The Tongue – sermon preached on 16th September 2018

A reflection on the letter of James, Chapter 3 verses 1 to 12


The Revd Michael Graham

[1] Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

There, straight away, is a thing which makes me very nervous! I admit quite openly that I am no teacher, and I admire greatly those of you who are teachers.

But isn’t the truth of it that we are all, in one way or another, teachers? Either formally because that is or was our job, or in the home, in the workplace, or even in our daily lives? We who claim the name Christian are, in fact, teachers of others by our words and our actions. They look to us to see how we proclaim and, perhaps more importantly, how we live our faith.

Remember those words – We who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

[2] For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.

I wonder if any of us could claim to make no mistakes when speaking?

[3] If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies.

[4] Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.

Isn’t that so true? I’ll admit to being a bit frightened of horses – to me they’re so huge and yet with just a small bridle in their mouths these powerful beasts can be directed – by somebody else. As regards the rudder on a ship – imagine one of those huge super tankers yet such a relatively small thing can guide it safely through the seas.

[5] So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

[6] And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.

Here’s the nub – just as the small rudder can guide the whole tanker, so the small tongue – that relatively tiny muscle in our mouths – can guide our whole being, can set us on fire – either with love or with the poisonous venom which can come from our lips. Anyone who has seen or been near to a forest fire can see how it rages out of control – and James tells us the tongue can do the same to us.

And here we have to update James’s words to include that bane of our modern society – so-called social media, though  what on earth is social about it I do not know. Personally I wouldn’t go near any of them with the proverbial ten-foot barge pole, yet there are those whose lives revolve around such things as Facebook or Twitter. And the words that we heard this morning relating to the tongue relate ten-fold to the published word, especially published on the Internet, because those words will never go away.

And, sadly, we here in St. Andrew’s know all about the use of, for example, Facebook to run down and denigrate not only individuals but also the church, be it parish, diocese or the wider church.

So bearing this in mind let’s continue with our exposition of these verses from James’s letter:

[7] For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species,

[8] but no one can tame the tongue–a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

Even the wildest beast can be tamed, but not that small muscle in our mouths.

“A wise man’s heart guides his mouth, and his lips promote instruction. Pleasant words are a honeycomb sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” the book Proverbs says in Chapter 16:verses 23-24

But Proverbs also tells us in Chapter 11 and verse 9: “With his mouth the godless destroys his neighbour

[9] With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.

[10] From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.

That’s so true, isn’t it? With the same tongues that we use for prayer, that we use here this morning as we come together in this Thanksgiving to God, that we use to praise and uplift and bless – with that same tongue we spitefully drag down, we swear, we lie and we curse. And we do this to those who, like us, are made in the very image of God – the image which his Son Jesus took upon himself in the incarnation.

Verse 10 continues:

My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.

[11] Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?

[12] Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

And that at the end of the day is the awful reality. For how can this tongue really mean those words of praise and blessing when it has been defiled with words of hate and anger, not only verbally but also, as I said, on the likes of Facebook? No – the spring cannot give both fresh and brackish water – the fresh water will always be tainted as it comes out.

Listen to the words of Paul in his letter to the Colossians, Chapter 3, verses 8 and 9:

“But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”

And finally, from Ephesians chapter 4 and verse 29:

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths [or from your fingertips and keyboard], but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen [or read them].”

And so:

“Let the words of our mouths and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.” Amen