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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

September 16, 2018

 Taming Our Tongues

Proverbs 1:20-33; James 3:1-12

            “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  When John opened the Gospel that he wrote, he clearly had those first words, of the first book of the Bible, in mind.  In Genesis, the Bible opens, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit (wind or breath, ruah) of God was moving over the face of the waters.  And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”  God cares about words, indeed, God created words and the capacity to communicate through language.  It may well be the single thing that sets apart human beings from all other created species, as those beings, as the Bible tells us, “created in the image of God.”  Language is a miracle.  How our children learn to speak and to understand words, and to begin to read words, and write words, is nothing short of a miracle that no one in here can adequately, or completely, explain.  What we do know is that God speaks, and that words have power, power to create.

            There is a great German philosopher, born in the year 1900, who died in the year 2002, at the age of 102.  His name was Hans Gadamer.  Hans Gadamer was a linguistic philosopher, who thought deeply about this miracle of words that convey meaning.  Maybe the most incredible sentence he wrote is one of the simplest for us to understand, because isn’t that the way profound truth is often communicated?  Here is the sentence: “Words create worlds.”  “Words create worlds,” which means that words matter supremely, they shape the world in which you live, they create the climate that becomes your very life, your home, your family, your community, your workplace, your church.  “Words create worlds.” 

            I said earlier that James is really an Old Testament book that somehow got stuck, by God’s providence, in the New Testament!  It is a rich and complicated book, because it, in one small letter, includes three major forms of literature found in the Old Testament.  James is Torah, or Law, as the first five books of the Bible are called by our Jewish brothers and sisters.  The Torah is the law of God.  At the same time, James is prophetic; he speaks words that judge us in our lives, and that call us to more than what we are experiencing today.  So James functions as a prophet, just as Isaiah was a prophet, or Jeremiah was a prophet, and they spoke prophetic truth to all manner of people, but especially to those in power.  Best of all, James is also a great example of wisdom literature. 

            Ellie Ford read today from the Book of Proverbs.  The Book of Proverbs is maybe the best example of wisdom literature, and wisdom is a gift that is given by God, that is more to be prized than greatest riches.  Here in the book of James, in this third chapter, he is talking to us about words, and about the power of the tongue.  James knew how powerful words could be, and so he reaches for images or metaphors to talk about how the tongue functions.  He says it is like a little bit in the mouth of a horse, that controls that incredible beast, with just a small little metal bit in its mouth.  Or it is like a small rudder on a large sailing ship that has the power to steer the course that the ship takes.  Then he offers another image that is not so pleasant, and that maybe lands closer to home than some of us want, when he says “the tongue is a fire.”  That is to say this little organ in our body can do untold destructive damage!  As I was reading James this week, I thought, “Maybe he would also add ‘the tongue is like a hurricane,’” as all of us are watching Florence carry on the destruction that is almost unimaginable.  One thing is clear from these twelve verses in James; it is very difficult for human beings to control their tongues, and it is crucial that we do so.  It is crucial because “words create worlds,” they matter, they have power, and they influence, not just our lives, but the lives of those around us.

            In his biography of John Adams, a man who was almost forgotten until David McCullough started off writing a book about Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and realized in his study how in many ways Thomas Jefferson was overrated in American life, and John Adams, Jefferson’s friend and his competitor politically, was grossly underrated in history.  In one of his letters to Abigail Adams, which is why we know so much about John Adams, he said, “Truly intelligent people talk about ideas, and love ideas.  People of moderate intelligence talk about events.  People of very low intelligence talk about people.”  He was referring to the human penchant to engage in gossip.

            The difference between wisdom and folly, for James, turns on this matter of the tongue.  He is very clear.  “All of us make mistakes,” and we make mistakes with things that come from our tongues, that if we could take back in a better moment, we would.  But James also does not want to let us off the hook.  God loves us too much to settle for us to live as fools!  James says, the difference between wise people and foolish people, is wise people learn to tame their tongues, and foolish people never see the need, saying whatever they please.  Elsewhere in the opening verses of James, in James 1, verse 19, he offers one of my favorite verses of the Bible: “Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not work the righteousness of God.”

            A lot of you are Dietrich Bonhoeffer fans.  Anyone who studies his life admires the impact that he had in his thirty-nine short years.  He formed a seminary community that met while the Nazi party was rising to power in Germany in a small town called Finkenwalde.  In a sense, it was an underground seminary community, because while it was not completely secret, it was certainly not officially sanctioned by any German government.  Bonhoeffer had only one rule for the community, and it was this: that no one should speak about another student in that student’s absence, or if they did, they were bound to tell the student what they said.  Many students years later said it was a very painful rule by which to live, and yet an unforgettable one.  Bonhoeffer understood that words matter, that “words create worlds,” and he wanted words to be used to bless, and to build up the body, and not to denigrate, or criticize, or tear it down at all.  You know this!  Patterns of speech develop in every place where people gather, in homes and families, around dining room tables, in classrooms and companies, in offices and factories, there develop, what I would like to call “patterns of conversation.”  Those “patterns of conversation “create a climate for any community, which is why we need to be so careful and reflective and humble about the words that we choose.

            We have a couple in our church today, the Avery’s, who belong to First (Scots) Presbyterian Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  (You didn’t know I was going to pick on you today, did you?)  Holton Seigling is the Pastor of that church, and when Holton finished seminary, having grown up in Charleston, he came to work with me for a few years in Spartanburg, doing youth ministry.  Holton became the Pastor of the Sequoyah Hills Church about seven years ago, and asked Connie and me to come for his Installation.  One of the things I said to the congregation about Holton was this: “In the years that I worked with Holton, I never once heard him utter a negative or smart-alecky word about another human being.”  You know why I noticed that?  Because it was so different from my sarcastic ways!  Holton never meant it to be a judgment on me, but it functioned that way in the best sense of the word.  Holton knew how powerful words are, and that God gave them to us so we would use them as blessings. 

