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. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sermon on Mark 9:30-37, 17th Sunday after Pentecost, "From childish to childlike"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today in our Gospel reading from Mark chapter 9, there is a strong contrast set up between Jesus teaching His disciples about His coming death on the cross, and His resurrection—and a petty argument the disciples fall into on their journey along the road. The contrast is between the way of humility that Jesus Himself lived, and the way of selfish ambition or self-promotion and rivalry, that the disciples were acting out in their little argument.
Like children “caught in the act” of doing something they know is wrong, Jesus called out the disciples, who were arguing with each other about who was the greatest. We don’t know quite how it went down. But we do know from other arguments, that they wanted to gain the highest authority and respect in Jesus’ kingdom. We know how it goes—we’re familiar with how people compete for position, for advantage, for recognition, or for power. In a way, it’s very childish and petty—but maybe we should really say it is “adult-ish” because, more often than not, we as adults are the ones who behave this way. People act out this kind of rivalry and self-promotion by pushing other people down or out of the way, by hurting other people’s reputations through gossip or lies, or by manipulating to gain power or advantage. It was that old, familiar tendency toward rivalry that drew the disciples of Jesus into this argument with each other.
Our 2nd reading for today, from James, paints the ugly picture of selfish living. Jealousy, fights, disorder, and worse come from it. But to live by God’s wisdom from above, is to be pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. This was just the thing at stake, when Jesus had this wonderful little “teachable moment” with His disciples. They were on track for the path of jealousy and quarrelling, and the ugly things it leads to. Jesus steers them toward His better way—the way He Himself walked.
If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Not a way of “getting ahead”. Not the path for worldly fame or achievement. But the way of greatness in God’s kingdom, by God’s measure. “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Being “last” usually means “failure” in our everyday language. But here, being “last of all and servant of all” means to put others before you. To think of the needs of others, instead of putting yourself first. Serving others, happens when you helping and caring for each other; not when you push your way ahead of them, or ignore them. God’s way of being “first” and of finding greatness in His kingdom, is by being a servant to all.  
Jesus continues His point by taking a child, holding him in His arms, and saying, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” What does a child teach us about the call to be “last of all and servant of all?” Children are dependent on their parents. Infants and toddlers need you for almost everything. Feeding, clothing, diapering, washing, reading, and all around caring. Their very life depends on us receiving them, welcoming them, and serving them. Gradually they grow and gain greater and greater degrees of independence.
But rather than being overcome with selfishness that our children need so much from us, we should give thanks that God has given them, and that our children turn to us for help, for love, for their needs to be provided. What more beautiful thing than to nurture and raise a wonderfully made child? You can shape their life for good; see that they become faithful followers of Jesus, and generous and kind servants to their neighbors. If God has called you to be a parent, He has called you to serve your children in this wonderful way. Their needs draw on your love, compassion, and support.
Jesus says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” To receive a child in Jesus’ name is to welcome that child for Jesus. Jesus disciples, on another occasion, got upset when people were bringing their infants to Jesus to hold and bless them. They felt Jesus was too busy and had more important things to do. They were not welcoming these eager parents and their children to Jesus. They tried to turn them away. But Jesus scolded His disciples. He welcomed the children, and said the kingdom of God belongs to children like these. So welcome the children for Jesus’ sake. Give thanks to God for the blessing of children—whether they are yours or somebody else’s. A welcome reception of children for Jesus’ sake, shows you are right at the heart of Jesus and of God the Father. Jesus came to us in just such a humble way, as a child. God sent Jesus to rescue us who were lost, and to give us a place in His family. He came through lowliness and humble service. Rejecting this is rejecting God’s own way.
So bring your children to Jesus, so He can bless them. Bringing your children to Emmanuel Lutheran School is an excellent way that they get to hear about God’s love and what He has done for us in Jesus Christ. Bringing your children to church every Sunday, wherever your church home is—or here, if you need one—gives them an opportunity to grow in their faith and knowledge of God our heavenly Father. Not to mention you as well!
When Jesus addressed His disciples on that occasion, He also said that in order for them to enter the kingdom of heaven, they must receive it as little children. People always joke about never growing up, or about keeping their “inner child” alive. Mostly they mean don’t lose your sense of fun, playfulness, or curiosity. But here, in a very real and significant way, God wants us to remain “child-like.” Not “childish”—fighting about petty things with selfishness or rivalry—but “childlike”. Having the simplicity of trust in Him, and placing our worries and troubles in His capable hands. Having a humility that doesn’t need to seek a place above everyone else, but is content to simply receive. Being totally dependent on God. While our children largely grow out of their dependence on us when they are old—we never outgrow our dependence on God. In fact, we always remain as dependent children, looking to God for His free grace, love and favor.
