Sermon on Cantate—28 April 2013
Preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, and Oxford Lutheran Mission
Text: James 1:16–21
A recording of the sermon from Our Saviour, Fareham, is available here.
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In the holy name of ✠ Jesus.
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.
What starts as a piece of common-sense advice on good manners and a constructive attitude to conversation—essentially: speech is silver, silence is golden—very quickly turns to something a whole lot more serious. St. James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, is not writing a letter to the Christians of Asia Minor in order to improve their social skills or make them better learners. What he has in view is nothing less than the righteousness of God.
And therefore, this short passage—like much of the rest of the letter—makes rather uncomfortable reading for us. It’s uncomfortable because it catches us out, because it accuses us. James needed to say it to the Christians to whom he was writing, and he needs to say it to you—and to me. Without using the word, he is calling us to repentance over our use of our ears and our tongues, and over our temperament.
The trouble for us twenty-first-century European Christians is that we live in a society and culture built on the notion of rights. We all have lots of rights—the right to life, to free speech, to assembly, to equal treatment under the law, to a trial by jury, and so on. And if someone acts against our rights, we have recourse to redress, through the courts if necessary.
Now, don’t get me wrong, in a civil society, rights and freedoms are a good and proper thing. You just need to spend five minutes in a place where such rights are not respected to discover their value. Or contemplate the reality that for every three live births in the UK, one child is deprived of its God-given right to life and aborted, in the name of the lesser freedoms of people already born. No, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above” from the Father of lights, and the peace, comfort and freedom in which we live is a very fine, and entirely unmerited, gift indeed from our heavenly Father, for which it is our duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.
Nevertheless, life in such a society presents a danger to Christians. Which is really to say that life in any society presents a danger to Christians: we are always prone to conform to the ways of this world in our thoughts, words and deeds, rather than being transformed by the renewal of our minds by the Holy Spirit.
And so we see ourselves primarily in terms of who we are on earth, alongside other people—and this means seeing and safeguarding our rights and freedoms, over against the threats posed by others.
Dear children of God, this is not the way in the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom of God, we live by indulgence and gift. We live not according to mutual rights and responsibilities, freedoms and obligations—but according to the gift of God in Jesus Christ. In the world, we are slaves to sin, to the fleeting circumstances and happenstances of life, and above all to our own passions and desires. In the Kingdom of God, we are slaves of righteousness, living in the freedom of the children of God—freedom from sin and its punishment, freedom to present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God and a loving servant to the neighbour.
Life in this a world is ultimately a dog-eat-dog life. It’s easy enough to be friendly with people who fit into our scheme of things, and to bear with circumstances that fit into our plans. In such a life, we speak those things that suit us, and we listen to those things that please us. And we also close our ears to things that displease us, and we speak against those things that do not suit us. And this is the root of anger: my demand for what I want when I want it; my frustration when the world and other people wage war against my rights, my freedoms, my desires, my passions.
In the light of this, it’s not hard to see why anger does not lead to the righteousness of God. For in the Kingdom of God, righteousness does not equate to my rights, and to justice for me, as it does in the Kingdom of Me. In the Kingdom of God, it is the righteousness of God that rules. In other words, God’s rights, His justice.
And the justice of God demands that it is not your rights that should determine your thoughts, words and deeds: for every good gift comes down from Him—not only to you but to everyone. When you open your mouth hastily against your neighbour and close your ears to him too soon, when your sense of self-justice leads to an outburst of anger, you set up your justice against your neighbour and take the place of God who is the creator of all things. By the same token, when you close your mouth too hastily and close your ears for your own comfort when the name of God is being brought to dishonour by those who blaspheme Him and trample on His children, your neighbours—you shut out God from your world, which He gave to you as His gift.
What is the righteousness of God of which the Scriptures speak? It is nothing other than the moral universe created by God. It is a moral universe where good gifts come down from the creator of heaven and earth who opens His hand satisfies the desire of every living thing and lets the sun shine and the rain fall on the evil and the just alike. It is a moral universe where God remains without variation or shadow due to change, even as His own creation turns against Him and robs Him of His glory and honour. Above all, it is a moral universe where God speaks, and goes on speaking, implants and goes on implanting, His word of truth into a mankind possessed by the Father of lies and by their own lies. Where the Father of light, who brought light into darkness by His life-giving word, continues to shine His light into the dark recesses of a dying world. Where the Father of life continues to implant His word into a world that is dead in its trespasses, and the Prince of Peace continues to speak peace to a world at war against its creator.
Because God is righteous, He waives His right to be rid of every offence against His holiness, and instead He descends to our defiled world in order to fill it with His own holiness by bringing His life-giving word into our unhearing ears, and the healing touch of the body and blood of His Son into our unclean mouths, that He might implant life and holiness where death and defilement reigned. By this self-giving, life-implanting righteousness of God you also have been brought forth into a new life, having had your souls saved by His gracious, condescending love in Christ Jesus. Who—though He had every right to destroy the unbelieving and godless you as he destroyed the unbelieving world in the time of Noah, and the godless armies of Pharaoh in the Red Sea—drowned your sinful nature not in order to destroy but in order to bring new life. In Christ Jesus, this life is yours—the supreme unmerited gift from the Father of light, next to which all His other gifts pale into insignificance.
By this self-giving life of God you live.
And into this self-giving life you have been called. Dear children of God, once you were like the rest of mankind, fending for yourselves in a dog-eat-dog world. But now you have no need for such self-preservation, since your Heavenly Father cares for you and has promised every good gift to you.
You no longer need to assuage the gods of this world, or to justify yourselves before the true God—for our Lord Jesus Christ has conquered all the gods of this world, when He fulfilled the demands of God’s justice by His completed work on the tree of the cross. Through faith in Him, you are pure and holy, entirely righteous and just, with every demand of the Law satisfied.
And so you no longer need to struggle against your neighbour, in thought, word or deed. You are free from such struggles. You are free from all the filthiness and rampant wickedness that is staining and slaying a humanity created in God’s image and bought by the precious blood of His Son.
Flee, therefore, from the passions of the world. Flee from self-seeking, from immorality, from anger and wickedness, all of which is idolatry and leads to death. Flee to the Word of God, which is powerful to absolve you of all your sin against Him and against your neighbour—which has the power to equip you for a godly and holy life—which the power to save your souls from Satan, the world and even yourself. For in that Word, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself is present, breathing life into you, healing all your diseases and strengthening you in all your weaknesses.
In Him, and by the power of His Word, you have been made into a kind of first-fruits for the harvest of the Kingdom of God. For when that Word was implanted into you, you were implanted into Him who is the Word made flesh. Remaining in Him, you will receive His life and bear fruit into eternal life. You are His—in Him, you are another good gift of the Father of lights to this dying world: its salt and its light, so that so the world see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
In the name of the Father and of ✠ the Son and of the Holy Spirit.