James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38
We have once again entered the season of bumper stickers. I read every one and agree with very few. That sort of makes them a bit dangerous. If you are like me I drive a little too close to the car in front of me just to read the pithy statement concerning our upcoming election. I am afraid the accident rate on 151 is going to increase as we get incensed by the flawed political views of our fellow travelers.
It is amazing to me what one can say, or fail to say, in eight words or less. Bumper sticker language is simplistic, aimed at raising our blood pressure and seldom passes the litmus test demanded of good judgment. I believe wisdom evolves learning how to think carefully and act virtuously in complex situations where one is tempted to think simplistically and act recklessly. Or as the writer of James so eloquently wrote, “A great forest is so easily set ablaze by a small fire such as the tongue.
In the scripture we studied last week, the writer of James speaks about our actions as a response to faith. Remember the key verse, “Be you doers of the word and not hearers only.” In this third chapter James wants to concentrate on how we speak a word about The Word.
James begins with some obvious observations. First, language is powerful. Being a political junkie I watched both conventions. Many words were spoken. In fact the same words were spoken, over and over and over again. But what will be remembered are two distinctly different but equally powerful moments. At the Republican Convention, Clint Eastwood stole the show talking to a chair. At the Democratic Convention Bill Clinton brought the house down with one word, “Arithmetic”. Both were classic moments which will be remembered long after the 2012 campaign is forgotten.
Second, language can be a blessing. There are words that we use that lift the spirits of others. When a child comes home after a bitter defeat on the field of competition the words we choose go a long way in restoring the confidence of our off- spring. When we are sitting with someone in a moment of crisis, the words we select can begin the healing process. When our choir sings, it is not just the melody that touches our heart. When I say “The Lord be with you,” and you respond, “And also with you,” this holy place is embraced by a love that is almost beyond human understanding. A simple exchange of words can lift a heart and create a sacred moment.
Unfortunately while our words can evoke a blessing, they can more easily be a curse. In the Jewish wisdom literature it is written, “Honor and dishonor come from speaking. The tongues of mortals may be their downfall. Do not lay traps with your tongue.” (Sirach 5:13-14) Who here has not fallen the victim of that idle chatter we call gossip? It is so much fun to talk about others. Once we start, we are like a horse without a bridle. Our mouth runs through the pasture of our reckless imagination forgetting the lies we speak become truth when passed to the ears of others.
James was well aware of this struggle between the veracity and the fraudulence of the spoken word. James proclaims when the word spoken is the truth, it announces a sacred reality which is vocalized in the midst of a desolate land left bankrupt by empty promises and broken dreams. But when the word is less than the truth, or when the word is only what we care to hear, the opportunity for a holy moment is lost amidst the more familiar phrases that bombard our lethargic minds. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “To often the church is guilty of selling the gospel in glib speech, making what is difficult sound easy, or what is mysterious sound plain.”
What words are you wiling to offer concerning your faith? Gracious we talk about everything else. What week will the leaves hit their peak? Do you think the Skins will win today? If I am holding 16 points and a five card minor suit what should I bid? Who do you think Jesus was? I can instantly get a discussion on the weather, football or bridge, but what about a conversation about Jesus? That is dangerous stuff and I confess I understand your reluctance. One of the main reasons I hate to go for a haircut is because when I sit down the first question the stylist asks is what I do for a living. If I say I am a minister they get nervous…… and make mistakes…….and fix the mistakes……but make more mistakes and try to fix those mistakes so that by the time they finish they are filled with guilt and I have no hair. So I just tell them I am a counselor and I spend the next twenty minutes listening to their problems.
Talking about faith is hard. Can you can imagine the fear that must have swept over the disciples when Jesus said, “Who do you say that I am?” Very quickly the disciples reached for everyone’s our favorite pronoun when it comes to being indecisive. “THEY say you are Moses. THEY say you are Elijah.”
The wonderful thing about “they” saying it is the answer requires no commitment on our part. Third person language is safe; it places space between us and the inquisitor. But Jesus didn’t have much use for third person responses. He asked a second time, “Who do YOU say that I am?”
I imagine the disciples looked at each other sheepishly. John said to Bartholomew, “Didn’t we cover this last week?” Matthew looked away hoping Jesus eyes wouldn’t meet his. James and Andrew punched Peter and whispered, “Say something or he will start preaching again.” So Peter said the first thing that came to his mind, “You are the Messiah.” And all the disciples applauded and secretly wished they had come up with that answer. I imagine Jesus said to them, “You are right, only I suspect you have no idea why right you are.”
A word, a single word, “messiah”. For the disciples it was a word that signified greatness and power. It was a word that brought back memories of the golden age of Israel. It was a word that meant Jesus was the personification of King David. Messiah meant that God was going to step forth, God was going to sweep Rome out of Jerusalem, God was going to return creation to its rightly order. It was a word of civil restoration.
But the word had a second meaning. Instead of the restoration of a past order it called for the recreation of a new order. Instead of power and glory it called for suffering. Instead of a royal throne it called for a rugged cross. Instead death to the Romans it promised death to the messiah. Instead of life reinstated it called for life resurrected. This time Peter didn’t have to be prompted to speak. “Jesus, take it easy. Let’s discuss this. We didn’t sign up just to watch you die. Isn’t there an easier, less complicated way to do this? Can’t we find some middle ground that doesn’t involve language which is way over the top? Let’s step back, take a deep breath and be realistic.”
Jesus looked at Peter, he looked at the other disciples, and I suspect he looked at us, then quietly said, “If you want to become my follower, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” That is strong language, scandalous language that can both bless and curse us. It is bold, challenging language. But most of all it is fundamental language that not only defines who Jesus is, but points to a clearer understanding of who we might become.
Calvin wrote, “We are not our own, we are God’s, therefore let God’s wisdom and words preside in all our actions. We are not our own, we are God’s. With God as our legitimate end, let every part of our life be directed toward that which is holy.”
Who do you say that Jesus is?
Perhaps Jesus is the one that offers light for your darkness.
Perhaps Jesus offers courage for your fear.
Perhaps Jesus offers hope for your despair,
or peace for your turmoil,
or strength for your weakness,
or wisdom for your confusion,
or forgiveness for your sins.
Or perhaps Jesus offers all or none of the above.
Who do you say that Jesus is?
Who do you say that you are?
Be careful how you answer. Someone, perhaps everyone is listening. Speak a word of wisdom; speak a word of hope; speak a word grace. Speak from your heart and not from the back of your bumper. Speak with a tongue that lights the way rather than starts a fire. Amen.