17 October 2021 Church of All Nations
Trinity 20 Vancouver
James 3:1-12 (13-18)
As you have been discovering as you have been exploring The Letter of James, James is a very practical fellow. His letter is all about the practicalities of living our Christian faith. If there is a statement of the central message of this letter, it’s in 2:17 – “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
And in case we didn’t get the message, James states it briefly in 2:26b – “faith apart from works is dead.”
or, as some translate it, “faith without deeds is dead.”
As we turn to chapter 3 today, we find James is applying this to our lives by reminding us of the great importance of what we say. Over and over again James uses the word “tongue.” Our instinct is to think of a floppy thing in our mouths. But James means more. “Tongue” refers to our putting ideas and images and longings into words, whether those words are spoken to others, or whether those words are in our minds, silently shaping our thoughts. Words spoken are the principle way we come into meaningful contact with others. Words in our thoughts develop our character.
James begins by writing that our words are key to holy living. (1-5a)
As a recognized teacher and leader in the early Church, James’ thoughts turn first to teachers. The words of Christian teachers, whether those who teach the faith in the Church, or those who teach the faith to their families, leave an indelible impressions upon receptive minds, an impression that can be for good or for evil. Thus the words of Christian teachers come under particular scrutiny by God, for they are words meant to convey the truth of God. But (2), we all stumble”, whether teachers or not. Sin remains our universal human experience, and sins of speech are the more prominent. We all too easily get caught up in gossiping. We all say things in haste that we regret immediately or upon later reflection.
Well, says Jesus, in light of this, we need to recognize that a key pathway to spiritual maturity is to control what we say. He makes this point with two examples (3-5a), examples that remind us that small things have great consequences. The mouth may be a small part of our bodies, but if we control our words, our bodies will follow. Think of the central electrical control box in your home. There are many circuit breakers, each controlling power to a particular part of the house. Each of these is fairly easy to turn off. Then there is one main circuit breaker that controls the flow of power to the whole house. That breaker is much harder to move on or off. For a person, to have perfect control of what we say is extremely hard, harder than controlling what a hand or an eye or a knee does. We can’t control our mouths by staying silent. Rather, we control our words by surrendering our mouths to the Holy Spirit.
For when the Spirit guides our words, we find the wholeness God intends for our whole being.
Yet, James warns us, our words are capable of doing great harm.
Since our words are so fundamental to our thoughts and longing and plans, they leave a mark or every aspect of our lives. So, we must always be aware that our words can harm others. (5b-6) Great speech can do much good in life. It can encourage the depressed and stir us to noble actions. It can give expression to deeper human emotions. It’s probably fair to say that the speeches of Winston Churchill were key to the outcome of the second World War in Europe. Conversely, uncontrolled speech has great destructive power in a person’s life. In children and youths, there’s a phenomenon called “self-fulfilling prophecy”. If you tell a child often enough that they are bad or hopeless or stupid, their lives begin to imitate what they’ve been told. And if you frequently tell a child that they’re good and have great potential, their lives will frequently be marked by achievement.
As James writes (6), our mouths get things going in the recipients of our words, for good or for ill. Once set in motion, these things cannot be stopped. At the same time, our words can harm our very selves. (9-12) The highest use of our mouths and our words is to praise God – to praise God as our Creator, as our Redeemer, as our Sustainer in daily living. The lowest use of our mouths is to “curse” other people.
When we “curse” others, when we verbally tear others apart, we are attacking God. Each and every human being – both people we love and people we despise – each is made in the image of God. So when we “curse’ others, we are contradicting and retracting the praise we have offered to God.
All of our worship of God is reduced to nothingness. That leads to spiritual death for ourselves.
At the heart of this passage, in a blunt warning, are seeds of hope. (READ 7-8)
The warning is simple – our words, our mouths are humanly uncontrollable. We need to remember that in Genesis 3, the account of The Fall, the first actual sin after The Fall was the sin of speech. The man blamed the woman, and the woman blamed the serpent. Humanly speaking, ever since that moment complete control of our mouths has been impossible, for our mouths are never sufficiently at rest to be brought under full control. But in this same warning lies our hope – our speech is only humanly uncontrollable. And this is true about every aspect of our lives. What is humanly impossible is always possible for God. The Cross of Christ is God’s gift of the redemption of our words. When we surrender control of our lives to the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, we are surrendering every bit of our lives, including our mouths and our words. Christ redeems what we unconditionally offer to Him. And what Christ redeems, the Holy Spirit come to possess and to guide. And what the Holy Spirit controls becomes instruments of the purposes of God. Our mouths and our words, when surrendered to our Saviour, become not destroyers of persons, but builders of the Kingdom of God.