Book of James: “Taming the Tongue”

Sermon Series on the Book of James: “The Tongue”
A Message on James 3:1-12

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
August 20, 2017
By Doug Wintermute

James 3:1-12 (NRSV)


Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4 Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7 For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8 but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.


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I thought about changing the scripture for today. I seriously gave consideration to changing it to something… Well… More gentle, kind, and not as much “hit-you-over-the-head.” Something that might have more to do with back-to-school.


But the more I thought about it the more I decided that this was indeed a good scripture to explore for the beginning of the school year.


This was the deciding factor for me: For those of us who no longer attend school, think about a negative memory you have about school. Think about something that happened to you that caused you pain or anguish.


The odds are that words were involved in that memory.


If you think about it, most fights, including fist fights, first start with words. Someone will say something, and then the other person will say something back, and the choice of words and the volume at which they are spoken get louder and louder. Then punches are thrown and it becomes physical.


So I think talking about words, talking about the power of the tongue, is an appropriate subject for the beginning of the school year.


Most of you are probably familiar with the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.”


Well, that’s a lie. I think this saying is more factual: “Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words can do permanent damage.” Broken bones heal, but words have the potential to damage the heart and soul so severely that the person never heals from the wounds.


James refers to the tongue as a fire. I think that’s an appropriate analogy.


Fire can be good. There’s nothing like a really nice steak that has been cooked over a good, hot fire, preferably charcoal with a little birth of fruit wood, like plum or peach or apple, added for a little extra flavor. Yum!


But fire can be bad as well. Fire can destroy homes, kill wildlife and humans, and leave a path of destruction.


Words are the same way. They can encourage and build up, or they can tear down and destroy. And both come from our mouths. Both come from our tongues.


Back when I was in high school I didn’t have a healthy self image. I was short, small, a “late bloomer” (I thought for a long time I was going to be a “no-bloomer.”), and a weird geeky kind of kid. I had friends, but not any very close friends.


There were several teachers that had a profound positive impact on my life. Why? Because of their words.


I remember one of them,  my high school English teacher, Ellene Oliver, who used to compliment me on my writing. She said I was good at it and offered me many words of encouragement to keep writing.


I can’t tell you how important that was to me at the time. I grabbed onto those words and held on to them the way a drowning person hangs on to a life jacket. Those words gave me purpose, they gave me confidence, they gave me hope.


So teachers, as you begin the school year remember not to undervalue the power of your words.


Blaise Paschal, the 17th century French mathematician, inventor, and theologian, once said “Kind words do not cost much. Yet they accomplish much.” That was certainly the case for me.


Here’s another example. Benjamin West was a famous American painter in the 1700s. Here’s one of his paintings you might remember from school. This is “Treaty of Penn with Indians,” painted in 1772.


When West was a young boy he wanted to draw a picture of his sister. Back at that time they used quills and liquid ink so West got all those things out. Well, as kids often do, he made a mess. The ink was everywhere. When his mom got home and saw the mess she didn’t jump on him about it. Instead she looked at the drawing and said, “What a beautiful picture.” Then she kissed him. When he was older, he said this about that moment: “That kiss made me a painter.” [Source:]


The book of Proverbs in the Bible has a lot to say about words. Here are some examples:


“Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” (Proverbs 16:24)


“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1)


“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech.” (Proverbs 10:19)


Okay, since it’s back-to-school Sunday, here’s an example from US History that backs up that last proverb.


The date was March 4, 1841. William Harrison had been elected as the 9th President of the US and that day was Inauguration Day. President Harrison had prepared an inauguration speech that had lots of words in it. Lots of words. Like almost 9,000 words. (This sermon has about 1,800 words, as a comparison.)


It was rainy and cold on that day, but President Harrison was unfazed. He insisted on giving the entire speech, and he did.


Unfortunately he got pneumonia and then died one month later on April 4, 1841. He didn’t have much of an impact on history.


By comparison, Jesus only spoke 45 words on the cross, and yet look at the impact he had on history.




The apostle Paul gives good advice on the use of words. “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29)


Jesus himself speaks directly about the power of words. In the 12th chapter of Matthew, he says, “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-37)




I’ve said before the popular adage that words are kind of like toothpaste: once they are out you can’t get them back in.


There’s another adage to think before speaking. Or as I like to think of it, put your brain in gear before you let off the clutch with your mouth.


Okay, confession time. Raise your hand if you have ever said something to someone that you regret ever saying. I know I have.


Emotion usually plays a role in those situations. Sometimes we say those things because you have been hurt, and your response to that hurt is to try to verbally hurt the other person.


And it is amazing how much power those words have, and how much pain they can inflict.


Sometimes we say things just to go along with the crowd, succumbing to peer pressure.


Back when I was in Junior High School my dad wouldn’t let me play football. As a doctor he had seen so many young people injured while playing football, especially severe knee injuries. He didn’t want that to happen to me, so he told me I couldn’t play football.


As a parent now I can understand why, but at the time it was devastating on my life. Cooper was like many small Texas towns in that football was king. It was the biggest most important thing in town. It was almost a religion (but that’s another sermon for another day).


Almost everyone played football. It was a really big deal. If you didn’t, well, there was something wrong with you.


I got called lots of names because of that. Friends that I had been friends with for life said things to me that really hurt. Those words made me feel worthless.


That’s the power of words.


Now it took quite a while but I got over that and learned some good life lessons from those experiences. And experience, while being a great teacher, is often a painful one.


So my challenge to you this week, and especially for the students who are beginning a new school year, is to think about your words before you use them. Remember what James says about how powerful the tongue is and how our words make a difference.


Remember not to bless God and Jesus with your tongue and then say mean and hurtful words to a fellow student, who is made in the image of God, regardless of what they look like or what they do. And that includes teachers and administrators as well.


Let us use our words to lift up and build. It all starts in our hearts. Luke 6:45 says, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”


Therefore, let us change our hearts, remembering the love Jesus had for us on the cross, and that he has that same love for every single person on earth. We are all equal in the eyes of God.


We have given each student a tag to put on their backpack. I hope that in looking at that tag they will remember the love Jesus has for them, and for everyone.


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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