Sermon / Pr. Ted Giese / September 13th / James:1-12 / The Perfect Man
Mount Olive Lutheran Church / Rev. Ted A. Giese / September 13th, 2015, Series (b) “The Perfect Man?” James 3:1-12
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 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. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 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. 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! 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. 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. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it 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 so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord. Amen.
Grace peace and mercy to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Good Christian Friends. People say strange and weird things, here's a quote from the actor Richard Gere: "I know who I am. No one else knows who I am. If I was a giraffe and somebody said I was a snake, I'd think 'No, actually I am a giraffe.'" Strange and weird is not what James is getting at, saying something weird or putting something in an odd way isn't what our epistle lesson is advising us to be careful of. In our epistle reading today James is looking at God’s demand for perfection, in everything, starting with the tongue. James writes, “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.” This text from the letter of James is full of analogies and metaphors about, "putting your foot in your mouth" and or about purposefully, persistently saying things that are unkind and which break the eighth commandment, words that don’t put the best construction on things.
Often people will, self-righteously, say unkind things about others in an effort to puff themselves up, or in a dark effort to be "funny." Here's a comment credited to Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar in 1884: Now he was a lawyer, a Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge, and an Attorney General of the United States so he likely knew better. At any rate, a newspaper reporter asked him if he was going to attend the funeral service of an man named Wendell Phillips who he'd had conflict with in life and Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar replied, “No, but I approve it!” Maybe you've heard the same sort of flippant and unkind quote attributed to the humorist and writer Mark Twain, usually it gets written out like this, "I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it."
The temptation to say a thing that causes trouble, or causes hurt, is great and while we all know from experience how upsetting words can be, the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh convince us that they are just words; when someone gets their nose out of joint over something said we hear that little voice that chides us saying, 'can't they take a joke!' That evil little voice that invites us to be unkind.
An unknown writer offers this wisdom, which could have come right from the epistle of James, he says: “An unkind word falls easily from the tongue, but a coach with six horses cannot bring it back.” Which is to say, that saying something regrettable is both tempting and easy: and once said it is almost impossible to unsay, you can't run fast enough to chase it down once it's left your lips. Even with the fastest horse, the fastest car, you can't catch it, you can't bring it back from their ears.
Some people aim to be unkind and they succeed, others do so by mistake or ignorance – in James 2:10 we are told; “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Which means all sins are equally bad in the eyes of God, so breaking the eighth commandment of, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour,” would be the same as breaking the fifth commandment. “you shall not murder;” or breaking the sixth commandment, "you shall not commit adultery," or any of the commandments, even if a person lived a perfect life in every respect and then in their last words they uttered something that broke the eighth commandment they would be condemned to hell and eternal damnation. That is to say, that if they were attempting to enter heaven by their own works, words and deeds - at which point failure even in one false word, failure in one untruth - such failure would damn them as much as murder without remorse or unrepentant sexual immorality, or idolatry or any sin. Sinning with our words is serious stuff, not to be underrated but rather to be rated as gravely as any sin.
James writes that a man could bridle his whole body, control his whole body, if only he could just control his tongue. That doing so would produce a perfect person. Is this perfect person you? Or is it someone else?
At the time of His arrest, at the time of His betrayal, at the time of His trial, at His flogging, at His crucifixion, Jesus could have said many things which might have changed the course of the events of that day. He was likely tempted to say unnecessary things, tempted even to say false things. Under the greatest pressure Jesus remained exactly what James describes: A man who did "not stumble in what he says," [Jesus was in fact the] … "perfect man," [and because of this Jesus was] "able also to bridle His whole body."
Isaiah in our Old Testament reading describes Jesus: In the first person we hear these words: Words that show Jesus on His way to the cross: Words that show a man able also to bridle His whole body. Listen to them as words from Jesus' lips,
"I turned not backward.
I gave My back to those who strike,
and My cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not My face
from disgrace and spitting.
But the Lord God helps Me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set My face like a flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame.
He who vindicates Me is near."
I mentioned last words - here are two examples of unkind words spoken to caregivers - in this case housekeepers - who are caring for a dying person in their last hours :
Karl Marx, the communist revolutionary, who died in 1883 said to his housekeeper, who urged him to tell her his last words so she could write them down for posterity, “Go on, get out - last words are for fools who haven't said enough.”
Here's the second one, the actress Joan Crawford who died in 1977, said to her housekeeper, who had begun to pray aloud for her, “Damn it . . . Don't you dare ask God to help me.
Ok those were two bad examples, here's a good one from an unlikely source, the horror writer Edgar Allan Poe who died in 1849 had these words as his last words, “Lord help my poor soul.” That's a great prayer, it's like the Kyrie we say each week, "Lord have Mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy."
But there are even better last words - From the cross Jesus had some last words as He hung dying for the sins of the world. Jesus prayed to God the Father for those who were crucifying Him, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And at the very last, at the moment of death, we hear what Jesus said and how He said it: Calling out with a loud voice, [Jesus] said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this He breathed His last.
For a world that believes that Jesus was just a man, an extraordinary man, even a good man, for such a person these are Jesus’ very last words. For us who share in the hope of the resurrection of the dead, who share in the joy of Easter, who share in God given faith, who share in the knowledge of the truth we believe and confess that these were not Jesus’ last words ever, they are simply His last words before His death upon the cross. On the day of His resurrection, when He went to be with His disciples in the locked upper room He welcomed them with the words, “Peace be with you.” These words were not spoken by a ghost but were said with a tongue of flesh – in the same way we who die with Christ, die in Christ, die in faith, will utter more words with our very own tongue. And when we do so, in our resurrected bodies, we will no longer be tempted into saying the wrong thing. Our tongue will be made perfect with the rest of our body and it will no longer be "a restless evil, full of deadly poison." It will be an instrument of pure goodness, full of praise for Jesus. Because Jesus will transform our tongue, along with our whole lowly body, "to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself." Until that day we struggle to bridle our tongue, for in doing so we bridle our body also. For the better we manage our tongue, or our fingers as we type, or thumbs as we text, the less trouble we will find ourselves in.
Yet what can we do when we find ourselves in trouble, what can we do when we have “hit send” and let loose evil full of poison and can’t get it back? To whom can we turn when we realize we are not perfect, when we are grieved by the hurt we've caused by our words and actions? We can turn to the Perfect Man, who is also Perfect God – Christ Jesus. In Him we have forgiveness for speaking falsely because when tempted to speak falsely Jesus resisted the temptation; Where we fail, He succeeded.
With sadness we know only too well that this thing which James writes about the tongue is true: "With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing." Because of this, when you have something difficult to say, or when you find yourself in a difficult trial or situation, hold your tongue - just long enough to pray to the Holy Spirit for the right thing to say, and if nothing comes, if there seems to be no write thing to say, listen and don’t speak until you know what best to say; trusting always in Jesus. And when you measure up less than perfect turn for forgiveness to the one who is perfect, the one Who "humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." He Whose tongue was bridled perfectly and Whose Body followed suit. Amen.
Let us pray:
Lord, have mercy on us, “take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, take our hearts and set them on fire; for the sake of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.”
 Richard Gere, 2002.
 Isaiah 50: 6-8a
 Luke 23:34
 Luke 23:46
 John 20:19
 Philippians 3:21
 Philippians 2:8