Monday, September 28, 2015

Sermon on Mark 9:38-50, for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, "Hell and the Kingdom"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In today’s reading from Mark 9, Jesus speaks to His disciples on a range of issues, from spiritual warfare to the deadly danger of hell.
First of all, Jesus disciples try to stop a man from casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Apparently this stranger was not among the main group of Jesus’ followers, but was successfully casting out demons by the power of Jesus’ name. Jesus says that if he is doing these mighty works in His name, he can’t at the same time be an enemy of Jesus. In the same way today having the same earthly leadership and organization is not what matters—but whether one is under Christ’s authority and leadership. Jesus’ true followers are scattered far and wide, and what links them is true faith in Him. Even the smallest act of service for the sake of Jesus Christ, even offering a cup of cold water, will not go unnoticed or unrewarded by Christ. All true service for Christ is honored by Him, not whether or not it is through “official channels.”
Then Jesus begins to teach about the deadliness of sin and hell. The verses may make many of us squirm, because they are so graphic. But the point of Jesus’ warning is that hell is a real and horrible place, and that He does not want any of us to end up there. The first warning is, “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.” First of all, we should notice that little children believe in Jesus, or have faith. And they are vulnerable to harm. Secondly, Jesus asserts a great protectiveness over children, that no one would dare lead little children into sin. The punishment for causing children, in their simple trust and faith, to stumble and fall into sin, is worse than drowning with a millstone hung around your neck. Obviously, the positive duty we are entrusted with, is to protect and nurture the faith of children, and to lead the little children to Jesus.
Jesus gets more explicit about the danger of sin and hell. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” Then same for a foot or eye that causes you to sin. What is Jesus saying? In a simple way, we should understand that as horrible as it is to imagine losing your hand, foot, or eye—hell is far worse. The plain descriptions of God’s Word tell us that hell is the place of unquenchable fire. Unquenchable means that the fire is never extinguished, satisfied, or put out. It burns forever. Elsewhere Jesus says those who are lost, go into eternal punishment. Jesus also describes hell as the place where the “worm does not die.” This is a graphic reminder of earthly decay, and points to the fact that hell is a place of suffering in both and soul.
The point is, hell is a fate to be avoided at all costs. Will amputating an offending hand help keep us out of hell? It should be fairly obvious that this is not Jesus’ intended meaning. He taught that the heart is the root of all sin in us. The actions of the hands, feet, eyes, and all other members, are just a reflection of what’s going on in the heart. We can’t get rid of that. Removing a hand won’t take the sinful desire out of our heart. But Jesus’ very forceful point is that keeping your body whole is no consolation, if it means you enter into hell because of sin. And the alternative, entering life in the kingdom of God, is so incomparably better, that no one would miss a hand or foot if you get in.
But how one gets at the root of the whole problem of sin deals much more with repentance and our heart, than something done to our body. The only treatment that is drastic enough to stop the gangrene of sin, is total repentance. It is crucifying the old sinful nature with Jesus at His cross, by dying to sin with Him at the cross, and being raised anew in Christ Jesus. Repentance is more than just a casual “I’m sorry”—it is turning our heart and mind toward God. Only the Holy Spirit can begin this work in us. On our own, we are incapable of turning to God. But the Holy Spirit actively works a change in our hearts, and raises up a new life in us.  
Jesus clearly shows that there are two possibilities for humans—entering into life, and going to the unquenchable fires of hell. God’s clear intention and will, throughout Scripture, is that we would not go to hell. God desires rather that we turn from sin and live. He desires that we be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. He desires to make us children of light and take us out of darkness.
But if God wants this for us, and since Jesus has so clearly died for the sins of the whole world, and freely gives away the gift of salvation, why does anyone go to hell? John 3:36 tells us, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Then Mark 16:16 tells us, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Both of these verses illustrate that faith in Jesus saves us or gives eternal life. Jesus gives us eternal life—we don’t earn it. And secondly, it is unbelief that condemns us or leaves us excluded from life.
God graciously and freely gives the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ His Son; but not all will receive it. Not all want it. To humble ourselves before God, and to repent of our sins and wrongdoing before God, is very difficult, and for many, pride and stubbornness get in the way. But Jesus in His mercy has suffered completely in our place, on the cross, so that we bear no penalty before God. If we stand in Christ Jesus, we have life. If we forsake His saving work, and stand apart from Him, we have death and eternal punishment in store for us.
