Wednesday, July 18, 2012

James 3:1-12

"Tongue Tamers"
MasterPiece Church
15 July 2012

 We live in a crazy and whacked out world where not everything adds up. Some things are downright ridiculous.

For example:
  • Why are there interstate highways in Hawaii? 
  • Why are there flotation devices under plane seats instead of parachutes? 
  • Why do they put braille dots on the keypad at the drive-up ATM? 
  • Why is it called “common sense” when it’s so uncommon and rare? 
  • Why is it that bullets ricochet off Superman’s chest but he always ducks when the empty gun is thrown at him? 
  • Why did they call it a civil war?
  • Why is it that the small cans of tuna are sometimes cheaper per pound than the larger cans of the same variety?
And to the list of absurdities James would add:
“Sometimes the tongue praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. 10 And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right!” ~ James 3:9-10 (NLT)
That is, this doesn’t add up. It’s outrageously ridiculous.

In our text this morning, James 3:1-12, the apostle is addressing the whole issue of the tongue -- or THE MOUTH.

Now remember, James is interested in helping his readers discover wisdom and what genuine practical religion looks like. And in his letter, right up there with caring for the poor is an emphasis on right speaking or tongue taming.

CONSISTENT SPEECH IS AN IMPORTANT ASPECT OF GENUINE FAITH. This is the key point this morning. This is what James is trying to get across to his readers -- and in the process of doing so he makes five observation on how the tongue works.

The first is this -- TEACHING IS DANGEROUS.

And really, my sense of what James is saying here in the third chapter is that he mostly has teachers in mind -- at least first of all. Yes, all of this definitely applicable to everyone – but it is especially applicable to teachers in the church – for they are the one’s who talk the most.

James 3:1 (NLT) --
“Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged by more strictly...”
People who teach are in positions of authority and influence -- and with that authority and influence comes greater responsibility. We will be held responsible for how we influence people – carelessly or otherwise.

My parents will confirm that I was a bit of a squirmy and distracted student as a child. And this was before the advent of the ritalin era. And apparently my second grade teacher, who had had more than enough of me, told my mother in a parent-teacher conference that she didn’t like me and that I wasn’t very smart.

I think my mother, who is also a teacher, went ballistic – well at least as ballistic as she got. Both of my parents are very level-headed -- not given to fits of rage or drama.

But those are cutting words to hear that your child would never amount to anything -- even if it’s only in the 2nd grade classroom.

Now, fortunately my mother was sharp enough to object and I think that she held that teacher’s feet to the fire for the rest of the year. But what if she had believed her? What about other parents who have believed such authorities? What about other children who believe such words when they just sorta slip out?

What we say can really do major damage. Now carry that out to the whole realm of biblical teaching. What happens if someone spouts theory as though it were fact? Or if someone uses their influential words to manipulate others to take advantage of them?

That’s been the whole issue of the sexual abuse by clergy in a number of groups. We as leaders or teachers are in unique positions of responsibility -- our words are at some level authoritative -- potential for doing harm is a lot greater.

So James says – “Don’t rush into teaching... just because you know that your words hold more weight. The fact is that the whole thing will easily blow up in your face on judgment day.”

Teaching is as dangerous as bomb making – so don’t exalt yourself through teaching.

Of course, some people are called to teach – and if you are so called – you better not be doing something else – just enter into it humbly, knowing that your potential for doing harm is as great as your potential for doing good -- and that in whatever you do you are accountable to God.


Vs. 2 --
“Indeed, we all make many mistakes. For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect (“reached full maturity” -- CEB) and could also control ourselves in every other way.”
There is actually some colorful language in the original Greek – stuff about bridling – it conjures up the image of the horse’s bridle. And the NLT here is on the mark in simply rendering it as “control” -- for the bridle is used as a control tool. But this comes out even stronger in the CEB rendering of vs. 2 -- “Like a bridled horse, they can control themselves entirely.”

James’ point is that if you are not in control of your words – if you are not able to guard what you say – well, that’s probably an indicator of deeper problems. An uncontrolled tongue suggests that you are out of control in other areas, too.

But the converse is also true. A controlled tongue suggests a controlled life – a life of perfection – or maturity and wisdom -- a Jesus life!

Remember the broader context of James is a discussion of wisdom. And so he is saying that the person who has perfected wisdom has control of his mouth.

Hilary of Arles (5th century bishop in what is now France): “Perfection consists of righteousness, and silence is the way to achieve it. This is why James connects perfection with keeping one’s mouth shut.”

