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.]

Walking as Christians

Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost based on Ephesians 4:17-5:2

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

Through Baptism, you are clothed in Christ. Christ Jesus has claimed you from darkness and ignorance. He has taken you from walking in the futility of your mind to walking as His baptized child. As a consequence of this, you have been changed and are not to follow the old man which is corrupt through deceitful desires; you are not to follow the desires of the flesh.

The Holy Spirit tells us through the apostle Paul in our Epistle lesson that we Christians are not to walk as the pagans and unbelievers of the world. We are given several examples of how we are to be different from unbelievers: “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil… Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (4:25-32)

With the Fifth Commandment, God protects the body, with the Sixth the spouse, and with the Seventh temporal possessions. Just as God does not want our neighbour’s money or possessions taken away from him, God does not want his reputation, good name, and upright character taken away from him, so God gave us the Eighth Commandment (cf. LC 255-256). God knows how many families have been destroyed by gossip and slander and how many congregations have been split because of people breaking the Eighth Commandment.

God’s command to not bear false witness against our neighbour includes the particularly detestable, shameful vice of speaking behind a person’s back and slandering, to which the devil spurs us on. It is a common evil plague that everyone prefers hearing evil about their neighbour rather than good, although we ourselves are so bad that we cannot suffer that anyone should say anything bad about us (LC 264).

This is what unbelievers do. They destroy the reputations of others so that jobs are lost, careers and marriages ended, and mobs rise up to judge what is not their place to judge. You are commanded not to do the same.

You are then warned by the Holy Spirit to not sin in anger. “It is better not to be angry at all. But if one does fall into anger he should at least not be carried away by it toward something worse.” (Chrysostom) On no account are you to be carried into swelling rapids by the impulse of rage (Jerome). You are commanded to not give rein nor yield to the impulse and promptings of wrath, but to beware of doing what your wrath would have you do (Luther).

Instead of sinning in anger, you are to not let the sun go down on your anger. You are to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. You are to be reconciled with God and with those who have made you angry, rather than giving the devil the opportunity to lead you into other sin because of your anger.

You are told put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and slander and clamour, along with all malice. Bitterness is a resentful attitude of the heart that arises from the belief that you have been treated wrongly. Clamour is angry shouting and malice is an attitude of ill-will towards others and the desire to do them harm. The connection between these can be seen in anger leading to bitterness and angry shouting, to lying and speaking ill of someone, and anger can even lead to the desire to do them harm.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. How is it that you can forgive someone who has sinned against you? Because God in Christ has forgiven you.

God forgave you all your sins through Baptism, but because you have sinned since Baptism and have been angry and gossiped and slandered and been bitter and shouted angrily and desired harm to others, thus God forgives you again and again. The entire Christian life is a continual return to your Baptism, a continual drowning of the Old Adam by daily contrition and repentance.

The danger of not daily being sorry for your sins and repenting of them is also mentioned in our text. Impenitence is the same as having a hard heart and being calloused. When sins are constant and repeated without repentance, you begin to be calloused to the sins, and your hard heart does not feel the accusations of your conscience. You start to argue that it is no big deal that you talk about someone behind his back; that you are justified in your anger; that your bitterness is right because you have been mistreated. That is not the way you learned Christ! Repent. Repent and believe the Gospel.

For you, Jesus suffered bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander and malice. Jesus was treated unfairly but He did not become bitter. In anger and wrath Jesus was stricken, smitten, and afflicted. Even crucified He still bore clamour and slander and malice.

Jesus died on the cross for your sins, but He is not bitter with you. Jesus suffered the righteous and just wrath and anger of God over your sins, but He is not wrathful or angry with you. Jesus suffered for your sins of anger and slander and gossip and lying but He bears you no ill-will.

Jesus is tender-hearted, forgiving you all your sins because He loved you and gave Himself up for you, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. His fragrant offering covers the foulness of your sins.

Daily repentant of your sins. Be sorry for your sins and trust in Jesus for forgiveness because He will never withhold it from you. He gives you His body and blood for the forgiveness of all your sins and through them strengthens you to eternal life, so you know you have His forgiveness.

In Baptism you have put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. All your sins are covered. You are righteous and holy. Thus, you do not walk as the pagans do. You walk as a child of God because your sins are covered by the blood of Jesus. Amen.

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