The old myth is that your tongue is the strongest muscle in the body. Now scientifically, that is not true. No matter what measurement of strength you use, the tongue is nowhere near the top of the list.
If you’re looking at strength endurance … your heart is the hardest working muscle. The average heart beats 72 beats a minute. That comes out to 100,000 beats a day. 3.6 million beats a year and over the span of 70 years, that about 2.5 billion beats.
In terms of absolute strength, your jaw muscle is the strongest. The bite strength of an average male is somewhere between 117 to 265 pounds.
In terms of dynamic and explosive strength … your calf and gluteus maximus muscles win top prize. Your calf muscle is responsible for keeping you upright when standing and is a constant fight with gravity. Your gluteus maximus muscle’s main function is your hip extension, which we need when we’re running, jumping, and climbing steps.
Your tongue is not the strongest muscle per se of physical strength or by how much pressure it can apply, but it is the strongest in what it can do. Your tongue muscle works 24 hours a day and never tires. It’s working when it’s tasting and moving food around in your mouth, it’s working as it moves that chewed up food down your throat as you swallow. As I speak, my tongue is binding and contorting itself to form letters and words. While you sleep, your tongue is activity working as it is constantly pushing saliva down your throat. So scientifically, even though your tongue is very active, it not the strongest muscle in the body.
However, it is strong in other ways. When I was a kid, and I’m sure our younger youth still hear this today … there was a little saying which was said when others saying mean and hateful things to someone. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” You know, that statement couldn’t be farther from the truth. Yes, sticks and stones may break my bones, but those bones will heal, they’ll be stronger than before and to depending on how old you were when it happens, to quote my father-in-law, “by the time you’re a grandparent you won’t remember it.”
But words … words spoken by someone else’s tongue … those words can be make deep lacerations on our spirits, upon our hearts, and upon our lives. The words we speak, even if we don’t mean for them to be … they can be very hurtful. The amount of damage a simple word can produce is what makes the tongue the strongest muscle in the body.
This morning, James talks about the strength and power of the tongue. “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal” (3:3). That little bit can make the horse go this way or that or stop.
James goes on, “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 where the pilot wants to go” (3:4). Take the USS Theodore Roosevelt Aircraft Carrier as an example. The ship is 20 stories tall above the water line. It is nearly as long as the Empire State Building is tall. It’s a massive ship. And yet it is steered by two rudders which are 29 by 22 feet and weigh about fifty tons. That may not seem small, but compared to the rest of the ship … they aren’t all that big. And yet by the direction of the person at the wheel, those rudders tell that massive aircraft carrier where to go. James says, “Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts” (3:5a).
Where the tongue can do great and wonderful things … James also warns us that it can do great harm as well. Just think about the wildfires out west, or a field fire during harvest season. James says, “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, set the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (3:5b-6). All it takes for those massive forest fires or field fires to start is a spark. All it takes is one little word, one word and the laceration from the tongue lashing can be deep and very painful.
This morning we celebrate the kick-off of a new Christian Education year. As parents of children who are about to receive their bibles, as parents of children who are about to receive their catechism, as teachers of Sunday School, Bible Classes, and Confirmation classes, as members of the body of Christ … how we use our tongues is very, very important. James says “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” (3:9-10).
We heard earlier from Luke in the Gospel reading “Let the little children come to me” (18:16). We talked about this a couple of weeks ago, how are the little children going to come to Jesus, how are they going to come to know about him, believe in him, walk with him in faith if they don’t hear the tongues of others talking about him? How are the junior high and high school youth, how are you and I as adults going to know about Jesus, believe in him, trust in him, walk with him in our faith walk if we don’t hear the tongues of others talking about him? How are any of us here or out there going to know the sweet news of God’s amazing grace given to us through Christ if your and my tongue are silent or are speaking curses? “My brothers, this should not be.” In church, at home, in the community, our tongue is meant to be used to the praise and glory of God and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Think of it this way. A woman responsible for spreading a rumor learned that her information was completely untrue. She was very sorry and went to a church elder to find out what she could do to repair the damage. He said, “go to the store and buy a feather pillow. On your way home, open the pillow and drop its feathers, one by one along the road.” Although surprised by the response, she did what she was told.
The next day, the elder said to her, “Now, go and collect all those feathers you dropped yesterday and bring them back to me.” The woman followed the same road, but to her dismay, the wind had blown all the feathers away. After searching for hours, she returned with only three feathers in her hand.
“You see, it’s easy to drop them, but it is impossible to get them back. So it is with gossip. It doesn’t take much to spread a rumor, but once you do, you can never completely undo the wrong.”
When we speak evil about our neighbor, when we slander them, betray them, cut them down … the strongest muscle in our body is giving them a tongue lashing which cuts them to the heart. But not only are we giving our neighbor this tongue lashing … we through our words are lacerating the back of our Savior. Through our poisonous speech, we’re adding to the lashes Jesus received while he hung there on that blood cross.
While suffering on the cross because of our sins … passer byers and onlookers yelled up to him, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself” (Mark 15:30). Others said, “He saved others; but he can’t save himself! Let this Christ, the King of Israel, come down from the cross, that we may see and believe” (15:31). With each word coming from their mouth … Satan simply grins.
In Martin Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress”, he wrote that “one little word can fell him.” While suffering, dying, and totally forsaken, Jesus utter one little world. Tetelestisa … it is finished (John 19:30). In that one word … sin is destroyed. In that one word … your salvation is earned! In that one word, Satan receives an eternal tongue lashing as your salvation is ripped from his hands and placed securely in the hands of your Heavenly Father.
With you firmly in the hands of your Heavenly Father, you can approach your savior and use your tongue to confess your failures and then speak praises for the wonderful things he has done. We praise the one who breaks the darkness of sin, death, and Satan. We join in with the heavenly choir with thousands of tongues, we sing our great redeemers praise.
Our tongues may not be the strongest muscle in our bodies … but it can be the most powerful and loudest one as we let nothing hold us back from speaking of God’s awesomeness which is for all people. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, now and forever. Amen.