What does it mean to submit yourself to God (James 4:7)? And how is that the same as “draw near to God and God will draw near to you” (James 4:8)? Our text this week seems full of ethical or moralistic advice. Do this and stop doing that. The danger is that it can come across as another self-improvement process that is likely to end in failure and frustration; that is, without the key elements of verses 7 and 8. There is something in those verses that makes all the rest of it possible.
Therefore, it seems like the first goal of worship today is to help people draw closer to God. Of course, that is the purpose of worship every time we gather. But here the emphasis is on the surrender, the invitation to “submit yourself to God” in a way that empowers behavioral change. Perhaps it is here that we reintroduce the altar call, not as emotional manipulation calling for a response in fear or shame, but as an opportunity to remind the worshiping congregation that being made into disciples of Jesus Christ is a lifelong process of continual surrender and participation with the Spirit leading to lasting transformation and growth. There may be emotion involved; we are rarely purely rational beings. But it is more about the conscious decision to see ourselves as works in process, surrounded by support and grace from God and the community. This moment, wherever it might come in the order of worship, can be both a powerful individual statement and a cementing of the community as a body working toward the ideal of Christian perfection.
This text is an opportunity for self-examination. What resides in our hearts? We can’t always see ourselves, so we need others to help us with this process. Worship could introduce the idea of the “soul friend,” one who speaks truth to us. Certainly, our prayers can ask for God to make known what sins reside in our inner beings and to invite our openness to change, to rooting out what we have clung to so tenaciously. Time for confession and renewal as well as the assurance of forgiveness is crucial in this process.
This is not, however, about therapy or even counseling. Worship is about pouring ourselves out to bring honor to God in our lives. But it also works to cement relationships with the worshiping community that will help us hold on to the commitments that we make. When we submit ourselves to God, we can begin to see the wider body of Christ as a resource for personal and corporate growth. What opportunities might we provide for praying for and with one another during worship?
The preaching notes emphasize peace as the central gift we are seeking. Peace is possible, even while we are works in process. This isn’t about completion and the satisfaction of a job well done; it is about a journey of discovery and transformation. But peace can be our companion in the journey to keep our feet on the path. The call to commitment is not an anxiety-driven threat, but an encounter to know peace, even as we acknowledge a need for growth. It is a commitment to a partnership with the Spirit and with the community of faith that will see us through whatever might come.
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.