Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 30, 2018
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
There are two phrases that every parent knows well. If you’re a parent, you’ve probably used them a thousand times. Even if you aren’t a parent, you’ve probably used these phrases a time or two. The first phrase is “cut it out.” How many of you parents have said that to your kids? Probably about one million times, right? The other phrase is probably used just as much: “Knock it off.”
These phrases aren’t to be taken literally – when you tell someone to cut it out, there are usually no scissors or knives or scalpels involved. When you tell your kids to knock it off, you don’t mean for them to pick up a club or a baseball bat. These phrases aren’t to be taken literally – but they are to be taken seriously. These kinds of idiomatic phrases are meant to get someone’s attention, to get them to stop doing something.
Sometimes you might tell someone to “cut it out” in reference to how they are treating someone else. If one kid is being mean to another, you might say, “Hey, cut that out.” Same with “knock it off.” If two kids are bickering incessantly or arguing about the last piece of pizza or whose turn it is to get on the Xbox, a parent might say, “Hey you guys, knock it off!” (This is all entirely hypothetical, of course.)
At other times one might use those phrases to try to stop people from hurting themselves. If someone is being reckless or foolish and putting themselves in danger, if you care about that person at all, you’re going to say things like “cut it out,” or “knock it off.”
In our gospel reading for today, we hear Jesus say some things that shouldn’t be taken literally, but they darn well better be taken seriously! Jesus uses phrases that are part of Hebriac idiom, which, just like English idiom, or ways of speaking, use extreme language to communicate something important.
Jesus tells his disciples that if they cause someone else to stumble, it would be better for them if a great millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. Few people have any direct experiences with millstones anymore, but I’ve been to Bob’s Red Mill in Oregon and I’ve seen one myself! A millstone is a huge stone that has been cut into a cylindrical shape that can be rotated. It was used in the olden days to grind grains down into the finest of flours. Smaller millstone can be rotated by people, but most of the time they were on big turnstiles that had to be moved by donkeys. Even normal millstones are huge and heavy, but Jesus doesn’t prescribe a normal millstone to be put around the necks of those who cause others to stumble. He calls for a great millstone! And anyone who has every watched a gangster movie knows what happens when someone is weighted down with something heavy and then thrown into a body of water, right? The same principal is at work here.
Jesus isn’t being literal, but he is being serious. Do you think Jesus got the disciples’ attention with this kind of talk? I bet he did!
Jesus uses this language because the disciples were bickering with others who were doing ministry in Jesus’ name. They thought they had the all the copyrights for Christian proclamation and were trying to shut down others who were using his name. They thought that no one outside of their group, their tribe, their team should be using that name to cast out demons.
But Jesus says to them, “What, are you crazy?” (I’m paraphrasing here.) “Don’t stop them! Whoever is not against us is for us! Don’t you dare put a stumbling block in front of these little ones who want to follow me! The phrase “little ones” is a little ambiguous here. It could refer to small children, which he had just been talking about a few verses before. But it could also refer to those who are little in faith, those who are young or new Christians, such as those who were casting out these demons. Whoever it may have been, Jesus makes it clear that if the disciples make them stumble, they will be in big trouble! Jesus cares about these little ones and so he uses this extreme language to stop his disciples from treating them poorly. “Just cut it out,” Jesus is saying to them. “Knock it off!”
Then Jesus goes on to use equally extreme language to look at how they might be hurting themselves, how they might cause themselves to stumble. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out. For it would be better for you to enter life maimed than to have all your body parts and be thrown into hell.” If there is a part of them that might cause them to stumble in their walk with Jesus, they are to cut it out! If they are doing something that threatens their walk of faith, they are to knock it off!
Both in how they are treating others and in their own individual behavior, the disciples are in danger of turning away from Christ and towards spiritual death. They have been displaying a toxic mix of ignorance and arrogance. If you’ve been following along these past few weeks in our readings from Mark we’ve heard how they have been primping and posing, jockeying for position as the greatest of Jesus’ followers, while not having a clue as to what Jesus was actually up to as the Messiah of God. Their ignorance and arrogance has now led them to lash out at others. It threatens to cause them to stumble over their own clumsy and sinful feet. It threatens to lure them away from God and towards hell, towards a state of alienation from God.
And so Jesus uses strong language to get their attention. Why wouldn’t he? If he cared about them at all, of course he would! Jesus is pleading with them urgently to follow him into life rather than lead others or themselves towards spiritual death.
These sharp words we hear this morning are not just a record of Jesus’ past conversations. Through the scriptures the Lord Jesus speaks the same words to us here today. And while we shouldn’t take them literally and start lopping off limbs, we should take them seriously!
At a time when the churches often seem to be competing against each other for a bigger share in a shrinking market of Christians, Jesus calls us to be grateful whenever his name is being made known, no matter who is saying it.
At a time when intense rivalries and bitter divisions in public life are blinding us to the humanity of people who are not in our group, our tribe, our team, Jesus calls us to watch how we conduct ourselves as Christians, lest we cause someone to stumble.
How we treat each other matters, and any time our competitiveness turns to contempt of others, especially other Christians, Jesus calls us to cut it out. Whenever our loyalties to our in-group lead us to demonize others, Jesus calls us to knock it off. To walk those paths is to walk away from God. It is to walk towards spiritual death.
But our Lord Jesus is concerned about the things we do to ourselves too. He knows there are all kinds of things that cause us to stumble, all kinds of things that lead us away from the life God offers through Jesus Christ. Maybe its our hands grasping for things we have no right to reach for. Maybe its our feet taking us down a wrong path. Maybe it our eyes gazing covetously at all kinds of worldly pleasures that would lead us away from God. Maybe its our tongue cursing our neighbors rather than praying to God. Maybe its our minds thinking up new justifications for ourselves and our sinful attitudes and behavior.
Jesus loves us enough to say to us today: “Cut it out!” He cares about us enough to say, “Knock it off!”
But he loves us so much that he doesn’t just leave it at that. In these chapters we’ve been exploring in Mark’s gospel these last few weeks we have heard him intensify his call to his disciples. Jesus has set his eye towards Jerusalem. He has started to disclose to them the real reason he came into the world – which wasn’t just to tell people to cut this out or knock this off.
Jesus came into the world not just to discourage sin, but to conquer it. And he did so on the cross, where he became the one who was cut out and knocked off – quite literally!
Our sin is ultimately dealt with not by lopping off our hands and feet, but by Jesus’ letting his hands and feet be pierced for us. Instead of our sin leading us to be cast into the sea with a great millstone around our neck, Jesus came into the world to die in our place. Hell, that state of total alienation from God, is not a metaphor but a true and tragic condition we put ourselves in. But Jesus descended into hell for us only to rise again three days later, setting us free by conquering sin and death once and for all.
Are you still in despair over all the ways you stumble? Cut it out! Christ died and rose for you!
Does all this talk about millstones and cutting off limbs and being thrown into hell make you afraid? Knock it off! You are forgiven for Jesus’ sake, so that you might follow him not out of fear for what he might do, but out of joy for what he has already done.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church