Sermon: "Watch Your Mouth"

Fifth in a series on the book of James,
Delivered August 12, 2001 by Rev. George Antonakos.
Other sermons in this series - 1 / 2 / 3 / 5 / 6 / 7 / 8

Theme: A disciplined tongue - careful speech.

Sermon Text: James 3:1-12

The New Testament lesson today is taken from James, Chapter 3, verses 1-12. This is a familiar text to many and it's one of those texts that seems to convicted us all. It seems that no one escapes the challenge of James today and so, let us listen to what he has to say about taming the tongue.

"Not many of you should presume to be teachers my brothers because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. When we put bits in the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example, although they are so large and driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder, wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue is also a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire and as itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil full of deadly poison. With the tongue, we praise our Lord and father and with it we curse man who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth comes praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and saltwater flow from the same spring? My brothers can a fig tree bear olives or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water."

I am indebted today for a number of the remarks that I will share with you to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, who wrote a book called, "Words that Hurt and Words that Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well". And this morning, when we had the screen up, the title slide went on and it said, "Watch your mouth", and then it had my name underneath of it. I looked at it and I thought, yeah, that works. I mean, that is exactly what James says in Verse 1 of this chapter. "Watch your mouth, preacher." Watch out those of you who think that you are supposed to be a teacher, because you will encourage stricter judgment and I think about the times in my ministry where I have thought, "Lord, what an awful thing to be standing here and say something that would cause the church to divert off of the path or would cause trouble or strife," and I just think it is a very risky thing to be using words as a part of one's calling. And so that is true for teachers and those who would teach in the church, but it's also true for all of us, because God has given us such an incredible power and we will talk about that in a moment.

But lets start with this idea. Let's say that I had a package for you today. And before you open the package I was going to describe the contents and then after I describe the contents you would then determine whether or not you would want to open it. This is what is in the package. It has the power of life and death. It gets out of control very easily. It causes things around us to get out of control. It's linked to hell itself. It creates many problems. What's in this package cannot be tamed, it can be contained. It's evil by nature. It can deliver death-dealing poison. It can seem peaceful and sweet one moment, but bitter and harmful the next moment. If I were to give you that package and told you all the things that were in it, would you be willing to open it? I think most of us wouldn't. And yet, every one of those descriptions James uses to teach about the powerful and deadly nature of our tongue, of what we say, of how we speak. Now I want you to consider this next question carefully and honestly. Do you think that you could go 24 hours, just one day, without saying any unkind words to or about anybody? I am sure there are a variety of responses. I am not going to ask for a show of hands. But let me say this, if you can't say yes to that question, then you have to admit that there is a serious problem. Because if a person cannot go 24 hours without a cigarette, we would say they were addicted to nicotine. And if they can't go 24 hours without a drink of alcohol, we would say they are addicted to alcohol. And so if we can't go 24 hours without speaking an unkind word to or about anybody, we have lost control of the power of our speech. Someone might ask, "Well is it fair to compare those kinds of addictions? Isn't the harm done just different? Well think about it for a minute. In your own experience, unless you or someone that you dearly love has been subjected to terrible physical violence, the chances are the worse pains that you have ever suffered have come from cruel words, ego destroying criticism, excessive anger, sarcasm, public and private humiliation, hurtful nicknames, betrayal of secrets, rumors, and malicious gossip. There is no area of life in which most of us systematically violate the golden rule. The golden rule ought to apply as much to what we say as to what we do unto others, right? If you were to walk into a room and learn that you were the subject of conversation, what would you least like to hear people talking about? Probably your character flaws and the details of your life. And yet when we get together and talk to people and the conversation turns to those who are absent, what do we usually talk about? Their character flaws and the details of their social life. You say, "I don't do that." And that's great if it is true, but I want to give you now a 48-hour test, not a 24-hour test. Take a piece of paper and pencil around with you for the next 48 hours, and note every time you start to talk about someone who is not present. Every time you say something negative about someone who is not present. And also note, when others do the same. And then note whether or not you find yourself reacting by asking for more information or by changing the subject. Now you can't say that over the next 48 hours I am going to be unusually kind. You've got to be your same old self in order for the test to work. And most people who do this are unpleasantly surprised. Now of course we can wound not just with words about those who are not present, we can wound with words directly to people who are present and unfortunately that happens all too often. I mean has there ever been a parent or a child who has expressed anger disproportionate to an offense? We are all guilty. So James is very clear. He says a mature Christian is a person who is growing and I say growing, because it is a process. In the ability to control and discipline what they say to and about others. And he adds in a very humble way, that it's even a problem for him, one of the pillars of the church. He says, we all stumble in many ways. He includes himself. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is perfect and able to keep his whole body in check. Some commentators see this verse as hypothetical, almost like James is wistfully saying, "Now, if we could find a person who never would stray in what they say, now that would be a perfect Christian." But such a person does not exist. Why does James emphasize control? The importance of control of our tongue. Well, through the rest of the text, it seems like for 3 reasons. Because our words are so powerful, because our words are so untamable and because our words can be so poisonous.

