Sermon for Sunday, September 5th, 2021, the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
The Lessons: Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:31-37
The Text: James 1:17-27
The Topic: Pure and defiled religion shows itself in caring for the poor and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world’s sinfulness.
Immediately before the opening verse of our Epistle Lesson today, St. James warns his readers, “Do not err, my beloved brethren” (James 1:16). He then writes that every good and perfect gift comes from heaven, from God, “the Father of lights,” with whom there is no variableness nor shadow of turning (James 1:17). What does St. James mean by this description “no variableness neither shadow of turning”? Surely, he means that God is completely determined to give good gifts, to give perfect gifts, to mankind. He does not suddenly change his mind and start giving bad gifts, or unhelpful ones. He is resolved to give good gifts. The Lord Jesus Christ taught the same truth in Matthew 7:7-11 and Luke 11:9-13. In the passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel the Lord tells his disciples that God will give good things to all who ask him and in the passage from St. Luke’s Gospel, He tells them the heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.
GOD’S GIFT OF NEW LIFE REQUIRES TRANSFORMED BEHAVIOR
St. James then shows us the wonderful gift of new life God has given every Christian. With the Gospel, the word of truth, God has begotten us, that is given us new birth by the Holy Spirit, so that we should be the best of God’s harvest from mankind, the Church. All this has come about as God’s answer of love to mankind’s sin and the effects of his yielding to temptation. In contrast to man’s sinful yielding to temptation producing the fruit of death, God gives good gifts, and supremely the gifts of forgiveness of sins, salvation, eternal life, and the Holy Spirit. Now the fact that God through his Only Begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, has given the gift of salvation and new creation to all who believe in Him, is intended to produce a very profound change of behavior among all who are “the firstfruits of his creatures,” that is, Christians. St. Paul proclaimed this transformation of behavior when he wrote:
Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
(2 Corinthians 5:17, KJV)
St. James, after stating that God has given us Christians new birth, gives this exhortation relating to our attitude and behavior:
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.
(James 1:19, KJV)
What we must prioritize in our conversations and relationships is being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. By contrast, there are some who are quick to speak, slow to listen, or they don’t listen at all, and they become extremely angry quickly. The word “wherefore” connects this exhortation to the previous statement about Christians having been given new birth. But the Greek word used for “wherefore” translates better as “Know this” – an imperative – this is something we must know and do. The reason we must be quick to listen is that we need to know the content of what someone is saying and pay attention to it, whether it is true or not, so that we do not jump to false conclusions. We need to be slow to speak, because we must control our emotions and not always say whatever first comes to mind. We must be slow to anger since human anger does not bring about the righteousness of God, and often our anger is not justified. Even when it is, expressing it may bring about unintended consequences and hurt people as well.
LAY ASIDE ALL SIN AND RECEIVE GOD’S WORD
After this warning against the anger of man, St. Paul commands Christians to discard all “filthiness,” which means greed, vulgarity, and every form of sin. All “superfluity of naughtiness” (James 1:21a, KJV) must also be removed from our lives. This refers to malice and wickedness of every kind. No deep undercurrents of malice toward anyone must flow through our minds or be apparent in our lives.
Instead of allowing any sin or vice to rule us, we must lay it aside for good, and humbly receive the word of God planted in us, that can save our souls. How do we humbly receive “the engrafted word” of God? We expose our minds as much as possible to God’s word, by listening to it read and preached, by reading and studying it, by praying and meditating on it, by asking the Holy Spirit to illuminate our minds as to its meaning, and by applying it to our lives and obeying it.
DOERS OF THE WORD AND NOT HEARERS ONLY
Rather than forgetfully hearing or reading God’s word, like the man who looks at himself in the mirror and forgets what he looks like, we must continue looking into God’s word, the Bible, to discover, learn and remember how we ought to be, and what our behavior and way of life should be. Only to hear God’s word and not to obey and do it, St. James reminds us, is to deceive ourselves (James 1:22). From making the point about the self-deception of hearing and not doing God’s word, St. James proceeds to warn against hypocrisy in religion when one is religious but does not control his tongue but deceives his heart. This kind of religion is vain (James 1:26).
PURE AND UNDEFILED RELIGION
What kind of religion then, if we are speaking about Christianity, is pure and undefiled in the sight of God the Father? St. James is not defining the only characteristics of pure and undefiled religion but stipulating necessary expressions of it. These expressions are caring for orphans and widows in their affliction and keeping oneself morally pure, unblemished by the world (James 1:27). “To visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction” is to look after the poor in their distress. The word “visit” here implies “care for.” There is no room for the idea here that people in these situations must just look after themselves and fend for themselves. It is as if St. James were saying, “If you do not care for the poor, you do not have a pure, blameless Christian witness.” Orphans and widows in the ancient Near East were poverty stricken, as their bread winners had died. In many African countries today, orphans and widows are just as poor.
Here is the story of a Muslim woman whom a Christian organization helped make a living for herself:
Sheikha was born about sixty years ago to a Bedouin family that roamed across vast areas of the Middle East. Today her tribe is forced to live in one place because their nomadic ways are unwelcomed by landowners and considered a security threat by governments.
Sheikha’s life fell short of the noble designs her parents had for her. Where she lives is not part of any country. Fierce fighting flares between Jews and Arabs only a few miles away. Also, the husband with whom she had six children abandoned her, leaving Sheikha to fend for herself and a severely disabled daughter.
Though uneducated, Sheikha is resourceful. She scraped together some cash, bought a couple of junkyard buses, and had them towed to her village of fifteen hundred people. Sheikha and her daughter live in one bus and planned to open a little convenience market in the shell of the other. With the help of HOPE, a Christian organization, she has done that.
HOPE loaned the money Sheika needed to fill her shop with small items like soap, school supplies, and basic medicines. The store is a great service to the village, a great way for Sheikha to make a living, and a big witness to Muslims. “I prefer to be with Christians because they feel for the poor who need help,” Sheikha says. “The others didn’t look after me, not even my husband.”
– Kevin Miller, “Christians Help Muslim Widow,” PreachingToday.com
In conclusion, where do you stand? How do you care for the poor? Is your religion pure and undefiled?
 p.180, Craig Brian Larson & Phyllis Ten Elshof (General Editors): 1001 Illustrations that Connect. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, Christianity Today International, 2008.