September 06, 2021
The Proper 19B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 8:27-38 from the Lectionary Gospel; Proverbs 1:20-33 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 116:1-9 from the Lectionary Psalms; and James 3:1-12 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 21 (Lord’s Day 7)
Author: Chelsey Harmon
This is a story of being on the way but not there yet. The lectionary skipped over the story of the blind man in Bethsaida having his sight restored in stages, but we have a symbolic outworking of it here in our personal stand-in, Peter.
As Jesus and his disciples head to Caesarea, Jesus strikes up an anything-but-casual conversation: “Who do people say I am?” followed closely by, “and what about you? Who do you say I am?” Multiple disciples are said to answer the first question, but only Peter chimes in on the second. “You are the Messiah,” (or “Christ” depending on your translation). Remember that “Messiah” is a loaded term; it indicates the anticipated deliverer of Israel, the one they’ve been waiting a very long time for. In other words, it’s an idea that’s had time to harden into a distinct mold in their psyches.
Of course, Peter’s right in his declaration about the Christ, but he doesn’t yet fully understand its implications. He can partly see, but not yet fully. He is trying to keep the mold of the Messiah and Jesus. In fact, Peter won’t fully see that Christ broke the mold until after Jesus’ resurrection… I wonder if Jesus told them not to talk about what they “know” because of how difficult it will be for them to understand it without the Holy Spirit’s help (which plays out in Acts). Nonetheless, Jesus takes the opportunity to begin to upend their expectations of what it means for him to be the Messiah by giving them a sense of the troubles to come.
And good ol’ Peter, at it again, thinks he’s doing Jesus a favour by pulling him aside and telling him to quit this negative talk—it will do no one any good and it doesn’t fit the expected pattern. Peter does not approve, he likes the old image much better because he whole mind has been set on it for as long as he can remember. While Peter listens to Jesus, it’s like in the movies when the record scratch noise plays in his head: hold up there Jesus!
It turns out that the saying “Tell God your plans and see him laugh” might be too soft. “Tell God what he must be and see him turn his back on you and call you the devil” is more like it. Disapprove of God’s way and God will make it clear that he disapproves of your implicit devotion to the evil one. Peter’s view (very likely the view of everyone else on that walk with Jesus) was deeply ensconced in one made here on earth as human minds spent centuries mixing the Scriptures with their hopes, dreams, and understanding of God into the mold that produced their image of the coming Messiah.
But God’s divine mold produced a product incompatible with the human idea. And like Jesus did back in chapter seven regarding the “tradition of the elders,” Jesus calls the crowd’s attention to himself so that he can help the whole group understand the consequences of the choice they have collectively made and now live by.
Walking along with Jesus does not make you his follower. Denying all of your held convictions, rising up to a way of “defeat” (symbolized by the cross), and going after Jesus wherever he goes and whatever he does, that’s what does it. Talking about the grand ideas and having the right answer doesn’t fulfill it, obeying his commands does. Christ has a mold of his own, designed for anyone who is called by his name.
We’ve heard the words in verses 35-38 so much that they might have lost some of their depth. The word for life, for instance, isn’t the generic version of the word, but the one that is about our life-force, what animates us—the power of living itself. And the word for “lose” isn’t just a matter of misplacing something, but of being permanently separated from something. Plus, when Jesus tells us it’s possible to have our lives “saved,” he doesn’t mean a preservation of life for this earth but also an eternal salvation. In other words: we have things that drive us to live, that guide our actions, our purpose in life; if that thing is not God, then we need to disconnect from it in order to reconnect with God and thereby have our life preserved for eternity.
I especially appreciate the word “lose” here. Along with this idea of being separated from something, it means “to ruin” something. For Peter, Jesus “ruined” the role of the Messiah with his talk of suffering and death. Now, Jesus invites him (and everyone else) to ruin their own lives, according to their family and friends and patterns of this world, and to do it for his sake. He invites them to choose the divine mold of what ought to be and it goes against the grain of this world.
