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.
The First Sunday After the Epiphany
Isaiah 60:1-9, Psalm 72, Romans 12:1-5, Luke 2:41-52
I once met a wise man. I had to travel miles and miles to find him. I’m going to tell you about him. Truly wise men are in short supply.
n this Epiphany season, the wise men lead us into the consideration of wisdom. They are gentiles and they have traversed afar to encounter the Christ child. Have you ever stopped to think about what makes them wise?
Have you ever stopped to think about what makes wisdom wisdom? It is ascribed to a number of famous men throughout history. Socrates, Confucius, Gandhi, Mao. Each has a considerable following. He must be wise.
But not one of them was wise in the way of the wise men who made that long trek to Bethlehem. The Scriptures tell us near to naught about them before their arrival. It appears they didn’t invent geometry or break new ground in philosophy. What makes them wise?
I think it’s this: They sought wisdom not in ideas or theories or propositions but in a Person. The Person of Jesus Christ. They distinguished the wisdom of man from the wisdom of God.
But let me tell you about the wise man I met.
Some years ago, I was in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, when someone said to me, “When you get to Osh, be sure to look up Jim. You’ll be glad you did.”
Landing in the southern town of Osh after flying over the snowy tips of the Tien Shan Range, I kissed the ground. The motto of Air Kyrgyzstan, as I recall, is “Often, We Arrive.” It sounds more poetic in Kyrgyz. Then I went looking for Jim. I was glad I did.
He’s an Australian, and an impressive bloke indeed. He had served in his country’s special forces, and then gone on to seminary, and then on to Osh, where his training in warfare both carnal and spiritual no doubt served him well. In all of the old Soviet stans of Central Asia, the most radical Islamists lurk in the lawless valleys around Osh.
Missionaries bound for rural, primitive, sometimes hostile places receive training in seeking out the man of peace. He is the most honored graybeard in the village, the one who dispenses justice and maintains order by his Solomonic decisions. In the Muslim world, he is usually the imam, or local cleric.
Jim did just this, tramping about the hinterlands and asking around in each village until he located the man of peace. Jim then told him he had come to help, and would like to begin working with the people on some things that would improve their lives.
He sketched out what were for him simple, small-scale measures involving things like increasing the production of dairy cows and making their milk safer to drink. When the imam agreed, Jim went to work.
After months of dispensing his ornaments of grace and gaining trust, he would say to the imam, “Each Thursday when I come to your village I would like to stay after work in the evening and teach your people from the wisdom literature of my people, from a book in my Bible called Proverbs.”
The imam would say, “We are Muslim. Why do you not teach from the Quran?” And Jim would say, “You are Muslim. You teach from the Quran. I am Christian. I will teach from the Bible.”
This would make perfect sense to the imam because in the Muslim world religion is bound up with culture. It is fitting that a Kyrgyz be Muslim and an Australian be Christian. And so, not in every case but in most, the imam would agree. It was only, after all, proverbial sayings common to all peoples.
I can imagine Jim smiling secretly when he arrived at Proverbs 8, from which we have read today and which proclaims Wisdom to be a person.
After months of teaching the villagers wisdom from his holy book, after the people began to see that fewer children were getting sick and dying from the milk, Jim would say to the imam, “There is more in my book for the people to learn. I would like to teach them from the gospels.”
And not in every case but in most, the imam would agree. He was the man of peace who had allowed this foreigner into the village, and look at the good that had come to the people from their leader’s wise decision.
So Jim would turn to the gospels and begin to spin out the tales of poor people like them who made their living from the land, for whom the land was life. Before long, he would come to the story about the boy Jesus who at age 12 slipped away from his parents and disappeared.
This is the Jesus Muslims know from the many references to Him in their Quran.
In search of Him, Jesus’ parents came to Jerusalem and found him in the mosque, called a temple, confounding not just one but a group of imams, called rabbis, with His wisdom.
