There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou
Sitting in my house as hurricane-force winds howled outside, hurling large objects at will, I had time to reflect on human strength.
In a hurricane, you learn just how weak you are.
You’ve met those people about whom it is said, “He thinks the universe revolves around him.” Certainly some people seem particularly arrogant and self-centered; but if we’re honest, you and I will have to admit that we all tend to think highly of self. Each of us tends to put ourselves at the center of the universe.
And each of us tends to overestimate his own strength.
In all the lessons that we have learned, are learning and will come to learn through Hurricane Katrina, one of the most-needed is the lesson of humility. Yes, the Lord’s hand was in this awful storm – and in part, He has taught you and me a lesson in presumption.
We didn’t hold the boards together.
We didn’t steer the storm.
We didn’t even give ourselves the breath of life.
This morning St. James, being led by God’s Spirit, warns you and me against the sin of presuming to play the role of God. James warns against two sins in particular: the sin of presuming to be Judge, and the sin of presuming to be Sovereign.
If Katrina didn’t remind you of this timeless truth, then listen to God’s Word: God alone is Lord, and your happiness depends on being humble before Him.
James first warns you against presuming to be Judge of mankind.
This role is one of our favorite “privileges” you and I like to arrogate to ourselves. We love to run our mouths and talk down other folks, and in so doing we pass judgment on their souls. This is the work of a judge, and, more specifically, the one true Judge.
James says that slander (literally “talking down” another person) is very obviously a violation of God’s holy law. Both the Old and New Testaments – and even our Lord Jesus Christ himself – explicitly call you and me to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. This command certainly – primarily? – encompasses what we say about them.
St. Paul commands us to build each other up as Christians with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. We are to speak the Word of God to each other in various ways; and our words must have an edifying effect. Elsewhere the Apostle tells us to “speak the truth in love,” referring first to the gospel but also to whatever belongs to God’s truth.
Loving your neighbor as you love yourself, and speaking the truth to him in love, do not mean that you never speak firmly or critically of your fellow man. For example, if you wasted your entire paycheck on golf and didn’t leave enough money to pay your bills, you surely would chide yourself firmly. You wouldn’t tear yourself down; you wouldn’t rip yourself to shreds. But you would give yourself a good talking-to.
In the same manner, sometimes you and I have to confront each other lovingly and graciously with constructive criticism. We’ve got to have the other person’s repentance and growth in Christ in view, while we remember our own frailty and sinfulness. James isn’t talking about this sort of edifying speech.
He’s talking about lying. And gossiping. And running your mouth. And condemning another person with the power of your tongue. This sort of speech is unquestionably a violation of God’s moral law.
You and I, James reminds us again, are to be DOERS of the law as proof of our inward conversion to Christ. Yet when we condemn others with our mouths and thus break the law of God, we’re playing God Himself: as though we could pick and choose which parts of the law we wanted to obey and become our own little lawgivers.
Only One has the right to give law, and to condemn and to acquit based on that law.
You and I are NOT He.
Let us then be doers, not judges, of the holy law of God.
We secondly must not presume to be sovereign over this world.
These days, regrettably, most of us speak of all the things we’re “going to do.” We say we have our plans, and we speak about those plans, and you and I honestly believe our plans are set in stone.
We do the ordering. We do the planning. We pave the way.
Used to, however, Christians attached the phrase “Lord willing” to every sentence telling of their plans.
And they meant it.
Sometimes Christians still attach the letters “D.V.” to a statement of plans; the letters stand for the Latin phrase Deo volente (“God willing”).
What if you and I repented of our pride, realized our dependence on the gracious will of God and spoke in those terms?
St. James compares your life to a vapor, stressing our limited nature and our transience on earth. He’s borrowing from Old Testament thinking as he relates you and me, the created, to our Creator.
I don’t know about you, but I tend to think of myself in more-permanent terms. I’d like to think of myself as a staunch old tree that won’t be moved.
Yet the Lord says here that you and I are like a mist, not a tree. Sometimes I’ll spray those aromatic fresheners in our house, and the mist lasts only a moment. (The pleasant fragrance doesn’t last much longer either!)
Those are startling ways of thinking of the brevity of life and the limited power that you and I possess, but they are true and right. And there’s an upside: I never would have considered theology or seminary had not the Lord placed the right people in my life at the right time. A “dependent vapor” such as I never could have planned, much less brought about, what God has done in my life.
Let’s be careful to recognize our own creatureliness in the aftermath of Katrina. Look back on your life and see what God has willed – and what great things He has wrought. It will make you long for His will to be done!
To fail to worship God as Lord is, James says, sin. It is a sin of omission: failing to give the Lord His proper honor. It is, likewise, a sin of commission: giving to yourself the role reserved for God alone.
This storm has drained all of you.
This Word, this morning, has confronted all of you.
Remember that you didn’t keep the boards together as the winds howled. Remember that you didn’t create yourself – nor did you atone for your own sins before your Judge.
To so many people, the humiliation of a storm – and the humiliation, ultimately, of the Gospel – is unacceptable.
In this church, and in your heart, however, may this storm and this Word humble you before the only One wise and strong enough to order your life for good.