Taming our Words (James 3:1-12)

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Have you ever tried putting toothpaste back into a tube?

There have been a couple of times when we’ve been teaching our children to brush their teeth when they have squeezed the toothpaste tube too hard and it has gone all over the bathroom sink. What a mess! Because we want to teach our children not to waste, we then tried to put the toothpaste back into the tube. It didn’t work. No matter what we did, once the toothpaste is out of the tube, nothing can put it back in.

This is a well-known illustration about how we can’t take words back once we say them. Probably all of us have said things in our lives that we have regretted and wished we could take back. But we can’t. No matter how hard we try, when we say damaging or hurtful things, or when we talk about people behind their backs and they hear about it, there is nothing we can do to put those words back in the tube.

God knew the importance of the words we say when he gave us the 8th Commandment: ‘You must not testify falsely against your neighbour’ (Exodus 20:16 NLT). Martin Luther explained this commandment means that

We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbours, betray them, slander them, or hurt their reputations, but defend them, speak well of them, and explain everything in the kindest way. (Small Catechism, alt.)

Basically, the way Luther interpreted this commandment was the same as what my Mum used to tell me as a child: if you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all.

It sounds good in theory, but have you ever seriously tried to do this? How do we go when we endeavour to only say positive, constructive, life-giving words to and about each other? This is where James 3:1-12 becomes really important for us to hear. It seems like James wasn’t very hopeful about people’s ability to speak well of each other. Especially in verse 8 where James wrote, ‘no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison’ (NLT), he appears to have a very pessimistic view of our ability to be able to keep our tongues in check, and for the words that come out of our mouths to be constructive and life-giving.

On the one hand, we need to listen to James and recognize the dangers that come with speaking to or about other people. Once our words come out, we can’t put them back in. To use James’s image, once our words light a fire, it can burn the whole forest down before we know it. It can easily happen in the church where a thoughtless or even well-intentioned comment about someone can spread like wildfire. Before you know it, relationships are damaged and a congregation can be split. We need to be careful about what we say to and about people, and that we are explaining our neighbours’ actions in the kindest possible way.

Secondly, we also need to realize that this doesn’t always come naturally. James’s words remind us that it is too easy for us to use words to and about each other in destructive ways. At some stage we will all say things that we wish we could take back or put back into the tube. When this happens, we need to be showing grace to each other and forgiving each other as God has forgiven us through Jesus (see Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13), no matter how difficult it might be to do that.

Something inside us needs to change if we are to be continually speaking well to and of each other. Jesus taught that the things we say actually come from the heart when he said, ‘What you say flows from what is in your heart’ (Luke 6:45 NLT; see also Mathew 12: 34,35; 15:18). Our problem is not just the words we say, but it’s a heart problem. When our hearts are wrong, our words will be hurtful and destructive. However, when our hearts are full of the life and goodness of Jesus, then our words will also be good and bring life to others.

If our words are to be constructive and life-giving, what we really need are hearts that have been changed by the power of the Holy Spirit. We can’t do this ourselves. We need God to do it for us as an act of grace. That is why King David’s prayer from Psalm 51:10, asking God to create clean hearts in us, becomes such an important prayer for all of God’s people. When God’s Holy Spirit cleans our hearts out, removing everything that is hurtful, deceitful and destructive, then our words will stop being hurtful, deceitful and destructive. When God gives us hearts that are good, true and full of the life of Christ, then our words will also be good, true and life-giving.

God gives us the Holy Spirit through his word. God speaks two kinds of words to us: words of law which show us that we are a long way from the people he wants us to be, like he does here in James 3, but also words of grace which speak the love, mercy and life of Christ to us. When God speaks the good news to us, God promises us new hearts which beat with the life of Christ and are in synch with his compassion, mercy and love. When we hear words of forgiveness and new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus, then the Holy Spirit works on our heart to make them new. From these, new hearts come the words of forgiveness, love and life that we are able to speak into the lives of others. As James says, we might not be able to control our tongues, but when God gives us new hearts by the power of his Spirit for the sake of Jesus, then good and live-giving words will flow from our hearts into the lives of others.

I haven’t been able to get the excess toothpaste back into the tube yet, so I hope what comes out will be good for those who will be cleaning their teeth with it. In the same way, my hope and prayer is that the words which come out of our mouths, the things we say to and about each other, will be constructive and life-giving as we defend each other, speak well of each other, and explain each other’s actions in the kindest possible ways.

We might not be able to control our tongues, but when God gives us new and good hearts through Jesus by the power of his Holy Spirit, then the words which come out of us will be good as well.

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Doing the Word (James 1:17-27)

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We all know how important it is to follow the directions when we need to take medication. If we are sick, it doesn’t help us to go to a doctor, get a prescription, listen to how we are to take it, but then put it on the shelf and forget about it. If we are going to get better, we need to trust that the medicine will do what the doctor promises, follow the directions and take our medication.

When it comes to medicine, it makes sense to both listen and do. It is the same for us as followers of Jesus. One of my greatest concerns as a pastor is that it can be easy for us to turn up to worship, hear a message, thank the pastor for the message at the door, but nothing changes after that. I have actually had a couple of people tell me over my years of ministry that they don’t want to think too much or be challenged in their faith. All they want is to come to church and hear a nice sermon.

Seriously.

That’s why James’ words about not just listening to God’s word but doing what it says are so important for us. We all carry an illness called sin. While it may not be popular to talk about sin in our contemporary Western culture, the reality I see is that we’re all suffering from the effects of sin in our lives in one way or another. We all suffer from broken relationships, illness, death and other maladies which come from carrying sin in us like an infection that we can’t get rid of.

Like a medication prescribed to give us health and life, God’s word is the remedy for sin. Every story in the Bible, from the creation of the world in Genesis 1, to the death and resurrection of Jesus, to the fulfilment of God’s salvation in Revelation, points us to a God who brings light and life to the world and everything in it through his word. The centre of these stories, the person of Jesus, makes new life possible by carrying all our sin in himself to the cross, putting it to death once and for all, and giving us the gift of new life through his resurrection. The good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection is God’s way of giving us healing, wholeness and life in a similar way that medication gives us healing, wholeness and life when we face a specific illness. That’s why James writes that God’s word has the power to save us (v20 NIV). God’s word isn’t just information about God. It is the power of God to heal us from sin and give us life that is stronger than death (see Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 1:18).

If God’s medication for our condition is the good news of Jesus, then his directions for taking that medication is faith. One of the mistakes we can make is to think that God’s word is a long set of moral rules and ethical commands, and that doing what the word says means keeping all these rules. Instead, the directions Jesus gives us is to trust the good news of his sin-conquering, life-giving love. I tend to interpret the words of the Bible through what Jesus says in John 6:29. Some people had come to Jesus to ask him what the works were that God wanted them to do. Jesus replied, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent’ (NIV). If the good news of Jesus is the medication, his directions are to trust him. That’s it. The rest of the Bible tells us what this faith looks like, and how it can make a difference in our lives and the lives of the people around us.

If we listen to James’ words about being both hearers and doers of God’s word from this perspective, we can understand them saying that it is vital that we not only hear the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us, but that we live like it’s true. When we find God’s love in the gospel, then ‘doing the word’ means loving others, even when it’s hard or we don’t think they deserve it. When we encounter God’s grace, ‘doing the word’ means being grace-filled in our relationships with others. When we experience God’s mercy, forgiveness and peace in the gospel, ‘doing the word’ means being merciful, forgiving and peace-making towards everyone we meet. Following Jesus isn’t just about finding his goodness for ourselves. Being ‘doers of his word’ means extending the goodness of God we find in Jesus towards everyone in our lives through all we do and say.

This week, I want to challenge you to be hearers as well as doers of God’s word in your lives. If you’re not a regular reader of the Bible, doing God’s word might start with making time each day to listen to the good news God wants to speak into your life. It really doesn’t matter how we’re reading our Bibles. What’s important is that we’re listening for God’s promises of grace, love, forgiveness and new life in his word for ourselves. If you need help doing that or not sure where to start, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

Being a doer of God’s word might also mean praying regularly. Last week we heard Paul write, ‘pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere’ (Ephesians 6:18 NLT), so prayer is an important part of doing the word. We can also ‘do the word’ by being ‘quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry’ (v19 NLT). You might want to practice this during the week by listening more than talking in your conversations with others. Try it and see what a difference it can make. Or, if you’re looking for a more serious challenge, listen to what Jesus says about telling the difference between our human traditions in the church and God’s commands (Mark 7:5-8), and imagine how prioritizing what God wants over what you want for your church might look.

In whatever ways we endeavour to be doers as well as listeners of God’s word, what is essential is that they are acts of faith in God’s life-giving love for us in Jesus, not attempts to try to get his love. That love is already yours, for Jesus’ sake.

