Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 30, 2018
Mark 9:38-50 Commentary
The challenge of this lectionary text is that it reads like a hodgepodge of Jesus’ sayings, something like the book of Proverbs with its often unconnected string of wisdom sayings. Because of its lack of apparent cohesion, it would be difficult to build a coherent sermon by moving though the entire text. So, the text throws out a difficult, but not impossible challenge to the willing preacher.
Another approach is to notice the two main sections of the text that, separated or together, can be used as the basis for the sermon:
Verses 38- 41 on how Jesus welcomes others to join in his healing, reconciling work even though they are not “official” disciples.
Verses 42-50 on vigilance against the power of sin and temptation in one’s life.
In verses 38-41 John, one of the disciples who seem to have been in Jesus’ inner circle (Peter, James, and John), asks Jesus to denounce a certain exorcist who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Though Mark does not explicitly mention this, their concern seems especially strange since, just a few verses before (28 -29), the disciples were not able to exorcise a demon themselves. On top of that, we can detect the disciple’s jealousy in their just having argued together about who is the greatest. (vs. 34)
One might expect Jesus to choose his disciple’s small-mindedness to denounce them. Instead, Jesus tells John and the other the disciples that they should not be concerned since “no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” The anonymous exorcist is not going to turn against Jesus right after using Jesus’ name to do the same thing Jesus has often done.
Then Jesus follows up with a pithy saying that serves as a healthy reminder for the church today. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Instead of being concerned that someone outside their immediate group exorcises in Jesus name, they should welcome it. After all, Jesus says, if they are not against us, they must be on our side. Jesus is not concerned to set up his own exclusive exorcism ministry, but to start a movement that fights the devil’s work in the world.
In our day, churches often follow the corporate world in its emphasis on product branding. They find a good attractive name (like Adventure Church, New Life Church, or Encounter Church), design logos, build campuses, and feature a strong, articulate leader and that becomes a recognizable brand. Then they seek to give people good, positive experiences so that their brand becomes attractive to the community.
What this does, of course, is to set up a kind of competition among churches as to which can establish the best brand, attract the largest number of people, and make a name for themselves.
Jesus doesn’t seem to be interested in the whole branding project. He would rather that his disciples not seek to set up their own brand so much as to gratefully recognize others who are doing the good work of a disciple. We can further Jesus open handed approach when we give positive recognition to other churches and ministries, pray for them, and support them.
Another interesting way to approach this part of the text might be to note another text in which Jesus seems to say the opposite, Matthew 12: 30. Again it’s in a context of Jesus’ casting out demons. In this case, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of casting out demons in the name of Beelzebub. Here, Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”
On the one hand, “whoever is not against me is for me” and on the other, “whoever is not with me is against me.” In the first case Jesus is expressing the inclusivity of the Kingdom; it includes all those who are seeking to do Jesus’ work. In the second case Jesus is expressing its exclusivity; it excludes those who actively undermine the Kingdom. It has a single center, those who acknowledge Jesus Christ and the ethics of the Kingdom, and it has a boundary, those who reject Jesus and the ethics of his Kingdom.
The second section of the text, verses 42-50, is a collection of sayings that revolve around sin and temptation. It begins with Jesus warning against being a stumbling block for any of his “little ones who believe in me.” Who are these “little ones” in the context of this chapter? In the two previous sections of this chapter, Jesus has urged the disciples to welcome children in his name, and then referred to an unnamed exorcist who was casting out demons in his name.
In the history of the exegesis of this text, “little ones” has been defined children, new believers, those who are weak in faith as opposed to those who are secure in their Christian freedom (see I Cor. 8: 7-13), and the helpless poor in general. Taken together, the “little ones” might be a catch-all term for all those believers who are weak, naive, unsophisticated, or rejected. Jesus solemnly warns the disciples, and the church, to be very careful about being a stumbling block for others.
Preaching on this text, it’s important to think seriously about who the weak are in your congregation, and what the stumbling blocks might be. It might be those who are relatively uneducated who feel undervalued next to to the intellectual elite, or the poor who are struggling with their daily existence next to the wealthy suburbanites, or those struggling with sexual identity.
Whoever they might be in your context, Jesus says that these little ones (Greek, microns) demand special consideration, love, and care. They are precious to Jesus. And, let’s face it, we preachers will get a lot more kudos by paying attention to the rich, the sophisticated, the “movers and shakers” of our congregations rather than the little ones.
Jesus applies some of his strongest language to this issue. Those who cause the little ones to stumble will find it better to have a huge millstone attached to their neck and be thrown into the sea (the equivalent of the mafia’s “cement shoe”).
Jesus continues by moving beyond being a stumbling block for the little ones by talking about the amputation of the sinning members of the body. Here he addresses sin more generally. Like a disease, sin is terribly insidious. If we have a cancer growing in our bodies, we know it has to come out or it will grow and destroy the whole body. Sin functions in the same way, and the only way to fight it is with radical surgery.
This is, of course, an analogy, but its vivid and violent tone adds to the weight of Jesus words. Repentance from sin is a terribly serious and often painful business, but one’s very life depends on it. Never play around with sin. Better to be maimed in this life than to be suffer loss for eternity.
Then Jesus tops it off with his own vivid description of Hell. The Hebrew word here is Gehenna, a constantly burning garbage dump in the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem. This was not Jesus’ invention, but a common analogy for Hell among the Jews of his day. We need not necessarily read this as a physical description of Hell, but the idea of a place for smoldering garbage certainly gives weight to its terror.
It’s considered unfashionable and, perhaps counter-productive, to scare people with Hell these days. It’s far more attractive to speak of the blessings of the Christian life and the rewards of heaven. But, however we may define hell, whether as a place of physical torment, or as a place where God’s love is totally absent, people need to know that the choices we make have fearsome consequences in this life and the next.
We live our lives at the intersection of heaven or hell, both in this world and the next. In this world, who can deny the hell of earth that has been caused by hell-bent people and their destructive tyrannies. In the next world, what more tragic end can be conceived than to be separated from the beauties and blessings of a new heavens and new earth.
The text ends with a strange saying that exegetes have long struggled over, “Everyone will be salted with fire.” This seems to refer to the Jewish practice of adding salt to a sacrifice at the altar. To be salted with fire then might be the equivalent of Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:1, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual[b] worship.”
Salt is a preservative, especially for food, and therefore necessary for life in that time and place. Jesus calls his disciples to be the salt of the earth, to acting as preservatives in society, holding back corruption and decay until the Lord returns. This powerful analogy reminds us that the church is not just a place of refuge from the hell-bent ways of the world, but as a preservative rubbed into the body politic that might fight against its most hellish tendencies.
Preaching the Text
1). This text is tough going; it’s packed with rough language that will not likely yield a “nice” sermon without a lot of sugar coating. I think that a good rule of thumb for preachers is to go for the difficult stuff, the words that even make us feel nervous. These are exactly the things about which your congregation has deep questions and is looking for guidance.
If that’s true, then you cannot preach this text without talking about sin and hell, about amputation and millstones. We avoid this side of Jesus’ words to our peril. Our everyday actions have eternal consequences; our sin is destructive as hell. The congregation should come away from this sermon intent on running away from it in all its forms.
2). As mentioned above, a truly prophetic sermon on this text will look hard for the kinds of people who are the “little ones” in our midst, and what are the sins we need to amputate. One sin that functions as a hellish pitfall for many today is the ubiquitous presence of easily accessible pornography. Like many sins, this is not one that we can deal with apart from painful amputation. It’s a kind of addictive drug that easily becomes pernicious and destructive. We may need lots of help with our addictions, but in the end it will come down to a painful amputation.
3). What is your understanding of Hell? It’s a tough question, and you can be sure your congregation struggles with it as well. The essential theological problem is how to reconcile the existence of hell as eternal punishment with love of God and the redemption of Christ. This is exacerbated by the gnawing reality that so many in the past, and even today, have no opportunity to hear the gospel. Do they deserve hell? This leads some to posit a purgatory-like existence after death that offers an opportunity for them to come to faith in Christ.
This text provides an opportunity to at least help your congregation grapple with the some of the basic issues involved in the doctrine of hell.
Over the centuries, theologians have conceived of the reality of hell in a number of ways:
- Eternal physical and spiritual punishment. In this understanding God is glorified and sinners get what they deserve for their disobedience and their rejection of salvation in Christ.
- Eternal regret or separation. A variation on the punishment of hell is a conception of hell as eternal regret. Instead of seeing hell as eternal physical punishment, the damned are left outside the city of light and love to suffer eternal regret for their sin and lack of faith in Christ.
- Getting what you finally want. In this conception, people choose the separation of hell rather or than to be reconciled to God and live in God’s love. This view was dramatized in C. S. Lewis’ famous book, “The Great Divorce.”
- Annihilation. In this view the wicked simply cease to exist at all. This view is upheld by a number of conservative and evangelical theologians, especially those who deny the immortality of the soul.
- Universal salvation. In this view, it is impossible for God’s love to truly triumph over sin when many are left outside that love. The more emphasis that is given to God’s sovereignty over human freedom, the more this approach may seem inevitable.
In the end, the doctrine of hell brings us face to face with the mystery of evil. So much devastating and heinous evil has been perpetrated in the world, and people seem to get away with it. How can God’s kingdom of love and justice finally triumph over evil apart from the punishment and banishment of hell? Yet, with the Apostles Creed we confess that Christ descended to hell. Can this mean that Christ’s love and redemption extends even there?
So many questions and conundrums swirl around the doctrine of hell. If you are willing to take it on, it might be a good study for the preacher and an opportunity for the congregation to see beyond the traditional images of hell to the complex issues involved in this doctrine.
Note: CEP Director Scott Hoezee is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2018.
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