Imbedded in all of today’s strange and difficult lessons is the promise
that the power of God is all around us. Its purpose in our midst is to
heal and strengthen and bless all that God has made. No one is too weak
or sick or too far gone to be healed by God; because the power of God
is greater than sin… and death… and hell. In the Kingdom of
God, the weak are made strong, the sick are healed, the lost are found,
sinners are saved and the dead rise from the grave. That is a kingdom
worth fighting for. Wouldn’t you agree?
18th Sunday after Pentecost Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
September. 30, 20012 James 5:13-20
Heart River Lutheran Mark 9:38-50
Once again, we hear some hard words from Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson.
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell… And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell…”
How many of you wince when you hear those words? These sayings have always made me uncomfortable. I’ve never liked them; even though, taken strictly logical, I had to accept that they made sense. This made me dislike them even more.
We can’t just ignore passages in the Bible that we don’t like. If we did that we would deny the Word of God the power to challenge us, mold us and change us. We would be demanding that God be just as we want him to be. We would be creating God in our own image. And that, of course, is not what the Christian faith is about.
Biblical scholars believe that these sayings represent true sayings of Jesus. They agree that the Gospel writers would never have put such uncharacteristically harsh words into the mouth of Jesus if they hadn’t really had their origin there.
So what do we do with this passage? The first thing we need to do whenever we confront a passage like this is take a step back and look thoughtfully at the big picture. We need to consider this one image of Jesus alongside the whole picture of Jesus we are given in the Gospels. When we do this, we see clearly that Jesus, in his life and teachings, was about healing, not maiming. He was about making our lives whole, not disfiguring or disabling.
We should never let a single passage lead us to conclusions that oppose what (or who) the whole Gospel and New Testament tell us Jesus was.
Also, we have to notice that to take these sayings literally conflicts with other important statements made by Jesus. For example, in a Gospel lesson we had earlier this month, Jesus carefully explained that sinful action comes from the human heart. Our eyes, hands and feet can’t (and they don’t) cause us to sin, they are only instruments of our sinful heart.
This fact is why Jesus’ statements in today’s Gospel lesson, though logically sound, would never work if we took them literally. We would never solve the terrible problem of sin by cutting off parts of our body, since the source of the problem is our hearts. And that’s why the work of salvation (for God) is so hard and so painful. That is why Jesus suffers so at the hands of a sinful humanity. The power of sin is wrapped tightly around the very core of our being and life. To destroy sin’s grip on us without destroying us is an exceedingly difficult task that only the creator and master of life can accomplish… and even for him it cannot be done easily, without terrible pain.
So what is Jesus’ purpose in these sayings? What is his point if he doesn’t mean to be taken literally?
The devastating logic of these sayings is undeniable. It forces us to see and admit that we often live our lives in ways that are terribly foolish. How can we think that it can be more important or more rewarding to satisfy our own immediate desires rather than serve the creator of all that is; the giver of eternal life? How can we think such a thing? Why would we choose actions or ways of living that hurt us or others we love, rather than actions or ways of living that strengthen and bless us and those we love?
These sayings reveal to us how short-sided and downright stupid our living so often is.
These words of Jesus are intended to show us how serious the problem of sin is in our lives, and how utterly foolish we are when we offer no resistance, giving sin free reign to claim our behavior and our future. Jesus uses shocking language… and shocking images here. He does that… often… when he is trying to wake people up, prod them into action or get them to change the way they think and live.
Jesus urges us to commit ourselves to oppose the power of sin that lurks in our lives, rather than let it control us. We are called to use every resource at our disposal to confront, resist, and disable the power of sin as it tries to command our thinking, behavior and lives.
Jesus wants us to do this because sinful behavior ruins life and it defies the Kingdom of God.
Does Jesus really want us to mutilate ourselves? Of course not. But he does want us to make hard choices and — when necessary — take painful courses of action in order to deny the power of sin the opportunity to gain or grow in our lives.
This means, for example, we must acknowledge and admit our weaknesses, stay away from people and situations that we know have the power to drag us into sin. We are to give up our ways of behaving and ways of looking at things that invite sin into our lives. We need to learn new ways of behaving and ways of looking at things which make us stronger and healthier in life, rather than weaker and more susceptible to sin’s influence.
These are all difficult things to do. Our sinful human nature wants to avoid them at all cost.
Nonetheless, we are called to do them. All of us are called to be fighters in this world… fighters for the precious treasure of life given by God. And because God is who God is and he loves all that he has created without reserve and without limit, no one is excused to be a coward. No one is excused to be lazy or too weak to join the fight.
Everyone is called to stand up, for God’s sake, and engage the fight for life that takes place in our hearts and minds and limbs, to support one another in that fight and to accept no excuses.
For you see, the power of God awaits us. This is the promise that fires our hope and gives us strength to overcome our lack of courage, to awaken from our lazy stupor and to act in spite of our weakness and failings.
Imbedded in all of today’s strange and difficult lessons is the promise that the power of God is all around us. Its purpose in our midst is to heal and strengthen and bless all that God has made. No one is too weak or sick or too far gone to be healed by God; because the power of God is greater than sin… and death… and hell.
In the Kingdom of God, the weak are made strong, the sick are healed, the lost are found, sinners are saved and the dead rise from the grave. That is a kingdom worth fighting for. Wouldn’t you agree?
Not that we have the power to bring the Kingdom of God into the world. We don’t That is the work of God. But we are called to face the darkness that is in us… in our hearts and minds. We are called to reject and resist it and look to God to bring his Kingdom not only to earth, but into our hearts as well, so that we can be a part of what God is doing in the world.
It’s a messy struggle, to be sure. All of our lessons today tell us that. All of scripture tells us that. It's a messy struggle. But the power of God is here in our midst. It is moving through our pain and rebellion and failed attempts at living to deliver the hope and healing and new life we all so desperately need.
Through our struggle and pain, God’s Kingdom comes, his will is done and we are made whole.