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JESUS: His Life, His Mission. Walking Too Close To The Edge, Mark 9:42-50

Walking Too Close to the Edge

Mark 9:42-50


The Creator-God of the universe came into this world in the person of Jesus, living a blameless, sinless life, died on the cross in our place, rose again in victory over death, and what is our response? We’re willing to come to church if the weather isn’t too bad, or too good. Summer is short in northern Michigan, after all. Or if we’re not too tired. We sit with our hands in our pockets while the worship team sings, judging the “performance” based on how it made us feel that morning. We come to be entertained. Or made to feel good about ourselves. Or to get enough inspiration to get us through another week.


You see, some of us view the church as a gas station – a place where you fill up your spiritual gas tank when you’re running low. Get a good sermon, and it will keep you going for the week.


Others of us view the church as a movie theater –  a place that offers entertainment. Go for an hour of escape, hopefully in comfortable seats. Leave your problems at the door and come out smiling and feeling better than when you went in.


Or maybe we see the church as a drug store –  the place where you can fill the prescription that will deal with your pain. For many the church is therapeutic.


Or we see the church as a big box retailer – a place that offers the best products in a clean and safe environment for you and your family. The church offers great service at a low price – all in one stop. For many people, the church is a producer of programs for children and young people.[i]


The one the we usually don’t want in church is to be challenged. And who are we to think that Jesus won’t ever challenge us. If following Jesus goes completely against the flow of culture and society and human nature, how can we think that we’ll never be challenged. Or made a little bit uncomfortable. Who are we to think that Jesus will just rubber stamp everything we already believe and think? When we begin to follow Jesus, he upends all of that and reorients us toward him and life in God’s kingdom. That is a radical change, and radical changes aren’t easy. Sometimes they hurt. Just ask someone who exercises for the first time in a long time. Today, Jesus challenges us. As we continue our journey through Mark’s Gospel, turn with me to Mark 9:42-50.


These are the words of Jesus. And they are challenging words. Challenging, because we don’t like to talk about things like sin and hell. We don’t mind so much talking about our brokenness, and maybe, if we’re feeling generous, our mistakes. But words like sin seem a little bit too strong for us today. We’d prefer to keep things a little bit more positive. And hell, well, do we really talk about that kind of place anymore? Here’s the thing, Jesus talked about them both. A lot. So if we’re going to come to Jesus, if we’re going to follow Jesus, we need to talk about these things too.


Because that bent in society, in culture, in human nature AWAY from God is called sin. For Jesus, there are only two directions we can go in life: toward God, or away from God. There is no in-between. There is no fence or wall we can sit on. We can’t “sort of” follow Jesus. We’re either following him, or we’re not. Those of us who follow Jesus have to acknowledge that our hearts, the bent of our lives, naturally flows away from God, in open rebellion against God. We may not be murderers or child molesters, but we acknowledge that in large ways and small, our hearts and minds want to move away from God. And that rebellion the Bible calls sin. And sin is something that has impacted every human heart, every life.


Following Jesus doesn’t remove all sin from our lives. As followers of Jesus we still fall, we still go our own way. But we know that in Christ we are forgiven, and we cooperate with his work in our lives. So as he shines his light on the darkness in our lives, we learn to work with him as he transforms us. We begin to fight that tendency toward sin, and over time, we find victory and growth. Not perfection, but growth and transformation. Jesus makes us a little bit more like himself each day.


But even as Christ followers, our sin has an impact. It has an impact first of all on others. Not just in hurting them because we’ve taken advantage of them or spread a rumor or done something that, even unintentionally, hurt someone else. It hurts those who look up to us. And every one of us has someone who looks up to us as an example of how to follow Jesus. As much as we like to pretend that it is only the individual who matters, truth is, our actions or inactions have an impact on others. My sin can cause others to stumble and fall.


Jesus is still sitting with a child on his lap. And he looks at that child and says, “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.” He isn’t just talking about hurting a child or causing a child to sin, although that’s certainly included in what he’s saying. Remember, he’s using the child as an example. In that culture, at that time, children were not viewed as being especially obedient, or especially trusting, or simple, or innocent, or pure, or humble, unselfconscious. They had no power, no status, and few rights. They were viewed as a blessing from God, but they couldn’t do anything for you.


Jesus uses a child here as an example of anyone who is needy, little esteemed, socially invisible, easily ignored, on the fringes. Those who can be hurt or dominated without anyone really knowing or protesting our treatment of them. The ones no one notices are missing. Those who are tolerated when they come, but not embraced. Those we view as “less than.” If we, by ignoring, or mistreating, or looking down on them, or by leading them astray, cause them to fall into sin, it would be better for us, according to Jesus, to have a heavy millstone tied around our neck and tossed into the sea. Isn’t that, like, what the mob does to someone they want to make disappear?


