Mind your language!

St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 28th July 2013

Readings – Proverbs 12:14-25; Matthew 14:1-12

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me”. That’s a saying we’ve all heard at one time or another, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across anyone who actually believes it’s true. Words matter, big time. They have the power to shape and influence our whole lives for better or for worse.

When Albert Einstein was about 10 years old, a teacher said to him, “You’ll never amount to very much”. Of course, that teacher was wrong and while Einstein’s name has gone down in history, his teacher name has long since been forgotten. But for many people what others have said often leaves a deep and lasting impact, indeed I am aware that some people here today may be struggling with the words spoken to them many years previously. To take a small example: when I was young, I was constantly told I was clumsy, and yes, maybe I am. But when you hear something like that too often, you start to believe that defines who you are – so when you are asked to something practical you say to yourself, “No I can’t do that. I’m too clumsy”.

Words matter, and it’s not just the words spoken to us. Again, I expect some people here today can think of words they have spoken many years previously which they bitterly regret. Rather like toothpaste squeezed out of a tube, once they have escaped your lips you can’t take them back, and you have to live with the consequences.

A classic example occurs in our gospel reading this morning. Here is Herod at one of his famous and presumably rather drunken birthday parties. His stepdaughter dances for him and he likes what he sees. In fact he likes what he sees so much that he rashly promises to give her whatever she asks for, in full hearing of all those present. You can kind of guess he’s asking for trouble, and yep, sure enough, that’s what he gets as the crafty girl asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod does not want to kill John, and everyone can see he’s distressed, but he cannot back down. Why? As verse 9 puts it – because of his oaths and his dinner guests. And although I don’t think we’ve ever been involved in someone’s execution, I guess all of us can remember times when we have opened our mouths and, so to speak, put our foot in it.

Over the past few weeks we’ve been thinking a lot about faith being like a seed planted in our lives. We’ve thought how our faith needs to take root, to grow and in the fullness of time bear fruit. And while it’s been a very helpful picture, maybe some of us are still perhaps slightly unclear what we actually mean when we talk about fruit. Well, what I want to suggest this morning that one way the fruit of faith can be seen is in the words we use. After all, no matter how much good a believer does for other people, or how many hours they spend in praise and worship, if they still swear like a trooper or gossip or tell lies, then they can hardly be considered a good example of the Christian faith.

Our reading from Proverbs this morning begins with this verse: From the fruit of his lips a man is filled with good things as surely as the work of his hands rewards him. If what comes out of our mouth dishonours the God we claim to worship, then we can hardly expect to be blessed. But if our lips utter love and truth and goodness, then this verse promises us blessing, just as real as the work of our hands. That’s why it’s so important to preach and teach about how we speak, and yet sadly, it’s a subject we all too often fail to talk about. Maybe it’s because we all struggle in this area, maybe it’s because it is a painful subject for so many people.

Yet unless we talk about words and how we use them we are saying the Christian faith has little to teach on the subject. And nothing could be further from the truth. The book of Proverbs is packed full of direct, practical teaching about words. I have chosen one particular passage but I could have picked out any number of verses on this topic.

So without any further ado, let’s turn to our reading from our Proverbs, and I’d like to pick out three particular qualities that a wise or prudent person will show in his or speech:

And the first of these is restraint.

Verse 15: The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice. Because before speaking comes, of course, listening. Someone once said you have two ears and one mouth, so you would do well to listen twice as much as you speak. I don’t know if that’s necessarily right, but I do know we could all do with listening more. After all, in the rush and busyness of our modern lives, the one thing we don’t tend to do that well is to make the space and the time to really listen, either to God, or to other people. We are constantly rushing on to the next appointment, or getting the next job done that’s on the list.

Listening involves a moment of stillness, of not just hearing, but weighing up what you hear, and making sure you’ve understood what’s being said. And if we as Christians don’t make the time to listen, then we’re sending out a subtle message about how much or indeed how little we really value the person who’s speaking. The one thing you notice about Jesus as he encountered so many people going round in his ministry was that he listened – even when busy, even when faced with distractions, even when tired. If we’re serious about being wise in God’s eyes we have to learn to listen.

Listening is about restraining our tendency to rush on, to follow our own paths without heeding what anyone else is saying. And with listening also comes restraint when we open our mouths. Verse 16: A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult. Not because the prudent man simply wants a quiet life, or pretends that words do not hurt, but because he knows that what comes out of your mouth in the heat of the moment is often something you bitterly regret. There is the time for an honest rebuke, and for speaking the truth, but rarely is it when you are personally involved. Even just a moment considering what the Lord wants you to say and, just as importantly, how you are going to say it, can make all the difference.

As verse 23 puts it: A prudent man keeps his knowledge to himself, but the heart of fools blurts out folly. Because what you say in the heat of the moment really does show what’s in your heart. And if your heart is anything like mine, it has a tendency to want to get even, to pay back the wrong you feel has been done, to justify yourself. That’s why restraint is just so important. It is not easy. It’s not something you can learn overnight. But if we can learn to listen and to hold our tongue we can at least show that God is at work in our lives, and we are starting to work out just what it means to follow Jesus.

So the wise man shows restraint. He also shows honesty:

Verse 17: A truthful witness gives honest testimony, but a false witness tells lies. Now I realise this is something we all know in theory. Most, if not, all of us have been brought up to tell the truth and you certainly don’t need to be a Christian to believe the truth is important. And yet sometimes even the most honest person may be tempted sometimes not to play it straight. Maybe telling the truth will reflect badly on you and you don’t want to be embarrassed. Maybe you want to gain somebody else’s approval or friendship so you say what you think they’d like to hear. Maybe you alone know what really happened and you like to think you can keep it secret.

For whatever reason, there are many, many ways in which we avoid saying the things we ought to say. We tend to justify our behaviour with clever excuses. We are not exactly lying, we are just being “economical with the truth”. We are not telling an outright whopper, we are merely telling a “little white lie” – as if lies came in many different shapes and colours. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that the Bible doesn’t grade lies, or recognise such a thing as half-truths. If something is not true, then it is not true, no matter what spin we put upon it.

And if something is not true, then ultimately it will be exposed for what it is. That’s what Proverbs 12:19 means when it says: Truthful lips endure for ever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment. Of course, there are some people who do manage to carry their secrets to the grave, and as they do so, they may well feel that they have got away with it – whatever that may be. Yet the Christian faith teaches us that one day all of us will stand before the throne of God, and at that point there will be no longer any lies or secrets.

So if there is anyone here today who is carrying around in their hearts some great untruth or deceit, can I humbly ask you to take the opportunity today to come clean? Ultimately the truth will out, whether in this life or the next, and it is far better that we deal with it when we can. As we read a few verses on in verse 22, The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in men who are truthful. And if the Lord detests something we better make sure it’s something we avoid at all costs. Do you want the Lord delight in you? Then learn to love the truth. It really is as simple as that.

Of course there is a difference between honesty and downright bluntness and rudeness. Yes, Scripture does tell us to speak the truth, but it also tells us to speak the truth in love. And ideally, whenever we speak, we should always consider what effect our words will have on the person we are talking to. For the teacher who talked to the young Albert Einstein his words might just have been a throwaway remark, maybe the sort of thing he said to many a boy who didn’t quite make the grade, and he never gave it a second thought. But clearly Einstein remembered what was said and carried it on into adult life.

Thirdly, the wise man is loving.

As it says in Proverbs 12:18: Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. And maybe there’s a particular application of this proverb in today’s high-tech digital age. Because it seems to me that with all these modern forms of communication it is easier than ever to say the first thing that comes to mind. You receive a text; you automatically hit the reply key. Someone posts on Facebook; you instantly post back. An e-mail drops into your inbox; you immediately start typing a response. The online world is full of reckless words posted in haste, and who knows what effect they may have on the people who receive them? You only have to know a little bit about teenagers to know how widespread and destructive is this modern plague called cyber-bullying.

But as we have seen, a wise man listens, or at least takes time and trouble to read exactly what’s in front of him. He wants to be honest, but he also wants to be loving. And so instead of posting the first thing that pops into his head, he or she thinks and prays about what is right and good for the other person to hear. Maybe he goes off and makes a cup of tea first, or goes for a short walk, just to gather his thoughts. The wise man shows restraint; the wise man is honest; and the wise man is loving.

What does that mean in practice? Verse 20: There is deceit in the hearts of those who plot evil, but joy for those who promote peace. Because as Jesus Himself taught on the Sermon on the Mount God blesses those who make peace. And by peace we don’t just mean peace in the sense of bringing conflict to an end, although that is massively important. The word here is “shalom” which is about wholeness and healing in its wisest sense. You see, ultimately the wise man is someone who is in a living and growing relationship with the Lord, and whose greatest desire for others to come and know the Lord for themselves. So, as far it lies in his power, he makes every effort to make his speech winsome, and attractive. He wants the words he uses to show genuine Christ-like care and compassion, and he wants to show the joy that comes that doing God’s will in his life.

The wise man shows restraint; the wise man is honest; and the wise man is loving. And I guess very little of what I have said this morning is particularly hard to understand. There is much in the book of Proverbs which might be thought of as simple common sense. We know we shouldn’t open our mouth without first engaging our brain. We know we should tell the truth. We know we should seek the good of others. And yet somehow this teaching can be some of the hardest in Scripture to put into practice. It’s an area where we could all do better, myself included.

Which is why, ultimately, the wise man (or woman) is one who is filled and guided by the power of the Holy Spirit. Because as Jesus said in Matt 12:34: out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks and if we are going to put this teaching into practice we need to allow the Holy Spirit to touch and change the desires and longings of our hearts. So today may I urge you to find the space and time to go away and weigh up this teaching we have heard today, and really listen to what the Lord is saying? Be honest with God about the areas where you fall short. And ask for a fresh touch of God’s love to cleanse, renew and restore you, so with a new heart you may speak words that bring life and healing and peace. To the glory of God’s name. Amen. 

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