For or Against?
Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 9:38–9:50
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 29-30, 2018
“For or Against?”
How easy it is to assume the worst about others! That has always been true, but the age of sound bites, social media, hackers, identity theft, and 24/7 news and information make it especially true today. This is the sad reality of life in this world, and we have to work hard – very hard – to counter assuming the worst about others in our lives. We witnessed this very thing this past week with the Supreme Court nomination hearings. Luther’s explanation to the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” continues to be a necessary corrective when we are tempted to assume the worst about another person. What Luther wrote nearly 500 years ago still rings true today: “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.” I still prefer the older version of Luther’s explanation, which I learned in Confirmation, which closes with these beautiful words in which God calls us to “put the best construction on everything.” As we come up on mid-term elections in a little over one month, what an amazing thing it would be if political candidates would strive to “put the best construction on everything,” and thus put a damper on the divisive and contentious spirit that plagues our nation. Where is all of this taking us? Unless we begin to “put the best construction on everything,” both in our personal as well as our collective life, we expand and enlarge the great chasms that already separate us from one another. Unless we begin to “put the best construction on everything,” we come to see those who disagree with us not just as having a different viewpoint, but as evil incarnate. Unless we begin to “put the best construction on everything,” we may well find ourselves at cross purposes with God. We see this very thing before us in both the Old Testament lesson (Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29) and the Gospel lesson (Mark 9:38-50) today. Both Moses and the Lord Jesus are called upon to make a “for or against” decision. Both Moses and the Lord Jesus counter this with surprising and grace-filled responses. This becomes the theme for preaching today under the theme, “For or Against?” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
Moses is at a critical crossroads. Having led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt, those same people now long to go back to Egypt because of the food they had there. Never mind the fact that they were slaves! All they can see now is what they don’t have, and what they do have is this miserable manna. Talk about a bunch of ungrateful people! God was displeased, but so was Moses. It’s all too much – all of this whining and complaining. It wasn’t in his job description and he didn’t sign up for this. So he asked God to just end it all; kill him then and there. From this terrible state of affairs, the Lord God did a new thing to redeem the situation from certain destruction. Taking a portion of the Spirit that had been given to Moses, God then placed it on seventy elders who would now share in the burden of leadership with Moses. But as with any group of people, there are some who never got the memo, who didn’t check their email, and so didn’t show up where they were supposed to be. Eldad and Medad remained in the camp and weren’t out there with the rest of the elders and Moses at the tent of meeting. And yet, there they are: prophesying because the Spirit had been given to them as well. What?! How can this be?! It goes against all the rules! There’s been a violation of protocol! Are these two for or against Moses and the Lord God? Joshua, who would become Moses’ successor as leader of the people, calls on Moses to rein in these two troublemakers: “My lord Moses, stop them” (Numbers 11:28). But Moses says: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29). Did not this very thing come to pass when the Holy Spirit was poured out on Pentecost (see Acts 2:1-41)? The Spirit is not limited to a select few, but is freely given to each person at his or her Baptism. It is that same Spirit who teaches us that there is a wideness in the kingdom of God that transcends our narrow definitions of what is and is not permissible. The walls and barriers which we are prone to erect come crashing down when the Spirit of God blows over them.
Fast forward to Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson. The same scenario unfolds here as John relates to Jesus: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38). The concern was for proper authorization and endorsement. Approval and consent had not been given; the man had no credentials. Like Moses, Jesus goes in a direction that John was not expecting, and maybe we are not expecting, either: “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will be no means lose his reward” (Mark 9:39-41). Jesus makes clear that the mentality of “us vs. them” must give way to a larger vision of the kingdom of God, a kingdom in which control and power must give way to sacrifice and servanthood. The kingdom of God which centers in the person and work of Jesus is an upside-down kingdom that runs counter to the way of the world. In the kingdom of God the last shall be first (Matthew 19:30), the mighty are brought low, the hungry are filled with good things, and the rich are sent away empty (Luke 1:46-55). All of this is made so through the King of kings and Lord of lords who came not to be served but to serve and to offer his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). This is Jesus who loves us and laid down his life for us; whose blood is the atoning sacrifice for all our sin (1 John 1:7). Jesus now calls us to see all of life through the lens of his redeeming love – our selves, our time, and our possessions. How will our use of these things show forth the light and love of Jesus? Will they – will we – be for or against Jesus?
Our selves, our time, and our possessions will likely need to be realigned under Jesus. With Jesus at the helm of our lives, we will see these things differently than we used to. With Jesus at the helm, our desire will be to please him in what we think and say and do through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us. Jesus talks about some radical and costly sacrifice in today’s Gospel lesson. What does this mean? Are we literally to sever members of our body that cause offense? No, but Jesus is telling us that there are things in our lives that will need to be discarded and tossed aside for the sake of the kingdom. Some of these may involve costly sacrifice, and we may balk at that. But whatever we may give up for the sake of Jesus is nothing compared to what Jesus has given up for us: his very life.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us: “You are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world…” (Matthew 5:13ff.). That is what Jesus calls us to be in the world: salt which seasons and gives flavor, and light which illuminates. Without Jesus, our lives become self-absorbed and preoccupied. We become bland and tasteless. Instead of shedding the light and love of Jesus, we become darkened in the futility of our own minds. “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” (Mark 9:50). In this time when there seems to be so much “for or against,” let us never forget that “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31b-32). This is the new life and the new freedom to which Christ calls us. “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” May it be so with us, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.