May 10, 2015 Rogation Sunday
Pure and Undefiled Religion
Ezekiel 34:25-31, Psalm 65, St. James 1:22-27, St. John 16:23b-33
The tongue is a curious little instrument. Unlike other weapons, the more you use it, the sharper it gets.
Winston Churchill and Lady Astor both liked to wield theirs, and they did so in a long-running feud. In one duel, Lady Astor got in the first thrust: “If I were your wife I’d put arsenic in your tea.”
Sir Winston parried: “If I were your husband . . . I’d drink it.”
Churchill, I imagine, had no more use for the letter of James before us today than Martin Luther, who called it an epistle made of straw . . . but for a different reason. Luther could unsheathe a sharp tongue, too, but his complaint against James was that he advocated what Luther saw as a religion of works.
The reformer took this understanding in no small measure from the first verse of our lection: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
It seems odd that one as bright as Luther could not or would not see what the rest of us find as obvious as the nose on his face. James is not advocating a works-based salvation. He never implies that a Christian can pile up enough merits to earn God’s favor. His point is that true faith will generate good works:
Faith without works is dead, but real faith is never without works.
Luther seems to have been so consumed with combating the works focus of the medieval church that anything anyone might take as supporting it got his hackles up.
Last week, we found James building his case in the preceding passage. He exhorted us to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”
Now he goes on to make the point that receiving it is not enough for the sincere Christian. Many appear in church week in and week out; they receive the word endlessly without ever acting on it. They deceive themselves. A faith that bears no fruit is dead. Faith should not be confused with attendance.
He who loves God does not try to claim the saving power of His word and cast away its moral imperatives. If you are truly a child of God you will act upon His teaching.
A new preacher dazzled his congregation with his first sermon, a charge to “gird your loins” for the work of ministry. The next Sunday he preached the same sermon and on his third Sunday in the church he repeated it once more.
That was more than one parishioner could take. He demanded to know: “Don’t you have more than one sermon?”
“I do, indeed,” said the preacher. “Actually, I have quite a few. But you haven’t done anything about the first one yet.”
James, I have no doubt, would applaud that approach. His one letter in the canon of Scripture relies heavily on the preaching and teaching of his half-brother Jesus.
James’ style is direct and to the point. It includes more imperatives than any other letter and so much practical exhortation that it has been called “the Proverbs of the New Testament.”
He shows us here a contrast between the true believer who has the word within him, looks into the word that is the gospel, perseveres in it and acts on it, on the one hand, and a man with a mirror who looks at himself, goes away and forgets his appearance.
What you see in the mirror should prompt an action – brushing your hair, straightening your tie, repairing your makeup. The word rightly preached is a mirror. The diligent Christian holds his life up to it and asks himself, “How do I look? What must I do?
“Am I reflecting the word I take in in the holy place when I venture into the marketplace?”
Or, as a sign in a church vestibule framed the matter: “If you were on trial for being Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
This, beloved, is a question each of us must confront. When the secular culture looks at you, does it recognize you as different from the citizens of the unbelieving world around you?
He who hears and acts not sows deceit; he who hears and does reaps blessing.
This latter is a lover of that “perfect law of liberty.” In worldly thinking, law and liberty are enemies. We hear this attitude aired at an ear-splitting volume today in the never-ending argument over the supposed rights of homosexuals.
When the Final Four, the culmination of the NCAA thumpathon, was staged in Indianapolis this year, the media spotlight shone on a new Indiana law designed to protect religious liberty. It allowed those who could not have any role in a same-sex wedding ceremony as a matter of conscience the opportunity to opt out without penalty.
This statute, some screeched, could be used as a shield by those who would deny homosexuals their rights. These troglodytes were hung up on an arcane provision in an Old Testament law code that has no relevance today . . . if in fact it ever did for the enlightened.
One difficulty with this rationale is the many New Testament condemnations of homosexuality, none more forceful than that in ch. 1 of Romans. More to the point for us today, however, is that God’s law, from which we take our attitudes toward sex and a myriad of other subjects – no less in our day than in that of Moses – reveals God’s character.
He promulgated it not to harm His people but to help them. The law can’t save people and it never could. It was given as a code of conduct for the covenant community.
"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Exodus 20:2),” Yahweh said to His people Israel assembled at Mount Sinai as He prepared to give them His law.
Emerging into the light of their God’s liberty, they needed a code to instruct them in how to live free, for the faithful child wants nothing more than to reflect his Father’s character in his own. You and I who have been saved from sin by the One who came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it need the law no less.
