Friday, June 15, 2012

James 3:1-12

James 3:1-12
The book of James is a passage that is much loved and well known. Of the many issues that James raises throughout his writing, most people tend to be familiar with what he has to say about the power of the tongue. They pick up on the images of the bit in the horse’s mouth and the rudder on the ship, and reflect upon the need to be very careful with how we speak. All of which is an important part of what James has to tell us.

James has to teach us about controlling our speech. And to understand the framework from which James is working we need to go back to the very beginning of the Bible to the Genesis creation narratives. There in Genesis 1:26-27 we read that we humans are made in the image of God, and in Genesis 2:19 we read of how man named the animals.

Now the importance of those two theological truths lie in their connection with the power of speech. In Genesis 1 we given the profound theology of how God created the world through the power of his word. As those made in the image of God we carry the force of that same creative power, which is evident in Genesis 2, where the distinctiveness of humanity is expressed in its ability to speak and name the rest of creation.
There is creative power in the spoken word. It has the capacity to create and shape the world in which we live. And as we encounter this passage in James about the use of speech, we need to look at it through the framework of that creative power. These are not instructions in James that simply seek to uphold polite behavior. They are instructions to warn us about the destructive power of speech in its capacity to create and shape our world.

For any teacher this passage in James is very confronting because while we can see general principles applying to everyone, James has those who have responsibility for teaching in his sights. And it is notable that in these opening two verses we have the only occurrence in James of the first person plural pronoun, where he talks about how ‘we who teach’.

As James develops his thought and teaching here, he is addressing himself as much as he is addressing all who have responsibility for teaching within the church. And we need to remember that this teaching is primarily focused on the Church.

This is why he uses those images of the bit in the horse’s mouth or the rudder on a ship. The teacher may only be a small part of the church community, but their position of responsibility through the words that they speak is one of great power and influence. Therefore all teachers need to take very seriously the responsibility and power that they have in their words.

Now as you read through all that James has to say here there is a fairly negative picture being generated. Apart from the image of the bit in the horse’s mouth and the rudder on the ship which are fairly neutral, the rest of the images are quite destructive. He talks about how the tongue can be like a small spark that ignites a great forest fire. He talks of how the tongue has the capacity to corrupt the whole person and set the whole course of their life on fire.

In v7, with allusions back to that Genesis 2 passage, he points out the power of man to tame the animal world and yet his inability to tame his own tongue. He then describes it as restless evil and full of deadly poison. All of which gives a very negative picture of what happens with the power of speech.
Now for those in James’ congregation who have been listening to this point, they may have been feeling a bit comfortable about themselves.

They could see in their society all the realities that James has been outlining. But then James turns in v9-10 to what goes on in the church and there is nowhere to hide.
He points out the very confronting reality that exists within his church that there are people who give praise to God and with the same mouth curse their fellow man who is made in the image of God. There are those in his church who, with the same mouth praise and curse. And James response to this behaviour is very simple: this should not be.

James reminds us here that we have power in our words. We are able to create the worlds in which we live by our words. But how well are we handling that responsibility?
Think for a moment about the dynamics that go on in the family home between parent and child. Whether we are conscious of it or not the fact is that the words we use within our families shape and create the world in which our family functions.

If the only words that a parent gives to its child are negative and destructive, then that will shape the child’s world. If the only message that the child hears is that they are a nuisance, that they will not amount to anything, that they are worthless, then that is the world the parent has created for that child. If that is the case then there is no surprise when the child has no respect for its parent, or has any desire to be obedient. They simply live out the world that their parent has made.

How important it is for the words spoken in families to be words of love and grace. All children need to hear that they are loved and accepted. All children need to hear that they are valued and have potential. All children need to hear that they belong and are a part of the family. And if parents and children use words of love and grace, then they create a very different world for their family. It will be a world filled with respect and love, and one in which every member of the family will thrive and be enriched.
Such is the creative power of words.

When we look out upon our society with all of the breakdown in respect and behavior, with all the greed and violence that permeates so many communities, you have to ask the question - where does this come from? What has caused this?
Now the easy answer is to say that it’s all come from evil and is a manifestation of evil. But that is too easy an answer because it removes responsibility from everyone.
The more confronting answer is that the reason we see these things in our society is because this is the world that our words have created.

