Service and Sacrifice
Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 9:38–50
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 26, 2021
“Service and Sacrifice”
In the cemetery of my hometown is the gravestone of my uncle, Henry Ohlendorf, my mother’s older brother. She always called him “Heinie,” short for Heinrich. He answered his country’s call to service at the beginning of World War II, and gave the ultimate sacrifice of his life at the young age of 24. He was killed in action in the North African campaign. My mother would sometimes remark on how hard this loss was for her parents, especially her mother. Living as we do here in the shadow of our nation’s capital, nearby Arlington National Cemetery is a hallowed and sacred place because of the service and sacrifice of those who are interred there. But there are many other hallowed and sacred places around our country and beyond, where families have laid their loved ones to rest after service and sacrifice in defense of our nation. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus reminds us of both of these things: service in the kingdom of God that might be as small as giving a cup of cold water in his Name, and sacrificing things in life that become obstacles to the kingdom of God. Based on the Gospel lesson, the theme for today’s message is entitled, “Service and Sacrifice.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
As we make our way through Mark’s Gospel over this year, it should be noted that most scholars and theologians believe that this is actually Peter’s account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So why doesn’t it bear Peter’s name? Many hold that it was dictated by Peter the apostle to the young disciple called John Mark (Acts 12:12, 25:15:37). Many scholars and theologians believe that it was John Mark who was the young man present at Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. Found only in Mark’s Gospel, this unidentified young man was clothed only in the linen cloth of a nightshirt, and when seized, ran away naked, leaving his nightshirt behind (Mark 14:51-52). Scripture does not clearly identify who this individual was, but this may have been John Mark’s self-identification in recording Peter’s account of Jesus. We do know that Peter’s final days were spent in Rome, where he died a martyr’s death in ca. 67 A.D. Before his death, in recording his Gospel, Peter may well have had his fellow believers in Rome in mind. Like Peter, they faced the very real possibility of suffering for their faith in Jesus. We see that especially in the closing verses of today’s Gospel lesson, which are unique to Mark: “For everyone will be salted with fire. 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 9:49-50). So what does that mean? “In the OT [Old Testament] the Temple sacrifices had to be accompanied by salt (Lev. 2:13; Ezek. 43:24; cf. Ex. 30:35). The salt-sacrifice metaphor is appropriate to a situation of suffering and trial in which the principle of sacrifice cultivated with respect to the individual members of the body is now severely tested. The disciples must be seasoned with salt, like the sacrifice. This will take place through fiery trials (cf. I Peter 1:7; 4:12), through which God will purge away everything contrary to his will. Understood in this way, Jesus’ word is a challenging pronouncement on suffering which shed light on the experience of the Church in Nero’s Rome” (The Gospel According to Mark, by William L. Lane. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974; p. 349). Jesus’ words, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world…” (Matthew 5:13-15) remind us that our very lives would be used by God to show forth his glory and draw people to him.
Before sacrifice, there is service. John’s concern in today’s Gospel is an echo of Joshua’s concern in today’s Old Testament lesson (Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29). Both were concerned that individuals without the proper credentials or certification were serving the Lord inappropriately. As John said, “We tried to stop him, because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38b). Sometimes we can be very short sighted both in life and in faith, missing the forest for the trees. Like Moses, Jesus is not overly concerned about this. He reassures his worried disciple: “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” (Mark 9:39-40). There is a wideness in kingdom service that we can overlook. We can get bent out of shape over things that are not at the heart of the kingdom of God. Such things are often about customs and traditions rather than mission and ministry. Little is much in the kingdom of God. Something as small and insignificant as giving a drink of water to one of Jesus’ children carries tremendous weight and meaning. When all is said and done, the service which we are permitted to give to others in Jesus’ Name, no matter how small or insignificant, is actually ministering to the Lord Jesus himself (Matthew 25:31-46).
Service in the kingdom of God will lead to sacrifice for the kingdom of God. Such service and sacrifice cannot be forced or compelled. God’s kingdom doesn’t work like that. These things must flow freely from Gospel motivation, not driven by Law, all in response to all that God in Christ has done for us. Jesus, who “came not to be served, but to serve, and to offer his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), is both our sacrifice for sin and our model of the godly life. When we know and believe the blessed truth that Jesus willingly suffered and died to pay the price for all of our sins, we are set free. Our full debt has been paid through the cleansing blood of Jesus, and through the power of the Holy Spirit we are “under new management.” We now begin to live that life of new obedience that Paul the apostle describes: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). We see things differently. Our values and priorities in life have shifted. We desire to do what is pleasing to the Lord, not because we have to, but because we want to. This means that, with God’s help, we strive to remove from our lives every root and cause of sin; everything that draws us away from God. Does this mean that we actually cut off our hand or pluck out our eye? No, but it does mean that because of God’s amazing love for us in Jesus, we are willing to let go of things, remove things, sacrifice things in life that get in the way of the kingdom of God. And there’s plenty of room in each of our lives to let go, remove, and sacrifice such things. This is not a one-time undertaking in life, but is an ongoing, continual process. This is a call to repentance and new life in Jesus as we daily die to sin and rise to new life in Jesus. Here in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus himself comes to us with forgiveness, strength, and blessing that we may abide in him and he in us (John 15:4-5). Whatever service and sacrifice we might render for the kingdom of God is there only because of the service and sacrifice that Jesus has rendered for us. It all comes down to this: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
“Salt is good, but if the salt has last its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50). Salt that is not salty is pretty worthless. So what is that distinctive mark of a disciple of Jesus, which, if we lose it, makes us worthless? It is faith and trust in Jesus, which leads to new obedience to Jesus; his will and purpose. Jesus’ service and sacrifice leads to our own service and sacrifice. May God help us to do this for Jesus’ sake.