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.]

Faith is Never Alone

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost based on James 2:1-10, 14-18

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

“Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” There is no such thing as true faith which does nothing except for sin. There is no such thing as true faith that says, “I’m going to do whatever my sinful flesh wants.” There is no such thing as true faith that does not love God and neighbour.

Faith is living, busy, active, and mighty. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works without ceasing. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works is an unbeliever. It is impossible to separate works from faith (SD IV.10-12).

James gives us an example. If a brother in Christ is naked and lacking daily food, and one of you says to him, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving him the things needed for the body, what good is that? That’s not faith! That’s a cold, uncaring heart acting in a cold, uncaring way. It is a heart without good works and a heart without faith.

As Christians, the keeping of God’s Law must begin in us and then increase more and more. This is true both of our inner spiritual impulses and our outward good works. It is true both of our inner desires and our outward actions (cf. Ap IV.125).

Good works are not those which people invent for themselves or those which follow human traditions. Good works are those which God Himself has prescribed and commanded in His Word. They are well summarized in the Ten Commandments.

Scripture tells us that we receive the Holy Spirit through faith (Gal. 3:14). The Holy Spirit dwells within those with faith, and their bodies are His temple (I Cor. 6:19). The Holy Spirit isn’t dead. He spurs us to good works. These good works are not possible on our own. We cannot perform them out of our own natural powers, but they are performed when a person is reconciled with God through faith and renewed through the Holy Spirit, or as Saint Paul says, created anew in Christ Jesus for good works (Eph. 2:10; SD IV.7).

Many construct for themselves a dead faith or the illusion of faith which exists without repentance or good works. As if true faith and the evil intention to remain and continue in sin could exist in a single heart at the same time! That is impossible (SD IV.15).

True faith is living faith because the Holy Spirit dwells within believers, and leads us to live a life according to God’s revealed will. Thus, true faith does not fear, love, or trust in anything above God. True faith does not follow false doctrine or take God’s name in vain, but rejoices in the truth and calls upon God’s name in prayer and praise. True faith does not despise preaching and God’s Word, but holds it sacred and gladly hears and learns it. True faith does not despise God-given authorities, but honours them, and serves and obeys them. True faith does not seek hurt or harm to a neighbour, but helps and supports his every physical need. True faith does not follow the sexual morals of the world, but follows God’s will of purity and chastity. True faith does not take the money and possessions of a neighbour, but selflessly helps him protect his possessions and income. True faith does not speak evil of a neighbour, but speaks well of him and explains everything in the kindest way. True faith does not covet or scheme to get that which belongs to a neighbour, but helps him to keep what is his (these are rephrased from the meanings of the Ten Commandments from the Small Catechism).

We have thus gone through the Ten Commandments, which are the good works which the Holy Spirit within us strengthens us to do.

Does Saint James then teach something contrary to Saint Paul by saying that faith without works is dead? Not at all. James does not say we are saved by faith and works. He also holds that we are saved by faith apart from works. He is teaching that we are saved by faith alone, but faith is never alone. Your works do not help earn your salvation or pay for your sins. We are saved by faith alone. But faith is never alone. Good works are sure to follow as the fruit of faith.

This is nothing different from what Paul writes in Ephesians chapter two, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (vv. 8-10)

You are saved by faith alone. It is not your doing. It is by grace, which means it is a gift. The forgiveness of sins is a free gift from God to you, earned by the suffering and death of His only beloved Son.

Neither does James suggest that we can perfectly fulfil what God has commanded us to do. He makes it clear in saying, “Whoever keeps the whole Law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” He’s saying that if you are relying on your good works to save you, you have got to do every single good work. You have to fulfil every single Law of God in thought, word, and deed. You have to live a life as holy and perfect as Jesus. You have to gladly suffer the slander, hatred, and abuse of the world even though you only ever do good. You have to give everything and sacrifice everything for others, even your very life.

Since we have all failed miserably at all of that, do not hold to the thought that because you have lived relatively well in regards to a certain commandment, that you are doing well in regards to the Law of God. Even if you fail in one point of the Law, you are a law breaker; you are accountable for all of it. Thus, when it comes to your salvation, forget the Law. Only Jesus has fulfilled the Law.

However, since you are saved by faith alone, do not forget God’s Law in how you live your life. Remember and recite the Commandments regularly. Delight in the Law of the Lord, and meditate on it day and night (Ps. 1:2).

Since you have been bought with a price, you belong to God (I Cor. 6:20). Instead of having you follow the futile ways of sin and death, God has prepared good works for you to do. These good works do not help God or benefit Him in any way, but they do help your neighbour and they supply the proof that your faith is living. Thus, we say along with James, “I will show you may faith by my works.”

We are saved by faith alone, but faith is never alone. Amen.

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

[A note to our readers: beginning in Advent, we will be following the One-Year Lectionary.]

Don’t Follow Your Heart

Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost based on Mark 7:14-23

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

We are foolish if we think that we are basically good and decent people deep down. We are wrong to say that we acted out of character when we got angry and sinned. We are wrong to say that we acted out of character when we spoke evil of our neighbour. We are wrong to say that we acted out of character when we pursued sinful pleasure.

