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Nov 8 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

Sermon delivered at Holy Trinity Church – Nov. 7, 2010

Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
And those who love it will eat its fruit.
Proverbs 18:21

INTRO: A few years ago, while channel-surfing I cam across a documentary and had to stop

A woman’s voice arrested my attention–which is unusual for me
(I usually switch channels until I hear squeeling tires, gunfire and explosions)
 – the woman was Maya Angelou and she was undoubtably the most eloquent speaker I had ever heard

Some time later I learned something about how she developed her extraordinary skill
– at seven years old, she was molested by a friend of the family
– she told no one but her brother, who told others, and one of those people murdered the man
– horrified, Ms. Angelou said, “I thought my voice had killed him”
– with that in mind, she stopped speaking for fear that someone else would die

During her self-imposed silence, she listened to others and noticed the music and rhythm of human speech, as she says, the “fact that people kind of drop their voices and become almost musical when they talk to a friend, or to a preacher, or to a teacher. . . Remember that. Keep the melody in your mind and in your spirit.”

After five years of silence, a teacher by the name of Mrs. Flowers told Angelou that although she read poetry, she did not love it
“The only way to love poetry,” she said, “is to read it with your own voice. You must feel it come across your tongue, through your teeth, over your lips.”
– with that Ms. Angelou began reading poetry aloud and that was her return to speech
– it is no wonder that when she speaks now, her voice moves with the rhythm of poetry and the resonance of music

The Proverbs agree with Ms. Angelou’s childhood intuition (although she was innocent)

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue”

In the Proverbs, words can be:

  • medicine or poison
  • an exquisite gift or a deadly weapon
  • used to wound or heal
  • to encourage or demoralize
  • with words we can save a life and with words we can take a life

My wife, Barbara, is a physical therapist
– a few years ago, working in an out-patient clinic she was scheduled to see a woman with a pinched nerve, but observing her as she entered the clinic, Barb noticed other symptoms. So she asked if there were other complaints or conditions that needed to be addressed. “No,” she answered. Then Barb asked her what sort of tests the doctor ran to diagnose her and she admitted that she had not seen her doctor, but when she described her symptoms over the phone she was told that it sounded like a pinched nerve and physical therapy was prescribed. Then the patient asked Barbara, “You don’t think it’s a pinched nerve, do you?” Barb answered that the symptoms were not consistent with a pinched nerve. The patient asked, “What would you do if you were me?” Barb told her that she would request an MRI to see if the symptoms could be caused by a brain tumor or a minor stroke.
– a couple weeks later Barb was working in-patient at the hosptial. She had finished rehab with a patient and as she was leaving the room, the woman in the next bed said, “Hey! Do you remember me? You saved my life.” It was the woman with the “pinched nerve.” She had gone straight from the clinic to the emergency room at the hospital and announced to the receptionist that she would sit there until a neurologist arrived to order a brain scan for her. When they looked at the scan, they found a small tumor which they were able to remove and the woman was saved from more serious consequences had it not been excised.

Barb’s “job” was to treat a pinched nerve, but rather than merely do her job, she spoke up regarding her suspicion
– with her words, she saved a life

Sadly, people have also been destroyed by a few cruel words

There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword,
But the tongue of the wise brings healing.
(Pr. 12:18)

Today, we can take up that sword and stab at a distance
– through email, text, and twitter we can threaten, ridicule, or slander

  • The widespread use of internet has resulted in new terminology
    – we don’t look up information, we “google” it
    – add to this new vocabulary the term “cyber bullying”
  • Perhaps the most famous case was that fifteen-year-old Megan Meier
    – after an argument, a friend’s mother created a fake identity and befriended Megan on a social network site
    – she later confessed that they did this to get personal information about Megan to use to humiliate her
    – when they were ready to stop, they used the fake identity to tell Megan everyone hated her
  • Megan felt so used, betrayed and rejected that she hanged herself
    – this is not an isolated incident, and because there have been several similar suicides related to cyber bullying, new state laws are beeing passed and federal laws are being written to prevent using the internet in these ways

We have more power than we realize
– and as James says, it easily gets out of control and can set the world on fire (Jas. 3:5-6)

Famous Arabic proverb:
“Four things come not back; the spoke word, the spent arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity.”

Verbal damage is easy to inflict, but not easy to mend
– have you ever noticed how many more words it takes to patch things up than it takes to mess things up?

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may break my spirit”

One of the Proverbs that has fascinated me for many years is 16:24:

Pleasant words are a honeycomb,
Sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.

Notice the twofold effect of pleasant words: the inner self and the bones

Hebrew poets were definitely more in touch with their bodies than we are
– but we have discovered that, like sticks and stones, words can also break bones
– the human nervous system reacts to danger and mental or physical stress by switching on the sympathetic mode, which we refer to as “fight or flight”–the body’s way of preparing itself for action
– one of the mechanisms that is activated is the adrenal glands, which release cortisol (quickens muscular and neural response)
– but if the danger or stress does not let up or we do not bring our bodies and minds back to a state of rest, we can have an excess of cortisol in our system
– the long term effects of excess cortisol can include a loss of bone density and result in osteoporosis

“Unpleasant words” can have the kind of effect on a person that creates the inner stress to trigger the fight or flight response
Pleasant words (a compliment, a kind remark, an affirmation of love), however, can counteract inner stress
– think of pleasant words as an antitoxin for the soul

  • We’ve been exposed to enough psychology to know the damage words can do to a soul
    – to this day, some of us are still haunted by playground ridicule or classroom sarcasm
    – others of us are still imprisoned by words that our parents spoke, words that were meant perhaps to enlighten or discipline but had the opposite effect
    – “Lazy,” “you’re nothing but trouble,” “fat,” “you’ll never succeed,” etc.
    – too often we leave important words unspoken
  • This looms large among the regrets parents have regarding their children
    “I regret that I didn’t tell them more often how much I loved them”
    “I regret that I didn’t encourage them more”

The ill-timed truth we might have kept–
Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung?
The word we had not sense to say–
Who knows how grandly it had rung? (From “The Fool’s Prayer”)

It seems obvious that Christians should know how to use the power of words

But the New Testament has to remind us
– James points out the contradiction of a dual-use mouth (Jas. 3:9-12)
– Paul, creatively illustrated the same point

Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification, according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. (Ep. 4:29)

– “unwholesome” translates a Greek word that means “rotten” and is the root for our English “sepsis” and “septic”
– horror movies use Paul’s same idea to create an automatic reaction in us
-someone will take a bite of food that once inside their mouths turns to maggots, which triggers a reflex of revulsion and disgust
– it is as if Paul said, “Are you going to put that in your mouth?!”
On the positive side, he tells us to use words to
meet needs
give grace
We have that kind of power! We can promote these sorts of things!

CONC: There’s a riddle in the last line of our proverb, “And those who love it will eat its fruit”

Is this a threat or the promise of a reward?
I believe the wise man is being intentionally ambiguous
– the line can be interpreted either way

  • if you love to use your tongue to cause death, that is the fruit you will eat
  • if you love to use your tongue to preserve life, that is the fruit you will eat

I would like to believe that today God sends you from this place, using words
– to be his representatives in the world–his agents for good
– to mend wounds, comfort broken hearts, create hope
– to promote God’s work in human lives
– to be as Jesus, who forgave, and healed, and set captives free

If you determine that you will, from now on, use words to bless, then let me remind you that you’re not alone (e.g., Mt. 10:19-20)

In the book of Acts, freqently when the apostles spoke with wisdom and power, prior to their speech Luke explains that so and so was “filled with the Holy Spirit” or “full of the Spirit,” etc.
– we associate being Spirit-filled with something spectacular–healing the sick, exorcising a demon, etc.
– but God wants to do something spectacular through our speech

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father (Ep. 5:18)

Jesus provides us a model: When he was in Nazareth, we’re told, “all were speaking well of Him and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips”

So you see, it is not simply a matter of speaking beautifully, but of saying beautiful things, and with our speech beautifying the world and the lives of others.

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