God spoke – and the dome of the sky was there in all its glorious blue.
God spoke – and moving, shifting, heaving waters came together in the sea.
God spoke – and the Baobab tree, wild grasses, flowering bushes were planted.
God spoke – and in the night’s sky there was the Orion nebula, Haley’s comet, red giants.
God spoke – massive blue whale in water, glorious flamingo on shoreline.
God spoke – cheetah speed on land, lumbering elephant in grassland, wild boar foraging in forest.
God spoke – a man, a woman – encounter, love, and mutuality.
We also speak. We speak a great many words each day. One study of found that college students in the U.S. speak on average around 15,000 words per day. Of course we aren’t college students and many of us don’t live in that kind of highly social context. Our world isn’t their world. But it is astonishing to recognize that many of us speak thousands of words a day.
We talk to family on the telephone.
We yell at the TV during Habs game, “Gionta! Take the shot.”
We speak with the clerk at the pharmacy.
We talk to ourselves while we’re doing dishes.
We have conversations with friends.
It’s amazing to think that we speak thousands of words today. We are a people of words. We whisper. We talk. We converse. We yell. We speak.
In that first creation account, God speaks. God speaks the creation into existence. God speaks words of astonishing creativity and strength – God speaks words that bring into being a world of beauty and life – a world of innumerable possibilities. And toward the end of the first creation account, as God comes to the moment of creating man and woman, we hear God talking to himself – God talks to himself, maybe like we do when we’re standing alone at the sink doing the dishes. And in the words of the Contemporary English Translation, God says to himself: “Now we will make humans, and they will be like us.” Or in the older language of the King James Version, God says to himself: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”
What does that mean? What does it mean that humans are created in the image of God? Well, there have been different ways of understanding this over time. Some have said:
The image of God, it means we are reasonable and rational like God is reasonable and rational.
The image of God, it means that we are given responsibility and dominion – we share in God’s responsibility and dominion over creation.
The image of God, it means that we the capacity for relationships as God is the relation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in unity.
All of this might be part of what it means to be made in the image of God – of what it means that we are like God. “Now we will make humans, and they will be like us.”
But let me add another possibility this morning. When God says that he will make us in his image – when God says, they will be like us – perhaps it means that through our words, through our speaking, through our use of language – we also have the capacity to create.
Perhaps through our words we have the ability to create a beautiful world.
Perhaps through our words, light can break through the darkness.
Perhaps through our words, chaos can be banished.
Perhaps through our words, life can come where death was triumphant.
The speaking of God in the beginning was powerful, and it was good. Perhaps our speaking can be powerful and good.
Which brings us to our starting point, really – which is back with the book of Proverbs. We’ve been looking at themes in the book of Proverbs these few weeks – and many of those themes deal with the stuff of everyday life. And given that we say thousands of words each day, it will come as no surprise that the book of Proverbs has something to say about our words, about our tongues, about our speaking.
And it probably won’t surprise us that a lot of what is said about the tongue, about our words, about our speaking, is profoundly negative.
The mouth of the fool pours forth folly.
A back-bighting tongue brings forth an angry countenance.
A lying tongue hates those it crushes.
But how much do we need this reminder? Maybe there are some days when we need to be reminded of the powerful, negative effects of our words. Maybe there are some days when we need these Proverbs of correction or rebuke. But mostly we know the negative power of words – we know the power of words to belittle and destroy and hurt and diminish. We have spoken those words. And others have spoken those words to us.
It’s not only the book of Proverbs that offers this kind of negative commentary on the power of our words. We saw it also in our reading from the book of James this morning: “The tongue is fire; a very world of iniquity.” Perhaps there are some days we need to here it.
But if we think about ourselves in terms of the image of God – “they will be like us” – then perhaps we need to put more focus on the powerful creative possibilities of our speech and words.
And what’s interesting is that the book of Proverbs gives us the opportunity to do just that. Very often in the specific proverbs, there is a twofold statement – not that, but this – not that way of acting, but this way acting – not that way of thinking, but this way of thinking – not that way of speaking, but this way of speaking.
And in those second moments, “but this way” moments, we get a taste of the creative and beautiful possibilities of language and speech. Here are two simple Proverbs that point to the creative and beautiful possibilities of our speaking:
The tongue of the wise brings healing. Proverbs 12:18
A soothing tongue is a tree of life. Proverbs 15:4
The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life. Proverbs 10:11
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has written a book entitled Words that Hurt, Words that Heal. And in the introduction to his book he tells a very simple story that illustrates something of the soothing and healing capabilities of the tongue. Let me share this simple story somewhat at length.
One day our five-year-old daughter Naomi was in a weepy mood, and in a moment of frustration, my wife, Dvorah, yelled at her, “I hate it when you keep crying over nothing! It hurts my ears. If you can’t strop crying, I will have to leave you at home.”
