15 Pentecost Proper B19
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
James 3:1-12 Sermon
September 13, 2009
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
443 "Ye Servants Of God, Your Master Proclaim"
510 "Take My Life And Let It Be"
554 "Am I A Soldier Of The Cross?"
----- "How Great Thou Art"
JUST A SLIP OF THE TONGUE
TEXT (vs. 7-10): "All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be."
In the year 1625, the English statesman and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon made the following quotation: "Reading maketh a full man, conference maketh a ready man, and writing maketh an exact man." That's a very wise statement indeed, and it has a good application to our Epistle lesson for this morning. In preparation for our sermon meditation this morning on this text from the Apostle James, I'm going to take a few minutes to more closely examine this quotation by this very famous and learned individual.
First, he says: "Reading maketh a full man." By this, the importance of reading and learning is put first. A person needs to be informed, educated, aware, and thus "full" of information, ideas, and general knowledge. This is a person's foundation for communication in its various forms. If a person is ignorant or if they are making things up as they go along, then it won't take too long before his lack of knowledge sticks out like a bruised thumb. It's almost like Abraham Lincoln once said: "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt." And in Proverbs chapter 17 verse 28, God tells us pretty much the same thing: "Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue."
Sir Francis Bacon certainly hit the nail on the head here. "Reading maketh a full man." So what happens next? Here we're faced with the two main forms of communication we encounter every day; viz. speaking and writing. Now certainly there are more abstract methods of communication, like communicating through pictures, or music, or gestures, or through displays of emotion for example. But the two main categories are speaking and writing. And today, our Epistle lesson focuses specifically upon speaking, or oral communication.
Sir Francis Bacon's quote says, "conference maketh a ready man." By using the word "conference," he is encompassing the entire field of oral communication. This can be something as simple as having a conversation with other people, or it might be something a bit more formal, like engaging in a debate, making a speech, teaching a class, or arguing a case in court for example. A person should be able to perform well in the cut and thrust of oral discussion, argument, and general presentation. A person needs to have a certain ability to think on their feet, and to communicate thoughts clearly.
That's in a perfect world of course. The truth of the matter is that oral communication can be the easiest downfall anybody can experience. Spoken words can be easily misunderstood. Somebody thinks a person said one thing, when they actually said another. How many times have we been guilty of misunderstanding something that somebody has said? Maybe they didn't choose the best words, or maybe they had trouble putting a thought together in a way that would make sense to somebody else. But just as often as not, people are guilty of not hearing somebody correctly or jumping to a wrong conclusion.
As important as verbal communication is to the human race, it is also one of the most dangerous things we have to deal with. And that is what the Apostle James is telling us in our Epistle lesson this morning.
If we look at verses 3-5 of our text, we read: "When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise 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."
James uses some great illustrations here. Consider the tongue, and what a small part of the body it is. (And incidentally, the tongue is the only part of the body that does not age! Just some trivia for you.) James compares the tongue, our normal means of oral communication with the bit used in the mouth of a horse, or the rudder used to steer a big ship, or the spark that starts a forest fire. The part of the body may be small, but it produces some enormous consequences, especially when it is improperly used.
Let's look at some more innocent examples of hearing the wrong thing, which have some more humorous consequences. There was a pastor one time who stood in front of his congregation and announced, "Let us transgress our confessions." If that were true, he would have meant that everybody should go out and commit as many sins as possible. Or then there was the pastor who said, "Let us join together in the prayer our Lord has taught us....Come Lord Jesus, be thou our guest..."
And then, another pastor announced, "Let us now confess together the words of the Apostles' Creed: Our Father, who art in heaven." The congregation followed right along with him. Everything went well, until he got to the sentence: "...and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." And suddenly he came to a dead stop. He realized what he had done. So from that point, he continued: "I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Christian Church..." And the congregation followed right along with him. Those are true stories too!
But I think the most clever are the things children don't hear quite right. One little boy, when saying the Lord's Prayer, said: "...thy kingdom come, I will be dumb." Another little boy in Australia thought that Jesus "...suffered under a Qantas pilot." And then there was the little girl who thought that they were singing about stuffed animals in Sunday School when they sang, "Gladly, the cross-eyed bear" (gladly the cross I'd bear). Or the other little girl that thought they were singing about doing laundry one Christmas when they sang, "While shepherds washed their socks by night."
But the one I thought was really clever was a little boy whose pet turtle had died. He put it in a shoebox and proceeded to bury it in the back yard. His little friends assembled for this turtle's so-called "funeral." And as they were getting ready to bury the turtle, the little boy said, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and into the hole he goes!" Can't you picture God having a chuckle over things like that?
I guess that things would be all happy and nice if that were to be the extent of mis-spoken words. Unfortunately that's hardly even the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In a humorous sense, we can easily see how words can be misunderstood, or the lighter side of what we call "bloopers." There are even TV shows dedicated to a selection of bloopers that have happened on various programs. But spoken words, whether they be a mistake or intentional, can present a far more serious problem with unfortunate, if not tragic consequences. Here's a example:
The address is 721 West Saunders Street in West Lincoln. It's a three-story apartment building. Some years ago, the police were called because a suspected sniper was shooting a gun from one of the apartments. Officers responded, and the SWAT team wasn't too far behind. It was an intense situation. The police radioed for an ambulance and paramedics. And when they didn't arrive, the police were concerned. Lives were at stake.
Come to find out, that the Rural-Metro dispatcher had sent them to 721 Saunders Avenue. They left off the "West" part of the address. So instead of heading to West Lincoln where the action was, this ambulance was chasing around Belmont with lights and siren going, looking for the location. One little word not spoken, and the ambulance was in the wrong part of the city, separated by a freeway from where they needed to be. Fortunately, nothing bad happened as a result of this mistake, but it certainly could have been tragic.
Think of what words have done in your life. I know that in the past, I almost couldn't believe that the voices I would hear singing in church could turn around in the next second and spew out the most vile and hurtful things anybody could imagine. I've witnessed it before. I think the Apostle James had much the same experience.
It doesn't take much for various words to do their dirty work either. With just a few words, a person's whole outlook on things can completely change. When married couples fight, their arguments consist mostly of spoken words. Words get heated, tempers flare, and things start heading for disaster. It's hard to believe that the voices that once stood in front of the altar, and promised to love and to cherish, in sickness and in health, 'till death do us part are now shouting obscenities at each other so loudly that the neighbors have called the police.
Or think about the teenager that shouts "I hate you, I hate you, I hate you" to his or her parents and then storms away because mother and dad refused to give in to them. Could this be the same voice that just a few years ago learned how to mouth the words, "mama" and "dada?"
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 ahold 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.
This morning, I began with that quote from Sir Francis Bacon. "Reading maketh a full man, conference maketh a ready man, and writing maketh an exact man." We can be thankful that God has given us his Word in written form. What God says is exact; and when we take God at his Word, there's no mistaking the love and forgiveness he has for us. That's the message we speak, and the authority by which we speak it.
Even though speaking is an important form of communication in our society, it is still very necessary. Therefore it is important to consider how we speak and the way we speak. It is so easy to spout something off in anger in the heat of the moment. We can walk away from a situation and say to ourselves, "I wish I would have said this or that." And so many people will do just about anything to avoid a verbal confrontation.
So as Christians, may our tongues be tuned to sing God's praises. May our voices accurately reflect the exact words God has given to us in the Bible. May we speak words of love and forgiveness to others. May we be moved to rejoice instead of criticizing and complaining. May our tongues be instruments of God instead of Satan's messenger. And may we always remember the words Solomon recorded in Proverbs chapter 25 verse 11: "A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver."