Out of the mouth
When is a parable not a parable? That question always comes to my mind when I read today’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel. We are told that Peter said to Jesus “Explain the parable to us”. But it does not matter how many times I read the passage, I cannot find a parable. Instead, I find Jesus talking about something that can at times be one of the most wonderful parts of a human body, and at other times, it can be the most destructive. It is of course the mouth, and when I read my Bible, I find more said about this part of the human body than any other part. Just listen to some of them:
“You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the Day of Judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned." Jesus spoke those words earlier in His ministry.
“For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” That was what Paul wrote to the Romans, our mouths reveal our salvation.
Then we have the words of the Apostle James “Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, 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. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.”
What is it that makes a mouth so important, and so dangerous as to deserve so many instructions and warnings in scripture? For me, the answer can be found in the very first chapters of our Bibles. If you remember the story of the Creation, you may remember that the words “And God said” are used repeatedly in the creation account. “And God said “Let there be light”, And God said “Let there be an expanse, And God said “Let there be dry ground and so on.” From this we see that the words that come from God’s mouth are words of power, words that bring something out of nothing. And shortly after this we are told that God said "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness,” Each one of us is made in the image of the God whose mouth and words created the world. Isn’t it reasonable to suppose that our mouths and words can be so dangerous because they too can be instruments of creation for we are made in God’s image or likeness.
I probably could have chosen from many different Bible passages to give you examples of how our mouths work like this. But when I was preparing for this morning, I came across a daily reading in the book ‘Day by Day’ written by the Scottish preacher George Duncan that used our first reading from Nehemiah. I don’t know how well you know Nehemiah’s story, but he was a great man of God who lived in a time when Jerusalem; God’s Holy City; had no protection. Nehemiah was a man who knew how to use his mouth properly. He used it to pray to God several times in the first couple of chapters of his book. He used it to gain the support of a man who did not even believe in God, and that must have taken some doing. And in our reading today, we find Nehemiah and others using their mouths to speak words of creation to those around them. The first time we see this is in Nehemiah 4:10:
“Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, "The strength of the labourers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall."
In this verse, we see the people in Judah, Nehemiah’s colleagues using their mouths to create doubt. Nehemiah has come there with a message from God to say “it is time to rebuild” and here we have the people of Judah saying ‘we can’t do it, we are too tired, there is too much to do.’ Of course, they had good reason to say all of this. The people of Israel have just been through a pretty horrible time in Babylon. Many friends would have died in that country or on the way there. You may remember those words of Psalm 137 that described how the people of Israel felt during this exile period “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!" How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?”
They have only just finished re-building the city of Jerusalem after the hated Babylonians destroyed it at the start of the exile, and now, here is Nehemiah coming to them and saying “you can’t rest yet, there is more to do.”
Isn’t there always a reason for us to go around using our mouths to create doubt? Just think of yourselves and this Church. I am sure there must be someone here who remembers the time when this Church used to be full of people. When it was difficult to find a seat either downstairs or upstairs in the balcony. At that time, I am sure that the Church Hall would have been full of youngsters on a Sunday morning, all coming to hear about Christ, and looking forward to coming back the next week.
Then slowly, things began to change, people moved away, others died. And now, there are barely enough people to fill the front lobby on a Sunday morning. And those that are left are as tired as those Israelites must have felt when Nehemiah asked them to rebuild the walls. Don’t we have every right to rest, and maybe even allow this Church to go the way that Jerusalem could well have gone if Nehemiah had not turned up? Surely, nobody can blame us for allowing our mouths to create doubt?
Except for two things, we are God’s people, and this is the place that He has chosen to meet us in on a Sunday. For these reasons alone, if our mouths are those that create doubt, then we should not be here. I have mentioned how Peter asked Jesus to explain this parable and He did so with these words “But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ’unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” If our mouths are creating doubt, then our hearts contain doubt, and so we need to either leave, or return to the God who can and does cleanse our hearts.
The next words of creation that we read of in this passage come from a different group of people. In verse 11 we are told, “Also our enemies said, "Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work." Here we have people’s voices creating hate. It is interesting to read throughout Church history that wherever God begins something new, there are these people using their mouths to create hatred somewhere nearby. During both the Hebrides and the Welsh revivals that happened in this country in the past there were those shouting against it and doing their best to discredit these movements of God. We should not really be surprised at this. Jesus himself was hated by the world.
Further on in this passage, we see how we can counter these voices. For when Nehemiah’s enemies made these threats against his work we are told that “From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armour. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah who were building the wall. Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked.”
It is so easy to get into discussions and arguments with the people to create hatred with their mouths. But to do this does little good. We are not going to change someone who hates Christianity simply by arguing with them. The only way that people like this are going to be changed is by experiencing God’s love for themselves. And this is where we follow Nehemiah’s actions for when we pray, we are doing exactly this. When you look at the list of weapons that Nehemiah’s men carried, spears, shields, bows and armour; there are two offensive weapons and two defensive. In the same way, our prayers are meant to be both offensive and defensive. We pray for protection for those who are the human objects of this hatred, and we pray that the people who create this hatred are overcome by God’s love.
Nehemiah uses the third set of words of creation in this passage. Chapter 4:20 reads “Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there. Our God will fight for us!" This is the voice that creates faith in both ourselves and others around us. It also the voice that with the actions to accompany it, creates the situation where we allow God to act.
So often in our Churches and in our lives, this can be the voice that is missing. We can spend our lives doing everything that we can do to see things happen in our Churches. We can wear ourselves out trying to build the walls in our own strength and by our own effort. All of this will be useless unless we allow our mouths to create the faith that says, “Our God will fight for us!” But to do this, we first need to know that what we do is what God wants us to do. At the beginning of the book of Nehemiah, we find that after he heard what state God’s holy city was in, Nehemiah first went to seek out God’s will “When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.” The reason why Nehemiah could allow his mouth to create this faith is that he had spent this time in prayer and fasting seeking God’s will.
I sometimes wonder if we will ever do the same. When was the last time you had half of this Church’s members turn up for a prayer meeting? When was the last time that you had a day of fasting simply to discover what God’s will for this Church is? I can’t believe that God wants Poole High Street Methodist Church to continue as it is now. I would much rather believe that He has great plans for this Church, but are we willing to seek those plans, and if we find them, are we willing to allow our mouths to be the ones to create the situation where those plans can be carried out?
Having found out what God wants us to do, we then have to commit everything we have into doing that. It is not a case of saying ‘God is going to do this, let’s let Him get on with it.’ Nehemiah discovered that God wanted those walls rebuilding but he did not stand back and assume this meant it was automatically going to happen. Nehemiah then made every effort to ensure that those walls would be built. He enlisted all the people he could to get this job done. We are not actually told this in the Bible, but I think it is fairly safe to say that much of what Nehemiah did was not as a result of direct instructions from God. It seems far more likely that going to King Artaxerxes and asking “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favour in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it." was Nehemiah’s idea. And asking the King for letters to other leaders giving safe passage and materials to do the work with was also his idea.
We see the same thing in Nehemiah Chapter 4:14 where Nehemiah “stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, "Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes." Yes, God had told them what He wanted doing, but it was up to the people to do the work, and it was only as they did it, that God was able to fight for them.
So Nehemiah was able to use his mouth to create faith because he had first sought God and discovered His will, and because he was also willing to use everything else he had to follow that will. May we be willing to do the same today.
"Are you still so dull?" Jesus asked them. "Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ’unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ’unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ’unclean.’" What are we creating with our mouths today? It may not be things like murder, theft or slander. It is probably not even the hate that some of those around Nehemiah were creating. But I think we have all been guilty of creating doubt at some time in our lives. How much better for ourselves and for the Church if we make a commitment to ensuring that our mouths concentrate on creating faith in ourselves and those around us.
Nehemiah did that, and the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt. Who knows what could be built if we do the same today.