The next morning at breakfast, Naomi’s three-year-old sister, Shira, started crying. And Naomi stuffed both index fingers in her ears, and screamed at her sister: “I hate it when you cry! It hurts my ears. If you have to cry, go into the other room.”
My wife Dvorah was dumbstruck. Our daughter Naomi had exactly replicated her impatient tone, her chiding, even some of her words. Embarrassed, and eager to show Naomi a better response, she went over to the crying Shira, sat her on her lap, and said, “Mommy’s sorry she forgot to wait for you to add blueberries to the pancakes. I never want to make you cry. I’m just going to sit by you until all baby Shira’s tears go away.”
Naomi, the five year old, carefully studied this exchange. During the coming days and weeks, Dvorah made a point of repeating this compassionate reassurance whenever she saw Naomi or any of our other children crying.
Some time later, our youngest child, two-year-old Benjamin, kicked Shira, prompting a fit of wailing. This time Naomi sat down beside her hurt sister and said comfortingly, “It’s okay, Shira. No more crying. I’m going to sit right here for the whole night and wait for you to stop.”
Dvorah and I learned as valuable a lesson as Naomi from this incident, one that has been expressed about a century earlier by Haffetz Hayyim, a great Eastern European rabbinic scholar. He once taught: “When people are preparing a telegram, notice how carefully they consider each word before they put it down. That is how careful we must be when we speak.”
When we speak carefully – when we measure our words – we have the capacity to extend healing and grace to others in our speaking – not only to a crying child, but also to a sorrowful friend, or to a troubled colleague, or to a frustrated stranger, or to an angry neighbour. But as this simple little story makes clear, it’s not simply about being kind to someone with our words. Rather, it is about the fact that our words create a kind of world. When we speak, we touch mind and emotions – our own, and those of others. When we speak, we touch heart and soul – our own and those of others. When we speak we have an impact lives and minds and behaviour. We create a particular world.
Calm words can create a world of calm.
Compassionate words can create a world of comfort.
Courageous and truthful words can create a world of faithfulness.
Loving words can create a world of service.
Again, it is not simply that we should speak kind words to this person, or good words in that situation. It is, rather, that through our words a particular form of life is brought into being – through our words particular ways of being and living and relating are brought into existence.
Going back to where we started, we are reminded that our capacity to speak creative words flows from our creation in the image of God: “Now we will make humans, and they will be like us.” We are created in the image of God, who speaks a world into being. Our capacity to speak creative words is equally rooted in the moving of the Spirit of God – the Spirit of God that is alive in our world and lives. As God speaks and creates and moves and enlivens – our own speech can be caught up in, and mirror, that creative and gracious movement of God.
We are invited, not merely to refrain from speaking angry words – not merely to remember the negative power of our words – all of us know the destructive power of words very well. But we are invited to remember who we are – those who are created in the image of God – those who are called to resurrection life in Christ – those who are filled with the Spirit of God: those whose who have the capacity to create a world of compassion and care and healing through our words.
It is no small thing that we have the capacity to create a beautiful world through our speaking – it is a gift to be treasured and respected.
There’s another aspect of this whole discussion that we cannot neglect – and which the Proverbs do not allow us to neglect. We speak around 15,000 words per day – some of us more words, some of us fewer words. But we also have to remember that in our world there are also those who cannot speak – both literally and figuratively. And in relation to those who cannot speak, here is what the Proverbs offer:
Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy. Proverbs 31:8-9.
Those who cannot speak – those who are without power to be heard – those who are without economic influence – those who are without political power – those who cannot work the system to their own advantage. We are called to raise a voice for them and with them.
Through our speaking, we have the power to create worlds – and in this case, we are invited
to speak into being a world in which those who are without a voice, are heard,
to speak into being a world in which those without justice, obtain justice
to speak into being into being a world in which the marginalized are included.
Think of simple, yet powerful example of Malala Yousafzai – a young woman who is finding her voice – no doubt there were many along the way who helped her to find her voice. And who having found her voice, speaks up for women and girls around her who remain without voice – seeking their dignity and protection – seeking their well-being in the fullest possible sense. With her words, she is creating a world of respect and justice for the marginalized.
But of course this cannot simply be about dramatic and powerful examples out there – it is equally about your speaking and my speaking – and our speaking together as a congregation. As Jesus went to the margins and dwelt among the poor, the sick, prostitutes – among the powerless – creating a world of comfort, and fairness, and loving encounter. So also we are invited to speak for those whose voices are not heard.
Perhaps a family member who has always been on the sidelines.
Perhaps vulnerable elderly men and women shut up in their apartments.
Perhaps those living on the streets these cold damp days.
Perhaps refugees and victims of civil violence around the world.
There are so many whose voices are not heard.
Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.
As we so speak, we will be creating, with God and alongside his beloved Son, a world of beauty. Thanks be to God. Amen.