Sermon on James 3:1-12
When I was a kid, controlling the tongue meant no swearing. No potty words. No four-letter filth words. Or as Kirk said to Spock in The Voyage Home – colorful metaphors. I thought about it, but I don’t think I was threatened with soap, but I can’t remember. It was more fun with this rule because we would spend our time coming up with our own equivalents, so – dagnabit, Mildred, Myrtle, Buttmunch. Fun words.
The best, and my favorite, is “Dude!” Dude is one of those neutral words. It can be used as a term of endearment. Swearing. Anger. Joy. Surprise. So “Dude, you scratched my car.” “Dude don’t take the last onion ring.” “Dude, that’s awesome.” Or the best – “Duuuuuuuuuuuuuude!” Like a thousand u’s.
Because of this upbringing, if I do use one of those forbidden words, I’m looking around to see if my dad heard me. Or I say it quietly like I don’t want anyone to hear. If I hear someone else use a word, my subconscious trained in the policing of speech, perks up his ears like a dog hearing a noise. Something unfamiliar to me. I didn’t grow up with it. When I transitioned from Evangelicalism to Lutheran I was definitely hit by culture shock. Naughty words not being considered the unforgivable sin anymore. So now I am conflicted. There is sort of this love/hate relationship I have with this text and with these words. All of that being said, potty words are not what James 3 is about. I’ll pause for a moment to let you all exhale with relief.
It came up in my Facebook memories a few weeks ago that I was listening to a sermon from London at a conference. And the preacher quite literally thought himself inspired by stating this – If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all. I turned off the stream, went to twitter and had to share that I just found out that Thumper from Bambi had completed his Seminary degree and was now a pastor of a church. Which basically goes against that exact phrase that this preacher borrowed from a cartoon bunny. I had nothing nice to say about this pastor at that moment. I had to seek forgiveness for that because this pastor meant well, and yes, such a statement can be applied to James 3, the curbing of the tongue, but I have been in the ministry for over half my life now. I have been in the church all my life and we take these statements, as pastors, and we baby you with cliches. Catchy truths that the world knows, but really, I don’t want to give you that. I don’t want to be a Disney character. I want to be Isaiah 50:4, given a tongue of those who are taught so that I might sustain with a word those who are weary.
The tongue is a powerful instrument. We use it to speak. We use it to sing. We use it to eat and taste. We use it to lie and cheat. We use it to gossip and hate. We use it to spit and talk back. Yet, James speaks of the tongue because God is a God who takes words seriously. Think back to Genesis 1. The creation of the universe. God spoke and it happened. God said let there be light, and it was so. God speaks later to tell of who he is to his people. Giving the law. Giving revelation to the prophets. Meeting people in their sorrow, we hear words – Thus saith the Lord. God speaking to the weary.
Move forward to the New Testament. To Jesus, and Jesus was a preacher first and foremost. It says in Matthew multiple times that he went around the countryside preaching, teaching in the synagogues and healing. Even when he healed, you look through the Gospels and you find that he does it with a word. The faith of the centurion is exhibited by his trusting that if Jesus just said the word, his slave would be healed. I use the example a billion times, Jesus cries out to a dead man, dead men can’t hear by the way, standing at the tomb of Lazarus and yells to him “Lazarus, come forth!” Or He speaks to the raging storm on the lake to “Be still!”
James 3 is not necessarily a call for you to just stop saying bad things about others, although it could and should be that. We should read James 3 before we talk about politics. We should read James 3 before we listen to the news and get riled up about what President Trump said or did this time. Peruse the headlines on any website and almost all of them go against this wisdom in James 3. Spreading curses. Starting fires. The newscasters and reporters turning our news programs into perpetual political ads of one sort or another. Think about it. We make fun of the political ads during election season. They drive me nuts. But turn on the news and we hear - “Stay with us because in a minute we have video of Donald Trump actually eating small children.” Or “Don’t leave us. We think we may have proof that Nancy Pelosi is the spawn of Satan.” Headlines that breed fear and suspense, anxiety, anger, worry, division, instead of mercy, righteousness and peace.
But that is why this text matters for you. Not because if you do this everything will be fine. The world will be a better place and God’s Kingdom will suddenly come to earth all because of you. No. James speaks of the tongue as it stands in the hands of a teacher. One who has this word to proclaim. The implication being that the desire is for the use of our tongue with which we speak curses and despise others, to be the instrument of our forgiveness. A tongue being used to look you in the face and say to you – I forgive you all your sin. To have your greatest enemy, the one you hate and wish never existed, be standing before you and you be obligated to tell him – in the mercy of Jesus I forgive you without recompense because the blood of Jesus was enough.
There is power in words. Specifically power in forgiveness. Speech that does something to reconcile, to destroy barriers, to lift loads. I described it to the folks on Wednesday night as a super-power. Jesus’ super-power that belongs to him that he gives to us. Spreading forgiveness around like good gossip rather than bad. Freely. Without cost.
This goes completely against everything we know, live or teach in our world. We live a transactional life. I do this, you do that. I give this, you give that. You repent and show remorse, I might forgive you. This isn’t the Jesus way. Repentance is a result of forgiveness, not the payment for it. The tongue being used not as a switch blade to dig deeper into the wounds of despair, but as a gavel to announce to you that the case is closed. Your sins have been judged and taken by Christ. Your enemy’s sin against you is the same. Our tongues get out of control when we make our lives about vengeance or karma rather than the announcement of news that victory is won, the battle is over and these burdens of sin you carry are not yours but Christ’s. Therefore, holding onto to your sin or onto another’s sin becomes actual theft. Where forgiveness does not come means you have chosen to rob from Christ the very thing he has taken from you, your sin. So too of your neighbor. Of your enemy.
In Isaiah 50 we are given the picture of the servant. One who comes to you and speaks that word of one who is taught. A word that is meant to sustain the weary. So much so that he gets ridiculed. Beaten. His beard gets ripped out. But he does not stop. It says his face is like flint. Set there in stone to speak the truth of the Gospel to you. So when we bask in the command of God to love our neighbor and yet hate our rival, we must know that there is someone who can forgive us our envy, our arrogance, our spite and ambition.
The tongue is called out, not so that you will watch your mouth, or it will be washed out with soap, but so that it may be used to bring peace to those at war with God and with one another. To bring solace to those in darkness. To bring comfort to those wearied by life. Telling you that your tongue matters, not because you should aspire to be full of clichés, but because you are a preacher. Given those words to speak forgiveness to those who don’t think it exists. Thanks be to God. Amen