In a nutshell – James is repeating what he said in chapter one -- don’t be too quick to talk -- or in this era of internet and texting we might reframe it -- don’t be too quick to type.
  • James 1:19 (NLT) -- “My dear brothers and sisters, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” 
  • Proverbs 21:23 (NLT) -- “If you keep your mouth shut, you will stay out of trouble.” 
  • Bruce Barton, a former US Congressman who died in the 1940’s and who wrote motivational books, said, "For good or ill, your conversation is your advertisement. Every time you open your mouth you let men look into your mind."
There are people who talk too much –
  • People who have to give their opinion about EVERYTHING – 
  • Trolls who speak just to see what kind of reaction they can get. You know the internet wisdom, “Don’t feed the trolls.” 
  • People who are snarky or argumentative – 
  • People who talk fast to try and impress you with their knowledge – 
such people lack depth -- emotional, intellectual, and most importantly -- spiritual.

So if you want to develop depth in your life – and I suspect that you do -- one of the areas which you need to attend to is your mouth – your words. And don’t just blow this off by saying “That’s just the way I am, I was a born talker...”

Now of course, our culture encourages people to speak their minds – to sound off – to let it all come out – to be yourself.

Everyone has their right to an opinion and some people take that to mean that all opinions are of equal value and that everyone should therefore give their opinion about every little thing.

I know how this works because I tend to be opinionated. And some of us have something to say about everything. Don’t we drive the rest of you nuts? Well, we’re driving ourselves nuts too – when we talk so much and offer our opinions so freely – we have no time to digest anything and to develop depth – to actually hear what God might be saying in a given situation.

So we’ve got to move in a way that we can get control of our speech -- or better put, to allow God to get control of our speech -- that is, if we really want to have spiritual depth in our lives.

Thirdly, SOME THINGS HAVE AN EFFECT DISPROPORTIONATE TO THEIR SIZE – INCLUDING THE TONGUE. And this is for those who think – hey, it’s just my mouth – it’s just one little thing – Sure it’s not perfect – but aren’t you making a bigger deal out of this than you ought?

James says – don’t be fooled there are some very small things which have a very big impact – e.g.
  • the horse’s bit – that little thing in his mouth steers the whole big horse.
  • Or what about the rudder on a mighty ship? It’s just a small thing in the back that changes the direction of the whole vessel.
  • And then there is the spark in a dry forest – talk about impact.
  • All you have to do is to softly mention one word while you’re standing in the TSA line. One word will do it -- b-o-m-b.
An 18 year old man walking with three friends on the way to McDonalds -- on 51st Ave -- a block from our house -- was shot and killed Monday night.

Word on the street is that it all started the night before when he and the shooter had a confrontation -- and exchanged words. Whether that is accurate -- I couldn’t say -- but that is often how those things play out.

I told you a few weeks ago about my former administrative assistant -- Karole -- who used to screen my phone calls. And she did it well -- till the guy called and wanted to talk with the head hog at the trough! (You can go back and read the July 1st sermon if you want the details of that.)

I also put her in charge of the security alarm in the church building. And she did that well, too.

I was reminded this week of when we tried to program the alarm system in our fancy new $2.3 million church building in Turlock, California. Karole was entering alarm codes into the system so that people could get in and out of the building.

One of the codes she entered for someone was what the alarm company calls “a magic number.” Unfortunately, they had neglected to tell us about these “magic numbers.”

But in a nutshell when you enter this magic number combination into the alarm system it signals the alarm company that there is an armed robbery in progress with hostages -- a signal which they apparently take VERY seriously. Can you see where this is going?

So Karole inadvertently used one of those little magic number combinations as an access code – and as soon as she punched those little magic numbers into the pad it set the alarm off in silent mode. That is, she didn’t know that she had triggered anything – until about five minutes later.

There was a sudden cop convention in the parking lot. The building was surrounded by the Turlock police, the university police (we were a block from campus), Stanislaus County Deputy Sheriffs, the CHP, the FBI, the SWAT team already in the area for training with the bomb squad -- which also showed up, along with US Marshals who overherd the call on the radio, the National Guard, he Secret Service, Homeland Security, CIA, NCIS, TSA, RCMP, Interpol... You name it, they all showed up.

And in a grand coordinated effort just like on TV they all barged into her office, guns drawn, yelling, smoke grenades... scaring the daylights out of poor Karole -- who was not arrested.

Now, I wasn’t there because I was out visiting sick people in the hospital -- or something else quite pastoral. But I know that this must have happened -- exactly as she told it -- and finding humor in the whole thing.

All she had done was punch in two little digits. Two simple digits had the power to declare a national emergency. And the thing is that we were totally oblivious to their existence.

