September 2, 2018

Pentecost 15 - James 3:5-18

The Paradox of Peaceful Speech
-To conquer earthly strife, God sends heavenly gifts-

James 3:5-18 Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. 8 But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God. 10 Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh. 13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. 15 This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. 16 For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. 17 But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. 18 Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

Human communication is accompanied by several interesting paradoxes.

-        The more familiar with are with a saying or passage, the more subject you are to missing its intent.
-        The more educated a person is the harder time they have explaining things in a way that makes sense.
-        The greater technology grows for communication the less social we become and less ability we have to talk face to face.
In an article from 2014, a school teacher explained that he was forced to teach his students how to talk with each other. They had become so accustomed and dependent on texting that they were too anxious and nervous to speak directly to others. In an interesting twist of a paradox within a paradox, the teacher found that by having his students use technology, namely recording themselves in a podcast, he was able to help them build their direct communication skills. In his words, the teacher summarized: “It might sound like a funny question, but we need to ask ourselves: Is there any 21st-century skill more important than being able to sustain confident, coherent conversation?” (

-        The closer a relationship is, the more likely there is for the potential of violence.
Consider these points from a report in 1997 by the US Justice Department. When analyzing the 1.4 million cases of violence or suspected violence in emergency rooms, almost one quarter of these cases were between friends. Half of the cases involved people who knew each other. How is it that so often the closer the relationship the more harm people cause? Human speech is the ignition switch. James tells us that it can be used to bless or curse.

-        And finally we see the paradox in our text: Christians who curse and bless. (fresh water vs. salt water, fig tree and olive tree or grape vine).
This aspect of communication that James writes about is especially important for us to learn. The things we say can be extremely harmful for another person. And it’s a sin that’s so easy to do. Very often we sin in this way by speaking behind another person’s back. And it’s an easy sin to make excuses for. We tell ourselves that as long as we don’t physically hurt a person, it really isn’t all that serious. But more often than not, it’s the secret, subversive sins like gossip and verbal abuse that are the hardest to overcome. The words we speak will often make their way to the one we’re talking about, even if it’s not our intention. The hurt they cause can linger for years and even for a person’s entire life, often because the one who said them has no idea they were ever received. We need to be careful with our speech because it can cause great harm.

But, more importantly because our speech can bless. The truly debilitating effect of hurtful speech and unnecessary cursing is because speech is the means through which the gospel is communicated. When we speak carelessly, we’re not just hurting others; but we’re taking the very vehicle that God has given us for communicating salvation and we’re using it for the opposite effect. Our careless speech can cause others to become resistant to the good speech of forgiveness in Christ – simply because both come from the same vessel.

We see why Proverbs tells us: Proverbs 10:19 In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, But he who restrains his lips is wise. In our text, James likens the tongue to a fire, an untamable beast, and a deadly poison. And yet, God also says in His Word, How will people believe Christ unless someone preaches (Romans 10:14)? A truly troubling paradox indeed.

Given the ease of sinning by how we speak, we can quickly be led to despair. What good does it do to try when I fail so much? Maybe I should forgo speaking anything about God just in case I might mess up. Such thinking comes naturally. We might say it’s right in front of us each day. But, God introduces His own paradox as a solution and a help. And God’s way comes from above. James writes,  
15 This wisdom (of the world) does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic.
17 But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.

James speaks about a wisdom from God which comes from above. We think of God’s realm locally as above, and certainly James has this in mind. But, God’s wisdom also comes down from above because its nature is righteous. It is not a wisdom of this world. God’s wisdom is not something we possess without Christ. It’s like the rain and snow. We can’t control when it comes, but we live in its blessing and God is able to provide what we need. James described this same process earlier in his letter. Most people think of James as the apostle who emphasizes works. Luther struggled with James’ letter because he didn’t see James dominating with theme of justification in Christ as Paul’s letters do. But, most people forget that before James even spoke about our works, he introduced what God alone can give. From chapter 1: James 1:17-19 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. 18 Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures. 19 So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.

