Proper 20, Year B, St. Ann’s Church, Nashville

“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (Jas. 4:8).

Over the past few weeks we’ve been reading from the New Testament Letter of James. The Letter is a form of Wisdom literature, standing in the tradition of Old Testament books like Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, which offer practical advice on how to live one’s life. This continues to be a popular line of literary endeavor, as self-help guides and popular works of psychology and spirituality that offer us insight abound in our own day. Go to a book store (if you can find one) and the section devoted to this subject is probably substantial. Human beings continue to seek wisdom and understanding.

The key point about Wisdom for the Jewish tradition is that it comes from God. It does not have an earthly source. “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Mortals do not know the way to it, and it is not found in the land of the living,” Job tells us (Job 28:12-13). “God understands his way to it, and he knows its place… Truly the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding” (Job 28:23, 28). The God of Israel may “dwell in the high and holy place” (Is. 57:15), but the Lord God of hosts is also concerned with the creation he loves. Wisdom in this tradition is not self-help but guidance that comes from God for practical living.

James’ Letter is located firmly in this tradition of Hebrew wisdom. “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you,” it says in the first chapter (Jas. 1:5). Our reading today picks up the theme of wisdom, and identifies God again as the source of the gift. “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (Jas. 3:17). We could call James’ Letter the Christian self-help book, except that its guidance comes only from God.

Our reading today adds a priestly and sacramental note to the Christian wisdom of James. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (Jas. 4:8). The word here, “draw near,” is borrowed from the language of Israel’s worship. It is the language of sacred approach to the divine presence, as the priests of Israel draw near to God. “Even the priests who approach the Lord must consecrate themselves or the Lord will break out against them” (Ex. 19:22). “Remove the sandals from your feet,” God tells Moses, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 2:5).

God tells Moses to come no closer, of course, but St. James is telling us to indeed draw near. We are told that if we draw near to God, God will draw near to us. The drawing near implies repentance, change, transformation: as it says in our reading, “Submit yourselves therefore to God” (Jas. 4:7). In a few verses that are left out in our reading repentance is fleshed out further in a quote from Proverbs, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jas. 4:6); then again a few verses later, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (Jas 4:10).

The Letter has moved rather quickly from practical guidance for living to the recognition that wisdom is not just information that will help us live but that it results in moral transformation. Wisdom involves inner transformation and the cultivation of virtue. Again, “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (Jas. 3:17). It requires grace, and that is precisely what God gives to us (Jas. 4:6).

Here we have a sequence from ancient Israel that is lived out in our own liturgy, in the worship of the priestly People of God, in the community of the church. We are stepping into this ancient sequence ourselves. Here in the celebration of the Eucharist we draw near to God in humility, in repentance and faith. We confess our sins and we share the peace of Christ, and God draws near to us in the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (Jas. 4:8).

It’s an ancient sequence, but the way is opened to us by Jesus’ death and resurrection, recalled and made powerfully present in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup. Here again, if we draw near to him he will draw near to us. “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven; the Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.”

  • The Rt. Rev'd John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee