Pentecost 16-B James 3:1-12; Isaiah 50:4-10
Grace and mercy to you in the name of God the Father’s redeeming servant, Jesus the Christ, amen! This morning we are going to meditate on both our epistle reading from James and the Old Testament reading from Isaiah.
On a windswept hill in an English country churchyard stands a drab, gray slate tombstone. The quaint stone bears an epitaph not easily seen unless you stoop over and look closely. The deceased had breathed their last on May 24th and the faint etchings read as follows:
Beneath this stone, a lump of clay,
lies Arabella Young,
Who on the twenty-fourth of May,
began to hold her tongue. (Source unknown)
It may seem impossible to “hold our tongue” when we’re faced with so many injustices in the world and so many against us. Our mothers teach us that if you have nothing nice to say than you have nothing to say at all, but how hard it is not pass on the really juicy news or gossip. How hard it is not to strike back with words when we’ve been injured. James writes, in fact, that “no human being can tame the tongue” (James 3:8). Perhaps the only way short of death like Arbella Young is to be mute ourselves. But as Jesus cast out a demon who had made a boy mute, so he sets us free from bondage to the devil and sin so that we have something new to say and sing about:
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise. (Ps 51:15)
But again, the Word of God in James confronts us with the tension of the inconsistency of our faith and actions. “O Lord, open my lips…” King David sung after he had sinned by lying with Bathsheba. “O Lord, open my lips…” he prayed after he was caught in adultery, in a web of lies, and the murder of Urriah. Next time you sing David’s prayer in the liturgy remember this: David’s prayer is an open confession of a sinner that admits that it takes an act of God to open our lips so our tongues will be used for righteous purposes. When we say “O Lord, open my lips…” we could also say, “Lord, unless you open my lips, I am unable to declare your praise.”
“With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come cursing and blessing.” writes James. No human is innocent of this says James. Last week he talked about showing favoritism in Church. That’s a charge likely most of us ducked under unscathed; though we are liars if we say we are unprejudiced and never play favorites. Yet, this one against the tongue is one no one can dodge unless he is mute. Even being mute doesn’t absolve the mind and the heart from which our words come. In an election year, what sins have our tongues brought upon us? In a world full of information and the ability to communicate across the Internet what guilt have our tongues (or fingers) brought upon us? What filth passes to others and about others from the same mouths that bless God? James is asking us all to ponder that and it’s not very fun to do. To be quite honest about it I’d like to move on and not think too long about it.
There are so many motivations for using our tongues in sinful ways. We haven’t time for an exhaustive list since our motivations are such difficult things to always grasp. We’ve all had instances where people used their tongue to bless us just so they could gain some advantage over us. Their intentions seem righteous at first, but later you discover otherwise. Have you ever used flattering words with the cashier at a store when you’re trying to return something without the receipt? The tongue and words can be a tricky thing that way. Isn’t it strange how loving concern for our neighbor and gossip can bleed into one another so quickly? Whatever it may be we often use our words to gain some advantage for ourselves. We’ll flatter someone so we can get something from them or have them think well of us. We’ll gossip to look better or feel important for being in the know. We’ll use words to strike back when someone has hurt us; taking vengeance for ourselves, being judge and jury instead of letting God defend us. That’s ultimately what it comes down to when we use our tongues for ill. We don’t trust God to do our talking for us!
Think of Eve when she was tempted by the Serpent. She added to the Word of God saying that God had said not even to touch the tree of knowledge. He never said that. He only said not to eat of it. Touching was not forbidden. Instead of letting God do the talking for her Eve tried to gain some advantage on her own by mincing words with the evil one. At that moment sin had the advantage. We don’t trust God to do our talking for us, but He already has!
That brings us to our lesson from Isaiah 50. The voice of this text is the voice of the Servant of the Lord found through chapters 40-55. This is the tongue of the Suffering Servant of from that familiar Good Friday passage, “he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” Here in chapter 50 He says, “The Lord has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary.” He’s speaking to the church, to each of us. Just before this in verse 2 God had asked, “Why, when I called, was there no one to answer?” There were no ears to hear; no tongues to confess; no mouths to open and declare God’s praise. Only the Servant is there. He is the only one who is taught by God so that He can speak words of comfort. He is the only one who morning by morning awakens to God to listen so He may then speak properly.
It’s later recorded in John 8 that this servant, Jesus, said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.” Only the Servant promised in Isaiah used the tongue always to the praise and glory of the Father. He trusted the Word the Father gave to Him. As true man Jesus trusted the Word of God perfectly. The same Word of God that said He would the world’s servant to save it from sin.
So committed to this Word the Suffering Servant says in verse 7 “I have set my face like flint.” And why does He say He can do this? “The Lord God helps me…” that’s why. He set his face like flint and for Him was He faced was tougher than nails. In addition to the nails He would give his “back to those his strike” and his “cheeks to those who pull out the beard.” He “hid not” his “face from disgrace and spitting.” Still He did this. Despite all the curses the tongues of men poured on him. Despite the denials that would cross the lips of his dearest friends. Despite one of His very own used his tongue to betray Him into the hands of sinful men.
Look. The sky darkened, Jesus hangs between two criminals. Jesus speaks, “Father forgive them…” Words of blessing not a curse. Jesus speaks again, “Eloi Eloi lema sechbachthani. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” The only curse is the one He bears for us. Jesus speaks, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” A thief is comforted by the one with the tongue of those who are taught. Listen, he breathes deeply, “Tetelestai”, Jesus’ final Word, “It is finished.” The veil in the temple is rent. The sacrificial blood of the lamb is poured. The curse is removed and the sacrifice is complete. Death is defeated. Paradise is restored. Was this a cry of defeat? No, it’s a cry of victory for you! Let God do the talking. “It is finished!” The Father welcomes you, the good Shepherd embraces you, the Spirit calls you to God’s infinite love.
Three days later this Servant Jesus is raised and notice something about His Words. The resurrected Christ says to His disciples, “Peace be with you!” No longer words of woe or warning, but of forgiveness, grace, and tranquility. We will always struggle in bridling the tongue, our bodies and our minds. We warn our children that their words can get them in trouble, lies turn into webs, bullying leads to punishment. Yet as true as those things might be they’re not the first reasons we bridle the tongue. As forgiven people we want our words to be a source of blessing because the Word Christ speaks to us are bless to us. Take a moment…never mind that…take a lifetime and remember that in Christ God does the talking. For when we talk it may go well, but James reminds us bitterly it often goes sour too. So we always trust not in our tongue, but in that of our Savior who promise us forgiveness, blessing and peace. In Jesus’ name, amen.