August 29th 2021 homily on James 1:17-27 by Pastor Galen Zook
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17).
Today we begin a new series on the book of James, with a sermon entitled “Every Good Gift.” The psalm we read in our Call to Worship proclaimed that the whole earth is filled with the glory of God. The songstress in our reading from the Hebrew Bible employed lush images of nature to expound the many virtues of her Beloved. In our reading from the New Testament, James proclaims that “every good and perfect gift” comes from God.
If you’re familiar with the biblical account of Creation, you know that when God finished creating the world, God said that it was “very good” (Gen. 1:31).
And it is true that there is so much goodness and beauty to behold in the world. If you’ve ever been out away from the lights of the city and stared up at the starry night sky, if you’ve ever wandered through the woods or a perfect, crisp clear morning and heard the birds singing sweetly in the trees, or if you’ve ever looked down from the grandeur of a lofty mountain or sat by a babbling brook and felt a gentle breeze, then you too have probably said (in the words of the hymn we sang earlier), “My God, how great thou art!”
The beauty and complexity of creation points to the fact that there is in fact a Creator, and the care, concern, and creativity with which God created the world assures us that God does indeed care about us.
Now, we know that not all is good in the world. There is evil, and pain, and suffering. There is sickness, death, and destruction. And the author of James is very cognizant of this fact – as we’ll see throughout our study on the book of James over the next month or so. And yet James wants us to begin by recognizing the goodness of God, and all of the good things that God has given to us.
Background on James
But first, a little background on the book of James. The James who the book of James is named after was a half-brother of Jesus. As we know, Jesus was Mary’s firstborn and he was immaculately conceived by the Holy Spirit. But Mary did in fact have children to Jesus’s earthly father Joseph – James being one of them.
Two of the Apostles listed in the Gospels were named James, and although this James was not one of them, he was no doubt quite familiar with Jesus’s teachings, having grown up in the same household as Jesus! I imagine James and Jesus growing up together as little boys, perhaps getting into arguments as siblings tend to do, and I imagine how frustrating it must have been for James that Jesus was always right! I imagine how tired James probably was of always being compared to his older brother, and how many times he probably heard his teachers and parents say, “why can’t you just be more like Jesus!”
But it’s obvious from the book of James that the life and character of Jesus did in fact have an impact on James. Historically we know from the book of Acts, that after Jesus’s death and resurrection, and after the apostles such as Peter had moved out from Jerusalem to plant new churches, James became a prominent leader in the Church in Jerusalem – perhaps helped in part by his familial connection to Jesus.
And although the church in Jerusalem faced numerous hardships under his leadership such as famine and persecution, James was known as a wise and faithful leader who encouraged those in his sphere of influence to live faithfully as followers of Jesus. In fact one of the early church leaders tells us that James was often referred to as “James the Just” or “James the Righteous” because of his “outstanding virtue.” We also know from history that James himself was eventually martyred. He was in fact faithful even to the point of death.
Rather than a letter written to a particular group of people as in many of Paul’s letters, the book of James is addressed “To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (James 1:1), and reads more like a collection of the wise sayings, in the style of the book of Proverbs. And this first chapter forms sort of an outline or introduction to the major themes that will be covered throughout the book of James, as we’ll see during the course of these next few weeks. We see in this first chapter themes like persevering through trials, being slow to anger, being careful of what we say, looking out for those in need, and living out our faith through acts of righteousness and justice.
Every Good Gift
And so it’s interesting that right here in the middle of this outline, in the midst of this introduction to all of the things that James wants to tell his readers about how to live faithfully as followers of Christ, he pauses to remind us that every good and perfect gift comes from God. For James this is the starting point. Any good work that we do, any act of kindness or justice or righteousness, starts with recognition that God is the giver of all good things. Everything we own is a gift from God. Our good deeds can and should be a response to the good gifts that God has given to us – first and foremost by sending Jesus Christ to this earth, to teach and serve, to minister to us, and ultimately to give his life on the cross, dying and rising again, so that we too can be raised to new life.
Starting with this foundational principle – that everything that is good in this world has its origin in God – profoundly shapes the way we think and act towards others, towards ourselves, and to the world around us. When we recognize the beauty and majesty of Creation, even in its fallen state, and we realize that God has given it to us as a gift, then we can and should treat others and the world around us with a bit more humility, a bit more kindness, a bit more love and compassion and justice.
