When Melody and I first started flirting, we were, in typically cautious fashion, very careful about how much romantic interest we showed in each other. After all, neither one of us wanted to "play our hand," so to speak, only to find out that the other one wasn't interested. But then the holidays arrived. And I decided it was time to put all my cards on the table. I decided it was time to take a chance on love. And so, during our first Christmas together, I bought Melody a Christmas gift to end all Christmas gifts. I bought Melody a cute little jack russell and dachshund mix puppy, complete with a bow tied around his neck. I even named him for her. I gave him the name Satchel.
Did I mention that Satchel was a jack Russell and dachshund mix puppy - a very needy jack Russell and dachshund mix puppy who always wanted to play and who never wanted to be alone? When Melody would go to work in the morning, Satchel, who was kenneled, would begin to bark. And he would continue to bark... and bark... and bark... and bark. He would bark until his voice was horse in the afternoon. He would bark so much that one day Melody's neighbors said to her, "Your dog must really miss you. He barks all day." At least they put their complaint charitably.
I'm sure you've heard the old cliché, "His bark is worse than his bite." In Satchel's case, this was most certainly true. For he was a kind hearted dog who, as far as I could tell, would never have bitten anyone. But his whiny bark would give even the most stalwart dog lover a headache. Melody kept Satchel for six months before he found his new home with a friend of ours.
"His bark is worse than his bite." As true as that may be in the case of many dogs, James tells us that it's not always true in the case of many people. In our reading for today from James 3, the apostle writes, "The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell" (verses 5-6). James reminds us that, when it comes to our words, it's not that our bark is worse than our bite, it's that our bark is our bite. That is, we can use the bark of our words to bite other people's hearts, souls, and reputations. We can slander them with our gossip. We can scare them with our threats. We can hurt them with our haranguing. Our bark is our bite.
James writes concerning the "bark" of our words: "If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check" (verse 2). The apostle concludes that if we could just perfectly control our tongues, the rest of our bodies would follow suit and we would live sin free lives. Of course, none of us live sin free lives. The implication, then, is that we all have some work to do on what we say and how we control our tongues. And it is with this in mind that I would ask you to do a little introspection. Is there anyone whom you have "barked at" with your words and you now need to make amends with them? Is there anyone who has bit you with their words that you now need to forgive? Whether an apology or forgiveness is in order, do not let the bark of cruel words rule your heart.
In order to learn how to speak properly and reverently, we need only to look as far as Jesus. For, as the prophet Isaiah says, Jesus will "judge the needy with righteousness, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked" (Isaiah 11:4). Jesus' mouth is a mouth of only righteousness, not of wickedness, only of truth, never of lies. His mouth comforts the righteous and condemns the wicked. And this should be what our mouths do as well. Our mouths should parrot Jesus' mouth. Thus, the best way we can keep our mouths in check is to listen to Jesus' mouth and then simply say what he says. I hope that you have and I hope that you will.