Sunday, February 12, 2017
Sermon: James 3: 1-12 Faith in Action - Tongue-tied
A couple of weeks ago, you might remember that I mentioned some of the things that I wanted to be when I grew up (in age, if not height). There was the job with Ulsterbus that didn’t happen, and my desire to be a journalist. In school, we had a careers teacher, giving us lots of information and advice about different jobs. Well, as chapter 3 opens, James sounds like a very bad careers adviser.
‘Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters.’ Now maybe those who are teachers would agree with his advice - and you’re glad to see halfterm arriving! But this verse isn’t about whether you should pursue a career as a primary school teacher and apply to Stranmillis or for a PGCE. Rather, James is saying that not many should become teachers in the church, preachers. Why? ‘For you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.’
James is saying that those who teach the faith will be judged more strictly. Not just in what we say, but how we say it. And in teaching others, are we doing it ourselves? Please do pray for those who study and teach - for faithfulness in teaching and in living...
But before you think to yourself, well, I’m off the hook this week, James opens up the focus, from those who teach, to ‘we all’. Teachers and hearers alike, we all stumble in many ways. There are things that we get wrong, little ways in which we stumble and stagger in our Christian walk.
Just think about the past week, and think back to some of the ways you stumbled. What happened? How did it happen? Was it in something you thought? Did? Didn’t do? Or maybe something you said? The likelihood is that there were some of each of them - thought, deed, left undone, and in your words.
Look at verse 2. ‘For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man (or woman), able also to bridle his own body.’ Now that ‘if’ is a big one - if you don’t stumble in what you say, then you’d be perfect (or complete), able to control your whole body. James is saying that our biggest struggle is to control our tongue, to not stumble in what we say, He’s reminding us of what he said back in chapter 1, as he gave the outline of the whole letter. Do you remember this? ‘If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.’ (1:26)
So today we’re thinking about our tongue. Maybe you can touch your nose with it, or roll your tongue. You can impress us all over the coffee with your tricks. But James wants us to examine our tongue. It’s as if you’re at the doctors, and they ask you to stick it out, to get a good look at it. So, for a moment, go on ahead, and stick your tongue out! Might be the only chance you ever get to do it in church!
Now, back to the passage! What does James teach us about the tongue? First of all, he says that it is small but mighty. He gives us two pictures of small things that influence and direct something so much bigger than itself. So in verse 3, he mentions the ‘bit’ that goes in the horse’s mouth. That little bit of metal can control the whole horse along the racetrack or around the paddock.
Then in verse 4, he shows an even bigger example of influence. Think of a ship, a big proper ship. And yet it’s steered by a very small rudder. The pilot holds it in his hand, he moves it a small way, and the whole ship turns. Do you see what James is saying? Small things can have power over something much bigger. Bits in horses, rudders in ships, and tongues in our bodies.
And the two examples that he gave are both positive. The horse can be ridden because of the bit. The ship can be steered because of the rudder. So do our tongues also follow with this positive influence? We should by now know the answer. We all stumble in many ways. If we were able to control our tongues, we’d be perfect. Our tongue might be small, its influence big, but it’s not always for good. As James says, ‘So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.’
The tongue is small but mighty. But the tongue is also fiery. In verse 6, James mentions another small thing that has influence far beyond its size. And here, we get closer to the small and mighty power of the tongue. ‘How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!’ Every so often we see on the news forest fires. According to the internet there are forest fires raging in southern Chile this past fortnight. And how did such devastation begin? By one spark, one small fire that spreads and grows.
And James says that our tongues are fiery. ‘And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.’ You know the feeling when you eat a chilli pepper, and your tongue feels like it’s on fire. Well, we may not feel it, but our tongue is always on fire. It’s staining our body, setting on fire our course of life - but do you see where the fire comes from? ‘Set on fire by hell.’ This small and mighty power is always in our mouths - and how tempting it can be to unleash a mouthful of hellfire - whether it’s by anger, or gossip, or seductive words, or innuendo, or whatever.
James continues his examination of the small but mighty, and fiery tongue in verse 7, where he declares that it is untamed. Humans are really good at taming beasts and birds and so on (although sometimes you wouldn’t think it to see our dogs refusing to sit, or stay!), but despite our talents with animals, we’ve utterly failed with our own tongues. It’s a restless evil, never at peace, always ready to strike. And it’s full of deadly poison. Forget about that old saying ‘sticks and stones may hurt my bones but names will never harm me.’ Our words are filled with poison. Maybe you’ve been on receiving end of poisoned words. Years later, you still hear them being said to you, the dagger driven into your heart. Maybe you’ve seen how your words have harmed and poisoned others, breaking down relationships. We try to tame our tongues, but we can’t. The truth comes out.
And that brings us to the last observation of James as he examines our tongues. They are double-minded and inconsistent. Verse 9: ‘With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.’ We pour out our praise to our God, yet we curse the people who are made in his image. Blessing and cursing out of the same mouth?
Listen to James: ‘From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, these things ought not to be so.’ To show just how wrong it is, James points us to nature. ‘Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?’ Answer - no! Fresh and salt water don’t flow from the same spring. It’ll be one or the other. (So which will it be?)
‘Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs?’ Answer - no! James is picking up on what his big brother says in Matthew 7. One sort of plant can’t produce a different sort of fruit. The fruit comes out of the plant, the same as the plant.
And so James is driving towards the last illustration: ‘Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.’ If we’re not seeing fresh water flowing out of the pond, then it’s not a fresh water pond. A salty pond will only yield salty water.
This is why James got us to stick out our tongues. You see, our tongues and our words show what’s going on on the inside. Our words are the overflow of our hearts. Our tongues are small and mighty, fiery, untamed, and double-minded. Yours is, and mine is. No wonder not many of us should be teachers.
This morning James has given us a reality check. In examining our tongues, he is actually examining our hearts. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is showing you the way you’ve used your words, and is saying ‘these things ought not to be so.’ Let’s pray for ourselves, and for one another - for healing for the poisoned words we’ve said and received; for balm against the burns we’ve inflicted and suffered; for the grace to bless those made in God’s image, just as we bless God himself; for the grace to bridle our tongues. Let’s pray.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 12th February 2017.