Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Jeremiah 11:18–20 | James 3:13—4:10 | Mark 9:30–37

Text: James 3:13—4:10

(covering points from Formula of Concord, Article III – The Righteousness of Faith)

“Even in Your Weakness, He is Strong to Save”

Why do Christians act so unchristian sometimes?  Bitter divisions and resentment separate people from the congregation, and congregations from one another.  “Oh, you go to that church?  I used to go there until…”  Or, I’m so sure that my way of understanding the Bible is right, that I refuse to listen to someone who might tell me something different.  Or, I can’t believe that just came out of the mouth of a believer.  Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?  Or maybe the most convicting, “You’re a Christian? I never would have guessed…”

Each of us has stories where we’ve been on the receiving end or been the one acting not like a child of God should.  And how do you respond to that?  With all the other wrong stuff we bear and try to cope with each day, it might be easies to say, “Well, it could be worse. At least it wasn’t as bad as what other people do.”  Maybe that’s how you’ve even tried to excuse yourself.

But James doesn’t let this slide.  He doesn’t let the offending brother off, and has some very stern words for the unchristian behavior of those who claim the Name of the Lord.  Far from what usually happens today, where we’re worried about hurting people’s feelings with rebuke, this Word of God says it how it is.

Right after his warning and rebuke of those who teach in the Church, he adds in today’s reading,

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.  14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”

You think you know something?  You think that makes you better than the untrained or the ignorant?  Think again.  That kind of know-it-all outlook is busy trying to build itself up, and actually grows out of something more insidious.  It is earthly, fleshly, and—yes—demonic.  It’s earthly like the Tower of Babel, where they tried to make a name for themselves by their own prowess (Gen. 11:1-9).  It’s unspiritual (fleshly), because our old Adam does not want God telling him what’s what, because “the natural [unspiritual] man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him and he is not able to understand them.” (1 Cor. 2:14)  And worst of all, Satan and his demons are at work, stoking the fires of pride and dissension.  And all this is happening for believers

But it doesn’t just vex our personal sense of accomplishment.  This vileness spills over into our life with others.  James continues:

4 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

If only it were as simple as adopting an “attitude of gratitude,” or just purging desire from our hearts.  People have certainly tried to stem the fights by preaching contentment with what we’re given, bloom where we’re planted, and so forth.  Even more so, we are children of the God who made heaven and earth.  We know that it is He who provides all that we need for this life and more.  But even still, we find ourselves dissatisfied, fixating on what we don’t have, idolizing what our neighbor has.  Sometimes we even have the nerve to drag God into our selfish aspirations by abusing the gift of prayer to demanding that He give it to us.

What is worldly, fleshly, and demonic in us is right there, urging us on.  Rather than picture ourselves as an impartial observer, an actor who is free to go this way or that, James and Paul both describe there being a battle going on inside of the Christian.  It is an all-out fight between our passions and the Spirit whom God graciously pours out upon us.  The way St. Paul explains it in Galatians 5 is, “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (Gal. 5:17)

So, what’s the solution for our sinful flesh and its works?  Not to ignore it, because it will only grow bolder.  Small sins snowball into greater sins if left unchecked because the problem is in the corrupt heart.  Don’t shrug your shoulders and say, “I guess that’s just how it goes” because it is not inevitable that we choose to do evil, and it is certainly not God’s will!  The solution isn’t to make excuses for it or try to keep it under wraps.  Think of the secret sins of your life—resentments, adulterous urges, coveting. Do they get better by trying to keep them secret?  Is it really any help to say, “At least I didn’t act on it?”  It’s still sin, and you need God’s solution for sin.  All others roads lead to death.

James continues:

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?

Sin must be exposed and called what it is.  Sin loves the darkness, as the Lord explains in John 3, “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:20-21)  And that is what God gives His Holy Spirit to us to do.  For Him, there’s no sitting by and letting things run their natural course.  He is a jealous God and will not share you with the deceptive world, or let your old Adam run the show, or permit the devil to tear you away from Him.  When you and I have committed spiritual adultery (or literal adultery), He calls us out on it because that’s the rebuke we need to hear.  The flesh needs to be put to death.  Specifically, crucified with Christ, and all sins (and the desires to commit them) nailed to the cross to die with Jesus.

This is also why Jesus commends verbal confession of sins to us, because by confessing—saying the same thing as God,[1] we are turning away[2] from the darkness and to the light of Christ.  By saying it out loud, preferably before a confessor like your pastor, you are owning it.  You are acknowledging the truth and entrusting yourself to the Lord’s mercy. And that’s when the Lord’s servant says to you, “In the stead, and by the command of my Lord, Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins—yes, including those filthy, wicked ones you don’t even want your kids to know about, and might not even tell your spouse or best friend—I forgive you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

This is the comfort of the Christian—that Christ only is our righteousness before God.  Very often we will look for victory over sin by how we’ve changed.  In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees taught righteousness in obeying the letter of the Law.  In the Medieval church, one’s righteousness was how much they did in service to God.  Today, Christians are taught that a changed life is where righteousness is found—not drinking or smoking, getting off the drugs, stopping swearing, giving to the needy, and so forth.  There’s nothing wrong with living a clean, moral life—and we should aspire to that!  But that is not where our righteousness before God is.  Think of it this way: One of us walks out of church today, having heard the absolution, truly believing that Christ has given us His Body and Blood to forgive and strengthen us…and then backslides.  If righteousness is in our changed behavior, where’s the consolation now?  If this is what we have to cling to, then the peace of the Gospel disappears like fog.

The only solid comfort is that Christ is the one whose perfect work makes us accepted in God’s sight.  Hear how St. Paul speaks of this in Romans 8: “33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Rom. 8:33-34)  God justifies us because of Christ, who died and was raised. And what’s more is He now intercedes for us!

And how we need His intercession—His prayer on our behalf—because we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment (Small Catechism, Lord’s Prayer).  We are soldiers on the spiritual battlefield, men of dust who have often failed [Ps. 103:10-14].  Our weakness is not reason to doubt, because God’s saving Word to us is what is true and faithful.  Our forefathers in the faith write, “many weaknesses and defects cling to the true believers and truly regenerate, even up to the day they are buried [1 John 1:8]. Still, they must not on that account doubt either their righteousness, which has been credited to them through faith, or the salvation of their souls. They must regard it as certain that for Christ’s sake, according to the promise and ‹immovable› Word of the Holy Gospel, they have a gracious God.” (Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article III, 9)

And James goes on, But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

God opposes your pride, that He might rightly humble you.  You wouldn’t have known how much you needed His salvation if you never thought you were that bad.  Commit yourself once more (day after day) to God, resist the devil, forsake the mind set on the flesh, leave the world to its own evil plans.  As for you and the Holy Spirit, you will serve the Lord [Josh. 24:15].  Let your old Adam’s pride be brought to nothing, and the things he delights in be counted as rubbish for the sake of knowing Jesus Christ your Lord.  As it says in Psalm 4, “Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord! You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” (Psalm 4:7)

And He will exalt His humble children, weak though we are, not because of our strength, but because of His righteous work, His perfect Son, His powerful Word through which He draws near to you, and His holy gifts, through which He assures you, even in weakness that He is strong to save. Amen.

[1] The Greek word for “confess” homologeo means “to say the same”

[2] The Hebrew word for “repent” shuv means “to turn back”