Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.James 1:22
“Be doers of the word,” James tells us in James 1:22, and “not merely hearers.” But what does he mean by that? That’s what I would like to explore with you today, using today’s second reading, James 1:17-27.
This letter was written to help us Christians learn how to live as Christians. This letter is not that interested in reminding us of what we believe. Or how we worship. But in how to live. It is a very practical letter, in that sense.
For the next five Sundays, we are going to hear portions of this letter. Which means that for the next five Sundays, we are going to be hearing some good, practical thoughts on what it means to live as a Christian. And so I thought I’d reflect with you on this Letter this morning.
Now, to be honest, this has not always been a very popular one with Lutherans. And that goes all the way back to Martin Luther, who didn’t like this letter very much. He didn’t like it because he could not find the basic message of the gospel in this letter. Nowhere does it tell us that Christ died for our sins. Nowhere does it tell us that God so loved the world that he gave his only son. Nowhere does it tell us that we are saved by God’s grace through faith. But that’s not the purpose of this letter. It assumes that we know all of that, and it tackles the next question, which is how to live out our faith.
To put it another way, if you know someone who is interested in learning about our Christian faith, you wouldn’t want to give them this letter. You’d want to give them one of the gospels, or one of Paul’s letters. And then, of course, you’d want to sit down with them and talk to them about God’s love shown to us in Jesus Christ.
This letter is not written for them. It is written for us. And for we who are Christians, the Letter of James is tremendously important. Because it challenges us to take the next step in our walk with Jesus, in our life of discipleship, and it teaches us how to do so. It challenges us not just to talk the talk, but to walk the walk. And then it shows us what that means. And that’s why I think it is worth taking a look at today. So, with that in mind, let’s dig in.
Every Perfect Gift Is from Above
James starts this particular passage by reminding us that every perfect gift is from above, from “The Father of Lights,” as James calls God in this reading. Every perfect gift is from above, including the gift of God’s Word. And before we can do the word, we must hear the word. We must receive the word. The word that comes down to us from above.
I know it’s a long way from the Christmas Season, but this does make me think of a scene from one of my favorite Christmas specials, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” The scene I am thinking of takes place toward the end. It is Christmas morning, and all the Whos down in Whoville are gathered around, joining hands, and singing. Even though all of their Christmas presents have been stolen from them. It is a wonderful scene that causes the Grinch’s heart to swell. But as they are singing, a light or a star appears in their midst, and rises to the heavens. It’s a nice scene, but it goes against what James tells us here. He tells us that every good gift comes from above.
If there is to be a light in our midst, it will start from the heavens and descend to us. Which is what happened on that first Christmas. The word came down from heaven, became flesh, and was born among us. And the word of God which fills our scriptures, also comes from above. It all comes from above, not from us. Every good and perfect gift comes from above, comes from God. It doesn’t come from us. It can’t. It must come from God. Why? Because we are captive to sin, to put it in good Lutheran terms.
Or, as Jesus puts it in today’s gospel reading (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23), we all have “defiled hearts.” Nothing good can come from us without being received first from God. And the first and greatest gift is always Jesus himself. Which comes from above. He came from above for us and for our salvation. And he went to the cross for us and for our salvation. He gave us the perfect gift so that we could receive the perfect gift: the salvation of our souls. Which certainly doesn’t come from us.
That’s what the Pharisees got mixed up in today’s gospel. They thought that they could do something to earn their salvation. And so they heaped on regulation after regulation, trying to keep themselves pure, undefiled. But it can’t be done. Not by us. It can only come from above. We’ve got to be clear about that, or Christianity just becomes one more burden in our burdensome lives. Or one more self-help promise that ultimately disappoints us. We can’t earn it. But we can receive it.
Welcome with Meekness the Implanted Word
And James describes how to receive this, in the next part of this letter. He writes, “receive with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” God’s word has the power to change us, when we welcome it with meekness. That is, when we allow ourselves to be guided and shaped by it. It becomes the implanted word that takes root in our souls, and grows to change us, to transform us into the image of Christ.
What a wonderful image that is – the implanted word, God’s word planted in our souls. I really like how Eugene Peterson translates this passage in his paraphrase of the Bible called “The Message”:
“In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.”
That’s what we are called to do. Let God landscape us with the Word. Let God shape us and form us and make a salvation-garden of our souls.We do that when we welcome with meekness God’s implanted word. We are then willing to be changed by this Word, to be led by this Word; to live not by our will but by the will of God. We are ready to be doers of the word.
Be Doers of the Word
So, we’re back to what it means to actually be doers of the word. How do we do that? James will actually describe what this means throughout the rest of this letter. In today’s passage, he tells us that being doers of the word means three things, so I’ll stick to these.
First, James tells us to bridle our tongues. He is going to say more about this in Chapter 3. Here is what he says there:
If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. (James 3:3-6)
So, the tongue is very powerful, boasts of great exploits, but needs to be controlled, so that we don’t set forests ablaze. The first way to be doers of the word, in other words, is to make sure that what we are saying and writing is pleasing to God. What we say and what we write matters. It can tear down, and it can build up. Be doers of the word by controlling what we say and write.
The second way to be doers of the word in this passage from James is to “care for orphans and widows.” Why widows and orphans? In ancient cultures, the widows and orphans had no direct means of support, and rarely had dependable legal defenders. They were very vulnerable to injustice, and often oppressed. These days we might think of other groups in our culture who are vulnerable to injustice, or who are oppressed.
The simple truth is that God has always shown great care for the poor and oppressed, and expects us to as well. We can’t really be doers of the word if we are not doing this.
And the third way to be doers of the word, according to this passage, is to “keep oneself unstained by the world.” So, what does that mean? I suppose that we could do a whole sermon series on that line alone, couldn’t we?
If we are going to be doers of God’s word, we are going to have to live differently from the world around us. As I told my kids many times when they were growing up, we Christians are called to live differently. We might watch different movies and shows, or read different books. We might even speak differently, too. We do this to try and keep ourselves unstained by this messy world. We live in the world, obviously. But not of the world. The world does not tell us what to think, or how to live. Our faith does that.
It’s not easy, of course. As Jesus tells us in today’s gospel reading, the human heart is filled with evil intentions. That is true for us all. We may live in a messy world, but part of the mess is our fault.
I have always appreciated the answer that G.K. Chesterton gave to the question of what is wrong with the world. Chesterton was a journalist and devout Christian, and when asked what he thought was wrong with the world, he simply answered: I am.
What’s wrong with the world? A Christian can always begin with that answer. We are.
So, what do we do? We welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save our souls.
Rather than try to fix ourselves, we let our hearts and souls be filled with God’s love. This is much easier, and much more effective, than trying to empty our heart and soul of evil intentions. Because a heart and soul filled with all that God wants to give us, simply has no room for anything else.
So, let us welcome once again the implanted word, from heaven above, from the Father of Lights. Let us invite our gardener, God, to landscape us with the Word, and make a salvation-garden of our life. And then? Let us continue being doers of the word, until all the world receives this same wonderful, eternal gift. To the glory of God. Amen.