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The James Series: Stung by the Tongue

James 3:1-12

We are called today to consider how we speak to others. As James notes, “all of us make many mistakes,” and we’re all familiar with what we sometimes call a slip of the lip.

For the preacher, the advantage of these verses lies in their ability to make everyone squirm, for truth be told, controlling our words is far from simple. The disadvantage is the preacher has reason to squirm, too. The problem of unholy speech is universal.

Our tongues reveal much about where we are in our walk with Christ. Unless we have reached a state of true holiness, our words will reveal our flaws. And yet, James isn’t saying, “Oh, well, nobody’s perfect.” Instead, he’s making it clear we need to develop a Christian way of speaking to each other and to a hurting world.

A lot of what James says about speech is very practical. Earlier, in the first chapter of James, we are advised to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, “for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” In many ways, James is simply repeating advice that had been circulating for centuries and still is valid today.

When I worked for a corporation, I had a boss who taught me this principle in regard to e-mail. Thanks to e-mail, text messaging, Facebook, and such, we can now quickly lash out at someone while typing, making our fingers as dangerous as our tongues.

A short-tempered project manager had used e-mail to attack me for something I had not done. I was furious, of course. My wise boss’s advice: Ignore it for 24 hours. “Write the response if you want,” he said, “but don’t hit ‘send’ until you’ve waited a day and considered it.”

I wrote it, and the next day I read my words again. In a calmer frame of mind, I actually deleted my response rather than hitting “send.” I suppose it was the Christian thing to do.

It also was a lot of fun because the project manager figured out on his own he had made a mistake, and for months I could see he was very nervous every time he was around me. I wondered what he was thinking: “Did Chuck get the e-mail? Does he know something I don’t? Is he friends with someone higher up the company ladder? WHAT’S ABOUT TO HAPPEN TO ME?”

Okay, maybe I enjoyed that last part in ways that weren’t so Christian. But the calm approach was very practical, for angry words, whether they come from our tongue or our fingertips, can be a very dangerous thing. Don’t ever let anyone tell you there’s not practical wisdom in the Bible.

A lot of this really is about self-control, isn’t it? Be the calm one. Be the one who speaks softly when others are angry. Control yourself, and you’ll control the situation. Bite your tongue. One mark of a Christian is a battle-scarred tongue, one that’s been bitten so often you can see the teeth marks.

There’s more to all of this, however, than just practical lessons. James raises the issue of how we speak, and other issues of behavior, so that we can look at ourselves critically and grow in our ability to love others as Christ loves us. Our tongue acts like a litmus strip, telling us if we’re out of balance with Christ.

Here’s a roundup of kinds of problem speech mentioned by James throughout his letter:

  1. Bad theology. In particular, in verse 1:13, he says you shouldn’t blame evils like temptation to sin on God. This ties to his admonition that one shouldn’t choose to teach unless he or she is clear about biblical truths.
  1. Making distinctions based on worldly criteria. Christ came for all, regardless of where they were born or how much money they have. This is in line with what we heard in last week’s text and sermon.
  1. Speaking empty words. James reminds us that it’s not enough to say kind words to people in need. Words of grace require acts of grace. Be careful what you promise!
  1. Speaking negatively of others, particularly brothers and sisters in the Christian community. (It’s hard, I know. We spend a lot of time with each other.) This should remind us of Jesus’s teachings in Matthew 18:15-17.
  1. Speaking of the future as if we’re in control. We don’t think about this one much, but it’s a powerful indicator of whether we’ve really turned our lives over to God.

If you’re feeling convicted about how you’ve used your tongue—I know I am—you may be asking that question the Jews asked after hearing Peter’s sermon at Pentecost: “What should we do?”

Biting your tongue does help, but it’s not a long-term solution. Remember, we cannot work our way into salvation. You could gnaw your tongue off trying to achieve holiness through your own strength. We begin with faith that Jesus saves us, and works proceed from there.

Do those things that grow your faith. Pray. Study your Bible. Be a true disciple of Christ, and not just someone who occasionally walks through the door on Sunday morning.

As we open ourselves to God, the Holy Spirit takes greater control of our lives. At some point, he finally gets hold of our tongues, and we then have taken great steps toward holiness. Over time, our words even can bring holiness to places where discouragement and despair once ruled.

Next week, we’ll be a bit mystical and talk about double-mindedness. I pray we will begin to see how holiness can work its way into the very core of our being.

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Authentic Imitations

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

When Paul and other epistle writers challenged Christians to exhibit certain behaviors, they were seldom trying to be comprehensive. It was more like they were providing a series of examples to think about, hoping the general principles of the Christian life would shine through.

Paul’s examples in today’s text are broad, though, giving insight into the inner and outer life of the spiritually healthy Christian.

