Pastor Chris Tweitmann
The last time we were in the book of James,
James spoke to us about true and living faith.
“Faith without works,” James declared, “is dead, useless.”
Just in case you missed Drew’s excellent sermon last week,
James wasn’t telling us we need to work to somehow earn or prove our faith in God.
No, James was stressing because of the faith God has in us,
out of the faith we have been given through the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ,
works – good works should naturally flow.
If Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches, then abiding in Him will lead to fruit
– the fruit of the Spirit – fruit borne of the seed of our relationship with Jesus.
As we are being transformed for the better, good fruit, good work inevitable follows.
While our good works don’t earn or merit God’s faith in us,
our good works reveal that our faith is from Christ, is in Jesus, rather than in ourselves.
James now begins to apply this principle as he addresses the fruit of our lips.
Of our tongue. That is, our words.
They have a way of escaping out of our mouths
before we even think through or fully realize what we are saying
– especially when we are children.
When I was a kid sometimes the words that came out of my mouth
weren’t always kind or appropriate. Sometimes they were downright filthy.
And when that happened, my Mom always had the same remedy.
Maybe your parent did too. That’s right, washing my mouth out with soap.
To this day, I still have a knee jerk reaction to the smell of Ivory soap from all those times a bar of it was grinded on my teeth and melted onto my tongue.
In a way, with today’s passage, James is about to wash our mouths out too
– not with soap but with something a whole lot stronger and more purifying.
Much like my childhood experience and perhaps yours,
what is about to follow isn’t always going to be pleasant or easy.
But unlike using the soap, James won’t leave us with a bad taste in our mouths.
If we let him, James is going to radically change how we speak – for the better.
Here’s today’s passage from James 3:1-12.
At first, James seems to be talking exclusively to teachers
as he seemingly discourages most of us from taking up this profession.
But let’s not be confused by this.
For while it’s clear James begins by speaking directly to those, like himself,
who have taken up the sacred calling of being a teacher,
his focus in this passage still remains on all followers of Jesus.
Because here’s the thing. All Christians are teachers.
All Christians are teachers because in following Jesus we are called to make disciples.
We all bear the responsibility for expressing
the truth of the Gospel and the character of Christ to others.
Whether our lessons are specifically taught or caught
through what others observe in terms of what we say and do,
each of us is everyday instructing those around us about
what we believe and how to engage this world.
More significantly by identifying ourselves as Christians we are in essence declaring whatever we say and do is a reflection of the One we follow in Jesus.
Therefore, the higher standard of judgment James invokes here is
not only a warning for those who go into the profession of teaching;
it is a challenge for all of us who speak and act in the name of Jesus,
to not abuse the power and the authority we have been given in
what we say, in what our lives express to others.
James quickly expands from the specific matter of teaching
to focusing on the influence of our words in daily conversations.
And if we’re still a bit anxious after James rather stern admonition about teaching, James gives us a momentary breather as he acknowledges
“We all stumble in many ways.”
Nobody’s perfect when it comes to what comes out of their mouths.
We all say things we shouldn’t say, we don’t mean to say – sometimes.
James declares anyone who never stumbles,
who is at never at fault in what they say, is perfect
– or a better translation of the word he uses here would be “mature.”
So, here’s a bit of encouragement before we go
– and this is something we’ll keep coming back to with this passage.
While the promise of the Gospel is perfection
– that we will, eventually, be made perfect in Christ,
our goal is not perfection – that is beyond our ability.
Our goal, through abiding in the Word and the Spirit
– is progress – continuing to mature in Christ.
And one reflection of our developing maturity is learning to use our words wisely.
We are works in progress and one of the signs of our progress
– our emerging fruitfulness thanks to God’s grace – is the control of our tongues.
The more we learn to control our tongues, James insists,
the more we are able to keep the rest of ourselves in check
– aligned with the work Jesus is doing in and through us.
And so, James begins to use the tongue as a metaphor
for the power and potential of human speech.
He offers us a series of word pictures…
…have we noticed yet how much James likes word pictures?
James provides a series of vivid images to underscore his point
that the tongue has an influence greatly disproportional to its size,
that what we say has an undervalued impact to affect
not only our lives but the lives of others.
