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First Reading = James 3:13-18
13Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
We are still in our series looking at the book of James and its challenge to have a serious faith that affects our daily choices. Last week, Pastor Carol encouraged all of us – not just 20% of us – all of us to do what we can to build the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
This week we are going to hear another challenging one. That’s James’ specialty. In our text today, we get to hear what James has to say about the words we choose and the words we let loose.
Sermon Reading = James 3:1-12
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.
Well I have to confess…this is a rather inconvenient sermon. Very inconvenient sermon…for me. This last week I was angrier than at any point in my life – and my brother can tell you I was no stranger to being angry at him while we were growing up.
The national Presbyterian church switched our prescription insurance, and the new group kept messing up our son’s most important anti-seizure medication. It’s a weird medication, so I started the process three weeks early. The first week went by with no progress, but I wasn’t surprised. When the second week also disappeared even with multiple check-ins from me and my doctor, my worry and agitation started increasing exponentially.
As we got down to the last few packets of medication and they still couldn’t get it right, as I realized my son might not have his most important medication, as the ridiculous and needless roadblocks seemed insurmountable, I lost my cool. In fact, I was enraged. Not angry. Enraged!
James says in our text today, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” Well I wasn’t kindling a small fire with my words to the insurance company. I was in full, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” mode! As Bruno Mars said in the song “Uptown Funk,” I was so hot, I’d make a dragon wanna retire, man. Mars was talking about something else, but I can still apply it here to my angry words.
Faced with my child not having their medication, my words were more in the “scorched earth” department than the spring of fresh blessing intimated by James in our text today. And I’m still not ready to ask Jesus to forgive me on that, either! I’m still feeling rather justified in my dragon breath words! I’ll ask Jesus to forgive me eventually, but not yet.
And so I tell you that this is a very inconvenient sermon for me. I feel like I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t fess up to the least pleasant words I have used in at least a couple of decades the same evening I sat down to write this sermon. So there you go. This sermon is coming to you from a place of spiritual need, not a place of spiritual victory.
So as one fire-breathing dragon to another, let’s talk about our flaming tongues, shall we?
No Neutral Words
I mean, what role have words played in your life? What are some memorable words you’ve heard? Maybe you remember some famous words, like Al Michaels’ famous “Do you believe in miracles?” call at the 1980 Olympics. Maybe you remember some famous speeches. Maybe it’s more personal. Has someone given you a meaningful compliment that has stuck with you? Or has someone said something painful that is still raw?
In the comic Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin says to his tiger friend, Hobbes, “I feel bad that I called Susie names and hurt her feelings. I’m sorry I did it.” After a pause, Hobbes suggests, “Maybe you should apologize to her.” Calvin ponders this for a while and replies, “I keep hoping there’s a less obvious solution.” Can you identify with Calvin?
Words matter. Words can cause pain, as Calvin feels he did to Susie. Words can bring healing, so Hobbes suggests apologizing. Words matter.
In fact, there’s a book called The Power of Words and the Wonder of God, and one of the contributors to that book makes an interesting point. The author says, “The book of Proverbs is, in ways, a treatise on talk. I would summarize it this way: words give life; words bring death—you choose. What does this mean? It means you have never spoken a neutral word in your life.”
“Your words have direction to them. If your words are moving in the life direction, they will be words of encouragement, hope, love, peace, unity, instruction, wisdom, and correction. But if your words are moving in a death direction, they will be words of anger, malice, slander, jealousy, gossip, division, contempt, racism, violence, judgment, and condemnation. Your words have direction to them.”
I find that interesting – “you have never spoken a neutral word in your life.” Every word we speak has a direction to it. They say a business is always growing or shrinking – it doesn’t stay static. Or think about this church. I can’t say, “We should stay at exactly the same number of members.” We’re either growing or shrinking. And our words are never neutral – they direct people toward life or death.
So have your words been cultivating life? Or have your words been cultivating death? I encourage you not to think big-picture in this. I encourage you to think about individual people. So here’s another way to think about this. Make a list – in your head or on paper – of the people with whom your words have cultivated life. And make another list of people with whom your words have cultivated death.
