Monday, November 09, 2015

Sermon on Mark 12:38-44, 24th Sunday after Pentecost, "Abundance and poverty, emptiness and fullness"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Serving as a religious leader comes with its own particular bag of temptations, as Jesus makes clear in today’s gospel reading. Temptations to pride and ego, towards seeking and often receiving honor and the praise of others, temptations to the abuse of power, and temptations to prop up an artificially perfect image of oneself—and therefore fall subject to the charge of hypocrisy. They are spiritually deadly temptations, as the teacher of God’s Word may be tempted to use the appearance of religion or holiness, to disguise their own sin. In a parallel passage in Matthew, Jesus confronts the scribes for not practicing as they preach.
Jesus ends His warning to the scribes, by saying “They will receive the greater condemnation.” Why the greater condemnation? Why are these temptations particular to religious leaders, myself of course, included? First of all, the greater condemnation owes to the greater responsibility entrusted to them. As Jesus says in another parable: “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48). The greater trust and responsibility given to the scribes, was that they handled, taught, and decided matters on the basis of God’s Word. As teachers of God’s Word, they were expected to know it most thoroughly, and therefore to live by it. Also, they were to be completely faithful in handling God’s Word. So errors on their part were held to a higher degree of responsibility.
In Jesus’ day, the scribes held exceptionally high authority and respect—they taught the people to respect them with a respect greater even than that owed to parents. They apparently received greetings and honor with flourish in their impressive long robes, and sought out the best positions in the synagogue (or house of worship), and at banquets. They took advantage of widows—which would be expressly opposite of the godly duty to care for the widows, orphans, and the poor. Finally Jesus says that their prayers are pretentiously long. In the sermon on the Mount Jesus describes when people use prayer to draw attention to themselves, or impress people with their holiness, rather than as sincere communication to God.
Why these were temptations then, and how they are temptations today—not only for pastors, as teachers of God’s Word, but also for all of us—is worth more thought. Attention-seeking is not limited to scribes or pastors; and neither is puffing up our image under the mask of religion. Do we love flattery—and if we don’t get it, do we flatter ourselves? This is a particularly relevant concern in our day and age. Certainly, like the scribes, you don’t need technology to engage in image-building and self-flattery. But we have the additional tool of social media to excel in this very thing.
There is a great temptation, to pastors and Christians alike, to use the world of the internet and social media to project a highly edited version of ourselves—we can create profiles and present pictures and experiences, that are often selected to only represent ourselves in the best possible light. A very one-sided view of us, wouldn’t you say? We can add, modify, and edit the “virtual me”, and not post or delete whatever reflects badly on us. We can accumulate hundreds of “friends” and instantly make people aware of whatever is going on in our lives. I say this, not to say that it’s all bad or can’t have beneficial uses, or that everything is false—but rather to show that we are often willingly blind to how much we shape our own image to please or impress others, or just ourselves. The danger is that we fail to form real relationships, and if we are using it to pose ourselves to be something we are not, eventually the reality of our sinfulness, the illusion we’ve created, crumbles under its own weight. None of us can “live up to our own hype.” Jesus sees it all as so much whitewash on a tomb. The alarming reality of Jesus’ words, is that He is not fooled by any appearances, but sees the heart and the hidden actions.
But why would any of us risk it? Why do we attempt to project images of ourselves—either of our great holiness or humility, in a religious guise, or of success and popularity, in a worldly guise, or of great prowess, power, wisdom, generosity, or whatever other values we wish to be identified with? Why do we seek the praise and approval of other people at all? A clue for us shows up in the second half of Jesus’ lesson today. In the example of the widow’s mites.
Jesus watches a scene unfold in the temple, with His disciples, watching how various worshippers give their offering. In the temple courtyards, there were big offering boxes, where people could drop in their money. With metal coins, it must have made an impressive clatter when the rich poured in their large sums of money. But Jesus is not impressed. What grabs His attention is the poor widow, who throws in two miniscule copper coins—worth a penny. How small? One sixty-fourth of a day’s wage. To any other observer, this must have seemed a pitifully small sum.
But to Jesus, her gift was far more significant than all the others who contributed that day. Why? Because they all gave out of their abundance. As a percentage of all they had, their gifts were, in any case, far smaller than anything she had given. As small as her coins were, it was all she had. It was her total livelihood. Jesus said, “They all contributed out of their abundance, but she, out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Would it have even supplied her food for one day? And yet she gave it to God, and Jesus praises her. Was she looking for any praise or approval? One can hardly think so. Certainly no one but Jesus saw the importance of her gift. What did her gift show? It showed complete and sincere trust in God. Not for attention, not for reward, but a confidence that cast her whole life upon God’s provision.
How does this relate to the scribes, and their temptations for ego and honor? Jesus presents a contrast. From abundance or poverty. The rich gave from abundance, the poor widow gave from poverty. But her gift is commended. Though poor and empty, she was spiritually rich and full. Though wealthy and full, the rich and the scribes were spiritually poor and empty. If we are spiritually poor or empty, we are tempted to fill it with the approval and admiration of men. Because that spiritual emptiness, or spiritual poverty, comes from not truly knowing God. If we don’t know Jesus, and find our satisfaction, provision, and worth in Him—we grasp for what we can reach: the approval and honor of men. And so we build up our egos, present ourselves as best we can, perform works of false humility, or for pretense, or show. But it can’t fill the emptiness or void, without God. No amount of human praise or admiration can substitute for the peace and approval of God. In all the mix, only the widow had God’s approval and peace, because her trust was fully in God, without pretense or show.
What then, is the solution and hope? In Jesus’ teaching, here and everywhere, there is a great reversal. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves, will be exalted. All who exalt themselves will be brought low. God will inevitably humble us. But humble ourselves, and God will lift us up. The sneaky thing about pride is that we can even make a good show of humbling ourselves!, which is false humility. Sin lurks in every corner. Pride is willing to step in wherever we’ll allow it. Even in our humility! A pastor is even tempted to pride in the preparation and delivery of his sermon! How often we seek recognition and praise of men, instead of the commendation of God. We all must turn ourselves over completely to God and pray, “God have mercy on me, a sinner!” Let God alone do the exalting, and forgive the sinner and raise our eyes to see His love, and the worth that He has placed on us. Not what these hands have done can cleanse our guilty soul.
Genuine faith and trust is only a product of God’s Holy Spirit working in us. It can’t be faked or manufactured. It’s God’s work in us alone. Pride must be brought low, and pretense busted, for God to clear space to fill our empty hearts with true humility and trust in Him. God accomplishes this in us, by giving us and growing in us the very heart and mind of Christ Jesus. He humbled Himself, emptied Himself of worldly honor and recognition, and became obedient to death, even death upon a cross. He gave sacrificially, not a percentage, but the whole of His very life to God. As a hymn says, “At last He brought His offering and laid it on a tree; there gave Himself, His life, His love for all humanity” (LSB 787:4).
Jesus assumed no privilege honor, or priority of place when He suffered Himself to be arrested, abused, and treated as a common criminal, when He was crucified on the tree of the cross. But He was absolute in His genuine trust in God, and without needing the applause or approval of men, He placed Himself completely into God’s hands. And God vindicated Jesus. He raised Him from the dead and crowned Him with glory and honor. What to earthly eyes seemed as empty and weak as the widow’s copper mites, in death and dishonor, God revealed to be the fullness of God’s power of salvation. What seemed to be nothing to earthly eyes, proved to be God’s plan of salvation, and the overturning of sin and death. In weakness, God proved His strength. This life of Jesus, this heart and mind of Jesus, God creates in us by faith. He works simplicity and sincerity of trust in Him, that does not need to trumpet ourselves or seek the honor of men, but rests contentedly and securely in the approval of God, that’s ours only by faith in Jesus Christ. In His Name we pray, Amen!