James wants us to know and remember that everything good – every good and perfect gift, comes from God. This is the starting point, this is the foundation.
Everything Happens for a Reason?
But notice that James doesn’t go so far as to suggest that everything — including evil and injustice — is from God, as some Christian pastors and theologians try to argue. Some say that God sends every hurricane, every earthquake, every persecution in order to wake us up, or to turn us around, or to punish us, or to somehow bring glory to God. You often hear inklings of this sentiment in popular culture, when people say things like “everything happens for a reason!” or when people quote various Scriptures out of context like “God won’t give us more than we can bear” or “God does everything for our good.” (A better translation of that verse from Romans 8:28 by the way, is “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him and are called according to his purposes.” Even in the midst of pain and suffering God is working for our good. This is not the same as God bringing or initiating evil or pain or suffering in the world. We’ll get into that a lot more during our next sermon series on the book of Job!)
But here, James – in line with many of the other Scripture writers like Paul – is not seeking to answer the question here of why bad things happen, or why there’s evil and pain and suffering in the world. James is simply saying here that all good things come from God. The world we live in is messed up and imperfect – and so where we do see glimpses of goodness, and perfection, and beauty, we should be reminded of God, since God is the originator of all good gifts.
After laying this foundation that God is the giver of all good gifts, James goes on to say that we ourselves are a type of “firstfruits” of God’s new creation. The term “firstfruits” here refers to the first crop of vegetables or fruit that a farmer harvests. In the Hebrew scriptures the people were commanded to bring their firstfruits to the temple as a step of thanksgiving and faith for the bigger harvest that would follow. The firstfruits would be shared with everyone, particularly those who didn’t have access to land to grow crops, such as those who worked in the temple, and those who were needy such widows or orphans or foreigners. The firstfruits were shared with everyone in a type of celebration or festival.
And here James is saying that we are God’s firstfruits! We who have responded in love to the goodness of God in our lives, we who have recognized God’s grace and mercy to us and given our hearts and lives to Christ in response, we who have been reborn and adopted into God’s family, we are the firstfruits – the evidence and the testimony of what God intends and desires to do for the whole world – for all of creation. God has made us new as testimony to the world that God is in the process of making all things new. We are to be the evidence, the signs, the firstfruits of the new creation that is to come.
So what are the implications for us, then, about how we live in this world where there is pain and suffering and brokenness? How do we think about ourselves, and the situations we might find ourselves in? The people we might interact with on a daily basis? I want to suggest just a few things we can do.
1. Well one thing we can do is to look for glimpses of beauty and goodness in the world around us. Get out in nature and take a walk or a stroll if you’re able, look out the window. Turn off the news for a little bit, and perhaps watch a nature show, or look at pictures of God’s good creation if you can’t get out and travel. And ask God to help you see the beauty in the people that you encounter each day. Rather than being quick to point out others’ faults or flaws, call attention to the good things in their lives. And let these glimpses of goodness and beauty lead us into praise and thanksgiving to our God who gives us these good gifts.
2. Try to help others see the goodness of God. Share stories of how God is at work in your life. Testify to how God has answered your prayers. Talk, write, tweet, about the good things God has done in your life so that others can more clearly see how God is at work in their life as well. And you can be creative with how you do this. One of my facebook friends takes pictures of the world around her and shares them on facebook along with Scripture verses – as a way to point others to the goodness of God. There’s so much negativity on social media these days, but I have to say every time I see one of her pictures I’m blessed and encouraged. Find ways to highlight and point out and share the goodness of God.
3. But that also means we should try when possible to remove the barriers that prevent us and others from seeing the goodness of God. If you see trash lying on the ground, pick it up (if you can do so safely!) so that others can more clearly see the beauty and majesty of God’s good gifts of creation. I truly believe that caring for the earth – or the more theological term “environmental stewardship” – can be a form of missions or evangelism – because when we cut down on pollution and trash and other things that cause harm and damage to the earth, then others – including future generations – will more clearly be able to see and experience God’s good gifts of creation and give God the praise and worship that God is due!
Friends, we face many hardships in this life, and there’s so much pain and injustice that it can be overwhelming at times. But I pray that in the midst of this broken world, that God would give us eyes to see God’s goodness in this world, and that God would use and empower us to reflect God’s goodness to others. May we in fact be the firstfruits of God’s new creation. May we testify through word and deed to the good things God is doing in our lives, that all people may see the goodness of the Lord and give God the worship and praise that God is due.