasts in the world were falling all over the mats in the vault competition. No one was sure just why until one of the young ladies complained to her coach that the vaulting horse just did not feel right. They measured, and to everyone’s consternation they found that it was set about 2″ below regulation. The reason so many gymnasts were faring so poorly was that they had lost their normal point of reference. When they came flying through the air, the horse was not where they expected to find it. It was two inches lower and it threw everything off. The results were catastrophic.
There were two lessons to be learned from that event. The first was that a constant, certain point of reference is absolutely vital in many different areas of life. The second and more subtle lesson had to do with continuing even in the face of failure or hardship. Some of the girls who had done poorly on the vault (before the error was discovered) gave up on later events because they believed themselves to be out of medal contention. When the height error on the vault was discovered and corrected, those who had already vaulted were given the option to do the event over. Those who had continued to do their best in the other events, despite the fact that they had considered themselves out of the running, fared well. The “do-over,” however, did little good for the quitters. Those who had given up and turned in half an effort in the other events lived to regret their half-hearted effort.
Which are you more like when hardships, disappointments, or setbacks are allowed to come into your life? Are you more likely to be a quitter or a learner? Your honest answer to this question has direct bearing on the lessons of our text for this morning. Hard times are allowed by our God to teach us, to strengthen us, and to draw us closer to himself. You know from your own personal experience that we tend to drift away during the good times and to walk closer and pray more regularly and fervently during the hard times. Through it all we struggle for consistency—a consistently close walk with our Lord Jesus. To do this we need that center, a point of reference and anchor. We need that rock solid spot of confidence.
Here is where our text comes in. You will notice that our text is divided into two distinct parts. The first forms the solid center, the second is that which extends outward from the solid base or center.
Our text begins: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. Of His own will He brought us forth by the Word of Truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.” [vv.17-18] What a stark contrast between God and man! The greatest contrast, of course, is the perfect consistency of our God compared to the despicable inconsistency of man. Take a look at these words again. Directly or by inference these words describe God in terms of always and every. Our God is always good, always perfect, always generous. He is the giver of every good gift. Our God is always the same and always desires our salvation. He is always holy, always pure.
Now let’s try these attributes on ourselves. See how they fit. Are we always anything that is good? We certainly fail miserably in the areas of goodness, perfection, and generosity. Are we consistently holy and clean? Hardly. We have soiled ourselves with the same filth in which the world wallows. We have exposed ourselves to the perversion of Hollywood to the point that we no longer wince at the debauchery. Surely James could have had any one of us in mind when he wrote in the third chapter of this same letter, “Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:10).
Yet, the center or solid ground of our text relies not on us but on our God. Everything else is shifting and uncertain. God is not. Our text assures us that the very same God who never changes (“with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning”) is the same one who “of His own will brought us forth by the Word of Truth.” Understand well these words and make certain that you grasp their significance. We live in a world where feelings and love seem to come and go on a whim. We live in a world where husbands suddenly stop loving their wives, and where wives suddenly decide to seek love with other men. We live in a world where mothers murder their children—born and unborn—and children murder their parents. Nothing at all seems certain, until we look to God and His Word. Ours is the God that does not change. Understand what this means as far as the Gospel is concerned! This means that the same God who loved us enough to call us to faith in the first place (“…brought us forth by the Word of Truth”) is not about to change His mind about His love for us. Such a thing would be fickle and our God is anything but fickle. The very same God who freely sacrificed His Son, Jesus, for us is not about to lose interest and turn away from us. So also He Himself tells us in His Word: “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).
Here is our solid center, our point of security and confidence. It is built on God’s fidelity, God’s consistency, God’s unchanging love for us. There is no shadow of change possible—not with a perfect God! That same God has declared the debt of all sin to be paid in full by the perfect life and innocent death of His Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. God has promised! God does not change. Our sins stand forgiven. Heaven has been won for us.
This, as we said, is the first and greatest half of our text. Yet, like the solid hub of a wheel has spokes that extend outward, here too there are “spokes” of truth that extend outward from the hub. The Holy Spirit through James builds upon this solid rock in the second half of our text. There we read, “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” [vv.19-22]
Each week here we gather together around the Word of God, our solid foundation. But each week we also have to go back out into a world of deceit and uncertainty, of shifting morality and vacillating fidelity. So it is that our text centers us on our Savior God, but then gives us guidance as we move back out into the shifting and insecure world in which we must live. The lessons are both practical and necessary.
James begins by saying simply, “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Oh how we wish we could find some consistency in this area! For the most part we are just the opposite. We are quick to open our mouths, quick to get angry, slow to listen, and even slower to actually hear and understand. Everything that we do in this life is supposed to have the effect of drawing others back to the solid center of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Anger, our text tells us, doesn’t get the job done. Neither do “filthiness” or “the overflow of wickedness.” These things never build up the Child of God, never turn him to the solid center, never direct others to Jesus Christ.
No one has to tell us what God the Holy Spirit is talking about when he mentions “filthiness” and “the overflow of wickedness.” We all know full well and without any doubt if we only listen carefully to the conscience our merciful Father has created in us. It is the same conscience that struggles to warn us of the compounding dangers of this world’s filth. The antidote, our text assures us, is “the implanted Word, which is able to save your souls.” What a striking contrast between the unstable perversion of the world and the pure, perfect stability of the Word of God.
Finally, our text tells us to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” Promises that are not kept are nothing more than mindless chatter. Words that are not heard and heeded are just words and are of benefit to no one. The words of our Savior God are much more than that for us. Let no one among us imagine that a head faith that bears no fruit is God’s idea of model Christianity. Our God has called us to a living and active faith, filled with love for our God and for our neighbor. One of the main points of James’ entire Epistle is to drive home the fact that true and living faith will, without fail, produce good works. A faith that is completely devoid of good works is really no faith at all. It is a dead or “head faith”—a fiction, an illusion, a hypocritical lie.
If we are honest with ourselves—truly honest—every single one of us must admit that there are times when we wonder about our own faith and our own dedication to the Lord who saved us. There are times when we ourselves wonder if ours is only a head faith. These doubts or questions come because we almost always know the right thing to do—and we acknowledge the rightness of doing it—but we simply don’t do it. We don’t “lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness.” In other words, we don’t shut off the raunchy show on television. We don’t leave the smutty book or video on the store shelf. We don’t filter our Internet access. We don’t follow through. Then, to make matters worse, on those all-too-rare occasions when we finally do follow through, we take great pride in those paltry feats, imagining that we have thus earned some eternal merit for doing what we ought always to have done perfectly and consistently. Yet, note that our text says that it is “the implanted Word (not good works) which is able to save your souls.” Thanks be to God!
The simple fact is that the Word of God is not talking to some nameless soul here. God is talking to you. God the Holy Spirit is telling you and me that we have been saved by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ. Doing that right thing that you have heard from God’s Word will not pay for your sin, but what an appropriate way to say thank you to the Savior who has rescued each one of us from eternal death in Hell.
God grant to each of us the strength, the consistency, and love to drown—day by day— the sinful flesh that will cling to us, and to do so until we are finally carried from this perverse world to the Savior’s arms. It is that Old Adam in us that still takes great pleasure and delight in sin. He loves to sin and revels in the very thought of it! But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of Christ’s victory, in the world and in our own hearts, we can put on the New Man, day by day. It is only then, when the New Man dominates our hearts, that we will be doers of that precious solid Word and will of our Savior. What a beautiful way to say thank you to the God who has rescued us from the eternity in Hell that we so thoroughly deserved. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.