Proper 21 – Series B
Desperate – We have seen several desperate characters in the last several weeks. The woman who confronted Jesus and showed great faith was desperate for her daughter. The man whose son had a demon was desperate for him, so desperate he sounded a little foolish: I believe, help my unbelief! These people were moved to dramatic acts on behalf of their children.
Jesus today speaks of an act of desperation. If your hand was what caused you to sin, you would cut it off. If it was your foot, you would lose it. It would be better to go to heaven maimed and crippled than to burn in hell with hands and feet intact. You would pluck out and eye, and who knows what else. If the return on the investment was high enough, we would ask for the anesthesia, hold it out, bite the bullet, let the hatchet fall, whatever it took.
Am I that kind of desperate? The children of Israel were, they were desperate for meat. Moses was desperate for help. If I am not does that mean I really should be more desperate? Jesus seems sometimes to speak to a wholly other sort of person than I am. He speaks to a man who takes his sin far more seriously than I do. If I really thought that my hand caused me to sin, I would probably wait until my death bed before I asked the doctor to chop it off. I have spent enough time in Lutheran parishes and in a Lutheran home to know that I am a sinner, I have confessed it nearly every week for my whole life. But do I really know what that means? Does my sin drive me to desperation before God? Do I have the “terrified conscience” which the Lutheran Confessions are always talking about? Do I need one? How do I get one? Do I really want one? What if my conscience is better described as “a little uneasy once in a while?” What if for the most part I am pretty content to slouch my way into heaven, not really a bad person, but not really a good one either?
What if I am happy with spiritual mediocrity? Am I the congregant neither hot nor cold whom Jesus threatens to “spit out” in Revelation 3:16? Is my failure to be desperate about my sin really a sign of my spiritual numbness? Have I lost that salty character of stalwart Christians of years past when martyrs’ blood was shed and crusty old confessors glowered across the church out of their one remaining eye like some ancient Madeye Moody? Am I really of the same tradition as Luther who agonized over his sinfulness? My greatest agony is probably the fact that my body is hitting middle age and my knees really hurt when I weed my garden. Have I failed to tend the garden of my life and address the weeds therein?
God is crushing our spirit today. He is smashing our pretentions and our comfort. His Spirit will fall on unlikely folk, even the wrong sort of people in the Old Testament. James will point the accusing finger at all of us, especially those who live in this wealthy country and groan when our finances are tightened so that we have to forgo a few lattes. Do we feel compassion for the folks who summer where they winter? Should we start a ministry to the second homeless? And Jesus – what a word he has for us today! It is filled with millstones and hell’s fires and worms which do not die. 2
But, that is not the worst of it. Listen to the psalmist today. He is either completely nuts or onto something. He speaks of the living things of the earth getting their sustenance from God, but then God turning away from them, and they perish. When God restores relationship they are living once more. God causes the fields to bloom and the mountains to smoke and belch fire. But it is the last verse which might be either the most loopy thing you have ever read or the most profound:
35Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more! Bless the LORD, O my soul! Praise the LORD!
Has he really thought about just who is included in that list of sinners and just who will be consumed? My old sinner in me doesn’t want to think about that, but if I don’t, the last part of the verse doesn’t get sung. God crushes us today, that he might make us alive. God destroys our trust and reliance on anything other than him. He renders us helpless before his righteous face and law and in the darkness of our sin, so that his light may shine. The Psalmist is not loopy – he is just a good Lutheran.
How much of our preaching is not really about helping us cope with our sins instead of proclaiming a removal of them? Have we just gotten so comfortable with them that we don’t really want to be rid of them? Do we sometimes have a disconnection between the sin we identify and the gospel we proclaim? Do we actually proclaim a sin removal or do we talk about sins and then simply say “Jesus died….” Do our folks expect to hear a platitude but not expect their sin to be removed from them?
A recent study of young people found that most Christian youth were actually moralistic therapeutic deists. They thought folks should keep the golden rule and be nice – moralists. They thought God wanted them to be healthy and feel good about themselves. Thus if they were not hurting anyone, living together is not really a problem. God wants them to be happy – they believe in a therapeutic God who wants them to be happy. And God is essentially a distant God – they are deists. He is not going to actually do anything.
Everlasting Father, source of every blessing, mercifully direct and govern us by Your Holy Spirit that we may complete the works You have prepared for us to do; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
God is everlasting. He doesn’t wear out or erode. The mountains, the geologists tell us, will eventually be worn down by the slow work of water and wind upon them. Not so our God. A billion years may pass, he won’t change. He lasts forever. For the sinner, the good news is that no amount of sin will ever erode away his love for us. His mercy is not eroded by the acidic flow of sin. 3
God is the source of every blessing. Just about 1000 years ago a very important theologian named Anselm developed a significant proof of the existence of God. This is called the “ontological proof” which spins out the idea that the being who occupies the top of every hierarchy must be God. All power has to eventually cede to one who is the most powerful. All beauty must admit that there is someone more beautiful. All goodness must eventually admit that there is one best. If you climb any of those ladders you will eventually find that someone is at the top and that someone is God. God is the source, the beginning, the one at the top of the blessing ladder. Philosophers have been grinding their teeth at Anselm for a very long time now. His “proof” is still being debated and in truth has not always carried the day, but for the average preacher and the guy in the pew, this is something to think about as we contemplate God.
