James: A Little Spark James 3:1-12
7/17/2018 3:44:00 AM
July 15, 2018
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: James 3:1-12
I remember growing up in Nova Scotia we had a very nice house. One feature in this house was its air-tight wood stove. We used this stove for heat throughout the winter, supplemented by electric baseboards. When it was cold, each night, we would let the fire die down until there were no flames visible, just some hot coals. We would then pack the stove as full of wood as possible then leave it with the air vent shut off.
As the night wore on, hidden beneath all that wood, the little embers would quietly heat up the closest piece of wood. From the outside, you couldn’t see anything happening, but sometime in the middle of the night, without fail, the stove would reach a critical turning point. Suddenly, a piece of wood, close to the hot embers, would reach ignition temperature and there would be a loud “whoosh!” sound. All the wood would suddenly burst into flame! The wood in the stove, packed in tight, would then burn through the rest of the night, keeping the house warm.
The chimney ran up the wall next to my bedroom. I remember sometimes in the spring, when the weather wasn’t as cold at night, but we still needed a fire, I would wake up the middle of the night sweating! The wood stove was so hot, the heat coming up the chimney would make my room hot!
When we went to bed, there was no sign of flame in the stove. There was no “fire” burning. But there were hot embers. Once or twice I was up late, or came down in the middle of the night, and I saw the fire flare up. It was remarkable! It was a good thing that the stove was well made and kept that fire in place!
Fire is a wonderful thing when it’s kept under control, when it stays within its boundaries, such as a stove or fireplace. Fire keeps us warm, it cooks our food, it provides light in the darkness. Fire even gets us from one place to another- fire is what makes most of our car engines work! (Unless you drive a Prius… that I don’t know what’s going.)
But, when fire escapes its boundaries, it can be terribly destructive. Fire that runs out of control can burn our house down, burn our town down, burn a forest down. Unchecked fire causes millions of dollars of damage every year and claims many lives. Not long ago, we were all gripped by the news about Fort McMurray. Wildfires swept across northern Alberta and burned down most of the town, an important centre for the oil sands industry. Even now, two years later, the town is not rebuilt. Only a fraction of the homes have been fully repaired or rebuilt. Up to half the town is still being rebuilt. Fire can be terribly destructive!
And it doesn’t take much to start a fire. If conditions are dry, a cigarette butt, an improperly extinguished campfire (same principle as our wood stove!), or even lighting can start a blaze that, if left unchecked, can burn down an entire forest. It just takes a spark, a tiny spark, to set something ablaze.
This is the metaphor James uses in Chapter 3. Actually, it is one of several metaphors James uses to describe how we use our words. James says that our tongue is tiny, but, just as a tiny spark can start a fire that engulfs a huge area, our tongues can do tremendous damage. Let’s take a look.
James 3:1-12. Recall up to this point James has said a lot about how our lifestyle needs to match our Christian commitment. Our actions needs to match our words. We have to “walk the talk.” James has spoken already about “true religion” in Chapter 1. There, he says that if anybody considers himself “religious” but does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he is fooling himself and his religion is “worthless.” James went on to talk about not showing favouritism between rich and poor people. Interestingly, that example begins with what we might say to a wealthy person or a poor person who joins our worship service!
What It Says and Means
We are going to work through the passage a little differently than normal today. The text as a whole is a series of points and examples or illustrations about the danger of an uncontrolled tongue, of unbridled speech.
As we move through the text, we will cover both what it says and what it means at the same time.
James begins by saying that not many should presume to be teachers. Why is that? First, we must identify who James means by “teachers.” In the early church, there were a number of vital roles for sharing the truth about Jesus, especially because the NT was still being written and would not be collected in one place for a number of generations.
Apostles and prophets travelled around sharing the gospel, the good news about Jesus. They moved from city to city, town to town, telling people what God said and explaining to them the Christian message. Because they were always moving around, maybe staying in one place for a few weeks up to a couple years, it fell on another group to disciple new believers and help existing Christians to grow in maturity. These were the teachers. The apostles and prophets were itinerant, moving from place to place, but the teachers typically stayed in the city or town where they lived, discipling Christians. [William Barclay, Letters of James and Peter, p. 80] James is saying few should presume to take upon themselves this role of teaching, of discipling other Christians. Why would he say that?
