Text: James 3:1-12
Our bodies have some pretty amazing parts. One of them is the tongue. Ounce per ounce, it’s the strongest muscle in the body and one of the most sensitive. It heals faster than any other body part. The color of the tongue can help determine the status of your health. A pink tongue tells you that you are relatively healthy. A deep red or magenta tongue could be the sign of a folic acid deficiency. A white tongue could be the sign of a fungal infection. A yellowish tongue may indicate a problem with your liver or your gall bladder.
In my opinion, the most amazing thing about the tongue is how it allows us to taste. Those who have lost the ability to taste often lose their appetite, too. Taste is an important aspect of enjoying one of God’s First Article gifts … food! There are around 10,000 taste buds on the tongue, and each region of the tongue operates differently. The tip senses salty and sweet tastes. The base senses bitter tastes. The sides of your tongue sense sour tastes. And in each of those 10,000 taste buds there are ten to fifteen receptors that carry messages to the brain that allows you to experience all those different, wonderful taste sensations.
The tongue is a blessing. It can also be a curse. St. James says it’s a “fire” … “ a world of unrighteousness” … “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Human beings have been able to tame all sorts of wild animals, but no one can tame the human tongue. It’s like a bit in the mouth of a horse. One tug on the reins and the whole horse will move in that direction. Or it’s like a ship’s rudder. Strong winds fill the huge sails and push the ship ahead. But with one movement of the steering wheel, the little rudder controls the direction of the craft. The tongue is like that. Such a tiny instrument. Such big results. Perhaps it really is the strongest muscle … not in the amount it can lift, but in the damage it can do.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons why James warns that “not many of you should become teachers … for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Those who presume to teach the Christian faith had better take care what comes out of their mouths, what words and phrases they form with their tongues. They better make sure that what they are saying matches up with what God has already said in the Bible. We misuse the Lord’s name when we presume to speak in his name but tell falsehoods about him. We do not “hallow” God’s name when we “teach or live contrary to God’s Word.” Rather, we “profane the name of God.” We drag it through the mud and ruin God’s holy reputation. All this may have eternal consequences. It could direct someone away from faith in Christ, mankind’s only hope for forgiveness and salvation.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” That may be true about insults directed towards God. But it’s not true about you and me. Generations of parents have told this aphorism to their children to keep their feelings from being hurt when they are called names, made fun of, taunted by bullies. The fact is, words do harm. Words do hurt. They sting. They reach deep into a person’s soul and do great damage. Hurtful words spoken to you as a child may haunt you for years. Hurtful words spoken to you as an adult may haunt you for years. The passing of time and the accumulation of adult wisdom and maturity do not inoculate us from the infection of malicious insults.
But this problem does not just come from other people’s tongues. It comes from yours and mine, too. James wrote to Christians who had the same sinful natures as you and me. Like them, our tongues sing praises to God in one breath and curse our neighbor in the next. Just think how many times you have come to the Divine Service, heard God’s Word, confessed your sins, confessed faith in the Triune God in the creed, praised his holy name in liturgy and hymns, and later that day someone angered you and you had some “choice” words for them. Maybe it’s not later that day. Maybe you’ve had some choice words under your breath for someone with whom you shared a pew during the service. This is wrong, James says. Each human being is made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, we should not curse them. 1 John 4:20 says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). James says to his hearers – and to you and me – “My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” Repent.
Jesus Christ is the Word made Flesh. He is the very incarnate God. He is the preeminent image and likeness of God. The author of Hebrews states, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). St. Paul writes in Colossians 1, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:15-21).
This is who Christ is. The perfect image and likeness of God because he was and is God in the flesh. “We all stumble in many ways,” James says. “And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body.” Jesus is the only one who never stumbled in what he said, thought, or did. He was in control of himself the whole time. And yet, during his earthly ministry, he was cursed – not blessed – by the tongues of men. He “gave [his] back to those who strike, and [his] cheeks to those who pull out the beard; [He] hid not [his] face from disgrace and spitting” (Is. 50:6). Jesus endured sticks and stones directed toward him. He was nailed to two wooden sticks and crucified there, although he had done nothing wrong. The stones of insults and mockery were hurled at him, and he never retaliated. This was God’s plan to save you from your sins, by laying them upon the unblemished Lamb of God as the sacrifice for the sins of the world. Your sins are covered over. You are free from the guilt and shame and punishment that sin brings. The words of blessing from the mouth of Christ, even while bleeding and dying on the cross, make that perfectly clear: “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). At another time he said, “Truly I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter” (Mark 3:28). Whatever curses, whatever nastiness, whatever ugly words have been uttered by your tongue and directed toward others or even toward Jesus … they are all forgiven.
Not long after the Israelites had passed through the Red Sea, they travelled for three days and found no water. They reached the place called Marah, and there was water there. But it was bitter. Undrinkable. You know it must have been bad when, after three days without water, you can’t drink even the most brackish water you find. Moses cried out to the Lord and the Lord pointed out a log to Moses. Moses picked up the log, threw it in the water, and the water became sweet (Ex. 15:23-25).
Our hearts are full of bitter water. But the message of the cross of Christ is thrown into your bitter water. You are drenched with the sweet, refreshing, cleansing water of Holy Baptism. Your sins are forgiven. The Holy Spirit dwells within you and makes you new. He turns the salt ponds within you into a new source of fresh water pouring forth … words that no longer curse, but bless. And Jesus continues to place upon your tongues his body and blood, forgiving you and strengthening you in your resolve to use your lips and tongues and mouths in his service.
Give us lips to sing Thy glory,
Tongues Thy mercy to proclaim,
Throats that shout the hope that fills us.
Mouths to speak Thy holy name. (LSB 578:5)