The actual petition in here is that God would mercifully direct and govern us. Mercy, remember, is shown only to those who need it. It is no mercy for the judge to free an innocent man; that is simply justice. Only the guilty can receive mercy. So we plead to God from a position of weakness and helplessness. “Have mercy.” It is the cry of the ten lepers in Luke 17, and the blind and lame and the parents of demoniacs throughout out the Gospels. We take our place in line with them in this prayer, and in the Kyrie if we still sing those beautiful words on Sunday.
The petition also has a goal. We ask God to help us so that we can complete the works which God has prepared for us to do. You have surely seen the little poster or bumper sticker which asserts that God has given us so many things to do in this life and I am so far behind that I will never die. God indeed does have lots of things to do, alas, he is not dependent up on us to do them. Our prayer has not ended, you see. We are not just trying to entice God into answering our prayer by showing him something good. God will get his things done with or without us, we really want to be part of that, and we are begging God to be part of his good work to which he has graciously invited us.
“Complete” is such an interesting word here, and so is “prepared.” The implication is that the completion only happens because something has been started. This seems to resonate with Eph 2:10. He did not prepare this the government, the Kiwanis, the Rotary, but he prepared them for the Saints to do and they are given us to complete. The Christian cannot sit in the pew and say that the good things of God are someone else’s job. God has given them to us, especially the job that the Gospel be heard.
What is that good work? What good things has God got for me to do? Scripture is pretty clear that this has something to do with saving the world. To die in sin and out of a relationship with God is a terrible thing. Hell is really hot. My words, my deeds, my life have all become an instrument for God to give eternal life to another. God has a lot of stuff for us to do, of course, simply living life is part of that. Loving my spouse, earning my pay, carting my son to another cross country track meet, and fixing my house can all be occasions in which God uses me for his kingdom purposes. Or they can be lived selfishly and for my own purposes.
This is where we need God to govern and direct our life. We need him to bring the right people into our orbit so that we can speak and love and witness to them. We need God to keep us 4
humble and gentle. We need God to fill us with his love, his compassion, and his forgiveness. I will surely make a muddle of any world saving, but he can use me.
Or is this perhaps corporate. Are we governed s a Church to complete the great commission of Matthew 28? Is the governance of the individual intended to keep them from checking out of that mission and letting “someone else” do it? Perhaps.
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
And the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes, and when the LORD heard it, his anger was kindled, and the fire of the LORD burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. 2 Then the people cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the LORD, and the fire died down. 3 So the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the LORD burned among them.
4 Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. 6 But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”
7 Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance like that of bdellium. 8 The people went about and gathered it and ground it in handmills or beat it in mortars and boiled it in pots and made cakes of it. And the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil. 9 When the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell with it.
10 Moses heard the people weeping throughout their clans, everyone at the door of his tent. And the anger of the LORD blazed hotly, and Moses was displeased. 11 Moses said to the LORD, “Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? 12 Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers? 13 Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ 14 I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. 15 If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness.”
16 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. 17 And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone. 18 And say to the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat, for you have wept in the hearing of the LORD, saying, “Who will give us meat to eat? For it was better for us in Egypt.” Therefore the LORD will give you meat, and you shall eat. 19 You shall not eat just one day, or 5
two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, 20 but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the LORD who is among you and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we come out of Egypt?”’” 21 But Moses said, “The people among whom I am number six hundred thousand on foot, and you have said, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat a whole month!’ 22 Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, and be enough for them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, and be enough for them?” 23 And the LORD said to Moses, “Is the LORD‘s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.”
24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD. And he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people and placed them around the tent. 25 Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it.
26 Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” 29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” 30 And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.
31 Then a wind from the LORD sprang up, and it brought quail from the sea and let them fall beside the camp, about a day’s journey on this side and a day’s journey on the other side, around the camp, and about two cubits above the ground.32 And the people rose all that day and all night and all the next day, and gathered the quail. Those who gathered least gathered ten homers. And they spread them out for themselves all around the camp. 33 While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD struck down the people with a very great plague. 34 Therefore the name of that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah, because there they buried the people who had the craving. 35 From Kibroth-hattaavah the people journeyed to Hazeroth, and they remained at Hazeroth.
Some years ago, Ed St John, our resident culinary expert from Sonoma County, CA, suggested that the list of items for which they crave along with their fish would make a really good fruit salsa or garnish for fish. Ed had one called “Fire and Ice Salsa” and it has watermelon, cucumber, cilantro, etc. tasty, at least according to Ed. We have yet to get independent verification on that on. I think I need to plan a trip to California to find out.
Moses complains about the assembly, that they are too great, and the answer which God has for him involves gathering the resources right out of that assembly of people to assist Moses. The 6
elders are already there, they are not created by Moses, but identified by him. The perfect answer to Moses’ problems are the very imperfect people he is struggling with. The job is too big for Moses, so he gets help from the very group that probably were his biggest trouble makers as leaders of the people.
Remember that Wendy’s commercial from a number of years ago in which the elderly woman would look at the burger presented by some competing firm and yell, “Where’s the beef?” The Israelites are craving some protein. Though it would appear that the manna, which literally means “what is it?” was nutritionally sound; it was not “meating” their needs. (I really apologize for that, but it was just too good to pass up.)
One would have thought that the people had learned their lesson in the first part of the chapter. They complained before and God struck many of them dead with a fire of some sort and only the prayer of Moses could save them. But the rabble are never satisfied, at least in Numbers they are not and I am not so sure about anywhere else. They want meat, they pine for the days of slavery in Egypt when granted they were being worked to death and Pharaoh was slaughtering all their infant sons, but at least they had a little meat in the diet, some melons, cucumbers, leeks, onions, and garlic. They might have had to speak to one another from a considerable distance, but at least they were not without some variety in their diet.
I have to admit that the manna described here sounds like it might be good once in a while, but I am glad for the variety I find in my local grocery store. The sound of the complaining rises up and both God and Moses are displeased. Moses seems to pre-empt God on this one and dumps it in his lap. “This is too big a job for me, will you listen to these people!” God has a solution. For Moses it will be seventy helpers, men whom the Israelites select. God will pour some of the same Spirit that is on Moses on them. For the grumblers, they will get their meat, in fact they will get so much of it that they will be sick of it. A month’s worth of meat, till it comes out of their noses and ears and they long for a bit of manna again.
Moses starts doing a little computing and wondering where even God can get that much. But God has resources even Moses doesn’t know about. Now Moses must see and believe. It isn’t just the Israelites who have a faith problem here.
First the seventy elders of Israel are dealt with, and that is the real gist which the editors of the pericope system want us to see. Moses and the people appoint 70 of these guys and make a date to show up in the tent of meeting, the tabernacle for a meeting with God. While they are there, God’s Spirit descends upon the seventy elders and they prophecy. What exactly that means, we are not given to say, but it is clear that this is a once only thing. In the ancient Israelite world the act of prophecy was often an ecstatic event. There is a famous scene in Samuel in which Saul falls into a fit and they call it prophecy. In the ancient world and in many cultures to this day, people whom we would call “mentally ill” or suffering from some sort of affliction were perceived to be closer to God than the rest of us. 7
The Spirit, however, is not bound by the human institutions which we find necessary. God had told Moses to appoint seventy elders, he did, but two of them apparently refused the appointment. They had remained behind in the camp. Did they do so because they willfully rejected the call of Moses? Did they remain because they were proto-Lutherans and insisted they were not worthy? Did they remain behind because they forgot to update the calendars on their late Bronze Age Blackberries? (It was the Bronze Age, after all, didn’t they use Blackberries back then?) Had their iPhone simply been left off the charger and was too weak to sound the appointment reminder alarm? We don’t know. It doesn’t say and apparently that is not important. When the Spirit of God comes, it falls on them too. Joshua is offended at all this. He wants to rebuke these men, but Moses is chastened in all this. He has complained that this is too much, and now he has seventy helpers. He humbly and appropriately remembers that this is God’s Spirit and not his own. Perhaps he is realizing that his spiritual monopoly is at an end. If God wants to share this, it is God’s to share. What is more, Moses would that all people had this gift of Spirit as indeed we enjoy today in baptism.
Then, at the end of the chapter, we get one of those passages which is hard to understand. God gives them their meat, lots of it. In fact two cubits of quail would be about 3 feet! That is a remarkable snowfall, let alone a quail-fall! What did they do with all these things? It said they spread them out around the camp, but the description is that they were deep all around the camp.
But then the text gets really strange. God seems to get vindictive on us here. The people are just tucking into their quail and manna feast when suddenly a plague comes upon them. In the very act of chewing, before they swallow, they are stricken and many die. What sort of a God is this? Apparently this is not a question the pericope editors want us to wrestle with today, but it would suggest to me that we have to be very careful with this text not to make God into the sort of God who is constrained by our categories and institutional structures. He is not a tame lion, wrote C. S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia. He is good, but he is not tame, nor safe. He has a few claws in those paws and we forget those claws at our peril. If anything, I would think that our “Jesus is my buddy” theology might need to be revisited in this text.
We struggle with these questions. A student one day came up to me after class and said she had a quick question because a fellow in her Bible study was dominating things. She wanted to know why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus. Could I answer that quickly between classes? She wanted an answer, not the series of questions I left her with.
