Trinity 15 - Taming the Lion

A sermon preached by the Rev'd Martin Breadmore at St George's Campden Hill on 16 September 2012

There was once a lady on a train with her baby.  A man came in to the same compartment.  He looked at the baby and said, ‘That is the ugliest baby I have ever seen’.  And he started to laugh uncontrollably.  He got off at the next station.  Another man got on and came and sat in the same compartment.  There, he found the lady who was obviously very upset.  He tried to get her to say what the matter was, but she couldn’t speak because she was crying so much.  So, at the next station, he leapt out of the carriage, ran to a shop, and just managed to get back on to the train as it pulled out.  ‘There, there’, he said, ‘please don’t cry.  Here I’ve bought you a drink and some tissues.  And look, I’ve even bought a banana for your monkey’!

The tongue has great power – to encourage and build people up, or to criticise and humiliate them.  James identifies a godly use of the tongue as one of the three major signs that a person has been born through the word of truth.  The other marks are 1. A life of outgoing concern for the needy and 2. A lifestyle committed to holiness.  James, who is almost certainly the brother of Jesus, wrote this letter to poor Jewish Christians, possibly as early as 48AD.  He writes to them as poor people who were oppressed and taken advantage of by wealthy landlords.  James encourages them to meet such trials with steadfast endurance so that they may reach full Christian maturity and their reward; ‘the crown of life’ may be secured.  But James’ other reason for writing is one that speaks clearly to us today.  He was very concerned about the ways of the world getting into the church, hence this passage on the use of the tongue in chapter 3.
James begins in v.1 with a particular warning about the responsibilities of biblical teachers.  ‘Not many of you should presume to be teachers’ he says.  Such a great responsibility goes hand in hand with the fact that such people will be judged more strictly.  All of us who have this role need to bear this in mind as we prepare to engage with people in a teaching role – not just those who preach – but includes home group leaders, children and young peoples leaders – anyone who is in an official position of explaining the bible to anyone else.  But there is more to it than that. Our heavenly Father made us his children by the powerful word he addressed to us, ‘the word of truth’ (1:18).  As his children we should be marked out by our careful, controlled speech (1:26).  James recognises that as Christians, ‘we all make many mistakes’ when it comes to speaking.  If we think about it, sins of speech are probably the most prominent – the hasty word, the untruthful statement, the sly suggestion, harmful gossip, innuendo, impurity.  Recognise power of the tongue in our own lives.  James answers the question why the tongue is so important for us as Christians.  He has four things to say.

1. The tongue controls us. 
In v 3-5a, James makes the positive point that control of the tongue leads to a master-control of our lives and ourselves.  His two illustrations show this.  The bit a comparatively tiny thing controls and directs the horse and all its powerful movements.  Similarly the rudder of a ship, though comparatively small is the key to control and direction.  James sees the tongue in the light of these illustrations, for he says that the tongue is a small part of us and yet it boasts a great deal.  The ‘boasts’ of the bit and the rudder are not idle or hollow; they really do master the horse and the storm.  So too the tongue; ‘It can make huge claims – and substantiates them too!  The tongue is the key factor in controlled living.  We ask ourselves how we are to control the powerful forces within us that drive us into sin, and James replies, do we control our tongues?  Are we the masters of the master key?  Such a thought might be surprising to us. Camberley - it is a bit like the light switches in the welcome area.  Each individual switch controls each light or set of lights.  But above that panel there is a red master switch.  If you control the master switch, you control all the lights – you are lord of the switches.  Similarly, it is the person who controls the tongue that is ‘able to keep his whole body in check’ (v.2). 

