Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

Taming the Tongue
or “Escaping the sound of our own voice

Message preached September 16, 2012
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon James 3:1-12

Order of Worship

listen to this in mp3 format

Do you remember the first time you ever heard your own voice?  I do.  It was back in the late 1960’s, when I was in junior high. My best friend, David Mills, had an old reel-to-reel tape recorder, the kind which took a while to warm up (back when everything took time to warm up). There was a glowing tube on the surface of the machine that let you know it was ready. When you spoke into the microphone the light would flicker so you would know that it was working.

Anyway, one day we were goofing off with it and recorded ourselves. I vividly remember laughing my head off right up until the moment I heard myself speak. Then, it was like a switch flipped within me. It wasn’t funny anymore. I was embarrassed by it, so much so that I made my friend immediately go back and erase everything. Then I ran home, I suppose to escape the sound of my own voice. I can still see David’s face as he wondered what was up with me.

For many of us, the fear of speaking up in public is related to the embarrassment of listening to our own voice. We hold the microphone away from ourselves, for it can become like a mirror - echoing back to us something we’d rather not hear. Of course, as an old saying goes, some folks become “enamored of their own voice.” They seem to delight in it. Some of these persons become preachers, or politicians.

Brother James has a few things to say about the human voice, doesn’t he? The metaphor he uses is that of the “tongue,” which helps to shape the words that come from our mouths. Actually, the tongue itself, which is but an organ in the human body, is not to blame for what we utter. It acts only under orders from the brain, as we know today. I think brother James knew the tongue (as a bodily organ) wasn’t the real culprit. It just provided a means for talking about human foolishness.

This little letter from brother James has sometimes been referred to as the “Wisdom” literature of the New Testament, corresponding to such works in the Hebrew portion of the Bible as the book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Brother James offers no ifs-ands-or-buts wisdom. This is “down-to-earth” theology. At times what he has to say has a very comfortable feel to it, sort of like the clothes we might choose to wear every day because of how they “fit” us just right. At other times, however, his words scratch our skin, they “itch like heaven,” they are anything but comfortable.

The section we’re listening to today may make us feel downright “edgy.” In it, our brother James hits us in the everyday. Aside from those who have chosen a lifestyle of silence in some monastery, words surround our days. We chatter up a storm from the moment we rise to the minute we lay our head back down. Most of the time we don’t give a second thought to the things we say.

It’s a good thing we didn’t use this scripture last Sunday, when we dedicated our Sunday School program. When a church seeks to recruit persons to help pass on the faith, it may feel counterproductive to quote brother James, who wrote, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” (3:1) I doubt James served on any Sunday School committee.  “Hello, Martha, would you be willing to teach next month? I do need to say at the outset, however, that if your answer is yes, someone will be looking over your shoulder, judging your every word....”

At this point in his discourse, brother James does admit, “For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect...” (3:2) That’s usually our comeback, isn’t it? “Nobody is perfect,” we declare, and then we make the next step beyond by saying, “so that’s okay.” Brother James doesn’t take that next step. It’s not okay to settle for mediocrity, according to him.

Maybe his reasons for encouraging a continued striving for Christ-like perfection had to do with the world in which he lived. If he was indeed the brother of Jesus, he knew the stakes. Jesus himself was judged before a human court, and even though he was thoroughly acquitted of any wrongdoing (besides upsetting the status quo), he was condemned to die. “James the Just,” the “brother of Jesus,” himself faced another court many years later and reached a similar fate. He reminds us, though, that there is another court before which all of humanity must stand. Before our Creator we will all account for our lives. Have we been faithful, or have we settled for mediocrity, for the way the world usually turns?

Now, the great reformer Martin Luther was not a big fan of this letter because he felt James depended more upon human effort in striving for perfection, than upon simple trust in Christ as the One who justifies us, who makes our relationship with God right, by faith. I’m one who feels James got a bum rap on this charge, mainly because he is judged for what he doesn’t say, rather than for what he does say. Admittedly, brother James doesn’t say everything that needs to be said.

Just like I don’t say everything that needs to be said every Sunday. In reality I can’t. By faith, though, I trust that the words I have omitted are conveyed in other ways - through hymns and prayers and, most important, by the unseen work of the Holy Spirit. I believe brother James operated in a similar way. There seems to be much he simply assumes, that it is only by the power of God’s Spirit that we can even attempt to live out our faith, to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (1:22). Another unspoken assumption is the belief that Christ will stand with us on Judgment Day as our defense attorney, the outcome of our trial a foregone conclusion because he has taken our punishment for us. That assumption, however, is not an excuse for mediocrity - whether back in the day of our brother James, or in this present age.