In case you missed it, here’s that summary again. “If your words are moving in the life direction, they will be words of encouragement, hope, love, peace, unity, instruction, wisdom, and correction. But if your words are moving in a death direction, they will be words of anger, malice, slander, jealousy, gossip, division, contempt, racism, violence, judgment, and condemnation.”
I didn’t see anything about insurance companies on that list, so I’m good, right? And like I said before, I wasn’t angry. I was enraged! And rage isn’t on that list, so I’m good, right? And my words were directed at a company rather than a person, so I’m good, right? Of course not. But that’s the justification process we’re all probably going through in our minds right now. “Oh yeah, Pastor Cody. I agree that words of anger, malice, slander, jealousy, gossip, division, contempt, racism, violence, judgment, and condemnation are bad. But my case is different, you see!”
I can’t read your mind, but I know a bunch of people hearing me are thinking that. We’re human. Justifying ourselves is something we’re innately talented at. I get it. I do it, too. But would our excuses hold up to the gaze of Jesus? Really? Would they? Usually not.
So, I’m owning up to the fact that my words were in the “death” category this past week. My words were fine for week one and week two, but not week three. I challenge you to face the reality of your own words as well. No excuses. We don’t need excuses, because Jesus is ready to forgive us and help us cultivate a new and right spirit within us.
Words Shape the Speaker
And our inner spirit is definitely on the line when it comes to our words. Because our words not only create life or death in those who hear us, our words also shape our inner spirit as well.
James tells us in our text today “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. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.” Our words steer our own ship! Our words steer our own hearts! Our words create a fount of living water within ourselves, or they create a cesspool of decay within ourselves!
The more we choose to speak angry words, the more angry our hearts become. The more we say, “Well I shouldn’t tell you this, but…” the more gossipy our hearts become. The more we speak judgmentally about other people, the more judgmental our hearts become.
And on the flip side, the more we choose to speak words of peace, the more peaceful our hearts become. The more we speak encouragement to others, the more encouraging our hearts become. The more hope we speak to others, the more hopeful our hearts become. The more lovingly we speak to others, the more loving our hearts become.
I’ve actually found that this principle goes one step further. Our internal monologue is also comprised of words. The more we stew on how someone annoys us, the more annoyed our hearts become. The more we think about all the things we “should have said” to really show someone, the more vindictive our hearts become. Our internal monologues matter, too. Those are words, too.
So your words – even your internal words – shape your heart. If you want to become less annoyed by someone, choose to list the ways they are a blessing or the ways you’re grateful that it’s not worse. If you are feeling hopeless, remind yourself or remind someone else of the hope that remains. It may not be hope that the situation will suddenly change, it may be hope that you’ll still be a child of God and still be surviving despite the situation. But that’s a different kind of hope, and it makes you more hopeful.
This is actually why singing is such an important part of our faith. When we sing words of hope, we become more hopeful. When we sing words of peace, we become more peaceful. When we sing words of faith, we become more faithful. If you want to try to change something within your heart, change what you’re listening to or change what you’re singing. That will help!
When I sat down to write this sermon after being so worked up by the insurance company, I chose to listen to very specific music while I wrote. I listened to Christian songs that were peaceful, slower, more mellow. It helped my soul calm down.
What we say out loud, what we say internally, and what we sing – all of those shape our own hearts!
How have your spoken words been shaping your heart? How have your internal words been shaping your heart? How has your music been shaping your heart?
Sisters and brothers, words matter. And they have a direction. We do not have neutral words. They either cultivate life or they cultivate death. There are certainly degrees on that, but all of our words point toward life or point toward death.
I encourage and challenge you to think through your individual relationships and individual situations to see if you are cultivating death with your words. Because it doesn’t take a lot of poison to make a cup of water dangerous. You might only have one or two relationships where your words are bringing death. But that’s still poisoning your own soul. Would you like it if I poured just a little bit of arsenic in your water? No! It’s still poison! I’ll take the arsenic-free water, please!
Our spoken words point to Jesus or point away from Jesus. Our internal words point to Jesus or point away from Jesus. Our music and our songs point to Jesus or point away from Jesus. Our words cultivate death or life. Choose life. I need to as well. Amen.