Pentecost 18b

Preached: October 4, 2009

Cut Away the Death Traps
Mark 9:38-50

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Word from God through which Jesus speaks to us is Mark 9

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name and tried to forbid him, because he was not following us.”

But Jesus said, “Stop forbidding him. For there's no one who will do a miracle in my name and be able to immediately speak evil against me. For anyone who is not against us, is for us. For whoever gives you a drink of water in my name because you belong to Christ, truly I say to you that he has certainly not lost his reward. And whoever entraps one of these little ones who believes in me, it is rather better for him if a heavy milestone is laid around his neck and he's been thrown into the sea.

Now if your hand should entrap you, cut it off. It is better for you to go into life maimed rather than having two hands to go away into hell, into the unquenchable fire. If your foot should entrap you, cut it off. It is better for you to go into life crippled rather than having two feet to be thrown into hell. If your eye should entrap you, throw it out. It is better for you to go into the kingdom of God with one eye rather than having two eyes be thrown into hell, where their maggot does not die and the fire is not put out.

For everyone is salted with fire. Salt is good. But if the salt should become saltless, in what way will it be seasoned? Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.” (Mark 9:38-50)

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

We've all seen old-fashioned mouse traps like this one. It's just a piece of wood and some twisted metal. But how deadly for a curious mouse! With the trigger set, it only takes a nudge or a lick, and snap! That's the end of the mouse. It's a death trap.

That's the picture behind the word Jesus uses when he talks about causing someone to sin as the NIV translates in the text. A death trap for faith is triggered. In Greek it's the word σκανδαλίζω (skandalizo). The believer is scandalized into turning away from Jesus into unbelief. It's a matter of life and death. The King James Version used the word offend here. But that doesn't cut it with our current meaning of offend. Jesus is not talking about hurting someone's feelings. He's talking about killing faith, triggering a death trap.

We certainly do not want to be the trap that kills someone else's faith. And we certainly don't want to be a mouse triggering a death trap for our own faith. So cut away the death traps. That's the theme to keep in mind. Through God's Word and through the Lord's Supper may the Holy Spirit strengthen you and me to cut away the death traps so that we do no harm to the faith of others or to our own faith.

A. By fighting party pride that looks down on others

1. How did the sin of party pride show in the disciples?

As we begin, let's catch up with the flow of what's happening. Last week in the Gospel from Mark 9, the disciples had argued about which of them was the greatest. Jesus confronts that sinful pride in them. He tells them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, the servant of all” (Mark 9:35 NIV). He then takes a little child in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me” (Mark 9:37 NIV).

John has taken Jesus' words to heart. He recalls how he had recently acted unwelcoming toward someone driving out demons in Jesus' name. Was he and the others wrong to try to stop that man or was that a different situation? Jesus answers, “Do not stop him . . . for whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9: 39, 40 NIV).

They're many details here we'd like to know but aren't told. We don't have time to go into the different possibilities. So let's focus on the sin that Jesus brings out here, the sin that can also so easily infect you and me and lead us to be a death trap for someone else. What is that sin? Party pride. That partisanship that thinks we're better just because of the group we belong to.

So the disciples struggled not only with personal pride arguing which of them was the greatest but also with party pride. They were proud that they were part of that group, that party of people, who spent each day in Jesus' physical presence. What right did this outsider have to drive out demons in Jesus' name? Wasn't that a right Jesus had given only to them, to their group?

But just because this man was not part of the disciple's special group, didn't mean he didn't believe in Jesus. The very fact that this man trusted Jesus' name so much that he used it to drive out demons brought glory to Jesus at this time. Just because he wasn't with the twelve disciples, didn't mean that he was against Jesus. “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40 NIV).

2. How could Jesus' words, “Whoever is not against us is for us,” be misused?

Now, don't misuse those words as an excuse for spiritual laziness. Don't think to yourself, “As long as I'm not actively opposing Jesus, I must be OK. So I can coast along in my faith since if I'm not against him, I must be for him.” That's not what Jesus said and that's not the situation he's addressing.

When it comes to your own personal relationship with Jesus, then Jesus says, “He who is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30 NIV). If you or I are not actively following Jesus, then we a working against him. There's no idling in place or coasting along. However, when we're looking out at someone else, as John was doing in this context, then just because that other person hasn't joined with us, doesn't mean they are against Jesus. “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40 NIV). Do you see the different situation?

And when a person if for Jesus, that faith will show itself. Jesus makes that clear. Faith shows itself, maybe not in acts like driving out demons, but maybe in the simple act of giving a cup of water to a fellow follower of Jesus. Jesus isn't describing simply an act of human sympathy or humanitarian aid. Even unbelievers do such things. But notice how Jesus says that this person does it “in my name because you belong to Christ” (Mark 9:41 NIV). It's an act of faith that trusts in Jesus' name and what it means and stands beside his followers.

Now would we want our party pride to snuff out that person's faith, to push him away from Jesus, to snap down on him like a death trap? Of course not! That's why Jesus warns us of how serious that is. Rather than killing the faith of a little one, whether a child or someone young in the faith, it would be better for our own life to be horribly ended with a heavy millstone dragging us to the bottom of the ocean.

3. What attitude and actions are we to show toward those who haven't joined with us?

We have the blessing of being part of a group, a congregation and church body, that is close to Jesus and centered on his truth. What a great blessing that is! But like John we face the temptation of thinking that if someone is not with us, they must be against Jesus. How often aren't we guilty of party pride! It's so easy to think that we have the clear teaching of God's truth among us, because we're better that others. But we have his truth only because of God's mercy.

Fight against such party pride, for neither you nor I want to drive another believer away from Christ. We don't want to be a death trap for them. The Holy Spirit powerfully works wherever the Gospel is proclaimed, that Good News of Jesus, our divine Savior, the Good News that he was crucified for all the sins of the world and rose from the dead to bring eternal life, the Good News that this is all a free gift from God received by faith alone, apart from works, the Good News that he did all this for guilty sinners, yes even for you and me. We rejoice that this Good News brings faith to the hearts of people even if they don't belong to our congregation or our sister congregations.

Now does this mean we join in with any and every church that has the Gospel somewhere, even if it's mixed with unbiblical teachings? Do we join them in prayer and worship and communion as if all churches were the same? No, that would be laying a different kind of death trap for them. Just as we rejoice when the gospel truth creates faith, so also we mourn when error and falsehood are mixed with God's truth. To pray or worship or commune with those who join themselves with false teachings confirms them in their error. We rejoice as long as faith is still in their hearts, but we must also warn with our words and actions that they are endangering their faith with the false teachings of the church they've joined. Any false doctrine is such a serious death trap that the Bible calls it gangrene (2 Timothy 2:17).

So we pray: Lord Jesus, forgive us for our party pride. Help us rejoice that you have called many to faith who are not outwardly joined with us. Keep us from laying the death trap of party pride and also the death trap of condoning false teachings. For we do not want any falling away because of us.

B. By fighting what draws your heart into sin

1. What death traps are trying to kill your faith?

Now Jesus turns from warning us against laying death traps for others and warns us against laying death traps for our ourselves.

This is a very serious matter, a matter of life and death, heaven and hell. Three times Jesus mentions hell. He describes hell, “where the fire never goes out” (Mark 9:43 NIV). He quotes from the Prophet Isaiah, “where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched'” (Mark 9:48 NIV). Imagine your body continually decaying with maggots crawling in and out, but you're still alive and feeling it all. Imagine the horror of your flesh burning, the putrid stench, the searing pain. And it just goes on and on and on. You never go unconscious. Unending torture. Hell's worse. All those stories of people selling their souls, or making a deal with the devil, or out fiddling him, only belittle how horrible hell is.

Is any earthly gain or glory, any amount of health or wealth or pleasure, even the greatest fame and fortune -- is any of it worth an eternity in hell? Is it even worthy a day in hell? No! Not at all. Is anything or anyone in this life so dear, so precious, so cherished that it's worth holding on to, even if it's dragging us into hell? Certainly not! Even losing a hand or foot or eye is well worth it, if that would keep us out of hell.

But would cutting off a hand, a foot, or an eye really save us from hell? No. We still have another hand, foot, or eye to keep on sinning with. The death trap lies much deeper. It's in our very heart and soul. A few chapters backs you heard Jesus say, “From within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (Mark 7:21, 22 NIV). Death traps are what lead our hearts into sin.

Cut away the death traps. Flee temptation. Run away from sin. If that movie, TV program, book, magazine, friend, neighbor, job, hobby, sport, or activity is leading your heart away from Christ and into sin, cut it away. It's a death trap. It's not worth it. It will not bring you true happiness, but rather in the end only hell.

Yet the root of the problem isn't those things outside of us, is it? Many things in this world push our hearts along in sin (so avoid them), but even cutting ourselves off from everything will not make our hearts better. So is the fire of hell the only future in front of us?

C. As God's Word salts you

1. How can you stay salty?

No, dear friend, not at all! Don't despair. Jesus speaks of another fire, not a fire that torments, but a fire that's like salt. It purifies and preserves. “Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other” (Mark 9:49, 50 NIV).

What is that which can penetrate to the very depths of our heart and soul cutting away the death trap within us? What is the salt the kills the bacteria of sin and preserves us for eternal life? What alone can purify our hearts, sanctifying us, making us pure and holy before God? What is the salt?

Listen to what Jesus says in his prayer in John 17: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17 NIV). God's Word is the salt that penetrates your hearts to sanctify you so that those death traps are cut away and instead you, dear friend, are set apart for God. God's Word alone purifies and preserves us for eternal life. For God's Word in Scripture and in the Sacraments brings you Jesus and his blood that was shed for you. “The blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7 NIV).

Have this salt in yourself, dear friend. Keep God's Word active in your heart. Don't lose the saltiness by neglecting God's Word. Have God's Word within you. Have salt in yourselves.

And as that word lives in us, we are able to live at peace with one another. Instead of party pride laying death traps for others, we share the peace of Christ with one another. We live at peace, for Jesus has brought you and me his peace. Through his death he reconciled you to God. Be at peace. Even the deepest, darkest sin within your heart, the blood of Jesus purifies. You have peace. The peace of forgiveness. The peace of eternal life, which no hell can rob from you. Peace with God. The peace we share with each other as God's Word salts our hearts. Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313

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