The first word picture, that of guiding a horse with a bit or a bridle,
is the most simple and straightforward.
A bit is a guide – an implement which, incidentally, functions
by pressing against the animal’s tongue.
It’s a small instrument especially when compared to the power of a horse.
However, with the bit in the horse’s mouth, the rider directs
the strength, speed, and direction of a horse much larger than himself or herself.
In the same way, controlling our tongues can direct the course of our lives.
As James shifts word pictures from a bit in a horse’s mouth to the rudder of a ship,
he is basically making the same point
– the tongue though small, steers which way we go in life.
However, with this second word picture,
James does introduce some new things to consider
– the presence of outside forces.
If we picture a ship on the water,
two major challenges come to mind
when thinking about navigating that vessel.
Ship, no matter how big they are, without a rudder,
find themselves at the mercy of both the winds and the waves.
However, with the addition of such a comparatively small instrument,
a ship’s captain can steer both the movement and direction of the ship
ultimately being able to guide that vessel wherever he or she desired to go.
Likewise, James is suggesting those who control the tongue
can weather the effects of opposing forces and difficult circumstances
and emerge intact and on course in the direction God intends for our lives.
With the third word picture he offers, James shifts gears.
He moves from invoking the incredible potential
of the tongue, of human speech,
to asking us to perceive its destructive power
– having the ability with just a small spark to set a great forest on fire.
This particular image hits close to home for us.
We don’t have to imagine this,
for we have been daily and repeatedly seeing the tragic picture
of such a growing threat and widespread devastation
as we watch the fires rage here in California
and now into Oregon and Washington.
Something to notice though is how James
suddenly shifts from talking about the tongue and human speech
being like a fire to coming right out and declaring the tongue TO BE a fire.
But he doesn’t stop there.
James goes on a brief tear
– providing a terrifying litany against the destructive potential of the tongue.
He calls the tongue “a world of evil”
accusing the tongue of “corrupting the whole body.”
According to James, the tongue sets “the whole course of one’s life on fire”
– at least that’s what our English translation for verse 6 says.
But the literal translation of what James says in verse 6 is
far more corporate than individualistic.
James argues unrestrained and careless talk disrupts
not just the course of our lives but the balance of the entire created order.
Human history verifies the accuracy of James’ assessment.
Kingdoms have risen and fallen.
Houses and families have become united or divided.
Relationship has been deeply forged or irrevocably severed
based on a great fire of words that started with the spark of the tongue.
The heat and the flame of such incendiary talk,
James insists, find its source in the fires of hell.
The word James uses here for hell is Gehenna
and it’s another word picture referencing an actual place,
the Valley of Hinnom located south of Jerusalem.
This valley, in James’ time, had become Jerusalem’s trash dump
– a place for garbage to be deposited and burned.
This location that smoldered continuously, fed by the city’s refuse is
what Jesus pointed to for us visualize when we think about
the schemes of the devil and those who follow Satan.
And now, Jesus’ younger brother James points to this hell
– stinking, burning trash – as the source, the place, the spirit
from which all fiery and raging words of dissension, strife,
anger, bitterness, envy, and other social ills emerge.
It’s hard not to miss how James seems to be shifting in his portrayal of human speech.
Where before he spoke of the tongue as being like a useful tool,
now he appears to categorize the human tongue as dangerous weapon
– a weapon that almost seems to have a life of its own,
independent of its possessor.
As James remarks about humanity’s dominion over the animal kingdom
– our ability to domesticate the vast and wide array of the creatures of this earth,
he quickly adds, but not so with our tongues.
Despite our parents telling us to
“Watch our mouths!” “To think before you speak!”
no human being, James states can actually hold their tongue.
No, James persists, the tongue is uncontrolled and uncontrollable.
“It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
We need to pause and step back for a moment.
So many questions come to mind.
Given all that James has just shared
– considering the magnitude of the power of human speech,
shouldn’t we all just cut out our tongues
or at least, take a perpetual vow of silence?
And why is the tongue like this?
Why would God give us such a dangerous weapon?
Beloved, the tongue isn’t inherently evil.
And our tongue, our speech isn’t by design a weapon.
James’ negativity to this point is not pessimism.
