Words Matter

A Sermon by Revd Peter Coley

Sunday 13 September 2015, Trinity 15        

Readings: James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-end


Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.

I wonder if you were fed that line as a child- I hope it wasn’t too long before you learnt the fallacy of those words. Try telling that to Mo Farrah or Paula Radcliffe or Cliff Richard, or suicidal schoolchildren receiving hatemail via the internet.

Words are probably the most powerful thing we possess.  Words have inspired people   to the highest heights –  that’s what the bible God’s word should do for us.  But words can also inspire people to the lowest lows.  My daughter lives in Nuremburg and I can remember standing on the podium where Adolf Hitler spoke to his mass rallies, inspiring a whole nation along a horrific path.

No if we think that words are of little importance then we delude ourselves.

Our words can reveal so much about us as people, in a sense our words become us.

Isn’t it interesting that John in his prologue reveals Jesus as the Logos the word.  In Greek thought that logos was the source of all things.

In the beginning God spoke and the worlds came into being.

Our two passages are all about words.

In the gospel Jesus is asking his disciples who people thought he was.

People would have been asking them who he was wouldn’t they?   ‘Who is your master? Where does he get his power from?  What’s he really up to?’

And I don’t suppose the disciples really knew the answer. At this stage.

So their reply is very guarded, aware I’m sure of Jesus feelings.

They choose their words carefully.  They don’t say ‘some people think your mad, or some people think your demon possessed and some people that you’re a revolutionary.’

They stick to the complementary ones.  ‘ Some say John the Baptist others Elijah and still others one of the prophets.’

And then the words to them as his most intimate disciples. ‘What about you, who do you say that I am?’

And typically Peter is the only one to open his mouth.

‘You are the Christ’.  He says.

And Jesus warns them to keep quiet about it.

But what did it mean to them, that Jesus was the Christ?

Not at all what Jesus had in mind!  That’s for sure.

Peter had said the words, but was still probably in the dark as Jesus began to explain that because he was the Christ he would suffer, suffer at the very hands of those most deeply respected in his society, the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law.

But more than that, that he would be killed and on the third day rise again.

Jesus we are told explained this clearly and plainly to them.  And what was Peter’s response?  Peter rebuked him.  Peter was telling Jesus the kind of Messiah he should be and that certainly did not involve suffering and death!

To which Jesus releases those cutting words that must have rung through his ears for perhaps the rest of his life.

‘Get behind me Satan!  You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.’

Peter uses that word Messiah without knowing what it meant, but he would come to know it, indeed it would shape his whole life.  Indeed Peter would suffer as a disciple of Jesus and yes even  die, in staying true to the word!

You are what you eat is often said, but what about ‘You will be what you say’?

What if our increasingly wordy and foul mouthed world is actually choosing its destiny with every word it utters? What if we are making ourselves vile and crude and debased, with no belief in the truth or the bindingness of words any more? Try and nail down a p[lumber or a plasterer! As all our media sit increasingly light to the truth of what they report, they make truth something that we can no longer recognise.  Distrust breeds.  And perhaps Jeremy Corbin’s rise to the leadership is to do with his use of words and consistency. People find attractive someone who is plain speaking and humble  even if his policies are not seen as viable!!  And people are fed up with the distrust and slagging off that seems to be so much of our politics and society in general.

And that is what James in his letter is addressing.  The community to which he writes has a bad word problem.  It is full of people who really do not think that words matter.

They think that you can use religious words without them affecting your lifestyle, and you can say horrible things and still call yourself a Christian.   But James says that words are the thing that guide your whole life.  Whether you know it or not you are judged on your words.  Whether you know it or not, your words shape your future.

Its like water in a stream says James, it either gives good water or bad. It cannot give both. Words can contaminate the stream of life.

Show me a Christian, one who follows his Lord, and you will have someone who knows how to control his tongue.

The four illustrations that James uses teach us four vital points about the tongue.

The Rudder and the bit.

I love boats and marinas and boatyards!  When you see perhaps a 40ft yacht out of the water with its mast pointing to the skies and walk under their enormous hulls and see the rudder.  It is tiny!!  Can that little bit of metal control this vast vessel?  Yes absolutely! If you can’t control the  rudder you are literally out of control!  I can remember a holiday in Guernsey when a friend and our boys decided to sail around the island with an OS map!!  We sailed out of St Peterport and were going like the clappers, well out to sea.  We began to see crashing waves breaking over rocks and so I went about (turned in a different direction)  and to my horror as I moved the rudder it made no difference at all!!  We were out of control, caught  in a rip tide,  a very frightening moment. In the end we had to be rescued, but that is another story!

But James says that is just like the tongue.  If we can’t control our tongue, we are out of control!!

‘You will be what you say.’ Our tongue controls our destiny.

Have you ever been to a show jumping event.  You’ve felt the ground shudder as the horse gallops by and is guided round the course.  More than a few horse powers in those big horses.  How is that power controlled, by a small piece of metal in the mouth.  So is the tongue says James  ‘You will be what you say.’ Our tongue controls our destiny.

The forest fire

We have all seen the devastation caused by forest fires in California and parts of Australia, and earlier in the year here in our South Downs. Fire is frightening when out of control and destroys everything in its path. Often such fires can start from a careless disposal of a cigarette!!

James warns us that this is the tongue.  Our words can be frighteningly destructive and lead to terrible, unforeseen consequences.

It is untameable

In the time when James wrote his letter, it would appear that they were taming all kinds of animals, from birds to reptiles and sea creatures.  But  no one, not anyone says James has managed to tame the tongue.  Only God can do that.

We cannot in our own strength bring this under control.  It is potentially lethal without God in command.  With God’s help we can bring it under control.

Gossip makes the world go round.  We cannot resist the latest rumours and scandals.  It feeds our newspapers and magazines.

Even if we ourselves have been the victims of false rumours we, can’t quite help believing stories about other people. ‘No smoke without fire they say, a very depressing maxim when applied to gossip.  We can become quite skilled at gossip.  We can easily pass it on with a clear conscience- ‘I have heard…, but I have no way of knowing if its true or not….’

This kind of gossip James says is not harmless at all, it is deadly and it is sinful.

Fresh water and salt water

Double talk.  We are all capable of hypocrisy in what we say.  We may worship God here in church on a Sunday.  We tell God how much we love him , we tell him we’re sorry, we praise his name and then go home and slam into our nearest and dearest because they didn’t do this or that.

We are schizophrenic Christians if this is how we behave!  As a wit once said ‘There are only two things about him I can’t stand: his face!’

Christians quite rightly are expected to live different lives from those around them.  If we don’t – then people have every right to call us hypocrites.

Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing, my brothers and sisters says James this should not be.


Every fellowship needs to hear these words loud and clear and act upon them.  If we are not learning to control our tongues then we are not moving down the path of discipleship.  So often gossip and destructive criticism are at least as widespread as among none believers. Relationships are destroyed, hurts administered, ministries undermined.  And the sad thing is that this is seldom seen as sin!

Our speech should be a source of blessing to those around us. This means speaking words of grace and encouragement, not lashing people with snide or cynical remarks, sarcastic comments or harsh criticisms.

I can remember words from others that have brought me life –  that have meant so much to me and done so much for me. But I  can also remember words from others that have brought a little death within and taken much time to recover.

Let’s stop and think before we open our mouths.  Am I bringing life to others  or taking it from them?