The mold the world forms, or the way of God. A choice for one means rejecting the other. In their own ways, each will be difficult, but one is lost in the here and now, and the other is aiming at something much bigger. What Jesus wants the crowd to understand is that discipleship is about ruining your life in order to disconnect from every life-force that is not from above, about changing one’s mindset about what matters, and not just having new views about things like who God is, but actually putting teeth to them through obedient living.
Jesus turns his back on Peter. Just sit with that for a second. Jesus will have nothing to do with continuing a picture of success and salvation that’s tied and rooted to anything in this world. On this, there is no compromise or middle ground. Peter would have never imagined himself as being in opposition to Christ, yet, here it’s proven true: the unrealized consequence of a deeply held worldview leads Peter to be ashamed of what Jesus is saying is true. In turn, Jesus is ashamed of him. Fortunately, we know that this is only a moment in their story together, and that Jesus draws Peter back to himself on multiple occasions, reorienting his views, motivations, and connection to the power of his life-force, the Holy Spirit. And if Peter is our stand-in in this story, he’s also our exemplar in these other texts. May it be so for us as it was for him.
The gospel writer makes effective use of verb voice (passive or active) in this passage, particularly in verses 31 and 36.
In verse 31, Jesus is describing what is to come. Illustrated by the passive voice (he will have these things done to him), Jesus will be rejected and be killed. But then, in the active voice, meaning Jesus will be actively engaged in the act of rising from the dead.
Verse 36’s use of verb voice isn’t as clear in the English as it is in verse 31, but there is an active infinitive and a passive infinitive in the rhetorical question that Jesus asks:
What does it profit (main verb)
to gain (active infinitive) the whole world and
forfeit (passive infinitive) one’s life?
I think that the message here is that when we actively choose what we seek to gain, there will be things that we passively, maybe even unknowingly, “give up” because of that choice. In other words, we may not have realized the particular consequence of our active choice, but it happens all the same. Jesus’ rhetorical question is actually a profound warning: choosing “glory” from the world means you implicitly reject true glory—the glory of God. In the second century, Irenaeus described it this way: “the glory of God is living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God.” We ought to “want it all,” not the whole world, but the life found in Christ. Hard as we try to compromise or hold onto both, we can only have one aim.
One of the biggest stories to come out of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics this summer (2021) was Simone Biles’ decision to pull out of the artistic gymnastics team competition for mental health reasons. Of course, there were some who, like Peter with Jesus, were ashamed of her for her choice; they did not like that she was bucking the mold and image of American success. They thought it weak and selfish, and against the ethos of American grit and determination that overcomes all weakness. (Not to mention that we think we have a right to demand things from others in order to keep our own ideals and comforts—especially from women of colour…)
Simone’s decision, though, was to choose a different way. The implicit, passive consequence of her choice meant that her team would not have her scores (they did have her morale and cheerleading from the sidelines), but explicitly, Simone chose her life. Professional gymnasts have explained how, for an elite athlete of Simone’s caliber, she could easily have been paralyzed by trying to do what she does while suffering from “the twisties.” We saw that by choosing her own safety in that moment, she was choosing to trust that her life is more important than a gold medal. After all, what would it profit her to have a team medal, any medal for that matter, but lose her ability to walk?
Then she tweeted this:
It turns out, this choice to view her life as bigger than Olympic performance enabled her to experience an even deeper truth. To use the image that Jesus uses, Simone realized that her life-force has nothing to do with her accomplishments at all. Like Simone, we can think that’s true, but until we have to make some decisions based on it, becoming wholly dependent on the grace of God, let ourselves melt into the mold of discipleship and its practices, we won’t know it as true.
A quick contrast. A number of years ago, I remember hearing a story about a man who died 40 hours into a marathon video game tournament. The police said when they went to the scene, all of the other participants had simply continued playing (and were still playing as they attended to the body). A cursory google search reveals that this was not an isolated occurrence. Apparently, the drive to play blinds some of these players to the danger they are exposing themselves to, and in turn, they become numb to everything and everyone else. In the process, they lose a part of their humanity. What are they living for, what are they hoping to gain, as they risk it all?
Author: Scott Hoezee
In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus Socrates tells an ancient Egyptian legend about a king named Thamus and a god named Theuth. Theuth, it seems, was an inventor of great tools and new technologies. One day he showed King Thamus a vast array of his inventions, climaxing with his most recent innovation: writing. The inventor proudly told Thamus, “Here is an accomplishment, my lord and king, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians.” The king, however, felt it would have the opposite effect.
“Those who acquire this skill of writing,” King Thamus said, “will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality; they will be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom, they will be a burden to society.”
It could be alleged that just such a conceit of wisdom is very much present today, and it is indeed a burden to society. The ability to Google anything—or look up facts quickly on Wikipedia—is not the same thing as having a well-rounded education, much less knowing how to use knowledge in wise ways. Worse, the internet and social media have actually had the effect of making some people less informed not more so due to the circulation of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and the work of trolls who undermine anything and everything they can just to get some kicks out of being contrarian. If writing made us more forgetful with only the conceit of knowledge, the printing press magnified all of that and the invention of hypertext in the internet age has sealed the deal.
Wisdom is the knack for getting along well in life’s many and varied situations. The Book of Proverbs runs the gamut of life situations because wisdom itself surveys the whole of life in order to figure out patterns of wholeness, to see what works and what doesn’t. The wise one observes these patterns and then fits him- or herself into the larger picture of reality. As Proverbs 1:7 claims, the foundational reason why wisdom can be fruitfully pursued is “the fear of the Lord.” Only our core belief in the reliability of God’s orderly universe can encourage us to make coherent sense out of life. If the “jigsaw” pieces of life in a fragmented world did not all come from a single picture in the first place, then there would be no sense in trying to put those pieces back together.
Hence the wise learn to pay close attention to life. The wise pay close attention to what works and what flops in life as a key avenue for gaining wisdom. As the balance of Proverbs 1 makes clear, however, a main artery through which wisdom comes to a person is receiving instruction from older and wiser people. Throughout especially the early chapters of the Book of Proverbs we read a lot of parental lectures. A certain “son” is being addressed by his father and is being cajoled over and over again to accept the advice his parents are doling out. The first nine chapters are loaded with warnings, reproaches, admonitions, and commands. But what underlies it all is the vital need for the son to be willing to take what his father is dishing out. When wisdom calls, we have to listen.
In verses 20-33 Wisdom herself speaks in a striking personification of divine reality. But what Wisdom has to say is not always pleasant. In fact, those verses contain the Old Testament’s single biggest concentration of the word “rebuke”! People who think they can re-invent reality every ten minutes do not take kindly to rebukes.
Fools, it is said, are often in error but never in doubt.
A rebuke is designed to create a guilty conscience in a person in the hopes of helping that person come to a better understanding of why what he did was wrong and how things could go better the next time. “What you did was wrong! You said something that was very hurtful! You should not have done it that way.” Those are examples of rebukes, and yet today your uttering one such sentence out in society would be labeled insensitive, intolerant, judgmental, and parochial.
Such a negative attitude toward your attempt to educate people morally in the art of living wisely will be all-the-more ballyhooed if the primary authority to which you appeal is something traditional and old, much less something ancient (like the Bible). Some of the same impulses that make Americans prefer cohortative forms of speech over imperative forms likewise lead people to resist the notion that the past may well have much to teach us in this present moment as well as on into the future.
At least part of the reason for this disconnect from the past can be detected in that opening illustration about King Thamus. Unlike the inventor who thought that the new tool of writing would make people smarter and wiser, the king was sure it would make them dumber, lazier, less educated. If you can look it up in a book, you don’t need to carry it around in your head. Have you ever heard a young person who is poor at spelling tell you not to worry because before he hands his essay in to his teacher he’ll run it through his computer’s spell checker? The computer can spell, so the student doesn’t have to. As King Thamus said, new technology can give people the appearance of wisdom without its reality–or in this case the appearance of being a good speller without its lexical reality!
