The book of James, from which our second lesson for today comes, is a practical handbook for Christian living. Some might wonder why we need such a thing. 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. Saved by grace, people might wonder, who needs a handbook?
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 live 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.”
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.
The issue addressed by James in today’s second lesson, the issue of controlling our tongues, the words that we speak, may not seem like a big deal to us. But it is to God.
Then, he says, starting in verse 5: “... ...”
James goes on to say that we know how to tame wild animals, but no human being 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: “ ”
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.
“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”I don’t know about you, but those words of Jesus make me more than a wee bit uncomfortable.
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.”
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 stop driving a wedge between God and ourselves through our careless words.
The indispensable step in getting free of the sins of our mouths, along with all our other sins, is to own them, to own God’s rightful condemnation of them, then bring those sins to Jesus, confess them to God, 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.”
Like God’s Old Testament people in Psalm 130:4, we can sing to our God: “...with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, fear you.”
Whenever we confess our sins to God in the Name of Jesus, there is forgiveness in God! We can count on that.
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.
When, in challenging situations, I remember to pray that prayer, it’s been amazing to me to see how God has answered it.
There are times, of course, when we must raise our voices in witness to what Christ has done for us and can do for others. There are times to use our mouths to praise God. There are times when we must use words to work out our difference with others or express our love for them.
But sometimes our greatest witness for Christ comes when we curb our tongues, refrain from the judgment or gossip or the unnecessary gibberish we’re tempted to impart, and just keep silence.
May we all seek God’s help in guiding and guarding the things we say and so, be able to honor Him with our whole lives. Amen