            Words can be great blessings.  Words that praise God; calling anyone else by their God-given name, is a blessing in and of itself.  Words can welcome a stranger, they can make room in the circle, or the fellowship, for one who might feel outside, and become words that bless.  Words that affirm a spouse, or a child, or a fellow worker, words that speak the truth in love, which is such a hard thing to do, these are all words that bless.  Words that offer a sincere and heartfelt complement, or words of prayer, or words of scripture, or maybe these three words: “I love you.”  These words can be an absolute blessing to this life, but, James also knew that the same tongue that can utter blessing, can also utter cursing, speaking slanderously of another, which is still against the law in this land where we stand by the rule of law.

            Gossiping tears apart any community and degrades the person who offers those words.  Words that show disrespect for anyone else in any way, or words that fail to listen to another human being, these words curse the world, and are not worthy of the gift of language that God invested in us.  But note what James finally says about the tongue as a curse: “It is itself set on fire by hell.”  What James was saying was we condemn our very selves when we fail to tame our tongues.

            Proverbs 21 says, “To watch over mouth and tongue is to keep out of trouble.”  Does anybody want to say “Amen” to this word from God?  “Words create worlds.”  “A word fitly spoken, is like apples of gold in settings of silver,” says Proverbs 25.  Have you ever received that kind of word that came from just the right person, at just the right time, with just the right spirit behind it?  I tell you, it is life itself!  Proverbs 12 says, “Merry words make an anxious heart glad.”  We all know folks, we can think of them, people who have blessed us by their words.  They are a joy to be with, we are delighted when they come into our presence!

            One of those people for me was Arch MacNair, who was eighty-one years old when I moved to this community, and one hundred when he left this life for that life which is to come.  I learned second hand that part of how I ended up as Pastor of this church was Arch MacNair.  He and Elizabeth had a home at Montreat, and twice over four years’ time I preached on Sunday at Anderson Auditorium.  Arch and Elizabeth thought, “Wouldn’t we like to have this young man as our pastor?”  So when the pulpit was open, Arch passed my name to the Pastor Nominating Committee.  (It did not hurt for the Pastor Nominating Committee to hear from Arch MacNair that maybe Todd Jones would be somebody they would like to call!)

            The first summer that I was here, he and Elizabeth were getting ready to leave for Montreat, and Arch said, “Todd, before I leave I’d love to play golf with you.”  So Damon Byrd and Arch and I met at McCabe to play.  As we were driving the cart up the eighteenth fairway, Arch looked at me, and he said, “Todd, the thing I love about you the most is that I know your heart is filled with love for every member of First Presbyterian Church.”  When Arch said that to me, I thought, “You know, if it isn’t, it sure as heck should be!”  I think Arch was not simply complimenting me; I think Arch was functioning as a pastor and prophet to me, saying, “If your heart is filled with love for every member of this church, God will bless your ministry.”  It has been my aim ever since, and mostly it is the easiest thing in the world to do, but you know what I have discovered?  When there are people who it is maybe a little more work for me to love, it has been really good for my soul to make that my aim, my discipline, my reach, and my effort. 

            So who can tame the tongue?  But who here can afford not to?  Use your words to affirm, and never to abuse or accuse.  Use your words to bless, and not to bite.  Use your words to cure, and never to curse or cut.  Use your words to delight, and not to denigrate.  Use your words to encourage, and not to eviscerate or exclude.  (Carl Sandburg said, “The ugliest word in the English language is the word, “exclusive.”)  Use your words to speak of faithfulness, and not filthiness.  Use your words to communicate grace and gratitude, and never, ever to gossip.  Use your words to speak of holy things, and never hateful things.  Use your words to imagine with God what is possible, and never to indict or incite.  Use your words to speak of joy, and never to jeer or judge.  Use your words to keep, and not to kill; to love, and never to libel or to label.  Use your words to make music, and never to moan, or mope.  (Do you get where I am going with this?  The alphabet of words that God has given to us?!)  Use words that nurture and nourish, and never words that negate another.  Use words that are open and optimistic, and never obstreperous or obsequious.  (My Dad would love that I used those two words this morning!  He used to put a napkin holder in the center of the table, with vocabulary words on them, and obstreperous and obsequious were two of those words, and I still remember them!)  Use words that are peaceful, and never peevish or punitive.  Use words that are quiet, and never questionable.  Use words that are righteous, and not ruinous.  Use words that are sound, and not slanderous or scandalous.  Speak words that are true, and never treacherous.  Use language that is understanding, and never unctuous or unkind.  Use words that are valid, and not vicious.  Use words that are welcoming, and not wearing.  Use words that are excellent (Okay, it begins with an ‘e’ – I admit it!), and not exclusive.  (Did I tell you that the ugliest word in the English language is the word “exclusive”?)  Do you get what I am trying to say?  Maybe you can complete your own alphabet, and find ways to use your tongue and your words to bless and to beautify the people with whom your words have weight and power. 

            Every Sunday we conclude the service with something called, The Benediction.  It comes from two Latin words, which mean “the good word.”  All of us need a good word, and the good word is this, dear friends: Jesus Christ is the one sufficient word of God.

                                                                                    Amen.

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