The 20th Sunday after Pentecost October 14, 2007
28, 535, 289, 400
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
May God grant to each of us a faith that will not waver, though the waves of perversion beat against it daily, granting us also the strength and courage to bear fruits in keeping with that faith. Amen.
Dear Fellow Christians:
It is not without reason that we talk about balance in the life of the child of God. Christian balance could well serve as the theme for this week’s text, and the next, and the next. Balance in all that we say and do as Christians is absolutely vital if we are to remain spiritually healthy individuals in a very spiritually unhealthy world.
As with all things, however, here too there can be danger. The danger in speaking often about balance is that one can thereby get the impression that we are to be a weak, noncommittal church—a church full of individuals who take no position and condemn nothing as error. Herein lies the art of Christianity. Balance does not indicate laxity or weakness. Neither does balance indicate apathy or indifference. In fact proper Christian balance very often calls for drastic measures. This is the truth that stands out clearly in our text for this morning, found in the ninth chapter of Mark’s Gospel account. Here we will examine “The Drastic Measures of True Christianity.”
Now John answered Him, saying, “Teacher, we saw someone who does not follow us casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow us.” But Jesus said, “Do not forbid him, for no one who works a miracle in My name can soon afterward speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is on our side. For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in My name, because you belong to Christ, assuredly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward. But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched—where ‘Their worm does not die, And the fire is not quenched.’ And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched—where ‘Their worm does not die, And the fire is not quenched.’ And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire where ‘Their worm does not die, And the fire is not quenched.’ For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt. Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another.
So far the very words of our God. Truly these are perfect words, spoken long ago by the Savior Himself. That is why we can never study or meditate upon these inspired words too often or too carefully. That God the Holy Spirit would work His goodness in our hearts through our study of these words we pray: “Sanctify us through Your Truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth!” Amen.
Rigid application of rules in the absence of love is a form of legalism, and legalism has no place in God’s Church or in the lives of Christians. Satan, however, loves to try to confuse us. He loves to try to keep us off balance and uncertain. He would have us believe that since the law of love may at times override the letter of the law in a certain case, then all that remains is to convince us that every case is a special case—an exception. Eventually, we are left with no principle whatsoever for that principle is dismantled “special case” by “special case.” The Devil would also have us believe that since there may be an occasional exception to some rule that means that the rule is really quite unimportant. He would argue, for example, that if Rahab was not condemned for lying to protect the Israelite spies, then lying can’t be all that bad. If Jesus allowed the disciples to “harvest” grain on the Sabbath, then minor infractions against God’s commands are no big deal. We know better, but from time to time we like to pretend that we don’t.
Our text deals with this very real problem of trifling with the Word and will of God and with the souls that are affected by that Word. We begin with the disciples approaching Jesus in a bit of a righteous dither. Apparently someone in the area had been using Jesus’ name to cast out demons—the nerve! The disciples evidently believed that Jesus’ name had some sort of copyright that protected it from being used by those outside of their intimate circle of followers. You can see here a bit of the petty jealousy that crops up in the disciples from time to time. They had lost sight of the object (defeating Satan and winning souls for Christ) and were interested primarily in the rules of the game.
As a conservative Lutheran church body we often face the same dangers. We lose sight of the souls and the goals, and we quarrel about rules, procedures, mannerisms, and the like. In effect, we forget the trees because we claim to be interested in the forest.
Note next the perfect balance struck by our perfect Savior in His perfect answer. On the one hand, He told his disciples not to forbid such a one from doing what he was doing. “For he who is not against us is on our side.” [v.40] That is the one side (and it is most comforting to acknowledge and bear in mind), but it is one side only. There would have been no balance had Jesus left it at that. Satan would have been given too great a beachhead from which to mount attacks of all kinds against the Church. So Jesus provides perfect balance and divine wisdom when he says, “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.” [v.41]
Do you see the problem if Jesus had not added this last? How easy for the Devil to promote unionism and doctrinal laxity or indifference. How easy for him to play down the importance of every single doctrine of Holy Scripture. Suppose Jesus had only given the command not to hinder another Christian’s ministry. Wouldn’t He in fact have been giving some sort of stamp of approval not only on what other Christians were doing, but also on what they were preaching and teaching? Jesus erased any such nonsense with the dramatic words of verse 42, “Whoever offends one of these little ones…” To offend means to cause someone to stumble in his faith. It is a very strong word with its roots in the image of a death trap set to crush the life out of an unsuspecting victim. Jesus was not going to prevent those who were not part of His core group, but He offered all such the strongest of warnings concerning the effects of false doctrine and practice on precious souls bought with his blood.
Again we see the strength in Christian balance. There is nothing weak here, nothing non-committal or lukewarm. Christianity calls for drastic, decisive action which should not surprise us. Christianity itself, from first to last, was born of drastic, decisive action. Already in the Garden of Eden the tone was set. After man had sinned, God cursed the ground and decisively and mercifully drove mankind from the Garden so that they would not eat of the Tree of Life and live forever in sin. When God saw that the world was too evil to survive, He sent the Flood and began over with Noah and his sons. When God saw that there was no nation suitable to bear the Promised Savior, He called Abram to take drastic action—to leave father and mother, house and home, and move to an unknown land.
Down through the ages, men of God were called upon to take drastic actions, leading finally to the most drastic action of all: God was made man and offered His life in the death on the cross, all in an effort to save man from his own sins.
There is nothing whatsoever that is indecisive or lukewarm about any of this. “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son…” (John 3:16). Think about that for a moment. There is nothing vacillating or weak in what God has done for us in His Son, Jesus Christ. He sentenced His own Son to pay for our sins with his very life. Because of that, you and I stand holy and righteous in God’s sight. Your sins are forgiven! The act that won that forgiveness was both dramatic and drastic.
Nor did the decisive action stop there. We here today have all received the gift of God’s Son through that faith planted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. There too drastic action had to be taken on our behalf. Our old passions had to be killed. Paul put it this way in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” The old me is to be no more. Once we lived to sin, now we died to sin. Once we lived to ourselves, now we live to God. Once we lived to play, now we live to serve. Death is obviously drastic action, as is a radical and permanent shift in emphasis and lifestyle. Christianity is like that.
Yet here we run into a snag. We hear those words: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me,” and we know that they are true and yet somehow we come to believe that this transformation is always both rather unremarkable and almost always painless. Since the forgiveness of our sins cost us nothing, so also we imagine that living as a child of God should cost us nothing. Our text has something to say about such notions.
At one point in His earthly ministry Jesus enjoyed such popularity among the people that becoming one of His followers actually seems to have been considered fashionable. To all such half-hearted pretenders Jesus laid down the harsh reality of service in the kingdom: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The people couldn’t help but wonder what that meant. Since they wanted to be part of Jesus’ following, and since at the same time they wanted to avoid as much discomfort and hardship as possible, they would automatically assume that the deny himself and take up his cross must refer to some fairly minor changes in surroundings and lifestyle. Certainly nothing too dramatic. For anyone who was in doubt as to the nature of these changes, Jesus supplied them with the words of our text for this morning, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched; where ‘Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off… If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out…” [vv.43-45]
Surely these words served to disabuse the fake followers of any of their false notions. Surely these words must have caused them to reevaluate just what Jesus expected of his followers. Perhaps for the first time they began to wonder if this following Jesus business wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.
You and I need to turn the question on ourselves: “What is the nature of Christianity in my own lives?” Alarm bells ought to sound in our minds if our lives are devoid of any of this “radical action stuff.” If we, for example, view the forces arrayed against us as anything but powerful and thoroughly evil, we are in for a rude awakening—and probably a terrible fall. If we imagine that we can live as friends of the sinful world as well as friends of God, we are fooling ourselves. If we do not now realize that the battle against these incredibly powerful anti-Christian forces calls for radical measures in our lives, then we are probably doomed to failure from the very start.
Sin was all that we knew before we were brought to faith in Jesus Christ. Sin still lives and works in us in connection with that Old Adam—that evil side in us that will leave us only in death. Know then that the Devil will use temptations that appeal to each of us at the most basic and natural level. Sins of the eyes, sins of the heart, sins of lust and greed and pride—all appeal to what feels good and right.
Are you a music lover? Satan will see to it that the most godless filth is set to the most beautiful, appealing melody. Do you like movies? The Devil will fill them with so much sex, foul language, and violence that you can no longer judge what “wholesome” is. Pick something on this earth that gives you pleasure. Satan will use that thing to appeal to your sinful Old Adam on the most basic and “natural” level. Do not be the least bit surprised therefore when the only prevention for such powerful, natural temptations proves to feel every bit as radical and unnatural as the cutting off of a hand or the gouging out of an eye. Jesus is here warning us how unnatural such drastic action will feel, and yet how necessary. While sin often feels like a comfortable and indispensable part of us, it is only through the power and guidance of God the Holy Spirit that any one of us can hope to actually implement godly, radical changes in our lives. What form might these changes take? Only you can answer that question for yourself, for only you know how Satan specifically targets you in your life. (Maybe the television is as good a place to start as any.)
With a greater appreciation for our dramatic rescue from sin and Satan, and with an enhanced understanding of the severity of the challenge that every Christian faces until our time of grace is ended, let this then be our prayer:
“God grant to me the Holy Spirit in full measure that I might possess, first of all, the wisdom to recognize those things that should, by all means, be purged from my life. Then, I pray, grant me the will and the strength to eliminate from my life all that is harmful, indeed, all things that are not pleasing to You, my God, and beneficial to my soul. The death of Your Son was the drastic action that defeated Satan and won the forgiveness of my sins. Thanks be to You, my God, for forgiving my sins. Let me, dear Savior, reorganize my every thought and action into perfect conformity with the dramatic change wrought by you, my Friend and Savior. Amen.”
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.