Friday, March 9, 2018

It is Better for You! (Mark 9:43-48) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Change isn’t easy!  Like the story about when Lloyd quit farming and moved to a new town in Minnesota.  He discovered he was the only Lutheran in a town of all Catholics.  Since Catholics couldn’t eat red meat on Fridays, the neighbors had a problem with his barbecuing beef every Friday. The tempting aroma was getting the best of them.  They decided to confront him.

"Lloyd, since you are the only Lutheran in this whole town and there's not a Lutheran church for many miles, we think you should join our church and become a Catholic."  Lloyd thought about it for a minute and decided they were right.  He talked to the priest and they arranged it.  The day arrived and the priest asked Lloyd to kneel, put his hand on Lloyd’s head and said, "Lloyd, you were born a Lutheran, you were raised a Lutheran, and now, as I sprinkle this incense over your head, you are a Catholic!"

The whole town was delighted. But the following Friday evening, the aroma of grilled beef still wafted from Lloyd’s yard. The neighbors went to talk to him about this, and as they approached his fence, they saw his hands raised and heard his voice saying: "You were born a beef, you were raised a beef, and now as I sprinkle salt over you, you are a fish!"  Yes, it takes more than a ceremony to change the human heart.

The season of Lent is a period intended for believers to take stock of their relationship with God.  It is a time to look inwardly, to examine one’s soul and decide what needs to change, where one needs to grow spiritually. Are we who and where God wants us to be and doing what God wants us to do?  Lent is a time to exclaim – “O Lord I repent, help me to change this about me, I am sorry for straying away from you, create in me a new heart and bring me back to you.

The Bible says the first step in getting right with God is repentance.  Jesus began his preaching in Galilee saying: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come, repent and believe in the good news.

Our scripture passage from the Gospel of Mark is often referred to as one of the hard sayings of Jesus.  It says if anyone puts a stumbling block before a child, it is better for you, if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.  Jesus loved children.  There are severe consequences for anyone who intentionally hurts a child or leads a child astray.   Jesus is speaking about human sin.   Jesus says: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, if your foot causes you to stumble cut if off, if you eye causes you to stumble, cut it out. It is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God maimed than to be whole and go to hell.

This passage shows that Jesus takes sin seriously.  In my opinion there is a growing coarseness in our society, a growing insensitivity, intolerance, an aversion to taking personal responsibility, an expanding “me centeredness” and violence such as the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Florida.  To the question why, there are many different answers and perspectives.  The biblical/Christian answer is theological; the answer is sin. It is the sin of idolatry, the worship of other persons or things than God.  It is putting other things or persons at the center of one’s life instead of God.  More people are turning away from God and Christ and repentance and faith.  I don’t see or hear a lot of repentance today.

How do we interpret Jesus' words?   One way is to take Jesus' words literally.  If you sin against God or someone with your hands or feet or eyes, cut them off or pluck them out.   Jesus is teaching us to maim ourselves when we sin.

But I have never read about anyone in the history of the church maiming themselves because of Jesus’ words.  Jesus you recall commanded us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  Maiming ourselves is hardly an act of love.  So I don't believe, and neither do biblical interpreters, that Jesus meant for his words to be taken literally.

Another approach is to ignore Jesus’ words, pass over them.  But that shows a disrespect for Jesus’ teachings and a disregard for the Bible, the word inspired by the Holy Spirit and God’s word to us.  It is a way of cherry picking the Bible.  You pick and choose what verses you will listen to.

So a third approach is to interpret Jesus’ words.  And we start by remembering that Jesus often spoke in hyperbole.   Like he does on the subject of judging others.  Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but you do not notice the log in your own eye.  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, then you will be able to see the speck in your neighbor's eye.  Jesus called the Scribes and Pharisees white-washed tombs and snakes and a brood of vipers.  Jesus said: “You can lift up a mountain and throw it into the sea.   Jesus said: “You are the light of the world; you are the salt of the earth.

Most people in Jesus’ day were illiterate. Jesus used vivid imagery, symbols, metaphors in his teaching to inspire his audience to listen to him.  Jesus’ taught in word pictures and parables to get people's attention so people would remember his teachings.   To tell an audience: “I’m Jesus, don’t sin, OK, any questions,” is probably not the most persuasive preaching technique.

So we must interpret Jesus' teaching figuratively, metaphorically.   We are hearing a word picture that Jesus is painting to teach us about repentance from sin.  He is calling people to repent, to change, to stop thinking in some way or behaving in some manner.  He is saying whatever is causing you to sin, whatever is leading you to sin, separate yourself from it, sever yourself from it, cut it out of your life, remove it from your life.   Jesus is not calling people to literally cut off limbs or poke out their eyes, but to repent of anything in your life that is causing you to sin, that is becoming a barrier between you and God or you and others.

The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is near, repent and believe in the good news.”   “It is better for you!  Repentance is the first step toward becoming a new follower of Jesus and committing ourselves to Jesus as Lord and Savior.  Jesus calls us to repent against the sin of pride for example: “I don't need God in my life.  I can lead my life without God.   Repentance includes three movements:  Recognition of your sin, remorse for your sin, and reform or changing your thinking and/or behavior.  Repentance opens the way to receiving the gospel, the good news of God’s forgiveness in Christ. There is no new life without repentance, there is no possibility for change without repentance.  There is no chance for experiencing God's love and joy without repentance.  Faith and repentance, repentance and faith are inseparable.

Jesus also calls long-time Christians, believers who have walked with God for many years, to repent at different times along our spiritual journey when we have sinned against God or someone else.  We are to confess our sin and seek God's and the person's forgiveness.  Scripture says: “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sins, God is just and may be trusted to forgive us and cleanse us from every kind of wrong.

Repentance puts us back on track with God, it gets us back in sync with God, it puts us back into a right relationship with God.  Repentance opens the door of our hearts to the Holy Spirit.  The sole purpose of repentance is not to make us hate ourselves, or loathe ourselves, or despise ourselves, but rather to turn away from sin and put us back into a right relationship with God.  It’s so that our attitudes, our behavior, our hearts and minds, our soul, will become more and more like Christ.

Psalm 51 says it beautifully: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your great compassion, blot out my transgressions, and cleanse me from my sin.  You desire truth in the inward being, teach me wisdom in my heart.  Create in me a clean heart, O God and put a new and right spirit within me.  Do not cast me away from your presence, or take your Holy Spirit from me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation and sustain in me a willing spirit.

What is God calling you to change in your life?   Lent is a good time to make these changes. Amen.

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