“Taming the Tongue” (James 3:1-12; Isaiah 50:4-10)
Maybe you’ve seen it in the news this past week: There are wildfires raging throughout California, burning out of control. Large stretches of forests are being destroyed; homes are being threatened. What started these fires? Who knows? In one case, it might have been a lightning strike, starting with just one or two trees catching on fire and then spreading rapidly. In another case, it may have just been a careless campfire, left unattended. Something small like that can start and spread and cause untold damage. That’s how wildfires go.
But did you hear the other news? There are wildfires raging right here in Missouri. No, you didn’t hear about it? Well, maybe that’s because I’m not talking about the fires that destroy trees but rather the fires that destroy lives. The wildfires I’m talking about are the ones started by the human tongue, and yes, those fires are raging right here in Missouri–indeed, right here in Bonne Terre. The tongue–that is the match that sets the world on fire. It is a small instrument, but it can cause a lot of damage. And so our question this morning: What can be done about “Taming the Tongue”?
Our text is the Epistle from James 3. There St. James makes the same comparison about the tongue being like the thing that starts a wildfire. He writes: “So also 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.”
Isn’t that the truth? We all have seen examples, I’m sure, of people whose lives have been hurt by somebody else’s tongue: The man whose reputation has been ruined by rumor. The woman who has been the subject of baseless gossip. The child who has been bullied with unkind taunts and mocking. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but unfortunately names also can and do hurt us.
Maybe such harm has been done to you by somebody else’s tongue. And maybe, just maybe, you have contributed to someone else’s harm by your thoughtless and careless use of your tongue. We each have much to repent of in this regard, before we go looking at other people.
Do you remember what you learned about this from your catechism instruction? In fact, let’s turn there, why don’t we? Turn to page 321 in your hymnal, to the Small Catechism, the Ten Commandments, and let’s read together the Eighth Commandment with its explanation:
“The Eighth Commandment: You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.”
And in the Large Catechism, Luther writes: “This commandment forbids all sins of the tongue, by which we may injure or confront our neighbor. . . . God prohibits whatever is done with the tongue against a fellow man. . . . Here belongs particularly the detestable, shameful vice of speaking behind a person’s back and slandering, to which the devil spurs us on.”
So this is what James is talking about in our text today: sins of the tongue. We’ve already seen how he compares this misuse of the tongue to the starting of a wildfire. James also makes a number of other such comparisons: to a wild beast, to a deadly poison, and to a brackish pond of water. He writes:
“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. 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.”
In these images that James uses, the tongue is being compared to things that are very negative in their nature. It is something that is out of control, like a wild beast that cannot be tamed. The tongue is capable of doing a lot of damage, like a deadly poison. And it is producing something bitter and distasteful, when it ought to be producing a fresh and refreshing stream.
So examine your life and see how you are using your tongue. In the worship service here, yes, you are using your tongue to bless God, in the hymns and in the liturgy. But then we go out from here, and what do we do? We talk negatively about those other people at church. “Did you hear what she said about so-and-so? Can you believe it?” Or we speak negatively about some other people in our life. From out of the same mouth come the blessing of God and the blasting of our neighbor. My brothers and sisters, these things ought not to be so.
So the question again: What can done about the taming of the tongue? On our own strength, nothing. As our text says, “no human being can tame the tongue.” No, our old sinful nature is too strong for us to overcome it on our own. “We all stumble in many ways.” And if left to ourselves, this sinful tendency of ours, showing itself in what comes forth from our tongue–this would be our undoing and indeed our damning. Our sins would condemn us to death and eternal damnation. But thank God, there is more to the story than this.
There is another tongue at work, and it is one that means our salvation. It is the tongue of our Savior Jesus Christ. The prophet Isaiah today told us what this Christ, this Messiah, this righteous servant of the Lord, would say: “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary.” That’s Jesus. He has that sort of tongue. Jesus knows how to sustain with his words us who are weary. Jesus says: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Are you weary of your sins, weary of being weighed down by them? Come to Jesus. Come to him for rest and forgiveness, and lay your burden down. Lay it down at the foot of the cross.
There at the cross Jesus took your burden, all your misspoken words and your misspent years, he took all the hurt you have suffered and all the hurt you have inflicted on others–he took all that hateful, hurtful, damnable mess, and your Messiah bore that sin and that guilt in your place. He suffered and he died for you. As he did, he spoke words of forgiveness and of life: “Father, forgive them.” To the repentant thief who asked Jesus to remember him in his kingdom, Jesus assured him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Yes, Jesus’ tongue abounds with words that will sustain us. He says to you today: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” “Son, your sins are forgiven you.” He says: “I have come that you may have life, and have it in abundance.” “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” And we answer, “Yes, Lord, I believe.”
Jesus has the words of eternal life. He won them for you on the cross, where he purchased your redemption. Then he arose from the grave, and he declares these words to you today. Take hold of them. They are your life and your salvation.
And this life is a new life. In Christ you have new strength and new power to live for God. You have new power to love your neighbor. For you know what God’s love and God’s forgiveness have done for you. And now, baptized into Christ, you have the gift of the Holy Spirit. There is a new you at work, the new person you are now in Christ. This new baptismal identity transforms your life. It transforms your mind and it changes how you live your life. The Holy Spirit can even tame your tongue. You are not on your own in this. The Helper will indeed help you. The Spirit will guard your lips and tame your tongue.
We lean on God in prayer to help us in the use of our tongue. We say with the psalmist: “Set a watch before my mouth, O Lord, and guard the door of my lips.” As we sang in the hymn: “Keep me from saying words that later need recalling; guard me lest idle speech may from my lips be falling.”
Now it is true, “we all stumble in many ways.” We stumble even as Christians. Our obedience and our walk in Christ will always be subject to stumbling, this side of heaven. So we always come back to the comfort and the assurance we have in the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake. It is here again for you today. Today receive this forgiveness anew and afresh, as you receive on your tongue the very body and blood of Christ, who says these words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” And rise, refreshed, knowing whose you are and who it is who will help you as you walk in newness of life. Christ Jesus–his tongue will sustain with a word you who are weary. Christ Jesus–connected to him, you too are being taught and your tongue is being tamed. And so now those wildfires of the tongue are being doused with the fresh water of your baptism.