“The Small But Powerful Tongue” (James 3:1-12)
It is one of the smallest parts of the body, but it is also perhaps the most powerful. What am I speaking of? The tongue. Your tongue is a very powerful instrument. It can do a lot of damage, and it can do a lot of good. “The Small But Powerful Tongue.” To what shall we compare it? Let’s find out, shall we?
To what does James compare the tongue, in our Epistle reading for today? St. James makes several comparisons in this passage, and they are instructive for our self-awareness as to how we use our tongue.
He starts out by talking about those who would become pastors: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” In other words, those who teach in the church have a special–and heavy–responsibility. They must know the right doctrine and teach it correctly. A pastor should be careful about what he says, for how he speaks will influence people–hopefully in the right direction in their faith and life, and not in the wrong.
Then James goes on from there to expand his scope from pastors to all Christians and to the things that we say: “For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” We all stumble. None of us is perfect. We all mess up, including, and especially, in what we say. If you can control your tongue, that hardest of all things to control, you will likely have success in controlling the rest of your body, too.
Can you bridle your tongue? If you can do that, you should be able to bridle your whole body. And this leads James to make his first comparison about the tongue. He compares it to the bit and bridle we use to control a horse: “If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.” When you look at the size of a bit that is put into a horse’s mouth, it does not look very big, like it could do very much. But amazingly, with that small bit, a rider is able to guide a huge and powerful horse–which can weigh over a thousand pounds–he can make that horse go in the direction he wants it to go.
The small but powerful tongue is like that bit and bridle. How you use your tongue can steer the whole direction of your life. You can go down the straight path, or you can veer off into the bramble and briars, all depending on how you use your tongue. Are there things you’ve said that you regret? That have ruined relationships? That have cost you a job or a promotion or a career advancement? That have cost you a marriage? We need to think before we speak, and use our tongues wisely.
James goes on with another comparison: “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. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.” A giant sailing ship. Controlled by a relatively small rudder. By the right control of the rudder, the captain can avoid the dangerous shoals and the rocks and the reefs. If he doesn’t–if he’s not alert, if he turns the rudder just a slight bit in the wrong direction–he can hit an iceberg and go down like the Titanic.
So it is with our tongue. We need to be aware of how we’re using our tongue at all times. “Loose lips sink ships,” as the saying goes. That applies not only to battleships but also to friendships and relationships and even church fellowships. A loose rudder, a loose tongue, can sink all those “ships.”
James continues. Another comparison: “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.” A small match, an untended campfire, a few smoldering embers–combine that with a tinderbox of dry wood, and the next thing you know, you’ve got a big blaze, out of control.
Think of those wildfires out west that seem to come up around this time of year. The land is dry, the temperatures are hot, and it just takes a careless camper to set off a conflagration that can spread like, well, wildfire.
Only you can prevent forest fires. Or maybe not. Maybe you need some help. Maybe it’s not “only you,” but rather “you, as the new person in Christ, gifted with the Holy Spirit.”
You see, as James says, the tongue is “set on fire by hell.” The devil tempts us to use our tongue to speak in evil ways, to deny our Lord and to damn our brother. Besides that, the world around us–the messages we get from our media and the pop culture and the conventional wisdom of our community, which is not always all that wise–the world would lead us to use our tongues to speak in wrongheaded and unhelpful ways. And then there’s our own sinful flesh–and that’s the root of the problem, for our tongue will speak according to our selfish desires. “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of,” whether that is for good or for ill.
Yes, we need God’s help to control our tongues. To what shall we compare the tongue? Compare it to the tongue of Christ. In the Old Testament Reading today from Isaiah, the prophet is speaking of the Servant of the Lord, which we know is a prophecy about Christ. And this Servant says: “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught.” How Jesus Christ used his tongue was always wise, never out of place. When Jesus was being tempted by the devil, he responded and overcame the tempter with the word of the Lord: “Thus it is written.” When Jesus needed to castigate the scribes and the Pharisees, he called a spade a spade and said to them, “Woe to you, you hypocrites!” or “You brood of vipers!” Christ could speak a prophetic condemnation when that was what was called for.
On the other hand, Jesus used his tongue to comfort troubled sinners and to bring them a word of peace and forgiveness and refreshment. Again, from the Isaiah prophecy: “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.” This is just what Jesus did with his tongue. Listen to his words: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Jesus is saying this to you today. Dear friends, listen to his voice. Are you weary from the weight of your sins? Come to Jesus your Savior. Are you loaded down with the burden of your conscience, knowing how much and how often you have not used your tongue in the right way? How you have hurt the people around you with your words? How you have messed up your own life by the stupid things you have said? How you have failed to give God the glory he is owed?
Beloved, come to Christ and lay your burden down. Jesus took the weight of your sins, the burden of your guilt, and he carried it all to the cross for you–there dying in your place, the holy Son of God did, taking all the judgment upon himself, so that it would not fall on you. He speaks the word of forgiveness on your behalf: “Father, forgive them,” he says. He speaks the word of forgiveness into your ears: “I forgive you all your sins. Come, enter the kingdom prepared for you, full of life and joy. I give you life, eternal life–death has no more power over you. And I give you my Spirit, so that you will live a new life, already now.”
A new life, with a new tongue. The Holy Spirit will set your tongue on fire, but to a different purpose. Not to curse, not to blaspheme, not to tear down others in sinful ways. But rather to bless. To praise God for his many mercies. To pray to God for our world and for those in need. The Spirit gives us tongues to speak words of blessing to our neighbor, words that will be helpful to him. You have a new tongue, my fellow baptized.
And we have new awareness of our old sinful nature, with which we still need to contend. We pray the Lord’s help in controlling our tongue, for, even as Christians “we all stumble in many ways.” This will be our daily prayer: “Set a watch before my mouth, O Lord, and guard the door of my lips.” “Keep me from saying words that later need recalling.” “Lord, help me to control my tongue, to keep it from uttering wrong and hurtful things. Forgive me for the times I have done that.” Brothers and sisters, God does indeed forgive you. In a moment, you will receive on your tongue the very body and blood of Christ with which he won your forgiveness. Be assured of that.
And we further pray: “Dear Lord, help me to use my tongue to speak forth good and helpful things. For that is your will for me, and you have given me a new nature, and a new tongue, to do just that.” God will answer that prayer. Be assured of that, also.
Now, in Christ, we can make a new comparison. To what shall we compare the tongue? When it is a tongue that has been drenched in the waters of Holy Baptism–and yours has–your tongue is like a spring of fresh water, bringing quenching refreshment in the dry places. Dear friends, God has given you a wonderful instrument with which you can praise your Lord and bless your neighbor. It is small, yet it is very powerful. It is your tongue.