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Sermon for August 29, 2021

Speaking Of Life 3040 | Greeted With Open Arms

Jesus Christ greets us with arms wide open, calling us his beloved, and offering us his embrace. How often do we have our hands full of all kinds of baggage that we believe we need to hold on to? Answer Jesus’ invitation to draw near to him, surrendering our burdens, and experience his full loving embrace.

Program Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3040 | Greeted With Open Arms
Heber Ticas

Let me walk you through a common experience I’m sure you can relate to. Just nod when you know what I’m talking about.

You have been away from home all day. Maybe you were working long hours at the office or had a full day at school. Or maybe you are returning from a long trip out of town. You gather your things and walk up to the door. Your hands are full. Maybe you are carrying grocery bags in each arm, or perhaps both hands are grasping schoolbooks or luggage. When you are greeted at the door by someone who loves you. Maybe it’s your wife or husband or a parent or a friend. They are smiling with joy to see you and greet you with arms open wide to give you a big hug.

Does this experience sound familiar to you? Or maybe something similar?

As wonderful as it is to be reunited with your loved one, this moment creates a dilemma. The only way to receive that hug is to put away everything you have in your arms.

How we handle this dilemma may tell us something about the relationship. Some may see the hug as an unwelcome hindrance and just walk by. Others may try to negotiate a better time by awkwardly walking around trying to take care of their stuff first. Then there are those who will try to hold on to their baggage while being hugged at the same time. If you have ever done that you know you have settled for the person hugging your baggage instead of you.

But then there are those who drop their bags immediately at the feet of their beloved in order to receive a full embrace.

In a similar way, we could use this to mirror our relationship to our heavenly Father. He greets us in Jesus Christ with arms wide open, calling us his beloved and offering us his embrace. How often do we have our hands full of all kinds of baggage that we believe we need to hold on to? But there’s the good news: as we come to know God as the one who truly loves us and is for us, we begin to relax our grip on everything that prevents us from receiving his embrace.

The Apostle James tells us that we cannot receive what God has for us without putting away our “baggage.”

“Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” 
James 1:21 (ESV)

If you are feeling homesick and burdened by the baggage that’s weighing you down if you need to feel that loving embrace, hear God’s word to you today. You are his beloved made to be wrapped up in his embrace. He stands before you in Jesus Christ with arms wide open. Step right into that embrace and feel the love he wants to give you.

Mi nombre es Heber Ticas, Hablando de Vida.
(My name is Heber Ticas, Speaking of Life.)

Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9 • Song of Solomon 2:8-13 • James 1:17-27 • Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

This week’s theme is receiving God’s Word. The call to worship Psalm and the passage from Song of Solomon paint in lavish terms a relationship of lovers attuned to one another’s voice, and point to how we build relationship by hearing and responding to God’s voice. The reading from James displays the generosity of the Father whose words of salvation can be received as a blessing flowing from a trust relationship with him. The Gospel reading presents Jesus as the Word to listen to over and against the traditional interpretations aimed at avoiding the purposes of the law.

Do Not Be Deceived

James 1:16-27 (ESV)

Begin by reading James 1:16-27 ESV.

As we get into our text today, it is important to remember why James is writing this letter. Primarily, James is writing to encourage a church that is going through various trials. Are you going through “various” trials? If so, this letter is also written for you. What James says to us in these verses today is not a simplistic platitude to make us feel better. James is grounded in a reality that puts our trials into a proper perspective. When it comes to trials, small or great, a reminder of what is true is very important. Notice how James addresses his church in the face of trials. He does not tell them to get over it and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. He does not blame them for their situation and guilt them to change some behavior. He also does not tell them to “turn that frown upside down” or encourage them with some form of “positive thinking.” No, what James does is to remind his beloved church of who God is and who they are in relationship to him. We all need people in our lives who will come alongside of us during our challenges and trials to remind us of the reality we see in Jesus Christ. Today, that person is James, the author of this letter that the Holy Spirit has inspired to be preserved for you and me.

Leading up to our reading today, we find that trials and temptations are closely linked. When our circumstances seem to turn against us, we may be tempted to believe that God has turned against us as well. The temptation James wants to warn against is the temptation to stop trusting in God and to place our trust elsewhere. When trials come our way, there is a temptation to doubt God’s character. Giving in to this temptation will have dire consequences. So, James begins our section today with a warning against being deceived. That is the danger that comes along with trials. We can be deceived into falsely believing that God is not faithful to us, that he is not good and is not for us. So, James is emphatic:

Do not be deceived, my beloved. (James 1:16 ESV)

James is not just softening his statement here; he seems to be reminding them of who they are in relationship to God as his “beloved.” That is ultimately what we are tempted to doubt when trials come upon us. We may be tempted to believe that we are no longer loved, or maybe that we never were loved in the first place. This is a very powerful deception that James sees will grow and lead to death (James 1:15).