We must understand something about the culture at that time. Rabbis, Jewish teachers, were highly honoured and respected members of society. A rabbi was expected to provide for his own material needs through practicing a trade. For instance, we know Paul’s trade was making tents- he was a tent-maker. Likely this was his family trade and he used income from making tents to support himself while doing ministry.
On the other hand, rabbis were so highly regarded that people considered it a great honour to help provide for a rabbi. It was a great privilege to open up one’s home to a rabbi and have him stay there for years at a time free of charge! I’m sure other people were quick to invite rabbis over to big dinners. Remember how many times Jesus found himself eating at somebody’s house with a bunch of guests?
So in the early church there was a temptation to become a teacher because it was a position of prestige and potentially one of comfort too. It seems there may have been people who were seeking the status of being a teacher without the moral and intellectual qualifications. [Douglas Moo, James, p 149]
Why is this such a big deal? James warns that teachers will be subject to stricter judgment. Why is that? What does that mean? Because teaching is an act of the tongue, and the tongue is the hardest part of the body to control, the teacher exposes himself to greater danger of judgment. [Moo, p. 150] So, because the role involved so much talking, to so many people, the teacher runs the risk of sinful speech, of stumbling with his tongue, of leading people astray, saying the wrong thing, or some other entanglement with his tongue. The teacher is more greatly exposed by nature of his speaking role and therefore faces stricter judgment.
James intends this warning, not to scare people off from obeying their calling, but to sober them up about their calling. Also, he intends to warn people off of trying to gain the status of being a teacher and potential perks that come with it if they are not, indeed, called to teach!
James’ next point is that we all stumble. To keep out tongues in check is actually the hardest thing to do in the Christian life! If we are able to get to the point of never being at fault in what we say, we have truly arrived in Christian maturity! The word “perfect” is the word we’ve come across a couple times already, it means complete. In Chapter 1, James says that trials lead to perseverance and perfection or completion in our faith. If we can keep our tongues from sinning when we are under trial that truly is a sign of maturity!
Next, James gives 3 examples or illustrations to make his point about the power of the tongue. First, James speaks of a horse, a large, powerful creation, which we can control by putting a comparatively small bit in its mouth!
-Like a bit, the tongue is small but has great influence.
Bridle is the word in James 1:26 “If you think you’re religious but don’t keep a tight rein on your tongue, you are deceiving yourself!”
A small rudder directs a huge ship. Even in harsh winds/rough winds and seas
-Today we might speak of a steering wheel directing a car –even in a blizzard, the small wheel controls the car
WW2 Bismarck, largest battleship in the world – German. Sank the Brittish flag ship, the Hood, in 10 minutes
-Whole British navy sent to find and sink the Bismarck! A tiny torpedo plane, too slow for Bismarck’s
automated Anti-Aircraft guns to track, launched its torpedo and hit the rudder of the Bismarck jamming it in place!
Bismarck stuck going in large circles. British navy descended and proceeded to pound it to pieces with artillery. Still took 5+ hours to sink it!
-Tiny rudder- broken by a tiny plane, spelled the end of the great battleship!
In both these examples, there is a means of control, something that is controlled, but also a guiding desire or will behind the control
Steersman of a ship, rider of the horse = human desire
Rudder of a ship, bit and bridle on a horse = tongue
Ship, horse = body
3rd example – spark leading to fire that burns everything down!
The tongue is a like an uncontrolled fire, burning everything down.
-boasts= out of control fire
-tongue by virtue of being the hardest part of the body to control- becomes the conduit by which the evil of the world comes to expression in us
Jesus in Matthew 15 – out of the mouth the heart speaks! Not what goes in but what comes out à murder, hatred, etc.-but also false teaching!
Hell = Gehenna, valley of Hinnom à place of child sacrifice in the Old Testament, just outside Jerusalem, place where they burned garbage = Jesus uses for place of ultimate condemnation
We can tame all sorts of animals, but we cannot tame our tongue! (original sin/free will?)
James goes on to give the greatest reason why the tongue is a source of evil- the tongue is double-minded.
- James 1-Prayer for wisdom- do not doubt is literally “do not be double minded” Ch 2 – if you show favoritism, you are double-minded
Tongue –double minded: Praising God! Cursing people, created in God’s image!
