“Be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” But don’t kid yourself. You have to first be a hearer before you can be a doer. James would have us consider our hearing of the Word this morning. And our speaking. And our doing. The Word goes in, the Word goes out, and in between the Word does its thing. It’s a lot like breathing. Air goes in, air comes out, and in between, it does its oxygenating thing. In the next chapter, James will compare faith and works to a body and breath. Just as a body that doesn’t breath is dead, so faith that doesn’t work is dead.
But before James can talk about faith and works, he needs to talk about the Word. That’s because faith, like every other good and perfect gift, is from above. From above is where our new birth is, where our life is. We are born “from above” in Baptism, through water and Spirit. And this is, of course, God’s doing, as James says so well. (James is a better Lutheran than many seem to think.)
“Of His own will He brought us forth by the Word of Truth that we should be a kind of first fruits of His creatures.” You didn’t choose to be born of your mother, nor did you choose to be born from above. This is God’s doing, not yours. Never mind what all the “born-againers” say. They need hear James. And we do too, or else we will start patting ourselves on the back for making the “right religious choices.” The unchangeable Father of lights willed to birth us through the Word of Truth, through the Gospel of Jesus, so that we might be a kind of “first fruits” of the new creation.
The “first fruits” are the fruits that come first. The first tomato on the vine; the first apple of the season. More to come, lots more. A whole new creation is on its way awaiting the appearing of Jesus. But already now, as the old creation dies, there are the first fruits of the new. You. Us. Believers sprinkled like salt throughout the world to show the world that in Jesus there is life even though we die. It’s a privilege, a gift, by grace, undeserved on our part. All by the Word of Truth having its way with us – killing us, making us alive, drowning the sinner, raising the saint; killing sin, raising righteousness. It’s all God’s work, a good and perfect gift from the Father of Lights through the Son by the Spirit.
“Faith comes by hearing,” the apostle Paul wrote. “He who has ears, let him hear,” Jesus said. “Everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” That’s sound advice for our conversation with each other. Listen first, then speak. As your teachers always reminded you, you have two ears and one mouth, so you should listen at least twice as much as you speak. And if that’s true for our conversation with each other, how much more true is it of our conversation with God. Quick to hear, slow to speak. Before we can exhale, we need to inhale; before we can speak, we need to hear.
Here’s where the problem lies. We’re born deaf to God’s Word. There’s a ringing in our our ears, the tone deafness of Adam’s rebellion that has tuned out the Word of God and put our word in its place. We don’t want to shut up and listen. We want our voices to be heard, our opinions to be registered, our protests to be duly noted. Before a single righteous word comesout of our mouths, a steady diet of righteous words needs to go into our ears. Unless the Lord opens our lips, our mouths will not declare His praise. Not naturally. Before we can pray, praise, give thanks, we need to be still and listen, hear the Word of the Lord. That, by the way, is why we don’t have “prayer and praise” services. We have services of the Word and the Sacrament, services of preaching, services where the Word is drummed into our ears.
We are that deaf and mute man in today’s Gospel, deaf to the Word, mute to praise. Unless the Lord grabs hold of our tongue, there won’t be any praise coming out of our lips. Only the usual stuff – cursing, anger, harsh words, vile speech, dirty jokes, gossip, slander, lies. Unless the Lord sticks His fingers in our ears and cries Ephphatha! they won’t be attuned His Word.
Quick to hear, slow to speak, even slower to anger. Anger is the static in our hearing. Interference. Ever worship angry? Did you get anything out of it? Anger is like the static on your radio, or that “snow” on your television (that’s right, I don’t have cable TV). Anger plugs our ears and fouls our tongues. It never works the righteousness of God.
Anger is what happens when we realize we are not God, that we are not in charge, that we are not in control. That ticks us off. Anger is our response to loss. We lose our car keys, and we get angry. We lose our health, and we get angry. We lose our loved ones, and we get angry. Why? Because we can’t deal with death and it’s dogging us every day of our lives. And so we sit and stew and all the while God is speaking.
