A Small Fire (James 3)

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Sermon Text

Even as I am speaking this morning, thousands of firefighters are fighting a wildfire in California that has burned over 250 square miles, an area about two-and-a-half times the combined size of the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul without the suburbs. Seventy-eight houses have been destroyed. A dozen firefighters have been injured. Two have died. How did it start? A small spark purposefully lit as an arsonist set a single house on fire. That house caught another on fire. And then another and another.

Once it finds good kindling, fire rages out of control. Whoever set the original fire in California probably never imagined that their single act would be so destructive. The first house was the target. The other seventy-seven were unexpected. Things got out of hand. That's exactly what St. James says happens with our tongues: "How great a forest is set abalze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by Hell."[1] How is the tongue a fire? How many times have you been burned because of something you said? Too many times to count.

"The tongue is a fire which can destroy a whole forest of good works just by saying things which are evil. This fire is the exact opposite of that saving fire which is also like a tongue and which consumes all the dross and the chaff of our vices, revealing the secrets of the heart. The saints are inflamed by it, they burn with love because of it, and by their preaching they set others ablaze like tongues of fire."[2]

St. James calls the tongue "a world of unrighteousness." Luther reminds us in the Large Catechism as he explains the Eighth Commandment: "Here belongs particularly the detestable, shameful vice of speaking behind a person's back and slandering ... of which much could be said. for it is a common evil plague that everyone prefers hearing evil more than hearing good about his neighbor. We ourselves are so bad that we cannot allow anyone to say anything bad about us. Everyone would much prefer that all the world should speak of him in glowing terms. Yet we cannot bear that the best is spoken about others."[3] Jesus says, "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. ... For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander."[4]

This "world of unrighteousness" stains the whole body. Although they say actions speak louder than words, one wrong word can negate many right actions. This is as Jesus tells us: "On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."[5] Words matter. Therefore we pray, "Keep me from saying words that later need recalling; guard me lest idle speech may from my lips be falling."[6] Just look at Representative Joe Wilson from South Carolina and the backlash he's received after his outburst during President Obama's speech. He spoke from his heart. His credibility has been questioned despite what his record may say about him. Two little words have ruined everything for him. You are no different. You should always pray, "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer."[7]

Your tongue's fire opposes the Holy Spirit's fire. Your tongue's fire is the exact opposite of the Holy Spirit's fire. Your tongue destroys, as St. Jerome said, "The sword kills the body, but the tongue kills the soul. The tongue knows no moderation ... The devil did not fall because he committed theft, murder or adultery; he fell because of his tongue."[8] The Holy Spirit refines and purifies. This is the Holy Spirit's purpose: to refine and purify the Christian. God calls for His people to be refined in the fire of His Spirit.[9] This is the fire which John the Baptizer said Jesus would burn with as he prophesied: "His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire."[10] The tongue and the Holy Spirit are locked in battle with each other.

Your tongue's fire, dear Christian, is not extinguished by the waters of Baptism. Through Baptism, the Holy Spirit contains the fire and reshapes it. This He did visibly at Pentecost. He came down onto the disciples to refine their own speech and reshape it so that all those who were gathered could hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed in their own language.[11] Through that clear proclamation, Jesus "bespeaks us righteous."[12] He doesn't say, "You're righteous," and wish you the best. When He says, "You're righteous," you are righteous. There is no doubt about that. But our righteousness is dotted with dross and chaff that leaves us not completely holy in this life.

Throughout our course of life, the Holy Spirit's fire consumes the dross and chaff that pollutes our understanding of God and His creation. As the dross and chaff are burned up, we see that "Christ is all in all to me; all my wants to Him are know, all my sorrows are His own."[13] The finality of the consumption will be revealed on the Last Day. Jesus pointed this out in His parable about the wheat and the tares:

God created the world perfect. Satan came along and planted seeds of discord throughout the entire world. God could have removed these bad seeds, but they might uproot the good as well. So He willed that they grow together until the last day when all will be harvested. The good will then be separated from the bad. The good will be brought into Heaven. The bad will be cast into the fires of Hell. The good aren't those who are good of themselves. They are the ones who have been refined. They have had their dross and chaff consumed by the Holy Spirit's fire.[14]

They are the ones inflamed by the Holy Spirit's fire. We burn with love that is "quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger."[15] This is the love of those who love God. They are quick to listen. "God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason." He wants you to be quick to hear and slow to speak. This is the way God reveals Himself throughout the Old Testament. "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love."[16] Being quick to hear and slow to speak, you become slow to anger. You mirror God's mercy, grace and steadfast love. You become more responsive as your Father in Heaven responds to you. You see the fulfillment of the prayer, "But when within my place I must and ought to speak, then to my words give grace lest I offend the weak."[17]. There is a time and a place to speak. Those inflamed and ablaze (to use the great LCMS buzzword in its original context) know when and where those occasions occur. We praise God for His listening, as we did in the Psalm this morning.[18] We listen to know when and where the times that someone needs to hear God's Word.

We tell those around us about the Savior who has set us ablaze so that they too might become ablaze with the Holy Spirit. We become like Isaiah, "The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught."[19] Jesus warns us Himself about the consequences of the Holy Spirit's fire: "When they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved."[20] Christians are so inflamed with the Holy Spirit's fire that God's Word comes naturally to them because they continue to study God's Word. The Holy Spirit's fire rages within our souls and cannot be denied. He gives us the words to say even as He gave the prophets and apostles the words to proclaim and write down for us in the Bible. He works the same way through us. His fire burns within us not for our benefit alone but also for the benefit of our neighbor. Jesus said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets."[21] The whole of the Scriptures are undergirded by these two commandments: love God, love neighbor. You can't have one without the other. The Holy Spirit's fire shows these two to be wonderful. The tongue's fire attempts to make them unnecessary.

The tongue's fire is a wildfire raging out of control in the unregenerate. But in you, dear Christian, it has been contained and is being reshaped into a fire that can be used not to destroy but to build up those around you as you spread that fire among your neighbors. "It only takes a spark to get a fire going and soon all those around can warm up in its glowing. ... I'll shout it from the mountain tops, I want the world to know the Lord of Life has come to me I want to pass it on." This is what it means to be inflamed and set ablaze by the Holy Spirit. Amen.


  1. James 3:5-6
  2. Bede, Concerning the Epistle of St. James
  3. LC I, 264
  4. Matthew 12:34; 15:19
  5. Matthew 12:36-37
  6. LSB #696.3
  7. Psalm 19:14
  8. Sermons, 41
  9. Jeremiah 9:7; Zechariah 13:9; Malachi 3:3
  10. Matthew 3:12
  11. Acts 2:4, 8
  12. LSB #578.3
  13. LSB #611.4
  14. Matthew 13:24-30
  15. James 1:19
  16. Exodus 34:6
  17. LSB #696.3
  18. Psalm 116:1-2
  19. Isaiah 50:4
  20. Mark 13:11-13
  21. Matthew 22:37-40