Leading up to the text we are exploring today, Paul spoke of unity among Christ’s followers through the power of the Holy Spirit. He also compared the pre-Christian to the post-Christian life, calling the old life “false.”

“Stop telling lies” is one way to translate Paul’s initial exhortation. Specifically, I think Paul wanted all Christians to inject the truth of Christ’s sacrifice and Christ’s ongoing transformation of the world into everything we do. Never let the false worldview of the old life overwhelm the new.

When Paul moved on to the subject of anger, his approach was more pragmatic than Jesus’ hyperbolic “anger equals murder” statement. Paul was straightforward about the fact that Christians will continue to get angry. We are reminded that anger at times can be healthy, if it is the kind of anger we feel when we see sin and the damage it does. It is especially healthy if if we are moved to correct the wrong in a holy way.

The trick is to not be blinded by anger, to not react in a way where we begin to sin ourselves. Beware of anger that provokes action before thought and prayer.

In verses 28 and 29, where Paul said thieves should stop stealing and the foul-mouthed should become encouragers, we see how transformative a relationship with Christ should be. In a relationship with Christ, change should occur—sinners receive the power to walk away from the old life.

It’s a struggle at times. One of the problems with having been around journalism culture as a young man is I picked up some words and phrases I need to be sure I have put aside permanently. And yet, I keep slipping into them from time to time, like a pair of ratty shoes hiding in the back of my closet. I don’t want those words, phrases and negative ways of thinking to affect others, however.

Much of the rest of what Paul wrote serves as a reminder of why we change. We’re not trying to live up to some kind of new set of Christian commandments; we’re not earning our salvation. We’re responding with humility and great joy to the gift of eternal life Christ has given us.

We look at the God-man Jesus, the power he had, the rights he had as one carrying within his holy flesh the essence of the Creator, and we realize how he rendered himself powerless so as to redeem us from the deadly effects of sin.

We are called to imitate his sacrifice as best we can. We contain ourselves, lower ourselves, and make ourselves radically available to others so they, too, can find eternal life. In doing so, we simply are thanking God.

Through imitation, we become as authentic as human beings can be, knowing Christ makes us authentic enough to last forever.

A Crucial Question

Luke 24:1-12

If two angels ask a question, it is a question worth pondering.

The question comes as part of the angelic announcement that Jesus is risen from the dead, his body remade to be indestructible, a state of eternal living we describe as “resurrected.” It is a truth we celebrate whenever we gather as Christians to worship, and it is a truth celebrated in particular on Easter Sunday.

The question, “Why do you seek the living among the dead,” almost sounds rhetorical. I don’t think God intends us to read it that way, however. The question is as valid today as it was in the middle of a Jewish cemetery nearly 2,000 years ago. For those of us who acknowledge the truth of the resurrection, the question challenges our view of the world, our very approach to life.

Sometimes we can see people literally looking for life in the midst of death. A few years ago, at the last church I pastored, our community had problems for a few weeks with a group of what were either older teens or young adults. They had became enamored with the rural community cemetery next to our church building.

Dressed in black, they lounged against the headstones at twilight like they were on living room couches. Sometimes they took pictures of each other draped across the tombstones. I heard some of the photos were on a web site. It was weird.

I feel certain this was more than mischief, however. As misguided as they were, like all human beings, they were seeking some kind of deeper truth, some sort of connection with each other and to a larger purpose. But you cannot find life in the midst of death. We as a church wanted to reach them, but it was like trying to approach a conspiracy of ravens—their instinct was to fly away.

Other than paying our occasional respects to a loved one, most of us are not going to be found lingering in cemeteries. There are other similarly wrong ways to pursue truth, however, and we can inadvertently find ourselves hovering in the world of the dead. When we find ourselves in these situations, it’s good to ask ourselves why we seek Christ where Christ is not.

So many people seek truth through anger these days. But anger is something of the cemetery. Anger is rooted in woundedness and bitterness over slights and losses, real or perceived. How are we to find the living, resurrected Christ where there is anger?

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Those were Jesus’ words after nails had been driven through his flesh, pinning him to the wood to bleed and dangle until death.

Other people seek truth through what is temporary, and the world is full of temporary distractions. The distraction can be as noble sounding as deep commitment to work or sports or as deadly as drugs, but if it is not of God, then it obviously is not where you will find the risen savior.

Here’s a test for whether we’re searching where there is life. Remember the story of the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus? We know when we’re in the presence of the living Christ. What we are doing creates a holy burning within us.

When we sense the presence of the living Christ, everything begins to change. In the midst of a broken world we can feel the joy of eternity. Life, we realize, has boundless potential, simply because the resurrection tells us there are no more boundaries.

We also begin to live into the truth that even the cemetery one day will no longer contain death. In Christ, there ultimately is no death, no pain, no fear. Like Christ, we shall rise, remade holy and indestructible, ready to live forever in the presence of our creator.

Why would we look for anything else?