The medication, God’s remedy for sin, is already ours as an act of grace from the God who loves us. We wouldn’t receive medicine from a doctor and leave it on the shelf. We’d follow the directions so that it can make us healthy and whole again. In the same way, we can’t just listen to the word of God that gives life and then do nothing with it. That doesn’t help anyone. By being doers of the word, listening to God’s promises and living like they are true, extending his grace and love to others by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, we can find healing, wholeness and a life that is stronger than death.

God’s Powerful Word (Genesis 1:1-5)

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Many Christians have spent a lot of time arguing over the meaning of the creation story in Genesis 1. Some believe that God created the world in seven 24-hour days. Others understand the story more as ancient people trying to describe something God did over millions of years. As we hear the opening words from Genesis 1 as the Old Testament reading for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, I’m not really interested in arguing in favour of one interpretation or the other. Instead, Genesis 1 can teach us a lot about God and the way he is at work in our world, no matter how we may interpret it.

One of the most important things we can learn about God from Genesis 1 is that when God speaks, things happen. God’s word is so powerful that it has the ability to do exactly what it says. When God said, ‘Let there be light,’ that was exactly what happened – light came into existence and to give warmth to a dark and cold universe. As each day unfolded, God’s word continued to work its dynamic power, speaking the sky, dry land, trees and plants, and all living things into existence. The pattern is the same throughout the story: God speaks and whatever he says comes into being. This is because when the Holy Spirit is at work through the dynamic word of God, things happen.

We also see this in the ministry of Jesus. The Apostle John reflected the words of Genesis 1 in the opening chapter of his gospel when he wrote,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5 NIV)

In these words, John points to Jesus as the Word which God spoke at the beginning of time to bring everything into existence. This Word had now entered into creation in the form of a living, breathing person. As the Word-made-flesh, Jesus is the walking, talking Word of God who entered into the world by the power of the Holy Spirit to restore the original goodness of creation.

We can see this dynamic power of God’s word in Jesus as he spoke a new reality into existence through his earthly ministry. For example, at the start of Mark chapter 2, Jesus told a man who could not walk that his sins were forgiven. This was considered blasphemy by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day because they believed that only God could forgive sins. To show them that God had given him the authority to forgive sins, Jesus told the man to stand up, pick up his mat, and go home. To everyone’s amazement, that is exactly what happened! What Jesus said came into existence through God’s powerful word.

In this and every other miracle during Jesus’ earthly ministry, we see Holy Spirit at work through God’s powerful word. When Jesus told blind people to open their eyes, they were able to see. When he told lepers to show themselves to the priests, they are made clean. When he told the dead to come out of their tombs, they were raised to new life. And when Jesus told sinners that they were forgiven, the Holy Spirit worked through the powerful word of God to free them from their guilt, and make them righteous and good.

This dynamic word of God through which the Holy Spirit works is still with us today. It is so important for us to be listening to God through his word in the Bible because that is the main way the Holy Spirit operates in our lives. Just like the Holy Spirit worked through God’s word at the beginning of time to bring creation into existence, and just like the Holy Spirit worked through the words of Jesus to heal the sick, raise the dead and forgive sinners, so the Holy Spirit is still at work in our lives through God’s word. When we read the Bible and hear God’s promises to us in Jesus, the Holy Spirit works in us to bring into existence exactly what we read. When the Word of God promises us we are the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:27, that is who the Spirit makes us. When the Word of God promises us that we are a holy nation and a kingdom of priests in 1 Peter 2:9, that is who the Holy Spirit is making us. When the Word of God promises us in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that we are a new creation in Christ, that the old has gone and the new is here, the Spirit of God is continuing the work of creation by doing exactly what it says – making us new creations in Christ Jesus.

This Word of God is not just a written word that we read. It is also a word that we speak to each other and hear from each other. We do this each and every week when our pastor says to us that we are forgiven in Jesus’ name. Through the authority of Jesus which he has given to his church, when our pastor speaks God’s forgiveness, grace and love to us, that is exactly what God works in us – his forgiveness, grace and love.

This is not just something God gives to pastors. As members of God’s nation of royal priests, we are all able to speak the dynamic Word of God to each other in the Holy Spirit’s power. When we speak words of peace to each other, the same Spirit of God that was at work at the beginning of creation works through our words to create peace in the hearts and minds of those who receive our words. When we speak words of grace to each other, the Holy Spirit uses our words to extend God’s grace through us to the people we are speaking to. When we speak words of forgiveness to each other, the Spirit of God frees people from the wrongs they have done and gives them new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the same way that God brought everything into existence at the start of creation through his powerful word, when we speak God’s grace, love and blessing to others, God’s powerful word is at work through us and in us to create light, beauty and life in other people.

