September 16, 2018 – The 17th Sunday after Pentecost
The Perfect Man
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text is from the Epistle reading, the book of James. 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. Here ends our text.
The tongue is a very small organ of the body. It’s only about four inches long and weighs less than two tenths of a pound. And yet it’s very powerful. Not because it can lift much weight, but because of its ability to influence its host and other people. When you speak, your tongue can bring the admiration, respect, and benevolence of other people, or it can get you into a heap of trouble. You can use your tongue to build people up and encourage them or you can use it to tear people down and destroy their reputation. The tongue is a very small organ and yet it exerts great power and control.
In our text today, James likens the tongue to a bit placed into the mouth of a horse. With that small bit a rider can guide the body of an Arabian race horse or a farmer can turn a 2000 pound Clydesdale. Or, James says, the tongue is like the rudder of a ship. A large freighter or tanker or aircraft carrier can be driven by strong winds and currents, but they’re guided by a small rudder wherever the pilot directs. I liken the tongue to the steering wheel on a car. Proper use of the steering wheel can keep the car on the road and enable the driver to safely reach his destination. But misuse of the steering wheel can cause the whole car to jump the curb and endanger the lives of the driver and other pedestrians. Likewise the tongue, though very small, can be of great help and service, or it can cause great damage and destruction.
Unfortunately though, our tongues tend toward the latter. According to James, our small tongue is like a spark that sets a whole forest on fire. It brings the tallest of trees to the ground in flames, and leaves the land a desolate waste. “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.” One flick of our tongue, one spark from our mouths, ignites ill feelings and discord, then words of anger and hatred, then more words that burn and destroy one another. Our bodies and those of our neighbor are stained with the ash and charred remains of the fire set ablaze by our tongues.
It’d be nice if we could put a bridle on our tongue so we could guide it and control it. Or if we could raise the curb high enough or build strong enough guard rails to keep us and others safe when our tongue steered us off the road. In a way, we do have such a bridle or curb in the Ten Commandments. The one that comes to mind concerning the tongue is the Eighth Commandment. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. Of course this means more than just telling the truth in a courtroom. It means not telling lies about our neighbor in any place, at work, at the dinner table, or on the phone. We shouldn’t slander him in emails or on facebook. If he confides in us private information, we’re to hold our tongues without betraying it. Even if our neighbor has done something wrong and it is true, we’re not to gossip about it and hurt his reputation. The childhood saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” isn’t really true. Words can cause deep wounds to the mind and spirit. They can stain a person’s name and reputation for a lifetime.
But the Eight Commandment isn’t the only Commandment we can break with our tongue. When we anger our parents and other authorities by our backtalk and disrespect, we break the Fourth Commandment. Jesus says anyone who is angry with his brother and says, “You fool,” is a murderer, thereby breaking the Fifth Commandment with our tongue. With obscene talk and course joking we break the Sixth Commandment against adultery and leading a chaste and decent life. When we lie about the cost or what a product can actually do, we steal from our customers, breaking the Seventh Commandment. When we wag our tongues with words that scheme to get our neighbor’s possessions or when we entice away our neighbor’s spouse or workers, we covet and break the Ninth and Tenth Commandments.
But besides our neighbor, with our tongues we sin against God as well. We break the Second Commandment when we misuse his name by cursing and breaking our oaths, even oaths we made before his altar. We break the Third Commandment when our tongues aren’t here to praise our Lord in worship, or when are tongues are tied and we don’t confess him to others. You might say that there isn’t one Commandment which we don’t break with our tongues.
And so there isn’t a curb high enough or a bridle strong enough to hold our tongues in check, not even the Ten Commandments. We can tame birds of prey and teach them to hunt for us. We can tame elephants so they’ll stand on a pedestal. We can tame a lion with a whip and make it jump through flames of fire. But no one can tame the tongue. It’s a beast that can’t be trained. It’s a restless evil, full of deadly venom that poisons the whole body.
