3Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For 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. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or 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. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6And 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. 7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
But before we get there, I want to give you a bit of background on James.
We call James a “letter” because it looks like one.
But it reads like “wisdom” literature.
Wisdom literature is a type of writing that gives advice on living a good life.
James focuses in on one particular way to live a good life.
It is a treatise on living the Jesus way.
Like all wisdom literature, it is to be studied and applied to one’s own life.
Applying James to our lives, guides us in living the Jesus way.
It makes us wise.
In our test today, James narrows his focus on one particular facet of life.
The question he asks is this one:
Do you choose your words wisely?
Do they make you sound like Jesus?
Here is good advice on how to do that.
Mark Douglas is a professor of Christian ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary.
He says this about how to act with wisdom.
[Wisdom] means learning how to think carefully and act virtuously in complex situations where one is tempted to think simplistically and act recklessly.
Here is a more common way to say that:
Think before you speak.
Because what people think about you will be based almost entirely on what you say.
Do you sound wise?
Do you sound like Jesus?
Trust me, it’s hard sometimes.
Especially in 2019.
But we get ahead of ourselves.
The question James raises is whether our inner wisdom, our faith, is displayed in our outer lives.
As disciples of Jesus, one of the things we are supposed to do is make more disciples, right?
How do we do that?
By the way we live.
And by what we say.
Because words are powerful.
Words can do many things.
Words are the way we communicate what we think.
Words are the way we provide information.
Words are the way we talk at the dinner table about what happened in everyone’s day.
Words are the way we describe our experiences.
Words are the way we learn from others.
Other words are innocuous.
Words are the way we have superficial patter that we share as a form of entertainment and amusement.
Words are the way we joke.
Words are the way we tease.
Words are the way we have fun.
Other words are creative and artful.
Words are the way we express ourselves.
Words are the way we write poetry.
Words are the way we write stories and novels.
Words are the way we write plays and movies.
Using words in these ways can be unifying and upbuilding to the community.
But there are the more sinister uses of words.
Words as weapons.
Words as power.
Words designed to hurt.
Words designed to destroy.
Words with evil intent.
Such words are not intended to do anything but harm and injure.
Words can cut deeply and leave scars and are frequently used to do just that.
These are the words James is talking about today.
James says the tongue, our words, can cause great harm.
Have you ever seen what happens when sodium is dropped in water?
I wish I had a screen here, so I could show you all the YouTube videos of what happens when you do that.
There is a brief moment while the sodium starts to bubble followed by a small fire and then an explosion!
That is the kind of things our words can do!
They can cause an explosive reaction in others.
In the world.
And this is even truer today where our words can “go viral” and reach the ears and eyes of millions.
Unwise words can have uncontrollable consequences.
Words that are sodium dumped into someone else’s water.
Looking for an explosion.
And if we are wrong – well – we can’t get those words back.
James says that if we are wise, will avoid that.
James main point is that to use words in that way is un-Jesus-like.
And so unwise.
Unwise for two reasons.
First because our words to heart and believe that they are words Jesus would approve of.
Here is an example:
There was a shooting in at a Synagogue in Poway, CA on April 27 in which one woman was killed.
An event almost so common that, sadly, we don’t even acknowledge such things anymore.
After the attack, folks started reporting what the shooter, an avid church goer, wrote online.
… Jewish people, guilty in his view of faults ranging from killing Jesus to controlling the media, deserved to die. That his intention to kill Jews would glorify God.
Those online posts resulted in a debate among some evangelical pastors about the role a certain stream of Christian theology might have had in shaping the shooter’s world view.
Listen to this:
The Rev. Mika Edmondson, a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which is a small evangelical denomination founded to counter liberalism in mainline Presbyterianism, told The Washington Post that even though [the shooter] does not blame his faith for his ideology, “It certainly calls for a good amount of soul-searching.”
“We can’t pretend as though we didn’t have some responsibility for him — he was radicalized into white nationalism from within the very midst of our church,” Edmondson said.
The words spoken in that church had power.
The words created results that, while perhaps not intended, destroyed lives.
The second result of unwise words is that people will be so appalled they will walk away from Jesus because they assume Jesus approves of the words.
Brennan Manning was a former Franciscan priest who became an itinerant preacher and speaker and wrote the book “The Ragamuffin Gospel”.
His fans, those who have heard him speak or read his book include U2, Eugene Peterson and … well … me.
Something he said came to mind when I read this week’s scripture.
The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today
Is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips
Then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.
That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.
One of the ways we deny Jesus with our lifestyle is the way we use our words while at the same time claiming to be a follower of Jesus.
When we walk out of this building what are we saying?
What are we saying about the world and about each other?
What are the words we are using?
Its pretty easy to find them.
Just go on social media and read the terrible things folks say to other folks.
And when you do, don’t look at the words of those who disagree with you, look at the words of those who agree with you.
Are they using wise words?
Or are they using “fighting words”?
Then find some Christian folks having a nice online theological war.
Look at those words!
Are these the words that you want associated with Jesus?
What does James say?
The tongue is … a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature,* and is itself set on fire by hell … —a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.
James is very clear.
Words not only harm the recipient, but “stain” the speaker as well.
We are what we say.
And if we say we are disciples of Jesus, and then curse our fellow human beings, we stain Jesus.
One of the most disturbing movies I ever saw demonstrates the evil use of words.
Hotel Rwanda was about the genocide there in the early 90s where estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed, about 70% of the Tutsi population.
It depicts how words were used to promote the mass murders.
The process was simple.
The Hutu government took over the media and called the minority Tutsis “cockroaches” or some other word that described them as being less than human.
So, it made it easier for them to be killed.
Everyone wants cockroaches dead, right?
No big deal, right.
It is a common tactic.
It always has.
That is why James looks at the tongue as a source of apocalyptic harm.
And James’ source for his message is none other than Jesus himself.
I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.’
We need to learn to speak with wisdom.
We need to learn to speak like we are disciples of Jesus.
So, before you speak or post your words, think — and maybe pray this prayer of David:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.