“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (James 3:1-2).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
There once was a man who, while listening to a sermon in church was convicted of his sin, and he set out to do better. “I have sinned against [God] in thought, word, and deed,” he’d said week after week, but this day he especially sensed it was true. He reasoned that his evil thoughts often caught him off guard and might be difficult to change. His evil actions, he decided, were often a product of his thoughts and words. So he would first focus on his words; his words were more likely something he could change. If he could catch himself before he said something he’d regret, he would also have more control over things he did and, in time, perhaps eventually even over the things he thought.
For a while, the man was very successful. He always took his time. He didn’t speak without first considering what he would say. Oh, he wasn’t perfect, but then who is? As time went on, though, he found himself back to his old habits. He hurt people with what he said. He created problems for himself with what he said. “I’ll try even harder,” he thought, and he committed himself to being more diligent. But the harder he tried, the more he failed, or so it seemed. Finally, he gave up.
The story, really, is the same for every one of us, isn’t it? The only question then is this: What do we mean when we “give up”? Are we simply defeated? Or is there a “giving up” that’s really moving forward?
Again this morning (evening), the Epistle confronts Christians of every age—and so also each one of us—with the inconsistences between faith and actions. The warning we hear this morning (evening) is very clear, and what’s also clear is that no one is immune. “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:5b-6).
We need to respect the mighty power of the words we speak. “Talk is cheap,” people say. “Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you.” James strongly disagrees. Although words seem to be merely moving air, although the tongue is just a three-inch muscle, wet, floppy, and only partially visible, it is tremendously powerful. Like a tail that wags the dog, the tongue drives our lives. James gives examples of little things that have big effects:
- The bit in horses’ mouths. That little piece of steel in a horse’s mouth, when managed properly, can control a 1,500 pound animal with the lightest touch.
- The rudder on a ship. That little shaped plank, most invisible beneath the waterline, enables a captain to control the course of an immense ship filled with cargo, crew, and passengers.
- A spark in a forest. Under control, a spark can make a small fire to warm cold travelers and cook their food. Out of control, a spark can cause an inferno that can reduce thousands of acres of mighty trees to blackened, smoking stumps.
James thinks it urgent that people learn to control their mouths, not only to avoid hurting other people emotionally and spiritually. But an uncontrolled tongue can also turn on the uncontrolled talker, corrupting the whole person, poisoning his or her mind, and plunging the body into the dangers of the fires of hell.
In last week’s Epistle, James addressed the issue of favoritism, but many of us may have dismissed ourselves from those charges. “Not me; I would never show favoritism in church!” But now, his charges run deep and should cut deep into the heart of everyone who hears. Your tongue is an agent of harm. It is on fire with the fire of hell. “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue” (James 3:7-8a).
No fallen human, not one, is innocent—not you, not me, no one. And to drive the point home, James reminds us of what we are all too capable of doing: we can sit here in the Divine Service, praising our God in heaven, and then leave here cursing His most precious creations—other people. We praise God one moment, and then the next the very same tongue, can utter such filth about others and even to others. “Look what he’s doing! What a hideous man! Look at her! Imagine what God must think about her! O God, I thank you that I’m not like those people!”
St. Paul writes: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). James would agree wholeheartedly. His proof is the tongue. His proof is your tongue. Ours are tongues that cannot be tamed. Sure, we try. We try and we try. Just like the man in the opening story, we put our mind to fixing the problem. After all, we are children of God. Such a fiery tongue is not befitting us. Wouldn’t God want us to tame it so that it speaks only words that glorify Him? Sure he would. He does. But the harder, we try, it seems, the worse we do.
James offers the hypothetical perfect man: “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body” (James 3:2b). It is as if James is saying, “If anyone could do this without flaw… well, that guy would be perfect in every way, wouldn’t he?” But I am not a perfect man. Neither my tongue nor my body is bridled. With St. Paul, I must confess: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).
So, is there nothing we can do? Are we doomed to live this life in a never-ending battle against a tongue that would just as soon destroy us as it would honor the God of our salvation? Well, in a way, yes, and in another, no. The battle will go on for each of us. But the very same words of the Epistle point us toward the victory that is ours in the battle. The battles rage on, but the war is already over. Listen again: “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle His own body” (James 3:2b).
And here is the good news of God’s grace toward imperfect men and women such as you and me—He sends us the perfect man. Isaiah writes of Him:
For He grew up before Him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:2–7).
There is one who bridled his tongue and bridled his whole body. There is one who lived the perfect life you and I cannot live. There is one who deserved none of what He received at the hands of those who hung Him on the cross, but silently suffered every moment as He bore the burden of our sinful tongues.
That perfect Man, our Savior Jesus Christ, lived and died and rose exactly because our tongues are “a fire, a world of unrighteousness” (James 3:6). He bridled His tongue even in the face of death so that we might receive His righteousness as He now lives in us. So we need not “give up,” not in the sense of living in despair or guilt. Instead, we live as children of our heavenly Father. We live as those given the inheritance of the only Son of God, who was silent on our behalf. We live by giving in.
Talk is not cheap. Words do wound. Words can build or destroy a person’s self-confidence. Words can turn someone’s proud achievement into humiliation. Words can create or destroy relationships. Words can spread hate or love. Words can sow truth or plant lies. Words can cause suspicion or build trust. Words are powerful. But God’s Word is even more powerful.
God’s Word is His means to rescue people from hell. A sermon, a Bible study, a catechism lesson, or an evangelism visit all look tame and ineffectual. But God’s power to save people, to create and sustain saving faith, rides with words, with His spoken and visible Word.
In the waters of Holy Baptism, that fire that burns from your tongue was extinguished. The Word of God that you hear fills your mind and your heart with the pure truth from God. That Word replaces all of the “other words” and gives your tongue something righteous to speak. As you receive the body and blood of Christ under the bread and the wine, in your mouth and on your tongue, by faith, the wounds inflicted on you by the things you say are healed. God’s grace is a saving flood that not even the fires of hell can stand against. And what you are helpless against on your own, you conquer in Christ.
There is no one perfect except Jesus. You will try to bridle your tongue and your body and your mind, but they will fail you. And though you will never stop trying, your trying must now be in Christ—giving up on yourself and giving in to Him. In Him, you receive the forgiveness of sins that goes beyond giving up. For, “all things are possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23b). What’s impossible for you, perfection, is yours in Christ. In the forgiveness of your sins, God makes you perfect—and thus renews you, strengthens you, and guides you according to His will.
Perfection comes only through the one perfect man, Christ, but it does come through Christ. In Christ, the story does not end for that man we heard of at the beginning of the sermon, nor does it end for you, in despair and uncertainty. In Christ, it ends in victory. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a). All is not lost, and your tongue, though it rages with the fire of hell, will not condemn you. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.