After James warns his readers about being deceived, he then goes on to remind them of the truth. Verses 17 and 18 offer a rich reminder of who the Father is. This truth buffers us against the deception that God is not the faithful, loving God of grace that we see in Jesus Christ. In these two verses James reminds us of God’s character and his purposes for us.

In verse 17 James seeks to build our faith by reminding us of the Father’s unchanging character.

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. (James 1:17 ESV)

What an amazing insight James has given us here.

  • First, God is a “generous” giver. He does not give begrudgingly or with strings attached. Have you ever been given a gift by someone you know was only given to obligate you in the future? We may be tempted to think this is how the Father is towards us as well. But James is clear that this is not how our Father gives. His giving flows out of who he is as a generous giver.
  • Second, James lets us know that “every” good gift is from the Father. James is emphasizing the inclusivity of all the good that comes our way. Think of some good things that have been given to you. How often do we attribute these good things to luck or chance? Or maybe we attribute it to our own skill and cleverness or hard work. We may be tempted to think that it is not a gift but something we have earned. Like the scene in “The Simpsons” when Bart was asked to say the dinner blessing: “Dear God, we paid for all of this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.” When trials come our way, we may be tempted to believe that God is not a generous giver. We may think the bill has come due or perhaps we just need to work harder for God’s blessings.
  • Third, James does not want us to be deceived about the gifts the Father gives. His gifts are good and perfect. The goodness of the gift means it is intrinsically good whether we know it or not. His gifts are perfect, meaning they are complete and not lacking.
  • Fourth, all these good and perfect gifts come down from “the Father of lights.” James lets us know with this description that there is no dark side to God’s giving. God does not trick us with gag gifts. Even in times of trouble we can depend on God to give us his very best, exactly what we need in our time of trouble. We may not always know what that is, and we may even confuse some of his gifts as contrary to what we need, but we can trust that he will be faithful to his generous heart towards us. After all, this is who he is, and he does not change like shifting shadows that distort reality. Have you ever mistaken a shadow for something that was not real? We don’t have to worry about that happening with our Father of lights.

After James establishes God’s character in this way, he then tells us in verse 18 about the Father’s purposes for us.

Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. (James 1:18 ESV)

It’s good to remember that God’s gifts and his purposes for us are not opposed. If you were to give ice cream to your kids for breakfast everyday, your “gift” of ice cream would not fit the purpose of raising healthy kids. We can trust that God’s gifts contribute to his purpose for us. We may want ice cream for breakfast every day, but that would not be a fitting gift from a Father who loves us towards the good and perfect purposes he has for us. Let’s take a closer look at what James is telling us about the Father’s purposes for us:

  • First, notice the intimate language of our origin. It was God’s will, his desire to bring us forth. Even the word translated as “brought forth” refers to conception and birth. You are not an accident, but you are a deliberate choice of the Father. He didn’t have to bring us forth—he wanted to. We may not feel like that during a difficult trial, but we can trust that God is as intimately involved in our situation as he was in our creation. In fact, he is more concerned about us than we are of ourselves.
  • Second, James lets us know that we are brought forth by “the word of truth.” This takes us back to Genesis, where God’s speaking is our beginning. And what’s more, this “word” that spoke us into existence is a “true” word. Our beginning is not from a false word of deception but from the depths of reality itself. You never have to doubt if you should have been born. God wanted you, and that is the rock bottom truth of it.
  • Third, our “being brought forth” has a further purpose of being “a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” The Old Testament’s understanding of “firstfruits” meant the best, or the “cream of the crop.” God created us to be the pinnacle and crown of his creation. This is what God is up to and this is the very good and perfect gift he is giving us in Jesus Christ. God is faithful in completing the good and perfect work in us as the gift he refuses to rescind. The only thing that will keep us from God’s good and perfect gift is being deceived not to receive them.

So, you can see why James is adamant in telling us not to be deceived. Our trials can be used to whisper lies into our ear that we are not loved, that we do not matter and that we have no future. Don’t believe it! Remember who God is and who you are in relationship to him. In doing so we will be in a better place to receive all the good and perfect gifts God is giving us as he brings us to completion even during our times of trial.

