Monday, June 11, 2012

Sermon on Mark 3:20-35, for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, "Our Stronger Lord!"

            In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Are you familiar with the old-fashioned pastime of whittling? Carving a small, rough design out of a piece of wood? In grade school art we once carved a little dog out of a bar of Ivory Soap. As you whittle away, you carve off the pieces and edges that you see as undesirable, working down to find the shape you envision, locked inside the block of wood, or soap, or whatever you’re carving.
            We’re tempted, all too often, to take the same approach to the Holy Bible, to God, and even Jesus Christ. We approach them like a block of wood, looking for the “real image” we have in our own mind, and we’re the whittlers with the knife, cutting away and shaping what we deem undesirable, so that we’re left with the God that we want. Smooth out the rough parts, knock down the sharp edges, sculpt Jesus until He’s mild and tame. We might find today’s reading to be an example of the sharp edges. Jesus sharply confronts His adversaries, casts out demons, warns of the unforgivable sin, and then proceeds to give seemingly a cold shoulder to His own family members who are trying to reach Him. Doesn’t seem to fit our nice, friendly picture. Instead we run into a roughness and brutal honesty about Jesus that is more than we expected.
            It’s easy enough to pass over these verses and find Jesus’ more tender moments with children, or with the healing of the sick, or the forgiving of a sinner. We try to ignore or explain away the confrontations, or simply skip over them. There’s a couple of ways to describe this activity. One of them would be “marketing Jesus.” Another would be making God in our own image. But the most accurate description would be idolatry. Turning God into something that He isn’t, or redefining Him to our wishes. But Jesus won’t conform to our wishes, nor will His Word be bent for our desires. The Scriptures present us with the multi-faceted, unbendable, untamable Jesus, who won’t crouch down into our boxes, or be leveled out according to our desires.
            As the writer Eugene Peterson warns against attempts to remake Jesus, he says, “Every omitted detail of Jesus, so carefully conveyed to us by the Gospel writers, reduces Jesus. We need the whole Jesus. The complete Jesus. Everything He said. Every detail of what He did.” We dare not reduce Jesus or omit His Words. We need them all, even and especially the words that challenge us, ruffle us, unsettle us. Because otherwise we’re mistaking ourselves to be the potter, and God the clay. As though we’re the ones doing the shaping! God is quick to inform us, however, that it’s exactly the reverse! We’re the lump of clay, we’re the block of wood or even stone that has the undesirable parts that God is shaping away, sculpting into His design, making into a useful vessel. Yet quite often, we even resist His shaping, and put up a struggle.
            Some of the crowds weren’t quite ready to accept Jesus as He was presenting Himself. Maybe part of what made them and even us uncomfortable with some of Jesus’ bolder confrontations is that He isn’t fooled by any appearances. He sees right through pretensions, to our very heart. His family members started to get embarrassed by Him, concerned with the overwhelming crowds and the ruckus that seemed to be following Him around. Or maybe it was their family reputation they were concerned about. John 7:5 tells us that not even His brothers believed in Him. But whatever their motivation, they tried twice unsuccessfully to pull Him out of the crowd, take Him aside, apparently wanting to “talk some sense” into Him. Jesus rebuffed their efforts. His family ties gave way to something far more important to Him—the disciples around Him, the community, who heard His Word and did the will of God. He wasn’t going to silence His ministry for the special pleading of His family, even if they were His flesh and blood. The kingdom of God and the community faith were of greater importance.
            Still others, the scribes sent from Jerusalem, were openly hostile to Jesus. This was one ugly confrontation in a series of confrontations that showed more and more their hatred of Jesus even as they couldn’t deny His teachings and miracles. As the Gospels advance toward Jesus’ crucifixion, the confrontations grow increasingly heated and more numerous, as they test Jesus, try to trap Him, spy on Him, find fault with Him, and eventually begin plotting for His death. Here they denounced Jesus in the strongest terms they could find, calling His works of healings, and casting out demons the work of the devil. They said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “ by the prince of demons He casts out the demons!”