Jesus says sin comes from the heart. Our heart is who we are. When we sin, we expose our hearts, we expose ourselves for who we really are. When we sin, we are acting according to our character.

The sins that we commit are merely a symptom of our status as being sinful. We don’t become sinful because we commit sin. Rather, because we are sinful, we commit sin. Because we have sinful hearts, we sin by what we do and by what we leave undone. We are defiled by sin, and we defile ourselves further by what we think, say, and do.

Jesus says, “from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

We cannot help but squirm when we hear such lists of sin in Scripture. We expect one accusation may not hit its mark with us, but the next one will. We may not have physically murdered someone, but we have envied them and been jealous of them. We may not have physically stolen that which belongs to another, but we have coveted it. We may not have physically committed adultery, but we have had evil thoughts.

The reality is that no accusation of the Law actually misses the mark with us. When we think some accusation of the Law has missed its mark with us, we are merely being blind to our sin. We are not understanding what perfection God’s Law actually demands of us.

And the bigger issue is that, as I said, all these sins are just symptoms of the true problem – our sinful heart. In one person, certain symptoms or sins are more obvious, and in another person other symptoms or sins. Some of us are better at hiding the symptoms, but we all have the same sinful heart.

When they fall into sin, some people will say, “The devil made me do it.” It is true that we are in a battle not against flesh and blood, as we heard in our Epistle lesson, but against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. But the truth is that the devil and his demons cannot make us do anything. They tempt us. The world tempts us. But we sin because of our sinful heart.

Besides, demons rarely come uninvited. We dangle our fingers in shark-infested waters with every sin. The young man says he was tempted by the devil, that’s why he committed adultery. But he first opened the internet to a porn site, opening a portal for the demons to come into his home. He first allowed his mind to be filled with lust and hardened his conscience, inviting the demons in. There are no victimless crimes, no small sins without consequence (reworked from a paragraph in a Rev. David Petersen sermon on Matt. 15:21-28).

The young woman says she was tempted by the devil, that’s why she shoplifted. But she first coveted what she did not have. She was first jealous of what others had and discontent with what God had given her. She allowed the demons to harass her with desires and hardened her conscience, inviting the demons in. To harden your heart to commit sin is inviting in demons. Sin is a dangerous activity that pleases the spiritual forces of evil, but grieves the Holy Spirit.

Of course, it is not just the young that sin. Slander and gossip are more common with those who have more free time on their hands. Often, pride becomes a bigger struggle as we age. Discontentment and bitterness are common as it seems that everyone else has it easier. After a lifetime of sinful patterns and habits, it is easy to have a conscience hardened by sin and not even recognize sin to be sin. After years of inviting the demons in to roost and harass, there isn’t much fight or resistance left.

We all need our sinful, defiled hearts to be cleansed. We cannot be cleansed by our own efforts to do better. We cannot be cleansed by trying harder or intending to do our best. We know which road is paved with good intentions.

Cleanliness is not a matter of focusing on our weaknesses and getting stronger. Remember, sin is a problem of the heart. Sin comes from the heart. The sins we commit are simply a symptom of who we are.

Cleanliness must come from Jesus. Cleanliness must come from Jesus, because He is the Lamb of God without blemish or spot. Cleanliness must come from Jesus, because only He is perfect and clean of sin. He is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world because He is the Lamb of God that was led to the slaughter without complaint.

Jesus never sinned, even through all that He suffered. He didn’t sin when others spoke evil of Him for healing the sick. He didn’t sin when He was reviled and mocked. He didn’t sin even as He was beaten, whipped, spit on, and crucified.

Why then did He suffer so much anguish, grief, and bitter pain? Why did He suffer so cruelly when He never did anything wrong? Why was the sharp sentence of death spoken on an innocent man? It is for your sins that your Lord languished. Yes, all the wrath and anger of God for your sin was poured out on Jesus. All the punishment that you deserve for your sins was put on Jesus. The defilement of your heart was put on Jesus. The sinless Son of God died in sadness, so that you, the sinful child of man may live in gladness.

This is why we thank and praise God. Not because we’re such good Christians. Rather, because we miserable sinners have been forgiven; because we will not get the punishment that our sins deserve; because we will receive the gift of eternal life which we do not deserve.

Jesus has not forsaken us in our weakness. He continues to strengthen us through His Word. Since our strength will not suffice to crucify the desires that still entice us, He gives us His Holy Spirit to reign within us and win us to all good works. He gives us His own body and blood to continually give us the forgiveness of sins and nourish us to eternity.

Jesus knows our weakness. That’s why urges us to confession and absolution often. That’s why He urges us to holy Communion often.

Do you think Jesus is prescribing medicine that we don’t need? Are hearing His Word often and receiving His Sacrament often unessential and unnecessary for our lives? Far from it. It is through these that we receive forgiveness as He removes the defilement from our hearts. It is through these that He strengthens us to curb the symptoms of sin that flow from our hearts. It is through these that He gives us new desires to live a life pleasing to Him. It is through His Word and Sacrament that He brings us before His throne in heaven to give us the crown of joy at last, where with all the saints forever singing the sweetest hymns of praise, we too, will join with praise to our God (portions of these last paragraphs are rephrased from LSB 439). Amen.

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

[A note for readers: Beginning in Advent, we will begin using the One-Year Lectionary.]