Fourth Sunday after Easter (Cantate) (James 1:16-25)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR
Fourth Sunday after Easter (Cantate) + April 29, 2018
Text: James 1:16-25

Welcome to the world!  From the moment we’re born and placed in our mother’s arms, we’re growing and learning.  We learn from sights, sounds, and smells.  We learn from things we do, and things that happen to us.  At home, at school and work, and wherever we go, we learn from experience.  Throughout our lives, we come to know more and more.
For all of the experiences we have in life, however, there is one thing that experience will not teach us.  St. James writes, “Every good and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”  Through all of our days on this earth, experience can’t teach us how true this is.  Experience will teach us that sometimes God is evil.  He lets us suffer hurt and loss.  He lets marriages break apart, leaving children caught in the middle.  He doesn’t stop school shootings and Muslim extremists.
Experience will teach us that God is fickle, blessing us at some times and cursing us at others.  What did I do to deserve this?  How come my family is so screwed up?  Why can’t my job be easier or simpler?  We’re left to guess what God’s plan is, because we think it changes with His mood.
There’s only one way that God teaches us His unchanging goodness: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”  Our sinful birth into a sinful world can only give us an evil view of God.
But, He has given us another birth through the waters of Holy Baptism.  The Lord says, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”[1]  God has called us out of the darkness of experience and enlightened us by His Holy Spirit.  Our experience in this world would deceive us, but the Word of truth enlightens us to know that He is not a cruel and moody Deity; He is an Almighty Father…He is our Father in heaven.
More than that, He shows us that we are the firstfruits of His new creation—a new heavens and a new earth.[2]  It’s undeniable that this world and life is broken and sickly.  We are surrounded by evil and even see it at work within us.  In Romans 8, St. Paul writes, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for…the redemption of our bodies.”[3]  This is what our Good, Perfect, and Unchanging God has given us.  We have eternal birth in the Name of Jesus.  We’re not left to grope in the dark to figure God out or what His plans are for us.  He tells us plainly: I love you and I have made you my child forever.[4]
So, we grow in life as God’s children.  And we know that this has nothing to do with age, since some become mature after many years.  (I know a certain pastor who was confirmed at age 24.)  As we grow as God’s children, He teaches us about life through His Word.  Our heavenly Father teaches us about dangerous things to avoid:
Romans 16: “Watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.”[5]
Colossians 3: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”[6]
Our Father also teaches us what’s good to do:
Psalm 1: “Blessed is the man…[whose] delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”[7]
1 Thessalonians 5: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances”[8]
Ephesians 4: “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ”[9]
Proverbs 31: “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”[10]
Therefore, James writes, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  Our heavenly Father wants us to be quick to learn how to live from Him.  This is why we read and study the Bible.  This is why we have Bible studies at church and in the home.  The Spirit tells us it’s important, but then our experience tells us a hundred other things that are higher priority.  In our busy lives that’s why it’s even more important to have time set aside to study the Word.
Our heavenly Father also wants us to know where to look when we sin.  “If anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”[11]
Yet we would be deceived if we thought the Bible was nothing but a rule book for humanity.  James says, “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”   People railing against other people, using God’s Word as a club, is not God’s will.  God desires the righteousness of faith, and it’s never come by physical force.  Back in the 8th century, King Charlemagne took the “convert or die” tactic with German pagans, and it didn’t work.  It still doesn’t work today.  You can put up all the enraged billboards you want, and it won’t make righteous people in God’s sight.  You can yell at your children who refused to come to church, and it will only drive them further away.
God’s Word is also abused if His children are proud of their obedience.  Indeed, the Lord says, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.”[12]  But conservatives become far too proud of how faithful they’ve been to the letter of the Word.  Meanwhile, they neglect love, mercy, and humility.  Jesus has this rebuke for such diehard conservatives: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!”[13]
But instead of “trusting in ourselves as righteous and treating others with contempt,”[14] God teaches us about true righteousness.  James writes, “Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”  None of our righteous living or confessing saves us, but Jesus does!  He is God’s Righteous Man,[15] and His righteousness is a gift to you.  “Receive with meekness the implanted Word, which is able to save your souls.”  God put it there in you.  Various people have watered it—parents, pastors, and others—but “God gives the growth.”[16]  And the result of that is, as St. Paul also writes, “you gain Christ, and are found in Him, not having a righteousness of your own…but that which comes through faith in Christ.”[17]
Finally, James sums up what it means to be a mature child of God, who confesses Jesus as Lord, God as his Father, and has the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.”  All through confirmation class, the students are called catechumens, which is Greek for a “hearer” of the Word.[18]  In being confirmed, the “hearers” echo back what they have heard from God.  In Baptism, the Creed was spoken for you, and at confirmation, those who have heard the Word speak back the Creed.  As a child, God’s Word was read to you, and in Confirmation you take it to heart.  God’s Word has formed you to the degree that you are no longer merely hearer—a catechumen—but a doer of the Word.
Yet we never actually leave the place of being a “hearer of the Word.”  Remember what James just said, “be quick to hear, slow to speak.”  None of us—pastors  included—can ever claim that we have mastered the Word.  It doesn’t have to do with how much time someone devotes to Bible study; it has to do with what we are.  We are God’s creatures—He created us by His Word.  He is the Vine, we are the branches[19]—His Word is implanted in us.  So, day by day, we live “by every Word that comes from the mouth of God.”[20] Day by day, as James writes, we “look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and continue in it.”[21]
May the Father of lights bless us in our hearing and our doing through Jesus Christ, our Lord! Amen.
[1] John 3:3 (see footnote)
[2] Revelation 21:1
[3] Romans 8:22-23
[4] 1 John 3:1-3
[5] Romans 16:17
[6] 1 Peter 1:15-16
[7] Psalm 1:1-2
[8] 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
[9] Ephesians 4:15
[10] Proverbs 31:8-9
[11] 1 John 2:1-2 NIV
[12] Luke 11:28
[13] Matthew 23:23-24
[14] Luke 18:9
[15] Psalm 24:3-5
[16] 1 Corinthians 3:7
[17] Philippians 3:9
[18] From κατακούω, “hear and obey, give ear”
[19] John 15:5
[20] Deuteronomy 8:3
[21] James 1:25, NKJV