The book of James, from which our second lesson for today comes, is a practical handbook for Christian living.
We might wonder why we need such a thing. After all, we’re Lutherans: We know that all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ are saved from sin and death and have life with God that begins now and will be lived in perfection in eternity. “‘Nuff said, preacher, the Browns/Bengals game is on at 1.” Who needs a handbook?
Thank God, salvation, life with God, and the comfort and power of the Holy Spirit’s presence are all free gifts given to all with surrendering trust in Jesus Christ!
But, according to the Bible, even after we’ve been baptized, affirmed our belief in Christ, and become part of God’s kingdom, we still live in this world until either Christ returns or we die and rise into eternity with God.
And as long as we draw breath here, the old Adam (or the old Eve) in us must, as Martin Luther writes in The Small Catechism, “be drowned by daily sorrow for sin and repentance and be put to death.”
It’s only then, Luther says, “that the new person [can] come forth every day and rise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
As was true of Jesus in the wilderness, even after we're baptized, the devil works on us everyday to push us away from God. So does the sin within us and around us.
So, unless we stay open to God’s grace and guidance and remain submitted to the God we know in Jesus Christ as the final authority over our lives, the temptations to take God’s grace for granted and to take up any sin that pleases us can overrun us and steer us, bit by bit, away from an eternity with God to an eternity in hell.
James’ guidebook for Christians isn’t a “how to get salvation” book. It’s more like a mirror that we can hold up to our lives and, first, see our need of Christ’s forgiveness and, second, see our need of the Holy Spirit’s help in living a life in response to God's gracious love.
In the Bible lesson from James we looked at last week, we were encouraged to turn from the sin of partiality to some people over others. In today's lesson, the issue is controlling our tongues, the words that we speak.
This may not seem like a big deal to us. But it is to God.
Turn to our lesson, James 3:1-12, please.
In verses 2 and 3, James anticipates our dismissal of our words as being “no big deal,” as something that could possibly stand in the way between God and us. He says that little things--like small bits in the mouths of horses or tiny rudders on the backs of giant ships--can exercise great control over and have a huge impact on big things.
Then, look at what we’re told next, starting in verse 5: “...the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest it kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity [that means immoral or grossly unfair living]. The tongue...defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell...”
James goes on to say that we know how to tame wild animals, but no human being, no human effort can tame the tongue or the damage it can do.
In verses 9 and 10, he hands out his most severe indictment of the damage done by our mouths, in effect, repeating it twice in different ways just to make sure we get the message:
“With [the tongue] we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the [likeness] of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.”Our words are powerful. I think the reason for this is simple. We are the only ones of God’s creatures “made in the image” of the God Who spoke and brought the whole universe into being.
It’s no coincidence then, that one of the first ways in which the Old Testament book of Genesis says that Adam, the first human being, expressed human dominion over creation was to give names--to speak descriptive words--over every other creature. This power--the power to give names or labels to people or things--reflects the image of God within every human being.
But after the fall into sin, we sinners naturally began misusing this gift of speech. In fact, James says, because sin has filled us, our tongues have taken control of us to the point that sometimes we speak without thinking or speak on the basis of malicious thinking, bringing harm to others and to ourselves.
And this is very serious business! Turn to Matthew 24:36-37. Jesus says:
“I say to you that for every idle word [every thoughtless meaningless word] [people] may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned.”If those words of Jesus, God in the flesh, don’t make you squirm a little, you probably weren’t listening!
The failure to control our mouths is a sin issue.
Careless words, whether spoken in judgment of others, to criticize others without loving them, or to pass along the latest gossip, are not harmless things.
Unrepented, careless words put our eternal relationship with God at risk.
It turns out that God has not rescinded the Eighth Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
We “bear false witness” not just when we tell outright lies about others. Martin Luther writes of this commandment: “We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, lie, or gossip about our neighbors, but speak well of them, and put the most charitable construction on all that they do.”
But, there is good news.
Our intemperate tongues (and all our other sins) don’t need to control us or our eternal destinies.
We can live differently.
We can move closer to God and not continually drive a wedge between God and us through our careless words.
In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells those who would follow Him into eternity: “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him [or her] deny [themselves] and take up [their] cross and follow Me.”
The indispensable step in getting free of the sins of our mouths is to bring those sins to Jesus, to confess them to God, to admit that we have used our words to curse others, gossip about others and tear them down.
Drawing on the covenant God has made with us in our baptism, we need to drown our old sinful selves and allow, through the grace God bears for all who believe in the crucified and risen Jesus, our new selves to “rise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
Back in Old Testament times, God’s people sang to God, “There is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered” (Psalm 130:4). That’s no less true today for us when we take up our crosses, confess our sins, follow Jesus, and receive God’s grace!
If, as you’ve been listening to this sermon, God has brought to mind ways in which you have misused the gift of speech, you can take this step right now. “God,” you can pray, “for the sake of Jesus, forgive me for using my words to bring pain to others or dishonor to You.”
Whenever we confess our sins to God in the Name of Jesus, there is forgiveness in God! As long as we are living on this earth, we can take advantage of the Bible’s promise that all who call on the Name of Jesus Christ will be saved!
But what then? What do we do next? How do we let God’s Holy Spirit guide us so that we don’t engage in careless or harmful talk?
Here are few suggestions.
First: We surrender our brains and our mouths to God, along with the rest of our lives. A good prayer to offer each day might be the one in Psalm 119:14: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
Second: Before we open our mouths to share something critical of another human being, we should ask ourselves, “Does this help anything?” In Ephesians 4:29, we read these words: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”
Third: We ask ourselves another question: Would we say these words to Jesus Christ? In a very real way, whether our words build others up or tear them down, Christ hears every one of them. As Jesus once said, “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known” (Luke 12:2). Jesus also say that when we encounter others, we really meet Him (Matthew 25:31-46). Do we think that Jesus wants to hear what we have to say?
Fourth: If our words have harmed another person, it can be appropriate to apologize to them. They may not forgive you. But at least, you will have the satisfaction of making an effort.
Finally: Whether in conversation with others or in conversation with God, try silence. (This is really hard for me!) Proverbs 17:28 says that, “Even fools who keep silence are considered wise.”
But isn’t just to impress others that we should keep silence. James 1:19 says that we Christians should be “swift to hear, slow to speak.” God, after all, gave us two ears and one mouth and our communication probably ought to be in that proportion. When we remain silent and truly listen to others, we come to understand them more and judge them less.
Silence also can be a great way to build up our relationship with God. Through the prophet Isaiah, God said, “Listen to me in silence, O coastlands” (Isaiah 41:1). Sometimes, in our praying, we can get so busy speaking, often even telling God how to do His job, that we forget to let God be God. Silence before God can be a conduit by which God brings us comfort, hope, and guidance. In Psalm 46:10, we're told: “Be still and know that I am God.” Practicing silence is a good way to love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Before closing, let me add that controlling my mouth is a huge issue in my life. I like to talk.
So, each day, I ask God to crucify the old Adam in me, so inclined to fill the air with useless, self-referential words and instead, help me to honor Christ with my words and my life.
As some of you know, one of my most frequent prayer requests to God is: “Give me the right words and the right silences.” I want to honor the God Who gave His only Son so that all who believe in Him may have life forever. I don’t want my mouth to get in the way of God’s grace.
Even if you’re only a fraction as mouthy as I can be, you may be able to say the same thing. May we all seek God’s help in guiding and guarding the things we say and so, honoring Him with our whole lives. Amen