I will not neglect the Word (Psalm 116)

Preached on: Sunday 7th June 2020
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 20-06-07-Message-PowerPoint.
Bible references: Psalm 116:1-16; Psalm 1
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Text: Psalm 119:1-16 (International Children’s Bible)
Sunday 7th June 2020
Brightons Parish Church

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

SCENE 1 – In the kitchen
(MUSIC IS LOUD AND MIXER IS ON IN BACKGROUND)
(GILL ENTERS FILMING)
(SCOTT CAN’T HEAR INSTRUCTIONS FROM HOPE/GILL)
(GILL TURNS MUSIC AND MIXER OFF)

Gill – What are you two doing?
Scott & Hope – We can’t hear you!
G – What are you two doing?
S&H – We can’t hear you!
S – Let me turn down the music. Then we can hear Mumma.
G – What are you two doing?

S – Oh, what are we doing?

H – We’re just making some bread.

S – We’re making some bread. So, what do we have? We have some…

H – cake mix!

S – we have some bread mix, that’s right, and some water to put in. So, we’re making some bread, aren’t we? Have you made bread with Mumma before?

H – Yes!
S – Yeah. You like baking, don’t you?

H – I like making chocolate cake, it’s my favourite.

S – that’s your favourite! Why don’t you pour that in just now and I’ll talk to the boys and girls at church.

Hi everyone, welcome to our kitchen – and yup, Hope and I are making some bread and we couldn’t hear Gill because the music was too loud. I’m going to turn it down just a little bit more so that you can hear me.

So, that reminds me a lot of what it’s like in life. Every day there are lots of noises all around us trying to get our attention. It might be our friends, what’s on TV, it might be our favourite celebrity or social media influencer,…
it might be TV programmes or announcements from government or science or health professionals – lots of voices shouting for our attention and it can be hard to hear God’s voice.

Just like we had to turn down the so that we could hear Gill, sometimes we need to turn down those other voices so that we can hear God’s voice through His Word, the Bible.

In our Psalm today, the man who wrote it was also surrounded by many voices – the voices of the arrogant and the rulers, the wicked and the oppressors. But the psalmist didn’t choose to listen to those voices, instead he chose to listen to God’s voice; he dials down the other noises and tunes in to God.
So, here’s a question to think about at home for 1 minute: what are some of the voices that we need to dial down, and how can we better tune in to God, listen to God’s voice? Over to you for one minute!
(PAUSE)

Welcome back everyone – I’ve started to make my sandwich, but I’m not really sure I’ve got it right, what do you think I’ve done wrong? I’ve got here my turkey and salad to put in the middle, and I really like brown sauce, so I’ve got HP here, no messing around with anything less. And I’ve got the two parts of the recipe, one for the top and one for the bottom!

Do you think this will taste any good? Give me a thumbs up for yes and a thumbs down for no! (WIGGLE THUMB)
I reckon, actually, that it’s going to have to be a thumbs down – I cannot imagine eating some paper is going to taste any good, can you? No! What do I need in here? Shout it out! That’s right – I need bread! The recipe is of course important, but the goal is to make bread and have a great sandwich! The goal is not only to have the recipe.

And that reminds me about another lesson from our psalm today. Again and again the psalmist talks about ‘your orders’, ‘your commands’, ‘your word’, to ‘obey you’, ‘not sin against you’, ‘you have spoken’. Now, who is this ‘you’ that the psalmist is talking about? Who is it? It’s God! God has given us His Word, the Bible, which is full of information about how to live and what God is like; it is full of God’s commands and also revelation of Him.

But God didn’t give us this just so we could have a list of instructions and become really knowledgeable about the
Bible, nor is the Bible to be the thing we love the most. What did Jesus say was the greatest commandment? It was: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment.’ (Matthew 22:37-38) We are to love God, love Him above everything – even above His Word – and that’s because the goal is not simply to read and know God’s Word, the goal is to know God Himself. Not just to know about Him in our heads, but to know Him as a person, to know Him in our hearts.

