St. Paul’s Lutheran Church
September 30, 2018
Text: Mark 9:38 -50 James5:1-12
In the name of Jesus, Amen!
Today’s Gospel reading is one of the hardest texts in the Bible. I don’t know about you. When I read it for the first time, I became very uneasy, to say the least. To describe this text as scary is not an overstatement. Look the language. “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.” And then Jesus continues to talk of cutting hands and feet, of plucking out eyes if they cause you to sin…Here we can see Jesus hates sins SO much that he speaks against our natural religious inclinations, and asks us to do the impossible – remove sins completely! Nothing short of that! According to world religions including some religions inside Christianity, we are supposed to remove sins gradually by doing good works, or by meditations and prayers to become holier and holier progressively. This kind of idea doesn’t seem like cutting off your body parts, it’s more like a self-help healing methods populated by best-seller publications. Unfortunately, Jesus’ words are NOT that pleasant and promising. Honestly, they are quite threatening, as far as I am concerned. Maybe you are a man or woman of steel like in a sci-fi movie, where they cut of their own hands and pluck out their eyes without feeling the pain.
It is striking that the Bible records that after each of the three major prophecies of His own passion by Jesus, the disciples still failed to understand what Jesus’ death and resurrection meant for their life, even those who were closest to Jesus, Peter, James and John, who saw Jesus transfigure on a mountain right before their eyes. Not only did they not understand the Gospel, they didn’t understand the essence of Law of God either. In last Sunday’s text, the one right before today’s lesson, Jesus already showed them who was the greatest and the importance of being humble before God like little children. Now, instead of seeking a big ego among themselves, they sought after a collective pride. They forbade someone not following them casting out demons in Jesus’ name, while they themselves failed to do so. Remember that? In the same chapter, before Jesus’ second prediction of His passion and after the transfiguration, the father of a demon possessed boy asked Jesus’ disciples to heal him, but they could not, and eventually Jesus healed him. This is an irony and where the jealousy came from because their pride was hurt. But be careful. Jesus is not saying that their following Jesus is wrong, or that person not following Jesus is right. As matter of fact He affirms them of their identity representing Him and belonging to God by saying “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.” This situation is like being a Lutheran, there is nothing wrong with being Christ-centered and holding fast the truth of the Gospel to follow Jesus ALONE. But there are other groups of Christians, who could do wonderful things in the name of Jesus, and will be in heaven too. So, Jesus here is still speaking against the sinful nature of pride.
Have you not committed a sin of pride and offended other people? The bad news is that for the disciples and for us (for each follower of Christ) — Jesus wants us to get rid of every sin completely! Using hyperbole, Jesus warns us to take every sin very seriously, not just to improve our spiritual health by sinning less and less, but to remove every sin by cutting it off completely. If your hand ever stole anything, cut it off. If your feet ever led you to a place, where you sinned, cut them off. If your eyes ever looked at woman or a man lustfully, pluck them out. You will soon find out that you run out of body parts. And I think the problem is worse than that. As we know, like Jesus tells us, all sins come out of our heart. Hands, feet and eyes are just instruments of sinful heart. Are you able to cut out your heart? Get it? Have you not understood? I think you are smarter and more honest than someone denying this simply truth. In addition, the Gospel gives us courage to say the obvious: removing sins completely by yourself is IMPOSSIBLE! It’s not that what Jesus is saying is too hard to understand. It’s that we are not willing to accept or don’t dare to believe what Jesus is saying here, because it’s against our natural religious beliefs. Well, if you don’t accept this conclusion, try harder and good luck to you. The worst is yet to come. If you cannot remove sins and cause of sins completely, there will be dire consequences – to be hung with a great millstone around your neck and be thrown in the sea would be much better for you; yes, even worse, to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ Any sin, every sin, if you don’t cut it off completely from you, you are eternally condemned. It IS a gloom and doom picture.
So, is there any hope left for us? Well, remember the context of this reading? This text is after Jesus’ transfiguration on a mountain and the second time prediction of His death and resurrection by Jesus. The cross is looming larger and larger in the background. Jesus’ transfiguration not only predicted his passion but also let the disciples to foresee the appearance of His second coming. The Gospel of God’s salvation plan in human history is the center of the Bible and the key to interpretation of today’s text. You may be wondering what exactly Jesus means by saying, “For everyone will be salted with fire”. Good question. Spiritually speaking, there are two kinds of fire that “salts” everyone. There is fire that destroys and punishes. And there is fire that cleanses, and preserves. When Jesus talks about the fire that is not quenched, obviously He is talking the fire of hell. Because of sin, everyone will be salted by fire. Thanks be to God, there is another kind of fire that cleanses and preserves. In the Old Testament times, sacrifices had to be salted in order to be cleansed and preserved. We know Jesus is the sacrifice who was salted by the fire of destroy and punishment. He endures this fire of God’s wrath on behalf of sinners like you and me. When John the Baptist says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming (that is Jesus)…, He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”, he meant that Jesus would baptize us with the fire of the cross, which is the Gospel, and with the Holy Spirit. This is that second kind of fire – the fire that we are salted with – that Jesus gives to cleanse and preserve us for the eternity. You were salted with the Gospel and the Holy Spirit in your baptism – for your cleansing and preserving. It is not a one-time thing. It’s an on-going “salting” process too. You are salted again and again when you remember your baptism dying to sin and rising in the newness of life to do good work and to endure persecutions in Jesus’ name. You are salted again every time in the words of absolution being directed to you. You are cleansed and preserved. You are salted again in the Lord’s Supper. More cleansing and preserving. Indeed, in the words of this sermon you are being salted. Jesus now is forgiving you, cleansing you and preserving you in His gracious Gospel. Here, Sunday after Sunday, you are being salted by Jesus in order that you may be preserved forever.
Yes, we have to remove sins completely. But the Good News is that we are able to remove completely! Not by our own good work or spiritual experience but by the grace of God because we are salted with fire, the fire of the cross, which is the fire of the Gospel and the Holy Spirit.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!