As some of you may know, my mum died last Wednesday night. It was acute leukemia that finally ended my mum's life at 85 years of age. Mum was one of two people who taught me how to preach. She is the only person who ever interrupted my sermons.
My mum modeled what James has been teaching us. Her faith produced many good works. Her suffering made her better not bitter. She led us kids in prayers each night and going to church. She hated favouritism. She used her tongue for good. God talk was always on her lips. She would say to her granddaughter who wore very short paints, “Jesus would not like that!” She did not gossip. I never saw her as a hypocrite.
The tongue points to the words we speak. The tongue is the main tool for the teacher. When Communist rebels tried to oppose Christianity in the Philippines, they first killed the pastors. When that didn't work, they would cut their tongues out, and in so doing silenced them, leaving them as objects of pity. The words of a teacher can do the most good and the most damage, hence the warning! James 3:1:
Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (NIV)
Everyone should teach one another but not everyone should be teachers. It's why we have a limited roster of preachers. The reason for the warning is clear: every teacher will be judged much severely.To be fair, every one of us will be judged by our words, Matthew 12:36-37:
But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.
Like you, I will have to give an account to Jesus, the judge of all the earth, for every word I speak. But for us who preach there is a stricter judgment. What I say will be assessed by both God and by you. The bar is higher for teachers of Gods word because the damage is greater. It is not that teachers have a greater chance of going to hell. Heaven has been purchased by the blood of Jesus for all of us. But God will test the work of the teacher-pastor with a higher bar.
None of us wants to simply escape the flames with nothing to show for our labour. The stakes are high for teachers of God word. So keep Grant, Marcello, and myself in your prayers. When we preach a dud sermon, pray for us. Pity us. Pray for your children's worker, your growth group leaders, for all who teach, including parents. Make sure you handle the word of God correctly. Make sure you are prepared.
Souls hang in the balance as God's word is unpacked. Yet no preacher can look you in the eye and say we never stumble. James 3:2:
We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check. (NIV)
James includes himself as one who stumbles. It's important that we teachers don’t stand over you but come alongside you.
I remember being respectfully corrected by Gab Gewargis for using an inappropriate word. He said, “Ray if you use that word in your sermon, then other men at church will think it is ok to use”. He was so right. I sent an email that night to everyone apologising for what I said. James 3:2a:
We all stumble in many ways ...
The Bible is very realistic. How difficult it is to control the tongue. We often speak before we think. This is especially true if you are a fast talker like me. Ultimately no man can fully tame the tongue. Though the tongue is so small, its effects are enormous. James gives three examples.
First, as small as the bit is in the horse's mouth, you can direct a stallion to go where you want it. If you have ever been to Royal Easter Show and seen those massive bulls led around the ring by a small child, you would know that all it takes is the rope that pulls on the small ring in the nose of the bull.
Second, as small as is a rudder of a ship, it changes the direction of an ocean liner, it shifts the trajectory of a nuclear submarine.
Third, as small as a spark is, such as lighting a match, it can set a bush fire alight. How many bush fires have their been in the Blue Mountains? How many were caused by a simple match, or a cigarette butt flicked out of the car.
My niece's husband's family lost two houses in Winmallee five years ago. One spark, one small flame, and a whole community is devastated, homes and lives lost.
Like this small bullet: put it in a gun and it can take a life in a moment. Our simple words have the potential for so much good and so much evil.
How many of you are haunted by words spoken by a parent, a boss, a teacher, or an ex-best friend? One dear sister in our church was told by her mum, “I wish you were never born.”
The tongue small as it is directs your whole body and can send you to hell. James 3:6:
The tongue also is 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 is itself set on fire by hell. (NIV)
Your words shape the direction of your eternal destiny. From your lips you will deny knowing Christ. From your lips you will confess that Jesus is Lord. The tongue driven by hell will send you to hell. The tongue will then burn in the fires of hell.
Remember again, our Lord Jesus said we will be judged by our words. No conversation is off limits to God. No word will be forgotten. None of it is off the record.
After a big Sunday with so many conversations, many encouraging, some critical and occasionally the odd cruel one comes our way, how Sandy and I talk about every member of MBM will be as important as the sermon, and it will determine whether Satan is in bed with us.
