Pentecost 17 – Series B – Proper 19 (September 16, 2018)
“With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” (James 3:1-12)
“With great power comes great responsibility.” So says Uncle Ben. No, not the Uncle Ben of rice product fame. I’m talking about Peter Parker’s uncle. Peter Parker, also known as Spiderman. Ben told Peter that now famous axiom after Peter began to discover his “Spidey-powers.”
“With great power comes great responsibility.” That goes for pastor and teachers in God’s Church, too, because, as James tells us, they “will be judged with greater strictness.” They have no power of their own ... only the authority of God's Word. It’s important to get things right when it comes to teaching God’s Word. We need to know the truth well, teach it correctly, and measure our words carefully so we don’t steer anyone off the right path.
But this is not just for pastors and teachers. We all need to measure our words carefully. We have the power of God’s Word on our lips, too … the power of the Gospel to forgive and to convert dead hearts. And yet we stumble in our words. From the same mouth that carries the blessings of the Gospel comes cursing. We all stumble in many ways, James says. There are no perfect people. No one is able to bridle their whole body, much less that tiny little organ called the tongue.
James makes the point that there are many small things that control big things. A tiny bit can control a horse. A small rudder controls a huge ship. What other examples would James use today if he had lived in the 21st century? Perhaps James might write about computer programs and how one bad line of code can cause a serious error or failure in an otherwise large program.
James was also well aware of what a tiny spark can do in a forest, just like we experienced here earlier this summer. One little spark started the fires to the north and east of us. Soon, thousands of acres were engulfed in hellish flames, causing destruction and death. The effects spread well beyond the burn zone, with ash and smoke for thousands of miles. And James says, “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.”
The words that come from our tongue have lingering effects. Gossip and slander. Bullying. Insults. Condescension. Hurtful, angry words. They can be like a knife that stabs. They can feel like a hand that reaches in and rips your soul out and throws it on the ground to be stomped on and ground it into the dust. The tongue is a restless evil … it doesn’t stop until it gets what it wants. It is a deadly poison … it is a soul destroying evil, both for the one who misuses their tongue, and for the one who is on the receiving end. This is deadly in families and in congregations as the effects spread like smoke from a wildfire; even after the fire has been put out, the effects linger for days. And it is set on fire by hell … the source of this evil really is the devil himself. He loves to cause mayhem, distress, despair, and division. Where we see this, we know Satan is at work.
The Israelites had been given great power: the very presence of God in their midst and his wonder working to rescue them from Egypt, bring them through the Red Sea, through the wilderness, and settle them in the Promised Land. And with great power came great responsibility: to be a light to the Nations, to witness to the mercy and compassion of Yahweh. But they were rebellious. They turned away from the Lord. They used their tongues to complain and gripe against the Lord’s gifts to them. They used their tongues to worship and praise other gods rather than the one true God. They used their tongues to curse the prophets whom God had sent to call them to repentance. And so, God scattered them and sent them off into exile in Babylon. The prophet Isaiah foretold this and spoke of the abandonment and loneliness they would face when God would send them off into a foreign land, away from the land of promise, away from the temple where God promised that his very real presence would dwell.
But here in our text, Isaiah says “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may sustain with a word him who is weary.” Is Isaiah talking about himself? No, he seems to be talking about someone else who is to come. Someone unique. Someone very different from the prophets. Bible scholars over the years have called this section in Isaiah 50 one of Isaiah’s Servant Songs. Several times, Isaiah speaks of this great Servant of the Lord who is to come, who would rescue Israel from their sins. Isaiah gives us another clue about who this Servant is: “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.” Sounds like Jesus. Because it is Jesus.
Jesus had the tongue of those who are taught … one who had been instructed in the Word of God. Yes, even Jesus – although he was God in the flesh – still had to grow up and learn the Scriptures. It was clear that he had a keen insight into those Scriptures as a child. Remember the account of his experience as a 12 year old in the temple and how the teachers were amazed at his wisdom.
Isaiah goes on and has the Servant say, “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious.” Jesus also listened carefully to his Father’s instruction. He was never rebellious, never stumbled, but he was in word and deed perfect in every way. With great power came great responsibility … and Jesus used both his power and responsibility to serve you with his very own life.
Jesus faced both the lash of the whip and the lash of the tongues of his opponents. Yet he set his face like flint, even well before the cross. Luke 9:51 says, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” A face like flint. Rock-steady. Determined to fulfill his destiny in Jerusalem to die for you and me, to pay the price for all our sins, including the sins of our tongues.
With his tongue, he sustains with a word those who are weary …
… Weary from guilt over the way we have misused our tongues, and he says, “I forgive you.”
… Weary from the way we have been beaten down by the tongue lashing of others, when you have felt disgraced and spit upon, and he says, “I love you, no matter what anyone else says to you. You are baptized. You are mine. You are precious to me. You are the apple of my eye.”
The Lord helps you … therefore you have not been disgraced. Therefore, you can set your face like flint against the devil as he uses the words of others to tear you down and tear you apart. You are vindicated by the Servant Jesus who suffered for you.
With great power comes great responsibility. Not to respond with more hurtful words, but to respond with the power of a renewed heart and the power of a forgiven, cleansed tongue. A new heart that God has made into a fresh spring from which comes words that seek not to harm, but to help … not to hurt, but to heal … words that seek to encourage, to edify, and to bless.