Sunday, March 29, 2009

Help, My Tongue is On Fire (James 3.1-12)

March 29, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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There are some real zingers in the scripture lesson for today! Did any of them grab your attention? I bet the teachers are nervous: "Let not many of you become teachers… [you] will incur a stricter judgment." How about the verse that inspired my title: "The tongue… is set on fire by hell." Or, the tongue is "a restless evil and full of deadly poison." Then there is the true and unsettling observation: "With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men…. From the same mouth comes both blessing and cursing." No wonder the monks took vows of silence! These things can get us into big trouble.

Today's lesson has several distinct parts to it, but each relates to the tongue and the importance of what we SAY. This is a crucial section in James' letter, then, because it signals a new topic. James has been interested in the interaction between FAITH and WORKS, concerned that what we believe be integrated with what we do. In this chapter, James focuses in on the seemingly thin line between the two, and pries open a wedge – another area somewhere between faith and works. In this area of SPEECH, he shines the light of truth and declares again the need for consistency through and through.

What's the Deal With Teachers?

First, James zeroes in on teachers. Why do they get picked on? Maybe it is because teachers tell others what they should do or think. They stand in that gap between FAITH and WORKS, touching peoples' lives in both directions. I once asked some students how a teacher might be judged more strictly. They said the teacher was responsible both for themselves and the student. As an example, they described the (hypothetical) influence of seeing a driving instructor running a red light. If a teacher's behavior conflicts with the teaching, it undermines the whole process.

James makes the connection between SPEECH and WORKS by saying that the person who speaks without fault is "perfect," able to control all the body. What we say is the bridge between our FAITH and WORKS. Our words will usually line up with one or the other, but the struggle is integrating all three. James highlights teachers because the interrelation of FAITH-SPEECH-WORKS is readily seen in what they do. The teacher who doesn't love and believe in the merits of the subject is most always ineffective. So also, the teacher who demonstrates mistrust and betrayal of the principles being taught (e.g. the red-light-running driving instructor) will prove to be ineffective.

Easy enough… we can well imagine the need for consistency in thought, word, and deed as we think back to a teacher whose name will never fade from memory. But don't point the finger too soon. I also once asked a room full of adults of varying professions (and only one professional teacher), "How many of you are teachers?" All of them indicated that they were teachers of some sort. Some coached, many were fathers or mothers, some taught Sunday School or youth group, some taught employees or employers. Each of them could think of someone whom they were teaching or could teach something. So we are all caught in the net of these verses.

We are all accountable to God for the way in which we hold faith, speak truth, and demonstrate love. James' words here tell us to be careful when others are being affected by what we say. From here, James goes on to illustrate the power of the tongue to affect ourselves and others.

Picture This!


James gives three illustrations, in sequence, to show the power of the tongue. The first two demonstrate the tongue's power to affect ourselves. A bit in the mouth of a horse has the power to turn a very large and strong animal with only the smallest of motions. Likewise, a small word can set us on the path of truth or on the path of lies. "Did you do all your homework?" A false "Yes" can gain a night of freedom, but a semester of struggle.

The tongue is like the rudder of a ship, steering a large vessel even in the face of a mighty wind. A word of decision can chart our course even in the face of pressure or temptation. "Come on out and party with us… your family can do without you for one night." A firm "No, I haven't been home one night this week – I'm going to stay in" can lead to strengthening a commitment made years ago. Our words have the power to back up our actions… or undermine them.

A third illustration shows how the tongue can affect others as well as ourselves. James compares the tongue to a spark that sets a whole forest on fire. A tiny piece of gossip, "Haven't you heard about the Jones family?" can start a raging fire of hurt and damage. So also, a tiny word, "I forgive you" can start a holy fire of cleansing grace.

James then says the tongue is itself a fire. It has the power to corrupt our whole bodies. How often do we find ourselves having to follow through on a commitment or boast made without really thinking through the consequences?

The three illustrations James gives contain an implicit message along with the obvious teaching about the power of the tongue. In each illustration, the tongue is only a "tool." The questions arise, "Who rides the horse? Who steers the ship? Who lights the fire?" Yes, the tongue is a powerful force, but it is only a tool of the will. The tongue can be used for good or evil, depending on the one that uses it.

