Lectionary Texts: Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
I will begin by doing something not in my normal path of exegeting Scripture, that is, I will juxtapose some of the words of Jesus in the Gospel reading with words of His brother James in his epistle:
From within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the Word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.
Where do we find ourselves this morning on this continuum? Jesus’ list of evils that proceed from our hearts sounds a lot like lists that we encounter in the letters of Paul; and since we believe that both are divinely inspired, I think it’s important that we locate ourselves on these lists. Did you stop listening after “fornications, thefts, murders and adulteries,” assuming that you don’t fit anywhere in this catena of evils? Then you may have missed the places where all of us fit at one time or another: “coveting, envy, slander, pride and foolishness.” In our human nature we want to protest and say that it’s unfair of Jesus to include these inevitable human “slip-ups” alongside “murders and adulteries.” But He does, unapologetically! And James will raise the bar in next week’s reading by saying, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point has become guilty of all.”
Why did I jam up Jesus’ list against what James writes? Because James tells us that all of these things, things he unabashedly calls “filthiness,” are to be put aside by us in favor of humbly receiving “the Word implanted.” What does he mean by that? He means that the Word of God, formerly entirely external to our existence, now by the power of the Holy Spirit has found a place within our very beings, within our consciousness, within our consciences. And since this has happened to us when once we lay claim to the faith of the Gospel, we find ourselves without excuse for not being “doers of the Word,” but “merely hearers who delude themselves.”
Do we delude ourselves? James compares us to someone who looks in a mirror, sees his disheveled state, and walks away forgetting what he saw. That’s what he says we do, when we come to church, hear the Word of God, recognize how far short we fall of God’s standards, nod in agreement, mutter our “mea culpa’s,” yet go away fundamentally unchanged. What happens if we allow ourselves to be challenged and changed by our encounters with God’s Holy Word and with His Son at His table? James tells us that we will be blessed whenever we look “intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abide by it, not having become forgetful hearers but effectual doers.”
Sounds reasonably simple, doesn’t it? But therein lies the problem. More often than not we fall into the trap James correctly identifies. We hear, we acknowledge, we depart, we forget and we fail to do what we heard and perhaps even pledged to do. It’s not enough to hear God’s Word, agree with it, consent to its claims on us, yet to walk away in forgetfulness and not become “effectual doers” of those things that are expected and required of us. There’s the rub.
Jesus said to His contemporaries, “‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men. Neglecting the commandment of God, they hold to the tradition of men.” Is that what we do 2,000 years later? Certainly every honest person will confess to doing this some of the time, some persons more than others.
What is it for which Jesus was condemning His contemporaries? He was addressing the religious leadership of His day, persons who were so deeply steeped in their traditions that they had built elaborate fences around the law in order to protect themselves, so they thought, from any possible slip-ups. But for this extra measure of precaution Jesus simply castigates them. Why? Because in exalting their traditions above God’s laws themselves, they had missed the whole point of what, in God’s view, constituted righteous behavior. They walked within their own lines, yet in the process walked outside of God’s lines. Were they guilty of murder and adultery? Perhaps not. But that was not the focus of Jesus, nor was it the focus of James. Jesus said that “evil things proceed from within and defile the man.” His emphasis was not on the righteous exterior but on the interior castles: evil on one hand and righteousness on the other.
Which castles are we building? James, in verses we all love to quote, reminds us that “every good act of giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with Whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” That’s the verse from which the writer of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” drew the line, “There is no shadow of turning with Thee,” to which he added, “Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not.” If we presume to appropriate such characteristics to ourselves, then we definitely resemble the persons James describes, who look in a mirror then walk away, forgetting what sort of persons they really are. Only to God Himself can we say, “As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.” As for ourselves we hear the voice of Jesus say, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me.’”
