James 3:1-12 “We all stumble in many ways.” That’s the way we begin God’s Word to us today and how true that is! We all stumble. We all miss the mark. We all go astray. We all sin. That’s why Christians begin their worship of God with a confession of those very sins and stumbles and wayward ways.
We confess that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed—by what we have done and by what we have left undone. “We all stumble in many ways.” That is why our baptismal service includes a renunciation of the devil and all his works and all his ways.
We ALL stumble in many ways. That’s what the Bible teaches-- and Christians believe that every word of Holy Scripture is inspired by God and little Lillian is a part of that ALL because she too is part of the human family and so we renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways and we confess about ourselves that we sinned in thought, word and deed.
“We all stumble in many ways.” I know some of my sins over this last week and I’m sure you know some of yours and at least for me, that the moment of silence between the confession and the absolution is wholly insufficient to number all my sins.
I remember them with sorrow and shame-- and I repent of them—and I rejoice in Christ’s forgiveness and the help of the Holy Spirit to begin again.
But what particularly grieves me—where I particularly need help and want to do better-- are my sins of speech. After all…
My “thought” sins are hidden away—known only to myself and God—easily concealed from others. My sins of “deed” have perhaps, ebbed with the passing of time and the length of years and a lack of energy and enthusiasm for really whooping it up.
But my tongue and my sins of speech—their power to lead me astray seem unaffected and undiminished by time.
Perhaps you have experienced the same. Do we still struggle with crude speech and coarse jokes? Do we talk to our spouses and our children in ways that we hope no one overhears? Do we gossip about others in the church or speak ill of our co-workers?
What we learn today from God’s Word is that, the way we speak to others, reveals the evil that still remains in our hearts in a way that few other things can do.
But what we will also hear the Good News that there is a perfect man named Jesus whose powerful speech forgives us and restores us—a perfect man who can help us use our tongues in a way that pleases God and builds others up in the words we speak. The Bible says:
The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.
On this Lord’s Day morning our lips will confess our faith in the one true God. Our tongues will sing his praises. Our voices will add their “amens” to God’s Word.
These are good and God-pleasing things. But what have we done in the week just past- and what will we do in the week to come- with those same lips, voices, and tongues?
After this hour of blessing God, will it then be a week of cursing others?
You’ve no doubt heard the old nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stone can break my bones but words will never hurt me.” We of course know better than that and so does any little child with tears in their eyes and hurt feelings who has heard parent or teacher quote that proverb to them after being wounded by words!
Sinful words can hurt us very much indeed!
Listen to how the Bible describes sinful speech: a fire; a world of unrighteousness; a stain; restless evil; and deadly poison! If you have been on the receiving end of unkind speech, you know how apt this description is.
As small as the tongue is compared to the other members of our body, how devastating, how destructive, how disastrous are the results of sinful speech! The Bible compares it to a small fire that has the power to destroy an entire forest—or a marriage or a family or a congregation or a friendship.
And as small as the tongue is, how much it reveals about the evil that still remains in our heart and the sin that still clings to our flesh. The Bible says:
Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
And the answer is: of course not! Ugly speech is a sign of ugliness within. These words are nothing other than what we heard Jesus tell us two weeks ago about what really defiles us in God’s sight. Jesus said:
what comes OUT of the MOUTH proceeds FROM the heart…defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.
According to our Lord’s own words, sins of speech are counted no differently in God’s sight than murder, adultery, and theft. They defile us—they render us unclean—they stain us with sin.
So it has been from the beginning. Eve used her mouth to talk to the devil and tempt Adam. Adam used his mouth to blame Eve and accuse God and so it has been for all their children down through the ages.
As James say, “We ALL stumble in many ways”. That is, save one of us. On perfect man whose speech brought only blessing. James speaks of that one who “does not stumble in what he says…a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” He speaks of Jesus.
Jesus said, “I came to speak my Father’s Words.” Jesus said, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples…" Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him…" Jesus said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Jesus said, “My words are spirit and life”.
And so they are! Jesus is the perfect man James speaks of whose holy life stands in place of our own sinful one. He is the perfect man whose kind and loving speech God counts as our own. He is the perfect man who offered up the perfect sacrifice for our sins, speaking in those dark hours on the cross, words of care for others and confidence in his heavenly Father.
Jesus is the crucified, risen, ascended, glorified perfect man who powerfully speaks to us today and says: you are loved and you are forgiven and you are empowered from this moment on by my living presence in your life to change for the better the way you speak to others.
We are not perfect men and women but we have a perfect Savior who has transformed our lives by his life-giving, life-changing words so that now we can begin to use our tongues to not only praise him-- but to bless one another. James uses this example:
If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.
James wrote at length—and we have spoken at length—about the destructive power of the human tongue. But that sad, sinful story is not the whole story about us by any means! As children of God who have been born again by the power of living and enduring Word of God, who have been forgiven by the spoken word of the cross, we now have the power of Christ to speak well of others and build them up by our speech.
The Bible says that we are to ask ourselves regarding our speech? Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary for building up another person?
All around us in our world today are those who hearts and lives and emotional well-being have been destroyed by unkind words and false accusations. What a powerful blessing we can give them by the things we say-- to encourage them and lift them up. The Bible says:
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. The Bible says: Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. The Bible says: Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. And in summary the Bible says: Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, there is power in the words we speak as children of God who are led by the Spirit. There is power to share the love of Christ. There is the power to lift up and encourage. There is the power to teach and forgive and lead and comfort.
When the disciples were challenged by Jesus to decide whether they would continue to follow him or not, Peter spoke up for all of them and said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the word of eternal life!” And so he does!
His powerful word has forgiven our sins and raised us up from spiritual death to life and as his people we are blessed and empowered to use our words in the same way, to bless the lives of those around us. May God grant us his grace and the help of the Holy Spirit to do just that! Amen!