Unfortunately, even when we want the best for our children, so often we struggle with setting a good example in the lives of our children. They learn by imitation to follow our example—even when we regret it. They imitate our speech, our emotions, and our actions—especially when they are bad—much to our dismay. Saying “Do as I say, not as I do” is a poor cover for our bad behavior. Our actions usually speak louder than words. But what do we do if this is true of us? You certainly aren’t looking for more pressure, as if that would help. We aren’t proud of our failures, and don’t want to hear about them. But like a student who is struggling to understand, we need to see and understand our failures if we are to learn and overcome them. So where is the learning? Where is the overcoming?
Jesus was such a patient teacher with His disciples. He didn’t let them escape the hard lessons, but He stuck with them and loved them through each lesson. Jesus does the same for us. He’s not going to leave us stuck with our failures, but is patient to love and teach us, if we’ll listen. This lesson for His disciples wasn’t really going to sink in completely for several months. Not until Jesus’ actions spoke so loud and clear, and His words were just a few dying gasps. The lesson I’m talking about, the lesson Jesus gave His disciples, when they were so caught up in measuring their own greatness, was about His coming death on the cross. There were blank stares in the disciples’ eyes when He said: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” Delivered into the hands of men? Killed? After three days, he will rise?
They didn’t understand. They must have thought Jesus was talking in riddles. Who’s trying kill you? You are going to rise? Three days? They hid the fact that they didn’t understand Jesus. But then came that incredible weekend when all His teaching crystallized and made sense. When the light came on. The weekend when Jesus’ actions spoke louder—or at least as loud—as His Words. I say that because Jesus’ few words were tremendous on the day that He died. In the midst of suffering and dying on the cross, He spoke awesome words, just as His emotions and actions were incredibly powerful as well. He was nailed to a cross, an awful instrument of torture. And His words spoke forgiveness: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” His words spoke of completion: “It is finished!” His words spoke of life to a dying man who dared to trust in Jesus: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” So Jesus’ words and actions did not compete or conflict with each other, but were in perfect sync. And actions were the living shape of those words.
He had completed what He came for. He died on the cross, forsaken and alone, to pay the price for our sin. For all our selfishness, rivalry, fighting, self-promotion and pride, for our unkind thoughts, words, and actions. For all the good things that we didn’t do when we could have. Jesus died for those sins too. He humbly took the last place, and became the servant of all, by suffering in our place on the cross. All of our need fell completely upon His love, forgiveness, and compassion. And now it was finished. His Rescue was a success. But it wasn’t over! Three days later, on Sunday, Jesus rose, just as He told the disciples. Lights of understanding slowly started to come on. Words and actions were meshing together and making sense. Jesus was living out His servant way of life to the fullest extent possible, becoming our ransom, our Savior. And now He was alive again. Jesus conquered death and the grave, walking out of the stone cold tomb alive and in the flesh.
In other words, the servant way of humility and self-sacrifice, that Jesus lived and died, and now lives again—that servant way of Jesus—is God’s victory over our sin. So where does this leave us? We have a gracious and loving Lord Jesus, who sacrificed Himself in our place, for much more than just errors in judgment, our failures, or little mistakes. He is the Savior who has forgiven our every sin. Who has taken our every act of rebellion and disobedience toward God, and paid for it at His cross. The Savior who took all of our hurts and the wrongs that we have done to others into Himself, and endured the just penalty for us on the cross. But sin and death did not defeat Him. It did not end Him. So the story is not over and His forgiveness comes to you. He rose to a new life, and promises to raise you also.
Learning from your sins and failures and finding His forgiveness, is what Jesus does best. He has overcome our sin, and He promises us that we can live in Him by faith. It doesn’t matter if you are a parent or not a parent, a child or adult. Jesus did what He did, so that He could set you free from whatever sins are present in your life. Jesus creates a living relationship with us. So God would be your Father, and that you would turn to Him as naturally for love as children do to their parents. The openness and trust of that relationship to God, is to be mirrored in our reception and welcome of children. This is how Jesus redeems us from our sins, and teaches us to walk child-like, in full dependency, in His servant way. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      In Mark 9:30-37, Jesus found a “teachable moment” with His disciples. What is the contrast between the way that the world seeks after greatness, and the way in which Jesus says that greatness comes in the kingdom of God?
