1st Sunday in Lent – B LSB #’s 525, 420, 696
Text – James 1:17
Every good gift & every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
THE GOOD & PERFECT GIFT
Little Joey came into the kitchen where his mother was making dinner. His birthday was coming up & he thought it was a good time to tell her what gift he wanted: “Mom, I’d like a bicycle for my birthday.”
Now, Joey was a bit of a troublemaker. He’d caused problems at school & at home, so his mother asked if he deserved to get a gift for his birthday. Of course Joey thought he did, but his mother wanted him to reflect on his behavior over the past year.
“Go to your room & think about how you have behaved since your last birthday. Then write a letter to God & tell Him why you deserve a bike for your birthday.” Joey shuffled up the stairs to his room & sat down to reflect & to write.
Dear God, I have been a very good boy this year & I would like a bicycle for my birthday gift. I want a red one.
Joey knew this wasn’t true. He had not been a very good boy this year, so he tore up the letter & started over.
Dear God, This is your friend Joey. I’ve been an “OK” boy this year & I still would really like a red bicycle for my birthday present. Thank you.
Sadly, he knew this was not true either. So, he tore up the 2nd letter & started a 3rd.
God, I know I have not been a good boy this year. I’m very sorry. I will be a good boy if you just send me a bicycle as a gift for my birthday. Please!
But Joey realized, even if it were true, this letter wasn’t going to get him a bicycle. He went downstairs & told his mom that he wanted to go to church. Joey’s mother thought her plan had worked, so she said to him, “Just be home in time for dinner.”
Little Joey walked down the street to the church on the corner. He went in & up to the altar. There, he looked around to see if anyone was watching. Then he picked up a statue of the Virgin Mary, slipped it under his shirt, ran out of the church, down the street, into the house, & up to his room. He shut the door & sat down with pen & paper.
I’VE GOT YOUR MAMA! IF YOU WANT TO SEE HER AGAIN, SEND THE BIKE!
Signed, YOU KNOW WHO.
Apparently Joey felt that he needed that red bicycle really bad!
Humorous stories are excellent tools for teaching because they allow us to recognize the truth in somewhat of a disguise. It’s less threatening that way, so we’re more open to hearing the truth. Joey’s kidnapping of the Virgin Mary makes for a funny story, because it strikes so close to the truth; a truth that we would rather not examine too closely out in public.
It’s obvious to each of us that we can’t be kidnapping something & demanding a ransom from God. Yet we also realize that the story has as much to do with our own sins, as it does with little Joey’s. At least I hope you realize that. I mean, to be honest, I couldn’t care less about Joey’s sins, but God has made me accountable for yours.
So what does the story of Joey’s ransom demand have to do with our sins? After all, there aren’t many of us here demanding a red bicycle for our birthday. And I expect that none of you has ever written a ransom note. But I do know that some of you have endured the breakup of very special relationships. Having gone through that myself, I know the sort of tricks the sinful mind will play at times like that, “God, if you don’t let this relationship work out, I’m not going to waste my time in church anymore.”
Or maybe you’ve urgently prayed for someone’s health, but the diagnosis came back & the doctors said, “there’s nothing more they can do.” Someone you cared about very dearly ended up dying. Then it occurred to you, “What’s the use in praying? God never answers my prayers anyway.”
Sometimes your parents are upset because nothing seems to be going right for them. As their child a misunderstanding gets you punished unfairly. You did nothing wrong. In fact you tried to do what was right, but still end up grounded & missing your best friend’s party that you’d been looking forward to for months.
As you slam the door to your room, you tell them, “I hate you,” as you’re wondering if God loves you anymore.
In each circumstance, we have questioned God’s love & been tempted to give up on His promises. Like Joey, trusting in God’s love often isn’t good enough for us. Somehow we want more leverage with God than that. Trusting His goodness leaves us helpless & at His mercy.
But taking God hostage to our prayers – to our love – to our church attendance, those are an attempt to gain the gifts from our heavenly Father through extortion. Those are attempts to put yourself into the driver’s seat. As Joey did, we want control – not mercy. We want to be in charge – not forgiven.
To accept forgiveness means to admit that I was wrong. It means to blame no one but myself. It’s a good laugh when others try to take God hostage, because then we easily see the foolishness involved. But our own sin involves a certain blindness to common sense. What’s
clear to you in Joey’s case is normally anything but clear when you have your mind set on something particular & are longing for it. How frustrating religion can be when we grow uncertain of God’s love.
