17th Sunday after Pentecost – B (Proper 19) LSB #870 tune
Text – James 3:8
But no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
A RESTLESS EVIL
You’ve heard these powerful words. You may have spoken them yourself. How would you describe their power? They have the ability to cover over many of life’s most awkward moments. Like the time you gave someone a gift, & the moment they opened it you knew it was something they did not appreciate.
Yet, maybe they were still gracious enough to say these words: “It’s the thought that counts.” Those magic words have a way of covering our shame & embarrassment. They enable us to see, behind the outward intention, to the love & the care that lie within. They take our emotions off of the superficial things of life & help us to focus on what really is important.
James says much the same thing in his letter to the church at Jerusalem. He asks his readers to look at their spiritual lives & know, “It is the thought that counts.” However, as James writes his letter, he’s not working to cover over any of life’s awkward moments. In fact, his purpose is to uncover them, to lay bare the evil that lives within our souls.
And for that reason the letter of James makes us uncomfortable. He intentionally opens our eyes to the thoughts that often lurk behind our words & our deeds. Those thoughts are painful to consider:
“[The tongue] is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord & Father, & with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing & cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:8b-10 ESV)
“It’s the thought that counts,” like many things in life cuts both ways. Sometimes those thoughts are good & at other times they’re evil. James wants us to consider our actions both 1) in relationship to the world around us & 2) in relationship to God. When James thinks of the life of Christians in the world, he sees a field of battle. This struggle arises from an overestimation of ourselves. In 4:6 James identifies that root sin as pride. Thinking we deserve more than we have, we’re envious of what others have been given, so we work to achieve more for ourselves.
The housing crash & recession that occurred ten years ago stemmed partly from this very problem – envy of what others had. Marketing often uses the envious nature in us so that we unduly reflect upon what we have, what we want & what we can do to get more. It’s the thought that counts, & those thoughts are too often the distorted ambitions of a sinful soul.
Those distorted ambitions turn the world into a field of battle. They turn our relationship to God into a self-help religion. For example, what are the thoughts behind our prayers? Don’t our prayers often end up being the manner in which we rub the magic lantern so the genie pops out in order to grant our three wishes?
Compare how much time you spend in prayer thanking Him for things versus how much time you spend asking for things. Isn’t it true that envy, pride & selfish ambition affect us even in our conversations with God? And when our prayers are not answered in the way we like, don’t we suffer frustration & tend to drift away from our heavenly Father?
Isn’t it far easier to come up with a list of the things we want as compared to the things that our Lord has already given us? In the reading from the book of James we are challenged to recognize that it is the thought that counts, & that Word of God reveals how our thoughts can turn the world into a field of battle just as they turn our God & our religion into a magic lantern.
Meditation on the book of James can make us feel uncomfortable. However, in all our thinking, in all our questions, there’s one thing we never could have conceived of – what is going on in the heart & mind of Yahweh. In Isaiah, God speaks to His people, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways & my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9 ESV) Yes, James does ask us to consider our thoughts this morning, yet, even more important to him is that we stop for a moment & hear the thoughts of our Creator. His thoughts are the ones that count.
James longs for us to ponder the wisdom of God, hidden for ages & now known fully among us in Christ. He is wisdom. He comes from above. He has worked salvation among us. He is the one who stills the restless evil; so we can be still & know that He is God. (Psalm 46:10) Jesus is the thought, the word & the deed that counts.
God’s wisdom is intimately bound up with His love for fallen creatures that need to be rescued. When we sin & deserve nothing but punishment, when our tongue reveals the restless evil within, Jesus continues to think of you & me in love. For the joy of that love, set before Him, He endured the cross. (Hebrews 12:2)
In Christ we see God’s wisdom from above working out our redemption. Jesus is submissive to His Father’s will. The Holy Trinity uses its wisdom to oppose our pride & to give grace to the humble. As thoughts lead to deeds, God’s thoughts regarding His fallen creatures led to action from Christmas to Good Friday to Easter morning.
Yahweh put His thought into words, the Word, entering our fallen world & taking our sins upon Himself in Jesus. It is our Lord’s thought that counts, for His thinking & acting save us, not only from the restless evil of the tongue, but from hell itself. When we’re frightened by how easily our lives can be soiled by thoughts of pride, envy & ambition, Jesus washes us clean.
We proclaim that very work of Jesus right here in this place, through the Word & water & bread & wine. Today, Yahweh sees the perfect thoughts of Jesus in the place of your own sinful thoughts. The consequences of that are far reaching! Your heavenly Creator’s thoughts will follow you all week. His thoughts & actions for you bring about a marvelous change. They change your relationship with God. No longer do we pray hoping to get God on our side; He is already thinking of us before we pray. Instead, through prayer we humbly turn our hearts to God asking that His kingdom would come & His will would be done among us.
Instead of seeing God as a magic lantern that we use to accomplish our will, we humbly confess Him to be the light of the world, a lamp unto our feet & a light unto our path. The Good News points to His work for us, & then to our life for Him.
The thoughts of God change our relationship to the people around us. Yes, we enter a world that remains a field of battle, a place of envy & ambition. Advertising has not changed & people have not stopped wanting to get ahead just because we went to church. But leaving here, we enter that world with a different vision.
In God’s hands this world is not a field for battle but a field for growth. It is still a world that Yahweh created: a fertile ground ready for planting & a field ready for harvest. Our life in this world is a creative life empowered by the thoughts of God’s Spirit as we share the wisdom from above. You see, it is the thought that counts – God’s thought, the Good News of Jesus.
God’s thought has taken a fallen world & turned it into His harvest field. He takes great pleasure in seeing the fruit that our lives yield as our tongue now sings praise to Him. About the most important issue in life, where we spend eternity, the thoughts of Jesus count far more than our thoughts. Be still, accept the rest that He offers, from the restless evil, & go in peace. Amen.
Now that the daylight fills the sky, we lift our hearts to God on high, that He, in all we do or say, would keep us free from harm today; would guard our hearts & tongues from strife; from anger’s din would shield our life; from evil sights would turn our eyes, & close our ears to vanities. So we, when this new day is gone & night in turn is drawing on, with conscience by the world unstained shall praise His name for victory gained. Amen. LSB 870:1-3.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet