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Wagging Tongues and Forest Fires

By Jared Warner

Willow Creek Friends Church

September 12, 2021

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James 3:1–12 (ESV)

1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 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. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

James is one of my favorite letters of the New Testament. I like it because it is considered a book of wisdom. Pretty much every book of wisdom in scripture, and even a few of the apocryphal books of scripture that are included in the wisdom category are favorites of mine. I appreciate them because they are practical. They give us guidelines to follow in life. When we follow these guidelines, when we apply these practices, we will more likely feel greater satisfaction with our emotional and spiritual lives. That being said, they are not guarantees. Nothing in life is guaranteed. We will still struggle even if we apply every failsafe we can possibly think of. Just like with this covid pandemic, we can do everything the CDC and local governments recommend and still end up with the illness. But if we apply the knowledge and wisdom we have gained, we are more likely to have the things we seek.

Wisdom is important. Wisdom is applied knowledge. It is one thing to know something, but it is a totally different layer of knowledge to know how to apply what we know in a meaningful way. The old joke says, “knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.” This bit of wisdom does not really help us in life, but it might keep you from facing embarrassment when we can begin to have potlucks again. But many of the words of wisdom from scripture do have practical application, and most of these words of wisdom go beyond a mere Christian or religious context.

In today’s passage James is encouraging us to be mindful of our speech. I first want to point out that nothing James says in this passage is particularly unique to the Christian community. These sorts of things are found throughout the Wisdom works of the Old Testament and we can even see aspects of this in ancient works of philosophy. Consider Proverbs 17, “a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” [1] Silence is often golden. You can have opinions, you can even have strong opinions, but being able to vocalize your thoughts in a manner that can transmit knowledge and wisdom takes training and discipline. We have all seen videos and have heard sound bites of people from opposing political factions where they sound ridiculous, and we wonder how they were elected. And people from other parties can play similar videos from people we respect that sound just as ridiculous. This is the fate of people that believe they must express an opinion on everything, there are some things that they know nothing about and when they speak, they look and sound like a fool.

This apparent foolishness is what James is getting at in this passage. He says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” The recipients of this general letter written by James, was a church that was predominately populated by those with a Jewish background. The Hebrew people were the nation through which God determined to reveal himself through. After the fall of humanity, after the rebellion among the heavenly hosts expanded to include the sons and daughters of man, God decided that he would leave the vast majority of the human population to follow the teachings of lessor beings, and the Most High God chose his own group to provide the true revelation of His wisdom. We read about this in the story of the Tower of Babel. The people wanted to make a name for themselves, they wanted to become like God, building a tower that could reach to the heavens or the realm of God. Because of their arrogance God confused the languages of the people and dispersed them over the face of the earth. We wanted to make a name for ourselves, we wanted to exert our wisdom and equate our wisdom with that of God’s. The result was that God let us be ruled by our own wisdom. And when we look to our own knowledge without taking into consideration those around us, we will always find ourselves misinterpreting and confusing things.

In Deuteronomy 32, we are told the rest of the story when it came to this Babel event. “Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you. When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.          But the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage. ‘He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye. Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him, no foreign god was with him. He made him ride on the high places of the land, and he ate the produce of the field, and he suckled him with honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock. [F]rom the herd, and milk from the flock, with fat of lambs, rams of Bashan and goats, with the very finest of the wheat— and you drank foaming wine made from the blood of the grape.’” [2]

God separated the people, he gave them over to the lesser beings that rebelled against the Most High, and God out of a small insignificant tribe of people in the desert claimed the people that he would eventually use to bring about the restoration of all people to repentance.

This is what election is. They were the elected people through whom the revelation of God would be transmitted to mankind, belief and faith is still necessary. God scattered the people to face the reality of our own wisdom, and the results of this wisdom can be seen on the news every day of our lives.

“Not many of you should become teachers.” James tells us. This is important because in the Jewish culture education was very important. We know that the church was predominately Jewish when James wrote this letter, because when he speaks of the assembly or the church, he used the word synagogue instead of ekklisia, which is the term most used by the apostles. The synagogue is the place of worship and learning within the communities of Judea. The synagogue was more than a mere meeting for worship; it was a library, a school, it was the place of meeting for civil concerns, and it was the place to enact justice. The synagogue was the communities’ heart, and the most important people within that place were the teachers, or the Rabbis.

When Paul and James make lists of the gifts of the spirit, both put the teacher as the most prominent role within the community. At times we would like to say that the role of the prophet is the greatest role, because our idea of a prophet is that they hear directly from God, but the writers of the New Testament did not regard the prophet as the most important gift, but the teacher. There is a reason for this. The teachers within a community are the ones that pass knowledge on to the next generation. They are the ones that have thought about and processed the words that prophets hear to a degree that that knowledge can be applied within the community. A teacher often guides the future of the community.

Not many of you should become teachers. There is great wisdom in this advice because a teacher by default needs to speak. Communication is the only way to transfer knowledge from one person to another. Without the spoken or written word, the ideas within one mind will never make their way to any other individual. And if I have wisdom and do not share the words I have been given, I have not encouraged the community. But there is a risk to those that teach, “[they] will be judged with greater strictness.”

When we speak, we must be aware of our words, and think about where they go. Once our words leave our mouth we are no longer in control. Those words are received and interpreted by others. What they hear may or may not be what we intended for them to hear. But we have a responsibility to what we say. A word can bear melodies of blessing or they can become a destructive terror.

“For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” These are some harsh words if we really think about them. I want us all to consider our past week. Did you have a misunderstanding, where words were involved? I attempt to pick words carefully when I speak and even when I am being as careful as I can possibly be if I am not mindful or observant of the condition of those around me, my words can set off or what we now refer as trigger those around me. As a parent this makes us feel as if we are failures. Everything we do is to encourage our children, to empower, and inspire them to use the talents and abilities we know they have so that they can live their lives to the fullest aspect of who they are created to be. Yet at times we feel as if every time we open our mouths, we begin an argument. There are even cycles where this happens with our spouses, or our siblings. We love them deeply yet at times we just cannot communicate effectively.

James tells us, we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble, that person is a perfect human being. Guess what I am not perfect. I have probably offended everyone in this room with my words at some point in time. That is not my intention, it is just a reality that I am not omniscient. I do not know all things. And at times even pastors need to be informed when someone needs assistance.

But this statement goes deeper. He speaks of a perfect man. When we hear these words, our mind is immediately filled with images of people we feel as if we can never be. This is one of the reasons things like pornography and romance novels have such detrimental effects on relationships, because they fill our minds with an image of an ideal that is not based in reality. Yet often in scripture we are called to be perfect.

What does it mean to be perfect? It can be without blemish or fault. That is often the most common definition we use, but there is more to it than that. It is also a word used for completeness, or professionally it can mean that the individual has gone as far as one can go within current knowledge. It can also be used for maturity or when someone’s mind is undivided. We often say that James and Paul conflict in their teaching but they are saying similar things. Paul says be of one mind, and James is also saying that an individual that does not stumble in what he says is perfect. It is speaking of a spiritual maturity where our words and our actions are focused not on ourselves but on the Kingdom of God, which loves God with everything that we have and shows that love through the way we live among the people in our neighborhoods. That perfect person is someone that able to bridle or control their whole body.

James compares our tongue to things like a bit within a horse’s mouth, or a rudder on a ship. He compares it to a spark that catches a forest on fire. This small seemingly insignificant thing within our mouths has great power. I do not want us to focus on the bit or the rudder, I think that is self-explanatory. I want us to consider the idea of fire.

The words that we say, the words that people in high positions say have consequences. This week we remembered one of the most tragic moments in the history of the United States. Twenty years ago, groups of men with evil intent hijacked airliners and piloted those massive planes into buildings that symbolized American greatness. I remember that day quite clearly. I remember where I was when I first heard the news. I remember the emotions I felt. And I remember my first conversation I had after hearing the news. That event started a war that has continued for my oldest son’s entire life.

All of that began with words. The men in the planes were inspired to do what they did because someone used words. Words were used to inspire a response of retaliation. And words used carelessly also prompted many people to turn on their neighbors, and to treat those around them with inhumanity. Words started a fire, and when the spark of that fire hit the unrighteousness within our world things began to burn. James tells us 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. He tells us that no human being can tame the tongue. That it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With our tongue we will bless God and with the same tongue we will curse the very people who were created to bear God’s image.

Friends, we live in a world of dry tinder that will burn rapidly with a single spark. We saw this happen twenty years ago. We saw that happen thirty-five weeks ago. We saw that happen last year. And we will continue to see this happen, if we continue down the path we are going. James says, “My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” And James is correct in what he is saying. We must repent, we must turn from this path. We say this as a nation and we praise and curse the actions our leaders take. But these things are sparks on dry land. The change happens right here. We need to repent. We need to change. We need to be mindful of our words, and mindful of our actions. We need to become undivided in our minds, so that we can live out that mission that God has given us. Loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. We cannot do it on our own, because we are imperfect people and live among imperfect people. But Christ came to live among us. He came from his throne in heaven and he dwelt among mankind. Why would God do this? So that he could bring humanity back to himself. He came and lived among his people, the Jews thorough whom he elected to reveal himself to the nations through, and even his own people were bent on living by their own wisdom. And we the very people created to bear God’s image rejected him and crucified him on a tree. But while we were still sinners, enemies of God, Christ died for us. He took on that penalty we all inherited from our first parents, and he was buried in a tomb, and on the third day he rose from that grave, restored to life. This reversed the rebellious curse and provided the means of restoration.  And all nations that believe in him, are no longer condemned but have the life God created us to have. We are restored to rightfully bear His image. What if this was our singular focus? What if this was how we lived? What if this was how we lived in our neighborhood today, what could God do through us?


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Pr 17:28). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Dt 32:7–14). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.


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