Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Taming our tongues

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this past Sunday.]

James 3:1-12
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?

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 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.

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 us to live our lives in response to God's grace. 

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. 

Take a look our lesson, James 3:1-12, please. In verses 2 and 3, James 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. Even the words we speak. 

Then, he says, starting in verse 5: “...the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell....” 

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: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

Our words are powerful; even the ones we toss off casually. 

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.

This is serious business! In Matthew 24:36-37, Jesus says:
“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.

The failure to control our mouths, then, 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. Unrepented, careless words put our eternal relationship with God at risk. 

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 stop driving a wedge between God and ourselves through our careless words.

In Mark 8:34, Jesus tells those who would follow Him into eternity: ““If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” 

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.” 

If, as you’ve listened to James’ word to us today, God has brought to mind ways in which you have misused the gift of speech, you can pray, “God, 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! 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.

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 19:14: “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, 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?” Ephesians 4:29 says: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Note: Some critical words are helpful and are loving. If they are offered in that way, God has our backs! Elsewhere in Ephesians, we're told to "speak the truth in love" and "in your anger do not sin."

Third: We ask ourselves another question, "Would we say these words if we were in the physical presence of Jesus Christ?" The fact is that everything we say is said in the presence of Christ, whether we realize it or not. Jesus says in Luke 12:2: “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.” Do we really think that Jesus wants to hear every word we decide 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. Proverbs 17:28 says: “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.”

But it isn’t just to impress others that we should keep silence, of course. James 1:19 says that we Christians should be “should be quick to listen, slow to speak...” God, as someone has said, 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.

As some of you know, one of my most frequent prayer requests to God is: “Give me the right words and the right silences.” That's a prayer I offer particularly urgently any time I'm called to an emergency situation. 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. 

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


Marty Rice said...

Enjoyed this. Some very wise advice is given. Thank you and God bless you.

TeeJay said...

Like a mirror put before me! Thanks