Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, May 20, 2018
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The Power of Words

James 3:1-12

 James introduced the subject of speech back in chapter 1 of his letter.  He advised believers to be quick to listen and slow to speak.  He went on to say that if we can’t control our tongues, our religion is worthless.  

And here in chapter 3, James comes back to the subject of speech to give it a more thorough treatment, especially in the context of teaching, which makes a lot of sense.  The tongue, of course, is the most important tool a teacher has.  And especially in first century Hebrew culture, teaching was a very highly respected position.  Many Jews firmly believed that a teacher was to be obeyed even more so than one’s own parents.  So no surprise that it was also highly respected among Hebrew Christians.  

But there are always some who seek to teach for the wrong reasons, for self-centered motives.  Some seek to teach so that they can enrich themselves financially.  Others value the personal prestige of teaching.  Others want to spread their own message rather than God’s message.  In the context of first century Judea, there were some who were seeking the position of teacher so that they could spread revolutionary fervor rather than a message of peace.  

As I said, teachers are one of the best examples of the importance of using speech wisely because of their influence.  Because of this influence over others, they will be judged more strictly by God.  It’s one thing to go astray yourself.  It’s a much more serious thing to lead others astray.  Some of the harshest words Jesus had for anyone were reserved for those who led children away from God.  Because of this, a person should carefully consider their own life and witness and humility before seeking to become a teacher.  

We all make mistakes, we all sin in many ways, but a person who can control their tongue can also control themselves in every way.  The point James is making with that statement is that sins of speech are among the easiest of sins.  If somehow, we had the self-control to avoid sins of speech, then we would be able to control ourselves in every way, hypothetically speaking.  

We have an expression:  Talk is cheap.  In other words it’s much easier to talk about something than it is to do something.  And that’s true of both good and bad things.  I have no doubt that most of us, hopefully all of us, would recoil in horror at the thought of picking up a knife and stabbing someone in the heart.  But do we have the same horror at the thought of

using our words to stab someone?  We can kill a person’s spirit with our words without even thinking about it.  

In Matthew 12, Jesus said that on the Day of Judgment, each of us will be called to give an account of every idle word we speak.  What do we say without even thinking about it?  What venom comes out of our mouths without us even stopping to think about what we’re really saying and how we’re treating other people with our words?  One of the Psalms refers to the tongue as a venomous snake, a very appropriate picture, because I know all too well, the things I can say without even thinking about them.  

Back when I was in the Indiana District, I had Sharon Schwab as my District Superintendent.  She’s never been one to mince words.  And I remember her saying one time that we here in rural Western Pennsylvania have a nasty habit:  If we think something, we say it.  And it usually comes out sounding worse than it did in our heads.  I think she had a point.

Well, maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “I’m glad I’m not a teacher.”  But it’s not that easy to get off the hook, is it?  We’re all responsible to God for how we use our words.  And I would even go a step further and remind us that we are all teachers.  Even if it’s not in any kind of an official capacity, we all teach.  We teach others by our example.  Other people watch how we live and how we speak, and if they know we’re Christians, then we are representing God with our words and actions.

Words are powerful.  Have you ever heard that the strongest muscle in the human body is the one that works the jaw?  I think the truth is that the strongest muscle in the body is the tongue, because our tongues have great influence over other people.  

The images James uses for the tongue express the idea of a small thing with great power.  A horse can be made to go one way or the other because of a small bit in its mouth.  A large ship, driven by powerful winds, can be made to go this way or that way because of a small rudder.  In the same way, a tongue can guide many people this way or that way, for good or for evil.  

And it can unleash great destruction.  The other image James uses for the tongue is that it’s like a small spark that sets a great forest on fire.  We probably know all too well about that after the summer we had this year with large forest fires destroying hundreds of square miles out West and burning thousands of homes to the ground.  All that destruction from one little spark.  And the tongue is like that.  When used in sinful ways, it can unleash great destruction.

The other way in which words are like a spark is that once the words are released, we typically don’t have any way to control them.  Who knows what damage they’ll cause? 

This would also have been a very familiar picture to James’ first readers.  They lived in Judea, which has a “Mediterranean” climate, just like California.  The summers are hot and dry, and wildfires were common in Judea.  But a wildfire there might consume thousands of acres of wheat and lead to famine.  

In the next paragraph, James makes two references to Genesis and the story of Creation.  One is that human beings have dominion over the animals and the ability to tame wild animals.  The other reference is that human beings are made in the image of God.  Well, one of the aspects of us being made in the image of God is that we have language.  We are unique in that we use language, at least to the degree that we do.  Some animals can communicate in limited ways with each other, but only humans can use their speech creatively.  We can write a song or a poem.  We can compose a novel.  We can use words to create dialogue and build relationship.  

But we can also use words destructively.  We can slander each other.  We can gossip and tell stories of dubious authenticity.  We can use words to create false realities.  Words don’t just describe reality; they also shape it.  We can create distorted images of the world in which the truth is suppressed.  We see this in advertising that uses words to convince us that our lives are without meaning unless we possess something.  We see it in political propaganda that uses words to shape our understanding of people and circumstances in certain ways.  This is the power of words.  Adolf Hitler used words to create a false reality where all the problems of a nation were blamed on one group and mass murder was justified.  Language can be used for horrible evil.

It prompted James to call the tongue a fire, full of wickedness, set on fire by hell, by Satan.  Those are pretty strong words.  They are also a word of warning to those who don’t control their tongues:  The tongue that is set on fire by hell can also be a path to hell.  

The great irony is that we human beings, who were created by God to have dominion over the earth, can control a wild animal, but we can’t control our own tongues.  Not on our own, we can’t.  Only if we are willing to yield ourselves to God’s Holy Spirit can he teach us to control our tongues.  

The tongue is a great contradiction.  With it, we praise God and then go out and curse human beings made in the image of God.  With the same tongue that we use to bless God, we

curse the very creatures whom he lovingly made in his own image and for whom his own Son died on the cross.  

Jesus said, “What you do to the least of these, you do unto me.”  What we do to each other is a reflection of what we do to God.  

In the revolutionary fervor of James’ world, it was all too common for a Hebrew to go into the synagogue one day and bless God, then go out the next and curse the Romans and all their allies.  It was all too common.  It was even acceptable in the religious atmosphere of 1st century Judea, but it was not right.  Neither is it right for us to praise God on Sunday and curse our neighbor or our co-worker or that person who cuts us off in traffic on Monday.  

It is contrary to nature for blessings and curses to flow from the same tongue.  It’s like fresh water coming from a salt spring or figs coming from a grapevine or grapes coming from an olive tree.  All of these were very familiar to James’ reader.  They have fresh and salt springs in Judea.  Where do you think the Dead Sea gets all that salt?  And those were the most common crops of the Mediterranean world.  Everyone would understand that figs don’t come from grapevines and salt water doesn’t come from a freshwater spring.  But it’s all too common for curses to come from a tongue that supposedly belonged to God.    

If these things come from our mouths, it shows that we have not yet been fully sanctified.  God has not yet purged the evil from within us.  And it should be repented and given to God, so God can change our hearts.  

The Apostle John, who is known to us today as the Apostle of Love, wrote. “Dear children, love each other, for love is of God.”  But Jesus once called John and his brother James, the other James, not the one that wrote this letter, the Sons of Thunder.  I doubt Jesus chose that nickname because they had such sweet spirits.  John, the Apostle of Love, once asked Jesus to call down fire from heaven and burn a Samaritan village to the ground, killing men, women, and children.  Not very loving.  But God’s grace changed him.  And God’s grace can change us, and our tongues, if we are willing to give God control.  You can’t control your tongue, but the Holy Spirit can.  Will you ask him to do that in your life?

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