Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sermon on James 3:1-12, for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, "The Untamable Tongue"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today’s sermon is from James; his warning about the deadly work of our tongue. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

We all know and have felt the evil of gossip in our lives; we all know the feeling of a harsh or hurtful word that was spoken in anger. Think how easily you can darken someone’s day by a rude or thoughtless word. But have we owned the fact that our tongue is a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” as James says? That it sets on fire our whole course of life and it is set on fire by hell? Isn’t that overstating it a bit, we think? How can such a small thing as our tongue be so bad or have such a terrible effect? Sure, maybe we’ve known some people with dirty tongues, who could unless a stream of abuse or cursing that would make a sailor blush…but my tongue?!? Certainly not! But I suspect we all sharpen our tongues sometimes and imagine just what sort of words we’d lash back with, if someone dared to say to us…(you fill in the blank). In the heat of an argument we don’t even pause to think before we launch back with a caustic remark, dripping with sarcasm, and aimed right at the person’s heart. We keep our tongues as a ready weapon to protect our ego, defend our turf, silence our enemy.

James uses common examples to show how such a small thing can cause so great an effect. A giant ship steered by a small rudder, a horse controlled by a bit in its mouth, that is no bigger than your hand. A spark that sets a whole forest on fire. We’ve all seen how a well-timed bit of gossip can tear a close friendship apart. Whether it’s true or not often has little bearing on how much damage is done. Trust is betrayed. You once counted on a person to defend your reputation, and they turned around and slandered you. Or they spoke something hurtful about you to someone, and you were left embarrassed and ashamed. But gossip can have much further-reaching implications than just our personal friendships.

The workplace can become a gossip-mill, where stories are passed from one person to another, and never with the full information. So each person adds a little fiction or speculation to the story, and pretty soon a full-blown rumor is circulating, and a person suffers. The reason that is so terrible, is that as James says, we’re people who are made “in the likeness of God.” We’re cursing or slandering God’s handiwork…more than that…the crown of His creation that He invested with the imprint of His own image. Nothing else in creation bears His likeness in this way. Yet we curse one another. The church is also a group of people among whom rumors and gossip often freely circulate. The church, the people of God who are gathered to praise God with our tongues…using them for evil. James laments, “my brothers, these things ought not to be so.” How many congregations have been divided by gossip and the malicious use of the tongue?

But gossip is just one of the uses of the tongue that sets the entire course of our life on fire. The evil use of our tongue directs the actions of our lives as well. When we tongue-twist God’s Word, and bend it to our own purpose or misuse, the tongue does not tell truth apart from error. False speech is treated as true, and clever arguments cover our tracks. Toying with language is no new trick…the devil first played it in the garden when he questioned God’s Word: “Did God really say…??” We’ve seen recently with the issue of homosexuality how those same words, “Did God really say..??” find their way into our mouths. We take quick notice only because this is still shocking to us. But it’s just as much a mix of true and false speech when we doubt God’s Word in any area of life or any of God’s teachings. And when false speech is added to truth, it becomes a lie and deception.

Another evil use of the tongue is simple lying or deceiving. The Psalms and Proverbs speak extensively of the things the tongue does…both good and bad. Lying, deceiving, flattery. Flattery is to speak insincerely to someone, paying them compliments or acting nicely, so that you can get what you want. It’s a way of manipulating another person while disguising your real purpose. Double-speak is another. Saying one thing to one person, and changing the story with another. Holding to two standards. It’s the game we play when we’re trying to please people, rather than please God by doing what is right. In Sunday Bible class we’ve quoted the old adage more than once: “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” If we set out to lie and deceive, and practice double-speak, it won’t be long before we’re tangled in the mess of our own lies.

The tongue also boasts and speaks grandly about how great and wonderful we are. It fills us with pride as we brag about ourselves. It cuts down those who seem to threaten us. Such a force of evil! Can we now own the fact that the tongue is a restless evil, set on fire by hell? But what about the good that the tongue speaks? It seems an irreconcilable contradiction that the same tongue that curses can also bless our Lord and Father, and sing praise to Him! The Psalms also speak of the righteous person, whose tongue tells of God’s righteousness and praise all the day long—whose mouth speaks wisdom and justice. The tongue tells of God’s righteous help for us all day long; it sings of God’s word and righteous commandments; and EVERY tongue will one day confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. This irreconcilable contradiction, is that a tongue that can be used as such a force of evil, and for so much harm, can also be used to bless and praise God. James puzzles that it is just as illogical as a spring of water that produces salt and fresh water (or more literally, bitter and sweet water) from the same opening. Or as illogical as vines and fruit trees bearing the wrong kind of fruit!

So what are we to make of this contradiction? We’re already warned that this tongue of ours is an untamable evil. While we may have different degrees of self-control over it, from person to person, none can claim we never stumble in what we say. We all stumble in many ways. To think otherwise is self-deception…another work of our tongue. This contradiction is the simple fact that we’re at the same time saints and sinners. Sinners because of our sinful nature and the untamable tongue. Saints because God has purified us of all uncleanness and sin, and has given us a new spirit within us. The sinner speaks evil, the saint speaks what is good and righteous. But we’re still left with the problem of the untamable tongue. But thanks be to God through Christ Jesus our Lord! There is ONE who can tame the tongue, and that is Jesus.