But once we learned that something so small could make such a big deal we changed how we entered the alarm codes.

And that’s wants James wants HIS readers to do – to realize that sometimes the small things make a big difference – especially in regard to our tongues – and that we should make an effort to tame them.

I mean, you can do some pretty major damage with just a few words – Vss. 3-6
We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. 4 And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong. 5 In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches.

But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. 6 And the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself.
And this leads us to right into #4 – FACE THE FACTS – OUR TONGUES ARE OUT OF CONTROL.

Look at vss. 7-8 with me.
People can tame all kinds of animals and birds and reptiles and fish, [8] but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison...
Isn’t this ironic – we control great big animals like lions and tigers and elephants – but control of the tongue seems totally beyond us.

“It’s restless and evil...” (vs. 8) “– full of deadly poison.”

Do you get the idea that James isn’t all that much of an optimist?

Face the facts – for most of us this is a big big problem – we say things – and then think – ouch – I didn’t really mean to say that – at least not that way – but the damage is done. It can’t be taken back.

A young Jewish man had bad mouthed the local rabbi -- but felt badly about it so he later went to the rabbi and apologized.

What can I do to make it better, he asked?

The rabbi said – take this feather pillow, slice it open, and go beat it against the ground in the town square. Then come see me.

So the man did exactly as he was told –- went to the town square, sliced open a feather pillow and beat it against the ground -- thinking it was some kind of redemptive ritual.

He then returned to the rabbi with the empty pillow casing.

“What next, rabbi?”

"Go back to the town square, collect all of the feathers, and put them back into the pillow casing."

"But I can’t do that, the man objected," by now they’ve blown all over the city.

The rabbi with a twinkle in his eye just grinned. He didn’t say a thing. And he sent the man home.

This is the reality -- our tongues are out of control – and they’re doing irreparable damage to others and our own souls.

Which leads us right back to where we began -- OUT OF CONTROL TONGUES ARE A GREAT CONTRADICTION (#5) It’s ridiculous – it doesn’t add up – It shouldn’t be this way.

Verse 9 –
“Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God.”
Isn’t that silly – that out of the same mouth can come praise for God the creator and then bad mouthing of the people who are the pinnacle of the creation.

Blessings and curses flow from the same source – This is mind boggling – it suggests that something is totally out of whack.

For example, James 3:11-12 (NLT) –
“Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? 12 Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring.”
No way – this is not the way things are designed to operate.

I think of the old cartoon gag where the man in the house is working on his plumbing – a real do-it-yourselfer.  He finishes his task – turns on the water in the sink to see how it flows. Nothing happens – so he turns on the overhead light fixture so he can see better and suddenly there is water flowing from the light bulbs.

It’s pretty silly – It’s not the way things are suppose to work.  And it’s this same cartoonish sense that James is using here in the third chapter.

Look at how silly this is.

Is there any hope? Isn’t there some way that we can fix the trouble with the tongue? Can we tame the tongue?

It’s kind of interesting that James does not offer any kind of fix to his readers -- other than awareness.

I think that this is one of the reasons that Martin Luther didn’t like the book of James. If old Marty were writing this, Luther would get to this point and launch into a sermon on the undeserved grace and mercy that is ours in Christ Jesus.

"You’ve heard the bad news," he’d say, "now let me tell you the good news. Through the cross – the resurrection – we have forgiveness and a fresh start" -- all the things that St Paul talks of and emphasizes in his letters. But James apart from verse 1 in chapter 1 and verse 1 in chapter 2 James doesn’t even mention the name of Jesus.

No, his objectives are a little different. He wants us to stew on the seriousness of the situation for awhile --  to ponder the power the depravity of our speech.

Now, next Sunday he’s going to say something more about acquiring wisdom and drawing near to God – all as a part of the solution – but at this point – he just wants us to noodle on the magnitude of the problem.

There’s a great little poem by anonymous that drives home James’ point here in chapter 3.
The boneless tongue,
so small and weak,
Can crush and kill,
declared the Greek.
The tongue destroys
a greater hoard,
the Turk asserts,
than does the sword.

A Persian proverb wisely saith,
A lengthy tongue-an early death;
Or sometimes takes this form instead,
Don’t let your tongue
cut off your head.

The tongue can speak
a word of speed,
the Chinese say,
outstrips the steed;
While Arab sages this impart,
the tongue’s great storehouse is the heart.

From Hebrew with this
maxim sprung,
though feet should slip,
never let the tongue.
The sacred writer crowns the whole,
Who keeps his tongue doth keep his soul.
Unless otherwise noted all scripture is quoted from the New Living Translation, ©1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation.

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