Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 21)
September 30, 2018
Text: Mark 9:38-50
There are two parts to this morning’s Holy Gospel. The first relates St. John’s consternation over someone outside the circle of Jesus’ disciples who was casting out demons. They tried to stop him. And why? Out of jealousy, perhaps? To protect Jesus? There was this rather reasonable concern that whoever it may have been, he wasn’t following Jesus. At least not full time, like the Twelve. But he was doing what he was doing in the Name of Jesus. And Jesus gives His approval to it. And here we learn that it is fruitless and nonsensical to be jealous of other Christians, other congregations, or even other church bodies who are casting out demons by their preaching of the Gospel or administration of the Sacraments. Now, this in no way means we should just pretend there are no differences between denominations, or that we shouldn’t be concerned about false doctrine. False doctrine, after all, is from the evil one, and we should call our brothers and sisters in other denominations, and in our own denomination, to repentance whenever false doctrine is taught or the Sacraments are denied. But it also means we can rejoice when they preach the Gospel and where they get the Sacraments right. This is the thing you have to keep in mind whenever we’re teaching about the weaknesses and sins of other church bodies. Those weaknesses and sins must be exposed to be dealt with, and to warn you against them, but in no way does that mean we are unchurching our brothers and sisters in those denominations, or condemning them to hell. When you walk out of here thinking that I have said that, or another confessional Lutheran pastor has said that, you are willfully misunderstanding, because you’ve been so shaped and molded by political correctness that you think it’s out of bounds to criticize anyone. John may have had a legitimate criticism. But not about the exorcism. We should always rejoice when a demon is cast out. We should always rejoice when the Gospel is proclaimed in its truth and purity. We should always rejoice when there is a Baptism of a little one or a new Christian in the Name of our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We should always rejoice when the body and blood of Jesus in the Supper is not denied, but received in faith for the forgiveness of sins. In this sense, “the one who is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40; ESV). There is a lot more we should say about this, but for now, this is sufficient.
The second part of the Holy Gospel is the main part for our consideration this morning. Here we see how greatly Jesus loves the little ones, the little children. I think He primarily has them in mind, here, though what He says applies to any Christian who is new to the faith, or weak in the faith, or vulnerable to a particular temptation. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,” says Jesus, “it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (v. 42). It would be better for him to die. That is how jealously Jesus guards His little ones. If you scandalize them (and the Greek word for “cause to sin” is “scandalize,” which is to say, “cause them to stumble,” so that they lose their faith)… If you scandalize them, it would be better to be dead. That’s about as serious a warning as you can have. So we should be careful about this. We should think about this. The first thing we should say is that the little ones believe. That’s what Jesus says. They “believe in me,” He says. That means we can have every assurance that when we bring a little baby to the font and baptize them into Christ, they believe. They have faith. Faith, after all, is not the ability to rationally comprehend, nor the ability to confess with the mouth. Those things are fruits of faith. But faith itself is simply trust in Jesus, as a newborn instinctively trusts his mother, even before he knows or can say the word “Mom”! He knows her. He believes in her! He trusts her for protection from all evil and providence of every good!
But we must also admit that an infant’s faith can be harmed, abused, or even lost. And much of that has to do with the scandals we place in front of them. So what are those scandals, those stumbling blocks? What things do we do or say that could destroy the delicate faith of a baptized child of God? Well, you don’t want to hear some of these things. But then again, that’s precisely why you need to hear them. St. Mark identifies one of those things as divorce. That is the Holy Gospel for next week, and unfortunately, some uninspired Bible scholar put a chapter division between today’s reading and next week’s, and the lectionary committee followed suite. But clearly St. Mark has in mind that one of the scandals for these little ones who believe in Him is their parents getting divorced. Now, I understand that divorce happens, and there are many reasons people get divorced, and we’ll talk about all of that next week and whenever else you want to talk about it. But for today’s purposes, let’s at least be honest with each other enough to admit that divorce always hurts the children involved. No matter what the reason for the divorce, we call it a broken home because the people in it are broken. It’s not a good witness to the faith. It’s not a good witness to God’s love. How do you expect your children to believe in the reliability of God’s love for them when your love for their other parent has failed? It’s not a good example for the children. And the children blame themselves for it. Always. And they look for ways to cope, and most of the time they don’t choose wise ways to cope, because the adults in their lives aren’t in a good place to help them choose wise ways, and maybe aren’t choosing wise ways themselves. So there is that. Then there is the culture of promiscuity and libertine sexuality, which we now officially sanction and teach our children, in many cases, in our schools. We can’t teach abstinence, saving yourself for marriage, but we can teach them various ways they can do what should only be done in the context of holy marriage. God help us. And we teach that the fruit of such illicit unions, namely, another child, pregnancy, is expendable. Just have an abortion and the problem goes away. Which, of course, is not the case. Not only is it the murder of the child in the womb, a child for whom our Lord Jesus was conceived and born and died on the cross, but it also leaves the mother and father (and that is what they are!) broken. Christ have mercy. And to top it all off, we teach our kids that everything is ultimately meaningless, a product of random chance, a cosmic accident that took shape over billions of years. No wonder they don’t believe.
And we don’t equip them to stand strong against this worldview, because we send them anywhere and everywhere but Church to be molded and shaped. Jesus will teach us next week that we should let the little children come to Him and that we must not hinder them. That is to say, baptize them and get them to Church. This is, perhaps, the greatest stumbling block. Parents, you simply must bring your kids to Church. Every week. This is not an option. You cannot raise your children to do other things on Sunday morning, or make Church one possibility among many other possibilities for your family’s weekend agenda, and then be surprised when your kids stop coming to Church, and maybe even renounce the faith altogether. The biggest stumbling block you can place in front of a child is to not bring him or her here to Jesus to be baptized, to hear His Word in preaching and have their sins forgiven, to learn the faith in Sunday School, in Catechism class, and to eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus in the Sacrament. Don’t dismiss this like it’s not a big deal. Listen again to what Jesus 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.” This is serious stuff. We all make mistakes on this as parents. Don’t make excuses. Just repent. Confess. And hear the beautiful Absolution Jesus speaks to you. Your sins are forgiven. And then get the kids to Church, and make sure your own posterior is in the pew.
And make no mistake about it, Jesus is as concerned about your eternal salvation as He is about your children. That is why He changes the subject from you scandalizing the little ones to your members scandalizing you. And He is just as pointed. If your hand causes you to sin, scandalizes you, cut it off! Better to go into life, that is, heaven, minus a hand, than go to hell. Jesus doesn’t want you to go to hell. He wants you to be with Him in heaven. Same with your foot. Same with your eye. Better heaven without those than your whole body in hell. Now, our Lord, who took upon Himself our flesh to redeem our flesh, who is risen from the dead bodily, to give life to our bodies, is not here recommending mutilation of your members. But He is running through the stages of sin in reverse order: Your hand: that with which you commit the sin. Your foot: that which leads you to the sin. Your eye: that which sees and desires to commit the sin. And while your hands, feet, and eyes have indeed been complicit in sin, have scandalized you, you could certainly cut them off and gouge them out, but you know that then you would simply be a handless, footless, eyeless sinner. The answer to your sin is not mutilation, it is Jesus Christ. It is Christ crucified for you. And that is the point of all of this.
Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered the mutilation of His whole body in payment for your sins. His hands were pierced, for the sins of your hands. His feet were nailed to the wood for the sins of your feet. His eyes were blinded in death for the sins of your eyes. And that isn’t all. His head was crowned with thorns for all your wicked thoughts. His side, His very heart, was impaled for the real source of your sins, your heart. The solution to your sins is not the cutting off of your members, but the death of Jesus Christ. You are baptized into His death. His death is your death. He died the death you should have to die. And His death counts for you. It is the death of your Old Adam. It is the crucifixion of the sinful flesh. Repentance is the daily return to Baptism, the daily drowning of the Old Adam in you so that the new creation in Christ can daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity. For Christ is risen from the dead. And you are baptized into His resurrection. His life is your life. He lives in you. You live in Him. Jesus Christ is your very life.
Now, that doesn’t mean you won’t suffer. Everyone will be salted with fire, Jesus says. Unbelievers are salted with the unquenchable fire of hell, where their worm does not die. There is a hell. Jesus is very pointed about that fact this morning. And unbelievers go there. Which is why this is such serious business. But you… you who believe in Jesus Christ and are preserved in the faith by His grace, you are salted with the fire of repentance. That is always the reason for preaching God’s Law. It isn’t just to make you feel bad about yourself like some pointless guilt trip. It is so that you see that in and of yourself you are full of only death and corruption, and so you need Christ, who is full of only life and righteousness and goodness. The Law is preached so that you repent. The Gospel is preached so that you believe. And now you have salt within yourselves, which is to say Christ and His Word. And He sends you out into the world with this salt to do what salt does: to season and to preserve. God preserves the world for your sake. And He seasons the world through your steadfast confession of His Holy World. And you live at peace with one another, for that is what seasons and preserves the Church. Having been forgiven all your sins on account of Christ, you forgive one another on account of Christ, and you are patient with the failures and weaknesses of your brothers and sisters in Christ.
And this begins with your children, the little ones. So do not scandalize them. Give them Jesus Christ. And receive Him yourself. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.