Guildford United Reformed Church

83 Portsmouth Road, Guildford, Surrey GU2 4BS


Tongues of Fire

James 3: 1-12

Our theme – Tongues of Fire – comes from the epistle of James.

James writes for Church communities populated by Jewish people as distinct from Paul’s letters to churches in the Greek and Roman cultural areas. He even addresses it ‘to the twelve tribes dispersed around the world’ (that is the then known world, of course). This means that he assumes a comprehensive knowledge among his readers of the Old Testament – or what, in these politically correct days, we are supposed to call the Hebrew Scriptures. He could, therefore, expect that Proverbs chapter 1 would be familiar. This, in one version of the Bible, is headed ‘Advice to the reader’ and bemoans the way in which people do not listen to wisdom. They are advised to ‘attend their father’s instruction and not to reject their mother’s teaching. This theme is repeated many times in later chapters:

My son, attend to my wisdom and listen with care to my counsel so that you may preserve discretion and your lips safeguard knowledge

Looking at this from the other side rather implies that those of us who are parents (and possibly grandparents) have the responsibility only to pass on to our offspring those ideas which will provide a sound basis for their future lives. Unfortunately we don’t all have Solomon’s wisdom! Perhaps, too, in these days we do not have our words regarded as having the authority of law by the younger members of the family.

I had not remembered, from church services in my younger days, hearing the first verse of chapter 3 of James’ epistle although I must surely have done so. Having spent most of my working life in a university, it was really a bit too late to hear ‘not many of you should be teachers … for you may be certain you will face severer judgement’. I wonder if that statement accords with the experience of any teachers and former teachers in our congregation here! More of you, though, will have experienced the joys of parenthood which, as that verse in Proverbs recognises, certainly involves a considerable teaching function. Those who have not been teachers in the professional sense have all been at school at some time in their lives. So we can all recognise that teaching, like parenthood, carries tremendous responsibilities. For the most part those who are pupils or students tend to accept that what the teacher says is true and that places a great burden on the conscientious teacher. How easy it is to let slip an unfortunate phrase or to adopt an attitude that creates the wrong impression. I am sure we have all said things on the spur of the moment which would have been better unsaid. We may even have said something in the genuine belief that it was helpful but, because we didn’t think about our listener’s sensitivities, it came over as offensive. This may well be remembered long after our words of wisdom are forgotten. Remember Anthony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: ‘The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones’. Surely this is the same thought that James explains with one of the metaphors he uses to impress his message on those listening to him. ‘What a vast amount of timber can be set ablaze by the tiniest spark!’ (If anyone was in London the Sunday before last you may have witnessed this when the model of the 17th Century City was set ablaze to remember the Great Fire of London.) James adds:

and the tongue is a fire

We are all aware of occasions, now that these events are repeated on radio, television and film, when the words of one person have stirred up vast numbers of people – for good or evil. Famous speeches of Winston Churchill in WW2, Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’, Hitler’s Nuremburg Rallies of the 1930’s. We can see how on one hand encouragement and inspiration can offer people new hope, driving them on to achieve great things while immeasurable harm can ensue when the charismatic speaker uses his or her powers for the wrong purpose.

James certainly sees these two diametrically-opposed outcomes of the way we use the power of speech. He warns against hypocrisy in our use of the tongue – ‘We use it to praise our Lord and Father, then we use it to invoke curses on our fellow men, though they are made in God’s likeness.’ He says there is no place for this contradiction:

Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?

This, too, is reflected in Proverbs (15 v4) – ‘A soothing word is a tree of life but a mischievous tongue breaks the spirit’. The ways in which Jesus spoke to those who followed his ministry were often not great rousing orations. A while back a fellow lay preacher in my church put a book – ‘The Way of Wisdom’ – into my hands. In this anthology a quotation from Kahlil Gilbran’s book ‘Jesus the Son of Man’ struck me as relevant to today’s theme. He says ‘The Greek and Roman orators spoke to their listeners of life as it seemed to the mind. The Nazarene spoke of a longing that lodged in the heart. They saw life with eyes only a little clearer than yours or mine. He saw life in the light of God. I often think that he spoke to the crowd as a mountain would speak to a plain.’ The Pope in a speech a few years ago raised the whole question of the importance of reason in religion. There is an enormous field to explore here but limited time does not allow following up that ‘aside’ to today’s theme. Potentially, though none of us is likely to have the persuasive powers of the great speech-makers, we all have the ability to use our words for either good or evil. So should we say nothing for fear of saying the wrong thing? Or should we only utter bland comments which cannot offend anyone?

James is sometimes said to concentrate on good works in contrast to Paul’s emphasis on justification through faith. But true faith is demonstrated by all believers’ trying to follow the pattern set by Jesus in the way they act. If that is the pattern we are trying to follow, surely this involves speaking the truth as we understand that it has been given to us – not keeping silent in case we say the wrong thing. What we need is described in the later part of James’ chapter 3 – ‘ … the wisdom from above is in the first place pure and then peace-loving, considerate and open-minded; it is straightforward and sincere … Peace is the seed-bed of righteousness and the peace-makers will reap its harvest.’
On this Peacemaking Sunday we have this special thought to encourage us to play our part in bringing the peace we enjoy to others.