The Text Says:
Today’s Epiphany worship is a rare instance where words take precedence over deeds. Usually we think it’s the other way around. But Jesus ties words to destiny. “By our words we are justified. By our words we stand condemned.” The Christian faith has always believed words have power. Even idle words. Words can rob someone of a good name. Words like “You need to be in a mental institution” drove someone to murder. How many times have we seen evil people create chaos with inflaming speech? On the contrary words can heal and bless. The “Gettysburg Address” continues to en-nerve a nation. Words are conduct. Deeds of the lips are as sure as a physician performing surgery is a deed of the hand. So it isn’t always true that silence is golden. Sometimes silence is cowardice.
The Preacher Says:
When it’s all said and done…more is said than done! According to the Gospel of Matthew, that isn’t all bad. I can’t count the number of times I’ve said, “The Bible argues with itself.” I say that because it does. Life’s too complicated for it not to. The Bible, like love, is a many-splendored thing. Sometimes it encourages and refreshes. Sometimes it stings and judges. And there are those scriptures that strain good sense. How are we to understand the weird story of Jesus paying his taxes with coins he tells Peter to find in a Tilapia’s mouth (Mt. 17)? Or that time he healed a crazy man by “casting demons into a herd of pigs, that go over a cliff to drown in the sea” (Mk. 5)? So which one’s the craziest? Lordy, it’s no wonder people read their Bibles so seldom!
When the Bible argues with itself, it’s not just mentally demanding, it’s morally exacting. “Whoever looks on a woman with lust has already committed adultery in his heart.” The media never let Jimmy Carter forget that one. Or “If somebody clobbers you on the cheek, turn the other cheek?” The bullies like to pull that one up! I remember when the women’s libbers quoted Paul, out of context of course. To a Greek church he said, “I wouldn’t have you to be ignorant brethren” (1 Thess. 4:13). The ladies would conveniently omit the copula; so they could say “I wouldn’t have you ignorant brethren!” There’s some relief with scholarly words like hyperbole and exaggeration and parable.
Then there’s today’s text that flies in the face of what most people think. “It’s what you say that counts.” There are so many scriptures that say the opposite: “The one who hears these sayings and does them is like a man who built his house on the rock and not the sand.” Then for good measure Matthew adds: “Be doers of the word and not just hearers.” That fits the narrative: “actions speak louder than words.” The doers think “a cup of cold water to a thirsty man is more important than just listening to Sunday morning preaching.” It’s just words.
And yet Matthew turns that upside down. “By your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned” (Mt 12:37). On this, the Bible not only argues with itself, it contradicts the low esteem we all have for the plethora of words in our time. This has got to be a misprint! Didn’t Jesus just say that “a tree is known by its fruit?” Good fruit, good tree. Bad fruit, bad tree. And that has to mean: what we do is what counts, not what we say. This passage frequently gets quoted to minimize all the blathering speeches we have to endure and to elevate the importance of social activism.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying what we do isn’t important. I am saying is that’s not what Matthew means. When Jesus said we’re “known by our fruits,” he was referring to the seduction of pretenders — “Wolves in sheep clothing;” false prophets telling people what they wanta hear, rather than what they need to hear. “Fruits” are not “deeds” in that context. In fact by their actions they’re like sheep. It’s when they speak that the wolves are exposed. “By their fruits you shall know them” in that situation means “by their speech the wolves are revealed.” It’s what you say that counts. In chapter 15, Jesus identifies the root of what corrupts us: “It’s not what goes into somebody from the outside that defiles. Rather it’s what comes from the inside out” (15:8). That’s what nails us. “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.”
Another toughie is the topic of discussion in the preceding paragraph: the unpardonable sin. Now there’s a whole lot of discussion about the nature of the one thing that’s unforgivable. Stealing, adultery, even murder, can be forgiven. But whatever you do, make sure you stay away from “the unpardonable sin.” Yet with all the uncertainty about it, one thing is clear: the unpardonable sin is a sin of speech. “Whoever speaks … against the Holy Ghost will not be forgiven” (v. 32). It’s what you say. Now what makes that hard in our society is, we don’t take speeches seriously. Mostly because people say incredible things. We keep getting burned by those who say one thing, then do the opposite. Deeds matter. Talk is cheap. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.”
Whatever our culture’s low estimate of words may be, if Jesus thinks they’re that important, maybe we ought to take a second look. Sometimes deeds come much easier than words. Think of how hard some things are to discuss. Like political issues or family matters. I can remember squirming when it came time to talk to our daughters about sex. I said as little as I could get away with: “You need to learn what goes where” and left the rest of it to their Mamma! I don’t know why that little 3-letter word is so hard to talk about.
Last week the History Channel featured President Roosevelt’s famous declaration of war speech before Congress. Man you talk about words! “Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941, a day that will live in infamy.” He noted the hostilities that existed throughout the entire Pacific. America was in grave danger. In terms of readiness, by comparison: the German infantry had 200 divisions; Japan had 100. (Not counting Cavalry and armored). We had one! That was before the “Sleeping Giant was awakened.”
FDR was stricken with polio and that day his greatest fear was walking down the aisle at the Capitol and not falling in front of the whole world! It was a struggle to just make it to the podium, but he did. And no man ever stood taller than President Roosevelt that fateful day. This giant of a leader, confined to a wheelchair, inspired a demoralized nation and carried the world on his shoulders with a brief speech which lasted only 6 minutes, and concluded with these monumental words: “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. With confidence in our armed forces, and the unbounded determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God.” Words make things happen. Not the vulgarization of speech that we see plastered everywhere today. Those silly little abbreviations: ROFL and OMG. O my God! Don’t ya’ll get sick of that? I wish sometimes God would just once say “State y’ bidness!” I bet that’d stop it! How we long for genuine and heartfelt conversation, that creates new situations.
In 1517, Martin Luther tacked his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg. The Pope pitched a hissy-fit. But with great courage Luther stood his ground, thundering those historic … words: “I cannot and will not recant anything. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.” Sounds like FDR. “So help us God.” 4 little words, kicked off the Protestant Reformation. Luther had a vivid belief in the devil. So when we sang “A Mighty Fortress,” did you notice the line in the 3rd stanza? “One little word shall fell him.” One little word can doom the devil! What is that little word? The word is “God.” “In the beginning was the word. The word was with God and the word was God.” Words cause things to be. “Let there be light, and there was light.” 8 little words and the light overcame the darkness!
A couple stands in front of the preacher. They only have to say: “I do.” And when the preacher says, “By the authority vested in me…” Whew! “I do!” With those 2 little words, a new home is created. And babies are born who grow up to change the world! Just 2 little words can do all that! It’s what you say! It’s what you say!
A man’s sitting around a table with his buddies. When supper was over, he took the left over bread. And then a cup with some wine in it. And said these words: “This is my body. This is my blood.” Just 9 little words after supper, that became an eternal sacrament.
I can still remember when people used to say “I give you my word” and it meant something; because they kept their word. Like the young boy who tried out for the little league baseball team. That was the year a new coach came to town. And the lad was so excited he couldn’t wait for the season to start. He called the coach so he’d know who he was. After the coach told him the day and hour of the first practice, he thanked him and assured him: “I’ll be there coach.” And then promptly proceeded to drive all those around him crazy till the day of practice finally arrived.
Sure enough, it rained that day. And it quickly became a frog-strangler. But that afternoon he still took off on his bike for the ball field. After standing alone on home plate getting drenched in the downpour; nobody else came. Finally he gave up. But before going home he decided to go across the street to the coach’s house, just to make sure. Of course the coach rightly assumed nobody’d be crazy enough to show up. He answered the door and told him the field is flooded and practice had been called off. And the disappointed boy said, “I told you I’d be here coach.”
He still hadn’t caught on had he? You don’t say you’ll do something with certainty. You leave yourself some wiggle room. Like, “God willing and the creek don’t rise…” I’ll do it. Or “If the Lord doesn’t return…” before then I’ll try to be there. (Then they will think you’re crazy!) He’ll learn how to say it when he grows up, someday. But then wouldn’t it be great if that stubborn dependability could impact every miserable life, every broken home? Every corrupt nation? Just 5 little monosyllables: “I give you my word!”
Now that boy has grown up. And I still try to do what I say. Whether folks think I’m crazy or not. Cause anybody whose been taught to believe the Bible knows that’s how people oughta live. Like the man said: “It’s what you say that matters” … as long as you do what you say!
Heavenly Father, to your greatness, our worship adds nothing. But unless we worship something bigger than ourselves, we diminish everything. So we lift our hearts and voices in gratitude for this opportunity to gather in Thy presence; and for this historic place in which we rightly take pride, where your Spirit informs us and sometimes reforms us. We find your name on our lips, because you’ve placed it in our souls. For minds that can think, and hearts that can feel, and tongues that can talk, and hands that can bless…we praise Thee. For higher purposes that beckon to us, for causes that stimulate us, for grace that restores us… we thank Thee.
Our innermost needs are known only by Thee our Father, so we pray now for each other: for those who came with hopes that have long been abandoned. Those who came with ideals, and long to recover them. Those who come with outstretched arms, wanting to change, but don’t know how. Those who never come. Behind our Sunday clothes, lie kingdoms of ambition, passion and pride. Where we shout the loudest, we’re most insecure; where we have denied Thee most painfully, we’re most defensive; where we have done Thy will most fully, we are largely unaware. And are the better for it.
May this worship enable us to see how rich we really are in terms of life’s intangibles: for faith that lights our path and whatever it is that causes us to call Thee “Our Father.” For the lift of a loving voice, the warmth of a mate’s confidence, the strength that comes from accepted sorrow, the excitement of a shared purpose. Renew our spiritual core in this hour. Through Christ our Lord.