When plans for a baby end in miscarriage, or the joy of marriage becomes the worry of finances, people look for a response from God. When we’re tempted to uncertainty, concerning His love, every event in life is looked to as a possible sign from heaven.
And such a life of doubt, fear & uncertainty kills the soul. That’s not the life our Savior came to give. The 18th verse of the Epistle reading says, “Of His own will [our Father] brought us forth by the Word of Truth...” James desires that his hearers see things clearly so their conversation with God will not be tedious & frustrating, but eternal & one of freedom.
We are not to feel chained down by the changes in life. We are not to feel burdened by the adversity, suffering & struggle. We are not to surrender hope because of our sins. After writing letter # 3, the story says Joey realized, even if it were true, this letter wasn’t going to get him a bicycle. But those are the lies of the Devil, “Did God really say?”
The truth is that our heavenly Father longs to give precious gifts to His children. He sent His Son to give light & life. Too often we give the curse of darkness & even death! The Devil would have everyone believe that in religion only darkness & death can be found. But when faced with feelings of doubt & uncertainty, God’s children turn to the Word of Truth.
That Word is Jesus Christ Himself. He is the ultimate good & perfect gift. His death released us from the stranglehold of sin. Our Lord is so powerful, & so loving, that in Christ even adversity & suffering are opportunities to grow, & thus they are gifts from God. They’re not meant to end in doubt & hostage taking.
So how do we deal with those gifts? Do we focus on what is not fair about them? Yes,
we do! Should we? NO!!! But that can be like prying a dog’s jaws off a bone, because frequently we do not want to let go of, “But it’s not fair!!!” Like Joey, our sinful nature doesn’t believe that God is fair, so we try to get our gifts through our own cunning or deception. The only gifts those bring are darkness & death, certainly not good & perfect gifts.
Earlier in his book, James wrote, “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature & complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:4 NIV) In Christ, adversity & suffering develop perseverance & character. Joey came close several times.
He wrote the 3rd letter apologizing for his behavior. Then he failed to believe that God would accept it. He went into the church & approached the altar, but only to steal; not to seek forgiveness. Either he did not understand God’s love, or felt he could not trust in it.
The assurance of God’s love & the focus of our faith is not the absence of disease or divorce. It’s not the presence of birthday gifts. The assurance of God’s love & the focus of our faith is the cross. There, God demonstrated His love very clearly. There, God assures us that even in the midst of great pain & suffering, He is at work bringing good & perfect gifts.
Our feelings change like the shifting shadows, but God’s love, shown in the sacrifice of His Son, is the same yesterday, & today & forever. Let us all as one person say, “Lord, we have sinned & done evil before You; we have wantonly despised Your mercy & love; we have fallen short of Your glory – again today.”
But let us not fear our guilt, like Joey feared his. The prophet Isaiah tells us, “Say to those who are afraid, ‘Be strong, & do not fear, for your God is coming… to save you.’” (35:4 NLT) He will save us from having caused trouble & from having sinned. He will save us from having given gifts of darkness & death instead of light & life.
At Bethel, Jacob wrestled with God until he received Yahweh’s blessing. In a sense,
what Jacob said was this, “God, I have Your promises, & You have to keep them. Send me forgiveness & send me new life!” As a result we emphasize clinging to the Body & Blood of Jesus, clinging to the waters of Baptism, because God’s promises do not change. They are not shifting shadows like our emotions are.
And God’s promises are granted through His Sacraments & through His Word. Yahweh has remained & will remain constant in His desire that all be saved.
What a joy then, as we encounter the changes in our lives, to know that this remains the same: whether having recently married or recently divorced, whether standing over a crib, or walking away from a grave, when we are gathered here, Sunday after Sunday, we come before the One who does not change in His love for us.
That love is expressed most fully in the Good & Perfect gift, His only begotten Son. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” PAUSE
The Gospel of Mark tells us, “And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear & the mute speak.’” (7:37 ESV) But God’s gift does not end there. His gift even makes the guilty – innocent! That is a truth all of us can enjoy reflecting upon. Amen.
Christ the life of all the living, Christ the death of death our foe; who Thyself for us once giving to the darkest depths of woe, through Thy sufferings, death & merit, we eternal life inherit; thousand, thousand thanks shall be, dearest Jesus unto Thee. Amen. LSB 420:1.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet