16 Pentecost Proper B19
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
James 3:1-12 Sermon
September 16, 2012
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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
16 "Blessed Jesus, At Thy Word"
446 "Rise My Soul To Watch And Pray"
342 "Chief Of Sinners, Though I Be"
400 "Take My Life And Let It Be"
THE PROBLEMS WITH HAVING A BIG MOUTH
TEXT (vs. 7-10): “7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. ”
Back when I was in school, grade 2 to be exact, my teacher had a rather inventive way of dealing with people that talked in class. She made some signs out of big pieces of white construction paper. Then she punched two holes in the top, and tied a piece of string through them, so these signs could be worn around a person's neck. Then she took a magic marker and wrote in big letters, "I'm all mouth" and added this drawing of a big mouth at the bottom.
When a person got in trouble for talking in class, they had to go out in the hallway, right outside the classroom door, and sit on a chair with this sign hanging around their neck. The idea behind it was that it would cause the offender a bit of embarrassment. The person would be sitting out in the hallway while all the other people walked by and read that crazy sign. The teacher reckoned this would be a deterrent, and a good way to keep order in the classroom.
Of course, I was a perfect child, and I NEVER had to endure this sort of embarrassment or punishment, right? Hmmm...I get the feeling you doubt this, and well you should, because I have to admit that I did get in trouble on various occasions for talking in class. Me and my big mouth did in fact cause me some problems.
There was one day in particular that I remember. If my memory serves me correctly, I had asked one of my classmates a rather innocent question. I wasn't intending to disrupt the class, but the teacher caught me, and I got into trouble. So she dragged a chair out into the hallway and me along with it. She sat me down and put one of those signs around my neck. Despite my protests, I still had to bear the punishment.
Well, I was fuming! It's not like I didn't deserve it at other times, but this time I was really upset. So after she left me, I tore the sign up in little pieces and laid them on my lap. After a while, she came out to check on me. She saw the bits of paper, and was she ever mad! So she brought out another sign, put it around my neck and told me, "I want to see this sign hanging around your neck when I come back."
So I proceeded to tear the sign into little strips. Sure enough, the sign was still hanging around my neck, but it was no more than little strips of paper. But I obeyed what she said! Of course when she came out again, this just added more fuel to the fire. So she brought out a third sign, and she told me very sternly, "I want to see this sign hanging around your neck and in one piece when I come back."
So after she left, I decided to take the sign and simply turn it around so it was no more than a blank piece of paper hanging around my neck. Hey, I didn't disobey her; the sign was still in one piece, and it was still hanging around my neck. If she wanted a battle of wits, I guess I was prepared to do just that.
You can only image what happened after that. When she came back out into the hallway again and saw the sign, I could see her face turning red, and I could almost see steam shooting out of her ears and nose. She grabbed me by the arm and dragged me back into the room. She went up to the front of the room and sat down. She had a foot ruler in her hand, and she was methodically hitting it against the palm of her other hand. She ordered me to come to the front of the room. I knew what was going to happen too. And yes, in those days, it was not out-of-line at all for a teacher to administer corporal punishment.
Well, I was not about to make it easy for her. So I said, "You've got to catch me first!" And with that, I began to run around the room and lead her on a merry chase. Of course my classmates found all of this very amusing. As elusive as I was, she finally caught hold of me, took me up front, and I got my backside properly paddled.
So here it is, about 50 years later; and do you know what? My mouth still gets me into trouble! I've made comments that have been taken the wrong way, I've said things that have offended other people, and I've said things that have hurt other people. I've said words that reflect my feelings of bitterness, I've spoken words out of sheer anger, and I've even spoken things that are downright cruel. Yes, I have a big mouth, and it has gotten me into trouble more times than I'd like to admit.
Many years ago, I preached a sermon that offended one lady. She swore up and down that I preached that sermon right at her, and that I was hiding behind the pulpit just to get to her. It wasn't until I actually showed her my manuscript that she realized I had written it quite a few years before I ever knew she even existed. That was one of those Sundays I had recycled an old sermon. But even so, my words got me into trouble. Me and my big mouth.
In our Epistle lesson for this morning, James is giving us some very sound words of advice with regard to the tongue. We know the tongue has various functions. It allows us to taste food. It helps us in the process of chewing and swallowing. We can use it to lick an envelope. That's not what James is referring to.
The biggest problem is that the tongue is the main vehicle we use to form words. In this sense, the tongue is very quick, and those words can come out of our mouth before we even realize what we are saying or the kind of impact those words will have. So there is a special warning here. We need to watch what we say. We need weigh our words. We need to think before we speak. Its like the old saying goes: A) engage brain; B) open mouth.
Today, James begins with a very valuable premise in verse 2: "...if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man..." He wants us all to realize that we are not perfect people, so what we say will get us into trouble at times. So it's not so much of a question of "if," but a question of "when." It's going to happen, guaranteed. Recognizing this fact in our own selves is a good thing; but it is also very important to recognize it in others. Sinful human beings will be inclined to say the wrong things. And sinful human beings will also be inclined to take things the wrong way. And when you add these two things together, there can be a definite recipe for disaster.
James uses various metaphors to describe just what the tongue can do. It is like a rudder on a boat, a very small thing that controls a big vessel. Or it is like a spark that ignites a forest fire, which is a metaphor we can appreciate considering the drought and fires we have seen this summer. Taming any sort of animal is easy compared to taming the tongue. Oh yes, the problems with having a big mouth and a loose tongue are many!
In our world today, tabloid newspapers and gossip columns are so popular. There is a lot of scandal that is exposed, and people eat it up like starving animals. Quite a bit of this scandal hinges upon what people have said. Sometimes they have said something in a fit of rage, or when they are drunk. Sometimes they are quoted completely out of context, and made to say something they didn't actually mean. But we eagerly listen!
When we look at ourselves, we can apply those words of Jesus quoted in Matthew chapter 12, verse 34: "The mouth speaks what the heart is full of." And those aren't easy words to hear either. Those bad words people utter hurt both the speaker and the listener.
Yes we are guilty in a variety of ways. We have to admit that we have sinned by both the way we speak to others, and by the way we are affected by what people say to us. Words can create some pretty big barriers in our lives, and words can destroy relationships. That's actually one of the most effective tools Satan can use to create problems amongst God's people.
When we admit our mistakes, those barriers can be removed and relationships can be healed. People tend to respond very well to those who admit their mistakes rather than boasting of their own virtues. When people apologize to each other, it has a soothing and warming effect, and it draws people closer together. And if you think for one minute that a war of words is always somebody else's fault and not yours, then you are sorely mistaken. It is a two-way street; and if peace is to be established, then it takes both people to make that happen.
Listen to several passages from the book of Proverbs: “A soft answer turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Proverbs 15:1). “The right word spoken at the right time is as beautiful as golden apples in a silver bowl" (Proverbs 25:11). “A gentle word can get through to the hard hearted" (Proverbs 25:15). And finally, “You will have to live with the consequences of everything you say. What you say can preserve life or destroy it” (Proverbs 18:20-21a).
In our Epistle Lesson today, James points out that the tongue is the problem; but realistically it isn't the tongue itself, but what makes the tongue work. And when James speaks about learning how to tame the tongue, it's only through rebirth brought about by the Holy Spirit that it's going to happen. The way we talk and the words we use can give clear evidence that the Spirit of God lives within us.
Romans chapter 10 verses 8-10 provide us with some great food for thought. Paul writes: "The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved."
Do you see that inseparable connection between what we have in our heart and how our tongue moves according to it? Isn't that one of the ways we demonstrate and give clear testimony of the faith we have living within us?
The very fact that we have the ability to think hurtful and mean things, and we have the ability to put those thoughts into spoken words is a sign that we are still influenced by sin. Satan takes a hold of our tongue and has a field day with it. He wants us to use it to bring misery and hopelessness into the lives of others.
But the Christian has a tongue that confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. The Christian speaks of the Gospel hope that lives in their heart. The Christian speaks words of love and forgiveness. The Christian uses their tongue to share Christ with others. The tongue of the Christian speaks words of prayer and praise to the God of their salvation. The tongue of the Christian brings peace to a troubled world.
The hope we all have is that however Satan has tried to harness our tongue, and whatever we've said that has carried the message of the devil is something that God forgives for Jesus' sake. What we've said in the past isn't something we dwell upon. It's what we say in the future that counts.
I know that when I look deep within myself, what I see can be troubling. When I open my mouth, what comes out is not always that good. I have spoken when I should have kept silent, and at times I have said exactly the wrong thing. One of my biggest weaknesses in this area, is that I have this tendency to speak to others the same way they speak to me. I tend to respond in kind. If someone wants to argue with me, then be prepared. If someone is yelling, I'll probably yell back. If someone is biting or cynical, then they can expect the same in return. If someone is critical of me, then I will also be critical. And yes, I know that I have offended people along the way, and it's not easy to admit that.
But if we are all honest with ourselves, our words have gotten us all into trouble. One way or another, we've all said things we regret.
Back in grade 2, my teacher's way of handling it was to hang a big sign around my neck that said, "I'm all mouth." She tried to control our speech by humiliation and embarrassment. And in my case, I never wound up in the hallway with a sign again.
But Jesus has a different way of dealing with our misspoken, hurtful, sinful, and cruel words. When we look to Jesus, we think of the words prophesied by Isaiah in chapter 53, verse 7: "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth."
Considering what he had to endure, Jesus did something that none of us could do. Instead of retaliating, he remained silent. And when he did open his mouth, he spoke from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
In the opening words of our liturgy, we confess that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed. Those are the sins Jesus took to the cross and paid for. And through faith in him alone, we enjoy the forgiveness that he has won for us.
In closing today, let us remember and take to heart the words the Apostle Paul uses in his letter to the Ephesians, chapter 4, selected from verses 25-32: "25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. 29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you."