Sunday, September 20, 2015
God Gives More Grace
“But He gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’” (James 4:6).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
A farmer had a wonderful, faithful dog. It was a fine animal in every way—strong of body and of heart. The dog’s coat was shiny and well groomed. It was gentle—forgiving of the toddler who inadvertently stepped on it tail or purposely pulled its ears, but ferocious in defending the barnyard from uninvited visitors. Whenever any of the family came outside, the dog would come to them eagerly bounding, its tail wagging so vigorously that its entire hindquarters moved with it!
But, the dog had a secret—a dark, ugly secret. It lived a double life. For you see, it acted one way around its master, and another way when it thought that no one was watching. Each night, after the last of the lights in the farmhouse were extinguished, the dog would leave its station and take to the field. There, just over the second hill, the dog would meet up with a pack of other dogs and hang out.
And no, the dogs didn’t just lay in the grass enjoying the cool evening breeze and exchange stories of how obedient they’d been earlier that day. No, it was nothing like that! The dogs became as one. They reverted to their own nature and became wild, with one intention—to kill and destroy! The pack would attack and sink their sharp teeth through the wooly fluff into the flesh of a helpless, hapless lamb, biting and tearing until the lamb was silent and kicked no more.
But one night, the dogs lingered too long in their revelry. The master arose earlier than usual, and as he walked outside, his “wonderful” dog wasn’t there to greet him. After a couple of minutes of calling out in the crisp morning air, he saw his dog in the distance, making its way home as fast as its powerful legs could take it. He was very relieved.
The master’s delight soon turned to horror, for as his beloved dog approached, he could see blood smeared around its muzzle and chest. At first, he thought that his precious dog had been injured, no doubt risking its own life to protect the farm. But when he examined his dog more closely, the truth came out. The truth was there were no wounds. The blood on the dog wasn’t its own. And then the master’s heart sank. The undeniable evidence was found. Stuck between his panting dog’s fangs was a bit of wool and fresh lamb’s flesh!
The dog’s master got up and walked away. His heart was broken. His beloved dog had betrayed him! It had been leading double life. Loyal and obedient in the master’s presence. Wild and ravenous when it thought no one was watching.
Dear friends, you, too, live a double life. As I do. We all live a double life. On the outside we look like pious Christian “dogs.” In fact, some of us even wear a collar! We know, don’t we? We know what our heavenly Master expects of us. We know the Commandments and their meanings. If asked, most of us could recite them without missing a word or pausing for a breath. Much like a dog, we might even hope someone would notice us. And rather than pat us on the head or scratch us behind the ears and say “Atta boy!” we hope that they’d stroke our ego with their complimentary words: “Oh, what a good Christian you are!” But, much like the wayward dog that knew what its master expected but didn’t do it, we, too leave our Lord’s side and meet up with others on the second hill over and willingly embrace a double life. We all so often return to those base, sinful desires within us!
And so, what is it that beckons you to go to that “second hill over” when you think that no one is watching? Is it bitter jealousy and selfish ambition? Is it quarreling and fighting to get your own way? Is it lust and covetousness? Adultery and murder? Where do you find that the world’s friendship is more appealing than God’s?
St. James provides a list for our consideration and contemplation in our Epistle. He first mentions jealousy and selfish ambition. Selfish ambition says, “I want better for me”—be that better things, better friends, better stations in life, whatever. Jealousy says, “I deserve those better things that my neighbor has.” You can see how well those two sins work together in order to produce every sort of vile practice: “Because I want the better things my neighbor has—and because I deserve those things, I’m going to go ahead and take them from my neighbor.”
If you want to see examples of this behavior, just watch a couple of toddlers for a while. One sits at the table. Another wants to sit in the same spot. And in his mind, it only makes sense to walk over and shove the other little guy off the chair. Of course, the conflict only escalates from there. I mention this because we dare not forget that jealousy and selfish ambition are part of original sin. We don’t have to learn it, but it is simply the way we are conceived and born into this world.
It’s not just kids, either. Look at the disciples in today’s Gospel. Jesus tells them that He is going to die on the cross and rise again. What do the disciples discuss instead? They argue about which of them is greater. Each is ambitiously seeking an important place in the kingdom of Jesus. Each of them is jealously disputing the others’ argument. But what makes it worse is that their jealousy and selfish ambition prevent them from hearing the Gospel, the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection.
The same thing can happen to us as well. If you don’t believe me, just go to a church where its members are engaged in a power struggle. Or where the members are at odds with the pastor. Or look at a synod that is marked with error and division. A whole lot of evil can result. But the worst is that the proclamation and hearing of God’s Word is hindered, for that may have eternal consequences. All sins against God and one another can be forgiven—but only when God’s Word of Law convicts us of our sins, can His Gospel comforts our repentant hearts.
