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September 17, 2000
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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from the Revised Common Lectionary

Isaiah 50:4-9a and
Psalm 116:1-9
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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The Power of Words

It was the first time in my life I had encountered a "tongue lashing."  My friend Jimmy Turner was receiving one from his mother.  Jimmy and I had been tormenting his sister Sharon.  (Jimmy because she was his sister and me because that was a little boy's way of showing love and affection for a little girl!)

I was absolutely amazed at the power of Mrs. Turner's words to transform Jimmy's behavior. I was glad that I was not on the receiving end of her powerful words.  They cut like emotional razor blades across Jimmy's rough exterior.

Mrs. Turner (the grownups called her Mabel) was a tiny little lady who walked with a cane.  Her husband, Jack Turner, on the other hand was a great big hulk of a man.  Most of the men in our small Northern Ontario mining town who had much sense never bothered Jack Turner.  But it was rumored that even Jack Turner came about like a well handled sail boat when Mabel Turner drilled him with her tongue.


I want to think with you today about the power of words.  Words can hurt or heal -- they can tear down or build up. Words are powerful.

The power of words, in some sense, shows the image of God in us.  It is by the power of the Word that God created the universe.  When God said, "Let there be..." there was!  It is the Word become flesh that brought us salvation.  The author of the letter to the Hebrews says, The Word of God is living and powerful -- it is sharper than any two edged sword."  [Heb. 4:12]

Today's scripture reading from the letter of James is a critical test of Christian maturity.  Paul teaches us that the Holy Spirit wants to shape the character of Christ in us.  If you want to ask yourself the question, "How am I doing?"  Listen to this quick assessment from James 3:2.  The Living Bible puts it this way, "If anyone can control his tongue, it proves that he has perfect control over himself in every other way."

Or perhaps you have heard this definition:  A mature Christian is one who would not hesitate to sell their talking parrot to the town gossip.

The lesson from James is one of the most powerful blendings of emotional and spiritual insight on Christian maturity I know of.  While the Apostle Paul frequently takes us to the heights of the mystery and wonder of the faith -- James is the one who speaks where the rubber meets the road.  His whole letter is a kind of a, "Thanks, I needed that!"

A Brief Digression on James

The Apostle James was the half-brother of Jesus -- as a matter of fact he thought his brother to be unbalanced!  [Mk 3:21]  After the crucifixion and resurrection James came to believe that Jesus was indeed the Son of God who came to save the world.  The letter of James opens as the writer calls himself, "...a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Legend tells us that shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, when many Jews were becoming Christian, James was commanded to renounce Jesus.  When he refused, James was thrown from the top of the temple and then stoned to death as he lay dying from his injuries.  James' willingness to die for his faith is one of the more compelling arguments you will hear for the claims of Jesus.

We might conjecture that the memory of his own careless words spoken about his half-brother helped James (or the school of James) to write one of the most insightful passages about the tongue in all literature.

The Wonder of Speech

Consider for a moment the wonder of our power of speech.  When we hear a word, the physical movement that enters our ear and then inner ear activates 24,000 little nerves which react through the limbic system and results in the pituitary gland sending hormones into the body.  Our whole physical system reacts when we hear words of care or condemnation.  When we hear words that bring us pain or anxiety, the physical-chemical reaction takes 72 hours to subside.  No wonder some people live in a perpetual state of agitation and upset!

  • It is critical for those of us who claim Jesus Christ as Lord of our lives to look very carefully at his Lordship in our power of speech.  Most people are far more sensitive than we know and when we're honest, most of us are more sensitive than we dare to admit.

  • In our closest relationships we live out the old song, "you always hurt the one you love..." -- especially with our tongues.  We know just the right buttons to push.

  • Rare is the person who never participates in destructive conversation that can only be called gossip.  Have you ever said or heard something like, "Well -- guess what Charlie told me about Mary?"

Our scripture lesson from James may seem harsh. But if you look at it carefully with an open mind, you will see he is right on target.  The unbridled tongue he says, "...is set on fire by hell."  Let me give you a short, three question true or false quiz.  (You might print this in your worship bulletin)

  • I have never hurt another person with my words

  • I have never repeated something about another person that I did not know for certain was absolutely true.

  • I never participate in idle talk about other people and their lives.

A Man and A Rumor

The story is told of a man who lived in a highland village in Scotland. He passed along a story about another man for whom he did not care. The story, he thought to be true. When the story got around the village, it utterly destroyed the man. His family, his job and his integrity were all devastated by the rumor mill. He finally had to leave town -- a ruined and defeated man.

As you might have guessed, the fellow who passed the story along discovered that the rumor was false. He had helped to destroy an innocent man with his tongue. He went to his pastor (whom they called "Dominie") and said, "Dominie, I have destroyed a man with my words" and he told his pastor the whole story. "Please Dominie," he said, "I am sorry -- can I be forgiven this sin?"

The pastor told the man that this was not so simple and told him to take a bag of feathers and place one in the front yard of every house in the village. Although the fellow thought this to be a strange request for a pastor to make, he really wanted forgiveness, so he followed the instructions to the letter. At last he came back to the pastor and said, "Dominie, I have done all that you asked, may I now be forgiven?"

"Not yet, my son," the pastor replied, "You must first retrace your steps and bring back to me every feather you placed in the village!"

"But, Dominie -- I could never do that, the wind has carried the feathers away!"

"Yes," the pastor said, "And in like manner have your careless words destroyed an innocent man!"

Two Critical Thoughts

  • Thoughts unexpressed may fall back dead but even God can't kill words after they're said!"

James concludes that the tongue can not be tamed -- except - as in his metaphor of the ship-- except - the rudder which determines the course be controlled by the pilot of the ship. "Look at ships," he says, "Although they are so large and driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder whenever the pilot desires."

You see, we are the pilots and our tongues are the rudders that determine the course of our lives and the lives of others. If we are able to control our tongue, James suggests, we have begun a strong degree of maturity in our relationship with Christ. Jesus Christ is the Master Pilot who can work in our hearts to pilot the rudders of our tongues... which leads to our second critical point:

  • The key to taming the tongue is to bring our lives more completely under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

I would like for you to try an experiment with me.  We are going to exercise choice, make a decision and then watch the power of our words cause a physical reaction ... thousands of neural circuits will be engaged as we do this.

Repeat after me... "I love you."


Now repeat my words again... "I hate you."   (There's a good bit of hesitation here -- praise God!)

Do you see? -- We are entrusted with a great power here. We are given a gift that can create or destroy. We can build up or tear down with this gift.

Do you remember that one of the strongest warnings Jesus ever issued has to do with the matter of how we use our speech?  Listen carefully:

"I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter..."  Matt. 12:36

Why is this issue so important to Jesus? 

The fact is, our power of speech is very close to the issue of our being created in the image of God.  Word is powerful.  We can draw people to the love of God with our speech or we can turn them off.  We can set the course of a child's life with a careless word and turn a young person around with a positive nourishing word.

Listen to the words of a popular hymn:

Lord speak to me that I may speak, in living echoes of Thy tones,
As Thou has sought, so let me seek, Thy erring children lost and lone.

O teach me Lord, that I may teach, the precious things
      Thou dost impart,
And wing my words that they may reach, the hidden depths
      of many a heart.    [Frances R. Havergall, 1872]

May God give us the grace to hear the divine word that we might bring our human word under its control.


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Text

The texts today all revolve around the subject of "words."  God's word, our word and the teacher's words.  There is power in words.  God created the worlds by the Word and the Word became flesh to dwell in our midst.  The word continues its creative, powerful ministry in the words of servants of God who teach others.  Peter's confession of Jesus as the Christ is a powerful, community creating affirmation.  As Jesus calls his followers to discipleship, he warns that we must not be ashamed of him or his words.

Psalm 116 is a reflection on the amazing fact that God listens to our words and brings deliverance in tough times.  We in return listen to and act on God's word and discover fullness of life.  The theme for today calls us to reflect seriously on the gift of words, communication and creativity.  James provides our text for the sermon where the power of words is critically examined.

Isaiah 50: 4-9a

The text from Isaiah is a part of the "Servant Song" included in the prophecies of hope from Isaiah 40 on.  In this section, the Servant (Messiah) speaks of his obedience to the call of God - even to the inhumanity of those who despise the Servant.  God will ultimately bring vindication through the Servant whose life is made, "...an offering for sin."  [53:10]

Verse four is a wonderful verse for all who teach the good news of God.  It is God who gives the "tongue of a teacher".  The role of the teacher is to "sustain the weary with a word."  How powerful the word that is taught.  HOWEVER, the one who teaches God's good news must first be taught by God!  "Morning by morning he wakens-- wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught!

There is a critical foundation for the teacher.  The faithful teacher who is able to "sustain the weary,"  does not originate the sustaining word.  This is a word which first comes from God to the servant.  If the teacher does not first listen, there will not be proper content and the ministry of the taught word will loose its efficacy.  These are crucial words for every teacher - then and now!

