This past week, I received a box in the mail. It was just an ordinary cardboard box. My name and address were handwritten on the box as was the sender’s name and return address. Some postage was placed on this box. That was all that was needed for one postal employee after another to move the box hundreds of miles. Those postal employees did not question themselves as to what was in the box; they simply moved it along. All that was required to cause people to move the box along were some silent words handwritten on the outside of a cardboard box. Words, simple words, have enormous power.
The box I received was from my brother. He is four years older than me. Inside the box was a very package carefully wrapped in thick white paper. The wrapped item containing something soft and yet substantial. Taped to the top of that wrapped package was a single sheet of paper. It too had words on it. The words were neatly typed into a letter. Here are a few things my brother said. “I’ve been meaning to send this flag to you from Dad’s funeral service for quite a while.” My brother’s words immediately caused me to pause and not be in a hurry to remove the wrappings. I still have not unwrapped the flag; I am not sure if I will. My brother continued, “Honestly, just looking at this flag makes me get emotional. All I can think about is a little boy with immigrant parents, who then loses his dad at a young age. He grows up in a house where the other brothers and sisters all chip in to make ends meet. He meets Mom, gets married in a catholic-episcopal merger (that must have been interesting) and soon after, he gets drafted and shipped off to fight for our country in a faraway place. No email, no Instagram, no way to communicate back home while gone except for writing a letter, which could take a month or probably longer to receive.” I will not now share with you other things my brother said because the sentiments in those words are just too personal and just too strong. It felt good to receive what my brother had to say. It reminded me of things about my father and taught me again that an ordinary cardboard box and an ordinary piece of paper with a few words have enormous power. Some of you have been emotionally affected by what I have shared even though you never met my father or brother, or have seen that cardboard box, the neatly typed letter, or carefully wrapped flag. You are affected because you have heard my words. I think you will agree with me, words are enormously powerful and revealing.
בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים בְּרֵאשִׁית, (re'shiyth bara’ ‘elohiym): “In the beginning, God created.” With these powerful words, God began to reveal himself to us. So important were God’s words that He caused humanity to memorialize what He said into what we now call the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament. The words contained in those texts are unlike any other. They are deep and rich with emotion, joy, sadness, struggle, and triumph. God’s words shaped people, nations, and destinies. And as rich as the words of the Old Testament are, God sought to reveal Himself a more intimate way. We read about His new revelation start this way, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning.” The He referred to here was Jesus and Jesus was called the Word because the words of Hebrew Scriptures that revealed the character of God were literally lifted off the page and made alive in the flesh. The words of Scripture became flesh in Jesus. For this reason, at birth, Jesus’ was called Immanuel, God among us.
Jesus spoke and His words caused people to be healed of illness, blindness, deafness, and paralysis. Jesus spoke and His words caused people to be raised from the dead. Jesus spoke and His words gave eternal life to those who would follow Him. We are so impressed by the words Jesus spoke that many of us have Bibles in which the words of Jesus are shown in red lettering. We recognize words are enormously powerful.
Jesus spoke to his disciples and cautioned them about the power of their words. Jesus said, “21You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22). Raca was term used by Jewish people to convey the person was emptyheaded or senseless. Jesus’ point was to insult another was to murder their reputation and it was sinful. Jesus knew the words of His disciples would speak in their day were enormously powerful. It remains true that the words we speak today as disciples of Jesus matter.
If fact, one of the things we should keep in mind is that those who accept Jesus as Lord and Savior are largely indistinguishable from their neighbors in the way they dress and their mannerisms except for one thing, the way we speak. What made the early Christians different and what makes them different today was and is the understanding that their words about life are different than their non-believing neighbors. Or at least, that is the way the words of a Christian should be. It is that difference of Christians being guided by Christ that Jesus’ brother James went after in our New Testament reading today. James was not concerned about the way people dressed but he was concerned about the way they spoke to each other. James was concerned about the power his readers had given to their tongues.
Listen to how James describes the effect of the tongue, the instrument of speech. James wrote, “2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check. 3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:2-6). Many of you may have heard James’ words before. I have. But this time, the words that stood out to me and ring so true were the words that the tongue, “sets the whole course of one’s life on fire and is itself set on fire by hell.” I have known and know some people who have or are presently setting their whole life on fire by what they say. They are systematically destroying the very people and ideals they claim to love by what they are saying. That is very sad. And more than the destruction of their own mortal life to the distress of those that love them, they are, as James says, creating the conditions for eternity in which their tongues will be set on fire by hell. James’ words may have their origins in a story Jesus once told of a rich man and a beggar. In that story, the rich man is unnamed. The beggar’s name was Lazarus. Jesus said, “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades [In Hell], where he [the rich man] was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he [the rich man] called to him [Abraham], ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire’” (Luke 16:22-24). The rich man’s eternal life and his tongue were in agony through the fire of hell ignited by words he chose to live by. Words are enormously powerful in the present and for eternity.
James continued to get his readers to recognize the harm that comes from ungracious speech. Verse 9, James wrote, “9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and saltwater flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water” (James 3:9-12). The ending James gave to his words were consistent with the tone of his entire letter. “Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” James point was that if what comes out of the mouths of his readers was curses, then that reflects what is what spring within can produce. If we curse others, then any praises we may utter to the Lord, to God, are as worthless as handing a cup of saltwater would be to a thirst person in need of fresh water. In Chapter 1, James said, “26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” In Chapter 2, James said, “ 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” In Chapter 2, James also said, “15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” James is repeatedly hitting the point that our words matter and should distinguish us and reflect the holiness of Jesus.
James’ thoughts are not original to him. James drew his understandings from the teachings of his brother, Jesus. One day, Jesus was engaged in conversation with the religious leaders of the day who fought Jesus at every turn. Jesus said, “33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:33-37). Jesus was making plain, that our words reveal our inner convictions and that we will be held to account for the idle or unkindness words we speak.
There are consequences to what we say. In the book Through the Looking Glass, Alice found herself in Wonderland speaking with the Red Queen. When Alice misspoke and tried to take back her words, the Red Queen said to Alice, “'It's too late to correct it, when you've once said a thing, that fixes it, and you must take the consequences.” How many of us are living with scars from the things we have said that could never be fully taken back? We know from personal experiences that words are enormously powerful, and we must use care in what we say.
What then are we to do with James’ words? James said use your mouth and your words to praise our Lord and Father. The apostle Paul said, “Bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:14). Paul said, “Let your speech always be gracious” (Colossians 4:6). “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up” (Ephesians 4:29). “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1). James’ point, echoed by Paul, who gathered their strength from Jesus was simple, “In the name of Christ, stop.” Stop speaking curses upon one another, like the world does. Instead, be different in your speech because you are different. Become quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Let this approach allow the Spirit of Christ living within you come and produce the fruit of blessings and not curses. Let the Spirit of Christ living within you produce praise and not division. Let the Spirit of Christ living within us steer our entire life away from the fire found in hell and toward the peace found in heaven. James said, “no human being can tame the tongue” (James 3:7). But the Spirit of Christ living within you can.
As Christians, your words and my words are enormously powerful, if we allow them to be powered by the Spirit of Christ. If we do not allow Christ to power them, then they are at best worthless and in the worst case, powerfully destructive towards those we claim to love and to ourselves. Today, let us begin a life spent with words that praise, bless, and enrich. Amen and Amen.