Cantate – Sing
Readings: Isaiah 12:1–6 | James 1:16–21 | John 16:5–15
Text: James 1:16-21
The text is the epistle reading which we’ve heard where Saint James teaches the church, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift 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.”
Over the past two years, and especially at various times before that, trust in various institutions and occupations has been greatly challenged.
Since the pandemic, we have lost our trust and our patience with one another and with businesses, with governments, with scientists, with media outlets. And if we had trouble trusting them before the last two years, have only made it worse.
What this has done for us as Christians is that it has exposed—actually for all of society, I should say—is that it’s exposed our many idols. It has reminded us of the fact that we should not “put our trust in princes in a son of man in whom there is no salvation.” (Ps. 146:3) But, that we should fear, love and trust in God above all things, and any human agents that God appoints, are just as human as we are.
But that problem of trust, and that fear of being deceived can even creep into the church. It can be tested by greed, by pastoral abuse, by affairs that pastors fall into, or infighting within the church. All of these things can lead us to conclude, even with people like Joseph Smith, “Which church should I join?”
In the midst of this human bog of deceit and changing opinions, God speaks. God does not lie. There is one place where we will never be deceived, and that is in His holy word.
There in the word of God, it’s like a sanctuary, a sanctuary from all the failures of the world of other people, and even of ourselves in the ways that we have been deceived and misled, even if it wasn’t into great shame and vice. Even the little ones are enough.
His Word will never mislead us. It will never deceive us even if Satan should take portions of it and cherry pick it as he did in the wilderness [Matt. 4:1-11] when he tempted our Lord with the words of Psalm 91 but conveniently left out the part about, “guarding you in all your ways.” God’s word will not mislead us, and it’s for that purpose he has given us his Holy Spirit so that we know him who is true. We know His Word. That is true.
And so, if there is one place in this world of disappointment and lies and deceit and just plain ignorance, we should be glad that there is one place where we can go a rock to which we can continually come where we will be fed, where we will drink pure spiritual milk of God’s word. How much should we delight in it and take this word to heart! Especially when we’re disheartened by the things that we hear from scientists, from governments, from the media, and any other deceit, including any human.
“Do not be lead astray” is one of those chief aims of the Church. The words that the Holy Spirit inspired James to write here are a letter to the church.
And while we have the word of God written for us, we are also sheep who are so easily lead astray.
The past several months we’ve been studying several Restorationist movements of the 19th century, and in each of those movements there seems to be a common theme that they want to “just get back to the Bible.” Whether it was Barton Stone wanting to just have no creed but the Bible, many were trying to boil things down to the word of God, but they ended up going in such a strange direction. Even William Miller, who many people followed, ended up giving birth to a number of other groups that reacted based on his false prediction of the end of the world.
But the Lord knows the needs of his sheep, and so he actually—in the midst of this potential mess of human teachers who could get the word wrong—and by the guidance of his Holy Spirit He does keep his sheep. He tends them and nourishes them. He leads them to the waters of eternal life. What a paradox this is, that God uses men who are also fallible to accomplish this, entrusted with His Holy Word, so that by His Holy Spirit’s aid, we are not led into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. God has preserved his church as he promised to [Matt. 16:18].
James continues, “Of His own will, he brought us forth by the Word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”
God has done that through his word. He’s done that through his word in the 20th and 21st centuries just as much as he did in the 1st century. Lest you think that our church today has more problems and more heresies, just read the book of Acts. Just read the annals of the early church and all of the heresies that they had to stamp out, which are refuted in the Nicene Creed.
But for our part, because it is the word of truth that gives us birth, we can be confident that our birth is from above. It is from God. It is not just someone’s idea. It’s not that we’re holding to an antiquated idea or holding to some tradition, trying to hold with all of our might to see that it’s passed down to the next generation. This is God’s work. God worked through his word through the Holy Spirit whom Jesus has sent to his church.
And so, there’s also a reminder there because we are born of this word of truth that we have been brought forth, we have been birthed birth from above as Jesus taught Nicodemus in John 3:1-8. The opposite of that is that we ourselves do it. How can anyone give birth to himself? It’s absurd.
It is not our strength. It is not our wisdom or our works that can save ourselves or others. Today, the church is troubled by many notions that it is just a human idea, and if other human philosophies come in, if wokeism is given free rein to our children or in our institutions. Several years ago, I watched in a video from Bill Nye the Science Guy that stated he believed that Christianity will probably fade out in the next 100 years. This view is held by many of the neo-atheists.
But the Gospel of our salvation is not a human work. It is not human effort that preserves the church. It is Jesus work, and so we hold to this. We hold that it is not our works that save. As Protestant Christians we say, “Of course our works don’t save.” But sadly, I think that because we live in a time when Christianity is challenged by the wider culture and those who hold to the word of God have to work harder to hold to it, we think that something we must do—some business model, some clever explanation, some the next silver bullet, so to speak—is going to win the world for God.
