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Sermon for Pentecost 16

September 20, 2012 Leave a comment

A sermon on James 3:1-12

Augustana, 2012

Note: I am indebted to Concordia Pulpit Resources for the outline and tone of this sermon. 

Click here for mp3 audio 50 Sermon for Pent 16.mp3

 

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

The text for the sermon this morning is the Epistle reading for today from James.

There once was a man who, while listening to a sermon in church, was convicted of his sin, and he set out to do better.  “I have sinned against [God] in thought, word, and deed,” he’d said week after week, but this day he especially sensed it was true.  He reasoned his evil thoughts often caught him off guard and might be difficult to change.  His evil actions, he decided were often a product of his thoughts and words, his evil heart.  So in his effort to change, he would first focus on his words, his words were something he could change.  He thought, if he could catch himself before he said something he’d regret, he would also have more control over the things he did, and possibly in time, begin to control the things he thought and change his heart.

For a while, the man was very successful.  He always took his time when speaking.  He didn’t speak without considering what he would say.  He wasn’t always perfect, but then who is?  As time went on, though, he found himself lapsing back into his old habits.  He hurt people with what he said.  He created problems for himself with what he said.  I’ll try even harder, he thought, and he committed himself to being even more diligent.  But the harder he tried, the more he failed, or so it seemed.  Finally, one day, he gave up.

This story, really, is the same for every one of us.  The only question then is this:  What do we mean when we “give up”?  Are we admitting defeat?  Or is there a “giving up” that’s really moving forward?

Again this morning, James confronts us with the inconsistencies between faith and actions.  The warning we hear this morning is very clear, and what’s also clear is that no one is immune to the disease of sin.  “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.  The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (vv. 5b-6).  In the previous chapter, James addressed the issue of favoritism, but many of us might dismiss ourselves from these charges.  “Not me!  I would never show favoritism in church of all places.”  But this week, James’ charge should cut deeply into the heart of everyone who hears.  Your tongue is an agent of harm.  It is on fire with the fire of hell.  “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue.” (vv. 7-8a)

No human. Not one, is innocent—not you, not me, no one.  And to drive the point home James reminds us of what we are all too capable of doing : we can sit here in the Divine Service, praising our God, and then leave here cursing His most precious creatures, other people.  We praise God one moment, and then the next the very same tongue, the one in our mouths, can utter such filth about other and even to others.  “Look at what he’s doing.  What a hideous man he is.  Look at her.  I can’t believe she wore that.  Imagine what God must think about him.  O God, I thank you that I am not like these people!”

St. Paul wrote: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).  James would agree wholeheartedly.  His proof is the tongue.  His proof is your tongue.  Our tongues cannot be tamed.  Sure, we try.  We try and try and try.  Just like the man I was just talking about, we put our mind to fixing our problem.  After all, we’re children of God; such a fiery tongue is not befitting of us.  Wouldn’t God want us to tame it so that it speaks only words that glorify Him?  Sure He would.  He does.  But the harder we try the worse it goes for us.  “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body” (v2).  But I am not a perfect man.  Neither my tongue nor my body is bridled.  “Wretched man that I am, who will save me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24).

So, is there nothing we can do?  Are we just doomed to live this life in a never-ending battle against a tongue that would just as soon destroy us as it would honor the God of our salvation?  Well, in a way, yes, and in another way, no.  The battle will go on for each of us.  But the very same words of the Epistle point us toward the victory that is ours in the battle.  The battle rages on, but the war is already over.  Listen again: “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body”.  And here is the good news of God’s grace toward imperfect men and women like you and me.

For he grew up before him like a young plant,

     and like a root out of dry ground;

he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,

     and no beauty that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by men;

     a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;

and as one from whom men hide their faces

     he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs

     and carried our sorrows;

yet we esteemed him stricken,

     smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions;

     he was crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,

     and with his wounds we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;

     we have turned—every one—to his own way;

and the Lord has laid on him

     the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,

     yet he opened not his mouth;

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,

     and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,

     so he opened not his mouth.

“And like a sheep that before its shearers is silent.”   All is not lost, and our tongues, though they rage with the fire of hell, will not condemn us.  “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.”  There is no man who is perfect, then, except one.  There is one who is a perfect man.  There is one who bridled his tongue and bridled his whole body.  There is one who lived the perfect life you and I cannot live.  There is one who deserved none of what He received at the hands those who hung Hi on the cross, but suffered every moment as he bore the burden of our sinful tongues.

That perfect one is Jesus Christ.  He lived and died exactly because our tongues are “a fire, a world of unrighteousness” (v 6).  He bridled his tongue even in the face of death so that we might receive His righteousness as He now lives in us.  So we need not “give up”, not in the sense of living in the despair of guilt.  Instead, we live as children of our heavenly Father.  We live as those given the inheritance of the only-begotten Son of God, who was silent on our behalf.  We live by giving in.

In the waters of Holy Baptism, that fire that burns from your tongues was extinguished.  The Word of God that you hear fills your mind and your heart with the pure truth from God.  That Word of God replaces all of the “other words” and gives your tongue something righteous to speak.  As you receive the body and blood of Christ, the wounds inflicted on you by the things you say are healed.  God’s grace is a saving flood that ne even the fires of hell can stand against.  And what you are helpless against on your own, you conquer in Christ Jesus.

There is no one perfect except Jesus.  You will try to bridle your tongue and your body and your mind and heart, but they will fail you.  And through we will never stop trying, our trying must now be in Christ—giving up on ourselves and giving in to Him.  In Him we receive the forgiveness of sins that goes way beyond giving up.  For “all things are possible for one who believes” (Mk 9:23b).  The Perfection that is impossible for us, Christ Himself has given to us.  In the forgiveness of all our sins, God makes us perfect—and thus renews us, strengthens us, and guides us according to His will.  Perfection comes only through the one perfect man, Jesus Christ.  But that perfect does come to us!  In Christ, the story does not end for that man we heard about at the beginning of the sermon, nor does it end for us, in despair and uncertainty.  In Christ, it ends in victory.  “Wretched man that I am!  Who will save me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:24-25a)  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.