Our Scripture reading this morning comes from the New Testament from the letter of James—James 1, and we’ll read from verse 1:
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord. [He’s] a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.
“The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he 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.
“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.
“When tempted no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
“Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
We began our service by reading in unison from the 145th Psalm, part of which read as follows: “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made … one generation will commend your works to another … they will celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness.” Now we take this morning as our text James 1:17-18: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.”
So, both of these passages, one from the Old and one from the New Testament, affirm the vital truth of the goodness of God. The children that are here this morning may be tested when they get home—they should be—on anything that they may have learned as a result of having been here for this service, and when your grandmother or your Uncle Bill asks you, “And what did we learn this morning?” you will be able to tell them, “We learned about the goodness of God,” or, if you like, “We learned that God is good.” I want to say that immediately because some of you as adults need that little prompter yourself, and your wife may test you when you get back; I’m sure mine probably will. “What was the sermon about this morning?” she may ask. And what the Bible affirms is that God is spontaneously good—spontaneously good—and he overflows with generosity, and that overflowing generosity is a disposition unlike anything we as human beings know, because it is a disposition to give to others without any mercenary motive; to give without the prospect of a return. It is a generosity that is not limited by what the recipients of that generosity deserve, and indeed it is a generosity which consistently goes beyond what the recipients deserve.
Now, James is a perfect one to be affirming this truth, because after all, he would have heard of Jesus’ words to the people who were listening to him on that one occasion when he turns to them and he says, “If you … though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” And the argument, you see, is one of degrees: if you, even though you are as you are, understand the nature of generosity, then how much more will God the Father give good gifts to those who ask him?
Now, during the past few days, many of us have enjoyed the generous expressions of hospitality that have been provided for us, and we have perhaps said out loud—or at least thought in our minds, or observed as someone else made the observation in a question, as they looked perhaps at a very generous display of food and a wonderful prospect of a meal that was before us—somebody may well have said, “And who do we have to thank for all of this?” It’s almost an inevitable question, isn’t it? “Look at all of this amazing provision! Who do we have to thank for all of this?” And while the immediate answer may well have been, “Well, we have Mrs. X to thank, or our grandmother, or our aunt, or our relative to thank,” while that may be the immediate truth, ultimately, we have God to thank. Now, this is a vital truth that needs to be laid to our hearts.
You will notice that James here warns his readers against thinking incorrectly about God. “Don’t be deceived,” he says in verse 16. “Do not be deceived.” There’s a warning there: it is possible for you to be thrown off course. It is possible for you to think wrongly. One of the questions is, “Where does this fulcrum point?” If the phraseology of verse 16 is a fulcrum, is it referencing what he has just said about the nature of temptation, which proceeds it, or is it referencing what he says about the goodness of God, which follows it? The NIV translators have tipped their hat in the later direction, putting it at the beginning of a new paragraph there in the sixteenth verse. If you have a different translation, it may actually be following directly on from verse 15. For myself, given that that is the case, it would seem to my own simple mind that the warning, “Do not be deceived,” is a warning which points both back to what he has just said and forward to what he is now saying. All that we know of God, he says, establishes the fact that he is never the source of evil—which looks back the way to verse 15 and 14 and beyond—but he is always the source of everything good, which brings us to verses 17 and 18.
Now, in these two verses, which we’re going to look at just briefly, James invites his readers to consider this truth; first of all, comprehensively, and then, specifically. Comprehensively, specifically; that’s the outline of our study.
First of all, looked at comprehensively: “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” Friday marked the beginning of the retail frenzy which leads up to Christmas. This is something that America has managed to champion and offer to the world. If you went on the BBC at all during the weekend, you’ll have noticed that our cousins over there had another good laugh at us all over here as a result of the great stumbling and bumbling that took place in the early hours of Friday morning as people careened into malls all across the nation, desperately keen to get whatever discount there possibly was. And, with a measure of disdain, they pointed out that, “These Americans,” they said—that’s us—“are so crazy that even a couple of people got trampled in the crush!” Well, of course, were they dashing in there just to get the perfect gift for Uncle Freddie, or were they dashing in there because they can’t resist a bargain? I don’t know, but the retail frenzy has begun. “It’s beginning to look a lot like …” and off we’ve gone. And in those mad malaise of shoppers, you would have found people talking to one another asking the requisite questions about the purchasing of gifts, four essential questions that are asked about the purchase of any gift (there are probably more, but these are the best I can do for now): Is it a sensible gift? Is it a sincere gift? Is it a sufficient gift? Is it a suitable gift?