2.      What is the result of “rivalry and selfish ambition” in our pursuit to get ahead of others? See James 3:14-16; 4:1-4. Why does this bring out the worst in our human nature?
3.      By way of illustrating His way of humility, Jesus takes a child into His lap. What does the example of a child teach us about the way the kingdom of God should be received? What does it teach about the way we should be? Mark 10:13-16
4.      How do we “receive a child” in Jesus’ name? Mark 9:37; 10:14; Acts 2:38-39. Why do children make the ideal example for Jesus, as followers of Jesus? What does it mean to be “childlike” in the way that Jesus praises? On whom are children dependent?
5.      Jesus’ lesson on humility would be illustrated with His own actions in the coming months. What did Jesus predict would happen to Him? Mark 9:31. What would it take for the disciples to finally understand what He meant? Mark 16:6-8; John 20:19-23.
6.      How was Jesus’ death on the cross the ultimate example of humility and service? Mark 10:42-45; Philippians 2:5-11.
7.      How does His cross bring us forgiveness for our selfishness, rivalries, and failures?

Monday, September 14, 2015

Sermon on Mark 9:14-29, for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, "Faith, Prayer, and Spiritual Warfare"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Last week we heard how Jesus healed a man who was deaf and mute. But there was no hint that his condition was anything but physical problems with his ears and tongue. Today, Jesus commands a “deaf and mute spirit” to leave a young boy, who is being tormented and abused by this demon. Both the boy’s desperate father and Jesus also, clearly recognize the demon is causing the boy’s physical afflictions. Comparing the two readings seems to show that some physical illnesses have simple physical causes in the body, while at other times, a spiritual cause can produce physical symptoms. The skeptic in us might already say the young boy was just an epileptic. We’re not to assume that everyone who has epilepsy or seizures is demon-possessed, are we? That would certainly go beyond what the passage is saying. But on the other hand, are we ready today, to acknowledge that some afflictions may have a deeper, underlying spiritual cause? Is what we see in this world understood only through “what meets the eye?”
The people of Jesus’ day had no trouble recognizing that there was a spiritual world of demons and angels at work behind the scenes in everyday life. People in Africa, where Christianity is growing fastest, have no trouble believing that there is a spiritual world. In our modern, “scientific” age, we all but dismiss the supernatural, or limit it to the extreme exceptions or the world of the bizarre. But does Jesus’ frequent encounter with the demonic world challenge our assumptions? Might we actually be ignoring or unaware of how real and present the spiritual world is?
This passage gives us a glimpse of the spiritual landscape, of the spiritual warfare going on beyond our senses. It shows the effects of this spiritual warfare spill over into the physical world. We learn some important things. One is that Satan and his evil spirits are bent on the destruction, the misery, and the harm of the human race. The devil has no love or compassion, but is a liar, a deceiver, and incites people to evil. We also see that unbelief in God aids and abets the Evil One in his purpose. Unbelief assists the devil by keeping us divorced from God and His help. It makes us idolaters who worship something other than the One True God. We further learn that Satan’s forces do not fold and run easily. This unclean spirit resisted the disciples’ first attempts to cast it out. And when it finally was cast out by Jesus, it departed so violently that the boy appeared dead. Finally we also learn that prayer is powerful and necessary in winning this spiritual battle. Without faith in Jesus and prayer to Him, we don’t stand a chance against the devil’s attacks. But with Him, we have victory.
Jesus expresses His frustration with the disciples: “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” Faithless. Unbelieving. Trust in God was absent. Faith in Jesus could transform this situation. Faith would confidently hold onto Jesus for help. If anyone of us had said “How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?”, instead of Jesus, we might read those words like someone ready to throw in the towel. Like someone who didn’t have any more patience for our slowness. But of course we know that Jesus had incredible patience, divine patience, and that He bore with and loved His disciples to the very end. And Jesus doesn’t thrown His hands up in despair, but calls for the child and heals him. He is frustrated by the lack of faith in His disciples, but He acts decisively and with authority to change the situation.
If we are honest, we’re a faithless and unbelieving generation. We’re slow to hear and slow to learn Jesus’ word. We need to hear it again and again. We are so much like the disciples. We face up to a difficult challenge, a spiritual challenge, and our half-hearted, half-believing efforts fail. The apostle James describes a person who asks God while doubting—as being like a wave tossed about by the wind, and that such a person shouldn’t expect to receive anything (James 1:6-7). Instead, like Jesus, he admonishes us to ask in certainty and faith. Faith is central to being a disciple of Jesus, and it’s central to the work of Jesus’ kingdom, over against the kingdom of darkness, the rule of the devil. Faith is God’s shield in our hands, to block the fiery arrows of the devil.
So is faith a power we summon up from within ourselves? Or does faith come from somewhere else? Is the success of the spiritual battle that rages around us measured by the strength or weakness of our faith? Or where does the power of faith rest? We can turn back to Jesus’ conversation with this poor boy’s father for some answers. The father is deeply distressed that the boy seems beyond a cure. The disciples failed. It’s one more disappointment. Probably lifetime of dashed hopes for his tormented child to be healed. Low in hopes and expectations, he turns to Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion and help us.” Your heart breaks for him and for every other person who has cried out in the same distress for someone with a chronic affliction. And his suffering was compounded by the evil, demonic nature of this torment.  
Jesus seizes on that word ‘if’! “If you can!” Jesus exclaims. That little ‘if’ expresses all your doubt and unbelief! Jesus challenges the wavering man, “All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Faith is the ticket! Believe, and all things are possible! But Jesus, where can I get that faith? I know I need it, but you yourself have just seen that my faith is lacking! “I believe; help my unbelief!” What a prayer. What a prayer! God, my faith is faltering—but you strengthen me! Help my unbelief! Turn that doubt into trust in you. My child needs your help, and everything else has failed me.
And the faith and prayer of this father is answered! His child is healed by Jesus. Jesus answered the prayer by granting faith to that father. Jesus helps our unbelief and turns it to trust. So what’s the answer to where faith comes from, and what is its power? This faith that is so necessary, the faith that shields us against the devil’s attacks, the faith that engages in the spiritual warfare with the strength and weapons of God, the faith that stands in Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and Satan—that faith all comes right from God. It’s His free gift. The prayer for more faith is always gladly answered with a “Yes” and God generously provides it. Our difficulties aren’t always automatically lifted though—and at times may increase. Paul’s famous example was the thorn in his flesh, that he prayed God would remove, and God answered by giving Paul more grace to sustain him.
But the point is, that faith isn’t something we dig up from inside ourselves, like finding more courage to ride a rollercoaster or go skydiving. No, the faith that faces down demons is a gift of God, and the access to this faith is as simple as hearing the Word of Jesus Christ, and believing it, by the work of the Holy Spirit. Straight from God’s mouth to your ears and heart. So the father’s prayer was just the thing—to ask Jesus to help his unbelief.
I’ve prayed this prayer—“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” Perhaps you’ve prayed the prayer, or should. If faith is wavering, if you are feeling like that wave tossed about by the wind, or you fear that a spiritual war is waging, and you’ve dropped your armor. And Jesus is glad to answer that prayer. He’s glad to give us faith, and to teach us how to pray. You see Jesus won the war and sealed the victory of His kingdom, when He died on the cross and rose from the grave. Jesus forever changed the battlefield, by removing the sting death, by forgiving our sins. He’s absorbed all Satan’s deadly accusations. And so when we’re in the spiritual battle, Jesus hasn’t abandoned us, He hasn’t left the battlefield, but He has equipped us and fights by us with weapons of His Spirit. With faith in Jesus and prayer to God in our arsenal, we don’t need to fear the attacks of the devil. And we can stand strong and resist them.
So often we forget the power of prayer—which is really to say we forget the power of God. We forget that He is the One who answers prayer. Because prayer, like faith, only has power because of the One in whom we trust. Prayers and faith turned to a false god are of no help—however sincere. But prayers and faith in Jesus and the One True God find the One who truly can help.
Let today’s reading be a reminder to us that Jesus supplies us faith and that He answers prayers. That spiritual warfare and demons are real, and that today as much as then, the devil is seeking to create doubt, disharmony, and destruction. And that we are not helpless in the face of evil, but that we stand under the shelter of the Almighty One, the God who is the helper of the helpless, and who sent Jesus to bring His kingdom and will to earth as it is in heaven. Faith and prayer bring victory because we stand in Him. In His Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      Read Mark 7:32, 37 and Mark 9:17, 25. What did these two people who were healed have in common? What appears to be different about their situations?
2.      Why are people today not inclined to see any spiritual causes behind some physical conditions? Does the Bible teach that the spiritual and physical are connected? Yes or No? 1 Corinthians 15:44-49.
3.      What is Jesus frustrated with, in Mark 9:19, and vs. 22-23? Who can help with our unbelief? Mark 9:24; Romans 10:17.
4.      What unbelief do we struggle with? When is our faith challenged by doubt? When this happens, where must we turn to have our faith strengthened?
5.      Jesus demonstrates His power and authority over unclean spirits, and the kingdom of darkness. What access to Jesus’ help and authority had the disciples ignored? Mark 9:29. Who makes prayer powerful and effective? Mark 10:27
6.      Why is faith so necessary for discipleship, and for the kingdom of God to exist in the world? Who does faith look to? When we are looking to other things or powers, or even giving a door for the evil one to enter our life, what may happen to our faith? What are some dangerous influences we should avoid?

Monday, September 07, 2015

Sermon on Mark 7:31-37, for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, "The Secret that couldn't be kept"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Today Jesus performs a miracle to heal a man who is deaf and mute, or unable to speak clearly. For people who are deaf or unable to speak, this passage may speak very clearly and with great comfort, to know that Jesus cared for and noticed these people—that they were included in His ministry. In everyday life, these people are often hidden, marginalized, or unnoticed by us. Did you know that only about 2% of deaf people in the United States attend church? Even today they are largely overlooked and unserved. However today’s reading shows Jesus’ compassion reached them and healed them. And in the story, it was partly because friends and neighbors brought the man to Jesus.
But do you here, as hearing and speaking Christians—does this passage speak to you? You’ve probably never imagined the world of total silence, and of having to communicate through sign language, lip reading, or writing. Does this passage stir a compassion and awareness to the deaf in our community and your neighborhoods, that you might not have noticed? Have we considered how we can bring them to Jesus, or bring Jesus to them? If a deaf person came to us, would we be able to help?
Beyond that possibility, how does this passage teach us who are part of the hearing and speaking community? Are there ways in which our ears and mouths also need to be opened? Let’s take a closer look at the healing. The people who brought the man begged Jesus to lay hands on him. Jesus pulled the man aside privately, and did something a little unusual, and some might even consider “gross.” He put his fingers in the man’s ears, spit, and touched the man’s tongue. Does that mean Jesus put His own spit on the man’s tongue? Well, Jesus rubbed His spit on the eyes of a blind man, in Mark 8, in order to heal that man. He may have been doing the same here, as it’s the only other miracle that describes Jesus’ spit. We don’t know why, but Jesus obviously was not “grossed out” by the human condition, or afraid to get near and make contact with those who were suffering or afflicted. His words and His touch brought healing. They also communicated His compassion.
There is something very physical and earthly about Jesus, as He doesn’t always “heal from a distance” as He did on one or two occasions. He literally got down in the dust and got His hands dirty. He came near to those who needed His help, and He touched them. Should it surprise us that the God who made us, and the hands that fashioned Adam from the dust of the earth, and formed Eve from the rib in his side, would grasp and heal the bodies that carried in them the brokenness and effects of sin in them? Should it surprise us that God wants to repair and heal in them what does not work as He designed and created it to do?
The New Testament is very clear that Jesus ushers into the world the new creation. The old world is corrupted and failing through the effects of sin. It won’t last forever, and God is going to make a new heavens and a new earth. The miracles of Jesus are some of the signs that the new creation is breaking into the old, that the work of Jesus’ new creation has already begun. They are like the labor pains signaling the start of childbirth. Yet the world continues to groan and suffer under the curse of sin. We glimpse the new creation, but it’s only beginning. It’s far from complete.
In our own lives we or others close to us suffer from the curse of sin in diseases, or loss of health, aging. Or our bodies may not be able to do everything that God originally designed them to do. Couples may wrestle with childlessness and the pain that brings. People may not have full use of their hands, arms, or legs—by birth, by injury, or by disease. Our internal organs may not all work as they are intended, so that people rely on other interventions—dialysis, or medicines, or corrective surgeries. In short, our bodies don’t all work as they were intended, and lack the perfection God originally made. As Paul describes it, we long and groan inwardly, groaning for our “adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). We know that we are not yet experiencing the fullness and goodness of life as God intends for us, and we long for it. We wait in hope.
Do you notice what Jesus does after making physical contact with the man? He looks up to heaven—praying to God—and He “sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘be opened.’” The word “sighed” is related to that word “groan”, used several times in Romans 8. A sigh or a groan is usually a deep, wordless expression of emotion. We let out a sigh or a groan in frustration, or grief, or with intense pain or sadness. How does the God who lovingly made us, feel when He sees us under the curse and burden of sin? Jesus sighs or groans, moved with great compassion for this suffering man. But it’s not the groan or sigh of helplessness or despair or giving up. He says “Ephphatha”—Aramaic for “be opened.” And immediately the man can hear and he can speak. Jesus’ Word was a direct command of God, and restored the man to health and wholeness. Jesus’ Word undid the curse, set the man free from his affliction.
