Theme: Words Still Matter
Words still matter. I’ve heard that phrase more and more recently. From hearings before Senate committees to seminars on race relations in America to reports at the CLC convention, people are saying that words still matter. I agree too. However, even though that saying alone is not divisive in our culture, the use of words has probably never been at a more sensitive level before in the world’s history. We’ve arrived at this strange intersection where people talk as much as they can to get attention and gain notoriety but often at the expense of their credibility and often their public image.
As soon as a person becomes famous, there’s someone opposed to them at work trying to dig up something they said in order to discredit their name. It really makes a person wonder if words do still matter when they are stripped of their context, or deliberately misrepresented, or dragged out into the open after 20 years. While we may agree on the importance of words, it’s really how words are used that separates us into different camps of belief.
Words are a powerful tool because they can communicate. Winston Churchill, who was Prime Minister of Great Britain during WWII, never lifted a weapon in combat but swayed the balance of power in what he said and wrote. Former US President John F. Kennedy famously said of Churchill that he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. But, words are also powerful for destruction as well – which is why they are so often used to tear down a person’s credibility. In his letter, the Apostle James likens the human tongue to a deadly fire, a lethal poison, and an untamable beast.
Sometimes, however, the weapon is turned inward. A person’s own words often become their worst enemy. I recently saw a documentary on a college football team in which the coach, a supposedly self-proclaimed Christian, would regularly curse out his players and take the Lord’s name in vain in one breath while exhorting them to lock hands in prayer to Jesus in the next breath. Makes me think of another portion of Scripture, again from James, where the Spirit tells us that both blessing and cursing ought not to be present in a Christian’s words. For me, that college coach lost credibility as a Christian because of how he chose to use his words.
We could say the same thing about any action that the Lord has called sinful – and we are all just as guilty at hypocritical attitudes and lifestyles as the next person. For our sins and faults we confess repentance to the Lord. But, it’s words in particular that our attention is directed at today because Jesus addresses that topic in our text, as we read from Matthew 5:33-37:
Matthew 5:33-37 "Again you have heard that it was said to those of old,`You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.' 34 "But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; 35 "nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 "Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 "But let your`Yes' be`Yes,' and your`No,'`No.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.
God has done something that many would call: counter-productive, foolish, and even downright stupid. He has entrusted His Word to believers. That means God has given us the opportunity, and even the command, to speak on His behalf. God has staked His reputation, at least how it is portrayed, on the words of sinful people. Think about this for a moment and consider the weight of that responsibility. We have a direct impact on how other people think about God. Each time we use the Scriptures we are taking God’s perfect message and relaying it to people whom God shed His own blood to redeem. This is an awesome undertaking and not to be lightly considered.
Yet, we don’t have to be timid or afraid either. God promises to bless our fallible endeavors. God reassures us that He is working through our words – even for our own blessing. And God shows us the right way in His Word. Our section today from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is one of those places where God teaches us about how we should use words.
Jesus spoke these things first of all to a specific audience. It was no strange thing for God to warn His people about careless swearing or lying. There are several instances in the Old Testament when God speaks about that very thing. One of the Ten Commandments specifically addresses the use of God’s name. Another commandment specifically addresses how a person speaks to another person. These were not new things for the people.
However, during that time the Jewish people had developed a custom where if they didn’t swear by God’s name, they didn’t have to take that oath as serious. Hence, Jesus addresses swearing by heaven, earth, Jerusalem, and even the people. In fact, in Jewish culture it was considered highly offensive to even speak the name of God – let alone swear by it. This practice is still in place today among orthodox Jews. Jesus condemns this false practicing by revealing it as the shallow formality that it was. Jesus taught that swearing was swearing. It didn’t matter if you used God’s name or if you used something else – because all things are connected to God.
More importantly, however, God gave us words to use with clarity. Deliberately promising something, even under oath, with the pre-conceived idea to go back on your word, was lying and an act of deception. In fact, as with all sin, it could traced back even to the work of Satan, whom John tells us is the “father of all lies (John 8:44).” Rather than being deceptive with our words, Jesus simply says, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” Be clear, deliberate, and honest with your words, because words still matter.
In a way, words serve as a gateway to the heart. When the Jewish people were deceptive with their promises – thinking they could go back on them if they swore by some lesser thing – what they really showed was a lack of faith in God. The person or thing that you promise something by is really the person or thing that you trust. The same is true for how we use God’s name today. God warns us about swearing in a casual way or falsely by His name because to make a promise in God’s name is really to confess trust that He can bring it to pass. God says – don’t do that if you haven’t thought it through. If it’s a matter that really doesn’t need God’s promise or blessing – don’t swear by His name. If you don’t intend to keep your word – don’t swear by His name.
People today still care about words. Betrayal and lying are still considered wicked acts. What has changed though is how people use God’s name. The world agrees with Jesus when He says, “let your yes be yes and your no be no.” However, respect and trust in God is often not existent in how a person uses their words. This is especially important for a Christian’s life – for by faith they have literally taken God’s name as their own. To be a believer is to be identified as God’s own and, as we mentioned earlier, to have the burden and privilege to use His name before others. But, sadly, being a Christian doesn’t mean we always use God’s name as we should.
Even Christians have used God’s name is lesser, even derogatory ways. In moments of panic and shock using God’s name as a mere expression. In moments of careless thought and immaturity calling upon God’s name to make a foolish promise. Anyone on social media has surely seen the modern expression OMG so much that it’s meaning barely registers on the conscience, becoming more of an accepted literary saying rather than a blatantly offensive use of God’s name and a complete misrepresentation of true Christian morals.
How precious is the name of our God? Consider what Peter said, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved." Whenever you use God’s name – either for your own faith or as a witness to others – salvation is at play. If you’re careless with God’s name or use it in a foolish, immature way – you are treating eternal salvation in the same way.
Jesus lesson is extremely important for our lives. Be clear in what you say and be careful. Instead of trying to be externally pure when your heart is corrupt, just let your yes be yes and your no be no. Be a person of reputable character, who doesn’t have to swear constantly to get their point across, but will be trusted by others with a simple yes or no.
But also remember, especially for those moments when your words are poor, that what you say is always connected to God. As a believer God has taken you as His own by faith. You are His representative and the best way to represent what you believe is by what you say. But above all – God is connected to you. It was by His oath, a covenant sealed with Jesus’ own blood, that God promised eternal life to you. It’s the written history of this covenant, recorded over thousands of years, that provides daily hope and renewal for your life and gives you the foundation to share Christ with others.
Each word you speak as a Christian, and even each breath you take, are reminders of your connection with God – based on His Word to you; God’s yes and God’s no. God says no, I will not overlook sin. God says no, you cannot earn your own salvation. God says no, other so-called paths to heaven are false. God has many no’s in His Word – they too are promises that are backed by action. But God also says yes, you are forgiven in Jesus. God says yes, you can have hope that you are sinless and spotless by faith. God says yes, believe you will live eternally after you die.
God promise is not a hyperbolic oath. He’s not just saying something to look good on the outside without intending to fulfill what He promises. God was not careless in what He chose to promise to you. His yes is yes and His no is no – His Words still matter.
Likewise, it is to that very end that Jesus calls us by faith for our Christian lives. There is much at stake. The healthiness of our individual trust in Christ. The faith of others as we speak on God’s behalf. The direction and state of the congregation that God has entrusted to us in our corner of the world. Many things are at stake – but most important of all the certainty of Christ as our Lord and Savior. The words of salvation still matter most important of all. May we be proper servants of that Word as we seek to let God’s yes and no be our yes and no – through the clarity that only the Holy Spirit can give. To His glory, Amen.