Because the fact of the matter is, in our ability to give, we are not the ones who are providing good and perfect gifts—certainly never perfect, and not always good—and the reason is that we’re flawed. So, you will find yourself very quickly on the receiving end of a dialogue, either with your roommate if you’re a couple of students living together and you decided to go halfers on a gift for somebody, and back comes your friend who bought the t-shirt from Gap and he or she takes it out and says, “Do you think that he’ll like this?” And you said, “Well, that’s … there’s no way that that will fit him,” and then he said, “But I didn’t know that he was XXL!” and then you said, “Well, it’s a completely unsuitable gift. If he was a little person, it would be fine, but he’s a big person!” Or: “I can’t believe that you bought Jeremy a chain saw! Why would you buy a chain saw for a fourteen-year-old boy? You are ridiculous!” “Oh!” says the husband, “My dad got me a chain saw when I was a boy!” to which the wife replies, “Yes, and look at your fingers. This is a completely unsuitable gift.” Or: “What’s wrong with just one teacup? It’s a start isn’t it?” “Well, it may be a start, but it is completely insufficient. I’m not giving just one teacup. You can give one teacup if you like, but that is an insufficient gift,” and then, finally, of course, the great nadir, the great end of it all: “Oh, you choose something. Who cares?” Then you know it’s Christmas Eve. We’ve finally reached the apex of our ability to show people our love and affection for them: “Just get something; they’ll take it back in the sales in any case. Who even cares?”
Now, I mention that not for the light moment of humorous relief it provides, but because it is in direct contrast to the nature, character, and giving of God. You’ll notice that his giving is entirely appropriate: he gives sensibly, sincerely, suitably, always, and all the time. [MOU1] The word that is translated “perfect” here in our verse, you will find also in verse 4, not translated as “perfect,” but translated as “mature.” The sense in verse 17 is of that which reaches its mark or meets its objective, and what James is offering to his readers is this: an understanding of the fact that our need is the objective, and God’s gift appropriately, sensibly, suitably, consistently meets its mark. And, the reason that this is so is because of the source of the gift itself. He is the Father of heavenly lights. He created the universe. He created the stars and set them in their place, and he doesn’t change. He’s not fickle. He doesn’t ebb and flow. He’s not reacting somehow or another to our diffidence or our unattractiveness in any way. No, he is spontaneous in his generosity. He is overflowing in his goodness. Even in the dark days and even in the difficult days, if we will wait long enough—yes, sometimes even until eternity—we will affirm, then, the absolute goodness of God. Says A. W. Pink, “[God] cannot change for the better, for he is already perfect; and being perfect, He cannot change for the worse.” The hymn writer puts it, “We blossom and flourish as leaves on a tree and wither and perish but naught changeth thee.”
Now, you see the Father is even in contrast to his creation. Jesus contrasts a heavenly Father with an earthly father; James contrasts the Creator with creation itself. Everything that God has made, including the heavenly lights mentioned here, everything is subject to change. But God, he says, is unchanging in his character, that’s verse 13, and he’s unchanging in his gifts. That’s here in verse 17. In other words, there is no inconsistency in him at all.
Now, if you think about this, it is wonderful. Now, I want to try and encourage you to think about it—I hope you’re listening to me—because even the best of earthly fathers needs to be approached at the right moment, don’t they? I mean, don’t we know as children growing up: we read the signs, we get the body language, whatever else it is, and we say to ourselves, “Oh, I don’t think I’m going to ask him about that right now. I don’t think right now is the time to say, ‘Do you think I could have two new tires for my car?’ Not while he is in his study writing to The Illuminating Company. This is not a good moment for that,” and, indeed, we trust our mothers often to broker the deal, you know. “Read the signs, Mom. You know. Tell me when I can go in. Help me. I need to approach him.” Even the best of fathers need to be approached at the right moment. But we can approach our heavenly Father, James says, confident of the fact that when we call out to him in our need, he will always act appropriately.
When we go to God as Father, we will never find him to be these four things. These are not points that I’m going to work out, these are four things if you want to write them down. We will never find him to be unaware. We cannot take God by surprise; he is omniscient. We will never find him to be unable. We will never find him unavailable. And we will never find him unwilling. Now, we cannot say that always of earthly fathers, no matter how good of a job they’re doing. When I wrote those four words down, I immediately went to a Johnny Cash song in my mind. Some of you who’ve had that kind of misspent youth may be able to track with me on that kind of thing. But it brought back the refrain,
And I have a talk with him each day
And he’s interested in every word I say,
[And] no secretary ever tells me he’s been called away.
I talk to Jesus every day.
Or in the words of the old hymn,
When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
[And] when you are discouraged thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings [and] name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord [has] done.