As Neil Postman so well pointed out, new technologies have always had the tendency of conferring on the masters of that technology the appearance of an intelligence and wisdom they may not actually possess. The same happens with any successful person in our media-driven age. Why do actors and actresses so regularly get asked to testify before Congress? They spend their lives reading lines written by other people but because they do that so well before the camera, we assume they will be wise when they are unscripted, too. Rich people (no matter how it was they made their millions) suddenly think they can make pronouncements on all sorts of aspects of life.
The conceit of wisdom is everywhere today. Real wisdom is rare. The conceit of wisdom without the reality of wisdom is perhaps nowhere better detected than in our society’s abhorrence of moral rebukes. But the truly wise, though no more enjoying getting rebuked than anyone else, accept reproof and redirection and are, in the long run, glad for it. It adds to their wisdom. But a society characterized by the modern, decidedly unbiblical proverb “Different strokes for different folks” has no patience for rebuke.
But such are the confusions of our society, ostensibly awash in a glut of knowledge and information. People good at accessing information on the Internet confuse being able to look something up with being smart to begin with (worse, they confuse the speed with which they can look it up with having the kind of intelligence which is able quickly to cut to the heart of the matter in wise discernment). As Neil Postman also points out, today we love to quantify everything, assign stuff a number which, since it’s scientific and all, supposedly can tell you a lot about a person. So we float on a sea of numbers: SAT scores, I.Q. ratios, sensitivity scales, GPAs, GRE scores, and personality inventory results. But, as Postman says, that kind of talk would have sounded like gibberish to most of the wisest people who lived before the nineteenth century. Those numbers reveal very little about a person’s wisdom.
Ultimately, there is in and through all of this a disdain for the past. People increasingly have the tendency to believe that unless someone is cyber-savvy and computer literate, they are out of touch, outdated, out of the loop. In some corners of society today people would not bat an eye if you told them you and your wife had an “open marriage” wherein each spouse is free to have sex with other people. But tell someone you don’t have email and they’ll look at you like you had a cow’s horn growing out of your head.
The conceit of wisdom is everywhere. But as people who claim Jesus, the Wisdom of God incarnate, as Lord, we cannot let ourselves settle for wisdom’s facade–we need its reality and its substantive inner depths.
The proper fear of our Lord demands nothing less.
[Here is an idea you could do in a sermon with a kind of call-and-response from the congregation.]
Suppose that about 3,000 or so years ago you had been a student at some Ancient Near Eastern school of wisdom. It is believed that just such schools existed, particularly in Egypt and possibly also in Israel. The teachers in these schools were renowned sages: wise guys whose speech dripped with proverbs, adages, axioms, aphorisms, maxims, and bywords. The students were young men whose job it was to learn at the feet of these older and wiser teachers. But if you were a student in such a school, what do you suppose the final exam would look like? No one is certain, of course, but a number of scholars have found evidence that exams in such schools involved the teacher throwing out the first half of a proverb with the student then being required to complete the wise saying.
Even today probably most of you could do pretty well on such a test. For instance, let me toss out for you the first part of some proverbs and then you respond by finishing the line—just say it out loud.
“Spare the rod . . . spoil the child.”
“When the going gets tough . . . the tough get going.”
“What goes up . . . must come down.”
“A fool and his money . . . are soon parted.”
“If you give him an inch . . . he’ll take half a mile.”
“The grass is always greener . . . on the other side of the fence.”
“With friends like that . . . who needs enemies.”
“People who live in glass houses . . . should not throw stones.”
Even today we live off the font of proverbs and proverbial wisdom perhaps more than we know!
Author: Scott Hoezee
For many of us, we cannot read the opening verses of Psalm 116 without thinking of the lovely song based on it that has become popular in recent years. What the song gets right is the lyric words of the first two verses because the psalmist swiftly moves from the grateful observation that God heard his cry in one instance and therefore he pledges to continue to call on God for the rest of his days. The psalmist is not hedging his bets here. He is not saying that he will call on God and wait to see what happens on a case by case basis. He is not saying that if there is a failure to heed his cry at some future point then the deal is off.
No, this is a pledge to continue to serve the God who came through for the psalmist when he needed it. There are some clear echoes in this psalm of Jonah 2 and the psalm Jonah sang as he sank to the depths of the sea. Whatever the psalmist’s specific situation it is clear he believed he was going to die. This is one of many psalms that on one level seems to say that God will protect the righteous from all harm and yet on another level makes clear that now and then sore distress—even unto death—will come upon the righteous. Indeed, the fact that the psalmist follows up his opening words of praise to God for having heard his cry with a vow to continue to call on God would imply that in the future, there will also now and again be a real need to call on God.
We are not promised a suffering-free life. And no matter how sunny-sounding many psalms are with promises that God will always protect the righteous, that seems as often as not to be meant in a longer-term sense. In the near-term, situations will arise that will require fresh cries to God for deliverance and help. If we take even other parts of Psalm 116 only at face value, one could conclude that after one act of deliverance by God, the psalmist expects that thenceforth all would be well. But to take these words that way would not be correct.
The last thing any of us should want to do is preach on Psalm 116—or any psalm—in such a way as to prop up some health-and-wealth corruption of the Gospel. We are promised God’s ultimate protection and constant presence but we are not promised that our faith will translate into riches or a pain-free existence. Part of what it means to be a believer is to have a faith that God is with us even if the bottom seems to have dropped out on life. In fact, a little later in this psalm beyond where the Lectionary section stops we are told that the death of God’s saints are precious in God’s sight. True, one could take that “death” to mean those who are old and full of years but there is nothing in the psalm to indicate that the death in question could not be a premature death or a tragic death.
This is the paradox of faith and thus of many of the psalms. We praise God for being with us and for many instances of deliverance from hard times. Yet we have no guarantee that more hard times may not come our way nor any assurance that something could happen from which we are not saved no matter how hard we or others cry to the Lord. Sometimes the Lord hears our cry but does not come through for us in any immediate sense.
This is also why in preaching class I often have to tell students to throttle back just a little bit in case in a sermon they go on and on just a little too long about someone’s miraculous deliverance from what could have been a bad situation. True, if the Smith family had a sick child who the doctors feared would die of a given condition and if the congregation prayed for that child and she recovered, then we are right to give praise for that and give voice to it by way of proxy testimony in a sermon.
But my only advice to seminarians is that they remember that when they celebrate the Smith family’s joyful story of deliverance, don’t forget the Jones family for whose child the congregation prayed with equal fervor but who died anyway. It’s not that you cannot celebrate with the Smiths. Just do it with an awareness that you do so in the presence of the Jones family and see what modulating or nuancing effect that has for your sermon. The last thing in the world any preacher would want to do is do or say anything that would lean—even just a little bit—in the direction of suggesting that Smiths had stronger faith than the Jones folks and hence the different result.
Again, this is so much the paradox of faith. There are no guarantees that every cry will not only be heard by the Lord but be acted upon in just the way we wish for in the moment. But perhaps that is why we sing another song in the church: Christus Paradox. Christ Jesus entered into the paradoxes of our lives—even unto the paradox of the living Son of God dying on a cross—to open up God’s ultimate deliverance of all of us in answer to the sum total of all the cries of God’s people across history.
For this reason above all we join the psalmist in saying, “I love the Lord for he heard my cry. I will call on him for as long as I live.”