Which leads us back to our Epistle and St. James’ list of the vile practices that follow jealousy and selfish ambition. He speaks of quarrels and fights, lust and covetousness, adultery and murder. Bear in mind, James isn’t writing to a prison population or the staff at the nearest Planned Parenthood clinic. He’s writing to the Church, to Christians scattered throughout the nations. Even among believers these sins take place, destroying families and lives and faith.
Regarding quarrels and fights, consider a church where a group wishes to change the doctrine and practice away from God’s Word for their own self-seeking purposes, perhaps the desire to be friendlier with the world. The strife will necessarily follow, distracting energies away from the proclamation of the Gospel.
As far as adultery and murder, imagine a man who simply wants to indulge his own curious lust by looking at a few racy photos, which leads to more and more as the world encourages and markets whatever catches his fancy. The desire eventually leads to an illicit affair, and a believer has become an adulterer, not only in his heart, but in deed as well. Imagine further that the woman conceives in the affair, and it seems best for all to terminate the pregnancy, rather than endure the shame and guilt. Adulterers become murderers, professing Christians look like hypocrites, and it just starts with a glance. The same pride at the root of their original sin prevents them from repentance, and their faith begins to dry up.
Can’t happen to believers? Just read 2 Samuel 11, where David starts out as a righteous conquering king walking on the palace rooftop and ends up a murderous adulterer 27 verses later. Such things will happen—they can happen to anyone. James warns Christians because we are susceptible to these temptations, too. And it will only grow worse as many churches not only condone sexual immorality and death, but herald them as societal advancement under the seemingly innocuous names of “alternate lifestyles,” “reproductive choice,” and “marriage equality.”
So don’t be friends with the world. Don’t run with the wild dogs. Avoid temptation. Flee from it. As more than one pastor has said before, draw the line where the temptation begins, and then take a good many paces back away from it. Few people start out the day intending to jeopardize their souls in such catastrophic sins, but it still happens. It’s always advisable to avoid temptation, to not put yourself in such situations in the first place. Given that you’re made of sinful flesh to begin with, it’s just foolish to see how good you are at resisting temptation!
But here’s the next tricky part, just in case you think you’re free and clear: Where exactly does the line get drawn? When exactly do thoughts become sinful thoughts? When does appreciation of God-given beauty turn into lust? When does admiring the neighbor’s new car become coveting? When does taking care of your own things become idolatry? When does your zeal to contend for truth cross over into unrighteous anger against those who seek to depart from it? When does taking care of yourself so as not to become a burden on others become selfish ambition?
And, just to make it even more difficult, we’ll ask this: if you draw the line and step way back behind it, when does your stepping back become pride in your ability to resist temptation? See, the devil never takes a day off and he doesn’t play fair. He’s happy if you ruin your life by falling into terrible sin and resisting repentance. But he’s also quite delighted if you grow proud that that you haven’t sinned terribly and therefore don’t really need much forgiveness.
What’s the point? The point is this: this text clearly warns you of sins to avoid, and you do well to heed this Law and not disobey it. Indulge in these sins, and you stand a good chance of great heartache in this life, if not in eternity. But even if you think you heed this Law, don’t be deceived. You can be sure that sin still clings to everything that you do. Even if it looks to everyone else like you’ve never left the farm, you’ve made your way to the second hill a time or two. You’ve tasted your share of forbidden lamb chops. You’ve been a bad dog.
When we left our story, we weren’t told what happened to the dog. But, having been raised on a farm myself, I know what happens to dogs like that. If that sheep-killing dog had been on our farm, the master, when he turned to walk away from the dog, would have returned in a few minutes… carrying a loaded rifle!
You see, the penalty for sheep-killing dogs is death! The killer dog is given no second chance. It doesn’t matter how good of dog it had been in the past. It can no longer be trusted. Even if the dog lays on its back submissively, whimpering and crying, the master must make sure that no more sheep are killed by that dog! St. Paul says it simply and accurately: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a).
But here’s the Good News: Although you’ve been like the dog in our story, leading a double life at times, the Lord God does not give you what you deserve. Not at all! God gives more grace! In fact, it’s all grace!
This is what sets Christianity apart from every other religion: God makes the first move… and the second move, and the third, all of the moves, in fact. He gives grace to you—not because of your works or good living, but because Christ has won it for you by His perfect life, death, and resurrection. To put it another way, God doesn’t say, “If you keep My commandments, you can be My friend.” He says, “Because Jesus kept My Law and died for your sin, I call you friend. Because My Son redeemed you, I call you My beloved child, and I will never leave you or forsake you.” You have plenty of sin, it is true; God gives more grace!
So that you might know that all this is so, God comes to you through His Word telling you over and over of His love and grace. He washes you clean of your sin in Holy Baptism. And He feeds you with the flesh and blood of a lamb—the very Lamb of God, who has taken away the sin of the world. And through His called and ordained servant, He speaks to you the Good News of salvation: For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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