If you are seventeen years old and your parents promised to buy you a new car for your next birthday because you are such a good kid, but when your next birthday came, what they had all wrapped up for you in the garage was a five-speed bike because they changed their mind, I imagine you would be more than a little disappointed. If your boss said he would give you an additional five-week paid vacation because you are such a good worker, but then told you a couple of days ago on Friday that he had changed his mind and would instead give you off Labor Day Monday tomorrow, I imagine you would be more than a little disappointed. If your best friend from school whom you hadn’t seen for years said the next day was going to be a special day with him or her after weeks of planning, but the next day ended being a special day for him or her with someone else whom you didn’t even get along with in school, I again imagine you would be more than a little disappointed. But these types of things really aren’t surprising, are they, because promised gifts and promised special occasions don’t always end up being the way they were promised.
Today God tells us in his Word that, when it comes to our heavenly Father, The Gift You Were Promised Is the Gift You Will Get! Look at the opening verse – verse 17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” Let’s ask God to help us see what the gift is that we get from him and what the gift is that we can then give to others – and how that will never change.
James describes the gift we get from God above in the next verse – verse 18: “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” What has God given you? What has God given all of us? He has given you birth, James says – yes, the birth that placed you on this earth, but the birth he is talking about is the birth that placed you into his family. The thing is you and I were dead when we were given birth on this earth since we were not born into God’s family automatically. As hard as we know it is to accept sometimes, we were born as spiritual enemies of God, because we were born with the same sinful condition that everyone in this world has been born into – and that will not change, making this one major reason why we all need to be very humble about how we live and how we look at others, because when we were born, we were no different than anyone else who right now might seem like the worst person in the world and who may not really care one bit about Jesus Christ our Lord.
But God gave us the gift of birth to a different kind of life through what James calls “the word of truth.” The true message about a true Savior from sin was given to us, a message which in and of itself had the power to cause us to believe it – to believe something that would be utterly impossible for us to believe if weren’t for the fact that God the Holy Spirit gave us the faith to believe it: that someone lived as man and God in the same person – someone who never sinned, yet still died, causing God above to say he will not punish us for our sins, because he punished him instead, and then he raised him from the dead so he could bring him back to heaven, where he had always been, in order to prepare a place for us in the home we so dearly yearn to be. And of every one of us who has been given this new birth to this new life, God says that we are his first fruits. That means we are all his special ones, his chosen ones, his favorite ones. In other words, we all got the same gift – a gift none of us deserved to get, but a gift which God gave us nonetheless. And the promised gift of being God’s firstfruits is the gift we will get every single day as we continue to hear that word of truth that can truly – and does truly — save you – as James here says.
And that gift of grace which God has given us to forgive all we have done wrong, which he promises will never change, results in a gift of love which God wants us to give others. You may know that the book of James is a book in which God talks a lot about living a Christian life that is consistent with our Christian faith. God does not want us to have a phony faith, a fake faith, a faith that says all the right things but doesn’t do all the right things. As James here says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” Only the spirit of what he is saying isn’t, “Don’t be so pathetic.” Rather, he is saying, “Since we mean everything in the world to our Lord Jesus Christ, let’s do everything we can to show how our Lord Jesus Christ means everything in the world to us.” Let’s give the gift of Jesus’ love to everybody else every single day.
In these verses, our Lord gives us several examples of how we can do that. Yes, these words will humble us because they will hit us right between the spiritual eyes with the realization we simply are not what these words call us to be. But as you hear them, listen with ears that also realize what we are not, God tells us we are – through faith in our Savior Jesus “being that” for us in our place. And then you and I will see these words as wonderful reminders of some of the ways we can seek to make our Christian life more consistent with our Christian faith.
So, for example, the Lord tells us in verse 19, when it comes to other people, to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” How much more happiness and harmony there would be if we didn’t open our mouths so much. It is hard to beat the temptation to be disagreeable when we disagree or to be mean-spirited when we are in spirited conversations, but our Lord helps us remember that our path to anger will come more slowly when our desire to listen comes more quickly. That’s a gift which with God’s help we can promise our Lord to give to others — and through the strength of our Lord Jesus to actually do so more and more, as we grow in our appreciation of the fact that those people I am tempted to be angry with are people who are also God’s chosen, dearly loved people of faith – or people whom he so dearly wants to come to believe that someday.
The next example the Lord gives us in verse 21 is a gift of how we can treat ourselves. He says to “get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you.” There never has been a time in the world when there has not been moral filth and prevalent evil in the world. That’s why the Lord has continued to urge his people, as he is urging you and me today, to be people who continue to accept the Word which he plants in us, as we listen to it. Through the work of Jesus my Savior, I am clean. I am chosen. I am God’s favorite since I am his first fruit. So, dear Lord, keep helping me to keep away from my eyes and my heart those things which can fill my eyes and my heart with images and thoughts which the devil wants to use to make me feel cheap and dirty. Lord, give me this gift more and more as you have promised.
In the final paragraph, the Lord again talks about keeping a “tight reign” on our tongue, since he knows how many huge problems result for his people because of a failure to keep that little tongue from forming words that shouldn’t be spoken. Instead, our Lord lovingly emphasizes a gentle, caring heart that, as he says in the last verse of our Lesson, “looks after orphans and widows in their distress” – and then – he repeats again – that keeps itself from being polluted by the world. Even people who don’t believe in Jesus as their Savior often have a tender heart for orphans and widows who have lost siblings or parents or spouses in hurricanes and floods and many other kinds of horrible tragedies. How much more for us as the people of God to have an extra heart for those who have gone through extra suffering, something that is so wonderful to see among us – and something that I pray will continue to display itself more and more the more we keep remembering that the gift of eternal life in heaven which God has promised is the gift we will get. Let’s keep living like people who know where we are going by helping others whose lives have not been going so well.
That is what will keep happening among us as God’s people as we keep thanking God that he does not change like shifting shadows that every few minutes of the day move from one part of the earth to another. Every gift of body and soul he gives us is good and perfect because whatever we have in life is exactly what the Lord God who made us and who loves us wants us to have – and exactly when he wants us to have it. But first among those gifts is that in his love — for the sake of Jesus Christ our Savior — he considers us to be the first fruits of his entire creation. And that promised gift of his love will not change into another gift when we die or on any day before then. We have his word on that — the word that makes us want to keep giving our word to everyone else we know how much we will always love them, too, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.