Preached: March 14, 2010
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The Word from God through which the Holy Spirit lifts us up is James 4.
Therefore, be subordinate to God. Stand against the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Clean your hands, sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Suffer misery. Grieve. Weep. Let your laughter turn into grief and your joy into gloom. Be humbled before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (James 4:7-10)
This is the Word of our Lord.
Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:
Submission. That's a dirty word today. Talking about submission makes you sound like a throwback to the days of slavery. Only an evil, egotistical monster would force others to submit to him, right? And certainly there have been and still are such monsters that give submission a bad name, coercing, terrifying, and abusing those under them for their own selfish gain.
But without submission properly practiced, our society would disintegrate. For example, if no one submitted to police officers or to the rule of law in the courts, how soon before chaos reigns? We wouldn't even be safe barricaded in our own house. And how many current societal problems find their roots in homes where the order God has arranged is not practiced because no one wants to submit. So the husband does not act as the loving head and the children run the show. Yes, God knew what he was doing when he arranged the family as he did. What blessings flow when we follow the order he's arranged, submitting to those he has placed over us!
Now the submission our old Adam kicks against the hardest is submitting to God. And this is where the stakes are highest. For far worse than a period of earthly chaos is an endless eternity of pandemonium in hell. Yet how tempting for you and me to put on the outward trappings of Christianity and appear good in the eyes of others, but still keep myself enthroned in my heart, refusing to truly submit to God! How easily we deceive even ourselves!
So James writes to his Christian readers, including you and me, “Submit yourselves . . . to God” (James 4:7 NIV). Simple and to the point. But don't imagine that God is a tyrannical monster or even just a little bit unfair in telling us to submit. For you see, James makes clear that God has great blessings planned for you, blessings that he can only give as we submit to him. For you see, he lifts up the lowly. So our theme today is: Submit to God, for he lifts up the lowly. And what are the blessings he gives as he lifts you? We want to consider two of them: The devil will flee. You will be clean.
The military depends on the chain of command. Each rank knows its place. Each submits to the officers above it. The private submits to the sergeant who submits to the lieutenant who submits to the captain who submits to the major who submits to the colonel who submits to the general. And that's only a simplified version. If the chain of command breaks, the enemy doesn't flee, but the unordered soldiers do. The enemy picks them off one by one. Blood runs deep as casualties mount. Battles and wars are lost.
We, dear Christians, are engaged in the fiercest battle of all. “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12 NIV). So James urges us: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7 NIV).
But how can we do that? The devil deceived and defeated our perfect ancestors, Adam and Eve. How can we sinners resist him? The devil is a roaring lion, a flaming spirit, how can we mere mortals stand against him?
Notice how James continues: “Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:8 NIV). We have God on our side right next to us, as we submit to him. But how do we come near to him? Where do we encounter and meet with God?
Think about what Jesus said on that last night before his death. He told his disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NIV). Only through Jesus do we come near to God. For Jesus is our God in the flesh. A little later that same night Jesus said, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you . . .” (John 15:7 NIV). So we meet Jesus in his word.
“Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:8 NIV). He doesn't meet with us through the robustness of the open field or the tranquility a quiet garden. Don't search for him in the dreams that pass through the night or the enthusiasm that can catch us up during the day. Don't seek him in the advancements of science and technology or in the artistry of the human spirit. Even stately church buildings don't bring us closer to God in and of themselves. Come near to him in his word, his word proclaimed by the Scriptures and made visible by the Sacraments.
The Apostle Paul brings that home as he writes: “'Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?”' (that is, to bring Christ down) 'or “Who will descend into the deep?”' (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? 'The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,' that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming” (Romans 10:6-8 NIV). Come near as a servant to his Lord, ready to listen to his word, believe it, and do it. Come near as young Samuel did, saying, “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10 NIV). Submit to his Word. That's how we come near to God.
