This is the Sermon for Rogate Sunday -- May 5. 2013 at

Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church
Laurie, Missouri

James 1:22-27

But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does. 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. This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Sermon for Rogate Sunday                                                                                                                                                                                                     5/05/13

The Law of Liberty

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Who do you see when you look in the mirror? I have noticed that my father is lurking around the mirrors I use. I don’t see the person I think of when I think of myself. I see an older man, almost white-haired, and getting sort-of wrinkly. I sometimes wonder where that young man I used to see in the mirror went, and if I catch myself in the mirror out of the corner of my eye, I could swear I see my father passing by.

The reading of our Epistle lesson put me in mind of that phenomenon, because it talks about forgetting what one looks like. We all do it. We carry an image in our mind of what we look like, and it doesn’t always match what the mirror would show us. We remember ourselves as younger, or fatter, or thinner, or better looking than we see in our reflection, and it can surprise us at times, that visage in the mirror. It is this natural trick of our memory that James uses to describe the one who hears the Word of God but does not live in the light of what he hears.

Now this would sound to many – and many have preached on it – as speaking about righteousness and doing what the Law of God tells us to do. For them, this is a passage about obeying the Law. James is speaking about something more, however. He gives us an indication that it is not just about doing good works by legal obedience when he refers to looking intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty. That is the starting point for our sermon, this morning. I invite you to consider the Epistle with me. Our theme is “The Law of Liberty.

James begins this section of his epistle with the exhortation, “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” This is a call to deliberate Christianity. It suggests that there are at least two kinds of people who fill the pews in our churches - or the chairs, if you will. There are those who come as spectators and those who come as participants in the faith.

Spectators merely hear the Word of God. They may believe it, too, in the sense that they consider it to be accurate or true, but in the sense that they take it into themselves and live by the light of it, they merely “hear” the Word of God. They hear it as one hears a song. It is pleasant to the ear, and familiar, but life goes on unchanged by the Word they have heard week after week. They hear about sin, but do not repent. They hear about temptation, but not resist it. That, of course, is how most people understand this text, but their understanding is incomplete and deficient. James intends to make the point that many who hear the Word hear about the forgiveness of sins, but do not take it to heart, and they hear about the great of love of God for them, but they still approach life with fear and worry and despair.

Participants in the faith take to heart what they hear. They find comfort in their troubles, and they find peace and joy - often a very quiet joy - in the love of God for them. They are the ones who look intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty.

Of course, here we have a problem with language. We hear the word “law”, and assume it means some sort of rules. Happily, it doesn’t mean that here. Here, it means something more like “principle”. Just as the Second Law of Thermodynamics is not a regulation which must be followed, or a restriction that objects must obey - but a principle (actually a whole set of principles) established by observation, the Law of Liberty is not code of behavior to which one must conform. It is not established by observation, however. It is, in fact, the Gospel. The Law of Liberty is the principle or set of principles – the rationale, if you will, behind our freedom (or ‘liberty’) in Christ.

The problem with being a mere spectator in the Church is that you end up deluding yourself. You delude yourself into thinking that you don’t need what God offers, or that it doesn’t apply to you, or that you are forgiven, so nothing else from the Word of God matters for you. You end up thinking that all that ‘forgiveness and salvation’ talk doesn’t mean anything - or need to mean anything - to how you live your life. But if the Gospel doesn’t change anything for you, doesn’t change anything in you or about you, - - - just stop and think through what that phrase means: if the Gospel hasn’t changed anything, it means that you are still stuck where you were before you heard the Gospel. If it hasn’t changed anything, then you are still lost and condemned.

The truth is that the Law of Liberty changes everything. The Gospel is not just about forgiveness – although that is the heart of it. The Gospel is also about the love of God for us, how much He loves us and how far He is willing to go on our behalf and for our blessing. Think about it. One of the great joys of childhood for most of us was the security of home and the love of our parents for us as little children. My Dad could make the monsters in the closet go away just by walking into the room. I could do things with him next to me that I would have been too terrified to consider doing otherwise. Even the hardest things about my life as a child were soothed by the presence and arms of my father. For some of us, that love and security and power may have been found in our mothers, or in a grandparent. The point is, the power of that love, and our trust in it, made our childhood safe - or safer - and friendly, and something that most of us can wax nostalgic about.

This isn’t true for everybody, because not everybody had that kind of love as a child – but they know something about what it is by virtue of its absence, and many who did not have this kind of loving protection as a child never lived to be adults. The honest and warm love of our parents for us as little children is a God-given imitation of His love for us. That is also part of what the Gospel tells us. We have a loving heavenly Father who looks out for us, and watches over us, and protects and blesses us. He proved that love by sending His Son to become one of us and endure all that Jesus Christ endured on our behalf in order to redeem us and rescue us from sin and death and hell. Open your hymnals to page 25 (The Lutheran Hymnal, for those of you reading this on-line, or elsewhere). Look at the Proper Preface for Easter, in the last line of the preface which I have read each week from Easter until now, it says: “who (Jesus) by His death hath destroyed death and by His rising to life again hath restored TO US everlasting life.”

