“To What Shall We Compare the Tongue?” (James 3:1-12)

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 12, 2021

“To What Shall We Compare the Tongue?” (James 3:1-12)

Do you know you carry around with you, all the time, a very dangerous weapon? It’s not very big, but it can do a lot of damage. And it’s a weapon that can be very hard to control. In fact, you and I quite often do not use it as carefully as we should. What is this dangerous, hard-to-control, little weapon you have on your person? Of course, I’m talking about your tongue. And so is St. James. He’s talking about it, also, in our Epistle reading for today. So let’s look at that now, under the theme: “To What Shall We Compare the Tongue?”

James starts out by talking about how pastors use their tongues. He says: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” In other words, those who teach in the church have a special–and heavy–responsibility. They must know the right doctrine and teach it correctly. A pastor should be careful about what he says, for how he speaks will influence people–hopefully in the right direction in their faith and life, and not in the wrong.

Then James goes on from there to expand his scope from pastors to all Christians and to the things that we say. He writes: “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.” We all stumble. That includes you and me. We all mess up, especially in the things that we say. The tongue is the hardest thing in our body for us to control.

To what shall we compare the tongue? Well, James makes several comparisons. He first compares it to the bit and bridle used to control a horse: “If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.” Think of the size of a bit that is put into a horse’s mouth. It’s not very big. It doesn’t look like it could do very much. But with it, a rider is able to guide a huge and powerful horse that weighs over a thousand pounds. The rider can make that horse go in whatever direction he chooses.

Your tongue is like that bit and bridle. How you choose to use your tongue can steer the whole direction of your life. You can go down the straight road or you can veer off into a wrong turn, all depending on how you use your tongue. Are there things that you have said that you later regret? Words that have ruined relationships? That have cost you a job or a promotion or a career advancement? Words that have cost you a marriage? We need to think before we speak and use our tongues wisely.

James goes on with another comparison: “Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.” A giant ship is controlled by a relatively small rudder. By controlling the rudder, the captain can avoid dangerous shoals and the rocks and the reefs. If he doesn’t–if he’s not alert, if he turns the rudder just a slight bit in the wrong direction–he could hit an iceberg and go down like the Titanic.

So it is with the tongue. We need to be aware of how we’re using our tongues at all times. “Loose lips sink ships,” the saying goes. And that applies not only to battleships but to other ships as well. Loose lips sink friendships. Loose lips sink relationships. Loose lips can even sink church fellowships. A loose tongue can sink all of those “ships.”

James continues with another comparison: “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.” Think of it: Just a small match or an untended campfire, a few smoldering embers–if you combine that with a tinderbox of dry wood, the next thing you know, you’ve got a big blaze, out of control. Think of those wildfires out west that always seem to come up around this time of year. The land is dry, the temperatures are hot, and it just takes a careless camper to set off a forest fire.

Smokey the Bear used to say, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Well, maybe you can’t, not by yourself, that is. Maybe you need some help. See, it’s not “only you,” but it’s the new you, the new person you are in Christ, who can better stop those fires from starting.

You need help. James says in our text, the tongue is “set on fire by hell.” The devil tempts us to use our tongue in evil ways, to deny our Lord and to damn our brother. Besides the devil, the world around us–what we hear from the media and the surrounding culture–the world would lead us to use our tongues in wrong, ungodly ways. Then there’s our own sinful flesh. Our tongue wants to speak according to our selfish desires. “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of,” and that’s true whether for good or for ill.

Brothers and sisters, we need God’s help to control our tongues. To what shall we compare the tongue? Well, compare it to the tongue of Christ, and you’ll see a great contrast. In the Old Testament Reading for today, the prophet Isaiah speaks of the Servant of the Lord, which is a prophecy about Jesus. And this Servant says: “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught.” How Jesus used his tongue was always wise, never inappropriate. When Jesus was being tempted by the devil, he overcame the tempter with the word of the Lord: “Thus it is written,” he said. When Jesus needed to denounce the scribes and the Pharisees, he called a spade a spade and said, “Woe to you, you hypocrites!” or “You brood of vipers!” Christ could justly speak a prophetic condemnation when that was what was called for.

But Jesus also used his tongue to comfort troubled sinners and to bring them a word of peace and forgiveness and refreshment. Again, from the Isaiah prophecy: “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary.” This is just what Jesus did with his tongue. Remember how he said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Jesus is speaking this comforting word to you today. Dear friends, listen to his voice. Are you weary from the weight of your sins? Come to Jesus your Savior. Are you loaded down with the burden of your conscience, knowing how often you have not used your tongue in the right way? Knowing how you have hurt the people around you with your words? How you’ve messed up your own life by the stupid things you have said? How you have failed to give God the glory he is owed?

Beloved, come to Christ today and lay your burden down. Jesus took the weight of your sins and the burden of your guilt, and he carried it to the cross for you. He died in your place, the holy Son of God did, taking all the judgment on himself, so that it would not fall on you. Jesus speaks a word of forgiveness for us sinners: “Father, forgive them,” he says. He speaks the word of forgiveness to you, into your ears: “Take, eat; take, drink; this is my body, this is my blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” And with this forgiveness, you have life, live everlasting and a new life even now.

A new life, and a new tongue. Now the Holy Spirit will lead you to use your tongue in new and creative ways. Not to tear others down, but to build them up. To bless others with the things that you say. To praise God for his many mercies. To pray for our world and for those in need. The Spirit gives us tongues to speak words of blessing, words that will be helpful, not hurtful. You have been given a new tongue, my fellow baptized.

And we have a new awareness of our old sinful nature, with which we still need to contend. We pray the Lord’s help to control our tongues, for even as Christians “we all stumble in many ways.” Our prayer will be like that of the psalmist who said: “Set a watch before my mouth, O Lord, and guard the door of my lips.” Or as we sang in the hymn: “Keep me from saying words that later need recalling; guard me lest idle speech may from my lips be falling.” We can pray a prayer like this: “Lord, help me to control my tongue, to keep it from uttering wrong and hurtful things. And forgive me for the times I have done that. Help me to use my tongue to speak forth good and helpful things. For that is your will for me, and you have given me a new nature and a new tongue to do just that.”

Brothers and sisters, God will answer such a prayer. He does indeed forgive you. And in a moment, you will receive on your tongue the very body and blood of Christ with which he won your forgiveness. Be assured of that.

To what shall we compare the tongue? A bit? A rudder? A fire? Now in Christ we can make a new comparison. When it’s a tongue that has been drenched in the waters of Holy Baptism–and yours has–your tongue will be like a spring of fresh water, bringing blessing and refreshment into the dry places of life, for you and those around you. For in your tongue, God has given you a wonderful instrument with which you can praise your Lord and bless your neighbor. It is small. It is powerful. And you carry it around with you at all times. I’m talking about your tongue.

Published in: on September 11, 2021 at 8:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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