Sermon for Morning Prayer on September 13th, 2015, the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

The Lessons: Psalm 19, Proverbs 1:20-33, James 3:1-12

TEXT & THEME: James 3:1-12: controlling the tongue


More than a thousand firefighters battled a wildfire for two weeks in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The fire started August 24, 2000, and was not contained until September 8. Meanwhile, more than eighty thousand acres of valuable timber burned. Janice Stevenson, forty-six, was arrested on suspicion of starting the fire. She pled guilty to second-degree arson, was sentenced to twenty-five years in the South Dakota State Penitentiary, and ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $42,204,155.48. Federal investigators who filed charges against Stevenson say she admits stopping by a road on August 24, lighting a cigarette, and tossing the still-burning match on the ground. “Rather than putting out the fire,” an affidavit said, “she looked at it and decided to leave the area.” Like starting a forest fire, producing a “wildfire” with our tongues requires little effort. Rumors, half-truths, grumblings, sarcastic remarks, hurtful things said in the heat of anger — all of these smoldering matches have the potential for burning down acres of office morale, family peace, and church unity.

— “Wyoming Woman Accused of Starting South Dakota Wildfire,” (September 30, 2000); 2001 Annual Report of the Attorney General to the Governor of South Dakota,


“Even so,” writes St. James, “the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell” (James 3:5-6, KJV). The power of the tongue for good or evil is well-known, and Proverbs 18:21 tells us, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.” Typical also of the Book of Proverbs are these sayings, “He that keepeth his mouth keepeth his life; but he that openeth wide his lips shall have destruction” (Prov. 13:3) and “Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul from troubles.” Today we might say, “Look before you leap; think before you speak.” St. James’s warnings about self-control in speech spring from his concern that not many Christians should become “masters,” that is, teachers of the faith, since teachers of the faith shall “receive the greater condemnation” (James 3:1). The reason for this is that the Lord scrutinizes more closely the lives of teachers of the faith, since their lives must be exemplary, conforming to the standard of righteousness set forth in the Bible. For in many things we all stumble, or sin; the man who does not sin in what he says is a perfect man who can control his whole body (James 3:2). St. James contrasts the power of human beings to control horses with bit and bridle and ships with rudders to their inability to tame the tongue, which is an “unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (v. 8).


The Lord, through St. James, warns Christians not to be false to their profession. Since we bless God, we must not curse people, but rather bless them, if the goodness of Christ is to be shown at work in our lives. Blessing God while cursing our fellow human beings is as unnatural as a fountain gushing forth from the same opening both sweet water and bitter, or a fig tree producing olives, or a vine, figs (James 3:9-12). Though Christians are often a mixture of good and evil, God wants all the evil removed from us, so that His love and goodness are reflected in our lives.


How, then, shall we change, and be able to control our speech, and become people who do not cause offence or trouble by what we say? In subsequent passages (the remainder of chapter 3 and the whole of chapter 4) of St James’s Epistle, the Holy Spirit leads the reader to the inner issues of the mind and heart which each Christian must deal with by resisting the devil, repenting of sin, and humbly approaching God in prayer. Each of us must purify himself by forsaking sin in his life. Unless we do this, the sin in the depths of our minds and hearts always remains close enough to influence our words to others. The Lord Jesus Christ made these statements about the power of words and our answerability for them: A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned. (Mark 7:35-37, KJV)


Therefore every Christian must realize how important it is to conform what we say to the standard of righteousness set before us by the example of the Lord Jesus Christ. Each of us must resist whatever devils are affecting our speech and behavior, and cease from sinful attitudes and habits of thought, word and deed. This is a daily, continuing fight against evil, and we must never give up. Instead we must be determined to succeed in overcoming sin in all areas of our lives. To succeed, we must be faithful in co-operating with the Holy Spirit, who shows us all those thoughts, words and aspects of our behavior which displease God. Each of must aim to let the love and goodness of the Lord Jesus Christ totally shape what we think, say and do.

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