So however much it is unpleasant for us to think about hell, we must plainly face that Jesus talked about it more than any other person in the Bible, and His statements make it plain and clear that it is real and it is not somewhere we want to be. And we should consider that the reason He tells us about it, is that it is entirely needless and unnecessary that anyone go to hell, because Jesus has already done everything to secure the gift of eternal life for us, so that we receive it freely by believing in Him.
Jesus wraps up the chapter continuing with the theme of fire, but with a little twist, that seems in a more hopeful direction. “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” So after warning us to avoid the unquenchable fires of hell, Jesus says that we will all be salted with fire? What does this mean? A quick jump to 1 Peter 4:12 gives us a clue. Peter says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings.” Christians will experience fiery trial or sufferings in this life. Discipleship or following Jesus is not a rosy path of ease and security. Our faith will be tried and tested. But God warns us and equips us to endure it.
But why salt? It seems to come from an Old Testament instruction about how the people of Israel would bring a grain offering to God. They offered to God either flour or baked bread, mixed with oil, and a portion of this offering was to be burned as a pleasing aroma to God. But one other thing had to be added to the grain offering—salt. They were always to make sure to use “the salt of the covenant” with their offerings. It doesn’t really explain why, but since salt was used to preserve food in ancient times, and may have been a reminder of how God would always preserve His people. Salt mixed in the grain offering, was part of the pleasing aroma that was offered to the Lord. So if we will be “salted with fire” by our trials and sufferings, this may also remind us that the sacrifices and endurance of Christians, trusting in and following Jesus, will be a pleasing aroma to God. In fact, St. Paul uses this language to describe the sacrificial life and witness of Christians. As the “aroma of Christ” to the world. And in our trials we are reminded that God preserves us, He cares for and delivers His people, even in trials.
Well what does Jesus mean about salt losing its saltiness? Ancient sea salt was not as pure as the food grade salt we use today. The sodium chloride, or true salt, could be leached out, leaving behind worthless, tasteless minerals. Then it was useless. Jesus calls Christians the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.” If we have lost our “saltiness”—this means we have lost our impact on the world because we are no longer bringing the benefit of Jesus’ good news to the world. If we carry Jesus’ good news, and live the life He has called us to do, we can be a winsome and beneficial service to the world—we can be the salt of the earth. But if we lose the Gospel—if we lose Jesus Christ or our life is overcome with sin—we no longer “season” the earth with salt. So “have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” This is shorthand for saying, have the gospel and the fruits of the gospel in you! Keep Jesus’ Word in your heart, believe it, and God’s love and peace will overflow from your life to others.
This idea parallels the end of the book of James, in today’s readings, where it says “whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” Jesus has so freely forgiven us and given us eternal life, and we are able to extend that to those who wander and are caught in sins. We share that good news, so that together with us, they will be saved from the fires of hell, and brought by Jesus Christ into His most blessed life. In His Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      In Mark 9:38-40, individuals who were not part of the main group performed miracles in Jesus’ name or by God’s power. While disciples of Jesus on earth today may not all fall under one visible authority figure on earth, Jesus makes it clear that these other workers are under His authority, and are not enemies. What shows that they are working for Jesus? How does one speak truly of Jesus? 1 Corinthians 12:3
2.      Christ does not overlook even the smallest act of service, done in His name. Mark 9:41. How can we serve those who are in need, and how is this serving Jesus? Matthew 25:31-46
3.      What do Mark 9:42 and Matthew 18:6 both tell us about the faith of little children? Why does Jesus urge such a strong warning, to protect children?
4.      In Mark 9:42-48, in each of Jesus’ examples, what is the worse fate that could happen to someone, worse even than losing a hand, or foot, or eye? What leads down the path to that dreadful place? Why is sin not to be taken lightly?
5.      What is the appropriate response to our sin, that prevents this threat of sin from becoming deadly? Mark 1:15; James 5:16, 19-20.
6.      What does it mean that we will all be “salted with fire?” 1 Peter 4:12-17. Who preserves us in trial? How might salt have reminded Israel of how God would preserve them as a people, in the Old Testament? Salt was included in their grain offerings, which were to be burnt by fire, to make a pleasing aroma to God. Leviticus 2:13

7.      How does the Gospel of Jesus Christ “season us” or make us as Christians of benefit to the world? Matthew 5:13ff; Colossians 4:6. Jesus enriches our lives by what He has done, so we can bless others. 

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