To emphasize how powerful the tongue can be, James uses 3 analogies. First, he talks about a bridle in the mouth of a horse, which seems to allude to speech that should be restrained. And then he speaks about an analogy of a rudder to a large ship and he says, likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. And so it's like he is alluding to boastful speech that we should refrain from. And then he uses the analogy of a spark to a forest fire, which indicates how damaging words can be. So the first thing he says is that the tongue wields great power and so it ought to be controlled. And many times we irresponsibly use words because we think that the damage inflicted is less than hitting someone. However, the scripture in the Old Testament refers to words as arrows. And you ask, "Why an arrow?" Because if a person takes a sword out of the sheath and goes to kill somebody and the person begs for mercy, it can be returned. But an arrow, once shot, can't be returned. Those words are weapons. They are powerful. They can wound and kill and Jesus said, "You have heard it said to you, that you shall not commit murder, but I say to you that if you say to your brother, you fool. You are libel to hell fire." Jesus was very clear that words are both punishable and murderous and he goes on to teach that by every word we shall be judged. That's a rather chilling thought. How powerful words are. We are the only creatures of God who can speak. And just as God created and the worlds were, we in the image of God have been able to speak and create by our speech, both for good or for ill.

I remember once reading the book, Charlotte's Web, to my son. And I had never read the book before reading it to him. And so we were kind of reading it together when he was little. Most of us know this story about Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider and we got to the place where Charlotte died near the end of the book and I found myself getting choked up as I was reading it to him. And I thought to myself, wait a minute, there are no talking spiders, there are no talking pigs, there are no spiders that can create words in their webs. What happened? The author by using words has created that which is not. So that it deeply touches our emotions. So if I tell you about a third party that you have never met, and I give you my biased opinion, replete with all my projections and all my filters. I have created, not that person. I have created a character of that person. To further underscore this I often am struck in counseling situations, when I have spoken to one person in a struggle, whether it is a spouse in a spousal relationship or family relationship, you speak to one person in the system and you get an impression of others and then you meet that person and sometimes you expect to meet somebody with 2 heads, and they only have 1. And you get to know them and it's like, wait a minute I didn't get that sense at all from this person. So we have incredible power to shape with our words.

James goes on to talk about the damage that the tongue can inflict and he uses the illustration of a forest fire, set on fire by a spark and in verse 6 in particular is very, very difficult to understand. Some commentators believe that the tongue is a fire stops with that sentence and then the next whole thing is the next sentence. It's a world of evil, among the parts of the body corrupts the whole person. Sets the whole course of his life on fire. Itself is set on fire by hell. This is hard to interpret, but the gist of it is this, I think, as I have studied this, that the tongue is like an unattended campfire in a forest. The forest is beautiful and the forest is peaceful. Just like many of us appear from day to day. But let the winds of irritation blow on that campfire, and it sparks and it sets off and its like our whole body can be corrupted by the very flames of hell itself. Have you ever heard the terms, "walking on eggshells or fighting words?" You know what I am talking about. It's that power that the tongue has just totally caused everything to go and explode.

The second thing that James said besides being so powerful is that the tongue is so untamable. No one can tame it. That is exactly what it says. "No person can tame the tongue." It underscores how much we need Gods help in this whole area of our life. And just to try to drive it home, I will just use two words that maybe can make a connection with how untamable it is. The words "juicy gossip!" When you have juicy gossip in your head, how hard it can be to restrain yourself. If I said, "Janet is such a terrific person, there is just one thing that really bothers me though. Oh, never mind, never mind. Just forget I ever said anything." You know you can just start to hear the untamability of all of that. And it's untamable from both sides. Sometimes we ask for more information, sometimes we just can't help but give information. And the thing that is so hellish about all of it is, that I think that the root of why it is so hard to control our tongue sometimes in those kinds of cases, is that it is so filled with pride, we are proud about being in the know about something and then having the power to be able to give knowledge to other people, even though we should have restrained ourselves. And if we egg people on when they tip their hand, we're almost as guilty. And so we need Gods help. We need the Lords strength to control us, just as the Psalmist said, "Set a guard O Lord over my lips, a sentry at the door of my mouth."

And thirdly James also challenges control of speech because it can be so poisonous. Words can inject an evil or an unhealthy substance into the life of another person. He gives another image, he says, "It's a restless evil full of deadly poison." It's almost like an image of a snake. One of the ancient writers said, just consider how the tongue lies in your head like a snake, ready, and it's so powerful that God had to give it two cages, the jaws and the teeth and the flesh of the face and still as restless as it is, it gets out and it injects with poison. James goes on to say, "in one moment we can be blessing and praising God, and in the next moment we can be cursing." The image comes to my mind, not just of local congregations here but people who maybe stand in a religious posture, maybe in the Middle East and they are blessing God. Bless the Lord, praise him. And then they see somebody who is not of their race, not of their faith and they curse that person. Almost like that person's belief in God and dedication to God, is predicated on how much they hate another person. James says this should not be so, brothers,. saying that we are beyond fallen and nature. In nature, most times rivers stay within their banks, animals can be tamed, fig trees just produce figs, salt water just produces salt and vice versa. We have two natures. Again, underscoring that unless we stay close to the Lord, and unless we have his strength and power within us, we will never exhibit the divine nature most of the time.