In light of what James has said about who God is and what his good purposes are toward us, he now goes on to encourage his readers to receive what God is giving. And he begins doing this by once again referring to them according to the reality of who they are in relationships with God:

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. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:19-25 ESV)

Again, his address to them reflects the reality of who they are—beloved brothers. This reality also has implications of who they are in relationship with one another. Their “beloved” status unifies them together as “brothers,” which, rightly understood, includes both male and female. James addresses them as fellow brothers and sisters, for that is his true relationship with them. Knowing who we are in Christ, and therefore who we are in relationship with each other, will change how we address one another. We belong together in the same family as beloved children of our Father of lights.

With this address, James then encourages us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” These three commands are not detached from what James has been saying. He is not digressing into a different topic on effective communication or conflict management. He is telling us how we can respond and receive what our generous God is giving us in our times of trial.

  • Quick to hear: This first command might lead to the question, “hear what?” Looking further in our passage gives us the answer. James is going to refer to “the word” three times. He tells us to receive “the implanted word,” as well as to be “doers of the word” and not just a “hearer of the word.” He is not focused on just being good listeners to one another for the sake of good communication, as true as that may be. He is pointing us deeper to listening to God’s word spoken to us. This is the word we need to hear in our trials. This is the word that will guard us from being deceived. This is the word we are told to receive.
  • Slow to speak: This naturally follows the first command. Notice he doesn’t tell us “not” to speak but to be “slow to speak.” Why is that? Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who is not listening but just trying to find a pause in the conversation so they can get their own word in? It can be frustrating. That’s not really a conversation but more like parallel monologues. When we speak without first listening and understanding what the other person is saying, our words become disconnected from that person. Our speaking will not reflect or take into account what the other person has said. If James is telling us primarily to hear God’s word to us, then being slow to speak is letting our words first be formed by what we hear. James is telling us to speak only after we receive the “word” we hear from the Father. When we rush to say something to another, or to ourselves, we may want to pause and ask ourselves: “Is this what the Father is saying to you?” When we are under pressure from our trials, we may be tempted to try to control our circumstances with our tongues. We may fear that we need to speak up quickly or things may get worse. But James wants us to know that God is faithful to speak to us his word of truth and life. Out of trust in the Father of lights we can listen to him knowing that he is a “generous giver” who does not hold back his word from us during our times of trial. When we are not deceived about our generous Father who loves us, it becomes easy to obey the command to be “quick to hear” and “slow to speak” because we will know that the Father is speaking exactly what we need to hear.
  • Slow to anger: The word James chooses for “anger” is not referring to just a momentary loss of temper but rather a continuing and permanent state of opposition. James is warning us to be slow at coming to a place that anger and wrath is our way of handling problems. Anger can consume us and lead us down very destructive paths. I’m sure we can all recall times when we said or did something out of anger that we regretted. This momentary outburst can be very damaging but imagine if this becomes our default way of thinking and behaving. This is where James is cautioning his beloved brothers from arriving. It’s been said that anger may be a good way to identify a problem, but it is never a good way to solve a problem. That is so true and important to remember in times of trial. When we are going through difficult circumstances, we can be tempted to view ourselves as victims who are powerless to better our situation. We will want things to be made right and we will be tempted to try to make it right by words and actions fueled by our wrath. We have seen this approach to trials played out many times in destructive riots and violent protest aimed at setting an injustice right. This is not the approach for a beloved brother or sister. And James gives us the reason to obey this command: “for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”Biblically speaking, “righteousness” means setting things right. But it is “the righteousness of God” that we need to trust, not our own. We are not very good at knowing what is “righteous” most of the time. God holds the bigger picture of his good purposes for all his children as what determines true “righteousness.” This bigger picture may take more time to come into view than our quick responses of anger will allow. So, we must be “slow to anger,” giving way for God to work his righteousness in and through us as we receive and respond to his word spoken to us. James doesn’t say we should never be angry. There can be a “righteous” anger but even this anger is not how God sets things right. It may point to an injustice and sin that needs to be set right, but it does not provide the means to that end. Only God can do that.

With these three commands James is pointing us in a direction where we place our trust in the Father rather than in ourselves. When we use our tongues and anger to gain control during trials we are being deceived into believing that the Father is not faithful to us during difficult times. We are deceived to grasp our own identities and “righteousness” rather than hearing and receiving what the Father is saying and giving. We are created to flourish by hearing God’s word spoken in Jesus rather than our own voice spoken in anger. In light of this James connects the rest of the passage with “therefore.” James is going to fill out more fully what it looks like to be “quick to hear.”