James is trying to create a sense of urgency and thus to grab our attention.
James isn’t telling us not to speak.
James is calling us to be mindful of what we are saying.
Gossip. Slander. Rumors. Innuendo. Lying. Put downs. Curses.
And then of course, there is all that we can communicate via our silence
– through words unspoken.
Denial. Indifference. Rejection. Ignorance. Shunning. Ghosting. Gaslighting.
We’ve all been on either the giving or the receiving end of weaponized words.
I mentioned earlier in this sermon series
that James pulls a ton from the book of Proverbs.
Proverbs has much to say about the hazard and the folly of this kind of talk
– of weaponizing our words.
Our tongues only become weapons when we weaponize our speech
– when we are careless and not conscious of the potential of our words
to harm and to destroy.
God gave us a voice because He intended for us to use it.
But as James goes on,
moving from a counsel of despair to a rallying cry of encouragement,
God intends for our words to be used for His praise.
This is the highest and most noble use of human speech
is to praise our Creator, the Sustainer of all life,
and in Christ, the Redeemer of our lives from sin and death.
However, such glory is given to God not just by
the words we lift up to Him through a song or a prayer
but through the words we extend to encourage and to build up each other.
This is why James challenges us to take stock
at how easily and how often
out of the same mouth we use to praise the Lord,
we curse and harm those who like us are made in the image of God.
It’s important we understand what the Bible means by cursing.
The biblical understanding of cursing is much more than
throwing around some harsh or abusive language.
Biblically, to curse another person is to call upon God
to cut off a person from any blessing
and to consign that person to damnation.
The irony in cursing another person is that we are really speaking evil of the God
who created them since all humanity is made in God’s likeness.
Let’s keep that in mind, the next time we are tempted to
so casually, so impulsively drop that F-bomb in the direction of another person
– someone who cuts us off in traffic or upsets us with their social media post.
And for those of us out there, who never use the curse words
when expressing your anger or frustration toward another person…
…you’re clever and just come up with words
that sound like those curse words but aren’t the real ones…
…just keep in mind, cursing is as much about the intent
as it is about the actual words used. Just saying…
James is emphatic.
The words of blessing that bind in worship to our Heavenly Father
cannot be divorced from the words we utter day in and day out to one another.
While blessing and cursing can come out of the same mouth,
this is not the way God made us to be in the first place,
and it is certainly not who we are called to become
as those who have been redeemed and set apart in Christ.
James reinforces this assertion with two quick illustrations
from the consistency of natural world.
A spring cannot produce fresh or sweet water
and bitter, salty water at the same time.
What comes out of a spring of water is what is inside the spring.
Likewise, James adds, a fig tree cannot produce olives,
and a grapevine could not produce figs.
The double standard and double talk of human speech
is not present in other parts of God’s creation.
Coming back to faith that works – James is saying
our mouths are indicative of our fruitfulness
– of what is being produced by the seed of faith.
The mouth of a redeemed person in Christ
should foster health and healing, not destruction and chaos.
In this passage, James is beckoning us to examine ourselves closely
— specifically, to scrutinize both what we are saying and how we are saying it.
We begin by considering what we are teaching others – particularly about
what it means to follow Jesus – by how we speak both about and to others.
We continue by thinking through how what we talk about
and the way we talk in our day-to-day conversations reflects our character
– or more pointedly, the character of Christ emerging in us.
And inevitably, we have to come around to evaluating the integrity of
the praise we give to God and the manner in which we address and treat others.
As we take stock, let’s be exhaustive
– taking into account what we are saying
not only with our tongue but with a pen or a keyboard
– the words not only that we speak verbally
but that we communicate non-verbally,
through our silence, and yes,
digitally through our posts on social media.
As we reflect on all forms of our speech, I’ll put it to us this way,
“Would we kiss our Heavenly Father with that mouth?”
“Would Jesus approve of the message on Facebook?”
“Was that anonymous letter, that aggressive text,
or that choice remark – driven by the Holy Spirit or a spirit of another kind?”
Beloved, talk isn’t cheap.
Our words may seem small and insignificant,
but they have an incredible ability to impact and influence others.
With our choice of words,
we can encourage or discourage.
