(Click here to listen. This week the audio has more in it, I just felt inspired to add some things, so the audio is actually the better version.)
When I was ten years old I begged my parents to get me a VIC 20 computer system for Christmas. It had a tape player that ran programs, 5kb of ram, an 8 bit video card, and was the second generation of “personal computers” made by the Commodore computer company. I had a little Timex Sinclair 1000 box that you could hook up to your television and write your own programs on. The VIC20 would have allowed me to write more complex programs and be able to save them to play with later. At this point in time we had just started our ministry to refugees in New York, and the family was very short on funds. Computers in those days were a bit more expensive than they are now, and looking back on it I know that my longing cut to my parents’ heart. Let’s fast forward to Christmas morning. I open some smaller presents first and start seeing strange wires, and then get to open the “big, heavy box”. I don’t know if you had the tradition that the kids had to open all the small presents before the big one, but that’s the way my parents did it. I opened the box to find a Commodore 64, the latest and greatest computer, and above and beyond what I had expected. It was for me at that time, the perfect gift. I don’t know how my parents did it, but they made sure to let me know that the computer and all my presents came not only through the love of my parents, but ultimately by the provision of our loving God. James had something to say about this as well, reminding us that “17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”
God is the inspiration, the promoter, the spark, the voice of conscience, the voice of compassion, the voice of reason that prompts us towards acts of generosity. We are moved, not only out of gratitude towards the God who saves us, but by our own desire to emulate the divine character. It is because we bear the divine image that we even have the ability to extend generosity, mercy, and love to others around us. Bearing the image of the God who is love is what gives us the capacity to love. James tells us here that the ultimate source of every act of generosity is the God who gives with generosity. The God who was so saddened by the brokenness of humanity and how that brokenness took us away from relationship with him chose to die so that we could be brought back into a whole relationship. That is the ultimate act of generosity. He laid down his life not only for his friends, but his enemies as well.
James then tries to describe God to the best of his understanding and you just get the feeling from the text that James feels deeply the limits of language. Last week we heard the point that our temptation finds its root in our desires, and taken together these passages show us how shadows only come when we allow something to get between us and the source of all light. The debris of our desires run amok clutters our lives, but when we clear away the debris, when we allow God to clear away the debris, we become better reflections of that light of love and find ways to extend generosity in ways that honor the image stamped not only on us, but on the person or persons we are giving to. This understanding of God as the source of all light brings us into a better understanding of what it means for God to be our father. It is from our creator who gave us the breath of life that we receive the ability to love. God’s love has been described in the bible with both paternal and maternal images, and James probably had some of those maternal images of God in mind when he wrote these verses. God includes and transcends human gender and it is equally appropriate to refer to the feminine aspects of God as the masculine when we address God, neither speaks to the fullness of God, but when both are used we come a little closer. In the beginning of our bibles we see humanity created in God’s image, male and female, then we see the results of the fall in systems of domination that are contrary to God’s desire for us. To show us His will God used both women and men to lead Israel into the Promised Land and guide the people of Israel. The writings and the prophets are full of both masculine and feminine descriptions of God, and Jesus quotes one of the feminine images as he goes into Jerusalem. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Matt 23:37 Of course the most important feminine image of God is in the New Testament and is spoken of in today’s passage. We are reborn by the power of God’s Spirit, yes, God gives birth to us. God not only loves us as our Father, but because we are born from God, she loves us as a mother as well. Do you see what I mean here about the language just not being enough to describe the amazing nature of God’s character and love for us? We can use masculine and feminine pronouns all we want but oh, how deep and wide are the mysteries of God, and how wonderful and beyond our comprehension is the divine nature. Anytime we speak of God, we must at some level acknowledge the inadequacy of human language and minds to convey God’s fullness.
OK, let’s get back to our text here. God’s purposes in the world require the healing pain of being born again, into a new family, the family of God. Being born of the Spirit is indeed a painful thing, it forces us to reject the self-serving priorities of our previous life and die to those parts of ourselves that lead us into temptation. Our rebirth is of course for a purpose beyond ourselves, God has an eye on the much larger picture of a desired outcome for creation. We are reborn in order to begin the work of restoration. It is a challenging work, beginning with us, but extending into the farthest reaches of our relationship with every piece of the created order. The word translated as first fruits has a few meanings, but at its core is a combination of the Greek words for beginning and the word for reversal. This word was used for the sacrifice of the first fruits of the harvest, an acknowledgement of God’s provision and a statement of faith in God’s ability to provide. This sacrifice was a bold statement that “I do not live for myself, my family, or anything other than the God who made me.” This statement is a reversal of the fallen order. No longer are we to be focused on doing the best for me and mine, but our focus is to be on God’s will and God’s desires for his creation. This affects every aspect of our lives, from the sacrifices we make so that our children grow up to be better people than we are, to the sacrifices we make so that other people are not harmed by what we buy. One of my favorite examples of this in the Quaker world is that of John Woolman. He was a lawyer who dealt mainly with probate issues. One day he was helping someone put together a will and felt convicted by God when coming up with the person’s will for their slaves to be passed on to their children. He could not do it in good conscience. This began a time of travel, and Woolman went around to all of the Friends meetings in the US, sharing his conviction. He refused to wear clothes that had been made or dyed by slaves, and when he stayed at people’s homes that had slaves he always paid the slaves for any service rendered to him. It is because of Woolman’s testimony, verbal and living, that us Quakers eventually gave up slavery and worked to free the slaves, one man who obeyed the conviction of God was used to begin the reversal of an evil and oppressive system. Obedience to the will of God is powerful and has the ability to bring restoration in situations that look impossible. That obedience often includes sacrificial behavior on our parts, but our faith is rooted in sacrifice and the call to daily take up our crosses and present ourselves as living sacrifices. Jesus, the ultimate good and perfect gift, set the example for His church and generation after generation has made sacrifices so that we can be here today, worshiping the God who loves enough to sacrifice everything for us. Can we do any less? During our time of open worship, let us consider what God may be calling us to sacrifice?