The Untameable Tongue

Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost based on James 3:1-12

Dear people with tongues: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The tongue can set the entire course of life on fire, by the fires of hell, says our Epistle lesson. Not just our own lives, but the lives of others as well. The tongue, though a small member, is compared to a bit in a horse’s mouth and the rudder of a ship. A large horse is controlled by the bit in his mouth, and a great ship is controlled by the rudder even in strong winds and big waves. So our tongue affects our course of life, as insignificant as it may seem.

We are often blind to this truth. We even have a saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” We tend to think of words as weak and powerless. We tend to think of words as empty and meaningless.

We also tend to think that we can say what we want, when we want. Freedom of speech right? If someone is offended by it, that’s their problem.

If you have ever been betrayed by someone close to you, you know how much words can hurt. If you’ve ever had your secrets revealed by someone you trusted, then you know the power of words. If you’ve ever had lies and slander spread about you, then you know how the tongue can set the entire course of life on fire; you know how the tongue can be a restless evil, full of deadly poison – poisoning the speaker, the hearers, and those who are the subject of the evil spoken.

It was with words that Potiphar’s wife falsely accused Joseph and got him thrown into prison. It was with words that Delilah convinced Samson to tell her the secret of his strength, and with words that she betrayed him so that his hair was cut off, his eyes gouged, and he was forced to grind at the mill in prison. It was with words that Jezebel got worthless men to falsely accuse Naboth of blaspheming God and the king, and with her words that she got him stoned to death. It was with words that Judas betrayed Jesus to the chief priests and officers for thirty pieces of silver, and it was with words that Pilate condemned the innocent Jesus to death by crucifixion.

What we say matters. All of the Commandments can be broken with our words, and two out of the Ten Commandments directly have to do with what we say. The Eighth Commandment commands us not to tell lies about our neighbour, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation in any way. We are rather to defend him if someone speaks ill of him. We are to speak well of him even if others don’t, and we are to explain everything in the kindest way.

The Second Commandment commands us not to misuse God’s name by cursing, swearing, using satanic arts, lying, or deceiving by His name. This Second Commandment is broken by false teachers who preach false doctrine.

This is why our epistle lesson starts out with saying, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” We all stumble in many ways. We all sin in what we say. But one who teaches will be judged with greater strictness. Why? Because false doctrine is deadly. Not just deadly in that it separates soul from body, but deadly in that it delivers both body and soul to eternal punishment. False teaching sends those hearers who believe it to hell. This is beyond the tongue setting on fire the entire course of life by the fires of hell. False teaching delivers to the eternal fires of hell those who are captured by it.

To keep the course of our lives from being set on fire by false teachers, God has given us His Word. We may be few within His fold, and by the world forsaken in these dark times that have us overtaken, but we have the Word of God that is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps. 119:105). False teachers confound the truth with fraud which they themselves invent, but we have the Word of God which is truth. False teachers’ hearts are not grounded in God’s pure doctrine as they parade with outward show, but our hearts are grounded in God’s pure doctrine, so we follow God’s Word rather than outward show (some phrasing borrowed from TLH 260, our opening hymn).

The Word of God protects us from the entire course of our lives being set on hell fire by the tongues of false teachers because we won’t listen to their lies. We know better than to watch and listen to every television and radio preacher. We know better than to read every so-called “Christian” book and devotional from every so-called “Christian” bookstore.

We sang in our opening hymn that God’s saving Word for us shall fight. This is not just a matter of the tongue of God casting false teachers and their followers into hell. It is also a matter of Him declaring us forgiven through the tongues of the ministers He sends. When God’s Word fights for us against evil, it fights against all evil, including ours. God’s Word fights against our evil by saying, “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven you.”

Absolution is God’s Word which casts out our evil. If the words we speak can have tremendous effects, how much more the Word of God which is all-powerful! God’s powerful Word even forgives our sins of the tongue; the restless evil and poison we have spoken; the cursing we have done with our mouths against those made in the likeness of God; the lies and slanders wherewith we have caused the course of our lives and the lives of others to be set on fire by the fires of hell.

When Isaiah had a vision of God, he exclaimed, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” A seraphim flew and took a burning coal with tongs from the altar and touched Isaiah’s lips and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” (Is. 6:1-7)

For you, the Lord’s Supper touches your unclean lips and your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for. Your unclean tongue is cleansed.

Do not say, “How can my unclean lips receive the true body and blood of Jesus? I need to first cleanse my tongue and lips before I can receive Jesus.” Do not say this, because you can never cleanse your tongue and lips. That thinking is futile and in vain. The body and blood of Jesus are what cleanse your tongue and lips. His body and blood are the medicine that give you eternal life. His body and blood take your guilt away, and your sins are atoned for.

That your sins are atoned for means that you have been redeemed. An innocent life was offered as a substitute for your guilty life. Jesus, the sinless Son of God, died for the guilt of your sins, and He gives you His body and blood to eat and drink, in which you receive forgiveness and your guilt is taken away. His body and blood cleanse your tongue of all uncleanness so that you can with a pure tongue sing praise and thanksgiving to God, and speak well of your neighbour.

The true body and blood of Jesus forgive you all your sins and strengthen you to not say words that later need recalling. His body and blood have atoned for your sins and guard you from idle speech. His body and blood bring you to everlasting life, and give your words grace lest you offend the weak. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

[A note to readers: beginning in Advent, we will start using the One-Year Lectionary.]