This is the love of God for us. It is not just a fact to be considered when you face death, although it is a particularly warming and joyful thought in the face of death, but it is also a truth to be lived in the light of. God loves you - and so you are safe. He will keep you, so that nothing can happen that He is not using to bless you. Sickness is not tragedy – it is often unpleasant to endure, but it is not tragedy. God has your back. Financial downturns are not the end of the world. They may change our plans - and sometimes our living accommodations – but not our security in the hands of our heavenly Father.

We can live in the light of our Father’s love and good will toward us – and in the light of forgiveness and eternal life. If we hear it and believe it, we will live in the light of it – all of it! That is what James refers to as an effectual doer. He tells us, by the inspiration of God – who wants you to know this – that the one who lives in the light of the Gospel - the Law of Liberty - shall be blessed in what he does.

Now, one of the signs of a spectator - of one who hears the Word but does not do it - is that he or she does not bridle their tongue. There are things that simply do not come out of the mouth of a child of God. One of them is a denial of the Lord: No one speaking by the Spirit of God can say, “Jesus is accursed”. Those who deny the Lord or His Word, or downplay it as though it is of little importance, are not Christians. It doesn’t matter what else they may say or what they may claim - or how energetically they make their claim of being a true Christian.

Bridling the tongue might also refer to avoiding false doctrine. It surely intends to refer to cursing others. We who have received the blessing of forgiveness, as well as all the other blessings of the love of God, will not want to call down divine condemnation on another person. Not if we really believe we have been rescued and spared from well-deserved condemnation by the grace of God. There is also that speech which is offensive, not because it is evil, but because it is vulgar and vile and rude. We do not represent our Lord or His glory well when we talk like a verbal sewer outlet. We do not show His patience and gentleness when we speak poorly and alienate people by our words.

Those who do not bridle their tongues - thereby keeping a watch over their mouths, and guarding their speech that it might be pleasant and inviting for others to hear - demonstrate by their speech that they are not truly Christians. James says that such a one deceives his own heart and his religion is worthless.

True faith is marked, instead, by compassion and holiness. James put it this way, “This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Orphans and widows were the truly afflicted of that age. They had no normal means of support. They were helpless and often victimized in the world of that day. Compassion meant doing something to alleviate their difficulties - not just feeling something about them. Visiting them in their distress meant rescuing them, and providing at least part of the answer to their needs. Today we have abundant opportunities to do works of compassion, and we often have abundant resources to do them. A true faith will drive the Christian to doing the compassionate thing, and going the extra mile, like His Lord.

The Law of Liberty doesn’t demand that you do any specific thing. It sets you free. It is about being delivered – being saved, and all that it means, which sets us free to live as though we have nothing to lose, because we don’t. Jesus has redeemed us. Our sins are forgiven. God loves us and is with us, so in everything we do, God is there to provide for us and protect us and deliver us. We can afford to risk ourselves and our “things” for the welfare of others. We can take a chance on spending ourselves and our resources for the benefit of someone who is truly in need. We cannot lose what we have in Christ - and, after all, what we have in Jesus Christ is what really matters. The rest is just here and now, and for a limited time - and all too quick it is over and done with.

This doesn’t mean that you cannot exercise good sense. You don’t want to spend your substance on phoney-baloney causes. You want to help people who really need. You want to do what is important - for life, and for everlasting life - for others. Sometimes it helps not to jump on the big bandwagon of charities, but look around you for the individuals who need your help, and whose situations can be improved by your helping. Then you are not just throwing a couple of bucks into a kettle at Christmas, but feeding or clothing someone you can see - and who can see you, and see Christ shining through you.

And holy living is always appropriate. It is becoming for the people of God to imitate Him. It shows that you know the truth - about sin and about the price of your salvation - when you live a holy life freely; not under compulsion, but because it is what you want to do as God’s child. When you live only for your goals and your satisfaction and your enjoyment, you demonstrate that you heard the Word of the Gospel, but, like a man who looked in the mirror and then forgot what he really looked like, you did not really pay attention to it. It was like a pleasant song, nice to hear and quickly forgotten.

When you hear the Gospel, and its amazing gift of life and the wonderful freedom it sets before you, and you believe it, you just gotta live it out. You need to rejoice, and you cannot help but be comforted and moved by it.

Let me pause here. All of this encouragement is the Law – not the Gospel. The encouragement is based in the Gospel, but the instruction to behave is law. I am telling you what to do and what not to do and how you are to be. The one thing the Gospel should work in you in trust in God and a sense that even though you do not live up to the standards you know are right, Christ has died for you and your sins are forgiven. The law works fear. The Gospel says, fear not! Your sins are forgiven and God loves you – because of Christ. Take comfort and believe, sin has been taken out of the way, and God now counts you as His own, so – as Paul says in Romans 6, consider yourself dead to sin – and its consequences – and alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That is the Gospel.

 The Gospel believed then becomes the reason for living your life in the manner you live it - the reason for your choices, and the reason for your values. It becomes the reason for confessing Christ boldly and the reason for your stewardship of all that God has given to you to use for this life. In short, when you look intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abide by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, then you are a participant in the faith and not merely a spectator. That condition also carries a great promise with it, this man – that is you – shall be blessed in what he does.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

(Let the people say Amen)

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