Posted by: Johnold Strey | March 7, 2016

Sermon on James 4:7-10

Fourth Sunday in Lent — March 6, 2016 — Sermon starts at 26:55

SUBMIT TO GOD’S CALL TO HUMILITY

  1. Resist Satan
  2. Get Rid of Sin
  3. Repent Sincerely

 Text: James 4:7-10

Introduction

The city of Milwaukee allows religious groups to put up displays on designated public property parcels during the end-of-year holiday season. Everyone has equal access to post something, including the group known as the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Among the religious displays on public grounds in Milwaukee one recent Christmas was a sign that said, in part, “Religion hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

Have you ever encountered that kind of thinking? Have you wondered about it yourself? Is religion just a tool to enslave people’s minds and to control their actions? If we look at the history of some world religions, we see that sometimes conversion is by the sword with a strong message to “Submit!” There are sad chapters in the history of Christianity where power and money were used to control the masses. Is that what religion is—just a way to control people, to make them submit to your will in the name of God?

That kind of thinking certainly exists today in abundance, but just because people claim that religions are all about controlling people doesn’t mean that their claim is true. And while it may be true that some religions are about that kind of control, that doesn’t mean the Christian faith is about strict control or manipulation. Every day people submit to the instruction of their teachers, the directions of their coaches, and the advice of their parents, but no one views that kind of submission as manipulative. So as we submit our lives to God, we too will discover that it is not about God controlling us or the church manipulating us. It is about God teaching us and warning us to avoid those things that would take away the real, lasting freedom that his Son Jesus has won for us. And that’s the message that Jesus’ half-brother, James, wrote about in the Second Lesson for today. Submit to God’s call humbly, James teaches us. What does that look like? Resist Satan! Get rid of sin! Repent sincerely! 

I.

In the Gospel for today’s service, we heard Jesus tell one of his more well-known parables, the Parable of the Lost Son. The son who left home at the start of the story exhibited some pretty odd behavior. Not only did he ask for his inheritance from his old man before he died, but then he ran away from home and ran headfirst into a lifestyle that sounded like a college fraternity party. He was not interested in submitting to his father anymore.

In the Second Lesson for today’s service, James calls on his readers to exhibit the exact opposite behavior as the “lost son” in Jesus’ parable. James wrote, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you.” One way that Christians submit to God is by resisting Satan’s influences in their lives. Contrary to what many in our world might say today, Satan is not a mythical creature. Neither Jesus nor James speak about him that way. Satan is as real as the air you breathe but cannot see. And he should be avoided at all costs!

Fleeing from something suggests that we are also fleeing toward something. The lost son fled from his family and fled into a sinful and promiscuous lifestyle. But James tells us to flee from Satan and his sinful temptations and run back toward God. And even though God would have every reason to turn his back on us, he doesn’t. He is like the father in Jesus’ parable, ready to welcome his children with open arms when they return.

If you tell someone, “You can’t cross this line,” what the first thing they want to do? Cross the line—or at least see how close they can come to crossing it! When God tells us what is right and wrong, when he shows us where the “sin line” is, what’s the first thing our sinful nature wants to do? Cross the line—or at least see how close we can come to crossing the line. But as I like to say to my students in Catechism class, our job is not to see how close we can get to the nasty, barking, biting dog on the chain; our job is to stay away from the barking dog!

James calls Satan a “roaring lion, looking for someone to devour”—and that someone is you! He is real, and he really want to devour you. Our job is not to see how close we can come to him before he devours us, but to flee from him. And as we turn from him to flee, there we see Jesus! His nail-scarred hands are stretched out to welcome you back into his family. Those scars reveal the wounds that won your forgiveness on the cross. And that truth is more than enough for us to strive to resist Satan and find a welcome return in the loving arms of our Savior.

II.

At some point, the lost son “woke up.” When he had wasted his inheritance and found himself starving in the midst of a famine, he took up some meager work as a pig herder and was left starving, looking at the pigs’ food with a bit of envy. But at some point, he realized the foolishness of his past and was ready to return to his father and to admit his mistakes.