A second major characteristic of the servant is that of obedience it is the Lord who opens the servant's ear and the servant "was not rebellious."  Even in the face of suffering the servant does not turn away from his God given task and indeed trusts that , "it is the Lord God who helps me..."

Thus, three characteristics of the faithful servant:

  • The servant listens to God
  • The servant is obedient to God
  • The servant trusts God 


Mark 8:27-38

The theme of "words" is central to this passage from Mark.  Peter's words are one the one hand inspired and then almost immediately from Satan.  The difference is "mindset."  Peter gets lost when he sets his mind, "...not on divine things," but "...on human things."

See last weeks notes for a brief discussion of the "messianic secret."  In the midst of popular speculation about the identity of Jesus, the proclamation of Jesus as "The Christ," would have meant double turmoil.

A key thought in this text is that a recognition of who Jesus is has implications for those who wish to follow Jesus.  Those who are called to follow Jesus are called to embrace his selflessness in order to gain his destiny.  We are not to be "ashamed" - of our identification with the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.  There is fair warning here that following Christ will of necessity bring conflict with the culture.


If you wish to focus on the theme of "take up the cross and follow me,"  check the previous sermons on this topic from >>> Matthew 10:38 and >>> Luke 14:27

James 3:1-12

The teacher is the one who uses their tongue to build up and nurture.  The Isaiah passage has some of the positive qualities a teacher needs to possess.  James points out the powerfully destructive ability of the tongue.  Control or "discipline" of the tongue is a measure of genuine spiritual maturity.  "Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect..."  The word for perfect (teleios) has the sense of reaching the intended outcome - or figuratively - "maturity."

The "spring which gives water" and the "tree which yields fruit," is a lesson for the tongue.  The spring and the tree are either healthy or unhealthy.  A good spring gives good water and a good tree gives good fruit.  So also the tongue is an indicator of the heart that lies within.  The tongue is a "revealer" of the heart of the one who speaks.

This essay on the tongue correlates well with the issue of how we are made in the image of God.  The word of God is powerful and creative.  It follows that creatures who are created in he image of God would be powerful (for good or evil) with words.  One of the most missed warnings in the New Testament is Jesus' warning about careless words.  "I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter..."  [Matt. 12:36]

 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship (Based on Ps. 116:1-9)

Leader:   The Lord hear us when we pray,
People:  And graciously listens to our supplications.

Leader:   Therefore we will call upon the name of the Lord,

People:  And trust all of our cares to the One who loves us most.

Leader:   We come to rest our spirits and refresh our lives,
People:  As we worship the glorious name of the Lord!  Amen!


A Prayer of Confession

We confess to you, O Lord of the gracious word, that our words fall short of your desire for our lives.  We are hasty with our words and careless with the feelings of others.  We have hurt your children with our  words and caused pain even for those we love with things we have said.  We tremble to recall the words of Jesus that we shall one day give account for every careless word we have spoken.  O God of grace and mercy, forgive us of our sinful words and heal our spirits that we might build up and encourage your children with our words.  Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Beloved in Christ, hear the words of the Psalmist, "Gracious is the Lord...  our God is merciful...  Return O my soul to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you."  Trust in Christ and believe the good news that in him we are forgiven.  Amen.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

There is no one like you, O Divine Redeemer.  Our hearts are filled with hope and we are encouraged because you are gracious beyond our ability to comprehend.  When we consider the strength of our rebellion against your holy will and the depth of your love for us, we discover healing and humility.

Who could love us more?

This is a broken, confused and complicated world and we thank you this day that you have not given up on us.  You call us, redeem us, renew us and send us out as representatives of your love.  We praise you for the high honor you bestow upon us by making us your ambassadors.  No honor we shall ever receive, or accomplishment we shall ever achieve will compare with the joy of being a part of your divine plan for the salvation of the  world.

O loving God, help us day by day to discover more fully the gifts you have given to your children.  You provide all that we need to accomplish everything you have called us to do.  Through your son Jesus Christ you promised that your Holy Spirit would dwell within us and strengthen us to become your people and accomplish your purpose in this world.

How can we not proclaim your glorious praise and lift our hearts in joy to you?


A Prayer of Dedication

We come with our gifts today, O Lord God, knowing that it has been your hand in our lives that makes it possible for us to give back to you.  Bless our gifts today and make us faithful stewards of all you have placed in our hands.  Amen.