Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 22 • 30 Aug 2015

Song of Solomon 2:8-13
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Rev. John Candy

Often forgotten, yet lying wondrously tucked in the back of the New Testament is the letter of James. While Luther mistakenly dismissed it as an epistle of straw, modern scholarship has revived its importance. This brief and sharply argued rhetorical letter has recently been reconnected by some with James the brother of Jesus. James offers us profoundly practical help in living daily as followers of Jesus Christ.
At the close of the first chapter of James the reader encounters a powerful claiming statement. Verse 17 is a line of poetry in the Greek. “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” What a beautiful verse. Here is genuine good news. It is not all up to us. The good does not arise from our gritty will power. It comes from what we call above or outside this world, as a gift, from God.
Do you remember an old tale about the guy who bragged that he was a self-made man? People who knew him said that accounted for a lot. When wrestling with problems and struggling with destructive impulses, James instructs us to turn to God. What we find with our God and our relationship with God is what accounts for a lot
Trying harder alone is not enough, as noble as that may be. The story is told of how a legendary footy coach, stood on the sideline during one game, watching the opposing team run around his team’s right end successfully time after time. In frustration he called for one of his substitutes. “Jimmy,” he said, instructing the player, “I want you to go in there and stop that sweep around the right end.” With pumped up enthusiasm Jimmy replied, “I’ll try coach!” The coach looked at him in disgust. “Sit down son,” he said, “Billy’s trying.”
We have to do more than just try. We are to turn to the “Father of lights.” The lights are a reference to the heavenly bodies—the sun, the moon, the stars—as great as they are, they change. One author, Luke Timothy Johnson notes: “The text opposes the steadfastness of God to the changeableness of creation, exemplified by the heavenly bodies” The term change in the
original language of the letter is an astrological term. There is clearly an intended nod at astrology in this verse. But, don’t bother looking up your horoscope. The signs in the cosmos won’t help you to live wisely, and conquer destructive desires. This can only be done by turning to God.
God alone is the Father of lights. In Verse 18 the passage turns to strikingly feminine imagery in which James calls us to trust God, “he gave us birth by the word of truth.” It is suggested that the language is metaphorical. God created you. God called you into being. Your divine purpose is not to fulfil all those body itches of pleasure that might come your way but to be the “first fruits” of God’s good creation.
When Ulysses sailed past the island of sirens, he had himself lashed to the mast so that he could hear their music but not give in to their destructive temptation. It is a pitiful example of resistance to temptation, exhibiting a shallow notion of what it means to be human. In contrast, when the Argonauts sailed past, Orpheus played his lyre, making music so much more beautiful than the song of the sirens, that they sailed on to complete their great quest.
The Christian claim of faith is that life in, and through, and under Christ can be (and will be) the making of a great symphony. James bids us to tune our lives to hear the music of God! There is greatness within you, within me, within us that comes from God.
With this great crucial preface, the rest of the passage from James challenges us to lean forward into a life lived for the purpose and glory of God. In verse 19 we have the emphasis. “You must . . .” pay attention; follow this and apply this teaching as a first fruit of the creative genius of God.
While contemporary pop psychology has almost made a virtue of venting, ancient moral discourse noted the danger of unchecked impulsive anger. If we are to walk in the path that Jesus calls us to it is to be a path of a kindness of spirit that is “quick to listen” and “slow to anger.” The paragraph finishes with a call to righteous living. In verse 21 the imagery is of stripping (like throwing off old, soiled clothes) and cleansing. The punch line in this rhetorical argument is “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
The rest of the passage carefully lays out the implications of living wisely as a Christian. The advice offered is intensely practical and firmly grounded in reality. The perfect law or “law of liberty” is not an invitation to self-indulgence, but calling Christians back to their Jewish roots in the Torah. It is meant to evoke an echo of the Great Commandment with which Jesus summarises the law and the prophets (Luke 10:25-27).
The closing emphasis to care for the orphans and widows is straight out of the prophetic tradition. Righteousness is a concrete living out of love, justice, and mercy under the Lordship of the triune God. We must be careful to not just immediately go to any one verse and follow it alone. The context to the challenge of righteous living comes from God. This is not a plebeian cry just to try harder; instead it is a claim to live as a Christian, walking in the way of Christ. The sustaining power is from the Lord alone who has created us as “first fruits.” We are to strive to be unstained as God’s creatures.”