Proper 17 (Aug. 28-Sept. 3)
Texts: James 1:17-27;
Mark 7:1-23; Deut. 4:1-9
BEING FIRST FRUITS, GIVING FIRST FRUITS
Please listen again carefully to the first two verses of our second lesson from the Epistle of James:
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of the divine purpose God gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of God’s creatures. (James 1:17-18)
Wow! There is so much profound theology packed into these two verses! It might be helpful to at least take it a verse at a time. That first verse, simply put, tells us that there is only one source of all generous gifts and blessings, and that source is God. Any time that anything happens in our lives which we experience as grace, the source of that grace is God. Even if it’s a gift from some other person, as simple as an unexpected hug, the source of that hug was God.
I like to tell the story, for example, that Walter Wangerin tells of a time that things get so strained out in his marriage, he simply came to accept that his wife had fallen out of love him. He had wounded her so badly, he no longer expected for her to be able to forgive him. Yet one day there she stood in his study, asking him to hug her. And this is how Wangerin describes that hug:
Dear Lord Jesus, where did this come from, this sudden, unnatural, undeserved willingness to let me touch her, hug her, love her? Not from me! I was her ruination. Not from her, because I had killed that part of her. From You! … It was you, Christ Jesus, in my arms — within my graceful Thanne. (1)
Wangerin saw the source of such a simple, unexpected hug as coming from Jesus.
Yes, the first thing that the apostle James wants us to understand today is that the source of all goodness is God. When we learn to welcome every gift, every gracious event, as from God; when we learn to say “Thank you, Lord Jesus!” to all such gifts; then we have learned this first point from these two verses in James.
But wait! We’re not even done with the first verse quite yet. There’s that more mysterious phrase about God: “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” The First Epistle of John says a similar thing about God in its opening verses: “This is the message we … proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5) I take both James and John to mean that God is not only the sole source of all graciousness and goodness, but God is nothing else, too. In other words, there’s no bad things, no ungracious things, that come from God. God is all light, no darkness, and this fact about who God is never changes.
Now, you might be thinking: “That’s pretty obvious. Of course God is all goodness and graciousness.” But think about it. Is it that obvious? What about when we think that it was God’s will that someone died? “Oh, God must have had some purpose for her to die so tragically,” we are sometimes heard to say, or something like it. But if God truly is all goodness and graciousness, all unconditional love, then does God ever will that anyone dies, or that ungracious things happen to us? And what about the popular idea of God doing things to punish people: making them sick for doing something wrong, for instance. Or we think that it is God’s will for us to execute certain bad people. Or we think it is God’s will to help us destroy our enemies in a war. Don’t we sometimes think that or wonder such things about God? But, if the Lord is all goodness and graciousness, all light and no dark, then how could God really will such things to happen?
No, if you’re not a visitor here today and have heard me preach before, then you’ve heard me emphasize this point over and over again: Jesus died on the cross and suffered the consequences of our ungracious, ungood violence, instead of lashing back at us with an even more powerful divine violence. The usual tendency is for us to think that our gods will help us to win vengeance; people taunted Jesus from the cross with that thought. So the cross urges us to really start rethinking and reexperiencing our whole view of God. What the cross of Jesus helps us to see is that we as human beings like to fight violence with more violence; and when we do so, we need to justify our counter-violence, so we bring God into the picture. In short, we make up our own gods to justify our violence. So all the gods of our making, of all the religions in the world, have been givers of both blessings and curses, light and darkness. But that’s precisely what the cross means to show us: that these are gods of our own making, and not the true God. The true God is the one whose Son hung on the cross, victim of our religions, and then raised him up with the true power of life, love, and graciousness. No, this phrase from James, about the Father of lights who never changes with even so much as a shadow, is not at all obvious. It took the cross and resurrection for us to finally get to see this true God who is all light. And we still get it wrong. We need James to keep reminding us.
So that’s the first verse from James. So far we’ve been reminded that God is not only the source of all goodness and graciousness in our lives, but that that is also the whole of God. The source of ungracious, hurtful, deathful things in our lives is not God. Which, of course, brings up the question: what is the source of those things? Where does evil come from? Why do bad things happen to us?
Unfortunately, taking on these questions would be too much for us to handle today. And, the truth be known, I don’t think that Scripture is too interested in providing the answers to that question. That may be surprising since we modern people are so interested in such questions. But, when we move to our second verse this morning, we find that James, too, skips over the answer to questions about bad things and moves on to this: “In fulfillment of the divine purpose God gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of God’s creatures.” In other words, James moves from a truth about who God is, to a truth about who we are: We are the creatures who can understand the truth about God — that God is all graciousness and goodness, life and love — and we can do something about knowing the truth, namely, we are to live it. We are to be the first fruits of God’s graciousness and love in this world. We are to live lives full of that goodness and life. In other words, James skips over the part about where bad things come from, and he moves right to the matter of how good things can continue to come into this world: through us. We are to be the first fruits, the best fruits, of God’s graciousness coming to fullness in this world because we are born in the truth, able to understand it and live it. St. Paul in Romans 8 says that the rest of creation is groaning in travail while waiting for us, the children of God, to get it straight. They are waiting for us to bear the full fruit of God’s goodness in our lives.
The natural question now is: so how have we done? Have you and I become those first fruits of God’s goodness? And, if our next question is: how do we do that? — then that probably answers the first question. In other words, if we don’t know how to become first fruits of God’s goodness, then we probably haven’t been doing a very good job of it.
So the last thing I want for us to glean today from these two verses from James is how we are can become the first fruits of God’s creatures. Actually, this won’t take long at all (which is good, because we don’t have much time). For the answer is contained in the image of fruit itself. It’s so simple; it’s what we already talked about earlier with the children. Fruit becomes fruit by staying connected to its source of nourishment. That’s it. It’s that simple. We become God’s first fruits of goodness by staying connected to God, the source of all goodness.
There is only one very important addition that we might make to James’ version, and that would be to recall Jesus’ own version of this image of connected as recorded in John 15. Do you remember Jesus’ own words about him being the vine and us the branches. In other words, we need to stay connected to God through Jesus Christ. This is very important because of what we talked about with the first verse of our tendency to make up gods. We don’t want to get grafted to the wrong tree, with a false god, or we won’t be a first fruit of the true God. So we need to get grafted to Jesus first, because he is the one who leads us away from all our false gods to the true God. That’s it, folks. All we need to do is stay connected with God through Jesus Christ.
Easier said than done? You bet! Especially in this technological age that provides so many temptations to spend all our time staying connected with other things. So, as all of us look ahead to getting into our school year schedules this holiday weekend, it is very important that we make decisions to set aside enough time to stay connected to God. Do we make it an essential to be here regularly for worship and for Sunday School? Pastor Mary is planning a study of the book of Acts, stories of how the early saints stayed connected with God and bore fruit; have you planned to participate? Do you take daily time for reading scripture and for prayer?
Perhaps it would be most fitting to simply end this sermon with a prayer. Please pray with me….
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, August 30-31, 1997