28 September 2015

Sermon – “We told him to stop” (Mark 9:38-50)

My dictionary defines the word “paranoia” as “a serious mental illness that causes you to falsely believe that other people are trying to harm you”. It also gives this secondary definition: “a tendency on the part of an individual or group toward excessive or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness of others”. I just wonder if that isn’t what we see among Jesus’ followers in our reading from Mark’s gospel this morning.
Once again, we find them making their way through the towns and villages of Galilee on their way towards Jerusalem. I can imagine, as it was the pattern of his ministry right from the beginning, that people of all kinds continued to besiege Jesus from every direction. There were the sick and the handicapped, begging to be healed. There were those with all kinds of questions about God and about their relationship with him, desperate to find answers. And then there were the doubters and the skeptics, forever casting about for an opportunity to get a jab in here or a poke there, always wanting to shed doubts on Jesus’ credibility.
I suspect that at those times the disciples must have found themselves acting as crowd marshals, trying to make sure that those really in need had an opportunity to see Jesus and to keep things from getting out of control. (For example, do you recall how, when faced with a hungry crowd, Andrew brought a young lad to Jesus with a few loaves and fish; or how they had been pestered by a Canaanite woman whose daughter was in terrible suffering?) I suspect that there were also times when the disciples found themselves with nothing to do, when they could kind of kick about town. Had there been a tavern, they might have found themselves sitting down for a rest over a pint or two.

Stopping

However, on this occasion I imagine the disciples somewhere on the edge of town when they see something strangely familiar happening. A little cluster of onlookers has gathered and as they come up closer they discover that their interest is focused on a man who is casting out evil spirits. Not only that, he is doing it in Jesus’ name. What are they to do? Who gave this man the right to do this? What was he doing stepping into Jesus’ territory?
Now let me ask a question: Does any of this sound the least bit familiar to you? I suspect that we don’t have to scratch too far beneath the surface to find the same kind of paranoia (if you want to call it that) in the church today. I come from a family of died-in-the-wool Anglicans. My great aunt was a member of the Chancel Guild of the cathedral in Ottawa for forty years. When my uncle announced that he was planning to marry a woman from the United Church, the best that she could do was to mutter, “Well, at least she isn’t a Catholic.”
How contrary such an attitude is to the spirit of Jesus! When the apostle Paul was in prison in Rome, there were those who tried to take advantage of the situation. Different people vied to fill the leadership vacuum that he had left behind. Some of the would-be leaders were motivated by selfish gain. Others thought that they could climb to power by denigrating Paul’s ministry. How did Paul react to all of this? Did he curse them? Did he call for their destruction? No. Here is what he said: “What does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this, I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18).
We may not raise our hands and clap and shout “Hallelujah!” all the time in worship. But let us not be critical of those who do. We like to use a Prayer Book. But let us not look down on those who prefer to be more spontaneous. We prefer simplicity in our services. But let us not write off those whose worship involves elaborate ceremony and incense and icons. The key question is, is Jesus being honoured? Is the gospel being proclaimed? Are men and women being drawn into a living relationship with him? Let’s not confuse style for substance. Let us take to heart Jesus’ words to his disciples, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Stumbling