Just as we cannot observe society’s regulation of safe travel on the roads without speed limits, we cannot maintain orthodoxy in the church without God’s law. Many in the church today insist that God loves everyone without condition.
St Peter is sitting at the Pearly Gates when two guys wearing dark hoodies and sagging pants arrive. St. Peter looks out through the Gates and says, "Wait here. I'll be right back."
St. Peter goes over to God's chambers and tells Him who is waiting for admission.
God says to St. Peter, "How many times do I have to tell you? You can't be judgmental here. This is heaven. All are loved. All are brothers. Go back and let them in!"
St. Peter goes back to the Gates, looks around and lets out a heavy sigh. He returns to God's chambers and says, "Well, they're gone."
"The guys wearing hoodies?" God asks.
"No. The Pearly Gates."
In fact, God’s law is the law of love. The man who serves his own passions and desires is a slave, laboring nightly in the dungeon of earthly delights and paving his pathway into the maelstrom of the everlasting inferno.
He who obeys God’s law lends hands and feet to God’s love. We are truly free when we live out the life our Creator intended for us, for then we are acting in accord with our pre-fall nature, to which we shall return in God’s glory.
The law protects us while we inhabit this sinful flesh, pointing us toward our once and future state unstained by sin. It is not a burden but a blessing.
A woman was married to a man she did not love. She could not, for he treated her shamefully. He gave her a long list of rules that ordered all of her time. Among the rules was one that required her to rise at 5 a.m., cook his breakfast and serve it to him promptly at 5:30.
After many years of misery, her husband died. In time, she remarried, this time to a man she loved deeply. One day, while cleaning out some drawers, she came upon the set of rules her first husband had given her: up at 5, breakfast at 5:30, and on and on.
As she scanned the list a thought seized her. She was doing all the things for her current husband she had done for the former one . . . yet this time with a joyful heart.
James now gives us characteristics of the new life in Christ. The list is hardly exhaustive, but he wants us to see what true religion looks like. “Religion” is a word for how we live out our love for God. One whose religion is genuine will bridle his tongue.
The philosopher Xanthus one day told his servant that he was having friends in for dinner on the morrow. He instructed the servant to go to the market and buy the best thing he could find.
When Xanthus and his company sat down at the table the servant appeared with the first course, which was tongue. Four more courses followed, and each of them was tongue . . . cooked in a different way to be sure, but tongue nonetheless.
The servant’s master lost his patience. “Didn’t I tell you to buy the best thing in the market?” he asked.
“I did get the best thing in the market,” the servant replied. “Isn’t the tongue the organ of sociability, the organ of eloquence, the organ of kindness, the organ of worship?”
The philosopher Xanthus, frustrated and wanting to make a point, told his servant, “Tomorrow I want you to get the worst thing in the market.” On the morrow the master sat at table with a different set of friends . . . but the menu was unchanged: five more courses of tongue.
Seething, he asked his servant, “Didn’t I tell you to get the worst thing in the market?”
“I did get the worst thing in the market,” said the servant. “Isn’t the tongue the organ of blasphemy, the organ of defamation, the organ of lying?”
The tongue gives voice to the thoughts and intentions of the heart. It reveals whether you are one brought forth into new life by God’s word of truth (v. 18).
He whose religion is pure and undefiled attends to widows and orphans – or, more broadly, those on the margins of the society. Does your care for them reflect the mercy of your Father, of whom the Psalmist (68:5) sang:
“A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy habitation.”
Do you give from an overflowing heart with no thought of gaining a reward, for what struggling widow or poor orphan will ever be able to repay or return the favor? One and all have been estranged from God. He who has accepted God’s solution and repatriation must not live as though he has not.
Worship, no matter how resplendent, is not pleasing to the Lord if those who offer it do not share His love for the least, the last and the lost. This was the snare of the Pharisees.
Just as James does not condemn hearing the word but rather failing to act on it, he does not disparage beauty in worship but rather ornate ceremony set forth as a substitute for practical love for your neighbor.
Finally, the one who is truly religious will keep himself unspotted from the world. The world is simply that system that operates on human wisdom, leaving God out.
And so, I ask again: Is your way of life discernibly different from that of the pagan? Does the world know you belong to the Lord? Does it see you as one in whom God has implanted His word of truth, which imparts new life?
James, you may have noticed, is not interested in leaving you an easy way out. Much religion is a façade that obscures a dead faith.
Beloved, our heavenly Father longs to see His character, as expressed in His law, reflected in the character of His children. Perhaps the best summation of how to live in a way that gives Him glory is this: Follow the example of Him who was the doer of the word par excellence, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.