Salt is irritating and a good thing. Saltwater in the eyes stings. Salt in a wound irritates. Salt on meat preserves, and it tingles the taste buds. A dish without salt lacks flavor, zest. Jesus speaks of our being salted with fire and having salt in ourselves. James has some coarse, kosher salt for us, words that are irritatingly good.
Right out of the starting block, James hits us with ten salty imperatives. Some would be inclined to see ten “commandments,” but not every imperative is necessarily a commandment. LIke “come and get it,” when dinner is on and you’re hungry. Or “Do this in remembrance of me.” Or “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Though I suppose these would be harsh commandments for those who don’t want to “come and get it.” Such is the way of salt.
Part of the problem with Christianity today is that it’s lost much of it’s salt. We’re on a “low salt” diet, so to speak. That means we soft-peddle the law and mush up the Gospel. We fear offending anyone, lest they won’t want to come and fill our pews, so we serve up a blended service of mush. No salt. No sting, no bite, no zest. Not so James.
“Submit yourselves, then, to God.” You should note that the “yourselves” is not actually in the Greek text. It would have been better translated “be ordered under God.” Under God is where you belong, where you are blessed, put on the receiving end of all He has to give you. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble,” the proverb says. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” Jesus said.
To submit to another, to be ordered under another, is a position of trust. You must trust the one who is over you. Wives ordered under their husbands; children ordered under their parents; citizens ordered under their governors. And when the One who is over you is the One who is ordered under the will of His Father and who died for you on a cross, being ordered under Him means life and freedom. This Christ’s gift to you.
“Resist the devil, he will flee from you.” The devil’s a roaring lion, foaming at the mouth, roaming about for someone to devour. Resist him, Paul said, standing firm in the faith. The devil is resistible. He’s defeated. “One little word can fell him.” That one little word, by the way, is the word “liar.” He is a liar and the father of all lies, who would draw you far from your Baptism, keep you clear of the Lord’s Supper, make you an aloof critic of God’s Word instead of a humbled hearer and doer. Resist him, he has no power over you thanks be to Christ. Jesus resisted him with the Word on His lips. He did it for you. He conquered the devil with HIs dying, crushed his head with his cross-bruised heel. He is resistible, and he will flee from you, dear baptized child of God. That is Christ’s gift to you.
“Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” That’s a promise. He as already drawn near to you. Taken up your humanity, your flesh and blood, your sin and death. He has embraced you in His own death on a cross. He is as near as your Baptism, as near as the Word preached to you; as near as the Supper of His Body and Blood. This is Christ’s gift to you.
“Wash your hands, O sinners; purify your hearts.” Water alone can’t do it; but water and Word can. Be baptized and wash away the filth of Adam. Return to your Baptism daily, drowning that old self and all of its sin and lusts so that a new you may arise, the you that is already yours in Christ. That’s Christ’s gift to you, that your hands and hearts might be washed and purified. Just as the old testament priests washed their hands before offering their sacrifices. You, the priestly people of God, called and anointed to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, are washed and purified in that flood of blood and water that flowed from your Savior’s side. You are cleansed, pure and holy. This is Christ’s gift to you.
“Grieve, mourn, wail. Turn your laughter to mourning, your joy to gloom.” Oh, you wanted uplift this morning? I’m sorry. James just rained our your parade. So did Jesus with all His talk about cutting off offending hands and gouging out enchanted eyes. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh,” Jesus said. “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.” Jesus wept. You never hear of Him laughing. He wept over the unbelief of His friends, over Jerusalem, over the ravages of death. He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with suffering. Our suffering. The fullest depths of our sin and depravity and all that has gone wrong with that was a very good creation. He drank the bitter cup for us down to the dregs. If we were to know even a small fraction of how bad it is within us, we would grieve and mourn and wail too.
This rubs against our grain. We are sunshine people, accustomed to 360 days of bright, cloudless sunshine. That’s why people come here. (It sure isn’t for the wide open spaces or the clean air.) When it’s overcast for more than 36 hours, we go into depression. When it rains more than a mist, we go on “storm watch.” We expect every day to be a bright, sun shiny day. And we expect our lives to be bright, sun shiny lives filled with happiness. We expect Christianity to be a giddy joyride in a religious Disneyland, and if not, well then there must be something wrong with the God channel, and we better change it.
“You will laugh,” Jesus promises. But not now. Now we are engaged in a struggle, and it’s not funny. Now our old nature wars against our new, Adam vs. Christ, and it’s anything but amusing. Only at the end, when Jesus raises our bodies sown in dishonor and tears and grief and gives us His glory and honor, only when He gets the final last laugh over sin and death will there be laughter. And then that laughter won’t be the fleeting giggles of the comedy club, but the eternal joy of life with Jesus.