We may not face the type of human court that judged and condemned James to die long ago (then again, we might - no one but God knows the future). There are other earthly courts out there, you know. Will we be judged as hypocrites by our neighbors, especially when it comes to the casual way we treat the words we speak? That is the nail our brother James, as a spiritual carpenter, is trying to drive home in this morning’s scripture. Let’s be honest, it hurts. When it comes to the tongue, we’re all guilty as sin! And you know what, James claimed that same position. “All of us” make mistakes, he said, himself included.

What matters is that we seek to control the tongue, and not carelessly flap it around in our jowls. Now, is James referring to mindless profanity? Does he mean harmful gossip? Is he writing about verbal abuse? Thankfully, he doesn’t get too specific, so that we can apply what he says to all of the above, and more.

When it comes to profanity, it has become so ingrained in our society that we don’t give a second thought. Let me ask, though, does it add anything? Granted, there are moments when a good “expletive deleted” is a release that allows us to become more civil, but usually the result is the opposite. Is the answer to the difference between our inner thoughts and outer actions to stoop to the lowest common denominator? Is that freedom, or is it just another form of tyranny?

The story is told of a man who went for a haircut. The barber chattered away as he worked, practically every other word a reference to this bodily function or that unmentionable act. Finally the man had enough. He reached out, pulled the barber toward him, tugged on his own ear, and said, “does this look like a sewer?” (abridged from The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart, by Chas. Swindoll, p. 531) Sometimes we need to say, “enough is enough.”

Our mindless use of words isn’t just a matter of taking the Lord’s name in vain. It involves how we treat others, and that is intimately connected to our relationship with our Maker. Did you know, for instance, that in Old English the words “gossip” and gospel” have the same root? The first three letters were originally “god,” as in “godsibb” (being related to another person, as “sib”lings under God), and “godspel” (telling “god” news, or good news). While “gospel” has retained its meaning, “gossip” has come to mean habitually revealing personal, intimate, sensational facts about another person. What has been lost is the relationship, being “sib”lings under God.

When we speak about another person, when they are not around, are we being true to them, as a brother or sister in Christ, or are we pretending when it comes to relationships, secretly reveling in an intimacy which is not ours to claim? In a day and age when people are starved for intimacy, for real contact, are we answering with the real thing? Are we faithful to others, treating them with confidence, i.e. with faith? These are critical questions. I’m afraid we all fall short in our answers, don’t we?

Our tongues also let loose when we are face to face, and not just behind the back. Lord knows I’ve been guilty of this with my own family, even. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” the old saying goes. Hogwash! Words can do great damage. An outer bruise can heal more quickly than an inner one. We’re in the middle of a great debate in our society over words, especially in this highly charged, politically divided age, fueled by the Internet and 24/7 cable talk.

We have “freedom of speech.” Does this mean that anything goes? It’s not merely a matter of being “politically correct,” but of remembering that the ground we all stand upon is sacred territory. This week we saw the effect that a negative video posted online had upon the broader world stage. It gave an excuse for the assassination of our U.S. ambassador to Libya by extremists who felt this video blasphemed Mohammed. Now, there is no excuse for what these terrorists did on the anniversary of 9/11, but the point remains - Words matter!

Sanctuary does not end when we leave this building. All of life is sacred. We are standing on holy ground no matter where we are. Isn’t that what our brother James is trying to tell us when it comes to the use of our tongues – paying attention to the things that we say? It’s not a matter of prudishness, taking offense at the slightest infraction, but of seeking to take control of our own words, with God’s power. Of course, we all stumble in this regard. We fall back into the arms of a loving God to pick us up when we trip. That, however, is not an excuse for saying harmful and hateful things. Faith leads us to better than that.

Several years ago, I picked up a print at our annual conference. Once home, it was put in a frame and hung on the wall above our dining room table. The quote on this print was something I took to heart at the time, something I need to remember all the time. It reads: “Words are so powerful they should be used to heal, to bless, to prosper.” In the background are a multitude of words, such as “hope, renewal, laughter, integrity, sorrow, light, wholeness, love...”

May God help flip this switch in us all, such that we need not run to escape the sound of our own voice.

©2012 (revised from 2000) Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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