Loved ones, we need to routinely step back from it all and ask the question from Thanksgiving dinner: and who do I have to thank for all of this? The psalmist says, “You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.” What do atheists do at Thanksgiving? Atheism is folly! That’s not to say that atheists aren’t intelligent people, because the folly of which the psalmist speaks when he says, “The fool that said in his heart, ‘There is no God,’” is not the folly of an intellectual deficiency, but it is the folly of a moral perversity. But who do you thank? Yourself? No, the psalmist is very clear there in Psalm 145: God is the creator; God is the preserver of life, and therefore, he is the one we thank for everything. Every plate of turkey with stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet corn, sweet potato, cranberry, peas—the whole deal—we thank God. Did you remember to? Did I? You see, we live in the bar code era, where Walmart and Target and great grocery stores are run by computer technology. If you live in a more rural community—and some of you do, where you actually plant potatoes and bring them up, where you see produce come, or whether you fish and catch fish—you have an awareness of the fact that it doesn’t come by way of the bar code. Because when we stand there, we recognize that every time that product is scanned, it is sending information all over creation, generating the restocking of shelves that we will never see, with a product that one day will once again go in our basket, and it is possible for us, in our pride and in our ingenuity, simply to say, “You know, in the immediacy of things, we’re brilliant. We are so terrific.” “To think I did all that; And may I say—not in a shy way—‘Oh, no …’”
Every plate of turkey, every glorious symphony, every tuneful melody—that’s as a result of God’s common grace. Maybe McCartney will one day discover God’s special grace in Jesus, but for now, I hope somewhere along the journey of his life he says, “You know, I don’t know where half of these tunes came from.” Of course, some of them are stolen. I was with Keith Getty a few weeks ago at Legacy Village—which is no more a village than fly in the air, but you know where I was—and it plays music to soften you up. It gets your checkbook going, makes your fingers move, makes you reach for a credit card. It’s the great American way, and I love it, and the music was playing, and I said to him, “Hear, hear, Youngster!”—’cause he’s only about thirty, I think twenty-nine or thirty—I said, “Hey!” I said, “There’s a tune from the sixties.” And he said, “What’s that?” And it was playing a song—I’ve forgotten it now because of the other one, ’cause I had that in my mind … Ah, here we go—“And I’ll never fall in love again ...” See? So, I’m so good, I said, “Hey! That was a song sung in the sixties.” He said, “No it wasn’t.” I said, “Yes it was. How would you know? You were in a tub.” I said, “You were being walked around in a pail.” “No,” he says. “That is Rachmaninoff’s Second—” whatever. “Well,” I said. “I mean, really?” He said, “Yes,” So he hauls me into Joseph Somebody’s bookshop, takes me up the stairs, gets Rachmaninoff’s second thing, rips the cover off it, takes me down the stairs, sits me in the car, plugs it in, goes to the second movement. What happened? I said, “They ripped it off! They stole the whole thing!” “Yes,” he said, “Philistine. If you had a modicum of a sensible background, you would know these things.”
But what united us was the fact of God’s common grace expressed in a really good melody. “Every flowering shrub …” You take the best scalpel that is produced by medical instrumentation in America and put it under high-level magnification, and you will discover that, no matter how fabulous it is, it is serrated. If you magnify it enough, you will find that it is not perfect, so that the closer you scrutinize our creative handiwork, the more flawed it becomes. But take any of this, and put it under high magnification, and what you see of its splendid intricacy is magnified many times over because God is the creator of every good and perfect gift. Every good book, every glimpse of sunshine, every good night’s sleep, every breath of life, every safe and happy landing, every friend’s embrace, everything that sustains and enriches life is a divine gift. All good gifts around us are sent from Heaven above. “O that men would praise the Lord for his goodness …” Oh, that men would praise the Lord for his goodness.
Now having addressed it comprehensively, he then mentions one crowning act of goodness in verse 18. Here is the ultimate good and perfect gift: namely, spiritual new birth. And incidentally, may I just say, just parenthetically, that it is in the discovery of God’s specific goodness to us in his special revelation that the way in which we view his comprehensive goodness by way of natural revelation becomes transformed. Now if that seems like a mouthful, let me give it to you in a hymn again:
Heaven above is softer blue,
And the earth around is [sweeter] green;
And something lives in every hue,
That Christless eyes have never seen:
And birds with gladder songs o’er flow,
And earth with deeper beauties shine,
Since I know, as now I know,
That I am his, and he is mine.