“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up.” And once again, the translators are up their mischief. There’s no “yourselves” in there, so get yourselves out of there. “Be humbled before the Lord.” Humbling something done to you, and when that humbling Word has it’s killing way with you, you will be lifted up, raised up by the One who drew all to Himself when He was lifted up from the humility of death on a cross. Humbling and exaltation is the way of Jesus, the way of death and resurrection, and the way of all who follow Jesus. We will be humbled, and we will be lifted up.
We naturally hate this; we fight against it. We will not be humbled, not if we can help it. We’ll even boast in our humility just to ensure it. Humility doesn’t come naturally to old Adam. It took a second Adam, clothed in our humanity, emptied of all His divine honor and glory, who humbled Himself by becoming obedient to His own Law, even to death on a cross. And it was from the depths of that humility that Jesus was highly exalted, and raised up to the heights of heaven, and glorified and the right hand of God, and you too are exalted and glorified in Him.
First tears, then laughter. First death, then resurrection. First humbling, then glory.
James analyzes the arrogance of Adam, the pride of our sinful nature that imagines we are in charge, we are in control, we are gods. He speaks of our will to power, to lord over each other, to sit in judgment over the brother and the neighbor. James knows his congregation well, and across the chasm of time, he seems to know a thing or two about us too.
He reminds us of our tongue, that untamed beast between our teeth, how we slander and gossip and judge one another. Jesus said, “Judge not, and you will not be judged. Condemn not, and you will not be condemned.” And what do we do? We judge and we condemn, often without even so much as fair trial and evidence. That doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to judge sin. Of course we are. But we aren’t given to judge the sinner. We’re not given to say, “He’ll burn in hell for that; or she’ll get what she deserves.” There is only One who is Lawgiver and Judge, and He’s the One who was judged under His own Law to be our Savior.
James calls to our attention the arrogance of our stewardship of time, how we act as though the universe revolved around our personnel day planners. Today I will do this, tomorrow I’ll go there, without so much as a nod to the Lord. “If the Lord be willing….” We’re in the passenger seat, not the driver’s seat. “If it’s the Lord’s will we will live and do this or that.” “Thy will be done,” as Jesus taught us to pray, and prayed Himself in the garden.
James focuses on our stewardship of wealth. In his day, as in ours, wealth was considered a sign of blessing. But James says, “Weep and wail, you rich. Your wealth is rotting, your clothes are moth food, your silver and gold are tarnished.” Jesus said, “Woe to you who are rich for you have already received your comfort.” The idolatry of wealth is so enticing, promising life in abundance, yet in the end consuming everything we are. Think of the rich man who wound up in Hades for not hearing Moses and the prophets. Or the rich man who dropped dead at his kitchen table while drawing plans for bigger barns to store his wealth, never enjoying a bit of it in his lifetime.
James would have us remember that the worker is worthy of his wages and to consider the underpaid, the field workers, the sweat shop laborers. Luxury sits atop the sweat and blood and calluses of hard labor, and woe to those who fail to pay the working man and woman his or her fair wages. The Lord hears the cries of the poor from the harvest fields and the factories.
None of us sitting here has any reason for pride – whether in the way we speak of each other, the way we handle our time, how we deal with our wealth. We’ve poked and prodded at the specks in the eyes of others, and neglected the two by four of sin sticking out of our own eye. We’ve acted as if we were the Lord of time without any time for the Lord. We’ve hoarded our own wealth, gladly paying bargain prices without regard for the worker who supplies the things we own and the food we eat.
Be submissive to God. He is here to forgive you and save you. Resist the devil, the world, your own sinful flesh, the glamour of evil. You no longer live, but Christ now lives in you. Draw near to God, sinner that you are. And here’s the wondrous, grace-full truth: He will draw near to you. Don’t be afraid to come near to God, to hear His Word, to kneel at His table. Christ has opened the way for you. Be washed in Baptism, cleanse your hearts and hands and minds with the watery Word that drowns your sin in the sea of forgiveness. Grieve and mourn your condition; there’s nothing funny about our sin not matter what the Comedy Channel would have us think. Be humbled, for we have nothing to be proud of before God, and nothing to lose.
And the salty good news is that Jesus Christ will lift you up out of your sin, out of the misery that your sin has caused you and those around you, out of your own death and the grave. He will lift you up, just as surely as He was lifted up on the cross to bear your sin, lifted up from the grave, lifted up to the right hand of God. He will lift you up to be where He is.
Have salt in yourselves, the salt of Jesus’ death and life for you, and be at peace with each other.
In the name of Jesus,