James tells his readers that they also need to “wake up” and to “get real” about sin. “Wash your hands, you sinners!” Get rid of the sinful actions that you carry out with your hands. “Purify your hearts, you double-minded!” Don’t just get rid of the sinful actions. Get rid of the sinful thoughts in your hearts. Don’t replace godly thinking with thoughts that entertain evil and flirt with sin in your minds.

There’s a certain way that Lutherans can listen to preaching or teaching that has been called, “Lutheran ears syndrome.” When God’s law condemns sin in our lives, we don’t sweat it too much, because we know that the pastor is going to preach the gospel next and that all that sin talk will be wiped away by one simple mention of Jesus’ cross. Now, there is much truth to that! We should expect the gospel good news of Jesus to predominate everything we do in our ministry. If we just hear a bunch of “to do’s” without the comfort of Christ’s forgiveness, we would lead too many people into despair.

The problem comes in when we minimize the seriousness of sin because we know that in a moment the pastor is going to mention Jesus and then we’re forgiven and it’s all good. James doesn’t talk about sin as if it is no big deal. James demands that we get rid of sin! He has some pretty harsh words for us, especially if our ears have fallen into Lutheran ears syndrome.

  • You kids in school who keep teasing are hurting them, and not just them, but you are hurting God who loves that classmate that you have been so unkind to, and that unkind treatment needs to stop.
  • You young people who are playing around with sex outside of marriage: You may be fooling your parents or your pastors, but you cannot hide your sin from God, and your sin needs to stop.
  • You who treat church as a social club and worship as something to be graded, you have failed to remember that the church is a spiritual hospital and worship is your soul’s life-saving treatment, and your spiritually harmful assumptions need to stop.
  • You who sit in judgment on others because they’re not here or they don’t do as much as you do around this campus, you are taking on the role of God by claiming to know their motives and their circumstances; that kind of judgmental spirit deters people from coming here, and it needs to stop.

III.

Before the lost son returned to his father in Jesus’ parable, he rehearsed his speech to his dad: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.” Notice that in his confession there is no blame placed on someone else, no excuses for his behavior, and no indication that he has a little bit of worthiness left in him. The son simply prepared a sincere statement of repentance—repentance that was warmly received by the father even before the son could get his entire statement out!

James has a third bit of advice about the way we submit to God, and it has to do with repentance—sincere repentance. “Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.” James says this with a certain harsh urgency. Sin is no laughing matter. The thought of personal sin and how it destroys our relationship with God ought to leave a person with grief and misery and tears. Past sins are not something that we should get chuckles out of when we tell old stories to one another. Those past sins ought to lead to deep sorrow over the thoughtless disrespect we can all too easily exhibit for God and his Word.

We do need to be careful about an overly-emotional repentance that is all show and no sincerity. But we also need to watch out for a rote, mechanical repentance, which is an all-too-common byproduct of Lutheran ears syndrome.

But this warning is not to see how much God can make you grovel in guilt. James said, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” God humbles us in order to lift us up out of the pig sty of sin, to wash us pure and clean, and to clothe us in the finest robes of Jesus’ purity which shows unequivocally that we are part of his heavenly family.

God is not interested in watching you grovel in guilt. He is interested in raising you up. That is why he raised up his Son Jesus on Calvary’s cross, where Jesus bore all your guilt. Every last incident of ridicule and lust and judgmentalism and every other sin that mars our life’s story are erased from the record, because Jesus paid for them all when he was nailed to the cross. And as sure as God the Father raised Jesus from the dead, so he will raise you and all believers in Christ from the grave and from this world and bring you to an eternity of sinless, problem-free joy and happiness at his side in heaven.

Conclusion

So is Christianity just out to control you? Well, if your idea of freedom is wallowing in the filth of sin and guilt, then I suppose that’s how you’ll see it. But the life of the lost son feeding pigs was hardly a life of “freedom!” And life without Christ is hardly a life of spiritual freedom, especially when that life will lead to an eternity of separation from God and all of his blessings in hell.

But the God who welcomes you into his family with outstretched arms has promised in his Word that he has set you free from sin’s guilty status and from Satan’s grasp forever. If that’s what submitting to God means, then I’ll call that freedom, not control. And if submitting to God brings that kind of spiritual and eternal freedom, then I say, bring it! Amen.

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