None of us believed it when we sang in the playground, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Like fun they don’t. Words have cut deeper than any knife. Words have killed more effectively than a semi-automatic.
We have all said those words. We have all been on the receiving end of them.
I know 70 year olds who are trying to prove their dead parents wrong. I heard one story of a father who was dying, and his words to his son were, “I expect Son that when you inherit the family business your going to ruin it.”
James makes the observation that many animals have been tamed by man. From cats to killer whales (maybe not cats), I think the first animal to be tamed was the dog, 6000 years ago. We tell it to sit and they sit. We tell it to jump and they jump. We even train pigs to heard sheep into sheep pens. Yet no one has yet managed to fully tame his tongue, James 3:7-8:
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (NIV)
What shocking words about our words. It almost sounds pessimistic and demonic. You would think James was talking about serial killers, terrorists, and paedophiles, but he is talking about all the words that leave your mouth, whether you speak by your mouth or by sign language. Even the most mature saint wishes they could take back their words they have just spoken. I don’t know how anyone can say at the end of their life, “If I had the chance to do it all over again I would not change a thing”. Being filled with regret is more appropriate. That is why be ever ready to say, "I am sorry, I should not have spoken that way." It must come easily from our lips. There is nothing like the thought of your loved one dying to make you wake up to your words, and then it is too late. How many are traumatized by the words spoken to a loved who unexpectedly died before making peace. We may feel comfortable with our hypocrisy but God Isn’t, James 3:9-10:
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. (NIV)
One moment we sing, “Oh lord our Lord how majestic is your name.' Then next we say to our loved ones, "Shut up! I hate you!” You see that any verbal abuse is demonic. James says that this should not be. Think of the words you used getting ready for church. This should not be, whether we are in the church, the home, or the work place. Some think that the rules change when you go to work: like I can swear and curse and humiliate workers because I work with men in a factory or mechanic shop or in jail. I think we forget who exactly we are talking to and talking about. They are humans. Even your enemy is made in the image of God. I had to stop calling bad referees and players who make mistakes idiots. The reason is that there is a close connection between humans and God. This is God's world. Every person is made in God's image. When we do the dirty on another person we do it to God. You speak against another person and you speak against God. God stands behind every person.
When James wrote his letter, if you dishonoured an image of an emperor, you dishonoured the emperor, and you paid the price for that. It is just like when those teenagers graffiti the war memorial. They dishonoured the men who died for this country.
Yet James expects that we are to tame the tongue. The antidote is wisdom.
James raises the question in James 3:13:
Who is wise and understanding among you? (NIV)
You read these words and say, "Not me”. So what is the key to taming the tongue? The words you use will depend on the wisdom that you live by. Remember this truth: nothing ever comes out of the mouth that is not already in the heart. That is why our words are a window into our hearts.
There are two kinds of wisdom. First is the demonic wisdom, James 3:14-16:
But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
The heart of the problem is the problem of the human heart. Behind our words lies our hearts, hearts that nurture envy, selfish and ambition, hearts that are shaped by the devil's agenda, that vomit out disorder and evil. In contrast is James 3:17-18:
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (NIV)
This wisdom is pure. It is a heart that genuinely wants to please God, like Jesus, whose greatest joy was to obey his Father. It is peace loving: a heart that strives to bring harmony in relationships, like Jesus, who died to turn us enemies into friends. It is considerate: a gentle heart that thinks of others, like Jesus, who came to seek and save the lost. It is submissive: a heart that is willing to submit others, like Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. It is full of mercy and good fruit: a generous heart like Jesus, who went round only doing good. It is impartial, a heart that will not have favourites, like Jesus, who ate with rich and poor, sinner and saint. It is sincere: an honest heart that refuses to be a hypocrite, like Jesus, who could look people in the eye and say which of you can accuse me of sin? No one! Those interested in the best investments, take note: peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
Do you know what Jesus, the average Aussie, and your kids all have in common? They can spot a hypocrite a mile away. Do you know what Jesus, the average Aussie, and your kids also have in common? They can also tell the real deal a mile away. It's time to make Jesus look good by all our words to all people.