When I have preached on the topic of suffering and looking to God for deliverance as Psalm 116 does, I have opened the sermon with two contrasting vignettes from the world of literature. The first comes from Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World where we see a future world in which life is engineered to avoid all suffering. But somehow or another this doesn’t quite lead to a complete human existence. The residents of this brave new world require monthly injections of adrenalin to make up for their bodies’ not producing adrenalin the usual way when we are fearful, startled, or in pain. Huxley seems to be saying that to deny all suffering is not quite human.
On the other hand is the character of Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’s classic Great Expectations. Many years before, Miss Havisham had been jilted on the day of her wedding. The groom just never showed up. Ever since, Miss Havisham has locked herself in the room where the wedding reception was to have taken place. The clock on the wall is stopped at the hour and minute when the wedding was to have begun. The long-since desiccated and rat-eaten wedding cake still sits on a buffet. And Miss Havisham still wears her wedding dress, now tattered and yellowed with age. Miss Havisham is trapped by her suffering.
Denial of suffering. Being frozen in one’s suffering. Are these the only two alternatives for dealing with the fact that sooner or later we all suffer in some way? The Bible suggests a fruitful third way: relying on God, crying to God, looking to God in all things. We don’t need to be trapped in our suffering and so let it have the last word on our lives nor do we need to deny its reality but we do look to the God who is with us in all things.
Author: Doug Bratt
“Not many of you should presume to be didaskaloi (teachers),” James begins this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson (1). About now, many teachers might agree with him. A few weeks (or days) into the new school year have probably begun to tax even the most dedicated teachers in ways that may leave them considering some kind of easier job, like brain surgeon.
I stand in and come from a long line of teachers. Since we’ve all found teaching to be rewarding but challenging, I suspect many of my family members might agree with James’ assertion, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers.”
One of my favorite teacher stories about the strain of teaching involves two professors who are married to each other. They always felt teaching pressures mount as their weekends ended. So this husband and wife agreed not to hold against each other anything one said to the other on Sunday evenings. Not many of us should presume to be teachers — perhaps especially on Sunday nights!
School teachers are sometimes caught in the middle of a kind of sometimes-painful three-sided game of dodge ball between administrators, students, and parents. So on this Sunday near the beginning of another school year, it’s appropriate for churches to encourage teachers. After all, we may sometimes wonder why anyone would even want to be do such critically important work.
Yet scholars suggest that the position of “teacher” was an honorable and coveted one in James’ day. We might even compare the work of teaching then to that of a modern doctor or social worker. The apostle, in fact, at least implies that many early Christians were eager for such a prestigious job, perhaps as much for the status it conferred as anything else.
To prospective preachers and teachers, however, James says, “Don’t rush to get into such celebrated work.” Teaching, after all, requires people to use their tongues a lot. And while it may be difficult to control any part of us, our tongues are, James suggests in verse 2, perhaps especially notoriously hard to control.
Some of our backyards and homes testify to people’s abilities to “control” animals like dogs and cats. A few bold people have even tried to tame wild animals like tigers and wolverines. James reminds us that to control our tongues, however, is like more like trying to control a great white shark than a hamster.
The tongue is, after all, not only naturally wild, but also dangerous and powerful. James compares it to a spark that sets off huge forest fires. Our tongues can figuratively cause the kind of firestorms that continue to chase countless people out of parts of the North American west. A lightning strike has been known, in fact, to cause as many as twenty separate forest and brush fires.
When I was in high school, the lightning that was someone’s tongue didn’t start 20 fires. But it did wreak havoc. I was so desperate for friends that at a football game I wandered close to a group of guys with whom I’d gone to middle school.
A classmate whom I’ll call Ray, however, incinerated my fragile psyche with one stroke of his powerful tongue. He took one look at my pants that were too short for my lengthening legs and sneered, “I guess Bratt’s getting ready for flooding.”
James says tongues are so powerful that they’re like a little rudder than can steer a massive ship and a small bit that can direct a mighty horse. While both are relatively tiny, they can “control” far bigger things. In a similar way, writes James, while our tongues are among our smallest muscles, they can direct our whole lives.
