“TAMING THE TONGUE”

JAMES 3:1-12

AUGUST 19, 2012

 

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A number of years ago I had to under go a routine surgical procedure, and when I was well on the road to recovery my daughter sent me an e-mail, and she included a document titled "Things You Don't Want to Hear During Surgery."  I'll read a few of them.  Also, if you are undergoing surgery soon, you might want to cover your ears.  Again, these are things you don't want to hear during surgery.

 

            "Better save that.  We'll need it for the autopsy."

            "Someone call the janitor.  We're going to need a mop."

            "What a minute.  If this is his spleen then what's that?"

            "Oops!  Hey, has anyone survived 500 ml of this stuff before?"

            "She's gonna blow!  Everybody take cover!"

            "That's cool.  Now can you make his leg twitch?"

 

            We definitely do not want to hear those words during surgery, but let me share some words even more troubling.  At least they are to me.  The first words in our text today scare the living daylights out of me.  Listen to them.

 

            Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

 

            James is talking about teachers in the church, teaching elders, pastors, not public or private school teachers, so Jane Boulter, Jim Karasek, and Jeff and Paula Yoakim can breath a sigh of relief.  But I can't.  Words like that make me consider early retirement.  Knowing I will be judged with a greater strictness gives me pause.  Teachers and preachers are vendors of words and words are very powerful.  Teachers and preachers, however, are not the only ones who use words.  We all do, and James knew that the health of a church and the health of a family and the health of a business are all at stake because of words.  In light of this, James offers some counsel concerning the use of words and let's look at today's passage as a forerunner to that old Clint Eastwood movie, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. 

            Let's begin with the good.  Even though James mostly has bad things to say about the use of the tongue, he also says some positive things as well.  He reminds us how the tongue is capable of great things specifically the ability to praise God and to bless others, and we have all experienced the tongue fashioning words that build us up and lift our spirits.  Words like ...

 

            "I love you."

            "I forgive you."

            "I'm sorry."

            "You can do it."

            "I believe in you."

 

            Words like this lift, inspire and instill hope.

            Winston Churchill, in the darkest days of the battle for Britain, would go on the radio and with the force of his words breathe hope and courage into the hearts of British men and women.  Words.  Just words.  Good words. 

            That's the good.  Now for the bad.  Note the second half of verse 5.

 

            How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire.

 

            September 25, 1970 was our wedding night, and after the wedding we headed to the Pierpont Inn in Ventura, California, a ninety minute drive, to spend our first night together as a married couple.  We almost didn't make it.  A huge fire had broken out and had swept through portions of Los Angeles and Ventura Counties.  Authorities shut down Highway 101 minutes after we passed.  When driving near the site of the fire, two foot fire balls rolled across the highway, some of them hitting our car.  I'm not sure how the fire started.  Maybe someone flicked a cigarette out a window.  Just a small flame but that flame set two counties ablaze.

            Remember the childhood saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?"  Who taught us that?  Those words are utter nonsense.  Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words, words, can break the spirit.

            In fact, some of us here have invisible scars because of certain words spoken to us ... unkind words ... mean words.  We are convinced we are too tall or too short or our nose is too flat or our ears too big, or our voice too loud all because of words. 

            Some words spoken in a country church in Croatia, adversely affected the history of the former nation known as Yugoslavia.  One day near the beginning of the twentieth century, an altar boy was helping the village priest celebrate Mass.  In the middle of Mass, the boy accidentally dropped the glass cruet of wine.  It smashed to pieces on the marble floor.  The priest slapped the boy, and said to him, "Leave the altar and never come back!"

            He did not come back.  He grew up to be Tito, the communist leader of Yugoslavia after World War II.  He never returned to the church.

            The biblical commentator William Barclay says there are two ways the tongue is like a forest fire.  One, it is wide ranging, and two, it is uncontrollable.  Barclay reminds us that once a word is spoken it's nearly impossible to get it back.

            A Jewish folk tale tells of a man who went through a small community slandering the town's rabbi.  One day the man realized his sin and in remorse went to the rabbi and asked for forgiveness.  The rabbi told him to go home, cut open a feather pillow, and scatter the feathers to the wind.  He did so and returned to the rabbi.  "Am I now forgiven?" asked the man.

            The rabbi replied.  "Almost.  Now, go gather all the feathers."