But there is more than one way to tame God, is there not? Don’t ecclesial institutions try to do this all the time? We act as if God can only act through our church ministry or through our sanctioned and theologically correct institutions. If we only follow the latest church growth formula, then we will be blessed with growth. But God has a way of surprising us. Yes, he can even use Catholics, or worse, Baptists. Who knows, maybe he even alleviated the suffering of untold millions through an unbeliever like Gandhi. It means that my exclusive divine franchise is not really all that exclusive and it bothers us sometimes. 8
This is especially a problem for Christians of a more conservative type who are theologically motivated like we are. There is a strong impulse and worthily felt, I might add, which says that we need to be supportive of our Lutheran ministries because they are a more proper distinction of Law and Gospel, motivated by the pure Gospel and Faith. And in so far as this is true, absolutely yes. But at the same time, if the Baptist, or the Catholic, or even the Atheist is under the bridge feeding hungry people and my donation can make that better, I give it. God’s works are not bound by my institutional values. He might even be able to save the world without Lutherans, as hard as that is to imagine. We have Lutheran Bible Translators, a great organization, but one which was founded because we had a hard time getting along with the folks at Wycliff Bible Translators. Would we all be stronger if we were all together? Perhaps, perhaps not, and it may just be that despite our sin God is doing even greater things through the two of them.
It is very hard to be happy when the non-denominational church down the street is thriving and my little parish is struggling. Congregations live in both the kingdom of the Gospel and in the business world as institutions. If we don’t have members who write checks and give their offerings of time and talent, the congregation ceases to be. As Thrivent used to say, “In order to do good, we have to do well.” That meant that in order for them to support with money the programs, they need folks to buy insurance and investments from them.
But when the non-denom builds a new building and lots of folks gather to hear the Word of God read on Sunday mornings, can we not be happy about that? No, the preacher is not properly dividing the Law and Gospel and sometimes what is done there is atrocious, but God’s Word is still being read and folks are still encountering Christ and the Spirit can use bad preaching too. I know he has used some of my lousy sermons.
I am not saying that we don’t have a theological beef with these guys. We do. Like you I have listened to the horror stories of people who have been terribly abused by what passes for Christian theology practiced in some places. But let’s be honest, there are quite a few folks walking around who can share those same stories about the way we have practiced our terribly correct theology as well.
27These all look to you, to give them their food in due season. 28 When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. 29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. 9
30 When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.
31 May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works, 32 who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke! 33 I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being. 34 May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the LORD. 35 Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more! Bless the LORD, O my soul! Praise the LORD!
See my notes in the opening essay. Is the final verse of this just odd or what?
James 5:(1-12) 13-20
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. 4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
7 Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. 9 Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. 10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.
12 But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one 10
who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
James seems to be giving us a laundry list of interesting things here. What is the common thread that is holding all this together? Perhaps it is best to see this as James preaching to a large and diverse congregation of people. On one hand he has the wealthy land owners who are living in luxury and not properly compensating their workers. They are collecting their gold and their treasures by abusing people. The corrosion of their sins is already eating away at their flesh. Imagine the irony of the poor farm laborer outliving the wealthy land owner because the land owner has indulged in too much wine and too many rich desserts.
But then he turns to the folks whose jeans have patches in them and whose hands are calloused from their hard labor. To them he urges patience. This is not the radical migrant labor organizer who is telling his fellow migrants to strike and violently disrupt the harvest to secure better wages. James urges them to wait, the day of the Lord’s judgment is at hand. (Remember this is right at 2000 years ago! Has the judgment come or are they still waiting?) They are not to complain and grumble against a brother, even a brother who is in the first category and cheating his workers out of their wages? Should we not complain against such a brother?
Then a brief exhortation to letting our speech be plain. We are not to swear by things which we cannot control, but simply speak our “yes” and “no.” Let it be at that.
Then and exhortation to prayer and praise in suffering and adversity is invoked. Elijah who prayed and changed the weather is trotted out as an example. Pray in adversity, praise in good times. The elders of the church are part of this, an anointing with oil for the sick and prayer is all that is needed, or perhaps better said, God is all that is needed.
Then a paragraph on restoring the lost and wandering brother: This is a good thing. To restore a brother covers a multitude of sins and saves the restorer from death as well.
How does all this fit together? It sounds like exhortations every congregation I have ever addressed could sure stand to hear and abide by. If anything the folks today might be comforted in the simple truth that the very first generation of Christians was not any different than they were. This is a sermon by Jesus’ own brother. It wasn’t for lack of pastoral expertise, it wasn’t because they were in good times or bad times; they were just sinners, just like us. 11
They needed the same forgiving Jesus we need and they got him. He has come for folks just like us. The first century was not a golden age when Christians were really Christians as opposed to this corrupted generation when we have somehow failed to live up to our place in the kingdom of God. They were just as greedy, foolish, contentious, self-centered and sinful as we are. That’s why Jesus came. That’s why he comes to us today in his Spirit, in his Sacrament, in this very word we preach.
38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 For the one who is not against us is for us. 41 For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.
42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell,48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ 49 For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Perhaps we need to remember where we are going with all this before we start on this text because I believe that context is important.
1. Two weeks ago, Mark portrayed for us Jesus the only help for the demon possessed little boy. The disciples could not help, the boy’s father was powerless, only Jesus could help him.
2. Last week, Jesus put a little child in the middle of the disciples and told them that these little ones were the top of the kingdom’s pecking order. The highest place went to the one who served them, and today we will hear that those who harm them must answer to God himself.
3. Today, Jesus makes children of us all. Remember that a child in the ancient world is not innocent, he is helpless. Jesus speaks of our helplessness before the power of sin. We are in no position to turn down any help. We are powerless before this foe. Not even drastic measures on our part will accomplish anything. Perhaps we need to remember this especially today. Yes, the Christian life is one of service, but it is also an act of service for God to save us. Let the world serve us too, do not be too proud to be helped. Their service to us may be God’s great gift to them, besides we are really helpless in all this. What happens to the people of God is really, really important to God.
4. Next week, Jesus will illustrate this with an example which seems tailored for our world: divorce. He will hear no excuses and take no prisoners here. It is adultery, worthy of eternal death and hell. There is no escape clause for cases of infidelity or abuse or abandonment. But then Jesus will do something remarkable. He will welcome children (helpless people) to his arms.
5. If you take it a little further out, the following two weeks focus on the temptation to think that our wealth will save us or that our wealth is somehow the indicator of God’s blessing. The wealthy have a difficult time of it because they are tempted to trust their wealth and not God. They are under the delusion that they are in fact competent, the opposite of the child whom Jesus takes into his arms.
Where we left off from the reading in the OT, we pick up here. John informs Jesus that someone is using his name without being properly certified. He sounds just like Joshua and Jesus sounds remarkably like Moses, at least in his attitude toward this event. John tried to stop this man and is apparently either looking for a word of affirmation or perhaps some help from Jesus. But this is not what Jesus does. In fact, and this seems to be intended as something that was surprising to John, and perhaps to us, Jesus says “don’t stop him.” The rationale is interesting. The one who invokes the name of Jesus to do a mighty work will not soon be able to speak evil of him. Is that just because he would appear to be a two faced if he did or is it because we know such mighty works are the fruit of faith? Or is this just some mysterious working of the Spirit of God?
The one who is not against us is for us and if they give us even a cup of cold water because we belong to Christ, they will not lose their reward. Here the situation of Mark’s audience is critical for understanding. The Christians to whom Mark is writing are under considerable pressure and in some difficulty. The Neronian persecution is brutal, violent, and extremely frightening for them. The Christians often find themselves hiding or on the run. At the time, the Roman populace in general was not always on the side of the emperor. He was a little nutty and the whole Julian line had pretty much run its course. Within a few short years of Mark’s writing, the Praetorian Guard would surround Nero and kill him, ushering in a civil war. The Christian running from persecution was liable to find a sympathetic neighbor or co-worker who might take them in, give them a quick place to hide, or even just a cup of cool water on a hot Mediterranean summer day, just because they were being chased by this insane emperor and his soldiers.
If you want to read a really interesting story with this element, consider the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas from the Severian persecution of the year 202. The soldier who is tasked with watching over the condemned Christians and who ultimately pushes them into the arena treats them humanely and sympathetically. One of the young men in the group who had been mauled by a leopard turns to the soldier as he was dying and asks for the soldier’s ring. He dips it in the blood which is flowing from his neck and hands it back to the soldier. People at the time thought that such a relic, dipped in the blood of a holy martyr, was a powerful protection for anyone who wore it. You can easily find this story online. In fact, here a link to one site: 13
http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/actsperpetua.html The scene I describe is toward the end of this relatively brief document in chapter VI and paragraph 4.
Mark is telling his people a number of things about that. First of all, God is not limited to just the believers. He can use all sorts of people to accomplish his good work. Secondly, that whole process may in fact be an occasion for God to be calling that person to faith. Many a Roman who helped the Christians was later converted. In fact, it is implied that the soldier, Pudens, was later to become a Christian. But also simply that it is OK to be helped by an unbeliever. Even when you are on the run, fleeing an enemy, and you have no way to thank adequately your benefactor for his help, God has noticed this, even something as simple as a little glass of water. God will have a reward for them. I do not know exactly what that is, but God does. And as I disappear into the night and realize that my friend has probably risked his life to give me that little cup of water, I can know that God has seen that and he will make sure that this is not forgotten, even if I am captured and killed before morning.
Verse 42, however, directs the audience to a bigger problem than persecution. This is a regular feature of Mark. When the persecution rises to the surface in here, he always directs the hearer to the real problem. It is not the soldiers who kill us, but the enemy who devours our soul and the sin which empowers him. The Roman dungeons are light and airy places compared to the dreary and eternal confines of hell.
We also get the children back into the scene. The little one who at least as the story is told, seems to still be standing in Jesus arms, is held up once more. The one who causes such a little one to stumble, that one will be most severely punished. Again, in Mark’s context, that stumble would most likely mean a disavowal of Christ. The one who takes the side of the persecutor and scores a victory, causing a Christian to renounce his faith, that one is in for a very difficult time. To be dead and dropped into the sea where no one can honor your grave would be preferable. Even to this day, Jews will not be cremated because they think this is so important. They want their little acreage in the holy land to be theirs, physically occupied by their dead body.