While we’re not entirely sure what the apostle means by that, he at least seems to mean that our tongues have power over every part of us. Might James 2’s proclaimers think of it this way? If I were to use my tongue to brag that I could run a marathon, I might think I must try to back my boast up by actually running one. So I’d change my whole life as I spent extra time training and altering my eating habits.
Or consider how the encouraging use of our tongues can build a friendship. Or how a word of forgiveness can re-direct whole lives through reconciliation with people who have hurt us. Or how the gentle use of our tongues might bolster sagging and broken spirits.
Whenever I read James 3, I think of my former colleague and mentor, Bill. He was such a wonderful preacher that a few people called him a “golden-tongued orator.” Yet Bill was also one of the most encouraging people I’ve ever known. He always found a way to use his tongue to build up people.
By contrast, think of how our tongues can also cut people down. How an irritated word, for instance, can ruin a friendship. Or how a critical word can break down vulnerable people. Or how a word of gossip can destroy a reputation.
A boy whom I’ll call AC was a member of the church I served when I was a new pastor. On one Sunday, in an effort to be funny, I jokingly said, “Here comes trouble” when he approached. But when I did that, I didn’t realize that AC had gotten into quite a bit of trouble. So my “tongue” lit the fire of reinforcing his negative self-image and, what’s more, hurting his parents.
James goes on in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson to add that in a way we don’t fully understand, our tongues can even set our lives on fire. By that he seems to mean that our tongues have immense power to cause disaster. They can incinerate friendships and families. They may even have the power, if we give it to them, to drag us perilously close to hell.
So who can tame the restless beast that is our wild and powerful tongue? James says, “no man can tame the tongue” (8). The theologian Augustine says that by saying that, the apostle implies that only God can tame the wild and mighty animal that is our tongue.
People naturally serve the evil one. In fact, even those whom God redeems sometimes still want to serve both the evil one and the Lord. So Christians fight the temptation to, for example, use our tongues to both gossip about other people and praise God. After all, while fig trees don’t grow olives, our tongues sometimes grow the fruit that is both lies to our neighbors and prayers to the Lord.
Those who preach and teach James 3 will want to look for ways to encourage God’s adopted children in the ways of its godliness. Its proclaimers may want to point to, for example, our need to confess to the Lord and each other that we don’t always use our tongues only to praise God and bless each other. We also deliberately open our hearts to the Spirit’s work to transform us into those who consistently put our tongues to good use.
Jesus’ followers deliberately, too, use our tongues to criticize each other far less and build each other up far more. Yet perhaps more than anything, we faithfully pray for those who whom God has called to use their tongues a lot. After all, preachers and teachers desperately need such prayers perhaps more than almost anyone.
Some of our arguably greatest “teachers” that have been political leaders have had razor-sharp tongues that they have used with ruthless skill. American President Lyndon Baines Johnson was one of them.
In his book, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent, Robert Caro notes that LBJ was a mean man who abused “underlings” and ordered his wife around. He tongue-lashed reporters who had not reported his successes with enough enthusiasm to suit him. Johnson verbally shredded them whenever they hinted at criticism of him.
Caro says, the president “even ridiculed them for no reason at all, displaying as he did so that keen insight into other men’s feelings that enabled him to wound them so deeply.” LBJ once ridiculed Dave Cheavens of the Associated Press, whom Caro calls “a sensitive, sweet-tempered guy who was fat and short.” Cheavens fell behind Johnson as they moved across a plowed field. The president taunted him: “C’mon Cheavens. Won’t those little fat legs of yours carry you any faster than that?”
Ironically, of course, Johnson also used his mighty tongue to sweet talk American congressmen into helping him pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The bill made it illegal to impose restrictions on federal, state, and local elections that were designed to deny people who are black the right to vote. Were it not for Johnson’s deft and persuasive use of his tongue, American race relations might arguably be even worse than they are today.