2. The tongue is a destructive power. 
Verses 5-6 show just how the tongue is an actual power for evil.  Tiny as the spark is, once it is fanned into flame and the flames take hold, then it will keep on spreading till all is ablaze.  Such is the potential for the tongue to spread evil.  Proverbs 16:27 likens the speech of a fool to ‘a scorching fire’.  The tongue’s influence is enormous because it ‘corrupts the whole person’ which is in direct contrast with the way of God.  The tongue is involved so fundamentally in all our thoughts, imaginings, longings, and plans.  Although he does not elaborate, James undoubtedly has in mind sins of speech such as; thoughtless chattering, lying, arrogant boasting, and gossiping.  Think for a moment what enormous and often irreversible harm can be caused by rumour.  Rumour can be harder to stop than a forest fire.  Many will recognise the childhood poem ‘sticks and bones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’.  But the truth is the reverse of the matter.  The wounds caused by sticks and bones heal; the wounds caused by words sometimes never heal.

So far James has shown us what good follows from a controlled tongue; he followed this up with the alarming harm brought about by an uncontrolled tongue.

3. The tongue is humanly untameable. 
The creator God gave to men and woman the joint task of subduing the whole creation (Gen 1:26).  In obedience to this humans are exercising their God-given dominion over the animal kingdom, for good and ill.  But, by contrast, James writes ‘no man can tame the tongue – a restless evil’ (8).  J B Phillips interprets this restlessness as ‘always liable to break out’, as if it were an untamed beast ready to turn to savage at any moment.  Once again the bible speaks into our experience.  As we look back into the past I guess we can identify many times when we wish the words we used had remained unsaid.  We need to learn from these verses the constant need for watchfulness in case this impulsive beast should suddenly rouse itself to our shame and hurt.  But there is more than this here, for James only says that the tongue is untameable by man.  We need to come to our maker and ask that by his Spirit he would enable us to tame the lion.  As Augustine says of this verse ‘…he does not say that no-one can tame the tongue, but no-one of men; so that when it is tamed we confess that this is brought about by the pity, the help, the grace of God’.

4. The tongue is a spiritual thermometer.
The tongue is often inconsistent.  It is appalling that the same instrument is used to bless the ‘Lord and Father’ and ‘to curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God’.  This results in us blessing and cursing the same thing, the image of God.  Clearly, James says, ‘this should not be’.  All of us can make a new start here.  This is not beyond us.  James is concerned here about the way that we speak inwardly about each other, the way we speak to someone else about a brother or sister, the way we speak to one another.  If we are serious about the word of God we can start here with a new respect for the image of God seen in the members of our family here at St George’s. 
James indicates that our speech is a spiritual thermometer, for it reveals what is in the heart.  Jesus warns us in the gospels ‘I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgement for every careless word they have spoken.  For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned’ (Matt 12:36-37).  The person who is double and inconsistent with regard to the things of God in his heart will be double and inconsistent in his speech.  A pure heart and impure speech don’t go together.  James shows this with his next three questions, all of which expect the answer ‘No’.  A fig must have a fig tree as its source, a grape can only come from a vine, an olive from an olive tree; salt water has a salt source; sweet water a sweet source; bitter words a bitter heart; critical words a critical spirit; defamatory, unloving speech issues from a heart where the love of Jesus is a stranger. 

We need to pay much more attention to what we say – probably that will mean thinking before we speak – James encourages us to be slow to speak and quick to listen – what good advice.  I always want to chip in with my 2-penny worth – but that is not always the best thing to do.

The Quakers are not renowned for saying much at all, especially in their church services.  But they have a rule of thumb about the way they try to use words when speaking about someone else.  They ask themselves: Is it true?  Is it kind?  Is it necessary?  Perhaps they are questions that we could bear in mind as we allow God’s word to soak into us this morning.  Whatever we use to monitor our speech, let us do so prayerfully, always asking God to renew the use of our tongues by his Spirit.  
Might be aware of past hurts that still plague us – either we are carrying around the scars and wounds of what others have said to us – the memory can be very active in remembering these – even over many years.  Perhaps others of us can remember when we said something wrong to someone else and we are still plagued by that memory form time to time.  We should not be burden by these things – we have all got it wrong – the father who can tame the tongue longs to speak words of forgiveness directly into our hearts – to bring release and freedom.  Also we should come to him to seek his taming grace – that we place ourselves before him – open to allow him to do some heart surgery on us in his loving and gentle way.
Holland Park Benefice