Old Testament Reading Proverbs 1:20-33
Epistle Reading: James 3:1–12
Gospel Reading: Mark 8:27–38
Sermon: “The Power of Words”
“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” We’ve probably all said it, but its not even a little bit true. Words can and do hurt. They hurt us and with them, we can hurt others. Words have great power and James, in his almost playful yet very, very serious way with words himself, wants us to know that. He found the random mix of blessings and curses that stem from words to be confusing – sinful – sometimes hellish in fact. It seems that the evil for James in fact does not come from consistent foulness, but rather by the inexplicable and random turns from good speech to foul and back again. As he says this ought not to be so!
James’ words of caution even more needed now than they were when they were first penned some 1900 years ago. Here in the early 21st century we find ourselves dealing with the consequences of the ever faster “Information Age”. Sadly, disinformation is increasing as fast or faster. Errors and miscommunication are bad enough, but the intentional sins of deception, twisting of the truth, slander, and libel and denials of the plainly obvious are so common that we have come to expect them, tolerate them from elected officials, media and even each other. This too ought not to be so.
Lets take a careful look this morning at this first half of James, chapter 3 and our other readings and hear what the truth sounds like. The first words are for me and all those who teach. We are warned to be particularly careful. James reminds us that every last one of us is prone to mistakes – lots of them in fact. Therefore we will say things that need correction from time to time. James says, in fact, that if we could claim to always speak perfectly, then we would in fact be perfect – and we know that is not true. So, here is the disclaimer right up front: I’m not perfect. You absolutely must filter everything you hear me say through the Word of God and discard whatever doesn’t match what you find there.
James next marvels at the power of language – It seems ephemeral – just vibrations in the air and yet it carries great meaning with the potential for great good and also great evil. James compares it to common controlling devices, like the bridle on a horse or the rudder on a ship. Properly used, these allow all that power to be controlled and put to productive use. Misused or improperly applied and disaster is right around the corner. Next he gives us an example of the frightening catalytic effect of language. James calls it a small fire – shall we say a match? By itself, its pretty mild. Just a puff of breath and it goes out. It can be quite useful. If you are out camping, it means a warm meal, light and warmth. At home, it can mean a birthday celebration and a sweet treat, or a focus for prayer and devotion, even candlelight and romance. But oh my, in the wrong place at the wrong time and entire forests and even cities can be destroyed by a simple little match. Needless to say, it should not be so.
Scripture spends quite a bit of time cautioning us about the proper and improper use of words – two of the Ten Commandments in fact: We are not to speak improperly about God by taking God’s name in vain, neither are we with each other, by bearing false witness against our neighbor. Psalm 15 says: “O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors.” In our Gospel reading from a couple of weeks ago, Jesus puts impure speech in the same list with other great sins: (Mark 7:20-23 NRSV) “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
James notes that man has domesticated a lot of things – Birds, fish, animals, even reptiles – all except the tongue. He seems amazed at the gift of language. It can be used to praise our Maker with poetry and song and worship, and can be used to build each other up and express love, forgiveness and reconciliation. It can also be used to curse what God has made in his own likeness. What would we say about a spring that randomly gives cool clean water, or filthy salt water? Impossible you say? Yes, but obviously not for us. This ought not to be so.
Jesus, who describes himself as the source of Living water, asks his disciples a couple of leading questions in the gospel lesson today. First, he asked who the common people said he was and got a variety of answers. Then of course he asked his own disciples the same question that all of us have to answer as well. Peter speaks his famous confession that Jesus is the Christ, God anointed one, the Messiah. Jesus praises the answer and then goes on to teach just what that meant – rejection, suffering, death, resurrection and glory. Here Peter, who had just spoken a truth far greater than he yet understood by the power of the Spirit, now speaks from the far darker place of his fears and preference for glory now, never mind the suffering and death part. Jesus has to rebuke Peter as speaking for Satan, just moments after he get it exactly right. One person, one mouth, two very different outcomes. It’s just what James was to lament later.
The Good News is clear though. Peter, Paul, Thomas, even Jesus’ own family – they all got it wrong at least once – usually many times and yet God used them in mighty and wonderful ways. Peter, the one who tempted Jesus to abandon his mission and denied him with an oath three times the night before he died became a powerful speaker, one who’s words opened the grace of Christ to thousands with his sermons and patient teaching. Paul, once a harsh critic and deadly enemy of the fledgling church became it foremost evangelist to the world and left us an incredible heritage of his letters to the churches he founded. Thomas, who doubted the resurrection, Surpassed even Peter when he declared Jesus to be his Lord and his God when he was finally face to face. Jesus own Mother and brothers who thought he was more than a little crazy as he began his ministry would be Pilar’s of the early church – matter of fact, it is likely Jesus’ brother James that wrote this letter.
Way back in the book of Numbers, there’s a little story about a pagan prophet named Balaam who was hired by the King of Moab to curse the nation of Israel as they came out of the Sinai to take possession of the promised land. As he rode his donkey to the appointment, an angel of God with a fearsome sword was sent to block his way. Balaam couldn’t see it, but the donkey could. So it shied away three times avoiding the angels wrath, but was beaten by Balaam for its seeming disobedience. Finally as Balaam finally threatened to kill the poor beast, God gave it the gift of language and it asked its master why it was being so abused, when all it had done was to try to serve faithfully. Balaam’s eyes were then opened and he is confronted by the angel. Balaam goes on to his appointment, but blesses Israel instead of cursing it. Oh the power of a few well chosen words, even from a donkey. I take great comfort in that story, presuming that if God can speak with the mouth of a donkey, perhaps God can occasionally speak through me as well.
Words have such power – Power to Heal, power to harm. So which will it be with us this week? Will our words convey grace or grumpiness? Will our words lash or love? Will our words lead others to Heaven or Hell? It sounds kind of scary put that way doesn’t it? There’s no denying that James is right. Language has great power and yet more so does Grace. When our words are matched by our actions and attitudes, then the true power of the Holy Spirit can flow through us in amazing ways. It ought to be ALWAYS SO! May God grant it to be so for us today and every day until we too see him face to face.
Grace and Peace,