Come near to your God as you take his word to heart, submitting in faith. He will not fail you. Come near to your God as your heart cherishes and clings to his word of promise in Baptism that you are reborn as his child, washed clean as an heir of eternal life. He will not fail you. Come near to God as your mouth receives his body and blood and your heart rejoices in his forgiveness. See how close our God has come to you!
And “if God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31 NIV). Yes, we by ourselves are no match for the devil. “With might of ours can naught be done; Soon were our loss effected. But for us fights the valiant one Whom God himself elected. You ask, 'Who is this?' Jesus Christ it is, The almighty Lord. And there's no other God; He holds the field forever” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal 200:2). Jesus is near you. He stands with you. He has defeated Satan for you. Remember his temptations in the wilderness, his trial in the garden, his agony on the cross. He has won the victory, and by his resurrection he gives you the victory.
So armed with his Word as your sword, the sword of the Spirit, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7 NIV). For as we submit to our God, drawing near to him in his Word and Sacraments, he lifts us up so that “we tremble not, we fear no ill . . .” Yes, “this world's prince may still Scowl fierce as he will, He can harm us none. He's judged; the deed is done! One little word can fell him” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal 200:3). Remember that each time the devil attacks and tempts you. With Jesus at your side and his word in your heart and mouth, the devil is no match. He will flee from you. So resist him.
Submit to God, for he lifts us the lowly. He lifts you up in victory as the devil flees.
But maybe as we talked about coming near to God, your conscience accused you: “Hey, this is your conscience speaking. I know what you've done. I know those attitudes that go through your heart. How often haven't you lingered on a sinful thought? How often haven't you focused on yourself? How dare you imagine that you can come close to the holy God, you dirty sinner!” Psalm 24 declares, “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:3, 4 NIV).
James knew this as well. So he calls out to you and me, “Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8 NIV). The deeds or our hands and the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts prove you and me to be sinners, law-breakers, rebels against God. Rather than focused on Jesus alone, submitting to God alone, we still treasure up the things of this world. We're double-minded. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus said, “Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matthew 6:24 NIV).
So how can I wash my hands clean? How can I purify my heart? “Not the labors of my hands Can fulfill thy law's demands. Could my zeal no respite know, Could my tears forever flow, All for sin could not atone; Thou must save and thou alone” (“Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me,” Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal 389:2).
But how do we react when we were told of our helpless, miserable, wretched condition, unable to clean ourselves, spiritual invalids? How do we react when it's pointed out to us just how horrible and deadly my sin is? How do we react when told that our double-mindedness is actually idolatry that dethrones Jesus? Do we deny it or dismiss it? Do we pretend that it's not all that bad? Do we excuse it as human nature or that's just the way life is -- easy does it? If that's your reaction, you have not realized the true terror and horror of your sin and your helpless, wretched condition. Any talk of Jesus or appeal to him is only a shallow show.
Jesus did not come for the casual sinner who thinks of sin but lightly. He came for the real sinner, the bad sinner, the sick sinner, who has begun to realize the true horror and terror of even the smallest sin. James knew this and calls on us to react in the only way that we can when the true horror and terror of my sin and my helpless, wretched condition cuts deep into my heart. He says:“Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom” (James 4:9 NIV).
But James does not abandon us in the gloomy terror of our sin. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:10). Believe that promise, dear friend. Believe that promise with all your heart: He will lift you up. He lifts you up out of the depths of your sin. He lifts you up out of that muck, mire, and gloom. He lifts you up washing you clean. Yes, clean in the blood of your Lord. Clean inside and out. Clean through faith in Jesus. Clean to ascend his holy hill and stand in his glorious presence forever.
So rather than the worldly laughter and joy that our sin so easily destroys, he lifts you up to the true joy that rejoices in Jesus in every circumstance. He gives you the laughter that not even death can silence, the laughter that will echo through the courts of heaven for all eternity. For just as the grief and gloom of Calvary's cross disappeared in the glorious joy of Easter, so also it will be for you who follow him. Therefore, submit to God, for he will lift you up. Amen.
The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.