No Shadow, No Variableness, No Change

Every good and perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of Lights, with Whom there is no variableness nor shadow of turning.  Of His own Will He fathered us with the Word of Truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.  James 1:17-18 [17-27]

A little boy once cried for the moon.  His father, a kind and generous man and very wise, gave it to him.  “You may have the moon,” said the father, “only you must not be selfish about it.  The very best place to keep the moon is up there in the sky, where it will give you light by night; and of course you want it to give light to your mother and me and to other people also.  You may have the moon just as long as you are unselfish, but when you grow greedy, then the moon will belong to someone else who will make better use of it.”
Another day the lad wanted the ocean, so the father gave him that on similar condition.  “You must not bottle it up or carry it away,” he said.  “It is yours, but you must not be selfish with it.  Let other people swim in it and sail boats in it.”
When the boy wanted a great forest, his father gave it to him.  When he asked for the mountains, his father granted the wish – one thing after the another until soon he owned the whole universe, but always on condition that he would not be selfish, but would let other people enjoy these wonderful things of his.
[H DaCosta Finley in Speakers Book of Illustrative Stories, ed by Maxwell Drake pg 131]

“Every good and perfect gift” – OK, so what qualifies as a “good and perfect gift”?  Is it “good and perfect” because it is something that we wanted?  Is it “good and perfect” because it is something that we enjoy or makes our life easier?  Is it “good and perfect” because it is useful and makes us more comfortable, or because it is now something we own?

How often have we had something happen that was exactly what we needed, but not only was it something that we didn’t want, in fact was something which was painful for us?  Even though it was definitely something that was NOT enjoyed, would it still qualify as a “good and perfect gift”?  Can a “good and perfect gift” be distorted, and then is it still “good and perfect”?  Ultimately should WE be the ones who determine what is “good and perfect”?

Often James’ words are used to remind us to be thankful for the many obviously “good” things which we receive daily from the Lord.  As Luther put it in his explanation to the Apostles’ Creed’s first article, God gives “me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them.  He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, [spouse] and children, land, animals, and all I have.  He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.  He defends me against all danger, guards and protects me from all evil” [Small Catechism, (c)1986 Concordia Publishing House] – and it IS a proper use of James’ message to remind us to not take these things for granted, to not take casually the individual love and care which God has for us.

As James points out, we really need to be conscious of such giving from God because it highlights how earnestly He really does care about us and our well-being – again as Luther identified: “All this He does purely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.”  Then with the backdrop of the cross of Jesus, how all of this fits right into the middle of a pattern of God’s concerned love for us.  James indicates that God isn’t wishy-washy or two-faced; He’s not on-again-off-again, but rather it expresses that if this is the way God is, then this is the way He will be all the way forever – even when it requires a cross and a resurrection.

That this is more than a mere courtesy which God extends to any of His creatures, James goes on, speaking of how we have been Fathered by God through “the Word of Truth.”  This echoes Paul’s words in Ephesians [5:26], where he speaks of us as being “washed with water and the Word” in Baptism.  So as added ammunition for James’ words, as to how God pours out these gifts and will not have even a SHADOW of change crossing His relationship to us, one more important reason for James is that we have been made the very children of God through adoption.

Yes, when all things go well, we really can appreciate James’ words, each “good and perfect” gift affirming yet again the wonderful relationship we have with our God and now Father, and the assurance that we can have confidence that this is indeed the way He will always be toward us.

But what happens when things don’t turn out just the way we want?  What happens when the marriage is having problems; when the boss is on your back; when the kids are acting up?  What about when you wrestle with health problems; or a loved one has experienced a stroke?  What happens when you have been laid off for the last year or so and there just doesn’t seem to be any jobs out there?

If these are “gifts” from God, they certainly don’t fall into the category of “good and perfect”!  No, isn’t it rather that we have to look at the “good and perfect gifts” to prevent us from getting too depressed and overwhelmed by these unhappy occasions?  Certainly these other things couldn’t be “GIFTS” from God!  No, they are just trials through which we must endure whatever it is that has to take place.

