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“Tame Your Tongue!”
James 3:1-12


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost—September 16, 2012

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

This time of year, lots of people can hardly bear to watch television.  Because we live in or adjacent to a “swing state,” the airwaves are full of political commercials: charges, countercharges, half-truths, distortions, and outright lies.  And actually, because of the important primary that takes place in our area every four years, it seems like the campaigning never really ends and we’ve assaulted with this onslaught for years.  Of course, they always pledge to run a positive campaign, but without fail it quickly turns nasty and negative.  The political experts say there’s a simple reason why there’s so much negative campaigning: even though we all claim to hate it, it works.  The goal is to get elected, and time after time, election after election, the candidate who hits his opponent with the worst negative ads wins.

In the Large Catechism, in his explanation of the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor,” Martin Luther in his characteristically earthy way has some insights into why this negative campaigning works: “It is a common vice of human nature that everyone would rather hear evil instead of good about his neighbor. . .  we relish and delight in evil things said about others, like pigs that roll in the mud and root around in it with their snouts.”

As much as we criticize the politicians and complain about their negative ads, we must confess that like them and their commercials we often act the same way in our own lives, in our relationships with others: charges, countercharges, half-truths, distortions, and outright lies.  As Paul says in Ephesians, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God . . .  get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. . .  each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor.”  Jesus explains the root cause of this wicked habit: “You belong to your father, the devil . . . for there is no truth in him . . .  he is a liar and the father of lies.”  In today’s Epistle Reading, James speaks to us very bluntly about this wicked habit we have, and admonishes us to “Tame Your Tongue!”

James begins with something we might not think about, the first way you must learn to “Tame Your Tongue!”:  “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”  Just as we are commanded not to give false testimony about our neighbor, the first thing you must do as you “Tame Your Tongue!” is to be careful not to give false testimony about God, teaching anything that is contrary to his Word or his will. 

When you give false testimony about God you not only violate the Eighth Commandment, but also the Second Commandment, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God,” because as Luther says in the Small Catechism, “Anyone who teaches . . . contrary to God’s Word profanes the name of God among us.”  And, because holding God’s Word sacred is the essence of keeping the Sabbath, giving false testimony about God also violates the Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”  That’s why at the beginning of his admonition to “Tame Your Tongue!” James starts off with this warning against giving false testimony about God, because giving false testimony about God violates three out of the Ten Commandments. 

“Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.”  James words are very similar to the familiar words from the First Epistle of John that we quote in our liturgy: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

Like the poor boy in today’s Gospel Reading, we are all afflicted with demons, unable to release ourselves, as James says, “We all stumble in many ways.”  But, the Good News is, just as Jesus has compassion on the boy and releases him, he has compassion on you and sets you free from your sin.  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Just as the mute boy’s tongue was loosed by the Lord, your tongue is no longer captive to the devil and his wicked will, but instead you will use your tongue in service to Christ.  As today’s Old Testament Reading says, “The Lord God has given me an instructed tongue.”  Paul puts it this way in Colossians: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature. . .  you used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived.  But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and abusive language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self.”

James continues in today’s Epistle Reading with a series of illustrations, stressing that since you have been redeemed by Christ, you will therefore “Tame Your Tongue!”:  “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 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. 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. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.  All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.”

Over the next two months as you become weary of all the political commercials, with their charges, countercharges, half-truths, distortions, and outright lies, examine your own life, and “Tame Your Tongue!”

As Peter says in his First Epistle, “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.  Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For, ‘Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech.’”

Amen.

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