James, The Tongue
Pentecost 15B James 3:1-12
Today continues a series of five consecutive sermons from the Book of James, and today is the third sermon in that series. This is a series of sermons that could be entitled, “practical Christianity.” There were five boys in Jesus’ family and their names were Jesus, James, Joses, Judas and Simon. James was the second oldest brother on the list. James, the brother of Jesus, was inviting his church to live out the love commandment of Jesus. That is, you are to love your neighbor as yourself. Leviticus 19:18b. Of all the chapters, verses and pages of the Old Testament, Jesus selected five words to summarize all thirty-nine books of the Old Testament. Five simple words: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. James calls this The Law, the perfect law, the royal law. James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem, drew out the practical implications of this royal law. He addressed the question: what does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself.
The Christians in James’ congregation had problems trying to live out this moral law to love our neighbor as ourselves. Specifically, James listed three problems that his church had as they tried to live out this moral law of love. What does it mean to you’re your neighbor as yourself and you do not care take of the widows and orphans? Christians neglected the widows and orphans; Christian people did not care of the widows and orphans in their midst. We find the same problem in the book of Acts; that is, people were not taking care of the homeless and hurting people in the book of Acts. And so James said, “Religion which is pure and undefiled is this: it is to care for widows and orphans in their suffering and to remain unstained from the world.”
A second problem that James noticed, as his people were trying to live out the moral law of loving your neighbor was yourself, was this: The Christians in his congregation were showing favoritism to rich people who were coming into the church. The richer Christians were ignoring the poorer Christians and were not being generous at all to the poor. One Christian said, “I have faith,” and the next Christian said, “Well, I have charitable love.” So James finally said, “Faith without works of charity is dead, just as a body without a soul is dead, so faith without works of love is dead.” You cannot separate faith from charitable love.
There was third problem that James noticed in his congregation. You are to love your neighbor as yourself. This is the royal law, the perfect law, the law of love. But what does this mean in terms of the tongue? This theme is found in chapters one, three and four. It is one of the most dominant themes in the book of James.
What does James say about the tongue? What wisdom does James share with us? The Book of James has been compared to the wisdom of the book of Proverbs. What wisdom does James share with us about the tongue?
The wisdom of James says that there is power to the tongue. The tongue is small but very significant. It is a small muscle but a mouthful of muscle. Just as a small rudder can guide a large ship. Would you all think of a large ship out in Puget Sound? It is amazing that such a small rudder, only five feet high, can guide a huge ship that is longer than a football field. James also uses the analogy of a bridal on a horse. A small bridal can guide a great, tall horse. Are you afraid to get on tall horses? I am. Down deep, I don’t like horses. I like little short horses with short legs so my own legs can almost touch the ground, so I can put on the brakes. But if you get up on some of these , tall, large horses, with long legs and big rear ends, it seems that you can fall a mile to the ground. A bridle is put on that horse, and you fearfully try to steer that horse. It works. It is amazing that that small bridle can steer such a great big horse.
So it is with the little tongue in our mouth. That little muscle in our mouth controls our whole personality. It is amazing that such a little muscle has such power to control the direction of our whole personality. In my mouth, my tongue must weigh perhaps a pound at the most, but my body weighs more than two hundred pounds. That is, the tongue is only one half of one percent of the total weight of my body, but that little one pound of flesh in my mouth can control the whole direction of my life. The tongue is so small but it is so powerful as part of my personality.
Counselors understand this. Counselors tell us that if you can change the language of a person, you can actually change the person. If you can change the words that a person uses, you can change the feelings inside of that person. For example: if you have a bad habit of cursing, swearing and cussing; if you have a person problem with your mouth and its spews out bad language; if you start to change those words, that will actually begin to change the way you feel as a person inside.
Or, if you have a problem with being critical, complaining, being consistently negative about people, always being picky with the faults of other people; if you change the words that come out of your mouth, you will start to change your very personality and the feelings inside of that personality.
James was right. He said that a small rudder controls a large ship; a small bridle controls a big horse; a small muscle like the tongue controls our whole personality.
The wisdom of James. In the wisdom of James about the tongue, we discover that the tongue is very vulnerable to sin. Jesus warned us that the part of the body that was vulnerable to sin was the eye. The eye had a very common problem with lust. Jesus said, cut it out. The eye is filled with greed and covetousness, coveting what other things other people have. The eye is a problem that Jesus talks about, but for James, the problem was the tongue. The whole cosmos of sin, the whole universe of sin is now found in the tongue. The tongue comes from the fires of hell itself. Sin concentrates itself in this little muscle in the mouth called the tongue. The tongue is incredibly vulnerable to be infected with sin.
The wisdom of James. James also says that James says that the tongue is full of deadly poison. You almost have a feeling that a spider came along and bit the tongue in such a way that the tongue became filled with deadly poison, spitting its venom out against the world.
The wisdom of James. James say the tongue is like fire. James says that the tongue is like a spark that sets off a whole fire. That happens all the time at our house. For example, I will say sharply at the dinner table, “Did you say that?” She responds, “I don’t like your tone of voice.” It is interesting, with one small line, I can set the table on fire. I can so it. My wife can. My kids when they were at home. Any one of us can do this. We are all capable. I can say sharply, “I don’t like what you are eating.” Or, “I don’t like how you are eating.” And it is like throwing a spark into a puddle of gas and the whole thing flames up instantly. The tongue is like a spark that instantaneously ignites a huge fire around the table.
The tongue can cause irreparable harm. I love the following quotation because it is so true. This quotation is not from James. The quotation says: “A sent arrow, a word unkindly spoken, and a missed opportunity cannot be retrieved.” You cannot return an arrow, an unkind word, or find again a missed opportunity. It is amazing to me that you can give a thousand words of praise to a person but make one harsh statement to that same person and that person will remember the harsh words. As soon as you said the words, you wish that you could bring them back but the damage has already been done.
The wisdom of James: James also said, “You cannot control perfectly the tongue. No one can tame the tongue. We can tame all kinds of animals. We can tame lions and tigers and elephants and dogs and parrots and dolphins and whales. I have seen all these bird and animals trained, but James says that no one can tame the tongue. No one. Absolutely no one. You have tried and you all have failed. You have said to yourself: I am not going to say what I am feeling. I am not going to say it. I am not…and in the next breath, you blurt it out. You tried to control the tongue but you failed. How many of us have had that experience?
Knowing that none of us can control our tongue; knowing that all of us are guilty of name calling, hostility, judging others and gossip; knowing that all of us have this problem; James said that it is very difficult to live out the law of love. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. It is very difficult to live out this law of love because of … the tongue.
The wisdom of James. James also says that the tongue is so two-sided. The tongue gives thanks to God in one breath and in the next breath, we curse and judge our fellow human beings. For example, we come to church on Sunday morning, and we will sing our songs of praise and thanksgiving. Then, on the way out of church, we may say to our friend or spouse, “Did you see so and so today? Did you see the way that so and so took care of her kids? Did you see the look that he gave to her?” A person sings praise and thanksgiving and we walk right out of church and we are critical of someone that we saw.
Or, let’s say that we are saying prayers at our house. This is the way that it worked at our house. “Dear God in heaven. Thank you for the meal today. Thank you that we can all be gathered together as a family. Thanks you Jesus and be with the children. In your name we pray. Amen.” The conversation, “Jan, did you hear what I heard about Mrs. So and So. It is really interesting. You will like this one.” It is amazing that a person can finish praying and in the next breath start gossiping, saying something behind somebody’s back and never even blinking an eye. Not even sensing the irony of the whole thing. We love our spouse, children, friends and praise them in one moment, and in the very next moment, we may say something derogatory about them. The wisdom of James says that the two is so quickly two sided. James shakes his head and says, “On the one hand we give thanks to God, and in the next breath (not after ten breaths), in the very next breath, we curse, condemn, gossip, or judge some fellow human being.
So James, the brother of Jesus and the pastor the church in Jerusalem, was thinking about the wise and practical implications of the love commandment; that is, what does it mean to love our neighbor as ourselves. What does this perfect law mean for our care of the widows and orphans, our placating the rich and looking down our noses at the poor? What does this perfect law mean for the tongue?
So we have discussed the wisdom of James concerning the tongue. So we ask a further question: what is the purpose of the tongue? Why did God put a tongue in our mouth in the first place? Why didn’t God simply give us a brain or simply give us a heart? Why did God give us a tongue in the first place?
To answer this question, we need to go to the book of Genesis and the story of the Garden of Eden and the story of Adam and Eve. In the creation story, we discover that human beings have been given a tongue in order to express praise and thanksgiving. God originally created the tongue for praise and thanksgiving. We love that wonderful hymn, “Praise and thanksgiving, Father we offer for all things living, created good.” God, in the Garden of Eden, put a tongue in our mouth so that we could express our praise and thanksgiving to God. God put a tongue in our mouth so we could say, “O God, it is a beautiful world today. O God, thank you for Eve and thank you for the corn and thank you for the beans. God put a tongue in our mouth so we could communicate our love to God through words of praise and thanksgiving.
God also put a tongue in our mouths so that Adam and Eve could express praise and thanksgiving to one another. So Adam could say, “O Eve, you are looking well today.”
And Eve could say, “Thank you Lord that you gave me such a wonderful person as Adam.” At the very heart of Adam and Eve’s relationship, God placed a tongue in their mouth, so they could express praise and thanksgiving to God and praise and thanksgiving to one another. It is at the very heart of our humanity.
But then, the snake came along. Perhaps it wasn’t a snake. Perhaps it was a spider. One night, when Adam and Eve were sleeping, snoring away with their mouths slightly open, a spider crawled quietly up near that open mouths and big their tongues. The spider filled their tongues with poisonous venom. Adam woke up the next day and said, “Oh, what a crummy day it is today. It is rainy and gloomy today.” He rolled over and looked at Eve and said, “She is certainly getting old.” Eve looked at Adam and said, “God, couldn’t you have done better than Adam. There must be somebody who is better for me than he is.” It all happened so quickly, after the spider bit their tongues and filled their tongues with poison.
But originally, in the Garden of Eden, the purpose of the tongue was to give praise and thanksgiving to God and to one another.
It amazes me but there is something about God that really enjoys praise and thanksgiving. God needs it. God takes pleasure in it. God asks for it. All through the Bible, God wants and asks for praise and thanksgiving. The psalms are filled with praise and thanksgiving. These psalms are filled with it, as if God wants its. As if God needs it. As if God absolutely enjoys it.
What I have also found is that we human beings are the same. My wife really is. My wife really wants it. Praise and thanksgiving. So do my kids. So did my mom and dad. So do my brothers and sisters. So do my neighbors. So do my friends. In fact, all people that I know enjoy praise and thanksgiving. I will ask you. Is there anyone here that does not enjoy praise? Is there anyone here who does not enjoy praise? I will ask you another question: is there anyone here in this room who does not enjoy thanksgiving? Is there anyone here like that?
Now, why is it that every single person here in this room enjoys praise? That is true not only in this room, but in every single room in the state of Washington…and in every single room in the United States…and in every single room in North America…and int very single room on all the continents of earth. In every single room on earth, people enjoy praise and thanksgiving. No matter where they are, all human beings are “hard wired” the same.
Why is it that all human beings enjoy praise and thanksgiving? Because we are made in the image of God. We are like God, and God likes praise and thanksgiving. God expects it. God desires it. God absolutely exults in it. And we are the same as God.
To enjoy praise and thanksgiving is not a sign of weakness. “O, I am a weak personality and I am addicted to praise.” It is not a sign of insecurity. “I am having an anxiety reaction and I need your praise to feel secure in myself.” It is not a sign of mental fatigue. “I am depressed and a little praise would get me out of my depression.” It is the opposite. When I am the most healthy; when I am emotionally healthy, as healthy as can be; I love praise and thanksgiving. It is a sign of health, not of weakness. Not of insecurity. Not of sin. Why? God is not a big sinner and yet God enjoys praise. We are like God and we enjoy praise and thanksgiving the way that God does.
And conversely, God does not like to be judged, ridiculed, ignored, belittled, or put down. God does not like that. We don’t either. And why don’t we like that? Because we are in the image of God. We are like God. And God put a tongue in our mouth to do that, to give thanks and praise.
God did not give us a brain to think praise and thanksgiving. I am going to think it. Get ready, folks, here I go. (long silence as my brain is thinking thanks and praise. Slowly look all around the sanctuary, silently thinking praise and thanksgiving for all the people you are looking at.) Didn’t that feel good? All that praise and thanksgiving, I just gave to you.
God did not give us a heart to merely feel praise and thanksgiving. I am going to feel it right now. (long silence, as the preacher looks all around the sanctuary, feeling praise and thanksgiving for the people in that room) Isn’t that great? Didn’t that feel good, when I just had those feelings of praise and thanksgiving for you?
God didn’t put a brain in our head so we could think praise and thanksgiving towards God and others. God didn’t simply put a heart in our bodies so we could feel praise and thanksgiving. But God gave us a tongue so we could express praise and thanksgiving to God and to one another. That is the purpose of the tongue: to express praise and thanksgiving to God and to one another.
This is at the heart of a person’s self esteem. All people, whether they be little children or older adults, need strong self esteem. Self esteem is built and nourished and enlarged when those people receive praise and thanksgiving. As much as a garden needs rain in order to grow, so we need praise and thanksgiving to be healthy human beings. That is the way we are wired.
The opposite is also true. The cruelest, unkind things you can ever do is to withhold praise and thanksgiving from God or from one another. To withhold praise and thanksgiving from a child is one of the cruelest things that could ever be done to a child. And to withhold praise and thanksgiving from a youth, is one of the cruelest things that a person could do. To withhold praise and thanksgiving from one’s spouse or children or family or friends, that is not the way God made us. God has made the tongue in such a way is that we are to express praise and thanksgiving…to sinful people. Some folks have the attitude, “Well, if you are good enough, then I will tell you how much I love you.” No, the whole concept of grace is to express praise and thanksgiving to sinful imperfect people since that is the only kind of people that there are.
The tongue. It is so small. It is so small but it is so significant. It takes a little rudder and you can steer a great big ship. You can take a small bridle and you can steer a great big horse. You take a small tongue and it steers the whole direction of our personality. Jesus said, “This is the fundamental moral law by which you are to live. You are to love your neighbor the way that I love your neighbor. You are to love your neighbor with words of praise and thanksgiving. May Jesus touch our tongue and heal them and fill them with praise. Amen.
Children's sermon: For the children's sermon, I went to the grocery store and purchased a large tongue from the butcher. The kids liked the visual illustration. i talked out the power and strength of the tongue, both within ourselves and also in cows. I asked the children to imagine that this cow tongue got infected and it would become very ugly. So it is when the human tongue becomes infected. The human tongue, then, becomes very nasty and mean to other people and God. Jesus always wants to heal our tongues so that everything we say will be truth, that our tongues will sing praises to other people and God.
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