What we say and how we say it shapes the world around us. Words can build up and they can tear down. As James puts it, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” (James 3:5b-6a)
This week’s news illustrates his point. Riots across the Muslim world erupted in response to a video criticizing and lampooning the Prophet Mohammed. In all likelihood, radical political and religious leaders incited violence with inflammatory words. Mobs killed American diplomats, burned buildings, and looted property.
|Winslow Homer’s “Snap the Whip”|
James counsels us to watch our tongue, to be mindful of what we say and how we say it. And while James is clearly talking about the words we say, his point also goes much deeper.
God sends us into this world to communicate his message. The message God sends us to deliver comes from God himself. And God’s message transforms the world. I’ll explain what James is getting at in three steps.
First, we’ll ask: How do we communicate God’s message?
Then we’ll explore a second question. What is God’s message?
Finally, a third question turns to our daily life. How do Jesus-following communities deliver God’s message?
Now let’s look at the first question. How do we communicate God’s message?
God created us in his image. We are his likeness. At least, that is our calling. God sends us into the world to reflect his image not back to himself but to the world around us.
He speaks the entire cosmos into being. “Let there be light.” And water, and dry land, and vegetation, and creatures in the sea and on the land, and the sun and the moon, and human beings.
In response to the creation’s fall, God speaks his Word. Jesus is the incarnate Word of God. Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and eventual return is God speaking. God speaks redemption.
God does not utter empty words. In fact, his words are more than speech in the narrow sense of tongue wagging. God acts. He does something when he speaks. And when he speaks he is doing something. He communicates with his whole being.
In church we acknowledge that God speaks through the Bible and in the sacraments. During personal devotions many of us experience God’s still, small voice in the inner chambers of our heart. Nature announces God’s style in its beauty and variety, its sublime power and its lawful orderliness.
And God designed us human beings to speak, to speak of God.
|Edward Hopper’s “Room in New York”|
I don’t mean to suggest that God wants us to speak for him. We should never assume that we have such perfect knowledge of God’s mind that all of our thoughts are his thoughts and all of our desires are his desires.
It’s best for us to remember this before we yield to the temptation to dictate to others how to conduct their lives.
Created in God’s image, we communicate with our whole being. Speech can be an especially clear and effective form of communication, but everything we do communicates. Our facial expressions, our posture, the personal space we claim, our hair style, and our clothing choices all send a message.
We communicate through silence and painted imagery, political demonstrations and musical performance. We communicate by simply showing up, with gentle touches, and reliably following through on our promises.
Listening communicates care more effectively than speaking, and the tone of our voice can convey far more important messages than words can signify.
Communication is not merely a tool we possess to insure our survival on this planet. It is our vocation, our calling. God sends us to deliver a message, his message. And we will get to that message in just a moment. But first we have to acknowledge something.
God created us to communicate, and yet we struggle to communicate effectively. We are children of the fall. You might say we are each born with a speech impediment. We are like King George VI, so winsomely portrayed by Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech.”
King George stammered terribly. Public speaking terrified him, and that terror only exacerbated his problem. The film “The King’s Speech” detailed his relationship with a speech therapist, Lionel Logue.
The film reached its climax with the king’s speech to the nation at the outbreak of the Second World War. Having trusted his therapist and worked diligently for years with Logue on improving his speech, King George delivered a stirring speech to his people. His words, and his courage in speaking, galvanized his people to face and eventually to triumph over the Nazi onslaught.
God sends us to speak to the world in all that we do.
|Bruegel’s “Peasant Wedding”|
Every encounter, all of our common routines, the words that we utter, the demeanor we habitually assume, the relationships we form and sustain, the attitudes expressed in our facial expressions, the use of our money, the causes we support, and the very character we embody announce something to the world.
God sends us to proclaim his Good News. We do not start out especially well-suited to the task. We stammer spiritually. But as we commit ourselves to Jesus’s tutelage, our ability to deliver the Good News grows and grows.
So, what precisely is God’s message? God speaks most clearly in his Son Jesus Christ. Jesus is the very embodiment of God’s message to us and to the entire creation. Jesus is love on two feet.
God certainly speaks in Jesus’ teaching. But that teaching is devoted almost entirely to who Jesus is and what his followers will do in response to who Jesus is. These teachings help us to get our hearts and heads around what Jesus has accomplished and how we can respond.
Listen to what Mark records in his Gospel. Jesus explains to his disciples what he will do. “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31)
Jesus came to die on the cross and to rise again. He came to grant us mercy and to give us new life. God knows our imperfections and our transgressions.
Sent into this world to show compassion, we have often been instruments of indifference and agents of self-absorption.
|Delacroix’s “Good Samaritan”|
God entrusted us with his justice, challenging us to make the world a better place. Instead, we pursue too readily the goal of making a better place for ourselves in the world without regard to the common good.
God responds to us with mercy instead of condemnation. Jesus’ death washes us with forgiveness and relieves us of guilt. In his resurrection we participate in a new way of living, a life whose trajectory stretches into eternity and leaves brokenness and death behind once and for all.
God’s message is a creative, redeeming love. A love that makes all things new and turns our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.
Jesus is clear with his followers about how to respond to this message. He says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) In other words, live a life that reflects the mercy you have been shown. Be bearers of the message of mercy.
Followers of Jesus sometimes fall into a moralist error. In our fervor to follow Jesus, we sometimes mistakenly assume the role of moral scold. We tell people to improve their moral character and to change their moral conduct. We talk about the Good Rules.
And while God has blessed us with moral law, the message he has given us to deliver is the Good News. We are sent to share what Jesus has accomplished for us.
When we overemphasize the moral oughts of the faith, we unwittingly begin to leave the impression that following Jesus is about our moral accomplishments. It is a short step from there for our listeners to assume that we seek only to tell the world what to accomplish to win God’s approval.
God’s message–the Good News–is that the only accomplishment that really counts in the eyes of God is the accomplishment of his Son Jesus. The cross and the empty tomb have already been accomplished, and we are sent into this world to live like we accept them as the gifts they are.
We have seen that God sends each of us into the world to deliver his message and that his message is the mercy conveyed in the Word of God himself, Jesus Christ. Let’s say a brief word about how to deliver this message
James teaches us that we convey God’s message not only as individuals. We proclaim the Good News in the tone of our interactions within the Jesus-following community:
We love and respect one another as we are, and yet we are committed to helping each other grow.
We celebrate with each other in joyful times and care for one another in the midst of sorrow and trial.
We welcome the stranger as a gift from Jesus himself and look for Jesus in the stranger.
We feel the wounds of the world around as our own personal wounds, and so we are always looking for ways to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, aid the poor, educate the illiterate, and protect the weak beyond our congregation’s walls.
|Mary Cassatt’s “The Conversation 1866”|
God sends us into the world to deliver his message. As it turns out, that means we often have to change the course of the conversations we enter. These exchanges might be happening with words, but more often they occur in non-verbal ways. With actions and attitudes, demeanor and expectations.
After listening carefully, we often find just the right moment to change the direction of the discourse. That’s when we can begin the discussion anew. With words, or with a gentle touch or an accepting smile, we can find a way to say, “And speaking of God…”
This sermon was preached at Epiphany, Opelousas.