Now here's the frustrating news… no one can tame the tongue. While we may manage a good word here or there, our wills are subject to emotions like anger, jealousy, and fear. Our wills are subject to biological forces like adrenaline, estrogen, and fatigue. And ultimately, our wills are imperfect because of sin. So the bottom line is this: our tongues are powerful instruments, able to steer lives as large as ours, but we are not qualified to steer!

James highlights the crux of the problem for us. Even with something as pure as worship, we praise God one moment and curse someone the next. We can sing hymns of joy at 11:50 Sunday morning, and tear down our family over lunch. Our tongues are fickle instruments because we try to control them with fickle hearts. And so, James goes to the heart of the problem. Or, using his language, to the source of the problem.

Can I Get Bottled Water?


James says we must look to the Source. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. How can it be? He asks, "Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?" No… of course not. Our problem must be that our source is impure – and it is. If our will is the source of all we believe, say, and do, our "water" is impure. Only with God's will and Word as our source can the water of our lives be pure.

And so, James has again raised the question of FAITH. In whom do you have faith. Is it only in yourself? Or is it in God? Who is the Source of your faith and life? James says to check and see – it must be God if there is to be any hope of purity in word and deed.

But that's just the beginning! Water can also be contaminated after the source. Fresh water and salt water cannot flow from the same source, but if someone dumps garbage in the water near the source, all the water downstream will be contaminated. Likewise sin has a secondary contaminating effect on our lives. Even with God as the Source, we must contend with issues of purity and freshness in our lives.

"But can't I just have some bottled water?" I wish it were that easy… but it's just not. In this life, we must struggle with the consequences of sin, and the best we can do is grow in purity and faithfulness.

So, in practical terms, what does this look like? How can we base our lives on a faith that is increasingly pure, so that as we integrate faith, word, and deed, God will be glorified? How can we use our tongues for good, not evil?

First, and essential, is to realize God as Source of all we are and all that we do. There can be no confusion on this issue. Scripture says that no one of us is righteous – no one of us is qualified to steer the course of our lives. Only Christ is perfect; only Christ is righteous; only Christ is the pure source of living water. So first, ask this question: "Do I trust in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior?" Do not leave that question until the question makes sense and the answer is "Yes."

Second, realizing that God is the Source of life, seek to maximize the fresh water and minimize the salt water in the flow of your life. We can maximize the fresh water by opening ourselves more and more fully to God's will and Word found in scripture, worship, serving others, and experiencing God's Spirit. So read and study scripture. Be in worship and seek times and places to worship God. Pray and communicate with God. Help other people – serve those in need and love the lovable and the unlovable. Listen for God's Spirit and try to be sensitive to God's leading and direction in your life.

How do we minimize the contaminating force of sin? This is the area in which we grow as Christians. Scripture promises that if we confess our sin, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sin and cleanse us from unrighteousness. It is that cleansing effect that causes us to grow. One of the defining characteristics of sin is focus on self. Don't wait for sinful behavior to contaminate your life, seek out areas where you claim control and find self-preoccupation and ask God for help in relinquishing that area to God's control.

As an example of this, take finances. I have found myself anxious about having enough money for the future and for my family. At some point, if I try to seize control of my finances, I will work longer hours, seek extra income, and become controlled by this "need" in my life. Yes, I need to be responsible about finances, but trusting God for my family's future sets me on a completely different course than my trying to be the rock upon which my family stands.

Our Source


When it comes to faith, word, and deeds, our only hope for the integrity and consistency James calls for comes from having God as our Source and from growing in personal purity and holiness. The first is a recognition of God's sovereignty by grace through faith. The second is a lifelong process brought about by an ever-deepening relationship with God through Jesus Christ in the power of God's Spirit.

Let us close by singing together the first verse of a familiar hymn as our heart's prayer:

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing, Tune my heart to sing Thy grace; Streams of mercy, never ceasing, Call for songs of loudest praise. Teach me some melodious sonnet, Sung by flaming tongues above; Praise the mount! I'm fixed upon it, Mount of God's unchanging love!

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