Cursing someone’s image is like cursing them.
-Fall of Iraq, people pulled down pictures and statues of Saddam Hussein! Why? They hated him! Now that he was out of power, they let their true feelings show. Similarly, statues of Stalin after fall of USSR.
-This is why Muslims in the Middle East burn the American flag= an expression of what they feel about what the symbol represents
So when we curse people, created in God’s image, we are cursing a symbol for God, God’s image à insulting
Last 2 images= fruit and water
Matt 7 Jesus said we will know false teachers by the fruit their lives produce; Matt 3 commands we produce fruit in keeping with repentance
Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5
Jesus says “I am the vine, you are the branches” we are to produce fruit in keeping with the character of Jesus
Our words are actions (recall James 2-faith shown by actions). They are the fruit of our hearts!
Next, James refers to a fresh water spring- does it change back and forth from fresh water to brackish, bitter, salty water? Of course not!
-Many cities and towns were founded near sources of fresh water- vital to survival!
Jesus, when talking to the Samaritan woman at the well, said he will give people a spring of water inside them leading to eternal life.
James knows Jesus’ teachings! James knows about fruit and springs of water being images for the new life
Christ brings. Fruit and fresh water come out of a heart that is being renewed by the Holy Spirit –
sanctification à control of the tongue is a reflection of a transformed heart!
What comes out of our mouth is a barometer of our spiritual maturity. (complaints, gossip, slander, anger etc!)
What do we do with this? How do we apply this? Hopefully we are all reviewing the things we say!
Not just about swearing or using bad words (although that is included….)
Be careful taking upon ourselves the authority of instructing God’s people!
-Where James started! Teachers- risky business!
-I try to talk people out of going to seminaryà if I can talk them out of it in 30 minutes, they’re not called!
Today, in Canada, pastors/teachers don’t have a lot of prestige- but in Africa they do! Pastors walk down
the street and people want to shake their hands
-Not limited to the role of pastor – be careful whenever you seek to speak to Christians and disciple them-
up front at church, Sunday School, small group, Facebook, etc. Be responsible in learning yourself first!
Be careful to think about what they might hear that you didn’t intend to convey, be aware of their struggles
Careless words can really hurt the walk of new believers.
-false teaching, careless teaching- can mess up somebody new to figuring out faith!
-Harsh words can destroy a new believer’s faith
-Grandpa’s experience as a new believer and new to church- went to a deacon’s house for dinner after
church – deacon served “roast pastor” –Bill never went to church again!
Finding joy in trials shapes how we speak of those trials.
-James 1 – consider it a joy – not pleasant, nor pleasurable, but still see the joy of the Lord beyond trials
-do we complain a lot? Yes! That’s bitter water coming out= but Jesus is a spring of fresh water inside us.
Our speech is a reflection of our heart. = feelings, but also thoughts/mind, will, desires, preferences and imagination!
-What does your speech say about what’s happening in your heart? What does it say about what’s
happening in terms of Jesus in your life?
-complain, grumble, gossip? Slander?
Want to change how you speak? Get close to Jesus! Ask him to shape how you see the world around you, the
people around you.
Remember steersman, horseback rider – will behind the rudder/bit = ask Jesus to change your will so that your
tongue takes you in right direction!
Gossip, slander and put-downs are an insult to God.
-Paul, Jesus, James all warn about gossip, slander, etc. Words can slay from a distance! Sticks and stones
may break my bones, but words leave scars that last forever!
How much damage has been done to people by spreading unfounded rumours? “There is nothing as
impossible to kill as a rumour; nothing so impossible to obliterate as an idle or malicious story.” [Barclay]
Intentionally seek opportunities to speak kindness and encouragement. Both to family and strangers/people at
-bit controls horse- tongue controls body à be intentional to change your speech, to go out of your way to
give at least 1 compliment a day
-seek ways to encourage people – shape your heart! Agape love practice
-PRAY about it! Bring your tongue to Jesus. Submit it to him, surrender it to him, give him lordship over your tongue!
Transforming how you speak to and about others will transform how you see them. Amen.
Benediction: “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages now and forevermore! Amen.” [Jude 1:24, 25]
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