Yet isn’t this exactly where James’ message kicks in!  Why else would he add on the words, “no variation or shadow due to turning” unless it was specifically at these negative situations where he was looking!  When God seems silent; when God seems like He is in some other part of the universe perhaps going to some sort of universe conference; when God seems like He’s toying with us as a child might toy with a bug, James stands up and says, “Now hold it!  Before we narrow our vision to only the problem, let’s remind ourselves of the whole picture!”
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These situations require that we go in reverse order to the Epistle for today.  Usually, we start out with the obviously “good and perfect gifts” and then realize that indeed God is loving and kind and extraordinarily gracious to us.  After all, when we consider our rebellion of sin, it is not hard to discover that God does indeed go the extra mile when by all rights He has no obligation toward creatures who consistently give Him heart-ache and heart-break.  And so, as we encounter “good and perfect gift” after “good and perfect gift,” we come to realize that, yes indeed, this is the way God truly is.

But now we encounter a gift that we would just as happily do without.  Now we must work in reverse order. SINCE God has no variableness – in other words, He’s not wishy-washy, He’s not capricious; SINCE God hasn’t even the shadow or hint of turning – in other words, He isn’t one who will be your friend today and then tomorrow suddenly turn on you – then we face this unwanted gift from a different perspective.

Sometimes we just don’t want to admit that God could have a good reason for some of the things which happen to us.  Sometimes we just can’t see a good purpose at all coming out of certain situations – the damage which is being done is just too great.  Imagine being Israel and how many times God had to give them hard discipline, even to where He exiled them for seventy years.  Yet if there truly is no variableness to God, if there is no shadow of turning, then God is operating toward us and them in exactly the same way as when things are going the way we want them to go.

Then even this unwanted item that we are experiencing is still God’s gift to us.  It has to be “good” and it has to be “perfect” – “good” means that it is useful and necessary for us, “perfect” means that it will indeed accomplish the purpose it was set to do.

We don’t always understand why God sends us things that can tear up our lives.  We don’t always understand what is being accomplished in heartache or persecution.  Sometimes looking back we realize how God has matured us and molded us to be more of His persons in this world.  For Israel, they came back from the hard years of exile with firm resolve to put God first.  Even so, there are times where we just have no clue as to what is going on.

That’s why James said what he did.  That “Word of Truth” which he refers to in verse 18 is sometimes the only thing that we have to hold on to: God is not variable, God is not one Who will suddenly turn on us.  There are times when it is definitely hard to accept, not because we don’t want to believe, but because everything is just such a mess, that we have no apparent reason to see how this could even in the remotest way be “good and perfect.”

That’s one of the purposes for why we are here today.  God understands that we will often have this trouble in handling some of the things He has sent us.  He understands that we can easily become suspicious of His motives, partly because we only see a very small part of the larger picture – and – that there is no way we might understand right now how this particular event could be “good and perfect.”

That’s why He plants the cross firmly in front of our faces.  With what He committed Himself to on that cross, for God there is just no possibility of turning back now.  With the extent of His love so vividly on display – so naked before the world – He has to admit that indeed He is this loving, this gracious, and this concerned about you and me.

But also realize that the cross was no accident which caught God off-guard.  This was His deliberate message so that we would have no question as to where His heart and mind lay.  It was no charade, where He would send one message to fool us, and then switch just when we weren’t looking.  Practical jokes like that cease to be jokes when it requires the cost the life of His own only Son.  No, this was God’s calculated risk to declare that He indeed will never vary, will never even let the shadow of change pass across the face of His relationship to you.

But the cross is in the distant past. God knows that.  That’s why Jesus gave us Holy Communion, because then we see that the style of love indeed hasn’t changed over 2,000 years – Jesus is still giving Himself totally for us.  He doesn’t stagger at the thought of giving of Himself in a real way to you.

This then is His proof that every gift – EVERY gift – is “good and perfect”: “good” because it is useful and necessary, and “perfect” because it will accomplish its task for our benefit.  We know this not only because of how we have seen how He acts in the past, but also because He comes face-to-face with us today, He comes with nail-scarred hands, He comes in Flesh and Blood, He comes to show that there is “no variation or shadow due to turning.”  So you come now and discover this God Whom James is talking about in his lesson today.

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