His work in us begins with the conviction of the Holy Spirit—the realization that our tongue is a world of unrighteousness. There is an unlimited store of harm built up in our tongue, that we cannot bridle on our own. So the Spirit convicts us of this sin, and we repent to God and ask for His mercy. Then the tongue of Jesus goes to work. For as Isaiah prophesied about Him in today’s reading, the Lord God has given Jesus the tongue of those who are taught. And what does Jesus use His instructed tongue to do? He knows how to “sustain with a word those who are weary.” The word of Jesus’ Gospel, the Good News of His forgiveness, leaps from His tongue to lift up the broken and weary sinner. The one who is frustrated and despairing over their attempts to tame their tongue. The one who has seen what harm their words have caused, and humbly cries to God for forgiveness. Jesus speaks peace to the troubled heart, saying “I have taken your disgraceful words upon myself. It was I who felt the sting when you cursed your brother, who is made in my image. I felt the betrayal when you gossiped about your sister and slandered the reputation of your coworker. But take heart! I have forgiven you, as I have forgiven those who did not know what they were doing, when they nailed me to the cross.”

Christ Jesus’ words come from God’s heart of love, that does not speak evil of us, but lifts us up to hear the wisdom, the righteousness, and the justice of God’s pure Word. His Word that corrects the course of our life when we turn astray. Jesus is the pilot of our life, who is the only one who can tame the tongue of our life, and steer this little rudder toward righteousness. He’s the rider that can tame our untamable tongue with His bridle. He’s the one who opens the mouth of the sinner and can turn it into a spring of fresh water that flows forth with sweet life and truth, rather than bitterness and cursing. Jesus’ word of blessing enters our ears, and flows forth from our mouth. Our worship of God flows in this way: we hear from God and receive His blessing, and our Lord opens our lips to declare His praise. From what we hear, we speak back to God and our neighbor. Then our tongue is restored to its rightful use and original nature. Then our tongue reflects the likeness of God, and echoes God’s Words of blessing and forgiveness to others. Then our tongue is bridled when we would be tempted to gossip, and we instead let gossip die in our ears. Then our tongue is filled with the truth of God’s Word, and speaks openly and honestly of the Truth.

Jesus put His tongue to good use throughout His life and ministry, and the fruits of His blessed speech never cease to pour out for us, even 2,000 years after He walked the earth. He spoke healing to the sick and cast out demons from the possessed. He spoke forgiveness to those who were crushed by sin, and even to those who struck Him, spit on Him, and spoke disgracefully of Him. Who else can speak with such power and authority, than the Son of God? He spoke peace to the troubled in heart and to the fearful. He taught crowds with the Word of Life that gushes like a living spring of water, that brings eternal life. He silenced His naysayers, and exposed hypocrisy. He spoke the hard truth when it was required. He speaks still for us today. In baptism He speaks to call us His own children. In the Word of God He speaks words of Spirit and Life. In the Lord’s Supper, He speaks: “this is my body, given for you…this is my blood, shed for the forgiveness of your sins!”

Jesus continues to speak to the Father on our behalf, as the One Mediator between God and man. Jesus speaks that our sins belong to Him now, and that He has paid the full price, so that we can walk free in His path. He speaks of the ending of our sorrow, as one day He will take us to His kingdom of eternal joys, where once and for all the sinful shell of our tongue will fall away, and the song of our tongue will be filled with continual thanksgiving and praise and blessing. As proof that He alone can tame the tongue…even more than that…that He will tame EVERY tongue on earth…we read in Scripture that God has rewarded Jesus for His righteous life, death and resurrection in this way. God has highly exalted Jesus above every other name, so that when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11). Even the reluctant and unwilling tongue will be compelled to confess on that day, that Jesus Christ is Lord. So it is to Him that we turn, so that our life is not set afire by our restless tongue, but that our tongue would be tamed by Jesus toward goodness, blessing, and praise to God. Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.
Let us use our tongues to confess our faith in God right now, as we speak together the words of the Apostle’s Creed.

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at:
Listen to audio at:

1. What deadly work can the tongue do? How have you been hurt by someone else’s tongue? How have you hurt someone with your tongue?

2. Why is gossip so harmful? What is the purpose of the 8th commandment, and what does it seek to protect? Exodus 20:16, and see explanation in the Small Catechism.

3. What other evil uses is our tongue put to? See Psalm 5:9; 12:1-8; 50:19; 52:2-4. Contrast with Psalm 35:27-28; 37:30; 39:1; 66:17; 71:24; 119:172; Philippians 2:10-11. How does this show we are at the same time saint and sinner?

4. What hope is there for our untamable tongue? How can this salt spring be turned fresh?

5. What did Jesus’ tongue accomplish? Isaiah 50:4ff; see the entire Gospels.

6. Who ultimately feels the insult and the pain when we curse or insult a brother? Matt. 25:40, 45. Why?

7. How does the pure speech of Jesus’ tongue overflow to blessing in our lives? How did He and does He still speak to us, and what blessing does it bring? How will all tongues finally be tamed? Phil. 2:10-11

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