Shut Up and Listen
Epistle Lesson: James 1:17-21 (KJV)
17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.
18 Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
19 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:
20 For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.
21 Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.
Susan and I have a bad communication habit. We tend to “talk over” each other. She begins to say something; I assume I know what she is going to say; so I begin to answer before she finishes talking. (I might add this is not a one way problem!) So sometimes she says, “Will you be quiet and let me finish?” which being interpreted means, “Shut up and listen!”
St. James has a similar message for his readers, but before we can make sense of his command we need to understand the context for it.
1. The Context
One of the mistakes we make reading the Bible, and particularly a book like James, is to read as though the message is, “Do this! Don’t do that!” or “Be good! Don’t be bad!” We might say that we know we can’t be saved by good works, but because our tendency as humans is to try to get God’s favor by obedience, we turn the Bible into a moral code we are to obey.
However, while God communicates to us in his Word clear moral standards and exhortations, the Bible is first a book about redemption of sinners who have broken God’s moral code. Adam and Eve sin, and God intervenes to announce his plan to save them. Israel is enslaved in Egypt and helpless to achieve their own deliverance, and God intervenes to set them free. David is an adulterer and murderer, and God intervenes to show him his sin but also to promise forgiveness. Peter denies his Lord, and Jesus, having obtained Peter’s forgiveness by his death, intervenes to restore him. We must never forget this big story of redemption when we read the Bible.
In our Epistle lesson today, St. James points to two realities of redemption that form the context for the commandment he will give.
The first is God’s goodness. God is a good God who gives good gifts.
It can be hard to believe that God is good and that he generously gives us good gifts. Sometimes that is because we are going through difficult trials in life, and we find it hard to think that, if God is good and gives good gifts, he would send such things into your lives. How can God be good if our health, or finances, or marriage, or feelings are bad?
Sometimes it is because we believe the devil’s lie that God is not generous but like a parent whose hates giving gifts to his children. We think that only when we have been very good, or when we can overcome God’s natural tendency to turn us away and say no, that God gives.
I hate Christian cliches, and some irritate me more than others, such as “God is good all the time, all the time God is good.” To say that cheerily to a person in pain or grief is cruel. But, understood in the light of the Bible and of Jesus Christ, it is true. James tells us that God is always good and takes pleasure in giving us good things.
God is not like humans who can be good and bad in attitude toward others within seconds, who can be generous one day and stingy the next. There is no variableness or shadow or turning about God’s goodness. Yesterday morning it was sunny and warm so we decided we would have lunch at our favorite place with outdoor tables. We got there, and promptly the sun went behind the clouds. Soon Susan was freezing. That’s the way is with the light of the sun. Not so with God; his goodness never wavers or varies. His gifts are always good. Even the trials he sends are meant for good not evil. God is good.
We need very much to remember that all God’s commands to us come from one who is good and giving.
The second reality is that God in his goodness gives us the new birth.
Jesus told Nicodemus that his natural birth would not save him - the he needed to be born again, or born from above. As with Nicodemus, so with us all. We need a new birth to enter God’s kingdom.
But, as with natural birth, so with the new birth. We don’t birth ourselves. It is the will of our parents that gives us birth. So James tells us that God of his own will gives us the new birth. As John puts it we are “born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of a man, but of God” (John 1:12).
James calls our attention that God’s uses his word to give us the new birth. He “begat” us by the “word of truth.” The word of truth is the gospel which Jesus and the Apostles preached. It is the gospel preserved in the Holy Scriptures and proclaimed by Christ’s ministers. St. Peter tell us that we “ have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God...And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1: 23-25). God gives us new life and continually renews it through his Word.
The new birth is the good gift of a good God. By the gospel he has given us a new life to respond to him with faith, love, and obedience. By the new birth he begins a work of renewal in us so that we find his commandments are not burdens but blessings. The new birth teaches us that obedience is not against our happiness but for it. The new birth enables us, when we fall, to find forgiveness and then to get up and and start again in the Christian life.
God is good, and he has given us new life. These realities create gratitude and undergird all our obedience.
Now in the context of God’s unfailing goodness and his gift of new life we can consider his commandment.
“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
Listening is not an easy thing to do - especially when we think that the other person doesn’t know what we know or that the other person is wrong. We want to give them a piece of our minds - either to impart knowledge or correction. We want to even more when our emotions are running high. Talking first is destructive to communication and nowhere more so than in the life of the church.
Real listening is not just holding your tongue while another person speaks. We can be quiet while all the time we are listening we are putting together what we are going to say in response. Listening means focusing on what the other person is saying so that you understand what that person is saying. Sometimes it means listening “beneath the words” to discern what a person is feeling and why the person is saying what he or she is saying.
Listening also means we consider that the other person may be telling us something we need to know - maybe something we thought we knew but really don’t, or maybe a word of correction we had no idea we needed. It means we consider that the person may be right and we may be wrong, when we thought it was the other way around.
St. James tells us to reverse the order. Listen first, then speak.
Along with being quick to listen and slow to speak, we should be slow to anger. Anger can lead to slow listening and fast speaking, but James focuses on the other end of the problem. Not listening but rushing to speak can make us become angry or make us angrier than we already were. Have you ever noticed that getting something off your chest often does not defuse your anger but makes it worse? The more you say the angrier you get.
We will be wise to listen to the Proverbs: “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (14:29). A soft answer turns away wrath but a harsh word stirs up anger” (15:1). “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention” (15:18).
Sinful anger is contrary to the righteous nature of God and the righteous character and conduct he fants of us as people who been born again by his Word and who are constantly receive his good gifts. To please God let us open our ears, close our mouths, and control our tempers.
James classifies anger with “all filthiness superfluity of naughtiness” or “all filthiness and rampant wickedness.” For some reason in the church when we hear the words “filthiness and rampant wickedness” we tend to think of sexual sins, of promiscuity and perversion, but we don’t think so much of sins of the tongue and sins of the spirit. James tells us that these sins of the tongue and spirit belong to the category of filthiness and wickedness.
These we must “lay aside” or “put away” or “take off” as we would dirty clothes. My wife was known to make our boys get out of their muddy clothes right at the door before sending them to the shower. This is what we must do with our slow listening, fast speaking, and fast tempers. By God’s grace, we take them off and put them out out of our lives.
But there is something positive we can do that will help us. The word by which God gave us new birth we can also continually receive with meekness - as we pray for ourselves every time we celebrate Holy Communion - that “with meek heart and due reverence, (we) may hear and receive thy holy Word” (BCP). When we continually receive God’s Word with open and submissive hearts that Word can choke out what is evil in us and strengthen what is good.
Brothers and sisters, we are born again, but there is much sin that remains within us and is produced by us. We need the Gospel. As our souls are nourished with the Gospel when we receive its reading and preaching with faith so may they be fed with the Gospel as with faith we receive from this holy Table our Lord’s Body and Blood.