Being quick to hear also includes getting rid of anything that comes between our trust in God and receiving the saving work he is doing in our lives. James tells us that we must “put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness.” By doing this we are making room to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” Notice the “word” is “implanted.” We are to receive something that we already have. Just because it has been “implanted” doesn’t mean it doesn’t take constant work and attention to receive—especially during trials. The weeds of doubt and deceit can spring up and crowd out our trust in the Father if we let our circumstances speak to us more than the “implanted” word. So, we must “put away” anything that tempts us to not put our trust in the Father’s word to us.

This “implanted word” is not a weak word with no effect. James tells us that it is “able to save your souls.” This is the word we need to hear during our times of trial. We will hear and find God’s answer and provision for what really needs to be set right. And we are encouraged to put this word to work by being “doers of the word, and not hearers only.” Otherwise, we deceive ourselves. James is telling us to put our full trust and weight on God’s word spoken to us. This means we act on it, we let it, rather than our circumstances, tell us our identity and purpose. James uses an illustration of a mirror to make his point. When we come face to face with our true identity in Christ, we are not to walk away and act as if we are someone else.

It may be helpful here to see the “mirror” as Jesus himself. Jesus not only reveals to us who the Father is, his character and love to us, but Jesus is the “implanted word” who reveals what it means to be the Father’s children. As we listen to Jesus, he is like a mirror that confronts us with our true identity. When we see Jesus, we see who we really are as the beloved children of God. If we forget who we are in Jesus, we will act as if we are not blessed and beloved. True listening leads to transformed lives of blessing and freedom as we continue to live out our “face to face” relationship with the Father, Son, Spirit.

James concludes this section by contrasting a religion that’s worthless with a religion that works.

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:26-27 ESV)

A worthless religion is where we place our trust in our own words rather than trusting in the Father’s word to us in Jesus. When we are using our words as a means of control, then we are not trusting or receiving the “implanted word” that brings us salvation. In this way we are seen to be “deceived.” Then James tells us that a “pure and undefiled” religion is “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

In James’ day the orphans and widows were those who were powerless with no influence or status. In short, they had nothing to offer in return. James is not just telling us to do good to the marginalized but rather to have all our actions toward others come from a place of fullness from receiving from the Father. Our actions are not motivated by what we can get in return but rather are motivated by what we have already received from the Father. When our trust is firmly rooted in the Father, we are free to act towards others with no other end in mind. We can speak to and care for others with no need to get something for our service. What an amazing blessing this would be if we approached all our relationships from this place of freedom!

When we see that our Father truly loves us and visits us in our time of “affliction,” then we can rest in his love with a freedom that opens us to be with others in a real and authentic way. We can become more like our Father, who gives generously with no strings attached.

Last, a “pure and undefiled” religion is “to keep oneself unstained from the world.” This is similar to James’ admonition to put away “all filthiness and rampant wickedness” so we can receive God’s implanted word. In short, anything that tempts us to put our trust in any word other than the Father’s must be avoided. Just as Adam and Eve listened to the voice of the Serpent in the Garden, so is the stain that spreads in our world. We are continually to keep ourselves from being stained by such mistrust. James is encouraging us to place our full trust in the Father so we can receive his word that gives us a righteousness that we cannot give ourselves.

Gospel Reverb is a podcast devoted to bringing you insights from Scripture found in the Revised Common Lectionary and sharing commentary from a Christ-centered and Trinitarian view. Listen to our host, Anthony Mullins and Geordie Ziegler unpack this week’s pericope.

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Time’s A Wastin’ w/ Geordie Ziegler
August 29 – Proper 17
James 1:17-27(NRSV)   “The Father of Lights”

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Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life

  • Could you relate to the experience of being offered a hug while holding baggage? Discuss how this experience is similar to our relationship to God.
  • Share any “baggage” you feel is keeping you from receiving more fully God’s love and embrace. Share past “baggage” that once prevented you from receiving all that the Father had for you.

From the Sermon

  • Can you think of times when a painful circumstance tempted you to think the Father had turned against you? Discuss how trials and the temptation to not trust the Father are linked.
  • How did James’ description of the Father as a generous giver affect you? Have you ever thought of the Father as having strings attached to his gifts? Does it sometimes seem that the Father is stingy or gives begrudgingly?
  • Discuss James’s description of God as a “Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
  • What difference does it make to know God wanted to create us rather than had to? What difference does it make knowing God created you to be the best of all he created?
  • Discuss James’ admonition to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” How are these connected with receiving the “implanted word”?
  • Can you think of examples of a worthless religion as described by James? Can you think of examples of a “pure and undefiled” religion as James describes it?

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