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“Adjust Your Focus”
James 1:9-12

Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost—September 30, 2012

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

In the current political climate, there has been much heated debate about different economic groups in our society, with categories such as the 99%, the 1%, and lately the 47%.   In today’s Epistle Reading, the Apostle James says that no matter which group you may fall into, as a Christian you will look on your circumstances differently than the world’s perspective. Whether you are in the 99% or the 1%, you need to “Adjust Your Focus”:  “The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position.  But the one who is rich should take pride in his humiliation.” 

Soon we will be remembering the early American Pilgrims at Thanksgiving.  The Pilgrims were of a strain of Christianity called the Puritans, which have died out as a denomination.  But, one of their main ideas is still very much alive.  In the Puritan tradition, earthly abundance was seen as a sign of God’s favor.  The wealthier you are, the more you must love God, and God must love you.  And they thought the opposite was also true: poverty is a sign of God’s anger against you.  And so the Puritans thought the place to look for assurance of your salvation is your material circumstances in this life.  If you have plenty of good things, then you must be saved; but if you are poor, then your salvation is in doubt.

The Puritans probably got this idea because if we were God that’s how we’d do it, reward our friends with wealth, and punish our enemies with poverty.  But, that goes completely against the teachings of the Bible.  That’s just not how God operates.

In Romans, the Apostle Paul tells us what we would all receive if God gave us what we deserve:  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . .  the wages of sin is death.”  That’s the only thing we’ve earned, that’s the only thing we deserve to receive from God: the wages of sin, eternal death and damnation in hell. 

The Good News is, God doesn’t give us what we deserve, as Paul continues in Romans, “But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  The Christian Gospel proclaims that instead of giving us what we deserve, eternal death and damnation in hell, God graciously gives us what His Son Jesus Christ deserves, the blessings of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life that he earned for us, in our place, by his perfect life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection from the dead.

Today’s Old Testament Reading puts it beautifully, poetically addressing the Christian Church as Jerusalem: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”  Your hard service has been completed by Jesus’ own perfect life; your sin has been paid for by his death on the cross; and so you receive from the Lord’s hand double for all you sins—not double punishment, but double forgiveness, double grace, double blessing from the Lord’s hand, earned for you by his Son.

The place to look for assurance of your salvation isn’t your earthly treasures, but God’s treasures on earth: the Word of God, and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.  Through the Word and Sacraments God gives to you the blessings and assurance of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life, earned for you by his Son.  As Martin Luther says in the 95 Theses, “The true treasure of the Church is the most holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.”

It is because you know and believe this Good News, that God has already bestowed on you the greatest gift of all, that you therefore “Adjust Your Focus” and look on your circumstances in this life differently than the world’s perspective.  While it is true that we should give thanks for material blessings as a gift from God, over and over again the Bible says that poverty also can be a blessed state, as James says, “The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position.”

And the Bible warns against the danger of wealth becoming your egotistical idol.  That’s what James means when he continues, “But the one who is rich should take pride in his humiliation.”  In humility recognize your spiritual poverty, and put your trust in the Lord, not yourself and your worldly wealth.  As Paul tells Timothy, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God.”

In the Beatitudes, Jesus tells us the key to a right relationship with worldly things when he declares, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  Whether you’re in the 99% or the 1%, what matters is not the size of your bank account, but your spirit, your attitude toward the things of this world. 

In the Large Catechism, Martin Luther explains that you are like a traveler on a journey, just passing through this world.  And so, Luther says, you use the things of this world in the same way that a traveler uses an inn.   No matter how wonderful the inn may be, you don’t become attached to it, because you know it’s just temporary.  Instead, you look forward to leaving the inn behind and going to your real and permanent home.  In the same way, don’t become attached to the temporary things of the world, but look forward to leaving this world behind, and going to your real and permanent home in heaven. 

As Paul says in 1st Corinthians, “What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short.  So from now on those who . . . use the things of the world should live as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.”  James puts it this way in today’s Epistle Reading: “The one who is rich . . . will pass away like a wild flower.  For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business.”

In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  The words “this day” and “daily” teach us something that goes against the grain of our materialistic society: moderation and contentment.   There’s nothing wrong with wealth, and if God blesses you with wealth, give him thanks and pray for wisdom to use it to his honor.  But, just as there are hardships with extreme poverty, but there can also be pitfalls with extreme wealth.

“How hard it is,” Jesus said, “for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.”  That’s because an abundance of this world’s goods has a tendency to arouse the sinful nature and to distract your thoughts from things spiritual and heavenly.  As Paul says in Colossians, “Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”

So, you should really consider yourself the most blessed if you stand somewhere between the two extremes of wealth and poverty.  That is why Jesus never tells us to pray for wealth, but only for “our daily bread.”  As Paul tells Timothy, “If we have food and clothing, let us be content with that.”  It’s that attitude of moderation and contentment, against the grain of our materialistic society, that James is urging you to have in today’s Epistle Reading: “The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position.  But the one who is rich should take pride in his humiliation.”

In 2nd Corinthians, Paul describes the right attitude toward the things of this world: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”  Whether you are in the 99% or the 1%, you need to “Adjust Your Focus,” away from the things of this world, and instead focus on what Jesus calls your “treasures in heaven.”

As James concludes: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”


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