Sermon Pentecost 15 2009

Sermon preached at First Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Chicago, Illinois, for Pentecost 15/Proper 19 (September 13), 2009

            Text (James 3:1-10, ESV): Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, 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 things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

            Beloved in Christ: Next time you think that you’re perfect, try walking on water. Or so the saying goes. The apostle James would put it differently: the next time you think you’re perfect, try to go a whole day without goofing up by what you say. Try not cursing anyone or anything; try not speaking a harsh or slanderous word; try not gossiping at all.

            Our tongues may puncture the image we have of ourselves as perfect. But that is all right, isn’t it? A little white lie, a little juicy rumor, a quick insult—what’s the harm in such things? A great deal, says James. The tongue is a tiny little portion of the body, but that doesn’t keep it from doing great harm. By controlling a horse’s mouth, we govern the direction of its whole body. Even great ships are steered by the rudder, not by the wind. The wind may blow and push the ship, but the direction is going to be determined by the rudder, not the wind. In the same way, we may have great power, even divine power, at work in our lives, but if we push the rudder of our tongue one way or the other, it will alter the way that we will go.

            A tongue is like a tiny spark that sets a great forest on fire, says James. The tongue itself was set ablaze by hell and it is intent on setting everything around it ablaze. The whole course of life can be determined by a handful of words that a person speaks, as we have seen again and again. And even if we recognize the evil that can lurk within, the tongue is not easily tamed. You would have an easier time taming a lion or a shark. The tongue is full of poison. It is the one thing in nature that exhibits a two-faced nature. One moment the tongue blesses, the next it curses. Fig trees produce only figs, but the tongue can bear good and evil fruit.

            That is what James has to say about the tongue—and there isn’t a cheery word in his entire speech. He doesn’t say a single positive thing about the tongue. He does admit that we sometimes use it to bless God, but he only says that because it shows all the more how out of place our cursing is. He says that if people could control their tongue, they would be perfect, but he says that that is not the nature of our tongues. As fallen human beings, our tongues cannot fail to be set ablaze by hell.

            But James states the case negatively so that we can ponder the positive. He doesn’t say the positive outright, but he lets us think through the negative situation and then say with him, “These things ought not to be so.” But how could they be different? That is something he wants us to ponder and discover on our own.

            It’s not hard to think what James might have wanted to say. James writes as a “servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” He writes to people who “hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” He is not writing to people who have stubbornly refused to repent of their sins and either live a heathenish life of pleasure or try to justify themselves as good enough for God. He is writing to people who know that they have been redeemed at great cost by the Lord Jesus Christ. They acknowledge their sinful behavior and repent of it. They look to Jesus as the only one who could reconcile them to God. They confess that Jesus lived the perfect life in their place and that He died to pay the penalty for their sin. They boldly profess that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and that we now enjoy life and fellowship with God because of His resurrection. These are the people to whom James writes—and I pray that that is the sort of people you are, too!

            James has only to explain the negative because we know the positive—and we can see it all the more clearly. It is as if he had taken a white canvas and then painted black paint on it, and the black paint was not the image he had intended to paint, but rather the white background was the image. By darkening out what he didn’t want us to see, we see more clearly what he did.

            The dark image that we see is what happens when we let our sinful nature go unchecked and we forget the Lord of glory who bought us. But we are called to ponder the other image, the image of light, what would take place if we remembered that we are God’s redeemed children and talked as such. That image is best seen in Jesus Christ, who used His tongue in a completely different manner. He spoke not deceitful words or words of cursing, but rather words of life. He came not to curse but to bless. His tongue was not set on fire by hell, but instead stopped the raging of hell. Instead of spewing out deadly poison, His mouth poured forth a life-giving elixir. His mouth was not a fountain that spewed one moment sweet water and the next moment brackish. His words were grace and truth and light.

            How did He get to be that way? Our Old Testament reading describes the process. It is a beautiful prophecy, spoken in the voice of the Messiah and describing how He would learn obedience. We see the end result first: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary.” But how did He get there? How did He get such a tongue? “Morning by morning [God] awakens; He awakens My ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened My ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward.” In order to speak as one of the learned, He had to be taught. Even though Jesus was the Son of God, He had to learn obedience just as anyone would have to. The only difference is that He was faultless in the whole process and learned it perfectly. He says: “The Lord God has opened My ear, or more accurately, The Lord God has dug out My ear.” Before we can speak, we must hear and hear well. Christ’s hearing was well attuned to the Word of His Father. His ears weren’t clogged, as ours all too often are. Consequently, He could speak better because He knew what to say. And He wasn’t deterred by what evil people were doing to stop his education or to teach Him their evil ways: I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.” Why? Because He would not rebel against His Father or turn backwards from what He was teaching Him. Consequently, Christ knew what to speak because He was full of His Father’s words.

            We have gathered to hear those words today. In today’s gospel we see a boy afflicted with a mute spirit—or so his father describes him. But when Jesus expelled the unclean spirit, He called him a “mute and deaf spirit.” The demon had afflicted the boy by cutting him off from the rest of the world and, above all, from fellowship with God. And the demonic realm would love to do that to each of us—to make us unable to hear God’s word and thus unable to speak, but simply foam at the mouth. But as our Lord opened the ears and the mouth of the boy, so He longs to open our ears and mouths today.

            And so, beloved in Christ, the question is not simply what we will do with our tongues. The real question is what we are doing with our ears, for what we do with our ears will determine what we do with our mouth. That is why James had written in his first chapter, “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” He urges to hear deeply, not superficially, not to be “like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror…and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” He wants that hearing to enter us so deeply that it permeates who we are.

            After all, we are God’s new creation, forgiven and redeemed sinners. Therefore, let us use our tongue as if that were the case. In Jesus’ name. Amen.