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Pentecost 17 Sermon — Mark 9:38-50 (LSB Proper 21B)

September 27, 2009

September 27, 2009 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran ChurchMechanicsburg, PA

Jesus said: “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.”

Jesus’ words should cause fear to enter the hearts of His hearers. It is a remarkable option that He gives to those who scandalize His littlest disciples. Option A—the better option—that Jesus outlines is drowning in the Sea of Galilee with a weight hanging around one’s neck. If that is the better option, then what is the worse? What can be worse than the sinking fall through the murky waters never to breathe the air again?

Earthly death is the worst fate that we can imagine. But Jesus speaks of an even more dire one. In His discussion with the Twelve, Jesus speaks of an eternal death—the worst of fates. He describes the end of those who are scandalized and who scandalize others: “to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” Endless decay, endless burning—such a fate is worse than lying dead at the bottom of a lake.

Why does Jesus speak about these fates? Because He is serious about His way of discipleship and is seriously concerned about the welfare of His disciples. Jesus’ desire for those He has chosen to follow Him is to reach the end of their journey. He lays out the way of everlasting life, first walking it Himself by His perfect obedience, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection. He atones for people’s sins, and He gives them a new identity by placing His name on them. They are destined for everlasting life with Him.

But Jesus doesn’t leave His disciples as atomized individuals, separated from one another, not knowing who else is following His way of life. Instead, He has the Holy Spirit call, gather, sanctify, and keep them. Jesus has His disciples placed into groups, bound together by their baptismal identity, receiving together His gifts, leading together a new life. Moving forward together, they pilgrim to Paradise.

That is the way Jesus intends it. It is why the Church on earth has existed for nearly two millennia, doling out Jesus’ forgiveness and being bound together as His Body. But when this is threatened, when this is jeopardized, Jesus shows His indignation. The path to everlasting life is laid out for His people. But others exist who do not want anyone to complete it. They see the path Jesus’ disciples are walking, and they want to throw obstacles in their way: stones, logs, tripwires, anything that will cause Jesus’ followers to stumble and fall for eternity.

That is what Jesus means when He uses the word skandali,zh|. It means ‘to cause to fall,’ like tripping over a stone. It can also mean ‘to give offense to someone or something.’ Those who trip or take offense at the leader or fellow travelers will not complete the journey. This is why Jesus is angered, why He 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.” Those who cause Jesus’ believers to sin and lose what He has earned for them are attempting to thwart His will. And that receives His wrath.

Who does such a thing? Who would cause Jesus’ little ones to fall? Of course, we can think of obvious subjects: Satan, fallen angels, nonbelievers, and persecutors of the Church. We know how the Lord God spoke of the Serpent in the Garden after the Fall: “The woman’s descendant will crush your head.” There His anger was kindled with retribution promised.

But there is another class of people whom Jesus has in mind. They are why these words of His should cause fear in your hearts. Jesus speaks these words to the Twelve and to all His believers, warning them and you about causing your fellow believers to stumble and fall. His anger is especially kindled against those who bear His name as Christians, but who also cause members of their group to trip or to abandon the path of everlasting life. For such people, even those who are considered part of the Church, “it would be better for [them] if a great millstone were hung around [their necks] and [they] were thrown into the sea.” This shows the serious concern that Jesus has about salvation and the people who are to receive it.

So what should be done in response to these words of judgment from Jesus? The first response is to repent, to admit guilt where you have caused one of the little ones who believe in Jesus to stumble. It is not an empty saying that James writes to Jesus’ disciples: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” The second response is to reform, to remove what is causing your own sin or causing others to fall. This is why Jesus says: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut if off. . . . If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. . . . If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. . . .” Your Lord would rather you enter Paradise maimed, lame, or blind, so that all can be restored. He does not want you to be whole, but also “to be thrown into hell, where [your] worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”

Repentance and reform are done individually, as the Holy Spirit works in you. He brings you the Word of the Lord, even the statements of judgment. He convicts you of your sin. But He also brings the divine declarations of forgiveness. Dwelling in you, the Spirit raises you up where you fell on the path of discipleship and sets you right, so you can proceed again. He strengthens your faith and will, so that you can rid yourself of the stumbling blocks and endure their loss for now, knowing that all that is good will be restored to perfection in the end.

But there is a third response to Jesus’ words: to be renewed, especially renewed in your corporate lives together. Your Lord says: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” As He has given you His Spirit and newness of life and has placed you in fellowship with your fellow believers, Jesus desires that you act in harmony with each other. His words should be on your tongues. His way of life should be your corporate goal. His love should be shown among each other. For where all that is so, there the Body of Christ moves in unison on the Pilgrimage to Paradise, not putting stumbling blocks in the way.

James discusses aspects of that harmony of corporate life: “Be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged.” James also speaks about the assistance that the Lord gives through the actions of His people who are bound together: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.” This is the Church of Christ acting as its Lord intends.

That acting includes the mutual care and concern that each disciple of Jesus should have for one another. Instead of tossing stumbling blocks into the path of discipleship, you should be concerned with the spiritual welfare of your fellow believers. That is why James writes: “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” Your concern for each other’s faith can keep your fellow believer from suffering the worst fate that Jesus described.

Neither being tossed into the sea with a millstone around one’s neck nor being thrown into the unquenchable fire is necessary. For Jesus does not give a choice only between the lesser of two evils. No, He gives you the way of life, the Path to Paradise. He warns against stumbling and being a stumbling block to others. But He also promises: “Truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose His reward.” So it shall be for you, as you have His forgiveness delivered to you and as you lead your lives together by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Trust in Jesus who is serious about the welfare of His disciples. He is serious about the wrath visited upon those who trip them up or lead them astray. But He is even more serious about the mercy and salvation He has for those who bear His name. That is what He has for you on this day, as you have heard His declaration of forgiveness for your sins. Jesus says: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Know that He is not against you, but has worked and continue to works for your salvation, as you repent, reform, and are renewed as His disciples.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.


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