28. April 2013
A sermon by Dr. Norman Nagel preached in Cambridge in 1967, revised.
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Don’t be tricked. There are some things you can rely on and some things you can’t. One thing you can never rely on, one thing that will always deceive you, is sin. Sin pulls the great advertising deception, and what makes us suckers to such advertising is our own desires. We want to make ourselves big. We want people to envy us. We want to do ourselves good. That sets us up to be played for a fool.
The art of advertising consists largely in playing on our weaknesses, our desires. Just check and see how many advertisements seek to take you in by subtle appeal to your pride or to some desire. “Wear this clothing and you will really wow the girls, or this particular alcohol will make you feel luxuriously upperclass.” People must be fools to be taken in by such stuff, we are tempted to think, but the fact remains that such advertising works and pays. The appropriate way to treat people, then, would seem to be as fools . So don’t blame the advertisers so much. They are only being realistic in the way they treat people.
Not all advertising is false. The product may be a good product and the claims true. But the advertising that sin does is always false both as to the technique of advertising and the product. Nevertheless, it works. It works because we are enticed and drawn away by our own desires, so we get hooked. The dishonest money we thought would do us so much good can only be kept by inflicting injury on our consciences and often inflicting injury on those who really love us. The adultery that promised to be such fun results in bitter personal damage. The drugs that promise happy experiences enslave and wreck a person. In the end, sin sits and laughs at us.
The question then is whether we ever learn our lesson: “once bitten, twice shy.” We acknowledge that we have been played for a fool, which is a difficult acknowledgment to make. Like mother Eve, we would rather make excuses and put the blame elsewhere. We are righteously indignant. Sin should have kept its promise and paid up. We have been cheated. Who is to blame? Not us. So, it must be whoever is behind it all. Like father Adam, we can blame God. If you can pin the blame on God, then you have certainly cleared yourself.
But that dodge simply won’t work. God does not trick or entice into evil. Don’t make that mistake. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. The way sin operates is not the way God operates. We can’t do business with God as we are tricked into doing business with sin. God does not trick us with the offer of a good deal as sin does. He does not make dazzling false promises. Not only is God no swindler, He is not a dealer at all.
God is a giver. With a giver you can receive or reject, but you can’t make a deal. And a deal is what we are always wanting to do, for when we are doing a deal, we can negotiate terms, calculate what we put into it and what we get out of it. Sin is always ready to play this game with us, for this is the way sin gets the advantage of us. James says that the giver God does not try to get the advantage of us. That sort of thing is ruled out with Him, so we can’t get the advantage of Him either. He doesn’t play that game at all.
The game God plays is giving, and what a game and what giving! Every good thing comes from His giving hands. God simply loves to give, and we can never change Him into a dealer no matter how hard we may try. There is no changing the giver God into any other kind of god. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).
You can play all sorts of tricks with shadows. Shadows can play all sorts of alluring tricks. But St. James was not thinking here so much of illusions or motion picture lighting tricks but the shadows of the planets and stars. From the shadowy deceptions of sin, God raises our eyes to the bright splendor of the heavens and the pure lights there. God is called their Father, their Creator. He made these clear lights, yet for all their bright splendor, He is more splendid and constant. As we look at planets and stars, they have their turnings, settings, and eclipses. Their light can fail us, but there is one who does not change or fail.
How do we know God and what He has done? We know Him by His giving. God has brought us to life as His children. Life is always a gift. We can’t make ourselves alive, as is shown in our natural birth. Little Esther did not choose to be delivered. This is also true of our spiritual birth—of our coming to life as the children of God. God used our mother’s bodies to give us the first kind of life. To give us new life as His children, He uses the “word of truth.” For us, this new birth was by the Word joined with the water of Baptism. It was plainly all gift. Life as God’s child begins as a gift, and it is gifts, gifts all the way. We live from the giving hand of God.
The greatest gifts are all given by the Word of God. The Word of God not only tells what these gifts are but also conveys them. When the word of forgiveness is spoken to you, forgiveness is given to you. When the Benediction is spoken to you, the blessing of God is given to you. In the sacraments, the Word is joined with extra means of conveying the gifts. It is then as if God takes your hand and presses His gift into it with the assurance, “Now you have really got it. Without a shadow of doubt, it is surely yours.”
Jesus would be nothing for us if the Word of truth did not tell of Him and give Him to us. A silent movie of Calvary would be nothing more than a tragic piece of newsreel. The soundtrack of God’s Word tells us what is going on there, what is achieved, and gives it to us with the words “for you.” Without the word of truth, the gifts would neither come to us nor would they be known as gifts.
This is true of the gifts of faith and also of all the smaller and more obvious gifts that are listed in the explanation of the First Article in Luther’s Small Catechism:
I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.
Such gifts of the First Article, of creation, are received by many without the Word of God as if they were not gifts at all. They just happened for some reason or other or for no reason at all. They are taken for granted the way a dog takes his tail for granted. Or (more foolish than the dog) the way some people suppose that their good eyesight, muscles, income, and looks are theirs because there is something special about them that calls for their being treated well. God’s Word has to tell us the truth and bring us to recognize all these as gifts of God. Only then do they do we see them as our Father’s providential care.
You may think that is not such a difficult job for the Word of God to do because good eyesight, muscles, income, and looks are things that we naturally desire and often attain. We can be drawn to these by our own desires and gain them by greed, envy, and deceit. When sin promises good things of this sort, we are apt to sin. Rather receive what God has given with thanksgiving, we take what we want by dealing with sin. When God delivers the same goods, we think we have gotten them from Him by some kind of bargain.
People who take this position suppose that they are still in control of the negotiations, but, in fact, they are in a vulnerable position. If they do a deal with sin, they will be played for fools. If they think of doing a deal with God, they will find that God does not play that game. The idea of doing a deal with God can survive only as long as they get the things after which they desires. When they get things they don’t want, those who hold to a negotiating position with God yell that He isn’t playing the game according to the rules of doing a deal. Then they are likely to say, “If God does that to me, I am through with Him. He is not what God ought to be. I don’t believe in Him. He doesn’t exist.”
Of course, the God whom we could do a deal with does not exist. The living God is the giver God. This we know from His word of truth that has made us His children. That gift and all the others the Word of God tells us of, and the Word of God makes them gifts to us from our giving Father God. This is true of your breakfast and your shoes, and not only of such obvious gifts but also of all the things that God gives us. Whatever He gives is a good gift from Him because His word of truth says so. God’s Word settles it, not our judgment or our desires. It tells us all His gifts are good. He gives us His word that He is our Father.
“Father knows best” when spoken by earthly fathers does not always inspire confidence, but when spoken by the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, it does. After Calvary we cannot doubt God’s love. God does not give us any shady advertising talk. He tells us straight that He is going to make something of us, which will mean some sorrow and pain. God intends to kill what we are as sinners and make us new. “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6).
The Lord does not tempt or entice us as sin does, but He does test us. He tests whether we are the children of Himself, the giver God, or whether we have a god we have made up to serve our desires. Affliction is such a test. When affliction cleanses us of trust in a false god and draws us closer to the living, giving Father God, then affliction is a good gift, for which we can come to thank Him. He cannot not be our Father. God is bound by His word.
As children of our Father God, we cannot be blown about by the winds of fortune or played for fools by the shadowy allurements of deceitful sin. We can no more be destroyed than God can be made a liar. We belong to Him and are held to Him by His word of truth. We are the firstfruits. There is large promise in that. The first of the harvest was offered to God as token of the whole harvest, acknowledged as belonging to Him and as gift from Him.
To say firstfruits means there are more gifts to follow. With every gift, God pushes our hands wider open to receive a still larger gift. The bother with us is that we often hold our hands open just enough for little gifts in fear that if the gifts get too big they may overwhelm us. The gifts may begin to take us over, and we may not be able to manage them. This is a genuine danger, for that is the way of gifts. You know how uneasy you get if somebody gives you lots of gifts-and rather big ones too. This uneasiness is born of our habit of doing deals.
Before God it is completely out of place. We can only have such an uneasiness before God if we are still thinking of doing a deal with Him. That we nevertheless have such uneasiness is betrayed by our notions of not letting our religion go too far, not too much Word of God, not church every Sunday, or not devotions every day. Some parts of our lives we simply must keep under our own control. To the extent that we still negotiate terms with God, we are setting ourselves up for a fearful crash. The God that can be negotiated with does not exist. If that is the one with whom we think we do business, our end is darkness.
As we live as the children of the Father of lights, the giver God, He will keep on pouring out His gifts, and they will overwhelm us more and more. The Epistle of James is mostly about what God’s gifts do to us, how they work out in our lives. Nothing remote or beyond the bright blue sky about this. The gifts shape how you use your tongue, how you treat widows and orphans, the hungry, people with money, people you employ. James points out that if you think your religion is just a good deal you have done with God for yourself, you have had it.
But in James 1, we get the starting point: The giver God, from whom comes every good and every perfect gift, has made us His children with His word of truth. As God pours the gifts, with each fresh gift, He gives us another nudge, “Come on, join in My game. Help Me give My gifts away.” God’s children play the game their Father’s way. To everybody else, to the deal-doers, it looks crazy, but, in fact, it is the best fun in all the world. With hands held wide to Him for His gifts, we will be moved and shaped by those gifts forward from firstfruits to the final joyous harvest. When we shall “sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things!” (Psalm 98:1)
In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church