And so, in light of that, James continues to say, “Know this my beloved brothers, let every person be quick to hear, slow, to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
Sadly, we are very quick to speak, especially in our day when we have so many different platforms upon which to speak. We’re happy to lend our opinion and our wisdom. But as Peter was reminded on the Mount of Transfiguration, there is a time to speak and a time to be silent [Ecclesiastes 3:7]: “[Peter] was still speaking when behold a bright cloud overshadowed them and a voice from the cloud said, this is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” (Matt. 17:5)
Man is all too happy to lend his opinion of the situation to lend his fixes. God is the one who needs to speak to us first, and constantly, because of that tendency for us to be lead astray.
But another way that we try to help God out is by using the way that gets results on earth: the way of anger. You know what’s really going to help Christ mission? A little manipulation, a little turning the screws, yelling at people will get results.
But this is not the way of God. Again, because the church is not a human institution, not a human idea. The gospel is not something that was cooked up by people in the 1st century.
God works righteousness through his word, and so Saint Paul writes to the Corinthians in his second book, Chapter 4, “But we have renounced, disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word. But by the open statement of the truth, we would commend ourselves to everyone, conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Cor. 4:2)
Wouldn’t it be easier if we did use the ways of the world? Maybe the pews would be more packed. They certainly seem to be at churches that turn God’s word into something else that it’s not, something that appeals to the current culture.
James writes to us in light of the fact that we are not to be deceived into thinking that the righteousness of God comes from us. It comes from above from the father who does not lie or deceive.
He says, therefore, for our part, “Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”
The Lord’s instruction here is to turn our back on our old Adam, the sinful flesh that clings to us. Our sinful flesh doesn’t die easily. It says back to God, “But I had such a good idea! Oh, I had such good intentions. Doesn’t that make sense?” But God calls that evil. He says, as Saint Paul writes, “Put to death, therefore, what is earthly in you.”–lumping our ‘good intentions together with–“sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these things, the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked when you were living in them, but now you must put them all away.”
A Christian faith that is ruled by human error by the deceit of the devil by man, working by man fervent effort, is liable to fall because it has given up hoping in God to do his work, and thinks that somehow, someway, we do something or do all of it. But such a faith turns out to merely be a construct, a so-called theology. What you will find under the surface is that rampant wickedness that filthiness and call it “freedom in the Gospel.”
Even if we find this at work in us, urging us on toward these things that “make sense” and give us what our itching ears want to hear, they only lead us to death. They will deceive us. But the Lord’s work in us is to put all of that away from us away from us. He puts our old Adam to death.
And then—only then—are we ready for the Lord to be the only one who can save us. He is the only one who can sustain his church. The only one who can help parents train their children in the way of the Lord, so that his testimonies are proclaimed from generation to generation.
So, if this is what the Lord says that He will do it for those who are not deceived, how do you explain the state of the church today? One way to explain it is, of course, the unbelief that is well at work in people’s hearts and in the world. The Lord tells us that his word is going to accomplish his work. But what do we see in churches? That those who actually faithfully hold to his word seem to be on the verge of failure. Why is it that the Orthodox churches are the ones that are struggling? The ones that are small, the ones that have trouble supporting a pastor?
This is what leads people into the ideas that we need new measures. Incidentally, it was tried in the mid-1800s when the LCMS was founded, when people who called themselves Lutheran were calling for doctrine that was more appealing to the American religious scene—rewrite that dusty, old Augsburg Confession, minimize baptismal regeneration, downplay the bodily presence of Christ in the Sacrament.
The idea that the church which is faithful to the unchanging word of God is a failure, is a lie of the devil. And the reason that he uses that tactic is because we should be faithful to the word. We should devote ourselves and pore over God’s word. But, if the devil can convince us that the word is not enough, then he can easily offer counterfeit alternatives.
But where does that leave us? It leaves us as the people of God in a place of lament. WE have remained faithful to the word of God. We have desired this for ourselves and for our children. Yet what we see around us is contrary to that, as if we were on the wrong path.
But it also leaves us hating the world lies hating what the devil and our sinful flesh have done to ourselves and to those we love. Yet over all of this strife, we continue trusting that God’s word is true and powerful to do what God says.
And so I’d like to close today’s sermon with praying Psalm 44 together. It’s a Psalm of lament. We’re going to pray it as a prayer for Christ’s Church in our day:
1O God, we have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us, what deeds you performed in their days, in the days of old:
2you with your own hand drove out the nations, but them you planted; you afflicted the peoples, but them you set free;
3for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm save them, but your right hand and your arm, and the light of your face, for you delighted in them.
4You are my King, O God; ordain salvation for Jacob!
5Through you we push down our foes; through your name we tread down those who rise up against us.
6For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me.
7But you have saved us from our foes and have put to shame those who hate us.
8In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever. Selah
9But you have rejected us and disgraced us and have not gone out with our armies.
10You have made us turn back from the foe, and those who hate us have gotten spoil.
11You have made us like sheep for slaughter and have scattered us among the nations.
12You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.
13You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us.
14You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.
15All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face
16at the sound of the taunter and reviler, at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.
17All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant.
18Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way;
19yet you have broken us in the place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death.
20If we had forgotten the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
21would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart.
22Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.
23Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
24Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
25For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground.
26Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!
And we can trust that God hears the cry of his faithful people. Amen.