GCI Sermon – September 12, 2021

Taming the Tongue

James 3:1-12

We recently commemorated the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a tragic day for America and the world. The hijacking of four passenger planes by terrorists on September 11, 2001, resulted in the deaths of 2,977 people, 6,000 injuries, $700M of damage to the Pentagon, and the loss of the Twin Towers. We should remember to continue our prayers for those who lost loved ones in the attack and the nearly 43,000 people still dealing with a 9/11-related health condition.

9/11 changed us for better and for worse. After 9/11, people came together to care for the victims and help New York City heal. Church attendance increased and people spent more time with their families. On the other hand, 9/11 tarnished the sense of invincibility held by many Americans. It made us feel vulnerable and naturally brought up strong emotions. Even today, 9/11 kindles anger, conjures fear, and sinks many of us into sadness.


For Christians, a tragedy like 9/11 tests our faith. It challenges us to live out our beliefs under the most difficult circumstances. In our anger it is easy to dehumanize those who harm us. It is easy to label our attackers as “animals”—something less than human. While understandable, Jesus commands us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). This does not mean we should not condemn monstrous acts; however, we have to be careful not to dehumanize those made in the image of God.

Let’s look at our text in James:

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 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. 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 body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being 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 human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. (James 3:1-12)

If you are anything like me, there are some things that James wrote that make you squirm in your seat. The brother of Jesus writes a challenging book, skipping the soaring theological language and, in often blunt terms, calls on Christians to look and act like Christians. James pushes us to put our faith into action, which forces us to take a hard look at ourselves to see if we are living out our belief in Jesus. That kind of introspection is often uncomfortable, making James a book that is seldom the first choice for sermons. Martin Luther even referred to James as an “epistle of straw” because he felt it opened the door for a salvation-by-works mindset. However, some Bible scholars have wondered if Luther’s assessment of James was influenced by his own frequent use of unfiltered, colorful language. Perhaps James’ admonitions about the tongue hit a little too close to home for Luther.

What about us? Do James’ words hit close to home for us? Chances are, you felt some contrition when you heard the passage. I did. Every day is a struggle to control my words, and I do not always win the struggle. I speak words in anger. I harshly criticize those with whom I disagree. I do not always tell the truth. Sometimes I speak empty words, without much thought or intention behind them. It is for this reason that we should take time to consider what James says about the tongue.

He describes it as powerful, evil, and untamable because the tongue gives voice to the darkness in our hearts. Since the fall, when Adam and Eve sinned, humanity has been oriented away from God. We seek after our own selfish desires and create idols to take God’s place. Sin is not just something we do – rather, it is something that has corrupted our nature. Sin goes all the way down to the cellular level. This is why we cannot tame our tongue on our own. We cannot change our own nature in our own strength. This is also why James exhorts us to pay attention to the words coming out of our mouths. Are our words mostly life-giving, or are our words mostly empty and meaningless, or worse, coarse and destructive? Whatever the case, our tongues indicate the condition of our hearts.

Our only hope is in Jesus. In his broken body and spilled blood, Christ forged a new humanity for us. One day we will no longer be corrupted by sin and our tongues will only speak life. In the meantime, Christians have the Holy Spirit—the same Spirit who worked in Jesus—as a guarantee that we will one day be redeemed. The Spirit empowers us by bringing everything Jesus is into us. By the Spirit, we can better control our tongues and receive conviction when we say harmful things.

We can also look at the life of Jesus recorded in Scripture. Christ was perfect in word and in action. By looking at how Jesus tamed his tongue, we can learn from his example. While our only hope for gaining any control over our tongue is in Jesus, we can participate in the work he is doing to redeem us, including our tongues.

In order to learn how to best participate, we will look to a special tree.

In October 2001, a month after the Twin Towers were reduced to rubble, the workers at Ground Zero found a tree that was somehow still clinging to life. The Callery pear tree’s branches were broken and burned. It had snapped roots and looked like all the other dead trees found in the rubble, except that it was alive. For the workers, who had only seen death and destruction for a month, the previously ordinary Callery pear tree became a symbol of something deeper.

The workers were determined that some life would come from Ground Zero, so a tremendous effort was made to save what is now known as the Survivor Tree. They did not know if they would be successful, but they felt they had to try. The Survivor Tree was gently dug up and transported to a tree nursery. It was painstakingly cared for. Its burns were treated. Its broken limbs were pruned. Its roots were planted in rich soil.

For nine years, the Survivor Tree was nursed back to health. By 2010, the Survivor Tree had completely recovered. The thriving tree was returned to Ground Zero, now a memorial to the 9/11 tragedy. You can go and visit the Survivor Tree and find shade under its strong branches.

The story of the Survivor Tree is inspiring and can help us develop tongues that speak life. In particular, we can see the Survivor Tree had to be removed from dead and destroyed things; it needed to be immersed in life-giving things; and it had to return to bring life to what was once dead.

Removing the dead and destroyed

If we want to participate in the work to tame our tongue, the first step is to remove ourselves from dead and destroyed things. This process begins with prayer, earnestly asking God to give us clean hearts. It is through prayer that God will show us the things that hinder our relationship with him.

Once God shows us those things that do not promote life, we have to take the bold step of taking a break (possibly a permanent break) from them. It could be the shows we watch or the music we listen to that put things in our hearts that are not life-giving. It may be that some people could have a negative impact on us. Perhaps it is the news that we watch or the podcasts to which we listen that are the problem. We are taking a break from the things that are bad for us and our relationship with God. We are taking a hard look at the things that have the most influence over our tongue and we are being discerning about the things we allow to influence us.

Immersing ourselves in what gives life

Following the example of the Survivor Tree, we then want to immerse ourselves in life-giving things. The way our minds work, we cannot stop doing something by focusing on it. For example, whatever you do, do not think of an elephant. Do not think about its big floppy ears. Free your mind from its long bendy snout. Do not think of an elephant’s thick wrinkly skin. Please, whatever you do, do not think of an elephant! Unless you have superhuman concentration, you probably were thinking about an elephant. Similarly, we are unlikely to stop negative behaviors by concentrating on them. In order to stop doing and saying bad things, we have to surround ourselves with better things. Therefore, to have the words of life on our tongues, we should listen to sermons and praise and worship music. Talk to people who are positive and full of life. Read books that help us understand God better. Spend time in the word looking at Jesus. As we immerse ourselves in life, there is less and less room for death.

Bring to life that which was near death

The last thing we can learn from the Survivor Tree about participating in the taming of our tongue is to realize that by doing so, God can bring to life what was almost dead. The tree that was almost dead returned to Ground Zero to be a source of inspiration. Similarly, God will cause us to shine in front of others as evidence of a life-giving God. Christians were not called to be hermits hiding away from the world. The reason we withdraw to immerse ourselves in life-giving things is not solely for ourselves. We withdraw in order to be fortified enough to bring life to the places experiencing death. We are to use our tongue to be a blessing to others. This does not mean we put ourselves back into situations that are dangerous or abusive. Rather, we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and allow him to make our tongue a life-giving spring.

It is important that we not only say we are Christians, but that we sound like we are Christians. We should take the power of our words seriously. We should look at ourselves to see if our tongue speaks words of life or death. None of us have a tamed tongue, and we cannot tame our tongues in our own strength. However, we have hope in Jesus Christ. In him, we can overcome. In him, we can be redeemed. In him, we can become who the Lord made us to be. In Christ, God can help us control our tongue. As we immerse ourselves in Christ, our tongue of death will be transformed into a source of life-giving water. Like the Survivor Tree, God will make us a model of how he can bring life out of death.


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