We live in a time when people spend their lives looking down. When you go to a restaurant you often do not see people looking at each other, but instead they sit there looking down at their smart phones. When you go to a sports practice for children or youth – and I have some experience with this one – you see people sitting on a bleacher looking down at their smart phones. Basically when you go to anything where people are not required to be actively doing something or to be focused on something else, you find them looking down at their smart phones.
It’s really not surprising that our smart phones attract so much attention. When you combine the ability to communicate instantaneously with access to the internet all in the palm of your hand, that is an incredibly powerful draw. Add to this of course that access to the internet means not simply access to unlimited amounts of reading material, but also the ability to interact on social media, and you have a black hole in your hand with seemingly unlimited power to suck you in. People spend their lives looking down, and until the next breakthrough in technology that transcends the smart phone, I think they will continue to do so.
While we spend so much time looking down, people in the ancient world spent much time looking up. We live in a world where we feel the need to be entertained constantly. Much of this entertainment is visual in nature. The ancient world led a much slower life with far less entertainment. It was also a life that spent far more time outside at night. Whether because it was due to work, or because the roof was a more comfortable place to sleep in the summer, people often found themselves outside with time on their hands. And when they did, they looked up.
The ancient world was far more attuned to the moon, the planets and the stars. I don’t know about you, but apart from the Big Dipper, I can’t name or find anything in the night sky. I don’t pay any attention to what phase the moon is in, and I only really notice it on random occasions. By contrast the ancient world paid attention. Some of this was for practical reasons. And some of it was for religious reasons since it was very common to think of the heavenly bodies as astral powers – divinities that controlled life. This kind of thinking was everywhere in the first century world in which James wrote.
It is therefore not surprising that James begins our text by writing: “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.” God is described as the “Father of lights.” He is the Creator of all of things in the heavens and controls them. We heard about this in last week’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah in which God said, “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing.”
James says that there is no variation in God. He is reliable. You can count on him. And what you can count on him to do is to give good things. Our text says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” God is the giver of good things. Now it is easy to lose sight of this fact and focus on the good things themselves. It is easy to focus on our own actions and think that we can take credit for those good things. And so James warns about this, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.”
God is the giver of all good things. James has just said that what he doesn’t give to us is temptation. He writes, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.”
God doesn’t seek to lead people into sin. Instead James says that we take care of that on our own. He writes just before the start of our text, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” James has written one of the best descriptions of how sin works in our life. Our desire lures and tempts us. You don’t have to look outside yourself for the reason you do the things you shouldn’t. It’s right there inside you.
Our desires are disorderd. Since we don’t fear, love and trust in God above all things, we desire things. We put them first. This desire conceives and gives birth to sin. It prompts thoughts and actions that are sinful. And this sin brings forth death because that is what sin always does. It kills.
This is who you are. And because this is so, salvation was never going to come from inside you. When you look inside, you find nothing there except crud. So instead, salvation comes from the outside. It comes from above, from God who is Giver of every good and perfect gift. James says in our text, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”
While sin brings forth forth death, God gives us life by the word of truth. He gives us life through the Gospel. The Giver of good gifts gave his Son by sending Him in the incarnation to suffer and die on the cross. But this is a story about giving life. And so God gave new life – resurrection life – when he raised Jesus Christ from the dead. He began in Jesus the resurrection of the Last Day that will be ours when Christ returns.
Now, God has given you saving life. He has begun that new life in you through the work of His Spirit. As James calls Christians to live in ways that reflect what God has done for them, he says, “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” For all of us, that word has been implanted with water. In Holy Baptism God used water and the Word to join you to the saving death of Jesus Christ. The saving Word that joins you to Christ has been implanted in you and has made you a child of God. It is through this word that you have been made “a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” You have been redeemed, and your redemption is the beginning of God’s saving work that will extend to his whole creation.
This is a word that you continue to receive as you hear it read and proclaimed. It is a word that you continue to receive as Christ’s Gospel words are spoken over bread and wine in the Sacrament of the Altar – as he says given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
God has given you the gift of life from above through his word – through the Gospel. And this means something. It does something. It leads you to do something. James writes, “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.” In that very practical way that characterizes this letter, James tells us how to live as those who have been brought forth through the word of truth.
He says be quick to hear. James urges a desire; a willingness; an eagerness to listen to others. When we are quick to listen we are not rushing to form our own judgments about the actions of others, but instead we are allowing the best construction to be placed on them. When we are quick to listen we show that we care for others because we are ready to hear what they are experiencing.
James says Christians are to be quick to listen. They are, however, to be slow to speak. If you are familiar the book of James, it’s not hard to understand why he says this. It’s because of the tongue. Later in chapter three he writes, “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” When we are slow to speak we are careful to keep the tongue fenced in behind teeth and lips where it does no harm.
We are to be slow to speak because when we are quick to speak, it is often because we speak in anger. James says in our text that we are to be slow to anger. The reason for this is that “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” We like to talk about “righteous anger.” But the reality is that we give ourselves too much credit. Instead, quite often our anger is sinful. When sinners get angry, we tend to sin. It’s just what we do. Our motives, our goals, what we do and what we say get pulled into sin’s gravitational field. This is why James says that we need to be slow to anger. In general the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
Instead, because of what God has done for us in Christ we need to be quick to love; quick to serve; quick to forgive. This is not something that we can do on our own. It requires instead that we confess and repent of the presence of sin in our life, and that we turn to the source of forgiveness and life that James describes in our text. For as he, “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”