The Psalmist says in verse 2: ‘Blessed are those who…seek him [God] with all their heart.’ The goal is not just to have the recipe, the goal is to have the bread, the bread of life, as Jesus was called.
So, here’s another question for you to think about: as you read the Bible, are you seeking God, or are you seeking to know and follow His rules? I’ll give you thirty seconds to think or talk about that just now.
(PAUSE)

Well, here I am, at the dining table with my sandwich. We’ve baked the bread; we’ve put it all together as it should be, I’ve even remembered to replace the recipe with slices of bread. But is it enough to leave the sandwich sitting on the table? Am I going to be fed by it sitting there? No! Of course not! If I want to be fed, I have to eat the bread, the sandwich has to become part of me. Because the sandwich goes into my mouth, down my throat, into my tummy and there my tummy does things with the food that give my body strength and energy… But to get that strength and energy, I need to eat the bread.

And that’s our final lesson today, from this psalm: it’s not enough just to have God’s Word, it’s not enough to know God’s Word and even to know God through His Word. Quite clearly this psalm tells us that we need to put God’s Word into practice in our lives. Verse 9 says: ‘How can a young person [any person] stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word.’

It verse 11 it also says: ‘I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.’ What we learn about God and His ways is meant to become part of our lives, it is meant to change our hearts, the place of our will, and so that we will the things of God.

Many of us will have seen this picture online or in the paper or news this past week: of Donald Trump holding up a Bible in front of a church. The Bible Society wrote a very powerful article about this event and they quoted the bishop, whose church was used for this event, she said: ‘Let me be clear, the President just used a Bible, the most sacred text of [Christians], and one of the churches of my diocese without permission, as a backdrop for a message [opposite] to the teachings of Jesus.’

And she said that because the Bible was used as a prop, that church was used as a PR location, and violence was used to make it possible.

It’s not enough to have a Bible, it’s not enough to know some things from it, to even know something of…
God based upon the writings in the Bible, and that’s because God counts as His children, the Lord Jesus counts as His disciples, those who seek for His Word to become part of who they are, to shape their hearts and lives.

There is a place for Christians to call out the President for his behaviour, that day and so many more besides. But let’s remember, that when we point a finger, three point back at us. A man called C.K. Chesterton, once replied to a newspaper which ran the question: ‘What is wrong with our world?’ He replied: ‘Dear Sir, I am. Yours sincerely, C.K. Chesterton.’

These past weeks, as we have rightly championed Black Lives Matter, and responded to the injustice faced by
George Floyd and many others, I have had to take…
a hard look in the mirror, on my own life and ask the tough questions, because this psalm excludes a faith which idolises the Bible, for we are to worship God alone, but equally, it also reminds us, that God says a faith which takes little heed of God’s Word, a faith where our heart and will do not seek His ways, is a faith which in the words of the book of James, is worthless.

So, friends, let’s stand with Black Lives Matter, let’s be actively anti-racist, but let us also eat the sandwich, let us heed God’s Word and allow it to shape us. For as I read in an email this week: ‘World change usually starts with my change.’

Let us tune in to God’s voice, seeking Him as our first love, and allow Him to change us from the inside out.
May it be so. Amen.

Wisdom & Intolerance (James 3:13-18)

Preached on: Sunday 16th February 2020
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 20-02-16-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon-morning.

Bible references: James 3:13-18

Location: Brightons Parish Church

Text: James 3:13-18
Sunday 16th February 2020
Brightons Parish Church
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.How would you define ‘wisdom’? I think it’s a lot harder than we first imagine. I suspect that we may come up with a number of possible answers and we could lean towards an answer like the Cambridge Dictionary: ‘the ability to use your knowledge and experience to make good decisions and judgments.’

So, when we read about true and false wisdom in these verses from James, it’s easy to get the wrong idea, because ‘wisdom’ for James is something quite different.

Let’s also take the word ‘peace’. How would you define ‘peace’? Looking again at the Cambridge Dictionary, it summarises peace as there being ‘no violence’ and having ‘calm’. But for James, ‘peace’ is a much richer word, because as a Christian from a Jewish background, saturated in the Scriptures of the Old Testament, he understood both peace and wisdom in a much fuller way, and in a moment we’ll get into that.

Because, in case you’re worrying that this is going to be like a lecture rather than a sermon, here are four pictures of recent events, potentially affected by false wisdom. You may have read about them or heard about them on the TV or radio. We have Kate Forbes, SNP minister; Franklin Graham, American evangelist; Israel Folau, rugby player; and Destiny Church, Edinburgh…

So, we will get to these situations, because as Christians we need to be aware of them, we need to be aware of what is happening within our society. But before we can engage with the issues appropriately, we need to first understand what James is getting at within these five verses, including the definitions behind his words.

We might first wonder though why James begins writing about wisdom at all, because again it seems like another blunt change of topic. But remembering this proverb might help:
‘The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.’
(Proverbs 15:2)

We see that the tongue and wisdom are closely linked in the Scriptures, and so for James it’s a natural progression to move from our words to speaking about wisdom.

He writes in verse 13: ‘Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.’

This is the overarching thought for these verses on wisdom. So, what is James saying here?

He asserts that someone with wisdom will show humility and good deeds in their life. But again, what does he mean by ‘wisdom’, or ‘humility’?

Let’s start with wisdom. Wisdom from a biblical
perspective is much more than the dictionary definition,

much more than an ability to make good decisions and it’s much more than pragmatic advice. From a biblical perspective, wisdom has a beginning and a goal, summarised by this verse in Proverbs:
‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.’
(Proverbs 9:10)

This expression is used 18 times in the book of Proverbs and there is similar language elsewhere in the Scriptures. Wisdom begins by having true reverence, ‘fear’, of the Lord. It is recognition of who is actually God, that there is a God, that that God is holy and almighty in character and nature. But wisdom is more than just having these ideas in our heads, wisdom includes knowledge and understanding which leads to a changed life…

The Scriptures speak in Genesis of Adam knowing Eve, knowing her in a way that changed both their lives forever. So, wisdom includes a knowledge that changes the course of our lives, it includes a reverence that leads to obedience.

But biblical wisdom is not only having this awareness of God and responding appropriately to Him, biblical wisdom is also understanding what God is up to in the world and living in response. The Apostle Paul speaks of such in first Corinthians:
‘Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ (1 Cor. 1:22-24)

What Paul is getting at is this: when Jesus was crucified, Jews thought it was weakness, Greeks (or Gentiles) thought it foolishness – for Jews knew that someone crucified was under the curse of God, and Gentiles knew that crucifixion was the most humiliating of deaths reserved for the worst of traitors. Both Jew and Gentile knew, they just knew, that Jesus could not be the promised Messiah, He could not be God in the flesh coming to save the world
– or so they thought.

But the Church for two thousand years has argued differently: that the Cross was the epitome of God’s wisdom and strength, because there He defeated death, there He conquered sin and the enemies of hell. Nevertheless, many Jews and Gentiles could not see what God was up to in Jesus, and so they could not live in response to God’s actions, they could not have wisdom in the biblical sense.

James said, ‘Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.’

To have wisdom includes reverence for God and an understanding of what God is up to in the world and then living in response. From this, from such true wisdom, comes humility; for wisdom creates a healthy perspective of ourselves before God. We realise that He is God, not ourselves; that the universe does not revolve around us. We realise the gift of life we have been given; we realise also our limitations. We realise how messed up and broken we are, how rebellious we are towards God and yet He still
loves us, that He loved us enough to die for us…

It’s no wonder that this should create humility, leaving no room for pride, no room for selfishness.

As a result, through humility created from true wisdom, a way of life should come about that is good and is seen in good deeds.

All this, all of this, James captures in one verse and then he springboards into a description of false wisdom and what it leads to. He writes:
‘But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.’ (James 3:14-16)

James speaks of false wisdom, which is empty of humility and so leads to envy and selfish ambition culminating in disorder and a deepening moral crisis. Again here, the words used by James are meaningful.

‘Bitter envy’ is a wishing for others to have less, or to be less. ‘Selfish ambition’ is power hungry and status- seeking, so much so, that it leads to feuds, to divisiveness. James wants to highlight for us the perils of selfish individualism, which he says, ‘does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.’

Again, meaningful words chosen here. ‘Earthly’, earthbound we might say, such that false wisdom shuts out God and focuses our eyes simply on the present, on the physical.

‘Unspiritual’ is used in the Scriptures when human feeling and human reason reign supreme in our lives. False wisdom unseats God from the throne of our hearts; there is no reverence, there is no fear of the Lord, and so false wisdom, unspiritual wisdom, is also ‘demonic’, because it is opposed to God.

Unsurprisingly, such false wisdom leads to ‘disorder and every evil practice’. This disorder is not only at the individual level, it is also at the level of communities, even societies. ‘Disorder’ here speaks of commotion, confusion, restlessness. The same root word is translated “uprisings” in Luke 21:9, where Jesus forewarned of restlessness and unsettled global affairs prior to His return, of society increasing in persecution, particularly of the church.

So, let me pause here, and return to those earlier pictures. Kate Forbes; Franklin Graham; Israel Folau; and Destiny Church. I’ve no idea if you’ll have heard of these incidents; but I’ve been directed to a number of helpful sources which highlight the issues around these four situations.

Kate Forbes, a committed Christian, delivered the Scottish government budget a few weeks’ ago at the age of 29, but is now being targeted by members of her own party. One such SNP member said of Kate Forbes: “the last thing our party needs is Kate Forbes climbing the ladder when she has such questionable views on equality.” As evidence of these “questionable” views, that individual linked to a letter published in The Scotsman last year, authored by fifteen female MSPs, who raised concerns over the Scottish government’s proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act. AS far as I know, only Kate Forbes seems to have been targeted but she is the one who is a Christian and attends church, and holds an orthodox view of human sexuality.

And then there are the cases of Franklin Graham, Israel Folau and Destiny Church and all have a degree of similarity in the issue they face, though there are nuances. Each one in turn has faced censure because they hold and have expressed orthodox Christian views on human sexuality.

Franklin Graham was booked to speak at the Hydro Centre in Glasgow as part of a UK tour. The venue is part- owned by Glasgow City Council, and Susan Aitken, the leader of the local authority, said allowing Graham to go ahead could have broken the law. Franklin Graham has not attacked anyone, he has not spoken any hate crime, but he appears to be penalised for what someone thinks he might say or that his views are simply not in alignment with the current popular position. To some commentators, this would appear to be discrimination based on religious beliefs and it may be that the council have to explain how their decision is not a breach of the Equalities Act.

A similar situation arose with Destiny Church, just two weeks’ ago, where their annual conference at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh was cancelled because the speakers held to orthodox Christian beliefs on human sexuality.

In the situation involving Glasgow City Council, one commentator wrote: ‘Ms Aitken is saying that because of ‘equality’ someone who holds a view, which is (for the moment) still legal…can be banned on the basis that it would be breaking the law to have him speak. Given that the Catholic church, the Church of England and most evangelical churches hold the view that sex outside marriage is wrong (and marriage is between a man and a woman), does this mean that the churches are against the law?’ The commentator goes on to speak about the ‘intolerance of tolerance’ within our society.

In a similar vein, on an episode of ‘Inside Track’ for BBC5 Live, dated 30th January 2020, Martin Bashir, the BBC Religious Editor, spoke about the situation around Israel Folau, and he referred to a term called ‘totalitolerance’, which is a worldview which says: “unless you agree with

every single view that I have and I embrace, I want
nothing to do with you and will run you out of town.”

Now, I’m aware that we are a mixed group of Christians and will have a range of opinions, but I would hope and affirm that we can all find a place of home here. Yet, in the four situations I’ve outlined, it feels like there’s something not quite right. That instead of having free speech, we may have a form of totalitolerance; that actually, in the name of tolerance we have a form of intolerance. All this brings to mind that famous line, probably misattributed to Voltaire: “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.”

It’s often been cited in support of free speech because whether we agree with the content or not, free speech is central to democracy, and freedom of speech is only worth something when it affirms the freedom of all people, including the ones we disagree with.

So, how does this connect with the writing we have in James today? Well I wonder if what we are seeing in the growing evidence of intolerance, of totalitolerance, I wonder if in this we are seeing something of the false wisdom spoken about by James. In that false wisdom, there is ‘bitter envy’, wherein people wish for others to have less or be less. James also spoke of disorder, of ambition that leads to divisiveness, and of a deepening moral crisis. Don’t we see something of this false wisdom in our society and in these situations?

I worry that we do, because a life, a society, a community of people who are marked by true wisdom display something quite different, as James makes clear. He says: ‘But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.’ (James: 3:17-18)

James says that true wisdom is pure, putting it first to show that it is a prerequisite for the other attributes. By purity, James is referring to an unmixed devotion to God, for the word has the same root as ‘holy’ and ‘hallowed’. A person can also be called pure when they partake of the character of God, when they walk in God’s ways.

With such purity, true wisdom, should be humble, it should have an appropriate understanding of self, giving true reverence to God, and as such it is also:
• Peace-loving: there is unity, at-one-ness, with good close relationships.
• Considerate – which is a way of grouping together gentleness, patience and kindness.
• Submissive – or we might say, teachable, willing to yield to the truth of God.
• Full of mercy and good fruit – such unity, kindness, humility will allow such persons to be conscious of the neediness and helplessness of others so that mercy and good fruit will be seen in practical action.
• Impartial – that practical action will not show favouritism, as James already highlighted. And finally…

• Sincere – because such humble gentleness, seeking after true unity, will not show hypocrisy or pretence, but rather favour only truth.

What is striking about all these attributes, is that they are all seen in God and in His way of relating to us. True wisdom is reflective of God:
• Peace-loving: God sought peace with us by dying on the cross; He gave His life for peace. (Col. 1:20)
• Considerate: Romans 2:4 speaks of the kindness and patience of God which seeks to lead us back into relationship with Himself.
• Submissive: Jesus Himself said, ‘I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’ (Matthew 11:29)

• Full of mercy and good fruit: a few weeks ago, we spoke of God’s mercy towards us on the cross. (Eph. 2:4)
• Impartial: similarly, we also spoke of God’s impartiality, that He has no favourites. (Deut. 10:17)
• Sincere: as James reminded us, there are no shifting shadows to God. (James 1:17)

As such, true wisdom puts to death envy, it eradicates selfish ambition, there would be no disorder, no propagation of base actions with true wisdom, and instead we would see peace and righteousness, which leads to James’ conclusion: ‘Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.’ (James 3:18)

The ‘peace’ that James speaks of is influenced by the Old Testament, where the word ‘peace’ is known as ‘shalom’, which is more than the absence of obvious tension. Shalom exists where things are whole, healthy, complete. The experience of shalom is meant to be multi- dimensional, for shalom is well-being physically, psychologically, spiritually and socially.

Tim Keller writes, that at a social level, ‘shalom would be seen in people sharing resources with each other and working together so that shared public services work, the environment is safe and beautiful, that schools educate, businesses flourish, and poverty and hunger are minimal.’ When shalom comes upon a community, even a society, there would be wholeness of relationships, with truth, righteousness and justice evident.

Because of such depth to shalom, even just social shalom, James speaks of ‘peacemakers’ rather than ‘peace- keepers’. A peacemaker must confront the problems which need addressed, sometimes disrupting a community (or a society) in order to deal with root problems. Peacemakers are to work peace, tilling the ground, rooting out the weeds and as they do so, from their labour comes a harvest of righteousness, a harvest that is reflective of God and thus true wisdom.

So, when voices raise up in our media, or amongst our politicians, or when public venues refuse a platform for voices that they disagree with, does this speak of true wisdom? Does it convey humility, gentleness, an openness to the other even amidst disagreement? Is it impartial and is it being honest about it motives?
Personally, I’m not so sure, I’m not so sure…

that the intolerance of tolerance, or the totalitolerance that is creeping into society, is true wisdom.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus calls us to be salt and light in the world, shining His light, His true wisdom that all might see more clearly and so find true life. We are also to bear His distinctive flavour, so that like salt, we might bring forth the best in the world, and flavour it with Jesus.

It has to begin first at home; we have to cultivate this in our own lives, in our families, and in our congregation. James says that such wisdom is from above, and that God gives wisdom if we but ask for it (James 1:5). So, here’s my question: for the sake of yourself, the church and indeed even for society, will we humble ourselves and seek God’s wisdom? Will we dig into His Word? Will we ask for His Spirit of wisdom and revelation?

Because God is ready to give true wisdom, that we might usher in a greater degree of shalom as peacemakers and so be known, as Jesus said in Matthew 5, as the children of God. I pray it may be so. Amen.

Life-giving Words (James 3:1-12)

Preached on: Sunday 9th February 2020
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 20-02-09-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon-morning.

Bible references: James 3:1-12

Location: Brightons Parish Church

Text: James 3:1-12
Sunday 9th February 2020 Brightons Parish ChurchLet us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the
meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

I read this past week that if we include scientific words, there are over one million words in the English language. Of all those words, the average person knows about 20,000, uses roughly 2,000 different words each week and speaks about 16,000 words a day, on average – though I guess the number goes up for ministers on a Sunday! The book of Proverbs reminds us that: ‘The tongue has the power of life and death’ (Pro. 18:21). So, our words matter, not so much the number of words we speak but the kind of words and the purpose for them.

Fourteen years into married life I can well affirm this
because I am still very much learning to speak in life- giving ways. One year into ministry here at Brightons, having spoken more words than in any other year in my life, and I am aware that my words have likely touched on both parts of that proverb.

So, we can likely resonate with the writing of James today because we know his assessment in verses 2 to be true: we all say wrong things, because (after all) who amongst us is perfect, who lives a perfect life? No one. So, if we stumble in our deeds, then we sure stumble in our words, we all say wrong things, and for this reason what James is about to detail is relevant for us all, even though he begins with teachers. For they must be especially careful, since the weight and quantity of their words will be greater.

In verses 3 to 5, James is seeking to quickly help us grasp
that our tongue is powerful by giving us three pictures. Firstly, of the bit in the horse’s mouth, able to turn such a powerful animal. Secondly, the lowly rudder, which the pilot can use to steer the largest of ships even amidst powerful winds. Thirdly, the small spark, which can set the greatest of forests aflame, laying low even the most powerful of trees. Across all three pictures, James highlights the disproportionate power of the tongue.

As a result, the tongue can boast. James says in verse 5: ‘the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.’ Boasting here is not in a negative sense, simply a neutral sense, that the tongue does have considerable influence for it does have great power.

Now in our digital age, it’s worth bearing in mind that if
James was writing today he’d probably include all forms of communication, both electronic or printed, because we utilise these to say things. So, let’s keep in mind every social media post, every electronic message, or the notes we send one another; they are all powerful means of speaking; it’s just that in James’ day the average person could only utilise the spoken word and so with a focus on the tongue James wants to help us see the destructive power of our words.

In verses 6 to 8, James speaks of the tongue being a fire, of it corrupting the whole body, setting the course of one’s life on fire, that it has at its disposal deadly poison. Again, this echoes the earlier Proverb ‘…of life and [of] death’ (Pro. 18:21).

God’s Word is full of examples where the tongue can lead
to death:
• Gossip and Slander – Proverbs 16:28
• Flattery – Proverbs 26:28
• Bragging – Proverbs 27:2
• Breaking Confidence – Proverbs 11:13
• Complaining – Philippians 2:14
• Lying – Proverbs 12:22
• Crude Humour and Language – Ephesians 5:3-4, Colossians 3:8
• Deceit, Cursing and Bitterness – Romans 3:13-14

So, our words are powerful, and all too often that power leads to death – because none of us are perfect, none of us, as James reminds us in verse 8, none of us can tame the tongue, it is a runaway fire, it is a viper waiting to strike with its poison.

But not only does it affect others’ lives, it affects our lives;
the words we use can have a powerful impact upon the course of our own lives, upon the actions we choose to take. That rash word, that flippant comment, which lead to that argument, which then shaped the months and years to follow. Truly the tongue, truly our ability to communicate has have power and too often that power etches wounds, scars, and unhealthy patterns of thought and behaviour into our lives and the lives of others’.

I’ve spoken at The Guild about my call into ministry, which came upon me at the age of 20, at that time into youth work, and so I left the study of chemical engineering. Fast forward six years, I’m was working as a youth pastor in a church and things seemed to be going well, though there were the usual challenges…

And one morning I’m called in to find out that my contract
is not going to be renewed at the end of the year. I’m being encouraged and “freed up” to explore a broader call, rather than singularly to young people. It’s meant to be supportive and done in a timely manner such that I can explore options, but sadly, for a variety of factors, those words, at that time, lead me to have a touch of depression, and I avoided youth ministry after that job for three years – I just couldn’t it, it was too painful.

Words have power and they can set the course of our lives and the lives of others, for our words, our tongues, have the power of life and death. I think we all know this to be true, I think we can all resonate with what James writes. So, I want to talk about two responses to this issue.

The first response, is: how should we use our tongues? Yes, it can lead to death, but it also has the potential to be life-giving, so how can we lean-in to that? What wisdom does God have for us that we and others might know life through our words as well?

We’ve seen in James in previous weeks, that he has some wisdom to pass on, wisdom that is quite easy to gloss over. He said earlier: ‘My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…’ (James 1:19)

We know this sentiment, we’ve probably heard it many times. At present, I’m working through some pre- marriage material with two couples…

who will be married in the coming months. What’s
striking so far in the material is that it really does try to put this verse into practice. It gives tools to the couples so that they can slow down their responding, whether it be anger, or defensiveness, so that their response does not lead to rash words nor block effective listening, listening that is full and deep. But it is easy to gloss over James’ encouragement here to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry; yet if we put them into practice they can be life-giving.

I said at the start of today’s message that I’m one year into ministry here at Brightons, in fact one year into full- time ministry at all. That means I’ve got a lot to learn, it means I’m going to make mistakes. It likely means that I will communicate things, which in principle I stand by,

but which I also don’t communicate clearly enough or in
the best way. Personally, I appreciate that you have been slow to speak and slow to react, especially if you feel loss as things have changed in the past year. I hope you’ll continue to be like that and not jump to conclusions about my motives, about what I might be saying or might not be saying. Can I also encourage you, if you are struggling, to come talk with me – I’m not looking for you to lambast me, or pin me against a wall, but come asking, “I wonder…?” Questions. I promise to be quick to listen and slow to speak. I’ve had a number of such conversations with folks already and I believe those times have been of benefit to us both.

But, whether we feel that way or not, let’s heed this piece
of wisdom, that our words might be life-giving.

We could also turn to Ephesians chapter 4 and explore
the wisdom Paul shares there on the issue, for he says: ‘each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour…‘In your anger do not sin’: do not let the sun go down while you are still angry…Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs …Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other…’ (Eph. 4:25-32)

This passage is chock full of wisdom: to speak truth; to be careful of anger; to only speak what is wholesome, to speak what gives life, which builds others up, and meets their needs. As such, there should be no talk…

which is bitter, or disparaging, but only that which is kind
and compassionate, with a readiness to forgive, because none of us is perfect, we all stumble in many ways.

I suspect we’ve heard this many times, indeed the Church has apparently been teaching it for two thousand years, and yet folks like Henri Amiel, Swiss philosopher, poet, and critic of the 19th century said: ‘In order to see Christianity, one must forget almost all the Christians.’

How terribly sad, and all because of the power of the tongue which can cause such harm, rather than foster life. But what if we took God’s words more seriously? Might we see in our day a community where faith is vibrant and true, where there is an active love for neighbour, and where all experience the Kingdom of God

in our midst, such that the sceptics and the critics are
encouraged to wonder afresh about Jesus, to wonder that maybe His claim was true, that He came to give life and life in all its fullness? Our words have the power of life and death, so will we heed the wisdom of God that we might be a community who is life-giving in our words?

But here’s the rub my friends: even with all that wisdom, we cannot be that community in our own strength, and this is the second response we need to explore. Jesus said, ‘A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.’ (Luke 6:45)

The tongue has the power of life and death, and the extent to which we foster life or make way for death,

depends on our hearts. The mouth speaks what the heart
is full of. The heart in this verse is the real you, the core of who you are, your nature, your identity.

James said similarly in our passage today. He said that our tongue is ‘…a world of evil…set on fire by hell…It is a restless evil…’ (James 3:6, 8) Is that true?

Well, we’ve already seen in the words of Jesus, that the mouth speaks what the heart is full of – evil words, evil heart. The internal world of our soul, of our hearts, will flow into our words. So, James is 1 for 1 so far. What about James saying that the tongue is set on fire by hell?

Earlier I quoted from John chapter 10, where Jesus said that He came to give life in all its fullness. But earlier in that same verse, Jesus also said that ‘the thief comes only

to steal and kill and destroy’. He is speaking about the
powers of hell and any deed, any word which leans away from life, may in fact be a partnership with the dominion of darkness. Paul said: ‘‘In your anger do not sin’: do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.’ (Eph. 4:26-27) It is possible in our anger, as Christians, to give space, influence in our lives to the devil, and he has used such footholds and open doors to wreak havoc, like a fire, upon the Church. So, yes, the tongue can often be set on fire by hell, and indeed to call it a restless evil, as James does, ties in with this, because restlessness is a readiness to break out and cause harm, and that is characteristic of the demonic whereas peace is characteristic of God and His good kingdom.

It is under such influence that the tongue can be led into
duplicity as James outlined in his final verses today: of praising God yet cursing the one made in God’s image, thus maligning the Creator Himself. As James says, this should not be, for we are meant to be like a fresh spring, life-giving, and by our fruit we will be known. Where there are bitter words, there is a bitter heart. Where there are defamatory or unloving words, then there is a heart where the love of Jesus is absent.

The heart is the real you, the core of who you are. So, if we want our power-laden words to speak life rather than death, then the heart cannot be in league with evil and hell, instead it must have a different ruler – not ourselves, but Jesus, King Jesus. Because when Jesus comes into our lives,…

when He becomes our Lord and Saviour, then the heart
changes. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: ‘if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here.’ (2 Cor. 5:17)

It was such an understanding that lead Paul to say to the Ephesians, in the very same passage we looked at earlier, he said: ‘…we are all members of one body…do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption…[forgive] each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love…’ (Eph. 4: 25, 30, 32; 5:1-2)

When we become that new creation through Jesus, when we realise that we are members of His body,…

when we realise that God lives in us and can be grieved,
when we realise how greatly God loves us and such that it took Him to the Cross – well then, we truly are a new creation, we have a new identity within us which begins to change us from the inside out, for it begins to change our heart and from that changed heart comes a changed life both in word and deed.

Friends, our words have the power of life and death, and if we want to be a community who is life-giving in our words, if we want to be life-giving in our marriages and families and friendships, if we want to be life-giving in our places of work or leisure, then it begins with the heart, but you can’t change your heart on your own, you need Jesus. So, it’s good news that He’s ready to help.

He’s ready to step into your life, if you will but call upon
Him and let Him rule in Your heart. He promised long ago through the prophet Ezekiel: ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.’ (Ezek. 36:26)

The Lord has been faithful to His promise, for in these last days He has sent His Holy Spirit, not just to be around us but to be in us, as Paul said, to take up residence and make our hearts, our bodies, a temple of His presence. By that Spirit we are made new creations. By that Spirit we grow in the likeness of Jesus, bearing the fruit of love and joy and peace. Friends, if we want our words to have the power of life rather than death, then it’s time to humble ourselves, it’s time to call upon the Lord for mercy and grace, it’s time to be filled with His Spirit.

For Paul also exhorts the Ephesians: ‘…be filled with the
Spirit.’ (Ephesians 5:18) The idea behind this phrase is that we are to experience the receiving of the Holy Spirit so that (in time) every part of our lives is permeated and controlled by the Spirit. This is not a ‘once for all’ experience, of which the early chapters of the books of Acts make clear. This filling of the Spirit is repeated a number of times with the early disciples, for we reed: ‘All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.’
(Acts 2:4)
And then a little later on with the same people: ‘After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.’ (Acts 4:31)

The implication of Paul’s words in Ephesians is that Christians are to keep their lives open to the repeated filling by the Holy Spirit. Notice too here in Acts, that this filling of the Spirit then lead to speech that was holy.

So, how do we do this? Well, it’s just simple prayer. We don’t have to make it overly complex; we pray simply that ancient prayer, ‘Come, Holy Spirit.’ And then we wait upon Him. We might sense something, we might sense nothing, but we pray it in faith as the Church has done for centuries, and then leave the rest to God.

Friends, if we want to be a community of life-giving words, then we must let Jesus change our hearts, and He does that by His Spirit, filling us afresh day by day, as we pray, ‘Come, Holy Spirit, come.’ So, why don’t we do that just now. Let us
pray.

Wisdom (James 1:1-18)

Preached on: Sunday 5th January 2020
The sermon text is not available.
Bible references: James 1:1-18
Location: Brightons Parish Church