            "But that's impossible," the man protested.  "The wind has already scattered them."

            "Precisely, and so it is with words" the rabbi answered.

            And that leads us to the third adjective.  The use of our tongues can be good, it can be bad, and thirdly the use of our tongue can be downright ugly.  Verse 8.

 

            No one can tame the tongue - a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing.  My brothers and sisters, this out not to be so.  Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?  Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives or a grapevine figs?  No more can salt water yield fresh.

 

            Did you catch the point James is trying to make here?  He's saying the tongue is a window into our soul and it often reveals something that isn't very pretty.

            Few things, for a Christian, are as ugly, as hard to face, as to what the tongue reveals about our inner life.  The tongue often reveals a dark, oozing sludge within us that as yet has not been transformed by the presence of Christ, and that is ugly to behold.

            So what do we do with this little muscle in our mouth that James says can be as dangerous as a spark in a dry forest?  Let me suggest three words.

            The first is surrender.  Look with me at verses seven and eight. 

 

            For every species of beast and bird, or reptile and sea creature, can be tamed, and has been tamed by the human species, but not one can tame the tongue - a restless evil filled with poison.

 

            James may be indulging a little hyperbole here.  I don't think we have tamed every single reptile and beast and living creature, but that is missing the point.  We have tamed some pretty wild creatures ... bears, lions, elephants, Flippers and Shamus, but no one can tame his or her tongue.  That's why the most unimaginable things come out of our mouths.  That's why we can praise God one minute and cut someone down with gossip the next minute.

            So what do we do?  Well, the answer rests in the last verse where James asks the question, "Can a fig tree yield olives or a grapevine figs?"  Of course, not!  Fig trees only yield figs.  Olive trees only yield olives.  Grapevines only yield grapes.  That is to say, what's on the outside will always be determined by what's on the inside.  You see, the tongue is a job for Jesus.  Until we give our tongues to him, the battle is hopeless, it's lost.  But once we surrender to him, there are a couple of things we can do to cage it while he tames it.

            That brings us to our next word, simplicity ... meaning the economy of words mixed with the quality of thought.

            I'm not sure they still make Prell shampoo.  Does anyone know if they still make it?  My mother bought it by the case.  It was our "go to" family shampoo.  It may no longer be on the shelves, but I still remember their slogan.  Remember it?  They used two words to advertise Prell, well three if we count the "and."  They advertised Prell as "concentrated and richer."  We need to remember that because our chances of blowing it are directly proportional to the time we spend wagging our tongues.

            The final word is swallow.  Face it.  Some of us here are a real challenge to others.  Why?  Because we seldom, seldom, swallow our words.  If we think it, we say it.  We could make others' lives so much more enjoyable if we swallowed our words from time to time, if we gave others time to speak, and didn't have to chime in on every conversation.  Some of us need to learn to keep swallowing our words until a couple of others have an opportunity to speak.

            Learning how to swallow words, also gives us time to ask questions like are these words accurate or exaggerated?  Kind or cutting?  Wholesome or vile?  Necessary or needless?  Grateful or complaining?  If they are not what we want to say then we can just swallow them.

            So, how do we tame our tongue?  We cage it while Christ tames it.  We simplify our speech and swallow before speaking while Jesus works on taming the beast.

            Were any of you still awake during the Tito story?  Well, about the same time, another altar boy was assisting a priest during Mass at St. Mary's Cathedral in Peoria, Illinois.  This boy also dropped a glass cruet of wine.  Years later he wrote about that experience.  Here's what he wrote,

 

            There is not an atomic explosion that can equal the intensity of decibels in the noise and explosive force of a wine cruet falling on a marble floor of a cathedral in the presence of a bishop.  I was frightened to death.

 

            The celebrant at mass that morning was Bishop John Spaulding, and when that cruet broke, the bishop looked at the boy and with a warm twinkle in his eye said to him, "Someday, you will be just as I am."

            And that came to pass.  That altar boy grew up to be one of the church's most eloquent spokespersons.  He wrote more than fifty books.  During the 1950's he had the first major religious television program.  It was enormously popular and was called, "Life is Worth Living."  Some of you are old enough to remember the show and the man.  That altar boy in Peoria, Illinois became Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

            What a difference the tongue can make.  Amen.