There are three types of speech that can spread poison and that we should seek to eliminate. And I just want to share them briefly with you. And you may take issue with this, but that's okay. It will allow for good conversation afterward. One of the things that we should try to eliminate I think, at all cost, are our remarks that are non-defamatory and are true. For instance, if I said I was at a party at so and so's house the other day, and it's a gorgeous thing they have done with their kitchen. Now what could be the problem with sharing some news like that? A couple of things. The person you may be speaking to, may have had them over to their house a month ago and wasn't invited to the party. Also, when we start to talk about other folks, it is very rare that we stay on the subject of their positive points. Bertrand Russell said, "Nobody ever gossips about other peoples secret virtues," if I say go talk about a mutual acquaintance for 20 minutes, unless it's Mother Theresa, the chances of you saying all positive things are pretty slim. Sooner or later, something negative could creep in, because critique and evaluation are much more interesting than accolades. So that's one thing that we need to watch out for, eliminate or curtail. The second thing is negative truths. Things that really are true but are very negative. For instance, did you hear that so and so had an affair. And you know it's not a lie, you know it's true. Why should we not say that? Because negative truths lower the status of other people in the eyes of others. Negative truths shouldn't be shared with others, unless the person needs the information and most often that doesn't include us, when we are third parties. One theologian and poet put it this way. Never tell evil of a person if you don't know it for a certainty. And if you know it for a certainty, then ask yourself, "Why should I tell it?" And then thinking of the golden rule, would I want true embarrassing information about myself kept quiet? Of course, and so we need to be careful not only of non-defamatory untrue remarks, but negative truths. I remember when we went to a Bill Gothard seminar, he used the term, "Don't pass on a bad report." It just doesn't help anybody.

And then, thirdly, of course and I think everybody can concur on this one, is slander. Words that are definitely not true and that wound and hurt.

In Leviticus, Chapter 19, two verses before "love your neighbor as yourself," is verse 16 "You shall not go about as a tale bearer among your people." Malicious falsehood destroys other people. In the 14th century during the Great Plague there were those who were seeking scapegoats for what was happening. They started to spread lies about the Jews, that they had poisoned the village wells. And subsequently tens of thousands of Jews were murdered because this poisonous lie was spread. It actually led literally, not just to murder, but to massacre. You see a penitent thief can return money, but a malicious slanderer can never, ever undo damage. Which is why it is often referred to as character assassination. We actually kill people when we pass along that which is not true.

Well, the Proverbs tell us that life and death are in the power of the tongue. James is basically saying the same thing. And for some reason James felt inclined to concentrate on the negative side of the ledger. We could have a whole sermon series on words that bless and heal, but in order for us to maybe keep in mind what has been shared from the text today, I want to ask the ushers if they will help me with something. Sometimes I give a sermon and I think I should have more of a response opportunity in the sermon and so today I went hog wild and in just a moment the ushers are going to be handing out a little piece of paper and the paper is just the right size that it goes around a 15 ounce can. And as you get this and this is just one piece of paper per family. You just need one per household. You don't need one per person. On it are a number of scripture verses. Some we read today, some from other parts of the scriptures and then there is a cartoon on there and so all you have to do is take the wrapper, put it around an 15 ounce can or jar and here is what is says. "I agree to put a dime into this can every time I speak poorly of someone or in a way that would hurt them if they heard it spoken." That would also go for speaking poorly to someone. At months end use the money to go out with family and friends for desert and conversation about what this experiment has taught you. Now I can say ahead of time that if you get to go to a 4-star restaurant with the money that you have collected, you're in big trouble. I hope you can't even purchase a popsicle with it. But at month's end it will be curious and interesting to see if we have made a collection and maybe because of this little control or taming device, if it doesn't affect the way that we communicate throughout the week.

Well, let's end on a positive note and listen to the apostle Paul as he speaks about the power of words. Just listen to this carefully. "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs that it may benefit those who listen."

Let us pray.
Gracious Lord we thank You that You have given us a great power and we confess again that we have misused that power. And we ask for Your Spirit to fill us because the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart and we pray for the empowering of your spirit so that our words will heal rather than hurt. We pray Lord that if there is anyone that we need to be reconciled to because of our words, that we would take care of that too. Lord we are all convicted and stand accused, but we thank You for the grace of our Lord Jesus and his strength that can help us grow in his image. For we ask it in his holy name. Amen.

© 2001, Rev. George Antonakos
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145