Of course we can’t blame all our troubles on the organ of our tongue. Even if we could tape our mouth shut or even cut off our tongue, that wouldn’t solve the problem. There’s a rider pulling the bit to guide the horse. There’s a captain at the helm turning the rudder to direct the ship. There’s a driver behind the steering wheel turning the car. There’s a sinner wagging the tongue to spark a fire. Our tongue is guided by our sinful mind and spirit. We can’t control our tongue because we can’t control our sinful nature. If we could control our sinful nature, it’d mean we could control not only our tongue, but also our ears, eyes, hands, and feet, even our whole body from sinning. That’s why James says, “If anyone doesn’t stumble in what he says,” (by controlling his tongue and thereby his sinful nature) “he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body.” But we aren’t perfect men. Our imperfect tongues betray our imperfect nature. We stand condemned before God and his judgment by our own words. Our untamed tongue that sets things on fire is doomed to be set on fire by hell along with the rest of our body and soul.
But there is one perfect man who can bridle his tongue. He has a perfect nature so he could bridle even his whole body to do what he commands. Jesus Christ is that perfect man. As true man, he has a tongue like ours, but as true God, his tongue is even more powerful. He spoke with his tongue and things came to be. By the Words of his tongue he healed the sick, cast out demons, calmed storms, and raised the dead. His tongue never lied. He spoke the truth. Jesus Christ used his tongue to encourage and build up and heal the soul, “Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven.” “Go in peace, your faith has made you well.” “Don’t be anxious about anything, but come to me and I will give you rest.” With his tongue Jesus rebuked sin, but also with his tongue he forgave sinners.
But Jesus accomplished this forgiveness for sinners by actually holding his tongue and keeping his mouth closed. On Good Friday, when false witnesses wrongly accused him, when he was unjustly sentenced and punished, when he could have spoken up and defended himself, Jesus the perfect man remained silent. “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” Jesus bridled his tongue. He kept his mouth closed and suffered the punishment for the words of your tongue. He bridled his whole body and controlled it as he was crucified for your sins. On the cross he opened his mouth to comfort his mother, absolve a repentant criminal, and forgive his executioners even when his mouth and tongue were parched with thirst. As he died for you, he opened his mouth one final time and commended his spirit to God his Father. The perfect man died upon the cross for you.
But now risen from the dead, Jesus still uses his tongue and words in powerful ways. By his Word of Law he kills the old man, the old sinful nature. By his Word of Gospel he raises the new man, the new spiritual nature. By his Word of absolution, he forgives your sins. By his Word in Baptism, he washes away your sins and extinguishes your tongue of fire and the blaze that stained your body with sin. By his Word in Holy Communion, he places his body and blood on your tongue and cleanses it of its deadly poison. By his Word he stands before our Father in heaven and commends you to him as a perfect man. That’s right, with his tongue, Jesus declares you righteous before God. Though his tongue is a small as yours and mine, what a powerful tongue it is. The tongue of Christ, the tongue of God, declares you a perfect man.
But James notices a contradiction between who Jesus declares us to be and what we say. With our tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with that same tongue we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be. Can a water faucet bring forth filtered water one moment but rust and sludge the next? Can an apple tree produce thorns? Neither can a cleansed tongue drip poison.
That’s why we continue to come back here to have Jesus cleanse our tongues and mouths. For good hygiene, everyday you brush your teeth and rinse with mouth wash to kill off the germs and cleanse your breath. Likewise, everyday you let the Words of Jesus’ Law and Gospel kill off the evil from your heart and cleanse your tongue for its right use that the meditation of your heart and the words of your mouth might be acceptable in his sight.
In this way your cleansed tongue can do powerful works of righteousness. With your tongue you defend your neighbor, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way. With your tongue you honor authority, heal insults, and tell the truth. With your tongue you build one another up and urge them to do their duty. With your tongue you rebuke sin and absolve sinners. With your tongue you praise your Lord and confess him to others. Yes, your tongue is a small but powerful organ. In its untamed state it speaks imperfect words. But by the perfect man Jesus Christ and the words of his mouth, your tongue is cleansed for his use. It’s cleansed to speak perfect words. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.