Sunday’s sermon: Words = Power


Texts used: Mark 8:27-38 and James 3:1-12

  • “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” This is what we teach our children when they encounter people in their life who tease them, who use words to bring them down and make them feel bad. We try to take away the authority and force of those words – to minimize their importance and their impact. But as adults, even as we utter these words to give comfort and refuge, we cannot deny that words have power. We know just how truly powerful words can be. → words = power to …
    • Express ourselves
    • Explain and teach, to learn and understand
    • Build up and bring together or to tear down and divide
      • Positive power – Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai continues to celebrate and defend the power of words and learning even after Taliban’s failed attempt to kill her
      • Negative power – fervor and blind devotion and hate stirred up by one of the world’s greatest public speakers: Adolf Hitler
    • We cannot deny that words have power.
      • E.g. – clip from the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring[1]
        • Background: Frodo = hobbit inherited certain ring from his uncle (unaware of ring’s significance/history/power) learns about truly evil, powerful nature of ring joins up with Gandalf (wizard) and others in epic quest to keep the ring out of the enemy’s hands
        • [PLAY CLIP:→ In this moment, Gandalf’s words literally resonate with power. The sky darkens. The earth shakes. Those around him are physically affected by the words that he utters. They cower and grimace and squeeze their eyes shut as if in pain.
        • Commanding illustration of the power that words can have à And be it fantasy or reality, we cannot deny that words have power.
    • Both Scripture readings this morning speak to/illustrate the power that words truly have
  • First: staying/eternal power of Jesus’ words
    • More familiar version of text (pew Bibles): [Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.[2]  Christians for centuries have pondered and prayed over these verses. Can we ever truly deny ourselves? How do we “take up our crosses”? What does it mean to lose our lives to save them? In the many attempts at answers that have arisen throughout history, these words have become the cornerstone for a wide variety of faith practices.
      • Monks and nuns in monasteries – communal living, strict discipline, vows of poverty & chastity, serving those in need
      • Catholic practice of confession
      • Ancient prayer practice of examen – daily exploration of your heart, your actions, your thoughts, and your attitudes in an attempt to get closer to God
      • Incredible acts of service inspired by these words
        • E.g. – “The Secret Millionaire” (TV show)
        • Mahatma Gandhi: The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.
      • Jesus’ words from our text this morning: “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. … Follow me and I’ll show you how. … Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self.”[3] We cannot deny that words have power.
  • Also in gospel reading – power of testimony
    • Passage begins with Jesus’ seemingly-simple question: Who do the people say I am?[4]
      • Disciples initial reply: John the Baptizer, Elijah, one of the prophets
      • With a little more prompting from Jesus (“Who do you say that I am?”) – Peter’s answer: You are the Christ, the Messiah. first time he’s identified as the Messiah in Mark’s gospel
    • This is certainly a powerful pronouncement and the most easily-recognized testimony in this passage … but it’s not the only testimony. Remember, a testimony is not always about the easy, the acceptable, and the joyful. Testimonies can be about pain and struggle and tension. And so we hear Jesus’ testimony, too: “It is necessary that the Son of Man proceed to an ordeal of suffering, be tried and found guilty by the elders, high priests, and religious scholars, be killed, and after three days rise up alive.” He said this simply and clearly so they couldn’t miss it.[5]  This is the first of three times throughout Mark’s gospel that Jesus will try to warn the disciples about what is to come.
      • Powerful testimony because of the raw truth in it
      • Powerful testimony because of holy self-sacrifice in it
      • Powerful testimony because of vulnerability in it
      • Jesus’ words here are revealing. They’re profound. They’re striking. They. Are. Powerful. So powerful, in fact, that they cause Peter to “take him aside and rebuke him”[6] which in turns elicits Jesus’ shocking and powerful response: Peter, get out of my way! Satan, get lost! You have no idea how God works.[7]  Now up to this point, the words we’ve talked about have been intentional words – words chosen and spoken deliberately and carefully, words that have been thought out. But this exchange of words is one born of emotion, unbidden and uncontrolled.
        • Imagine disappointment and frustration Jesus must have felt – shared something so intimate, so compelling, and Peter pulls him aside to rebuke him
        • Imagine utter shock Peter must have felt – from the high of “You are the Messiah” crashing down to “Get behind me Satan” in a few short moments
  • We cannot deny that, intentional or unintentional, words have power. Remember what I said just a few minutes ago?  words= power to build up and bring together OR to tear down and divide
    • We are surrounded by words – articles and advertisements, status updates and Tweets, blog posts and memes [explain], news reports and meetings and everyday conversations. (Sermons) Words words words words words. And as we all know, not all those words are positive, lift-you-up words. Anyone who’s ever been bullied will tell you that it’s not just positive words that have power.
      • Cyber-bullying epidemic – statistics[8]
        • Over half of young people report being cyber bullied
        • 1/3 of those who reported being bullied received threats
        • Only 1 of 6 parents are aware of the scope/intensity of cyber bullying that their kids are experiencing
      • And goodness knows bullying extends beyond the realm of cyberspace. – so bad that there’s actually a government website connected to the Dept. of Health and Human services:
    • This is what James speaks to in our second New Testament passage this morning: A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything – or destroy it! A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By your speech you can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it … With our tongues we bless God our [Creator]; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women [God] made in [God’s own] image.[9]  We know that these words – these powerfully negative, powerfully destructive words are out there in the world. We’ve felt the sting of them ourselves. We’ve watched our friends, our family, and our loved ones suffer the sting, too. We know how painful and damaging these words can be. In fact, it can be argued that negative words can actually be more powerful than positive words. Studies have shown that it takes 5-6 positive comments to balance out one, single negative comment.[10]
  • Friends, we cannot deny that words have power. But we can choose to be a presence to powerfully counteract the negative instead of someone who adds to it. When we hear others tearing down, we can choose to proclaim the words to build up again. We can choose to be the cool, clear water that washes away the polluted mud. We can choose to be God’s affirmation – to be God’s “I love you,” God’s “yes,” God’s “peace be with you.” And we cannot deny that those words have power, too. Amen.

[1] “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” directed by Peter Jackson, distributed by New Line Cinema 19 Dec. 2001 (USA).

[2] Mk 8:34-35 (NRSV).

[3] Mk 8:34-35 (The Message).

[4] Mk 8:27.

[5] Mk 8:30-32.

[6] Mk 8:32 (NRSV).

[7] Mk 8:33 (The Message).

[8] “Cyber Bullying Statistics 2014” at Modified Sept. 10, 2015, accessed 12 Sept. 2015.

[9] Jas 3:5-6, 9.

[10] Jack Zenger and Jopseh Folkman. “The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio” in Harvard Business Review online, Mar. 15, 2013, Accessed 12 Sept. 2015.

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