Get rid of the filth and wickedness that clogs our hearing like a wad of earwax. The world James knew was full of it, and so is ours. We sadly underestimate the cumulative effect of immorality, of wicked speech, of loathsome lies that grind away at our faith. Don’t imagine that you can wallow in the mud and not get dirty or that it will just float off of you as though you were coated with Teflon. James is not speaking to the world at large, to all those evil “sinners” out there. He’s talking to the church, to baptized believers, warning them to put away the filth of the old Adam, just as the apostle Paul urged his hearers to put to death the sinful nature with its sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, discord, jealousy, rage, selfishness, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness. Do you get the picture? We live with it every day. We see it on TV and in the movies. We have it drummed into our ears through the music of the streets. We read about it in our magazines and newspapers, and it’s plastered all over the internet, that great superhighway of information whose chief commodity is porn.
Don’t think for a second that you are immune. Baptism is no Teflon coating against the cultural muck and mire, but a call to struggle, to war against the blatant appeals to our own sinfulness. As our catechism says, we are called in Baptism to die each day to sin and evil desires, and each day to rise up from our Baptism to live as the free children of God that we are, to receive and embrace by faith the Word implanted in us that saves us, and by that Word to live before God in the righteousness and purity of Jesus. That’s true freedom, my friends. Freedom to live, to love, to serve. And it begins with hearing the Word. Ephphatha! Be opened.
There’s a kind of hearing that isn’t really hearing. Where the words go in and rattle around and nothing happens. Hearing without doing. Hearing without the expectation that the Word is going to do something. James compares it to a man who goes and looks in the mirror, and the instant he turns around, he forgot what he saw. Impossible for me, you say. Have you ever thought about the readings during the singing of the hymn and say, “Now what were those readings about?” Do you recall the readings of five minutes ago? Or the sermon. Or the liturgy. God is speaking to us, implanting His Word. And then it hits those dull, clogged up ears of ours, and nothing happens. Remember Jesus’ parable of the four kinds of soil – shallow, weedy, rocky. The seed is planted but no fruit. Only in the plowed up, ground up soil is there fruit in the end.
There’s another kind of false hearing and that’s being a critic of the Word instead of a hearer. It’s a professional malady among preachers who can’t sit still to listen to a sermon preached by another. But you’re not immune to it either. The old Adam is a critic of God’s Word, picking and choosing what suits him, always wondering, “Did God really say?” We hear, and yet in our criticism, we don’t hear.
Be doers of the Word, not simply hearers. That Word of God is the same Word that made all things, orders all things, sustains all things. That Word of Jesus is the power of God for salvation. Don’t think it doesn’t have power. Expect it to have power. Expect it to do things. It’s Christ in action. He is the Word.
The Word you hear, that takes hold of your heart, that plows you under and then lifts you up, is no idle, empty Word. When the Word of Christ says you are forgiven, you actually are forgiven. Now live as one who is forgiven. You get to do that. When the Word of Christ says you are free, you are truly free. Now live as one who is truly free. You get to do that That’s what it means to be “doer of the Word,” – to let the Word have its way with you so that it is God at work in you both to will and to do His good purpose and pleasure. The Word says “believe on Jesus Christ, trust Him with your life and death,” and the doer of the Word believes. The Word says, “Don’t try to bear your sins, atone for your sins. Confess your sins, and hear forgiveness.” And the doer of the Word confesses and hears.
The Word says, “Love as you have been loved by Jesus.” The widow, the orphan in distress, the least, the little, the forgotten of this world – love them as Jesus has loved you, in your littleness and lostness. Works of mercy. Christ is hidden in these little ones for you to serve, not in order to be saved, but because you are saved. He hung on a cross to free you and them. He opened your ears that you might hear. He loosed your tongue to speak and sing His praises so that others might hear and believe. You are the first-fruits; and soon to come the harvest of the resurrection.
Truly, He has done all things well, and you are in on the receiving of all He has done. Hear it, speak it, do it.
In the Name of Jesus,