Our section is very parallel to chapter one. In each, James speaks of what God gives from above and how it impacts our lives – especially in what we say. Only after God has blessed us of His own free will, by the word of truth, are we led to speak in wisdom and righteousness. Notice how much James says about the uncontrollable nature of the tongue in chapter three. No one can bring it under control. But, that’s directed at us. God is able to control the human tongue. God is able to subdue it under the power of His own voice. And He promises that blessing to all who heed His Word.

Here is the paradox of God’s grace in action. The human tongue is responsible for so much damage on earth. It’s the fire that kindles the forest into a blaze, wreaking havoc and destruction on everything. It’s the untamable beast. Nothing on earth can bring it under control. It’s the deadly poison, no one has an antidote. And so, God brings something from above. God brings healing outside of this world. God, Himself, comes to us just as Jesus Christ came, once for all.  

This healing in Jesus is punctuated by peace. James writes at the end of our text: Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. Good speech is a habit that a person either develops or neglects. James likens it to gardening. Peace grows where it is sown. Peace is lacking where it is not sown. Every person is either busy sowing peace or not by how they use their voice. Unwillingness to communicate or to learn about communicating peace in Christ also leads to a negative outcome. Peace is not sown where believers refuse to sow, either. God wants us to be active in Christ, so that we may be active in Christ’s peace.

And this peace is a special gift. In a few moments, I’ll remind you once again as I do each week, that Christ’s peace is the one that surpasses all understanding. His is the peace that is superior to human wisdom. And it’s precisely this way because the peace of Christ offers us gifts from our Father in Heaven. James says that this these gifts from above are first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.

These are the qualities that mark the peace of Christ. It is first pure. Holiness matters to God. He will not condone any sin, no matter how much our world adjusts to the wickedness of the human heart. In addition to purity, we also see Christ’s self-sacrificial nature. His blessings are willing to yield, they are gentle and merciful, they are without partiality and hypocrisy. Faith in Jesus does not seek to serve the self anymore than Christ came to die for Himself. Our Savior’s blessings are always directed outward – first to us, as repentant sinners, and then from our hearts to others to whom we are privilege to witness. This peace marks the end of uncontrollable destruction. No more consumption, no more back-biting, no more gossiping, no more tearing down, no more strife, no more hurt.

How come we don’t see more of that peace today? Perhaps Christians aren’t speaking as much. And perhaps people aren’t looking above as much. We have a very pertinent example of this in our own culture. There is a hardly a greater virtue in America than a person’s right to free speech. That blessing, and it is a blessing and a right that all should have, has become so important to some that it becomes a form of idolatry. You’ve seen the headlines. People are so quick to argue and fight for their right to speak, that they rarely think about the value what they have to say. They rarely think about the effect their words will have on someone else. This is just as dangerous for Christians as it is for any other group. More dangerous, in fact, since the keys of the kingdom of heaven, delivered by the words of God’s grace, have been entrusted to Christian voices.   

We fight and fight for our right to speak and the destruction keeps on going. One has to wonder, what’s the point of being free if we have destroyed the beauty of our freedom in the process? See how great a forest fire the tongue kindles. It is a world of iniquity. No man can tame it. True peace comes through Jesus. Jesus is from above. He freely gives our heavenly Father’s blessings from above. Look not to this world. Jesus Himself sacrificed His own life for yours. His love, though unconditional and free, always will be self-sacrificial. It does not seek its own interest, but the interest of others. It did not come to be served, but to serve. Jesus is merciful. Jesus is willing to yield to others’ needs. Jesus is gentle and pure. This is the paradox of paradoxes. The almighty God subjects Himself for us. And because of it, in Jesus you are blessed. This gospel can help the way you speak. To have is not chief of all; Jesus shows us that giving something up, foregoing what we have to right to say, can be the path of peace – His peace. Because with words Jesus blesses you. And with words you can bless others. Amen.  

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