In other words, it is the specific encounter with the living God in Jesus that makes the comprehensive nature of his manifold goodness come alive with a vibrancy that the unconverted can never know. And that is why—again, parenthetically—we ought to be, of all people, so attractive in a hopeless generation. So full of hope, so joyful in a deadheaded world that people say, “Why are you joyful?” So aware of our surroundings, so grateful for really nice bread, so enthused by a good quote from a book that people say, “What is it about you? Everything seems to taste better; everything seems to shine brighter.” “Well, you see in the comprehensive nature of God’s goodness, it all came alive to me when I discovered his specific goodness here in verse 18.”
Look at what we’re told. Look at what we’re told about God’s initiative: “He chose to give us birth …” Hands up, any children who sent a letter asking to be born? Thank you. Everything that happened to a child in physical birth happened as a result of the decision and action taken by the parents. True or false? True. Remember Johnny Carson describing the interaction between the disgruntled teenager and a disappointed father and, as they’re at war with one another, the teenager—about to slam the door and leave his dad behind—shouts out, “I didn’t ask to be born!” and the father shouts, “And if you had, I would have said, ‘No!’” And, in the same way, James points out that our birth, our spiritual birth, was not something that we prompted God to do.
Listen to me carefully—believer and unbeliever alike—listen: the new birth is something God chose to do, unpressured by our helplessness, unimpressed by our supposed goodness; he acted in accordance with his free, uncompelled, sovereign will. And, when we become Christians, it appears that we have everything to do. Perhaps our loved one explained the gospel to us and said that Jesus was the Savior, and then we said, “Well, how does that become real in my life?” and someone said, “Well, there needs to be a turning away from sin and a turning to God in faith, in childlike trust. You need to believe in Jesus; you need to receive Jesus …”—all of those words with which you’d be familiar if you’re a Christian—and when we did all of that, we said to ourselves, “You know, it seems like we have to do everything.” But later on, when we put the pieces together, we discover that our choice of him is predated by his choice of us. Some people get alarmed by that, write letters to their pastor when he mentions it—how strange is that?
Imagine that your spouse, on a quiet evening at home with your children grown and gone, says, “Honey, I’d like to tell you something I’ve never told you before,” and then your husband or wife proceeds to tell you that they actually saw you and set their affections on you before they ever spoke to you. I have one instance in mind where a friend, who’s now a minister in Dublin, told me the story of how he saw this little girl feebly attempting to help her dad move a boat on a trailer in a cul-de-sac in suburban London. She didn’t have the strength to do anything, but as he looked at this little girl, he said, “What a wonderful little girl to be out there helping her dad, and what a lovely little girl. She looked so cute.” She’s now a doctor and his wife and they have children, and he told her, “I saw you from my garden and I loved you before I spoke to you,” and she was ticked. Man, was she angry! “What are you doing, loving me before I knew it? That’s just ridiculous!” No, she wasn’t; her heart was stirred, wasn’t it? She said, “How wonderful is this!” That’s what he’s saying here:
I found a friend; O such a friend!
He loved me ere I knew Him.
He drew me with the cords of love,
And thus He bound me to Him.
And ’round my heart so closely twined
These ties which [nothing can] sever,
’Cause I am His, and He is mine,
Forever and forever.
And what is my confidence in that? He chose me, he chose us. God’s amazing initiative.
Notice, too, God’s instrument in this: he chose to give us birth, give us birth “through the word of truth.” Now listen. God has made himself known in creation. God has made himself known in our conscience. However, sin has blinded our eyes to God’s glory. Paul says our foolish hearts have become darkened, and sin has a deadening effect on our conscience, so given our predicament, we need God to reveal certain things to us of which creation and conscience give not the slightest hint. Are you tracking with me? Listen. This is the answer to the person that says, “Well I just go to the Rockies every year, and I meet God in the Rockies.” Yes, we understand that. You may see God’s glory in the Rockies, but the Rockies will not give you enough information to turn from your sin and become a Christian. “Well, I know that there is a God because I have a sense of oughtness, and I have a moral rectitude in my life, and I know what I should do and what I shouldn’t do.” Yes, that is true, but your conscience does not give you sufficient to be converted, because both creation and conscience are mitigated by the sin that’s in our lives.
Therefore, our predicament is such that we’re not only blinded by sin, but we’re lost in our sin. We’re in the grip of sin. We’re under the guilt of sin and the curse of sin, and therefore we need desperately to know the way that God has provided out of which we can come from this predicament. And how has it happened? “Well,” he says, “in the same way that creation happened.” 2 Corinthians 4:6—you needn’t turn to it I’ll just read it for you—“But God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” God did this, and he did it, says James, “through the word of truth.”
