A Fountain of Life

A Fountain of Life July 31, 2011
James 3:1-12 Sunday a.m.

When we began our Life Journal readings three months ago I told you that God would be speaking to you through his word, that you would find things from your readings that hit you personally, scriptures that you had read dozens of times before that would suddenly apply to your life in ways you had never thought of. In our readings this last week in James that was true for me. When I read James 3, it struck me just how powerful my words can be and how seriously God takes the things that come out of my mouth. Listen to James 3:1-2 “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.”

I would guess that everyone of us can remember back to some hurtful thing that was said to us that has always stayed with us. Some thoughtless slight, some intentional criticism – we can remember every word, and as we think about it, even if it was 20 years ago, our stomach starts to tighten up.

You remember the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones…” – what a lie. More pain has been poured out, more lives destroyed, more relationships severed by words than by all the sticks and stones, guns, knives and bombs the world has ever created. People walk around with deep painful scars from words that have ripped their hearts out and destroyed their self-esteem.

And you know the worst thing about it all? Some of those scars are from words I’ve spoken.
• I’ll tell you the scariest verse in all the Bible -- Mt. 12:36-37 “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
• James’ admonitions about stumbling in many ways and teachers being judged more strictly hit home.

Solomon said in Prov.18, “The tongue has the power of life and death…” And everyone of us knows the truth of that. Our words have an incredible power. The things we say, intentionally or unintentionally, can literally change the course of another person’s life.

And James brings this power into sharp focus through a series of word pictures which he paints for us. He uses familiar images in order to drive home the absolute truth and necessity of what he said just a few verses earlier in 1:26 – “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.”

These images are in three sets of two. The first two illustrate the power of the tongue to direct – James 3:3-5a. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.

Some of you ride horses – some of you have been riding horses since you were little enough to walk underneath the horse without ducking. And yet, you would get up on this horse 20 times your size and weight, and you would tell that horse to go right – left – back-up – jump – whatever you said, the horse would do. How? You put a bit into the mouth of the horse and when you pulled the reign it would direct the horse to follow your instructions. Just a little piece of metal that controlled the actions of a ¾ -ton animal.

But then James immediately switches images to a ship – a vessel capable of sailing on the ocean, carrying hundreds of people and tons of cargo. And yet, this enormous vessel, is guided by a relatively small piece of metal below the stern of the ship called a rudder. You’ve done it in a paddle boat – turn the arm of the rudder one way and you go right, the other way and you go left. The principle is the same for an aircraft carrier – a vessel the size of 3 football fields, weighing 97,000 tons, directed by a rudder the size of a large garage door.

And James says the tongue has that kind of power to direct. Though it is small, the tongue can literally change the course of history.
• Think of the power your words have to influence the lives of the people around you. You could use your words to lead someone to Christ, or you could just as easily convince someone that church is a waste of time.
• In fact, think about the power your words have on your children: You could use your words to encourage your children to be strong, faithful Christians, or when you speak you could belittle the church and criticize the elders and complain about worship and drive your children away from God. Don’t tell me words don’t make a difference.

The second two illustrate the power of the tongue to destroy – James 3:5b-8 Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

Though it was seventeen years ago, many of you vividly remember the Storm King fire that consumed 2100 acres around us and took the lives of fourteen firefighters. Even this many years later there are still blackened stumps and memorials on the mountain behind us – reminders of just how terrible and tragic a fire can be. And that fire that caused so much devastation started with a single lightning strike that set ablaze a single tree which spread and burned for 9 days in July 1994.

When the tongue starts its course of destruction, it leaves charred lives behind – through slander and gossip and hatred it spreads its bitterness to others leaving reputations ruined and relationships scorched beyond repair.

His second picture comes from the animal kingdom. He says, you can tame nearly any kind of animal – large, small, bird or fish, lizard or mammal – they’ve all been tamed. But the tongue, James says, is untamable. It’s like a deadly, venomous snake going around biting and poisoning and killing wherever it goes. You might be able to tame an elephant, but you can’t control the tongue.

