You can’t put toothpaste back in the tube

James 3: 7-10

StMarksWhat are the most welcome words you’ve ever heard? Were they “You’ve got a promotion”? or were they “I love you”? Good words like “I love you” can be life-transforming. Said by the right person, you never feel the same again. On the other hand, careless and unkind words are difficult to erase from our memories. Sarcasm, rudeness or slander can devastate a person’s morale, and cause them to despair. Have you caught yourself saying things you have never meant to say? “I shouldn’t be saying this, but …”, and before you know it, you end up saying words you regret for ages afterwards.

Our magazines and newspapers cater for people’s desire to know personal details about others. Magazines have full-time gossip columnists. Their latest revelations about famous folk sell extra copies. Fallen human beings seem to enjoy hearing about the failings of others, because it takes the focus from themselves. When a failing of ours is pointed out, we defend ourselves by blaming someone else. When we’re accused of something, we often reply with accusations aimed at the other person in return.

“Stop doing the devil’s work”, a woman heard in her dream. She then prayed to the Lord: “How am I doing the devil’s work?” And then the pastor’s sermon text from last Sunday came to mind: “The devil is the accuser of our brothers and sisters (Revelation 12:10).”  So, one evening she gathered her family together in the living room and shared with them what had happened to her. She mentioned folk her family had heard her criticise and continued: “God doesn’t have to consult me about the way others lead their lives. God may have purposes and plans I don’t understand. I grieved Him when I was critical.” Later she said, “As I finished our conference, I sensed a sweet release. Now, when the temptation to criticise comes back, I know it’s time to re-examine my heart and mouth.”

As prayer is valued so much by God, so criticism is valued by Satan. The Bible condemns the kind of criticism known as “judging”. Jesus says: “Judge not and you will not be judged (Matthew 7:1).”  It’s been said that half of our sins are sins of the tongue. James paints a bleak picture of the damage our tongues can do. He does this so we act on what he says. You see, our words are a good indicator of the state of our hearts. Jesus says: “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of (Matthew 12:34).” There’s no substitute for self-control. Those who can control their tongue, can control everything else about themselves. James says loveless words are sinful because of the damage they do to the speaker as well as to the listener. On the other hand, kind, caring and considerate words have a positive effect on both speaker and listener. Those who speak kind words end up feeling kinder towards others.

James speaks of our ability to tame animals. At a circus we might see a wolf and a rabbit that have been trained to romp playfully together. But James believes it is beyond our human ability to tame our tongues. This is something that only God’s grace can do. That’s why James goes on to tell us that God is a Giver, a greater Giver of more grace (James 4:6). The more God demands of us, the more grace God gives us to meet what He desires of us. Our gracious God gives to us what He requires of us. God’s Word and sacraments are the wonderful means by which He provides us with all the life-changing grace we need for daily living.

Grace is a precious gift which we receive as beggars from God’s throne. Isn’t it wonderful to know that God’s throne of grace is at the centre of the universe, a throne where we can go to receive help in time of need? The more we seek and embrace God’s costly grace, the more it can mould us into gracious speakers and listeners. “Be quick to listen”,  James urges us, because the first sign of a grace-tamed tongue is that it listens before it speaks. First of all, we listen to our Lord and let His words impact on what we do or say: “Bless those who curse you”, Jesus says in Luke 6:28.

Our text speaks both of blessing God and bestowing God’s blessing on those who have offended us, or with whom we don’t readily get on. To bless God means to acknowledge God as the source of all our blessings. The Bible abounds in words of blessing. To bless God is to recognise his presence among us, and to acknowledge with gratitude His grace and goodness to us.

In Holy Communion, God offers us His cup of blessing, so we can be a blessing to others. “Bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing (1 Peter 3:9).” Blessing is the language of heaven. When we bless someone, we commend them to God, so that God can fill their lives with peace and joy. To bless someone is an expression of goodwill, harmony and well-being. The simple blessing we give one another, “God bless you”, means “May you experience God’s goodness and grace in good measure.”

 Our Lord invites us who treasure His words of comfort,to speak the truth in love to our neighbours. To speak well of our neighbours and family members is a joy, because by doing so, we draw attention to the gifts Christ has blessed them with. We’re encouraged to put the best construction on their actions, and explain them in the kindest way we can. Our words are to be calm, apt, honest and kind. The Bible reminds us that a gentle answer will calm a person’s anger: “A soft answer turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up anger (Proverbs 15:1).” Harsh words win no arguments. There’s no such thing as winning an argument, only winning an agreement.     

 Admitting your mistakes removes barriers between yourself and those with whom you speak. People warm to those who admit their imperfections instead of boasting of their own virtues. Apologies have a soothing effect as they create warmth between people and make conversation easier. The essence of any good relationship with another person is knowing when to listen and when to speak. Compassionate conversation is the bond between friends and spouses. Love dies when the dialogue stops between those under the same roof. Silence may be golden, but prolonged silence is cruel. Small talk between family and friends keeps family members and friends close to each other.

Words shape lifelong relationships. The Bible reminds us “The right word spoken at the right time is as beautiful as golden apples in a silver bowl (Proverbs 25:11).” The influence of calm words is especially potent: “A gentle word can get through to the hard hearted (Proverbs 25:15).” Calmness allows time for tempers to cool and a fair hearing to occur. Here courtesy is a wonderful help. Courtesy can help your dialogue partner to calm down and not say things that may be regretted later. Colossians 4:6 champions courtesy in speech when it says: “Be gracious in your speech. The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation, not put them down (The Message, p.505).”

 We can be tempted to think lightly of words compared with deeds, but words are deeds. They can be the most revealing deeds in which we’re involved. The wise are those who use words wisely, the Book of Proverbs tells us. Proverbs 18:20-21a says: “You will have to live with the consequences of everything you say. What you say can preserve life or destroy it.”

 Let our words be in the life-preserving, life-enhancing business. So don’t say everything you think. It may not be helpful. Before you say something, ask: “Is it true? Is it loving? Is it necessary?”

Finally, we pray with the Psalmist: “Lord, place a guard at my mouth, a sentry at the door. Keep me from wanting to do wrong (141:3-4a).” Blessed by our Lord’s words of grace and forgiveness, we seek to practise the Bible’s wisdom, as given to us by Ephesians 4:29:

“Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you.”

 The peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.