Look at the language and words that we see being used by our governments, by our business leaders, by our union leaders and by our media. Most of the words that fill our society are words of selfishness and abuse.

We may despair of the behavior in our streets, but look at the behavior of our governments. When our governments of every persuasion, both Federal and State, behave no better than a bunch of thugs in gangs, how can we expect anything better of anyone else? When you watch Question Time in our Federal parliament, do you hear words that stir your imagination and that project a grander vision for the country? No - all you hear is abuse and name-calling.

When we use words that dehumanize people then we should not be surprised that they do not act like humans. There is creative power in words, and our words create the world in which we live. And this goes for nations, for families and it goes for our church communities. We need to understand the power of words.
If we turn to the church community, the great tragedy is that the very place where there should be words that build up and create a world of love, we often encounter words of destruction that break the church community apart. Very few people leave churches because they had a disagreement. The reason they leave the church is because of the vitriolic words that were used to express the disagreement.
We Christians can be very creative with our use of words and deceive ourselves about the reality of our words. We can speak of a commitment to the truth when in fact we are speaking of intolerance of the views of others.

We can speak words of acceptance when in fact we really mean that we only accept if they are like us. We can speak words of affirmation when in fact we are really just damning with faint praise. We can pray great words in our worship of God when in fact we are simply wanting to bring attention to ourselves.
The most constant word of condemnation that Christians and the church receive is the word ‘hypocrite’. It is a word that describes a conflict of realities. When the church says one thing but its behavior says something else it is a hypocrite. When a Christian says one thing but their behavior says exactly the opposite they are a hypocrite.

We have touched on what James has to say about this in v9 but it is something we need to keep before us every moment of every day. We need to ensure that our words match our lives, and that they are matched in a positive way.

So that if we are speaking words of love and grace then our actions need to reflect love and grace. If we are speaking words of forgiveness then our actions need to reflect the reality of that forgiveness. If we are speaking words of acceptance then our actions need to reflect the reality of that acceptance. And if we are giving praise to God than our lives need to reflect that in how we relate to one another.
The simple truth as James points out here is that you can’t praise God and curse man with the same mouth. He then gives some images in v11-12 to highlight the inconsistency of that sort of behavior. Fresh water cannot also be saltwater. A fig tree does not produce olives. A grapevine does not produce figs.

The point that James wants to make is that if we are people of the spirit of God then our words need to be consistent with that reality. Lives that are filled with the Holy Spirit should be filled with words that reflect that truth. If our lives are reflecting that truth, and our words are reflecting that truth, then you imagine for a moment the world that will be created around us.

There is a very powerful scene at the very end of the movie ‘The Mission’ where the Papal representative reflects on the destruction that took place amongst the missions. Those who oversaw the destruction simply concluded that this is the way of the world. The Papa representative says. No thus we have made the world.
We live in a word dominated society. We express so much information to each other by words. We write letters or e-mails. We read newspapers and books. When we go shopping we read product labels. When we make decisions about what to buy we read reviews and information. When we describe the things that we see and are going through we use words.

Our lives are surrounded by words and we need to respect their power. Our words are not simply descriptions of the world in which we live, they are the creative power that shapes our world. And this truth is consistent across every aspect of life. It applies to our families. It applies to our communities. It applies to our nation and it applies to our church.

While there is enormous capacity to be destructive with our use of words, there is also a powerful capacity for redemption in the use of words. We have the creative power to transform the lives of people, our community and our church by the words we use.

We see that in a very practical way in the Kids Hope ministry where the words of the mentors are able to bring transformation in the lives of the children. We are able to see it when words of forgiveness and love are exchanged and reconciliation takes place between people who were once alienated. We see it when the words of the gospel that speak of God’s love and grace break through the darkness of peoples lives and brings light and life.

The human tongue does have the capacity to be incredibly destructive. We need to remember that and be constantly on guard with it. But under the power of the Holy Spirit the human tongue is able to build the kingdom of God. Spirit filled words create a new world, and the challenge before us from James, is for us here to be a people who use Spirit filled words.

May our words in all their expressions be used by God for the transformation of our world.
God Bless

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