amusing ourselves to death
The Fourth Sunday After Easter
Job 19:21-27a, Psalm 116, St. James 1:17-21, St. John 16:5-15
A Word to the Wise
My father was the youngest of four. My grandfather, Edward Govan Fowler Sr., died when Dad was 12. I know him only through the family lore.
In her later years, my Aunt Jennie was fond of telling the story of her first date. Growing up in what was called the Texas Company camp outside the oilfield town of West Columbia, Texas, she had been looking forward to turning 16, when she would be allowed to date.
Shortly after that magic day arrived she was asked out. She followed the family protocol. Her young beau arrived on the front porch and her father answered the door and invited him in.
When they were seated her father made small talk with the lad for a very small time. Then he got down to business.
“I want her back by 10.”
“10 means 10. 10 doesn’t mean 10:05. 10 doesn’t mean 10:01. 10 means 10.”
“And I want her back in the same condition she left in.”
Do you think those instructions were clear enough?
We live as Christians under the covenant of grace. Grace is for grown-up Christians. Our Lord expects us to know His law as He lays it out in both the Old and New Testaments – to read it, study it, meditate on it, pray over it and then apply it to our daily lives.
To learn it well enough to understand what we must do in those myriad situations for which we have no specific commandments. Whom should I marry? What work should I do? How much of my time, talent and treasure should I give to God’s church? Grace is for grown-ups.
St. James weighs in today with a reminder that while we live under grace there are absolutes in God’s law that do not bend. “10 means 10. 10 doesn’t mean 10:05. 10 doesn’t mean 10:01. 10 means 10.”
Up above are the lights, the sun, the moon, the stars. Down below is man. The lights that shine down on man proceed from the Father of lights, but He is nowhere to be seen.
This is the picture James paints. Has he forgotten the Father? May it never be.
James brushes onto his canvas only the fickle created things. The lights in the sky loom now over here, now over there, shifting, ever shifting.
They spill out upon this brooding creature, slow to hear, quick to speak, quick to wrath. He knows no more constancy than a flashing meteorite.
God has no place in this earthscape of shifting shapes and bodies in motion. He is the immortal, the invisible and, yes, the immutable. Always the same – yesterday, today and tomorrow.
He abides over there, just off the canvas, no part of the created order but Author of all. His word creates. His word re-creates. His word never changes. His word never fails.
This is the composition of James the Just, leader of the Jerusalem church, president of the Jerusalem council, half-brother of our Lord. The deposit of his quick mind is this bare-bones letter, devoid of clutter. Its elegance resides in its simplicity.
Some have called it the Proverbs of the New Testament. Others have claimed it is a collection of aphorisms tossed like lettuce and tomatoes. But it is more. It is wisdom distilled; the likening of it to Proverbs is apt.
The ancient world found wisdom in the contemplation of wisdom. Solomon, that wisest of men, found a great deal to say about it. Here’s Proverbs 10:19: “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking. But he who restrains his lips is wise.”
And 29:20: “Do you see a man hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”
This preoccupation was hardly confined to the biblical authors. Many dwelled on when a man should act with haste and when with deliberation. Be slow to punish, said Ovid, but swift to reward. Be slow to harm others, said Philo, but quick to benefit them.
Considering wisdom, I began to wonder: If the ancients poured so much thought into it, how is there so little of it in the world today? Where did it go? How did it go? Why did it go? Who made it go?
So for answers I turned to my browser. Wowser. A sampling:
“Will and Grace” revival is set to air
Maher slammed over incest joke about president, Ivanka
Simmons sues National Enquirer over sex-change story
Jimmy Kimmel confronts critics in late-night return
Big News for “American Idol” fans
Ben & Jerry’s announces recall of popular treat
And more. So much more.
Have you ever had the feeling you’re not part of the target demographic? Have you ever had a nightmare about being trapped at a United Nations debate without the headphones?
About 30 years ago, before the Internet was anything like the daily presence in our lives it has become, a communications professor named Neil Postman wrote a book titled, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”
He traced the degradation of public discourse in America back to its early sources. Postman wrote this about the telegraph: “The telegraph is suited only to the flashing of messages, each to be quickly replaced by a more up-to-date message.
“Facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation.” The result was a sort of public conversation in a language reduced to headlines – “sensational, fragmented, impersonal. News took the form of slogans, to be noted with excitement, to be forgotten with dispatch.”
That was the telegraph. Now we have the Internet, email, Facebook, texting, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, to say nothing of radio and television. The world that flashes before us is ablaze with amusements kindled to torch our passions and blind us to the constant things. Wisdom? How quaint.
But . . .the world changes. We’re past that eternal-truth thing. A God who can’t keep up, who insists on standing outside the blur of the created order, who says, “Be still and know that I am God” . . . well, it worked for a while. We got over it.
One other item from Postman: Television succeeds by flipping images relentlessly. The Sermon on the Mount wouldn’t play on the tube today. So televised church services become cartoons. He writes:
“I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.”
This accounts, I believe, for much of the divide in the church of our place and time. Many have gotten over eternal truth, moved on. But when religion becomes, like TV news, an entertainment for riling our passions of the moment, to be replaced tomorrow by another outrage of the century or a warm and fuzzy reunion of twins separated at birth, it sinks to the level of slapstick.
Our technology is bringing our cultural death nearer and nearer. We have consigned telegraph to the age of the dinosaurs. Now, tweeting is all the rage. The interesting – and disheartening – thing is that people are using the tweet as a substitute for real action, something like sports fans who convince themselves that their passion affects what happens on the field.
I recall from my days as a radio sports talk-show host having Bill Walton on as a guest. Walton, a former great center, was by now a television commentator. The Houston Rockets had a three games to none lead over the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals.
I mentioned to Walton off-air that I was going to skip Game 4 to head up to Long Island for the U.S. Open. He was shocked. I was taking way too much for granted as a Houston sports media dude. I had to remind him that I had never suited up for the Rockets and my presence or absence would have zilch effect on the outcome of that game and the series.
By the way, the Rockets won Game 4 without my help.
Sports fans can have their fun with no harm done, but when show-business celebrities – people who might do something of substance — persuade themselves that they have contributed to the cause with a tweet . . . well, empty minds generate empty gestures.
They are doing nothing but amusing themselves with their delusion.
Our fascination with the flippant and fleeting is turning us into a nation of ADD kids of all ages. The faith God has given us to shape our culture is reinventing itself every few years to hang on by the fingernails to an ever-shrinking place in that culture.
Still, some of us cling to the moldy chestnut of a durable truth set forth in a wisdom for the ages. Like troops on a remote island who never received word that the war is over, we soldier on.
“Of His own will,” St. James says of God, “He brought us forth by the word of truth . . .” This is not birth but rebirth. God created by His word, to be sure, but James has in view the re-creation. The word, specifically the word of truth, the gospel, is the divine agent of regeneration. By it, we are born again.
James is the New Testament’s pre-eminent ethicist. He exhorts his readers, then and now, to keep ourselves unspotted, free of the world’s contamination. Our means of doing so is obedience to the word. James is a bit of a scold, but I suppose Jesus’ brother does enjoy a certain status.
He wants us – and he seems really to expect that we comply – to control and even edit our emotions. Psychologists testify to the impossibility of such a thing. We can suppress them now and again but we’re stuck with them.
James insists on the contrary. If God’s word and His Holy Spirit dwell within us, we can grow in godliness. Dr. Cranmer takes James’ side. In our collect for the day we prayed to a God “who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men.”
Dr. Cranmer, in fact, is every bit as convinced as James is. “Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise . . .” God has the power to make His desires our desires.
Why should we love God’s commands and yearn for the things He promises? “. . . that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Yes, God’s world is changing. But its Creator is not. The true joys belong to those whose hearts are fixed on His eternal word. There is no variation or shadow of turning in the One who provides every good gift and every perfect gift from above.
We’ll grasp more of James’ thinking if we probe a bit deeper. As our passage begins, he is concluding a thought. He has said, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone.”
Far from tempting anyone to evil, we now learn, He supplies good gifts. The best of them is the new birth, by which we who are deserving only of death are rescued and redeemed and preserved unto everlasting life. So it is that we become the firstfruits: Christians are the first stage of God’s work of reclaiming the world from the clutches of sin and death.
Next we read a warning against intemperate speech and anger that seems at first out of place. We will soon see how it fits into James’ train of thought. We can see on the face of it that careless talk and a hot temper subvert God’s purposes.
Yes, there is a holy anger. Our Lord Jesus unleashed it on occasion. But if I am to brand my anger as “holy,” I should first ask myself: Are you holy enough to own such a thing? If not, your anger is the fruit of self-importance, stubbornness, intolerance. And when you’re angry, you’re not listening . . . to God.
A quiet demeanor characterizes a man at peace. A brilliant linguist once received a great compliment. It was said of him that he could keep silence in seven languages.
But soon we see that James is setting up a contrast between the hot-tempered man of vv. 19-20 and the one in v. 21 who receives “with meekness the implanted word.” Meekness characterizes one with a teachable spirit. Many of us, if clothed in our meekness, would be darn near naked.
If you know better than the teacher how to run the classroom, better than the judge how to run the courtroom, better than the sheriff how to run the jail, better than the priest how to run the church, better than God how to run the world . . . you could use a double-shot of meekness.
James is building toward that best-known verse in his letter, 22: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
Here’s the progression: God will not tempt anyone to sin but will rather give good gifts, including salvation, which comes by His word; do not rage and blow your top but maintain a meek and teachable spirit so that you might respond well to God’s word implanted in you.
Our Lord’s brother wants us to accept God’s grace and respond to it, to accept God’s gifts and answer with our service, to receive God’s word and become doers of that word. Centuries before, God had promised a new covenant that would replace the one He gave Israel under Moses and David. He would put His law in their minds and write it on their hearts.
So doing, He would stimulate in place of rebellion, obedience; implant in place of hearts of stone, hearts of flesh. A heart of flesh can receive the word. God uses the implanted word to shape us. The word that generated a new nature in us in a flash ushers us by degrees into a new life, a lovely life. And some still insist that mere men dreamed this stuff up on their own.
Beloved, there is wisdom in these words, wisdom that flows from a truth that has not changed since Adam’s day and which will serve as the foundation of the New Jerusalem. Our world tells us that after two millennia of immersion in the wisdom of the God of the Bible it has escaped the rusty shackles of the word.
The world doesn’t tell us that it has not yet discovered a transcendent truth to replace our Lord’s truth, a core of wisdom that it can substitute for God’s wisdom. But they don’t need to tell us as we watch them amusing themselves to death.
The Lord God reigns. He gives good gifts. He brings forth by His word. His word endures forever and ever. Thanks be to God. Amen.