There are times when it can seem like words are empty and without meaning. When we read the story of creation in Genesis 1, however, we see that God’s word is powerful enough to do exactly what it says. God’s powerful word is still at work bringing light to dark places, giving warmth to cold hearts, and life where there is nothing at all. As we read God’s word, hearing his promises of grace and love, and when we speak God’s words of forgiveness and new life to each other, the Holy Spirit is still working in us and through us to do exactly what God says.

Equipped for Good (2 Timothy 3:14-4:5)

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If I have a job to do, it is important that I have the right equipment. To have the right equipment, I need to know where to get it.

For example, if I am going to do some work around the house, I will go to a hardware store to get the right tools. If I am going camping, there are a range of camping stores I can go to find the equipment I will need. If I decide I want to get really step outside of my comfort zone and try sewing or knitting, apparently there are stores where I can buy everything I need to make my own clothes!

But where can I go to get what I need to do the good things that God is calling me to do?

In Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul tells us that we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus. Salvation is a gift from God. However, we can sometimes forget that the next verse is also an essential part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world:

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. (v10 NLT)

God makes us new by the power of his Spirit to do good in the world and participate in his plan of redeeming the world through the good we do. This sounds like a big job! So where do we go to be equipped, or to get the right tools, to do the good that God has planned for us to do?

Paul is telling Timothy that the word of God equips us to do good. It is through the Holy Scriptures, also known as the Bible, that God actually gives us what we need so we can do the good he has planned for us to do. Just like I might go to a hardware or camping store, or even a haberdashery to get the right equipment to complete those tasks, so we go to the Bible to find what we need so we can do the good that God has called us to do in this life.

Paul explains the way that God equips us in verse 16. First, God shows us what is right and good for us to do. We need to be listening to the Bible for the ways God wants us to live and how we are to relate to the people around us. Next, and this can get uncomfortable for us, God shows us what is wrong with our lives. Most of the time we don’t like seeing this, but Paul is saying that if we are going to do the good God wants us to, we need to have the humility and faith to admit and confess our wrongs. It’s not natural for us, so the Holy Spirit needs to be doing this in us through the Word of God. Thirdly, God corrects us when we are wrong by making us right with him. God’s word doesn’t just tell us what is correct. It actually corrects us, or makes us right again, by giving us new hearts and minds that are one with Jesus. This is what we call grace. Finally, God’s word teaches us to do what is right by living in faith and in love. This ‘training in righteousness’ (NIV) helps us learn how to live in God’s grace as well as living out his grace in our relationships with the people around us.

All of this comes from the Bible as God gives us what we need to live in loving, grace-filled relationships with other people through his word. Doing good isn’t about keeping rules or trying harder. God wants his grace to flow through us, into the world and into the lives of every person. He gives us what we need to extend grace and love to others by first extending grace and love to us through the message of the Bible. By discovering and growing in God’s love and grace in his word, the Holy Spirit of God breathes life into us as the Spirit equip us with the faith and love we need to do the good God has planned for us and join him in his plan to redeem the world.

This is a good reason to spend more time reading our Bibles. God wants us to be immersed in his word so that we learn what is right, to bring us back to him in repentance and faith, to re-create us through his word of forgiveness, and to help us live in ways that trust him and show self-giving love to the people around us. I can’t find that anywhere else other that the Bible. That is why, as we discuss being a ‘Simple Church’ and our ministry to young people in the congregation, I will be keeping God’s word central. As Jesus’ disciples, we need to be anchored and growing in God’s word. This is also why I am offering to meet with people every fortnight to read our Bibles together. I want to help people find God’s grace and love in the words of Scripture, so that together we can be more and more equipped to do God’s work in the world.

As the Holy Spirit works on us by ‘teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’ (v16 NIV), God will give us the tools or equipment we need – his grace, his love, his peace, and more – so we can live in grace-filled, loving, peace-giving ways, doing the good he has prepared in advance for us to do and bringing his goodness into the world.

More to think about:

  • Do you regularly read the Bible? What are your main reasons for reading or not reading it?
  • What sort of things do you usually think of when Christians talk about ‘good works’? How might your understanding of ‘good works’ be different if you thought of them as showing the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22,23) or the kind of love Paul describes (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)?
  • How might the idea that God will equip you (give you what you need) to do good through the Bible help you to read his word?
  • What do you need most to do the good that God has prepared for you to do? How might living in God’s grace give you what you need?
  • What’s stopping you from spending more time in God’s word and finding his goodness there? How could you overcome that?