Now, Jesus is using hyperbole here. He isn’t telling us to become like the mob in the church and start drowning people who cause others to fall into sin. But he IS telling us that the consequences for doing so are severe. God notices. He sees even the smallest sparrow. How can we think he does not see those we ignore and mistreat and look down on and lead astray, causing them to fall into sin?


Jesus was actually using imagery that would have been very powerful for his disciples. Remember, they’re in Capernaum, in Galilee right now. That had been the home base for his ministry, with them as his disciples, for couple of years, and most of them were from the region of Galilee. Galilee was actually known as a place where insurrections against Rome often cropped up, and one such insurrection had been put down by Rome in recent memory, with some of the leaders of that insurrection tossed into the Sea of Galilee with millstones tied around their necks and drowned as punishment. It was a form of execution that, like crucifixion, was sometimes used by Rome.


And it would be BETTER for something like that to happen than to, by your sin, lead someone else astray? When Christ Church first started, before we merged with Peninsula Bible Church in this building, we met in the Seventh Day Adventist church at the corner of Four Mile and Hammond. It’s a beautiful little building, and we were very grateful for the opportunity to use the building. Seventh Day Adventist churches meet on Saturday, following the Jewish example of sabbath on the seventh day of the week, with Sunday viewed as the first day of the week. So they used their building on Saturday, and we used it on Sunday. It worked out great for us both.


But one of several topics we had to iron out was the consumption of caffeine in the building. You see, Seventh Day Adventists don’t consume caffeine, which means they don’t drink coffee. Caffeine IS a psychoactive substance. That’s why most people drink coffee. It’s a stimulant. For them, that means it falls into the “cannot consume” category. But we don’t hold the same view of coffee, do we? So we had to work out with them how we would handle coffee in the building. We provided our own coffee makers and coffee and cups and creamer and sugar, and agreed to have it only in the fellowship hall, allowing only water in the sanctuary.


For us to be obstinate or inconsiderate about that issue would have been to stomp all over their very real concerns. So we stayed within the boundaries they as our hosts outlined for us. Many of us may roll our eyes, but their conviction was real, and they weren’t demanding that we embrace it. Just that we honor it when in their building. If we had tried to get into a theological argument with them, or ignored their concerns, it would have been far more than just inconsiderate. According to Jesus, that kind of arrogance would have been deadly, to them and to us.


My sin can endanger others, not just physically or psychologically or emotionally, but spiritually. It can also endanger my own eternity. Look at Vv. 43-48. Now, again, Jesus is speaking in hyperbole. That means he’s overstating things on purpose to make a point. He isn’t recommending that we start up a “cutting off offending body parts” ministry alongside our “millstone drowning” ministry. He isn’t literally asking us to do this. But he DOES want us to wrestle with the seriousness of sin. We cannot and must not reinterpret this passage to take the sting, the challenge, completely away.


My sin took Jesus to an excruciating death on the cross, something he did out of love for me, so that I can be forgiven and enjoy a restored relationship with my heavenly Father. That makes sin a very serious thing indeed. Jesus reorients everything about my life. He isn’t just my savior, he’s my Lord. That means he’s in charge. And I am not. Yes I am free in Christ and I can exercise my freedom in Christ, but never in a way that put’s someone else’s spiritual well-being in jeopardy. And never in a way that jeopardizes my own. Even St. Paul worried about this. In 1 Corinthians 9:27, he says, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”


When I place my faith in Jesus and accept his forgiveness, he goes to work remodeling my life, reorienting me, recentering me in him. And when that happens, my priorities change. And Jesus here paints a dramatic picture, using severed limbs and gouged out eyes, of the seriousness of sin. AND of the absolute value of eternal life over the relative value of physical life in this world. Better to take some damage here, deny yourself here, suffer some here, than to jeopardize your spiritual life in Christ, that is real now and will last into eternity.


In fact, Jesus elsewhere teaches that in this world, we might need to renounce family and heritage, or our possessions, or even life itself IF THEY STAND IN THE WAY OF FOLLOWING JESUS. If they stand in the way of spiritual life. Life in Christ. Life with Christ. Eternal life. Now, this isn’t an excuse for pastor’s to sacrifice their children and marriages on the altar of ministry, being an absent parent and spouse for the sake of Jesus. It’s a description of reality for many followers of Christ in this world. There are places in this world where to accept Christ is to be rejected by your family and often your friends. It is to lose patrons of your business. Your customers and your income. It is to place yourself in physical jeopardy. If Jesus didn’t reorient our priorities, our highest values, there would never be a Christian martyr. And Mark is writing to Christ followers in Rome facing persecution under Nero.


But people who face these things do so understanding that what they may lose in this life pales in comparison to what they have in Christ. Life in this world is a good thing. Life in Christ is better. God’s sovereignty over my life and my allegiance to Jesus over all else become my highest values.


