James 1:17-27 CEB
Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all. He chose to give us birth by his true word, and here is the result: we are like the first crop from the harvest of everything he created.
Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness. Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you.
You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do.
If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless. True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.
Okay, who is excited to learn about “the epistle of straw?” That’s what Martin Luther calls James, and strangely enough, Luther almost excluded this epistle from the New Testament altogether because he disliked it so much. You see our Bible canon as it exists in our Protestant texts comes from Luther, so I am glad he didn’t cut out James because I think it is gold! The controversy lies in that James is very concerned with a very practical problem, if you say you have faith but you don’t do anything with it then it's not really faith to begin with, and that sounded a bit too much like all us having earn our way into heaven to old Luther rather than being saved by faith alone. For many others, this epistle shines as one that points out that our personal faith is worthless if it fails to live and breathe in how we act. What is more, it means that we are deluding ourselves and not living in God’s world which is the only thing that is truly good and real. In this letter from James we find wisdom that rescues works as essential to any who say they have faith in Jesus Christ. What we do and how we respond to God’s word defines us as believers finding our identity as God’s people in this world.
Tell me, how do you talk about yourself to other people? What I mean is how do you introduce yourself to someone you’ve never met. When I introduce myself, I may talk about the fact that I am a husband and a father. I may talk about my work as a pastor, or my pastimes like reading. I share what I know to be true about myself, and I know these things because they are what I do. For instance, I cannot say I am a fisherman or a hunter. If you started to quiz me about those things, you would quickly find out I know nothing about them, that I am a fraud. Most of us share what we do as part of who we are, so tell me, how do people know that you are a Christian? What defines being a Christian? Is it saying the right things, talking about God more often than the average person? Is it believing the right things, having faith in God? Maybe. However, I think it is a lot like the other ways you introduce yourself, you are a Christian by doing Christ things. That’s what James’s epistle talks about this morning.
For James, someone having faith made up of certain beliefs but not turning those into actions lives in shadow. They delude themselves. For most of us, what is real is what we can see and hear and touch and smell and taste. This physical world around us is real. For us and for James, God is also real, but often God for us is described as supernatural, something far and above the natural world we see. In our scripture reading this morning, God is reality. Look at verse seventeen this morning, “Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above.” This is not just a statement about God being the source of all our blessings and all the good things in our life. It is the belief that all that is good and true comes from God, and the only way you and I know what is good is because of God. When our scripture reading says “Father, the creator of heavenly lights” this refers not to God creating the sun or the stars in the sky, it is a reminder that God is the very light by which we see goodness and truth. To be closer to God brings us closer to the light which brings us closer to reality. Behaving in ungodly ways doesn’t just mean we are sinning, it means we are moving into a shadowy illusion where we cannot see or act clearly.
James desires for us to live in the reality of God, holding onto the word of God in our own minds and hearts as the compass to how we act in this world. This word mentioned in our reading this morning again means more than scripture, as the word being planted deep in us like a seed is the logos, the very divine reasoning of God. We are to see and think like our God which helps us act out our faith. Being quick tempered, failing to listen, and rash in our speech are all examples of how we fail to listen to the logos of God dwelling within us. In these actions, we choke the seed rather than nourishing the heart and mind of God within ourselves. When the seed is nourished, true faith begins to grow, one that springs forth into action.
Otherwise, we get stuck being hearers of the word, and not only do hearers do harm to themselves they also do harm in this world. When we hear the word only, James tells us that it is a lot like looking in the mirror. Okay, if we are honest this morning, how much sense did that make to folks? It sounds a bit confusing until we understand ancient mirrors, they are not like the crystal clear ones that allow us to make sure we are put together for the day. They were made of polished stone and metal like bronze or silver. They were not clear, instead showing warped colors and were easily tarnished. When we don’t do what God has placed inside our hearts and minds, we lose sight of ourselves, like our reflection in an ancient mirror. We cannot see what it is to be a Christian, so we don’t show the world a very clear image of being a Christian. In turn, this is the harm we do to the world, we show everyone else a muddled Christianity that turns folks away. It's a lot like a quote I like from my younger days when I would listen to contemporary Christian groups like DC Talk. In one of their songs, a man starts speaking before the music, and he says, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door and get on with their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world finds unbelievable.” When we do not act upon our faith, if faith is not an action for us, we do not show the world Christianity. We do not show the world Christ, instead we give the world another cause not to believe because we are no different from before.
James hits on this when James warns us not to let the world contaminate us, as the greatest contamination is not some sort of moral degradation, it is apathy. You hear it all the time where people say that they cannot follow the word of God because it is not realistic. Caring for your neighbors when they lie and cheat and steal? Impossible! Sharing of ourselves to meet the needs of those around us? Unrealistic! Do you see? We already think our reality cannot be God’s reality, so we do not live like it is real! At most, maybe we will say that these things will happen sometime in the hereafter, but that is not what James or the gospels teach us! James reminds us that the gospel is now, and our reality is God. Why else do you think James speaks of widows and orphans? I will let you in on something. If you want to know what will make God mad, look no further than if the people of God are caring for the widows, the orphans, and the foreigner. Nothing makes God upset like these people being neglected. God’s reality cares about the least and those on the edges and whether they are being cared for because if they are not, it is a sure sign that God’s people do not trust the word and promises of their Lord! Do we trust it? Do we believe that to be true? If so, we need to live it out! If you live it out, you have faith, but if you do not, there is something of this world that has gotten ahold of your ear and it has convinced you that God’s kingdom and Christ’s example are unrealistic and impossible. Who is real to you, this world or God’s world?
My friends, as we continue through James, we will find that living in God’s reality will cost us something. It will cost us the illusions of this world. It will cost us the empty trappings of Christianity. We cannot be almost Christians, lukewarm and vile to the tongue. We must be the kind of Christians that hear the word of God that calls to us to care for the least and those hanging on by the skin of their teeth on the margins. We must practice the kind of Christianity that will lead people to know Jesus and God through our actions even if we never say a word. You will find that James is not an epistle of straw but one that is the bedrock of what it means to be a God’s people. I hope and pray that even this small taste this Sunday is enough to get you to search your heart to find where God is speaking to it. Where is the word of God leading you this week? At the end of that lead should be the hurting people of this world that need our faithful action. Let us hear and then do the will of our Lord this week and every week. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman