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The Power of a Word
July 13, 1975

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

JAMES 3:1-12

Isaac was getting old; his eyesight was bad; he was nearing the end of his life. His wife Rebekah, a scheming, capable, enterprising woman who was obvious in her preference for the second son Jacob, devised a plan. She dressed Jacob in his brother Esau’s clothes, put animal hair on his arms because Esau had more body hair than Jacob, and took Jacob to Isaac to be blessed. Isaac gave the blessing, gave the words, and once the words were given, were spoken, they could never be reclaimed. Jacob had stolen the blessing; his good future was secured; Esau had lost his birthright, 

Such is an example of the power that words conveyed in ancient cultures. Words were believed to possess the quality of a magic spell; blessings and curses had power to influence the course of events. The primitive person was unable to differentiate between the spiritual and the material, between word and object, between language and event. He was unable to abstract. A person’s name was more than just a tag to wear on his shirt when he went to meetings; a person’s name contained his essence. When one spoke another’s name, he in a sense had some power over that person because he knew his name. Remember how Jacob wrestled with the angel all night and the angel never would tell his name because to know one’s name was to know him in a very personal, powerful manner. Therefore, we have the commandment to not take the Lord’s name in vain. In fact, the ancient Hebrews never would name God. 

Words have power. When a word was spoken, it took on a life of its own beyond the control of the speaker. Words had more than a psychological effect on those who heard them. Words influenced. Therefore, there is a great emphasis in the Bible on the word of the Lord, the word of the prophets speaking in his name. When God spoke, things happened. The psalmist wrote, “By his word the heavens were made.” The ancient was very cautious in his language, choosing his words carefully because he was conscious of the independent power his words had. 

Contrast that attitude towards language with our modern culture. Language is taken for granted by us. And we are becoming increasingly sloppy. We use words lightly, we speak before thinking, we are becoming increasingly unclear as to what words mean. It does not take long in a conversation or speech to use a common word which draws smirks and smiles from teenagers because that common word now has a new “undercover” meaning, usually of sexual connotation. English is a very difficult language to use in communica­ting. The meaning is difficult to nail down, depending on context, the tilt of the head, inflection, wink. Especially do powerful words, important words have difficulty being understood and communicated today. 

Conrad Weiser has written about the powerful word “joy”. “Now there’s a word you’ve got to watch out for. It sort of sneaks up on you and takes you off guard. It means something specific, I’m certain, but it also means a lot of schlock too. Joy is used sometimes in association with peace, which is another devious word we’ve got to talk about sometime. But how about the end of letters that are signed ‘Peace and Joy, Fred?’ First of all you’ve got to check the letterhead to see which Fred the Peace and Joy came from and then the content of the letter is so critical and scathing, not to mention devious, that the joy gets lost in the shuffle. Then there are the people who use “joy” and really mean “ha-ha”. If you aren’t laughing or at least smiling, they look at you as if all the joy (meaning ha-ha) has gone out of your life. Needless to say, joy is not restrained hilarity or a constant state of subdued giddiness that makes half of the world look at you as if you are high most of the time. Oh, but the most seductive use of the word is when it is uttered in sacred tones. Joy is elevated to a mystical experience which can’t be described to anyone. Well, friend, if you can’t describe it, why tell me you have whatever it was again.” “

We use words very lightly and glibly, not really clear as to what we mean and often oblivious to the consequences of our words to the effects that our words have.

My purpose this morning is not to get into language study or word definition. My purpose is to make the case that as the ancients thought words were too powerful, we moderns think words are more powerless than they are. The truth lay in between. Because words have more power than we realize, we are making life more difficult. Words are affecting us, blessings and curses are affecting us, and we’re not aware of it. It’s a subtle, devious danger. 

On the other hand, we often do not believe words, and we do not let words have an influence and a power in our lives, words that could really help us. But, we do know how important words are. We do know how words have power when we write a very important letter, or when we make an application for a job that we really want to have. How carefully we work on those words, to be so careful that those words say what we really want to say. We choose them carefully. We order them in sequence, we construct the sentences, we make the paragraphs. How careful we are. 

And how careful we should be when we speak, when we glibly use words. A college girl wrote, “My main problem is that I cannot accept myself. When I was a small child, my mother told me that she hated my guts. From this experience I cannot accept the idea that anyone could pos­sibly love me since my own mother did not.” Perhaps the mother really did not accept her child. Or, perhaps the mother said that in anger and exasperation and the daughter never forgot it. She began to interpret subse­quent actions and words from that perspective. Those words had power over her. How easy it is to believe words like that. Don’t we all doubt our parents love at times? Don’t we all wonder? Didn’t we all wonder if our parents really did love us because of that universal feeling of inferiority? Many of us probably wondered if we weren’t neglected orphans, wondered if we really belong to the family, wondered if they didn’t pick us up at the Salvation Army! 

Our scripture lesson this morning from the book of James said that if you can control your tongue, you can control every other part of your personality. The tongue can poison the whole body. It can make the whole of life a blazing hell. And not only the life of the speaker can be made a blazing hell, but the lives of those around him and the lives of those he loves, can be poisoned. Words have power. 

Therefore, first of all, hear the words that are good. Hear and receive those good words that have been spoken to you and about you, those words that have given you your identity, those beautiful, loving, accepting words. Hear those words, believe them, don’t just pass them off. Open your head to them, open your mind to them. Let the power of those words permeate your very being. 

Remember the words of your baptism. If you were an infant, you’ve witnessed enough baptisms to know what was said at yours. If you were a youth or adult, remember the words. First, your name was spoken. Your name, it was your event. The whole church paused, stopped what it was doing and focused its attention on you. It was your day, your event. Your name was spoken and the whole church focused upon you. Water was applied to your head and you were baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and of the Holy Spirit. In that event, and through those words, God reached out and claimed you. God put you in his family. You belong to God. That’s the power of those words.  

Remember your confirmation or when you joined the church. Remember the words that were spoken, that claimed you and made you a part of his family. Remember the powerful words of Holy Communion. Let those words fill you with its power.  Christ died for you. “This is my body broken for you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood shed for you.” Believe those words. Receive those words. 

How about the words at your wedding? If you’ve been married, how about those words that she spoke? When the one you love, the one you wanted more than anyone else in the world, actually said to you—you, of all people, you who think you are worthless—said to you, “Douglas, I take you to be my husband.” “I take you,” Let those words roll around in your head and heart. Believe them. Live in them. 

They are powerful words. All the great words that have been spoken to you, and that have been spoken about you can be summarized in one simple, common, everyday word of power. The word “Yes”. Yes has been spoken to you, a great word of affirmation. Yes. 

One of the survivors of that hideous, unspeakable concentration of Jews by the Nazis, Viktor Frankl wrote,  “Another time we were at work in a trench. The dawn was gray around us. Gray was the sky above, gray the snow and the pale light of dawn, gray the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and gray their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife. Or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world. And from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment, a light was lit in a distant farmhouse which stood on the horizon in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria, and the light shined in the darkness. For hours, I stood hacking at the icy ground, the guard passed by insulting me. And once again, I communed with my beloved, more and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me, I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp the feeling that was very strong, she was there. Then at that very moment, a bird flew down silently, and perked just in front of me on the heap of soil, which I dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.” Frankl heard the great resounding “yes”. 

First, hear the word. Receive the word. Let it fill you with its power. And then secondly, preach the word. Speak the word. We’ve been told so many times that actions speak louder than words. We have a tendency to discount words, we cop out. But don’t use such an excuse to rationalize your lack of speaking. How hungry this world is for a good word! How hungry your family, your friends are for a good word! They don’t need to hear criticism. Your children don’t need your criticism. No one needs criticism. No one learns anything from criticism. No one needs your negative gripe. Before you speak, first ask is it true? Second, is it necessary? Does this really need to be said? And third, is it kind? Ask those words before you speak. 

Actions speak loudly of course, but words need to be spoken. There are many occasions when you need to witness, when you need to preach. There are many times when someone needs to hear you say “God loves you. God cares about you.” They need to hear your simple witness, “My life has found meaning and purpose because I believe, because I trust in Christ, because I’ve given my life to Him. I’m serving Him and and I want you to know about it.” You need to preach the word. You need to tell people how you feel, not just letting your actions speak. How long has it been since you told anyone that you love them? How long? If there’s any kind of word that your spouse needs to hear— your children, your parents, your friends, your family, your neighbors—if there’s any word they need to hear today, it’s that you care about them. 

Jess Lair in his book, I Ain’t Got Much Baby, But I’m All I’ve Got challenged his readers, to an experiment: go and tell five people that they love them. He included some reports of this exercise. One college girl was having trouble with her parents so she went to the telephone and called them with a message, “I love you”. They wept. A nurse was having difficulty with a supervisor. They just did not get along, but the supervisor was very helpful to her. So she went to the telephone and called her long distance. She said, “Hey, I love you.” The supervisor cried for five minutes. A mother reported, “I told my son I loved him. He cried. He’s 18 years old.” 

Words have power. Hear the good ones. Open your mind and your heart to their power and let their power bless you. Preach the word to others. Give them a good word. Tell them how you care about them.

© 1975 Douglas I. Norris