And as Jim guided them though the gospels the villagers would see this Jesus, a fount of wisdom that flowed faster and deeper than that of the elders, grown up into a man, full of grace and truth. From the holy book of this kind foreigner who had scattered blessings over them they learned that Jesus poured out mercy on the poor and the sick, taught them and healed them.
They would see this man riding into the city as people like them thronged the roadway and shouted, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” In their mind’s eye they would watch Jesus as He endured the agony of the cross, perhaps wondering, “Would I have been one of those who shouted, “Crucify!”?
Still more, the final gospel calls this Jesus the Word of God and in the beginning – before God made the world – this Jesus was with God and . . . He was God.
The Word of God, like the Wisdom of God in Proverbs, is a Person. This Person is a gentle soul who cares for the weak, wounded and without in all the dusty villages. This kind, loving soul is God. Surely there is much to ponder here.
In the hands of one like Jim, wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove, wisdom works wonders. It throws light deep into the valleys of the mountains surrounding Osh, one of the darkest corners of this earth. The Light of God’s wisdom will shine from sea to sea. He will have dominion over all that He has made.
But we cannot leave the matter there. The Prayer Book will not abide it. We must contend with another missionary, one named Paul.
The Bible gives us wisdom in strata, like the rock formation of an ancient riverbed. We find simple gospel stories to enlighten Kyrgyz rustics and propositional truths so tightly interwoven that they challenge the brightest theologians as they try to unravel them – the sort of truths we encounter in St. Paul’s epistles.
The natural man, on the other hand, believes he grasps the apostle’s musings all too well. He finds Paul’s thought as appealing as wormwood.
One such was George Bernard Shaw. The brilliant Irish playwright was a devout socialist who bore a passion for the plight of the poor. He regarded Jesus as a kindred spirit, an altogether decent sort who wanted only to do good for the downtrodden.
Paul was a different case entirely, a meddler who larded up Jesus’ good works with a lot of religious mumbo-jumbo about dying to take away sins and cleansing His people with His blood. “There has really never been a more monstrous imposition perpetrated,” Shaw declared, “than the imposition of the limitations of Paul’s soul upon the soul of Jesus.”
Because of Jesus, Shaw said, the religion he calls “Paulism” somehow still retains for plain folk in benighted places “its power of bringing to simple people a message of hope and consolation that no other religion offers.” Yet that power, derived from the “personal charm of Jesus,” could work only on those with “untrained minds.”
For the cognoscenti, in Shaw’s view, Paul and a few others had poisoned this simple faith, turned it into “the most infernal of fatalisms” with the result that while the offspring of the heathen “are rejoicing in its legends,” “civilized children are blighted by its logic.”
I think he has a point – if not quite the one he intended. By God’s design, the gospels distill impenetrable abstractions into a story so pure that a wise soul can teach them to untutored villagers. And by God’s design, Paul’s letters offer so rich a vein of theological gold that the most learned could not mine it all in a thousand lifetimes.
Intellect, however, is not the main thing needed for making some piece of God’s wisdom our own. If it were, George Bernard Shaw would have been a patriarch, at least. The illumination the Holy Spirit gives us allows us to peer into the depths of God’s word and to take away something that edifies.
So let us train our sanctified understanding on our lesson from Romans 12 and see what we can glean.
The apostle Paul is a Jew trained in the Hebrew Scriptures, including the Proverbs. He is a Christian well-versed in the gospel story. More than that, he is one who has encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and then repaired to the Arabian desert for years of meditation on all that God had revealed to him.
In this letter before us, he has used 11 chapters to pound his theology into us, to teach the staggering truth of salvation by grace through faith. All have joined in Adam’s rebellion, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, all have come under condemnation. Jew and Gentile alike are dead in our trespasses and sins.
From Rome in Italy to Osh in Kyrgyzstan to Tulsa in Oklahoma, all deserve to remain eternally in the grip of death, which is separation from God. Yet by God’s grace, all may be restored to life – because of what God has done in Christ. Through His teaching, His healing and – like it or not – His saving death on the cross, salvation comes to those who believe.