            Beelzebul was the name for an idol the Philistines worshipped in the OT. The name meant “lord of the house” but was mockingly nicknamed “Beelzebub” by the Israelites, which means “lord of the flies” or “god of dung”. It was a term of contempt, an insult to the false god they worshipped. Here Jesus’ enemies are using it contemptuously to say He is possessed by this Beelzebul, i.e. the devil. They were hateful words against Jesus, pure and simple.
            Jesus first dismantles their accusation, by showing that Satan cannot war against himself, and that if driving out demons was the work of the devil, then his kingdom or house would soon collapse and fall. A divided house cannot stand. Why would Satan undermine His own work? The upswing of this then, is that if Jesus wasn’t healing people and driving out demons by the power of Satan, then of course it was by the hand of God! And then what on earth were they doing resisting Him and calling it the work of the devil? Their sin grew all the worse.
            Jesus then says, “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” Here, balanced in two short verses, Jesus speaks of incredible forgiveness, that is able to forgive all sins and even blasphemies against the Son (see Matt. 12; Lk. 12), but also gives a dire warning to those who would blaspheme the Holy Spirit, that this will be an eternally unforgivable sin. So what exactly is this unforgivable sin, the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit? Blasphemy, as John MacArthur explains, is the worst sin in the Bible because it’s a sin directly against God, with no other motive than to dishonor God. It’s a pure and simple act of defiance against God, worse even than murder or adultery or any other “big sin” you might name, according to the Bible. It’s a direct assault on the Holy God.
            In the case of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, it was to call God’s good and wonderful act of healing and freeing a person—delivering them from Satan’s power—to call it a wicked and evil thing, to call the work of the Holy Spirit the devil’s work. Thus it flagrantly rejects His work, even though the Holy Spirit has brought conviction of God’s truth. For this one sin, there is no forgiveness, FOREVER, Jesus says. It is the hardening of a heart so hard against God, that it utterly rejects the work of the Holy Spirit, and not only won’t allow faith to take root, but viciously attacks God’s work as evil. Jesus severe warning to the scribes was a huge, bold billboard warning those about to hurtle off a cliff into never-ending guilt (Piper). Had they gone over already? Had they already committed this sin? This was a shocking jolt to rescue any who had not yet sealed their fate in their rejection of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus’ redeeming work.
            This passage has caused a lot of fear and anxiety for many dear Christians, who’ve wondered if at some point in their life they might’ve committed the unforgivable sin. Perhaps in a period of rebellion when they said they hated God, or because of angry and abusive words that they spoke against God during a difficult time in life. Or perhaps in their thoughts, they fear that somehow they may have sinned against the Holy Spirit, and worry that they might be excluded from forgiveness and eternal salvation. The good news is that if you’ve ever agonized over such thoughts or fears, you’ve the certain assurance that the Holy Spirit is alive in you, and that you have a repentant heart. No one who’s actually committed this sin, and blasphemed the Holy Spirit, would be overcome with remorse or doubt. The fact that you earnestly desire to be included in Christ’s redemption, and are sorry for whatever rebellion or words you might’ve said, is proof that the Holy Spirit is alive and well within you, and you are a believer. The sin against the Holy Spirit is not simply the sin of unbelief or of unrepentance. Nor is it rejecting God through foolishness or spiritual blindness, both of which one can recover from. What many faithful pastors and theologians have said through the ages, is that what makes the sin unforgivable, is precisely the fact that the person who commits the sin against the Holy Spirit never wants forgiveness! They not only refuse to repent, but also permanently reject the work of the Holy Spirit. But if you are seeking forgiveness, the Spirit lives in you, and you are forgiven.
            But the first part of Jesus’ statement should not be passed over lightly because of the great weight of these words. For Jesus also shows the incredible extent of God’s forgiveness, that not the number of our sins, or the kind of our sins, or even the severity of our sins prevents us from receiving God’s forgiveness. This of course is not an encouragement or incentive for us to sin more, but rather a testament to the greatness of God’s love. For all whom the Holy Spirit brings to repentance, and sorrow over their sins, Jesus Christ is faithful and just to cleanse from all unrighteousness.