And it’s not just the intentional destruction that is so heartbreaking, sometimes it’s the careless words and the thoughtless remark that does just as much damage. There’s a phrase that has become familiar over the last several years in warfare – “friendly fire.” Sometimes, our soldiers are killed not by enemy weapons, but our own. Missile coordinates are a degree off and instead of landing a laser guided bomb on the enemy it lands among our own soldiers. A policeman is killed, not by the gunfire of the bank robber, but by his own partner’s stray bullet. It’s tragic and unintended, but deadly nevertheless. And how many wives have been wounded and children damaged by the careless words of an angry husband or father?

The last two illustrate the power of the tongue to delight – James 3:9-12. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

He asks two questions: “Can fresh and salt water flow from the same spring?” The answer is no.

One of the delights of living in Colorado is going up into the mountains, and every now and then finding the source of a small mountain stream coming right out of the heart of the mountain – the freshest, purest, coldest water you will ever drink. But I’ve also hiked out in some of the most barren pasture land in West Texas and found brackish ponds with white alkali crusted along the shore and no vegetation for 50 yards around it. What if you leaned down to that mountain stream to take a drink and scooped up a mouthful of brackish water? Something would be wrong – the two don’t come from the same source.
The second question is similar – “Can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs?” Again, the answer is no – a tree bears fruit of its own kind.

And the point James makes is that your tongue is really the window of what’s inside. He says, “Out of the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.”
Jesus was more explicit – in Mt. 12:34, Jesus said, “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”
In Mark 7:20 he was even more specific – “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’”

The pictures that he paints tell us that we have the ability to choose – our words can be refreshing and nourishing and life-giving like the fresh spring and the fig tree. But those words of delight will only come from a heart that is pure and a life that is holy. You can’t live a life that ignores God and rebels against his will and expect your words to be uplifting and positive – a Christian life and destructive words are incompatible.

There are some people that are a delight to be around. Their words are uplifting and encouraging and you go away from a conversation with them refreshed. There are others whose words are caustic and critical and conversations with them leave you drained with the life sucked out of you. And the question is – which kind are you?

And that’s where the challenge comes for us to do some self-examination. Do you find yourself saying things that are hurtful, using words that are vulgar and unbecoming of a Christian, do you tell jokes that are improper, do you cut and criticize and complain and then wonder, “Where did that come from, that’s not like me?”
• Look in your heart. The words are merely the overflow of what’s going on inside. The words tell you more about yourself than you may want to know. But pay attention and don’t ignore the warning.
• The way to clean up the words and stop the damage is to recalibrate the heart.

Let me share three biblical correctives that will help you to become that fountain of life that quenches the thirst and refreshes the spirits of those around you:
Set your heart and mind on things above – Col. 3:1-2 “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Phil. 4:8 “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.”
If your heart is right your words will flow like a fountain of life.

Choose your words, think before you speak – Prov. 10:19 “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” Eph. 4:29 “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Part of our problem is that we have no filter for our words – we speak without asking a basic set of questions: Is it true, helpful, necessary, kind? People excuse themselves by saying, “I can’t help myself” when the truth is they don’t intend to change.

Let Christ to be the Lord of your words – Ps. 141:3-4 “Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips. Let not my heart be drawn to what is evil, to take part in wicked deeds with men who are evildoers; let me not eat of their delicacies.”

You remember the story of Peter in the courtyard when Jesus was arrested.  As he stood there by the fire a woman recognized him and said "Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away."  Peter replied, "I don't know the man."  And immediately a rooster crowed.

Several years ago, our family was at a fast food restaurant, eating in the dining area, around the corner where you wouldn't immediately see us when you came in.  A teenage girl from our church was a worker there, and came into the dining room to clean up, where she found a huge mess made by a family who had already eaten and left.  She began cursing a blue streak of profanity, when suddenly she turned around and saw me, her preacher.  And by the look on her face you would have thought she had heard a rooster crow.