Therefore, we learn beginning in chapter 12, we who believe must live the life of the redeemed.
“I beseech you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” The last phrase sums up all that has preceded it. This Jewish Christian is using temple imagery to drive home his point. The Old Testament Jew offered an animal as payment for his sins. The New Testament Christian must offer himself as a living sacrifice to God.
Did God create and provide for all of you and redeem all of you from the curse of eternal damnation? Then offer all of you to Him in thanksgiving. That is your reasonable service.
The apostle continues, “And do not be conformed to this world . . .” And here shines the genius of St. Paul that George Bernard Shaw and all others who glorify the wisdom of man can never grasp absent God’s illumination.
Paul has marshaled the language of temple sacrifice to reach back into chapter 5 and to transport us back in time to an earlier temple called the garden of Eden.
For it was Adam who conformed himself to this world when he sought to know this world in a way God had not permitted him.
It was Adam who scoffed at God’s protection from a terrible knowledge he could not control and consumed that knowledge of good and evil.
It was Adam who cast off righteousness and chose sin when he obeyed the ruler of this world.
It was Adam who refused to offer his body – flesh, mind and spirit – to God in gratitude for his very being and for his provision and for the role God had given him in ruling over the creation.
It was Adam who failed in his role as priest to secure the garden and protect his wife
It was Adam who withheld the obedient offering of himself to God as was his reasonable service and created the need for animal sacrifice.
It was Adam who corrupted the image of God within us.
It was Adam who earned eviction from the garden and cut mankind off from the tree of life, bringing upon us all the curse of death.
But now . . . the Second Adam has come. The first Adam refused to offer the living sacrifice. The Second Adam offered the sacrifice of His life for you.
Therefore, you who are in Christ, putting away the sin of the first Adam, receiving freedom from bondage to it, make yourself a slave of Christ our righteousness.
For it was Jesus, the boy who sat at the feet of the teachers of Israel, who is the Teacher of Israel.
It was Jesus whom His parents found in the repository of the law who fulfilled the law.
It was Jesus who remained behind in the temple of God who is the Temple of God.
It was Jesus who said, “Why do you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” who discharged that terrible business without cavil or murmur.
It was Jesus who offered a life of perfect obedience to God so that He could offer His life as a perfect sacrifice to God.
It was Jesus who accepted the role of Priest the first Adam rejected and restored the order of innocence to the garden.
It was Jesus who reversed the curse of death the first Adam brought upon the world.
It was Jesus who washed the stain from God’s image in man that Adam had polluted.
It was Jesus who hung upon a tree and said, “Feed on Me.”
It was Jesus who made Himself our tree of life.
And it was Jesus who owed no reasonable service to God because He is God.
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind . . .” As long as we reside in this sinful flesh we must renew our minds in the Word so that we may continue to make a daily offering of ourselves that is living, holy and acceptable to God. We must feed on Him.
Verse 5: “So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.” St. Augustine said that, receiving Christ worthily in Holy Communion, “what you receive you become.”
Taking His body, the bread, into us, we become His body, the church. If we are transformed by the renewing of our minds we can offer all of ourselves in daily sacrifice to God and bind ourselves to one another as His body, the most powerful engine for righteousness this world will ever know.
If we do not like the look of this world, we must look to this body and finally to its members. Is the foot stumbling because I, the eye, am not providing vision to the body? Is the eye’s vision going for naught because I, the foot, balk at taking a step?
Beloved, God has given us His Wisdom, plain enough to enlighten the simple folk of the faraway mountains, elegant enough to show up for fools those who make the wisdom of man their Eucharist.
Wisdom is Jesus Christ, the King of creation now made manifest to the gentiles, who offered all of Himself as the sacrifice we should by rights have paid. Therefore, let us present all of ourselves to God, as is our reasonable service. Amen.