Wisdom From Above
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“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, and sisters.”
James doesn’t beat around the bush. In our text this morning he starts off in a new direction, in which we hear echoes of an old direction. We could think of it going back to that spot on the pond where the ripples are fading, the one where James spoke of being quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. One of the rhetorical devices James likes to use is, to begin with a sentence that can sound a little bit shocking. There’s no slow build-up with James. He gets right to it. And so for instance to start chapter 2 we have “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” Or in 2:14, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” This is how James starts - he makes his listeners sit up!
We’re back to the “words matter” part. I wonder why we learned “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me?” I mean, I can see why, but words can hurt. Words matter. We’re talking about an ethic that is based on the love of God and the love of humanity and we’re asking “What is the way of wisdom?” and we’ve said already that a Hebrew understanding of wisdom can simply be defined as “skill at life.” In this way wisdom is made manifest – it is made real as we go about our days in everything we do.
And everything we say. “Taming the tongue” is what the first section of this chapter is called. We know what words can do to us. “Rash words are like sword thrusts,” we read in Proverbs 12:18, “but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” “Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” in Proverbs 18:21.
The words we speak. A matter of utmost importance. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. A matter of life or death. “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him…” (Deut 30:19b-20a) We hear those words of Moses echoing down through the ages. Words will never hurt me? How many people have we hurt with our words? How many times have we been wounded by words?
James remembers, no doubt, the words his brother spoke – “Out of the abundance of the heart does the mouth speak.” This is foundational stuff and it’s stuff that we’re called to cling to as followers of Christ no matter what is going on around us. It’s stuff we’re called to endure in and there is no middle ground here for James. What’s it going to be for us? Of course, we’re not called to speak words of blessing and left to our own devices – thanks be to God for that. Let’s ask for God’s help as we look at this passage on the wild tongue from James this morning.
Looking at this passage and thinking of the world around us, it seems to be a message that is in dire need of being proclaimed and heard, and lived out. Think of so much public discourse. The name-calling. The insulting. The motivation assigning. The anger. The rage. It’s maybe worse than anywhere online. Think of how there seems to be this prevailing attitude that I know best and anyone who disagrees with me is my enemy. I often tell myself and advise others “Don’t read the comment sections!” It can be far from edifying. Some news sites have removed them altogether. In all the trolling and flaming, there seems to be a disconnect (and I don’t think I’m imagining it) between the words people speak and write and the consequences that might come about as a result of those words. We must continually assess the messages we are putting out there.
In the middle of this, we have James’ voice ringing out to us through the millennia – “This ought not to be so” (v. 10) which might be rendered “This cannot be” which again reminds us of some more of his brother’s words – “Not so with you!” “This ought not to be so, my brothers and sisters.” If there is one thing that James constantly does, he constantly calls us back to our relationship. He constantly calls us back to our foundation. “My brothers and sisters” is how he addresses his readers here in this opening line. Remember who you are. Remember our relationship to God as his adopted children and remember our relationship with one another brothers and sisters in Christ. Of course, before that, we have his shock opening…
“Not many of you should become teachers…” Yikes. We who teach will be judged with greater strictness. Yikes. Talk about not being able to hide behind the congregation. I’ve said that there is more than teaching going on in the act of preaching, but that doesn’t mean teaching is not going on (one hopes). We who teach will be judged with greater strictness. Judged by God or judged by people? There’s no reason to think both ideas aren’t in play here, and anyone who has ever talked about the service in the car on the way home knows how we judge teachers (or at least offer up our critiques – I know because I’ve done it). Teaching is a serious business. I want to say right now that there are some who read this passage as addressed to teachers only. I wouldn’t narrow it down completely, though special attention is obviously being paid to teachers here by James. We’re all called to be some sort of leader to someone, I believe that. In the same way, we’re all called to be some sort of teacher in our words and deeds to someone no matter how official or unofficial that role may. To take on a teaching role in the church is a serious thing and not to be taken lightly. Now I’ve heard people who are starting out in teaching/preaching saying things like “I hope I don’t say anything heretical!” This is a valid concern (though I also think that we might overvalue our own influence on leading or not leading others into heretical territory). It’s interesting though that James is not speaking of the content of teaching here so much as the fact that what is being taught and what is being spoken by the teacher are congruent. Incongruency is what James is speaking against for much of the letter. Double-heartedness. Double-mindedness. Double-tonguedness. Not many of you should become teachers, for all of us make many mistakes.
“Nobody’s perfect,” in other words.
Which is true enough, but you know James doesn’t mean this in a “We all make mistakes – oh well!” kind of dismissive way. This is James! James the Just, they called him. He doesn’t mean this in “Well nobody’s perfect!” kind of way and throw our hands up and move on. He doesn’t mean this in a “Well that’s just (insert name here) being (insert name here)” when a member of your faith family lashes out in anger or insult. “You know what he or she is like!”
“No, no, no!” says James. He’s calling for maturity here. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. He’s not talking about never sinning, but rather a maturity in faith that is borne out incongruence between our words and our actions. He’s calling for a life that takes faith seriously.
And there are few more serious matters than our tongues. Much of what a teacher does is through words and we have to be particularly careful of whom we install as teachers and teachers have to be particularly careful that what they say when they’re teaching is congruent with what they say and what they do when they’re not teaching. Imagine me going to Swiss Chalet after church and berating the server for accidentally spilling Chalet Sauce on my shirt and you can imagine such a scene after blessing everyone and saying “Peace be with us all.” Can you imagine?
Can you imagine the potential damage? Such a small thing, our tongue, can affect so much, for good or bad. Like a small bit that affects the whole course a horse takes. Like a relatively small rudder that affects the course that such a large ship takes.
Words can affect the course of a life, even. My hypothetical Swiss Chalet scene might ruin someone’s day, or maybe their week, but words can ruin whole lives. I’ve told you I find myself watching a lot of church on tv recently and hear a lot of messages about us being valued by God and worth something. It’s a good message and it’s making me wonder “How many have been told as children and young people that they just the opposite? Good for nothing? Of little or no value?”
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire? We know all about this with forest fire season approaching. What damage can be done to a church, to a family of faith, whose leaders are caught up in bitter envy and selfish ambition and living falsely? Someone has described the potential problems like this: “(teachers) are especially vulnerable to failures of speech because their role demands that they speak so much. More words mean more errors. As we grow accustomed to public speaking, we can become careless. When asked to offer opinions, we tend to comply, even if we have scant qualifications and little factual basis. Humour is a dangerous gift. It pleases the crowd, but can easily wound or mislead. Too many laughs come at someone else’s expense…”
Who can tame the tongue? Every species of beast and bird and reptile and sea creature can be tamed but no one can tame the tongue. Thanks be to God we’re not left to our own devices. Any success we have in taming our own tongues is a gift from God. This is why we pray continually for wisdom. “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. We’re reminded here of blessing, of the Father of lights from whom comes every good gift, every perfect gift. May our words be a reflection of that goodness. May God give us eyes to see that everyone we come into contact with as we go through our days is made in the likeness of and loved by God.
I’ve said that we’re all called to be teachers in some way, and someone has said that “the perfect teacher is one whose love shapes how he or she teaches and speaks of others.”
This is the way of wisdom from above. The way that reflects the way of God. At the end of the chapter, James lays out two ways, as is his habit. Wisdom from above on one side. There’s no middle ground as far as James is concerned. On the other side is wisdom that is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. Reflective of the liar. Wisdom that says it’s all about you and your getting ahead, and if that comes at the expense of others then so be it. We’re going to talk more about these two ways in two weeks. This type of wisdom results in envy and selfish ambition and falseness. It’s contentious. It’s my way. It results in disorder and wickedness of every kind.
Wisdom from above is not about how to succeed in business without really trying, or what it means to be winning or living like a boss or the myriad ways in which we might think of the good life. Wisdom from above, the good life, is living in loving communion with God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit of God. Living in loving communion with our neighbour who has been made in the likeness of and is loved by God. Living in loving communion with all of God’s good creation which praises God and makes God known and is loved by God. And so we pray “Lord give us wisdom from above.” Never doubting that God is able to answer that prayer.
What does it mean to live the good life? How might we truly be able to say, “Life is good”? James says, “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” What does this wisdom from above look like? “But the wisdom from above is first pure (not double-minded or double hearted or double-tongued), then peaceable (in that shalom way of wholeness, contentment, security), gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. A congruence between our faith and words and deeds. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
Which makes sense, as we’ve been adopted into the family through the one called the Prince of Peace. What causes envy and ambition that looks to trample others to get what we want if not a combination of pride and fear? Death itself has been defeated by our Prince of Peace beloved brothers and sisters. What in the world do we have to fear? There’s a great line in Phil 4:5 where Paul writes “Let your gentleness be known to all. The Lord is near.” Someone has said “We have from the gospel an intrinsic modesty and mellowness that is one of the greatest marks of discipleship…When people around us see that stable and down-to-earth humility that comes from the gospel, they are themselves quieted and slowed down long enough to learn the source of hope. All of this is possible because the Lord is nearby.”
Studying for today, I was reminded of the great scene in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe which comes after Aslan is resurrected after that horrible scene at the stone table, and Susan and Lucy in tears and in despair. Aslan appears before them and tells them how death has been turned back. Death and despair are defeated. He starts jumping around as the girls chase him, then he gives a great roar and takes the girls on his back. He carries them along on his back. Let your gentleness be known to all. The Lord is near, so near that we’re travelling along on our Lord’s back. The way of wisdom. May this way be marked with the same gentleness in each and every one of us.