This sermon is a revision of the one that I preached. It has
been revised for additional clarity.
This morning, we are talking about receiving and using our voice. As children, most of us began to babble about the time we were six months old. We said our first words between ten and 15 months. By the time we were 18 months old, most of us had picked up enough words to combine them into simple sentences. I am pretty sure I looked at my mother and said, “Mama, hungry!” My son looked at the big steak on my plate and the hot dog he was eating, and then he looked at me, held up a finger and said, “Daddy, share!” And my grandson looked at his mother and said, “Mama, phone!”
The power of speech is a wonderful thing, but the power of speech makes it very easy for us to sin. Let me give a simple example.
Do you remember the first time you ever heard someone curse? I remember it vividly. It was 1956. I had just moved from Arcadia Elementary in Davidson County to South Park Elementary in Winston-Salem. I was in second grade and my class was at recess when my new friend Don bent over a water fountain, sprayed himself in the face, and said, “Damn! What the hell is the matter with this thing?” Today this language is tame, but, at the time, coming from the mouth of my new friend it hit me like a bucket of ice water. That said, I am ashamed to say my own children heard their first profanity well before 2nd grade and a lot closer to home. I hope it was on TV, but I fear not.
Or what about this? Do you remember the first time someone cursed you? I don’t remember the first time someone cursed me, I am too old for that, but I remember the last time. A few days ago, I was traveling west on Salem Parkway when a man passed me, pulled into my lane, and slowed down until both of us were doing 10 mph below the speed limit. Immediately, I repassed him. When I did, for no reason I can discern, he took both hands off his steering wheel and flipped me an ”obscene gesture.” I think he might have been in one of those new self-driving trucks. If so, those trucks are just the thing for people who like to talk with their hands.
Now, in case you are wondering, I don’t make obscene gestures at people while I am driving, mostly because I am a Christian, but also because I am afraid that someone might shoot me. If a driver is slowing traffic while talking on the phone, and Elayne is with me, I say, “Elayne, that driver is tedious.” And I a driver blows by me 15 or 20 MPH above the speed limit, I say, “Elayne, that driver needs prayer.” And I pray, “O, Lord, our Lord, send that driver a trooper!” If a driver does something dangerous and rude such as cutting me off from behind before I can make a lane change, I utter an expletive or two. I don’t want to do this, but as St. Paul said in Romans 7, “I do the very thing I hate.”
Why is it that we do the thing that we hate? Some say it is because our conversion is not yet finished. We have developed Christian actions, but we have not yet developed Christian reactions. The tongue is particularly hard to control. In James 3:8-10 the apostle writes:
Every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.
Indeed, it ought not, for God has given us a tongue for the express purpose of praising him. In
Luke 19, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt, the foal of an ass, he deliberately performed an action that spoke louder than words ever could. And when the people of Jerusalem saw him, they remembered the prophecy of Zechariah, “Rejoice…Shout aloud… Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass.” And they all began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice, saying, “Hosanna! “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Likewise, in Philippians 2, the apostle remembers the whole movement of the Son of God from the heights of heaven to the depths of despair and back to the heights. He writes of him who:
…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The name that the LORD bestows upon Jesus is His own. And in Romans 10, Paul says that it is our confession of Jesus that delivers us from sin and death and restores us to fellowship with God. He writes:
“‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we preach); because if you confess with your lips that ‘Jesus is Lord!’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
God wants to move us to praise and confession, but God does not stop with that. In Isaiah 50, the prophet inspires our next step when he writes:
“The Lord has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word, them that are weary.”
We know the power of words. Words rebuke us, challenge us, direct us, transform us, sustain us when we are weary, and empower us. Words move us to laughter and tears and inspire us to do justice, love mercy, and spend our time, talent, and treasure in the service of the God who calls us all to Himself
We know how powerful words are, but what does it mean to have the tongue of those who are taught? I think it means that we spend more time listening than we do speaking. Isaiah practiced at least four modes of listening.
First, we must listen to God. Isaiah said, “Morning by morning (the Lord) wakens…my ear to hear as those who are taught.” I wonder if Isaiah was an old man when he wrote this. Old men often wake up and get up at night. Some use this time to establish a listening post. We turn our thoughts toward God and toward the people with whom we share our world. Naturally, many women who are wakeful do likewise.
Second, we must listen to the teachers that God puts in our way. Perhaps you will remember how in 1st Kings 19, the prophet Elijah was looking for a successor when he saw Elisha walking along the road driving a dozen oxen. Elijah approached Elisha from behind and cast his mantel over the younger man. Like the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, this act spoke louder than words. Thereafter, every time Elijah sought to leave Elisha behind, Elisha refused to let it happen. Over and over again he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”
Those who want “to have the tongue of those who are taught” listen to their teachers until they are called to step out on their own in obedience to God.
Jesus said, “The disciple is not above his master.” That is a matter of honor. However, where human beings are concerned, the disciple can often see further down the road than the master. This is true for two reasons. First, figuratively speaking, the disciple stands upon the shoulders of his master and builds upon the master’s teaching. Second, the disciple is often younger than the master, will lives, and has to face situations that the master never imagined.
I regard the apostles, prophets, and teachers of the New Testament as my teachers; but I know God has called the present generation to face situations they never anticipated. No wonder the Apostle Peter said that the prophets of old were serving not themselves, but “us” when they spoke of the suffering of Christ and his subsequent glory. (1st Peter 1:11,12) No wonder Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would “guide (us) into all the truth.” (John 16:13)
It is hard for a disciple to go beyond what we are taught, but this is the very essence of the Gospel. What if Jesus, Peter, and Paul had been content to stay on the path that Moses walked? The answer, of course, is that there would be no gospel, and we would still be seeking salvation under the law.
Third, we must listen to the testimony of those to whom God sends us. Isaiah did this. He was constantly in dialogue with the people of Israel. And perhaps you will recall how, when God sent Ezekiel to speak to the exiles in Babylon before Ezekiel said the first word to the people, he sat “overwhelmed among them” for seven days. If we want the tongue of those who taught, we must listen to the testimony of those to whom God sends us. My professor of preaching used to tell us that we ought to spend an hour with members of our congregation for every minute we spend preaching the Sunday sermon. The late Br. Henry May confirmed this rule for me when he told me he tried to preach twenty-minute sermons and make twenty significant contacts every week. We all need to listen to the people we serve. In his book, Service Evangelism, the late Richard Stoll Armstrong said that listening is the first and greatest service that person can perform for another.
Finally, if we want the tongue of one who is taught, we must listen to those who oppose us. The prophet Isaiah listened to God, to his teachers, like Moses, to the people he served, and to his enemies. In verse 6 of the passage before us the prophet writes, “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from shame and spitting.”
If we want the tongue of those who taught, we must listen to those who oppose us. His contemporaries said that Count Zinzendorf spent as much time reading those who opposed the Christian faith as he did reading those who supported and defended the Christian faith. Over the years, I have tried to do likewise. I was still here at Fries on my first tour when I discovered Bertrand Russell’s book, “Why I am Not a Christian.” Russell hit me right between the eyes when said, “My problem is not so much with the man Jesus, but with Christians.” He said, “You say and say, but you do not do.” Ouch! In the same way, during a 3-month sabbatical in 2009, I spent time reading books by Bishop Shelby Spong and other members of the Jesus Seminar. Many of them think that Jesus is nothing more than a great teacher who was put on a pedestal he never desired. I read their books because I knew that if I could not face the deepest doubts and deepest doubters—whether inside or outside the church, I could not, with integrity, continue to face the people I served.
At present, I am trying to get ready to go to our provincial synod. I expect that at synod, we will hear a great deal from the people calling themselves Concerned Moravians. Indeed, they have already compiled a thick book of materials and mailed it around the province and beyond. All of the authors are sincere—and some of what they say is quite edifying, but I think that some of what they say is in error and contrary to our Moravian understanding of Scripture.
So, if the occasion arises, I will say to them what I once said to my dear friend and bishop, the late Br. Bishop Robert Iobst. Br. Bob said some things at the consecration of a presbyter that we so far out in left-field that I went to him and said, “I love you Bishop Bob, but if I had to believe as you do, I could no longer be a Christian.” To his credit, Br. Bishop Iobst understood my position and thanked me for understanding his. We agreed that our disagreement was over “non-essentials.” For more than twenty years, he lived on the campus of the church I served for more than thirty years. I am sure he did not always agree with me, but he never did anything to undermine what I was doing as the pastor there. And we always agreed on at least one thing: Jesus is the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, the King, the Son of God who came to us in the name of the LORD. He is the one who died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures and then rose again to give us a future and a hope. We agreed on more, but this was enough. Indeed, if we did not say at least this, and say it in unison, the stones* themselves would cry out.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.
*Note: Stones do speak, even tody. I have a dear friend who has a master’s degree in geology. He worked for the oil companies trying to find oil, then he worked for companies dedicated to protecting and cleaning up our environment. He once told me he wished to join a certain Moravian church but thought he probably should not because, as he said, “I have seen evidence of evolution in the course of doing my work.” I told him that according to Scripture, God speaks to us in two ways: God speaks in the Special Revelation to which the Scripture bears witness that begins in creation, continues through the call of Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets, and reaches its apex in the life, death, resurrection, glorification, and rule of Jesus the Christ. God also speaks to us in the Revelation in Nature, as when the Psalmist declares “the heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork,” and St. Paul says, “I see in my own members another law at work.” I told him that each of the two types of revelation informs the other but does not rule it out! I also told him that I too believed in evolution—as a method of creation but regarded it as one of the “non-essentials.” Certainly, holding a scientific worldview ought not to hinder us from deciding for Jesus Christ. Properly understood, all creation points us to Him.