May 3, 2015 Fourth Sunday After Easter
The Work of the Word
Job 19:21-27a, Psalm 116, St. James 1:17-21, St. John 16:5-15
I wonder if you’ve ever noticed that some people are better at giving gifts than others. Now why would that be? Maybe the first thing to consider is that the giver’s motive is not always pure.
Some years ago, vandals cut down six royal palms along Flagler Street in Miami. These trees are quite costly and county officials couldn’t find the funds to replace them in the budget, nor did they know when the money would be available.
But a generous donor stepped forward and not only purchased six more trees, taller than those that had been lost, but paid to have them planted. The old, 15-foot trees had made for a pleasant foreground for a “Fly Delta” billboard.
The new 35-footers completely obscured the sign. The gracious donor was Eastern Airlines.
The motive matters. Some time back I realized my wife is better at giving gifts than I . . . and I saw the reason as well. She put some thought into her choices and came up with gifts that celebrated some recent event in my life – something like my graduation from seminary or ordination.
I, on the other hand, regarded buying a gift to commemorate her birthday or our anniversary as a chore and made a perfunctory choice. I like to think I have done better in recent years.
George Macdonald put the matter of motive well in “The Word of Jesus on Prayer”: “For the real good of every gift it is essential, first, that the giver be in the gift – as God always is, for He is love – and next, that the receiver know and receive the giver in the gift.
“Every gift of God is but a harbinger of His greatest and only sufficing gift -- that of Himself. No gift unrecognized as coming from God is at its own best: therefore many things that God would gladly give us must wait until we ask for them, that we may know whence they come.
“When in all gifts we find Him, then in Him we shall find all things.”
Our lesson from the first chapter of James’ epistle begins, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights . . .” The Book of Common Prayer reproduces this language in the Prayer for the Clergy and People in The Order for Daily Morning Prayer, beginning, “Almighty and everlasting God, from whom cometh every good and perfect gift . . .”
We must know God as Giver, for if we do not, we do not know Him at all.
James is building toward his well-known admonition, “be doers of the word, and not hearers only,” which we shall take up next week. Let’s take a look at his progression of thought. From v. 12: The “man who endures temptation . . . will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.”
He goes on to reveal that the way forward in life is in making right choices out of love for God. Next he explains the impossibility of so doing because our nature draws us into the web of sin, and the wages of sin is death.
We are doomed, lost without hope. But now comes the solution: God’s good and perfect gift is His word that generates our new nature. Will you not praise His holy name?
James leaves us in no doubt whatsoever that this word, this logos, is the particular gift of God he is celebrating, but first he sets up a contrast between Creator and creation with the phrase “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.”
The lights – the sun, the moon, the planets, to some extent even the stars – dance across the firmament, revealing their Creator in their variations; God alone is stable. He who made the lights is never-changing – never disinterested or unavailable, always willing to give to His creatures.
He cannot be tempted by evil and He tempts no one; He is pure light. He has brought us new birth by His word, making us His own – wholly and holy. His word operates within us in two ways.
I read a story about a boy named Joey who made a toy boat, and a handsome piece of work it was. When he finally completed its sails, the final piece, he skipped off joyously to the lake for the boat’s maiden voyage.
He set it out on the clear blue water and his craft’s performance was as impressive as its appearance. The breeze filled its sails and it skimmed smartly over the rippling waters. But then a gust of wind caught him by surprise, jerking the end of the string he had fastened to the boat out of his hand.
He could only watch in dismay as his fine new boat sailed off into the distance and finally vanished from his sight.
Weeks went by and Joey couldn’t summon the motivation to begin all over and build a new boat. One day, he chanced to walk by a store that sold all sorts of used stuff and there in the window he spied his boat.
Darting inside, he found the owner and spilled out his story in a gush, pleading for the return of his boat. “I’m sorry,” the man said, “but it’s mine now. If you want it you’ll have to pay for it.”
Joey’s shoulders sagged . . . but not for long. He set to work mowing lawns and socked away his earnings. At last, he had enough. He returned to the store and fanned his cash on the counter and reclaimed his boat.
Taking it in his arms he told his boat, “You’re mine, twice mine. Mine because I made you and now mine because I bought you.”
God could say the same to you and me. He created us, and then when we were dead in our trespasses and sins He gave us new life by His Living Word, who paid the price for our sins. James has in mind the new beginning God declared through His prophet Jeremiah in ch. 31:
"Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah -- not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD.
"But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (vv. 31-33).
In this new covenant is the rebirth Jesus explains to Nicodemus in ch. 3 of John’s gospel. As in the case of natural birth, it is God as Parent who initiates this new birth. And as in the case of our response to our natural parents, our love for our heavenly Father is a reflex that proceeds from His love for us.
I was playing golf a couple of weeks ago with a fellow named John, just the two of us, and I took the opportunity to witness to him. I told him I came to saving faith in my late 40s when I realized I lacked the faith necessary to continue as an agnostic.
I could no longer believe in a world without reason or purpose. The creation argues too eloquently for a Designer. It became easier to put my trust in a divine Creator than to hold onto the conviction that random processes had culminated in all we see and know around us . . . and within us.
John said he’s happy for anyone who finds answers. “I’ve looked for them,” he said. “I’ve looked for them in religion and I’ve looked for them in science and I haven’t found them, and I never will.”
He imagines the finding is up to him.
We know from the first chapter of 1 Peter that we have “been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” (v. 23).
After the Logos speaks truth into our dead souls God infuses us with His logos, His gospel preached, studied, learned and prayed . . . with this purpose: making us the firstfruits.
All that is belongs to God but we, brothers and sisters, are the firstfruits of His creatures. James is drawing on Old Testament harvest imagery. The firstfruits belonged to God and so had to be the best; the rest could be used for common purposes.
The harvest festival reminded the people that God keeps His promises of providing for His own.
While the initiative is with Him, we have a role to play. We should be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath. Even with a new nature within us, the clash of wills – God’s versus ours – goes on. We must not get stuck in infancy in this new life. His word trains us to the degree we cooperate with it.
Jesus made this point in the Parable of the Sower. The life-giving word provokes the energies of our new nature into motion.
Our life with God is not segregated into quiet time and other time. If we are not practicing His presence in the hubba-hubba of daily life – be slow to wrath – we will not magically absorb His will when we are by ourselves in His word.
Anger spits out static that drowns out God’s word.
The objectives of the new birth are making us the firstfruits and producing the righteousness of God, by which our souls are saved. His word is His instrument for effecting new birth and for the ongoing day-by-day process of salvation – in the sense of “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
Filthiness and wickedness will retard the work of the word within us. The word translated “lay aside” could be rendered “strip away.” It was used of stripping off one’s clothes. In the New Testament it speaks of divesting old behaviors.
Meekness will facilitate the work of the word. The underlying word is one our Lord Jesus applied to Himself. John Calvin defined it as describing “the mind disposed to learn.” James is arguing for radical obedience, the sort that changes us into people who are “doers of the word, and not hearers only.”
"Receive the word” is not here, as elsewhere, a call to conversion but a command to cooperate with the word. God’s word within us is not innate; He implants it. All glory be to Him.
The world tells you you cannot be changed. Psychology says the personality is shaped early on and is capable of little alteration thereafter. I beg to differ.
I testify that when God saves you by His Living Word and shapes you by His word implanted you do undergo fundamental change. I do not mean to imply that this is a painless process. Stripping away old habits may entail stripping away old friends.
But I testify that an undisciplined, even impetuous, soul can become slow to wrath – or, in any case, slower. God does not make empty promises, and the most fundamental promise is eternal life through His Living Word.
There’s a story about an old English preacher, a fellow quite popular for his power in the pulpit. One night he was called to the bedside of a woman hovering near death who lived in one of the poorest parts of their city.
After trudging up the stairs to her flat he took a seat and went to work comforting her with talk of courage and patience and hope, the themes of his sermons.
The woman cut him off, saying, “That’s all true, no doubt, but it’s not for the likes of me. Just tell me how a poor sinner can get in.”
At that, the minister remembered what he had not quite forgotten . . . but had ceased to preach, the unvarnished word of repentance and salvation through the atoning death of Jesus Christ.
Some time later he would reflect, wrily, “I got her in. I got myself in, too.” Amen.