I know for certain that some of you, hearing these words this morning, are thinking, “This is way too harsh.” I can assure you that the people Jesus was addressing thought the same thing. But I also will assure you this morning that I’m hearing the voice of Jesus myself and I’m saying, “Yes, Lord, guilty as charged. I, too, have hid behind traditions and fences and excuses and self-righteousness and pride. I, too, have believed that my righteousness exceeded that of many others and that I had some right to believe I had earned my way into God’s favor and His Kingdom.” Just then, I come back to the words of James, reminding myself that this is the brother of the Lord speaking:
“If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Visiting distressed widows and orphans is one thing, but what on earth did James mean by keeping oneself “unstained by the world?” That sounds beyond the ability of any 21st century human being, given the preponderance of in-our-faces “stains of the world” everywhere we turn.
Now I’m right back to my mea culpa’s, to my candid acknowledgment of my own flaws, my personal failures, my “stumbling,” as James calls it, my inability to live up to God’s lofty standards. In such dark times we often find solace in the Psalms, especially in the Psalms of David, a man who knew well what it was to be forgiven by a God Who is gracious, compassionate and abounding in lovingkindness. But if we look to today’s psalm we’ll be hard-pressed to find any comfort or encouragement:
O Lord, who may dwell on Your holy hill? He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart. He does not slander with his tongue, nor does evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend; in whose eyes a reprobate is despised, but who honors those who fear the Lord; He swears to his own hurt and does not change; He does not put out his money at interest, nor does he take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things will never be shaken.
I’m going with “will be shaken” for the moment. Again we have a grocery list of sins where we can find some to which we rightly can plead “not guilty.” And, again, in our honest moments when we remember what we really saw in that spiritual mirror to which James referred, we confess that we’ve not always walked with integrity, worked righteousness, spoken truth in our hearts and honored those who fear the Lord. It’s the positives that may condemn our hearts more readily than the negatives. The positives convincingly show us that we have sinned by falling short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). God’s glory is perpetually beyond our grasp.
Is there hope for us? Does anyone have a suggestion for a cure? Yes, as we already have seen, James offered the perfect antidote to our sinfulness, our inclination towards wickedness and away from God’s demands. James wrote, “Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the Word implanted, which is able to save your souls.” Ideally, that’s why we are gathered here this morning. That’s why we’re to have a deep thirst for God’s Holy Word and a desire that it will truly be implanted in our very souls.
That’s exactly why we encourage all of you to practice the disciplines of daily Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. It’s also why we offer Adult Ed every Sunday morning, Bible Study every Sunday evening and Evensong with Eucharist most Wednesday evenings. All of those gatherings are designed to be spiritual thirst-quenchers. They provide opportunities for us to allow God’s Word to be more deeply implanted so that our souls may be saved. They help safeguard us and fortify us against filthiness and wickedness. They bring us together as sinners who deeply need this “implanting.” Each of these opportunities is saturated in Scripture. Psalm 1 describes the “blessed” as those whose “delight is in the law of the Lord and they meditate on His law day and night” (1:2).
We know that periodic or even regular attendance on Sunday morning is not enough. We admit that our commitment to daily Bible reading and prayer, our personal devotional life, is more hit-or-miss than “day and night.” We need to pray that, following the example of bishop Richard of Chichester, we will see Christ more clearly, love Him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly, day by day. It’s the “day by day” part that eludes us.
Yet we’re aware of our need, of our thirst, of the spiritual shallowness that prevents us from knowing God better and from coming to terms with the sacrifice of His only Son for our sin and our salvation. Yes, the grace of the altar fills us in incomparable ways. But the Apostle Peter wrote that we must “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18) and the Apostle Paul prayed “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give (us) a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him” (Ephesians 1:17), that we “may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9), and that our “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” (Philippians 1:9). Our growth in grace, knowledge, wisdom, discernment and love is predicated entirely on our deepened understanding of God’s Word and, through that, a deepened commitment to doing His will.
May this be our prayer together this morning, again with the 13th century bishop, Saint Richard of Chichester:
Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ
For all the benefits Thou hast given me,
For all the pains and insults Thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know Thee more clearly,
Love Thee more dearly,
Follow Thee more nearly (day by day).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.