Does Jesus groan for us also? You bet. Romans 8:26 tells us, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” In our weakness, in the uncertainty of our prayers, in our sufferings and longing for the redemption of our bodies, the Spirit of God groans for us and prays for us. When we don’t have the words to express our need, Jesus knows our every need and sympathizes with us in our weakness.
Jesus groans and sighs for us. We need His prayers, His healing, His forgiveness. While we may not be deaf or mute, our bodies are weak with temptation. We struggle and fall into sin. Our health and mind fail us. We either cry out for help, or can’t find the words. But at an even deeper level, we need Jesus’ groans and sighs because spiritually speaking we are deaf and mute. We have ears that are consistently blocked from hearing God’s Word. We have tongues that are tied from properly praising our Lord and giving Him thanks. Too often our ears hear everything but the “one thing needful.” Too often our mouths speak sin, instead of blessing and praising. We need Jesus’ sighs and groans because we are every bit as helpless as the deaf and mute man. Sin and the effects of sin hold us captive. We need ears opened by Jesus’ good news. We need tongues to be loosed to praise and thank Him for what He has done to us.
We need to hear the secret that couldn’t be kept. We need to hear that Jesus is on the loose healing people. That He’s the coming of the new creation, breaking into the old corrupted order, and showing us there’s hope and a new world ahead. We need the message that Jesus is the Savior, come into the world. But the healings Jesus worked were just the earliest beginnings of His grand work. The real work lay ahead of Him. The groans and sighs of Jesus that we need the most, were those groans and sighs that He uttered as He hung on the cross. As He carried out the heaviest and most difficult task of His mission. He hung there with hatred poured out against Him, by people blind and deaf to what God was doing in His Son Jesus, hanging there on the cross. He hung there with tongues loosed to speak evil against Him, and mouths opened to spit and hands to strike. No hands or words to heal. Only to wound and to kill.
But Jesus endured it with groans and sighs of physical pain and agony—but even deeper, of the spiritual pain of sin weighing down on Him, and the great sadness of seeing His people attack Him in this way. But Jesus sighed and groaned and finally breathed out His last, not in defeat or helplessness or giving up. His work was finished. He had endured the awful suffering, to redeem sinners. Not a groan or a tear was wasted, as He longed for us to be forgiven and restored to Him. Jesus’ word is powerful and effective.
And with His Ephphatha—with His “be opened”—our ears hear again. Our hearts leap with joy at the news of His forgiveness, His victory, His resurrection! Our tongues are loosened to sing His praises, and tell what He has done. And we know, that the total redemption of our bodies is promised and near, when Jesus comes again. Amen! Come Lord Jesus.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      What does Exodus 4:11 tell us about the mute or the deaf? How did God provide protection for the deaf and disadvantaged, in Leviticus 19:14?
2.      How are God’s thoughts and ways, compared to our own? Isaiah 55:8-9. What reason did God have for a person being born blind in John 9:2-3? How did God’s purpose show itself in this healing story—Mark 7:31-37?
3.      Read Mark 7:32. How did the friends or neighbors of the deaf and mute man have compassion on him? How can we find those who need Jesus and His help, and how can we bring them to Jesus?
4.      Jesus’ actions are very physical and earthly in Mark 7:33. Cf. Mark 8:23. What can human touch communicate to another person? In Mark 7:34, why might Jesus have sighed or groaned (another possible translation of the word)? What emotions usually lead to a sigh or a groan?
5.      How does God groan for us? Romans 8:26-27. Why does the Spirit do so? What is all creation experiencing? Romans 8:18-23
6.      What kinds of signs and healings would the promised Messiah or Savior perform? Isaiah 35:5-6?
7.      Why couldn’t the crowds keep the “secret” about what Jesus had done? Mark 7:36-37. Why do we often find it hard to share the Good News about Jesus? Why shouldn’t we be afraid to do so?
8.      Jesus’ healing was a little glimpse of the “new creation.” Why does He say in Revelation 21:5, that “I am making all things new”? What is wrong with this current creation, and what will be different about the new creation? How is the comment of the eyewitnesses in Mark 7:37, like God’s observation of the original creation in Genesis 1:31?