We’re talking about spiritual life and spiritual death here, and again, Jesus uses vivid imagery to describe spiritual ruin. He does so in the starkest of terms. He uses the word “hell.” Actually, the word he used was “Gehenna.” Gehenna comes from the Hebrew phrase “Gey’ Hinnom,” which means the Valley of Hinnom, or the Valley of Wailing. It was a valley on the southwest side of Jerusalem. In ancient times, that valley served as a crematorium where children were sacrificed to the false Canaanite gods. At least two Jewish kings are known to have used the valley in the same way as they led Israel astray, into the worship of false gods.


It was a deep gulley that later became a refuse dump where fires were kept continually burning to consume trash and refuse. In the Jewish mind, it came to represent a place of fiery punishment. Such is the seriousness of sin. God, in his justice, will deal with sin. He either deals with it on the cross of Christ, in which Christ’s death happens in your place, in your stead, for you. And his death is applied to you. And that gift becomes yours when you place your faith in Christ and begin to follow Jesus.


Or, you will stand alone before God, without Christ’s atoning death. And face judgment. But sin, all sin, the sin that hurt you and the sin that hurt others, everything that has gone wrong in this world and in the cosmos, will be made right. Every wrong punished. Not because God is a sadist who enjoys punishing, but because God is just, and when we are hurt by others, we cry out for justice. The sin of those who hurt us is either carried by Christ to the cross or carried by the person into spiritual ruin. Hell. Jesus used the word. Three times right here in rapid fire succession. We cannot cut it out of the Bible because it makes us squirm. We must face it. Understanding the seriousness with which God takes sin.


Without bad news, good news doesn’t exists. And the death and resurrection are good news. Why? Because God made a way for justice to be meted out on sin while not having to take the just punishment for sin on ourselves.


Sin endangers others and it endangers me. It also diminishes my credibility. Look at Vv. 49-50. Seems weird, at first glance, to be talking about salt and fire in the same sentence here, but for the Jew, salt was a necessary component of sacrifices offered on the alter before God. Leviticus 2:13 says, “You shall season all your grain offerings with salt. You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.” Even offerings were to be offered with salt. In fact, salt was a symbol of God’s covenant with his people. Numbers 18:19 says, “All the holy contributions that the people of Israel present to the Lord I give to you, and to your sons and daughters with you, as a perpetual due. It is a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and for your offspring with you.”


We use salt mostly for bringing out flavor. But in that day, before refrigerators and freezers, in a place where ice was fairly uncommon, it was used as a preservative too. It purified and preserved. And it added taste. Unfortunately, their biggest source of salt was the Dead Sea, located south of the Sea of Galilee. I say unfortunately because salt from the Dead Sea is known to lose its savory quality. It becomes bland.


Jesus has used the image of salt for his followers, telling us in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet” (Matt. 5:13). He uses the same image here, this time in the context of a discussion about sin. Unchecked sin takes the saltiness out of us as salt, so to speak. It makes us useless in the Kingdom of God. It causes us to lose our effectiveness as we seek to share the love of Christ with others.


The great preacher Howard Hendricks tells this story about salt. “I dare you to eat one pretzel. All I have to do is to pick up one of those things, and I’m hooked. The salt in that pretzel creates a desire for more. A number of years ago, when I was a student at the seminary, I was invited to preach in west Texas. You’ve all heard of Nowhere? Well, this was twenty-five miles beyond that. The teeming crowds were gathering – all seventeen of them. (I think it was Rally Day!) I preached with all of the fervor and passion of my heart. When I got through, this tall Texan came up and said, “You were wrong.”


“Well, sir,” I said, “I’ve been wrong on many occasions. Give me the information.”


He said, “In your sermon you made a moronic statement. You said you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. And that ain’t true, cause you can feed him salt.’[ii]


When we live in the world as salt, people get thirsty for Jesus. If we lose our saltiness, they lose their thirst. Unchecked sin causes me to lose my saltiness.


If we don’t take sin seriously, we’ll never take grace seriously. We’ll never appreciate what Jesus really did for us. Or what he is doing in us. And through us. God is just. The sin of others that has hurt you will be dealt with. Punished. But there’s another side to that coin. My sin that has hurt others, and that hurts me and my impact for Christ, will be dealt with too. Punished. The good news of Jesus is that he took that punishment on himself, and in exchange, gives me his life.


We cannot cheapen sin or minimize it. It hurts. It hurts others. It hurts us. And it hurts our impact for Christ. That’s why Christ is at work, transforming us. God’s forgiveness in Christ is real and complete. We need to thank God with all of our hearts and minds and strength for that. And we need to cooperate with his transforming work in our lives as he roots sin out, transforming us a little bit more each day into the image of his son. Let us pray.

[i] Colin Smith, from the sermon “The Church: Sharing the Passion of Jesus”

[ii] Howard Hendricks, “Beyond the Bottom Line,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 101.