            There are many sins that we in our own hearts might think would be unforgivable. Things we might count as atrocities, or acts from which we think no human could ever turn back toward God. But one only need look at the disgraceful sins of many of the great saints in the Bible, great and terrible errors that they turned from, and how they became once again useful vessels in God’s service. God took lumps of clay, or a block of wood, and shaped a useful tool for His service. Jesus is the Master of the turn-around. Of the rescued sinner. Of the Amazing Grace that saved a wretch like me (and of the hymn author John Newton, who was converted to Christianity after leaving behind a horrible life of kidnapping Africans and selling them in the slave trade). Jesus’ forgiveness can rescue even those for whom we’ve abandoned all hope.
            And that’s part of the beauty of one of the verses at the center of this reading from Mark. As Jesus’ clinching point about why He wasn’t in league with the devil, He said: “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder His goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed He may plunder his house.” The devil is the strong man who guards his house and his possessions. The demon-possessed people that Jesus cured, were evidence of just how strongly the devil held them in his grip. But the barn-crashing news is that Jesus is the stronger man who breaks into the devil’s stronghold, binds him up so he is helpless, and plunders his goods! Jesus is the One who lays waste the devil’s house and kingdom, and breaks sinners out of their chains! As Jesus says in the parallel in Luke 11:22, “when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.” Isn’t that a marvelous picture of Jesus winning salvation? That the devil, big brute that he is, intimidator and jailer of many who are under his power, is attacked and overcome by Jesus Christ, the STRONGER ONE, who ties him up, disarms him, and the winner takes the spoils!
            The reason we never should edit, flatten out, soften or otherwise tamper with who Jesus is, is because we need every bit of this bold, untamable, strong and mighty Savior, who is powerful to deliver us from our sins and from the power of the evil one. We need the God, who barn-storms the devil’s house and makes a ruckus of all the evil plots the devil has at work. The One who upsets hypocrisy hidden under a thin veneer of religion. The One who makes the demons run and hide. The One who did a full-on cleaning of the Temple to turn out the cheaters and thieves and bring in the sinners seeking God in prayer. The One who is the Light of Truth that exposes all the deceptions, the slaveries, the lies. The One who speaks a gentle word of forgiveness to the ones whom everyone has condemned. The One who blesses children and sternly warns those who would lead them astray. The One who even forgave the blasphemies that were uttered at Him as He hung on the cross. This is the Jesus I respect and adore in worship, the Jesus whose Spirit convicts me of sin, and fills me with faith to believe. The Jesus who died on the cross to bait the devil into his final and colossal defeat, and who rose again from the dead with His heel firmly planted on the crushed head of the serpent. This Jesus is my King and my Lord, the One who saved me from my foolishness and sin, and is still working to make you and I useful vessels for His service. Amen!

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. What makes passages like Mark 3 and others about Jesus hard for some to accept? Why is it a dangerous error to try to do our own “editing” of the Bible to get what we like out of it, instead of hearing what it’s saying to us? Rom. 9:20-21; Isaiah 29:16; 45:9. What might we miss out on, if we reduce or reshape the image of Jesus?
  2. How did Jesus’ family struggle to accept who He was? John 7:5; Mark 3:21, 33. What bond did Jesus count as even closer than that of family (flesh & blood)? Read Mark 3:33-35.
  3. How was the blasphemy of the scribes against Jesus, just one more incident in an escalating series of confrontations? See Mark 2:16, 24; 3:1-6: 7:1-13; 8:11-12; 10:18; 11:27-33; 14:53-65.
  4. Beelzebub or Beelzebul, was a Philistine idol. 2 Kings 1:1-16. How was the scribes’ denunciation of Jesus’ work intended? How did Jesus show the illogic of their accusation? What was the upshot of the fact that Jesus wasn’t in league with the devil? How should they have reacted to this truth? Luke 11:20, 23
  5. What is the unforgivable sin, or the sin against the Holy Spirit? What difference does Jesus indicate between blasphemy against the Son, and against the Holy Spirit? Matt. 12:31-32; Luke 12:10. What was so malicious about their assault on the Spirit’s work, in Mark 3:22?
  6. What indication can be pointed to as evidence that a person has not committed the unforgivable sin?
  7. How is Jesus’ incredible offer of forgiveness for all other sins, equally amazing? How does Jesus forgive sins and deliver us from the kingdom of the devil? Luke 11:22. How is Jesus’ death on the cross the devil’s complete undoing? Gen. 3:15; John 19:30; Col. 2:13-15

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