We can build another person up or tear them down.
All of us bear the confidence or the wounds
from words spoken over us – words that have come to shape
our perception of ourselves, of others, and of the world around us.
The question is are they God’s words?
My friends, the message of the sermon is NOT “watch your mouth”
– though being mindful about both what we say and how we say it wouldn’t hurt.
Today’s takeaway is not for us to wash out our mouths with soap either. Sorry, Mom.
This is because cleaning out our mouths with soap is missing the root,
the deeper cause of our speech problem.
As James has indicated with his last two word pictures,
our mouth and our tongue aren’t the real source of the problem.
James’ older stepbrother, Jesus,
once identified the real source of our problem this way,
“For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
The good person brings good things out of a good treasure,
and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure”. (Matthew 12:34b-35)
What comes out of our mouths, in other words,
is a reflection of what’s in our hearts.
And beloved, apart from God,
our hearts and our minds are broken – conflicted and divided.
We need a deeper cleanse than a bar of soap can provide.
And thankful, because of Jesus, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we have one.
But as I mentioned earlier, as James himself acknowledged,
even as followers of Jesus, we all stumble.
None of us is perfect. We are works in progress.
This means, and this is good news,
the whole point of taking stock about our words today
is not about fixing ourselves, cleaning up how we talk
by coming up with better language.
What I’m saying is, they only way we can learn to control our tongues,
the only means we have of gaining the power,
as James in the last chapter advised us,
“to be quick to listen and slow to speak”
is through our yielding to the Holy Spirit.
Not just our mouths
but our whole person needs
to be regularly cleansed and rinsed
by the ongoing work of God’s Spirit
and this means surrendering control of our thoughts, our emotions, and our will.
We don’t need to figure out how to come with a better way of talking.
We don’t need to invent a new language.
We need to learn how to speak from our native tongue
– the language of our faith – the word of God.
What we say, how we speak is to come from word of God.
The word of God is become our words.
The Holy Spirit is our tutor teaching us, reminding us, and guiding us in how to speak the vocabulary and the grammar of the Kingdom of God – of the character of Christ.
This is why we immerse ourselves in God’s word.
Listening carefully not casually.
Studying, and discussing it regularly
and not treating God’s word like a Google search
when we need a quick explanation or a verse for the moment.
When we treat God’s word like that,
we end up twisting and turning God’s word into
what we want to say rather than hearing what it actually says.
But if we daily yield to the leading of the Spirit,
If we regularly commit to being in God’s Word
– meditating on it, memorizing it, internalizing it,
repeating God’s word rather than our own,
then what we say and how we say it,
will become, by the grace of God,
words of praise and thanksgiving to God AND to others;
words that heal, comfort and encourage;
words that are beautiful to hear and receive;
words that give glory to God as they become
tangible actions for good – acts for justice, mercy, and love
on behalf of another.
Many of us have been taught,
“If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.”
But as followers of Jesus, we have the Gospel
– good news to share – the word that brings freedom, that gives life.
And therefore, we cannot remain silent.
We just need to be sure we are sending the right message.
When God speaks, God creates – new life, new possibilities.
God’s perfect word blesses and not does curse.
God’s word forgives, reconciles, and redeems our imperfect words
– both the words we’ve spoken to other and the words we’ve heard spoken over us.
We’ve all been burned by the insults inflicted upon us by others.
We’ve all been wounded by the lies and failures of broken promises.
But we can be healed – resurrected even
– by the truth of God’s Word
– the unfailing, ever-kept promises of the Gospel
– of the Word that redeems and restores,
the Word that forgives,
the Word that brings life out of death.
We worship the God who always gets the last word.
And that last word is grace.
It is forgiveness. It is salvation. It is hope.
Our responsibility, our privilege is to speak the truth of that word
– the Word of God – to speak the truth in love – graciously to others.
Therefore, let use the voices that God has given us
to speak His word of promise to one another.
Let us begin, led by the Spirit, with what we say and then,
relying on the work of this same Spirit,
let us reveal the truth of the Word of God
by making what we say in the name of Jesus
a reality through what we do – the fruit of how we live
– of how we act, how we respond,
of how we engage this world together. Amen.