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      Mark 12:38-44 opens with Jesus denouncing the scribes. The scribes appear all throughout the gospels, and together with the Pharisees and high priests, were a highly respected class of leaders. Why does Jesus fault them? What were the scribes obsessed with?
2.      In what parallel ways do we today face the temptation to “polish”, “edit”, or “project” our own reputation, persona, or image. How are we tempted to make use of “religion” to engage in this kind of self-flattery or boasting? Matthew 6:1-18; Luke 18:9-14. What is the “reward” of this behavior? How does social media especially tempt us to this kind of self-flattery and boasting?
3.      What is the attitude and conduct that pastors and leaders in the church should embody? 1 Peter 5:1-5; 2 Timothy 2:2-26; 4:1-5; Mark 10:42-45.
4.      In the courts of the Temple, there were offering boxes where worshippers could deposit their gift. It must have seemed impressive to see the rich pouring in large sums of money. Jesus was not impressed. What instead, impressed Jesus and what did He notice that others ignored? Why did Jesus consider it so great?
5.      Mark 10:43-44. What was behind the woman’s total generosity and willingness to give? How are we and the world inclined not to see the significance of such outwardly small things? 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Luke 1:46-56; cf. Zechariah 4:9-10, about how people viewed the progress of rebuilding the Temple in the OT.
6.      How does God work through the humble, lowly, and despised by the world? Reread Luke 1:46-56; 2 Corinthians 12:9-11.
7.      How did Jesus make a final and total self-sacrifice? Why was He able to give everything, even His very life, up to God? How did it appear insignificant, lowly, or despised to the world? But how did God honor Him?

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