And here we get one of Jesus often misunderstood and frankly bizarre sayings. I take this to be a statement of the radical nature of sin. If it was our foot or our hand or our eye which caused us to sin, we would cut it off to get into eternal life. But it is not our foot or hand or eye that causes the sin. Cut them off and the sin remains, because the sin is us. No matter what you cut, even a heart transplant, does not change this reality.
We are helpless before our sins. Jesus seems to be hammering that point. But helpless is the very nature of being a child. Jesus has said that children are important, really important to God. And then he makes us all helpless (children) before our sinfulness. Last week several of us preached about an upside-down God who saw children as important and measured greatness by how many you served. But it is not God who is upside down – it is us! This sermon will need to start with idea that our world needs to be completely reoriented to God’s perspective – children are not innocent, we are helpless before sin, God loves the helpless, we are helpless, God loves us, not because we are competent, but despite our incompetence. 14
Salt is salty or it is just another rock. Our problems lie in our very nature. God made us purposefully and we are not living up to that. How can we be made salty again? How do we change our very nature? God has given us a new nature in Christ, a forgiving, peaceful nature. Mark exhorts us to keep it. Fear does that to a person. It makes us very reticent to forgive or to see the world through Jesus’ eyes. Everyone becomes an enemy then.
Is this passage especially helpful if we see that we like our repeated sins, but we usually have a problem with the sins of others, especially the ones we really don’t like? The repeat criminal is somehow worse than the housewife who cannot stop lying or the man who visits the porn site. We like to measure sins by how much harm we can see. But Jesus doesn’t make that distinction. We are all helpless before our sins. Jesus is concerned about the helpless. He has heard Moses’ prayer, poured out the Holy Spirit who governs and directs us (Collect of the Day) and that means we can complete the good work, the reform which God has outlined for us. God does not want us to be helpless before sin and death. He empowers us with his Spirit to be different people who are not helpless before these sins. We have the Spirit
1. My sin is me. I cannot be rid of it, but it has infested every part of me.
2. There are parts of my life that are totally out of control. Places I cannot go, web sites I dare not visit, activities I dare not indulge in, things I must cut off from my life or I will descend into the pits of sin.
3. I am not sure that this is true, what is more I desperately don’t want it to be true. I don’t like to think about this, and so I most often don’t. But does my failure to fear the consequence of my sin make the consequence any less dire?
4. I would like to think that I have some control of this situation, but I don’t. God is not my pet and I am not his “friend.” He is the creator and rightful judge of the world. He calls the shots, I don’t and that terrifies me. The Psalmist says the LORD comes to deal with sin and sinners, and I am terrified at that prospect.
5. I don’t like being out of control. I cannot control what is happening to me, I cannot even control who is helping me. I am not so sure I want their help. Sometimes I wish they would just stop, or if they would help, they could help on my schedule and on my terms.
6. If I wake up to my sin, suddenly this gets really overwhelming. My life is messed up, my family is messed up, my church is messed up. (James)
1. Christ has assumed the human nature, taking that which was sinful into his holy self that he might purify it and make it holy and pure once more. Praise be to Christ!
2. Christ has loved me despite my failings, but he also seeks to lift me from the pit of my sinful past and present. His gift of Spirit and community in Christ are a potent antidote to my sinful predilections.
3. Christ knows my sin and my problems, better than I do. My forgiveness is in his hands, my life is tied up with his life. I cannot possibly recognize all my sin, but he has and he has applied his holy blood to the lot of it, whether I have gotten around to repenting of it properly or not.
4. God is in control, and that is a good thing because he is gracious and merciful and he knows what is best. Like the little child who jumps into her father’s arms, we can leap off the edge of this big swimming pool called life and expect that God will catch us. He is good at that.
5. And that means I can expect help from strange and unexpected corners of my world. If they are for me, that is good. If they are not against me, that could still be good. I am open to their help. Perhaps I should not be stupid about their help, but I am open to it. It may well be that their impurity will be changed by my purity and not the other way around.
6. Yes, I am messed up, but that is why Christ came. He is the savior of us all, the raiser of the dead, the rescuer of people helpless before their sinful condition. If we were able to claw our way out of this pit, he would have let us do that. But we can’t, so he came and lifted us to life.
1. These little ones (Gospel – That the Holy Spirit would assure the hearer that his/her life is terribly important to God.)
This sermon once more has the general deism in sights. We have internalized the cultural expectation of God. The culture imagines that God is far away. Prayers are long-distance calls. From that distance, our lives are simply another mote in a great universe, a small variation in a complex pattern. God is not paying attention to me.
This week’s reference to children shatters that idea. Jesus notices if someone so much as gives a cup of cold water to you. Jesus assures you that if someone hurts you, even a little one, a child, (and here remember he has a child in his arms when he is saying this) it would be better if a millstone were hung around the neck and that person be cast into the sea. Jesus means business when he says this.
