Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, December 10, 2018
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Taming the Tongue

James 3:1-12

We have a lot of figures of speech related to speech: “A slip of the tongue.” Saying that thing you didn’t really mean to say. Or did you? “Giving lip service.” Endorsing something that maybe you don’t really endorse. “Speaking with a forked tongue.” Saying one thing but really meaning another. And in general, these figures of speech seem to indicate how often we are less than genuine with our words. Perhaps these are ways of recognizing the power of words for either good or evil purposes.

James starts his teaching on the tongue with a reference to teachers. “Not many should seek to become teachers.” Teaching was a well respected profession in 1st century Jewish culture, and honestly, it should be a respected profession in every culture. But there will always be those who seek respected positions for the personal prestige and the power that come with them.

“God will judge teachers more strictly.” Teachers have the power to help others or harm others with their words; more so than the average person. Jesus said that it would be better to “have a great millstone tied around your neck and be tossed in the sea than to lead a little one into sin.” It’s bad enough to do wrong yourself. It’s worse to teach others to do wrong.

But it’s not just teachers who need to mind their tongues. It’s all of us.

Verse 2 sounds like a typical Jewish hyperbole; that is an exaggeration made to emphasize a point. “If someone could control their tongue then they would be perfect.” I don’t think that’s literally true. I think it’s an illustration of how much easier it is to speak wrongly than to act wrongly. There are typically lesser consequences to words than actions. For example, you might be taken to court if you slander someone, but you will definitely be taken to court if you murder them. It’s a whole lot easier to murder someone with your words than with a gun.

Slander is only one example of a sin of speech. There are many more. Gossip is a sin of speech. Bragging is a sin of speech. So is false teaching, or manipulation, or lying, or flattery. Complaining without seeking a solution may also be a sin of speech. And I think all of us are guilty of that far too often. We aren’t happy with something, so we whine and gripe about it, putting more energy into complaints than a solution.

I’ve heard it said that we Pennsylvanians have a problem when it comes to speech. One of my former District Superintendents noted that, “If we think something, then we have to say it. And when we say it, it always sounds worse coming out of our mouths than it did in our minds.” I don’t know if that’s a Pennsylvania thing, or just an American thing. We seem to be more apt to “speak our minds” than people I’ve met from other countries. I can’t help but think we would be wise to heed the advice James gives in this letter: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slower to get angry.”

There is great power in small things. Words might seem small, but they have great power. James gives two classic illustrations of the power of small things. One is the rudder of a ship and the other is the bit in the horse’s mouth. In both cases, a rather small thing can control the direction of something large and powerful.

I think here about the history of World War II. I took a course in World Wars history when I was in college, and I found it to be fascinating stuff. Adolf Hitler was renowned for his ability to motivate others with his speaking. Now normally when you see video of Hitler’s speeches, they only show the parts where he’s shouting. But we watched one of his speeches in its entirety in this class. And he didn’t start out shouting. He would start out slow. He would find common ground with his audience, so that they would resonate with his words. He would get people on his side. And he would build momentum. It was at the end of the speeches where he was shouting like a madman, but by then the crowd was right there with him. He turned most of a nation to follow his vision, and it ended in great evil and destruction.

On the other side of the conflict was Winston Churchill. I hope you had a chance to see the movie “Darkest Hour” that came out last year. The climax of the movie is the speech Churchill delivered to convince Parliament to continue the war effort instead of seeking terms of peace. If he had not convinced a frightened and hesitant nation to continue, all of Europe would have fallen under the Nazi flag. Two of history’s great orators played a role in that conflict; one for great evil and one to save the day. That is the power of words.

The third example James gives is a spark; something as small as a spark can set a great forest on fire. Given all the wildfires we’ve seen this year in California and other places in North America, that image should be easy to understand. I think it also speaks to another quality of words: Once they are spoken, they can’t be controlled. We might like to say, “Oh, I take that back,” but the fact is we can’t take our words back. Once spoken the damage is already done.

First century Jewish people used the image of a spark to refer to gossip. Once the gossip is started, it’s like a spark in a dry forest. We no longer have control over it.

Verse 6 also reads to me like Jewish hyperbole. Is the tongue really set on fire by hell itself? That sounds like an exaggeration. But the point is clear: Words can be used for enormous evil.

Verses 7 and 8 speak to the great irony of words. Human beings were created to exercise dominion over the created world. In that capacity, we are able to tame many creatures, but ironically, we can’t tame a part of our own bodies. We lack dominion over ourselves.

That might make the situation seem helpless, but remember the question is not, “Can we tame ourselves?” But rather, “Can God’s Spirit tame us?” We’re not alone. There is a source of power available to help us, if we allow him to. I’m convinced there has to be cooperation in our sanctification, in our journey toward being like Jesus. I know some Christian traditions might disagree there, but I’m still convinced. God will not leave us where he finds us. But God will also not force us to change. If our hearts are unwilling to change, God will not force it. But if we seek his grace to be renewed according the likeness of Christ, we will receive it. It just might be a long journey.

The last couple verses are about the inconsistency of our speech. “On one hand we bless God, and on the other we curse those made in the image of God.” And that’s inconsistent. It’s like a spring that sometimes gives fresh water and sometimes salty. Or a grapevine that grows figs. I guess with GMO plants, that’s probably not too far off, but still it’s contrary to nature.

All of us speak both blessings and curses. That shows that we are not yet conformed to the likeness of Christ. And if people are truly made in the image of God, then what we do to people, we also do indirectly to God. Jesus said, “What you do to the least of these, you do to me.” Cursing people is incompatible with worshipping God.

In the first century world of Judea, the world where James was writing, that was all too common. The nation was in a time of growing radical nationalism. The Zealots cursed the Romans, and along with them any Jews who opposed anything less than revolution. Politics and religion had become enmeshed, and it was far too easy to curse people for their political opinions. That makes me wonder: What would James to us today? What would God say to us for the ways in which we curse others who disagree with us?

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