Now, our time is almost gone. I have one final thing to say. Let me read this to you as a quote, and please listen carefully, because in the realm of quotes this is a get-up-and-walk-around-the-room quote. In the realm of quotes, this is a jump-up-on-your-seat quote. In the realm of quotes, this is a phone-up-the-person-who-wrote-this and tell him, “Thank you, thank you, thank you! You have helped me to understand what I could not crystallize although I was sitting at my desk for so long.” Listen to this, and listen carefully: what is God’s instrument in bringing men and women to faith? He chose to give us birth through the word of truth. Listen:
The Father uses the gospel in two ways: first, He speaks it, inwardly, to our dead souls, imparting life, bringing us to birth; secondly, He presents the same word of truth to us as a preached gospel, to which the new life within us makes a personal and believing response. This is one of the most glorious truths [of] the whole Bible. It teaches us that salvation is all … of God … It is no more possible for us to be agents or contributors to our new birth than it was for us to be so in our natural birth. All the work, from initial choice to completed deed, is His … Were salvation to depend upon my choice, it would be as uncertain as my will which fluctuates, blows hot and cold, and reflects my divided, [and] fallen nature. But it is His choice: of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth.
Now listen to this glorious finishing sentence: “And until [He] changes, His word alters, or His truth is proved false my salvation cannot be threatened or forfeited.”
It is so unbelievably humbling and wonderful. Can I ask you this morning, unbeliever, has the goodness and kindness of God brought you to repentance—his goodness, his overflowing, spontaneous generosity—ultimately, finally, savingly in Jesus?
Time is gone. There’s one final observation: God’s initiative, God’s instrument, and notice, God’s intention. What does he intend? Well, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. The picture here is of the harvest in the Old Testament. The new season’s crop was available for ordinary consumption only after the firstfruits had been presented to God. Says James, the proof of our new birth is holiness. The ground of our birth is in the choice of God in the instrument he has used, and it will become apparent—no holiness, no Heaven. We’ve been made for his pleasure and for his purpose, and those who were these early believers, the recipients of this letter in its infancy were, if you like, a kind of firstfruits of all that God was going to do, and James is essentially saying, “And there’s going to be much more that follows from this. There will be people from every tribe and nation and language and tongue and so on who will believe the gospel and who even in the face of trials and temptations will affirm the goodness of God.”
Oh, I hope that you today are able to affirm the goodness of God, not simply because you understand it in its comprehensive nature, as revealed in creation and conscience, but because, by his great mercy, you have come to understand it having been given new birth through the word of truth, in order that you might be a firstfruits of all that he created. Just a moment of silent prayer, shall we?
In light of all that I’ve said, let me give you a little prayer that some may want to make their own. There’s no special phraseology that is required, but some may have just come through a journey of wondering and wandering and have reached the point where in their hearts they’ve said, “You know what? I believe this. I want to commit my life to Christ.” Well, you can make this little prayer your own. We’ll be glad to talk in our Commons Area or in the prayer room through my door to my right, your left.
Lord Jesus Christ, I admit today that I’m weaker and more sinful than I ever before believed, but through you, I’m more loved and accepted than I ever dared to hope. I thank you for paying my debt, bearing my punishment, and offering me forgiveness, and I turn from my sin and receive you as my Savior.
 James 1:1-18 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 145:9, 4, 7 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 7:11 (NIV 1984).
 Meredith Wilson, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” (1951).
 A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God, (1930), (reprint, Pensacola: Chapel Library, 1993), 14, http://www.chapellibrary.org/files/3913/7643/2884/aogo.pdf (accessed September 1, 2016).
 Walter Smith, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” (1867).
 Johnny Cash, “I Talk to Jesus Everyday” (1971).
 Johnson Oatman, Jr., “Count Your Blessings” (1897).
 Psalm 145:16 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 14:1 (paraphrased).
 Ibid (paraphrased).
 Frank Sinatra, “My Way” (1969).
 Eric Carmen, “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” (1974).
 Psalm 107:31 (KJV).
 George Wade Robinson, “I Am His and He Is Mine” (1890 paraphrased).
 James Dobson, Stories of Heart and Home, (Nashville: W Publishing Group, A Division of Thomas Nelson, 2000), 48 https://books.google.com/books?id=n2HjTAArmV8C&focus=searchwithinvolume&q=ask+to+be+born+johnny+carson (paraphrased; accessed September 1, 2016).
 J. G. Small, “I Found A Friend” (1886).
 Ibid (paraphrased).
[MOU1]God’s giving is entirely appropriate: he gives sensibly, sincerely, suitably, always, and all the time.