For Mark’s original audience, this was really important. They were afraid, we think of a persecution. They were running, perhaps for their lives. A kind pagan might give them a cup of cold water as they fled. They might hardly have a moment to say thank you. But they heard that God had seen that kindness. It would be repaid. 16
Conversely, they also were being hounded by pursuers. It is always the little ones who suffer. The image of the little Syrian boy whose body washed up on the Turkish beach a few years ago was powerful and gripped the world for at least one news cycle. Jesus sees that too.
The sinner whom we address really likes the idea that God is far away and not paying too close attention to what we are doing. He likes the anonymity of that distance. Jesus won’t allow it. But it is God’s love, not his wrath and judgment which pervades this text and which drives his attention. The preacher will also need to highlight that. God as NSA looking at all your emails is not what we are shooting for here. This is God as watchful parent who doesn’t bury his nose in a smart phone at the playground, but is carefully and attentively watching the kids play.
2. Jesus Christ – My only Savior and Lord (Gospel: That the hearer would believe and rejoice that Christ has come to find the truly lost, raise the truly dead, and save the truly imperiled, including this lost, dying and imperiled sinner.)
Have you ever been really lost? Have you ever walked around with a child or a person suffering from dementia who cannot find their way home, or even to their own bedroom in a house? It is a horrible feeling. It frightens us to lose control and to be dependent on another. I remember arriving in Chennai, India at midnight. The man who was supposed to pick me up thought I was arriving at midnight the next night, so I waited outside the airport near the baggage claim for a long time, weary from my long journey, and I did not even know what he looked like. It was torridly hot, and outside the fence was a teeming mass of what looked like identical brown faces, all holding up signs, none of them with my name on it. All I could remember was the name of the place where I was to stay, but I did not know how to get there, I could not have even told you anything about where it was. I was half way around the world, could not speak the language, I was lost. I walked up to a little kiosk at the end of the waiting area and found a rather gruff man behind the counter, I explained my situation and he smiled. “I know where you are going,” he said. He called a taxi, explained my destination, and we were off. I never knew falling into a hard bed in a strange land could feel so good.
In this life we are spiritually terribly lost. If we could get to heaven by cutting of a hand or a foot, plucking out an eye, we would do that. But that would not work. What will work? I haven’t a clue, at least not on my own. Jesus explains the dire situation we find ourselves in today. God has an expectation of us, just as when we sprinkle salt on our eggs in the morning, we expect it to change the taste of those eggs. But I know as much about what he expects as I do about being salty. I screw up my face and concentrate real hard, I am no more salty than I was a moment ago.
I am helpless you see. What is the way to heaven? When you die, do you turn right or left? How long do you walk that path? Can you even walk? I don’t know how to fly. But God knows how to bring me there. Death is a little like when you were three years old 17
and you fell asleep in the car as you drove home from Grandma’s house. You were in the car, and the next thing you know, you are waking up in your bed. The reality is that when you were asleep, your parents carried you into your room and put you into bed.
Helpless before our sin, we are like a little child. We are desperate. Jesus makes little children of us, because he has told us that he came to serve the child, to offer up his life, to suffer and die, as a service rendered to all, helpless, little, least, the infant who dies is not beneath his loving attention. He has his eye on that one too, on you as well. Not in judgment, that is past, the cross has seen to that. Now he is looking at you with love and compassion. So lose the idea that you are responsible for this. Rest today, rest in his gracious love to sinners shown.
3. It’s Jesus’ Church – I guess that means it’s not really mine. (That the hearer would rejoice to remember that the church, even this congregation, belongs to Jesus. It is His tool for the salvation of many and His beloved company of saints.)
I sometimes like to think of this as my church, I might even say that when someone asks me where I am pastor, I might say that “My church is ….” But that is not really right of me. It is not my church. It was here before I came along, it will be here after I am gone. It is Jesus’ church. Let’s think about the reality of that for a moment.
- • Good news, I don’t have to carry the burden of making this place fly on my shoulders. I can give, I can serve, but ultimately the success of this place rests on God’s blessings, not my doings. This is the lesson that Moses learned today, the lesson which let him look at Eldad and Medad and say “Would that God put his Spirit on all his people.” In heaven there will be no preachers – at least we won’t have to preach anymore. Remember too, that if Christ is in me, how can I not serve?
- • Bad news, I don’t carry the burden and so I don’t get to call the shots. I like to be in control, but I am not. I must learn the difficult lesson of obedience to Him. I would much rather do it my way, be like the Israelites of old who tried to determine the meal plan and found themselves in trouble with God. This means God defines my life and ministry, and the life and ministry of this congregation. What if he challenges me and makes me really uncomfortable with that? will I run away to a church that tells me what I want to hear?
- • Good news, God has lots of resources I am not even aware of. I am sure the Israelites in the desert thought that there was nothing but manna for dinner, unless you wanted to roast a lizard, but God had quail for them.
- • Bad news, God has lots of resources, even some that make me uncomfortable. Joshua was appalled that God poured out his spirit on Eldad and Medad. John tried to stop the man who was using Jesus’ name without permission. But God has surprising help for us, scandalous help for us. He might even use an unbeliever,
- homosexual, or drug addict to further his kingdom, to care for his least and lost ones, and he might ask me to work side by side with person.