I wonder if you’ve ever heard the old saw that whenever you point a finger at someone else, there are always three pointing back at you. In the conversation that follows this incident, Jesus cautions the disciples not to be quick to criticize others without first taking a careful look at themselves. And the language he uses is stark and uncompromising.
In those days there were at least a couple of ways of grinding grain into flour. Much of the time this was done using a small hand mill, usually turned by women. However, that is not the kind of millstone that Jesus was referring to. What Jesus was talking about was an enormous flat, circular stone weighing hundreds of pounds that had to be turned by a donkey or an ox. Imagine having one of those tied to your neck and then being hurled into the sea!
And if that image were not powerful enough, Jesus goes on to speak about being cast into the fires of hell. The word which our Bibles translate “hell” is actually Gehenna, and Gehenna is the Valley of Hinnom, which runs along the west and south of the old city of Jerusalem. In Old Testament times this was where the worshippers of Moloch had thrown their children onto sacrificial fires. For that reason it was regarded ever after as cursed. In later years it became used as burial ground and in the time of Jesus the Romans used it as a site for cremation. And so you can picture this desolate place, abandoned and putrid with the odor of death.
Neither one is a pretty picture. And it’s not as though Jesus is threatening us with that kind of future. What he is saying is how high the stakes are—how important it is that we attend to the quality and purity of our own personal lives, not only for our own sakes but for the sake of those around us. Being a follower of Jesus is a round-the-clock, twenty-four-hours-a-day assignment.
How crucial it is, then, that we use all our faculties in ways that bring glory to God—and Jesus lists a few of them for us in this morning’s passage: our mouths, our hands, our feet, our eyes. The Bible elsewhere warns us how with the same tongue we can praise God at one moment and slice another person to ribbons at the next (James 3:9). We can raise our hands in worship and quickly use them to hurt and destroy. The same feet that bring us into the sanctuary can also lead us into places of darkness where we never ought to tread. And Jesus’ final warning about the eyes is particularly relevant to our own time, when pornography is so readily available from so many sources. We need to have in mind the words of Frances Ridley Havergal’s hymn of a century and a half ago:
Take my hands and let them move
at the impulse of thy love.
Take my feet and let them be
swift and beautiful for thee.
Take my voice and let me sing
always, only, for my King.
Take my lips and let them be
filled with messages from thee.

Salting

With this we come to what are some of the most difficult words in this morning’s reading, and perhaps some of the most difficult to understand in the whole of the New Testament: “Everyone will be salted with fire”? What did Jesus mean when he said this? Far better minds than mine have pondered over this for centuries. And to get at what Jesus was saying you have to understand how salt was used in biblical times.
First of all, salt was used as a preservative and a purifying agent. In a hot climate where there were no refrigerators, salt was what was used to keep food from going bad. Salt could also be used destructively. If you wanted to ruin your enemy’s fields so that they could not produce crops, the way to do it was to spread salt over them. Then nothing would be able grow there until the salt had been washed away by several rainy seasons. Thirdly, salt was used in sacrifice. “Season all your grain offerings with salt,” we read in Leviticus 2:13. “Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings.”
So what was Jesus getting at when he said, “Everyone will be salted with fire”? When you think of it, fire also can have the same three uses. We roast meat and cook vegetables over a fire to purify and preserve them. We all know the destructive properties of fire, particularly after the wildfires this past summer that wiped out thousands of hectares of Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. And of course fire was almost invariably used in sacrifice.
Now, if we put all three of these uses together, I think we can begin to arrive at something of an understanding of what Jesus was saying. First of all, then, there are the fires of trial and suffering that are a part of human life and not least of the Christian life. Yet painful as those trials may be (and I do not want to underestimate that in any way) the Holy Spirit is mysteriously able to use them in our lives to produce in us more of the character of Christ. Again and again in my pastoral experience I have been humbled to see how by God’s grace and through his power men and women have emerged richer, stronger and deeper as they have come through even the most terrible tragedies.
This morning we read from the book of Job in the Old Testament—and if you want to see an individual whose life was afflicted by tragedy, Job is the place to look. Through the loss of his property, his wealth, his children and finally his health, Job is reduced to the point where all he wants to do is die. Yet somehow Job can affirm, “I know that my Redeemer lives and that he shall stand at the last day… My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 19:25; 42:5).
Yet I believe that there is also a deeper meaning. And it comes in the question that Jesus puts before his followers in the final verse of this morning’s passage: “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again?” How does salt lose its saltiness? It doesn’t happen today when we buy it neatly packaged from the grocery store. But in Jesus’ time, salt was taken from the deposits around the Dead Sea, and those deposits were filled with impurities. Gradually over time the salt would leach out, so that all that remained was a tasteless white powder—and that was what Jesus was talking about.
So let me ask, how do we become the salt that brings flavour and life to the world? Certainly not by criticizing others or writing them off as the disciples did. It will be as we put him who is life at the centre of our lives, as we allow Jesus to live in and through us, as we give ourselves wholly and entirely and without reservation to him.

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