For Lent this year, our sermon series, based on the book of James, is helping us build our bodies to reflect the light of Christ within us. So far we’ve talked about having Big Ears, Broken Hearts, and Greased Elbows. Here’s today’s sermon:
SCRIPTURE – James 3:1-12 – Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4 Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7 For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8 but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
Body by Jesus: Pierced Tongue
March 15, 2015
I’ve never been able to roll my tongue. You know, when you curl the sides of it up and stick it out? Never could do that. Leigh can. Sydney can. Molly can. I think even our dogs can do it. But I can’t. Can you all do it? Let me see…I actually asked you to try that so I could see how many people would stick their tongue out at the preacher during his sermon.
I’m very impressed with all of your tongue-rolling abilities. Wouldn’t it be great if our tongue were that easy to control ALL of the time? And yet, as we know, that little bugger can get us into a lot of trouble. James is helping us build our bodies to be more like Christ. So far we’ve talked about having big ears, broken hearts, and greased elbows. Today, we’re going to focus on the benefit of a pierced tongue and the danger of an uncontrolled one.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” I used to repeat this saying over and over again as a kid when I would get teased. And yet we know that it’s not really true. Words have incredible power to do harm and what makes it worse is that it’s so easy to do. A lot of bad things we do take some premeditation and planning, but it only takes a split-second lapse of judgment to do damage with the tongue. Our words may not break bones, but they can break hearts and shatter egos. They may not leave visible bruises, but they can bruise a person’s self-esteem or their faith in God. All with the flick of the tongue.
I remember reading about the famous singer, Karen Carpenter. She and her brother Richard were very popular in the 1970s. When they first started singing, one of the critics reviewing the band referred to Karen as “Richard’s chubby little sister.” From that moment on, every time she looked in the mirror, she said to herself, “I’m Richard’s chubby little sister.” And she started taking drugs to lose weight. And she became bulemic. And anorexic. Those simple words destroyed her. She died of heart failure at the age of 32, killed as much by someone’s words as by her own health. Our words have that kind of power.
But they not only have the power to destroy. Our words also have the power to create. In the creation story in Genesis, God spoke the world into being. And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. One of the first duties God gives to Adam is the power to name. Genesis 2:19 says, “Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.” The power to name, to give something or someone an identity, to speak their existence into being.
There is so much power in what we say. Think about it: if you ask someone to pass the mashed potatoes, they do it, even if they don’t want to. If you call someone’s name, you can make them turn around, change their whole perspective. Two people come before a minister and they say two little words and they are bound together for life. Think about the power of the words “I hate you” or the words “I love you.” Such little words, so much power.
Part of the reason our words have so much power is because of our inability to undo them. Once they’re out there, you can’t take them back, any more than you can put toothpaste back in a tube. Jesus certainly knew about this. He was criticized by the Pharisees because his disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate, which would have made their food ceremonially unclean, a violation of the dietary laws. But these same Pharisees were saying harmful and destructive things. So Jesus told them, “What goes into a person’s mouth does not make them unclean, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what makes their unclean.” He tells them that the things that come out of the mouth originate in the heart, so that what we say is a reflection of who we are.
That’s why James is so vehement in his argument about controlling the tongue. He personifies it, gives it a life of its own: the tongue makes great boasts, it is a fire, it corrupts the whole person, it is a restless evil. The comparison to fire is a particularly powerful one. Back in those days, fire was one of the most feared emergencies because they simply didn’t have the means to stop it once it started. Without fire trucks or hydrants, all they could do was let it spread and run its course, and then assess the damage it left behind. That’s not unlike our response to a rumor or piece of gossip. All we can do is let it run its course and then assess the damage.
James knows about this damage, and he knows that negative words are evidence of a much greater concern. “With the tongue we praise our Lord, 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.” I remember once on the bus in elementary school I was showing off to my friends by using some off-color words I heard, and I saw the bus driving in the mirror watching me. As I was leaving the bus, he gently grabbed my arm and said, “Son, I heard those words you were using. Do you kiss your momma with that mouth?” That statement was the best punishment he could have given me.
James says there should be consistency between what we say to others and what we say to God. He knows that we shouldn’t be opening our mouths just to take out the right foot and put in the left one. Our speech is revelatory of our character. Things that come out of the mouth originate from the heart. A gossipy mouth is a sign of a gossipy heart. An insincere mouth is a sign of an insincere heart. A boastful mouth is a sign of a boastful heart.
The number one reason God gave us a tongue was so that we could express our praise, our gratitude, and our worship to God. And the second reason we have tongues is so that we can use them to encourage, to build up one another. And yet, how often do we use our words to build ourselves up, usually at the expense of someone else? It’s like the Pharisee in scripture who in prayer thanked God that he wasn’t like the lowly tax collector. Just because invoke God’s name doesn’t mean your words are a blessing. It’s like the axiom that you can say anything you want about someone, as long as you end with, “God bless his little heart.” “That boy of hers is the lyingest, cheatingest, rottenest good-for-nothing slacker who deserves to rot in the pit of Hell for all eternity…God bless his little heart.” It’s bad enough to speak poorly of someone, don’t bring God into it!
James calls this duality our “double-mindedness,” our tendency to be divided between God and our own selfish desires. William Barclay says, “In humans there is something of the ape and something of the angel, something of the hero and something of the villain, something of the saint and much of the sinner.” None of us are either one of the other; all of us are a little bit of both. We all have the potential for double-mindedness. When we use our tongue to praise God on Sunday, but then use it to lash out at someone or talk behind someone’s back or pass judgment on someone, that’s double-mindedness.
What makes this so dangerous is that it can happen so quickly. Even when we think we have our tongue under control, it’s so easy to slip back into old habits. There was a little boy selling a push lawnmower in his front yard. A preacher wanted to buy it and asked if it worked.
“Yes sir”, said the boy. The preacher pulled and pulled on the rope and said, “Son, this thing won’t start.”
The boy said, “That’s ‘cause you ‘gotta’ cuss at it first.”
The preacher said, “Son, I’m a preacher, and I haven’t cussed in 18 years.”
They boy said, “Keep pulling; it’ll come back to you.”
We can be having the best day of our lives, and then someone gives us a dirty look, or someone cuts us off in traffic, or a loved one gives us a verbal jab, and all of the sudden we’re spewing fire. No matter how hard we work at it, it’s so easy to unroll our tongues and say the wrong thing without even thinking about it.
If you could hear a tape recording of everything you said last week, what would you want to edit out? How would your words change if you realized that every word you spoke to someone was being spoken to a child of God? Ask yourself, “How would I feel if what I’m about to say was said to me? Would I be angry? Would I be hurt?”
Better yet, how can you use your words this week to build up? What good thing needs to be named in a friend or a family member or a coworker? What words can you speak to someone this week that will be an overflow of the love of Christ that’s in your heart? Every person has something about them that can be complimented. Find it and name it. Remember we have been give the power to name, and we can choose names that tear down, like “the chubby little sister,” or we can choose names for people that build them up, that remind them of God’s love for them and honor God in the process.
And don’t forget the importance of not using your words at all, but being silent and putting on your big ears so that God can speak to you. You have such power, the power to name, the power to create, the power to build up. And you have the power to tear down and the power to destroy. Which power will you use today?