- • Good News, God sets the agenda. He has little people like me in mind when he acts. No one is unimportant, no one is too little, and no one is beneath his gracious love. No act of kindness, even a cup of water given to a child, is beneath is notice.
- • Bad news, God sets the agenda and I am not in the middle of it. I would like God to notice what a good person I have been this week. I would like a little recognition for my committee work, kind deeds, and the offering I put in the plate. God however tells me that serving the child is reward enough – I have been given the privilege of serving the king of heaven. Do I really want more? This pulls from the week before.
- • Good news, God has poured out his Spirit on all flesh. Moses fervent desire has been realized in the resurrected Christ ascending to heaven and pouring out the Spirit who empowers me to a life of his servant love.
- • Bad news, God has poured out his Spirit on all flesh, even the neighbor whom I really don’t like and the sinner whom I find revolting. Now I have both the ability and the obligation to love with His love. Salt does not have a choice about being salty, both in its ability to make life more savory and to preserve/save the things it touches. I am salty in my forgiveness, the precious gift given to me, but given that I may forgive. Rats! I rather enjoyed nursing that grudge, but God says I cannot. He frees me from it.
Illustration? Some years ago we talked about a group coming back from a trip to rebuild houses in New Orleans. They probably got plenty of water handed to them. Was it from doctrinally approved Lutheran sources? Who cares, it was water, it was hot, they were thirsty and someone was glad that they were there and offered to help them. They were working side by side with fellow Lutherans, other Christians, some unbelievers perhaps, believers in non-Christian religions, even, God forbid, ELCA members. God was glad to see that house built and the family that moved into it receive the shelter and comfort which it provides them today, whether they are Christian or not. Yes, he desires that relationship with them and the kindness shown them may be another avenue for him to establish that relationship, but he is glad that they are safe, warm and sheltered.
Have we seen the ill effects in our congregations of people who take too much ownership of the parish? I had a member who gave a huge gift once and thought he owned the place from that day forward. He should call the shots. Have you seen someone who “owns” the position of elder or congregational president or altar guild? I knew a woman who terrorized the members of the altar guild if they vacuumed in the wrong direction. 19
4. How can we be salty again? (Gospel – That the Spirit of God would convince the hearer of his/her value to God and trust that God has rescued him/herself from their own self-destructive nature.)
This sermon will notice that we are our own worst enemies. Jesus says that we would cut off a hand to get to heaven if that worked. But it doesn’t. Our problem is not a hand or a foot or an eye, it is our very selves, it is our heart. We cannot cut that off!
But God tells us in these words that we are really, really important to him. He notices when people are nice to us, when people are terrible to us. He remembers, he promises reward and recompense. We are his children, his little ones.
But he also notices that we are our own worst enemies. Like foolish children who get themselves into trouble, we are inclined to find a way to mess things up. And here it gets hard and difficult. For God loves us, despite us. He salts us with the fire of his Holy Spirit. But we foolishly have too often let that fire and ember die in our lives. We have become self-absorbed and the salt which God has created us to be has become the worthless gravel of salt that has lost its flavor.
How will we be made salty again?
This has great implications for congregations which seem to have lost their zeal. This re-creation is the work of God for only he can do it. He is the only one who can change the mineral content here. Jesus speaks the words – be salty. This is the same Jesus who once said, “let there be light” and there was light. Jesus has spoken a word to us today. He in that word makes us salty again.
What does salt do? It does different things at different times. We sometimes think that to be salty means one thing, but perhaps Jesus has a different purpose for us as his salt in this community.
1. It makes things taste good
2. It preserves things from spoiling
3. It also slows down yeast in a bread dough so it can make it taste better and release all those important niacin vitamins our bodies cannot digest from wheat naturally.
I like to make ice cream which involves salt and ice. But after the ice cream is made, I don’t know what to do with this really salty water. But then I discovered that asparagus is native to salt marshes and can tolerate it. So I pour the salt water on my asparagus patch to kill the weeds. God calls us to be salty – that might not always look like we imagine it to look.
God counts on it so much that he also has to temper that saltiness, that zeal – be at peace with one another says James. That means we might have to let Medad and Eldad have their moment in the Spirit too. It might mean we let the one who does something good – 20
like John’s guy who cast out the demon, even though they are not a Lutheran, hear our thanks and praise. There are real implications of this for us in the way we conduct ourselves. We are always the people whom God has once more graciously restored. The person who hears and believes this sermon cannot be spiritually proud and arrogant, but must be humble.
But the proclamation of Jesus today is that Jesus will not leave us in our torpor. Salting with fire may be rather exciting, even dangerous, he be promises, all will be salted with this fire. Holy Spirit?
We look forward to what that will bring among us.
So what will we do with this here this week? Shall we pray? Shall we act on this promise? Shall we forgive because the Spirit of God blows among us and would heal old hurts? The preacher will do well to ask the “so what” question here.