Sermon Text: James 1:17-27
Date: September 1 & 2, 2018
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
James 1:17–27 (EHV)
17Every good act of giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the lights, who does not change or shift like a shadow. 18Just as he planned, he gave us birth by the word of truth so that we would be a kind of firstfruits of his creations.
19Remember this, my dear brothers: Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. 20Certainly, a man’s anger does not bring about what is right before God. 21So after getting rid of all moral filthiness and overflowing wickedness, receive with humility the word planted in you. It is able to save your souls.
22Be people who do what the word says, not people who only hear it. Such people are deceiving themselves. 23In fact, if anyone hears the word and does not do what it says, he is like a man who carefully looks at his own natural face in a mirror. 24Indeed, he carefully looks at himself; then, he goes away and immediately forgets what he looked like. 25But the one who looks carefully into the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continues to do so—since he does not hear and forget but actually does what it says—that person will be blessed in what he does.
26If anyone considers himself to be religious but deceives his own heart because he does not bridle his tongue, this person’s religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled in the sight of God the Father is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Live Your New Birth in the Word of Truth!
What have been “life changing” moments in your life? Maybe it was the day you got married, or the days that your children were born. Maybe it was the day you chose to set off on a new path for your education, or accepting a new job, or just up and moved to a new city. Maybe it was a vacation that changed your perspective, or meeting a new person at work who really challenged some of your long-held thoughts.
Things that are life changing should be just that, they should change the way you look at your life and live your life. Something may be shocking without being life changing. If the smoker is horrified to see pictures of what lungs look like after 25 years of smoking, but doesn’t change his habit, that may be a memorable moment, but certainly not life changing.
In our lesson for this morning, the apostle James reminds us a a tremendous life changing moment—when God called us to faith in Jesus as our Savior. That should, James says, have an impact on our lives, not just for eternity, but right now. James encourages his readers and us as well to live our new birth in the Word of truth! And by God’s grace, that’s exactly what we will do.
James begins our lesson with thoughts on God’s nature, “Every good act of giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the lights, who does not change or shift like a shadow.” God is not looking to “get” us. He’s looking to do great things for us. Everything good, every positive thing in our lives, comes from God. He loves us. And that love does not change. We don’t have to be concerned that this goodness will suddenly be revoked, that God will suddenly change his mind about how he feels about us. And what is the ultimate expression of that love and goodness? “Just as he planned, he gave us birth by the word of truth so that we would be a kind of firstfruits of his creations.”
Our sin meant death for us. Death—separation from God because of our unbelief in this life and separation from God forever in hell after this life. That’s what our sins deserved and that’s what we had, until the Father of Lights saw fit to change that. He gave us birth—a rebirth—through his Word. He called us to be his own through the gospel because in the gospel he told us about his Son. Jesus lived a life of perfection—the total opposite that we’ve lived! But that life is given to us, because in his death, Jesus took the death we deserved. In Jesus we have a new life because he has removed us from our sins and assured us of an eternity with God in the perfection of heaven rather than an eternity of being separated from God in the torment of hell. The apostle Paul put it this way when writing to the Ephesians, “You were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked…. But God, because he is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in trespasses. It is by grace you have been saved!” (Ephesians 2:1-2, 4-5).
James says, as Paul later notes in Ephesians 2 as well, that this new birth changes the way we live. Now, it’s important for us to know and remember James’ audience as he writes this letter. He’s not writing to people who had never known Jesus before reading what he wrote. He’s not even writing to new converts to the faith. James is writing to people who have been Christian for some time, and who appear to be in danger of taking what Jesus has done for granted. They had faith, perhaps, but they weren’t living it. They weren’t letting the news of Jesus’ forgiveness change the way they lived. They were blending into society and were in danger of letting their faith die. So here, James gives them some specific directions on what this new birth should look like in their lives: Remember this, my dear brothers: Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. Certainly, a man’s anger does not bring about what is right before God. So after getting rid of all moral filthiness and overflowing wickedness, receive with humility the word planted in you. It is able to save your souls. Be people who do what the word says, not people who only hear it. Such people are deceiving themselves.
God had planted his Word in their hearts and given them new birth through it. Now, James says, live by it! Let it guide the way you speak and the way you think! Listen; don’t run your mouth off. Restrain your anger and let the love of God guide your interactions with each other. Don’t continue to dwell in the sin of the past because you are beyond that. That sin was death but now you are alive! Live your life like someone who is no longer dead but living!
And then he goes on to use a picture that perhaps hits home for us. James says, “In fact, if anyone hears the word and does not do what it says, he is like a man who carefully looks at his own natural face in a mirror. Indeed, he carefully looks at himself; then, he goes away and immediately forgets what he looked like.” Now, we hear an example like that and we think, “How silly! Who could forget what they look like?” Our English translation, though, leaves a bit of the imagery out of James’ point. The issue isn’t that I look in the mirror and forget the shape of my ears or where I missed shaving this morning. James’ words are more akin to looking in the mirror, going away, and then being unable to remember whether you are a human being or a squirrel. It’s misremembering what you are on a fundamental level.
We’ve looked into the mirror of God’s Word here this morning already. What reflection did you see? You saw a baptized, adopted, dearly loved child of God! For Jesus’ sake that is what God has made you. You are not a slave to sin; you are free in your Savior! But have you looked away from that mirror and forgotten your status as God’s dearly loved child? Have you walked from the mirror of God’s love and re-shackled yourself to sin and death? Have you left this place in the past, forgotten who you are, and lived as one who is dead in their sins still rather than one who has been given new birth in the Word of truth?
We deceive ourselves in this way, thinking we stand firm in our faith yet living lives that ignore who God has made us. It comes in so many different ways. We let lust burn in our hearts. We let anger and malcontent fuel are conversations and our decisions. Maybe you sit this morning with an offering envelope ready to go for when we get to the offering, but you do so simply out of a sense of obligation with no joy in your heart. Or perhaps you come bearing no thank offering whatsoever because you are filled with no thanks to God for what he has given to you. We fear rather than trusting God’s unchanging goodness and love for us. We are harsh with our families, we are uncaring to our fellow Christians, and we are filled with suspicion, distrust, and even anger at people we do not know.
My brothers and sisters, don’t forget what you look like! Don’t forget who you are! You are the baptized children of God! You are those who have been bought with the blood of Jesus! You are those who will live forever in the perfect courts of heaven! Live like it! James goes on, “But the one who looks carefully into the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continues to do so—since he does not hear and forget but actually does what it says—that person will be blessed in what he does.”
Bring your offerings with joy in thanksgiving over what God has done for you. Help those at work, in your homes, and at school who need your assistance because you know how God has helped you. Listen to those who need to talk and do not be quick to speak. Relish the opportunity to serve God by serving his people.
When God brought you to faith, when he gave you birth through his Word of truth, that was a life-changing event. It didn’t just change that moment; it changed the whole rest of your life. Enjoy that new life, that new status with God. Love that Word where he reminds you of all that he’s done for you every day. Love others as God has loved you. Live your life with the strength that God continues to give! Amen.