December 11, 2016
It’s taken us three weeks to get through a rather challenging passage of Scripture in our study of Mark. In fact, one commentator calls it this most obscure passage in Mark’s gospel. It actually started with Jesus giving His second passion prediction in Mark 9:31. But the disciples didn’t understand what He was saying, so they did the next best thing – they began arguing about which one of them was greatest – and that set the course for the rest of the chapter.
Jesus began teaching about true greatness in the Kingdom. You remember He started by saying, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” That would have been a bit shocking. But even our world understands something about serving being admirable. Ten years ago, CNN launched their Top Ten Heroes, where they identify people serving around the world, calling them heroes, encouraging their service and even raising money for their causes. Each year, the public votes, and tonight they reveal their top hero of 2016. You know, the servant of all will get to be first of all. This year’s group includes a non-profit in Columbia that helps kids with disabilities reach their full potential; another in Montana helping kids with cancer to learn to kayak; and yes, another in California helping senior dogs find homes. You may remember Boone’s own Wine-to-Water made it to the top ten the very first year of CNN’s Heroes.
I suppose one of the reasons the world recognizes service as heroic is because there are great needs out there and so few who sacrifice to meet them. But Jesus says meeting needs – serving and being last of all – is to be characteristic of My followers. Nothing particularly heroic – it’s who we are. If you look through church history, you’ll find the church has pioneered taking care of the least of these – establishing hospitals, orphanages, schools – all in the name of Christ. Jesus even took a child as an object lesson and said, whoever receives one child in My name receives Me. In context, the child represents the least important in the kingdom – as we count greatness.
Jesus is actually teaching us that everyone in His kingdom is important – and to be received. In fact, the very people we would by nature honor are not necessarily on His list of greatness. And the people we may not even give a second glance might be the ones He esteems. Because, we found greatness is not necessarily determined by what we do, but by who we are. Not the positions we hold, the power we wield, the status we enjoy, the recognition we receive. Who’s greatest in the kingdom? Probably not the ones most would think. By His object lesson, Jesus is teaching greatness is found in humility, brokenness, dependency.
Think about it, that’s the difference in how Jesus and CNN count greatness. Now, I think it’s great to recognize such servants, but Jesus would say – it’s those children with disabilities, those with challenging diseases, those humble, broken, dependent people who know Me who are actually great. And therefore, receiving them, the least of these, is true greatness.
Well again, they’re on their way to Jerusalem, and the time is short. Jesus has begun clearly telling them in Caesarea Philippi He must go to Jerusalem, suffer at the hands of the chief priests, scribes and elders, be killed, and raised again the third day. On their way to Jerusalem, they stop at Capernaum one last time, and on the way there, after His second passion prediction, an argument broke out between the disciples – quarreling as to which one of them was greatest. Jesus asked them, “what were you fighting about along the way?” and after a moment of embarrassed silence, Jesus gathered a child in His arms and said, the one who receives this child in My name is great. So, if those CNN heroes are doing what they do in Jesus’ name, receiving little ones in Jesus’ name – that’s true greatness.
As Jesus mentioned receiving little ones in His name, it seemed to spark John’s memory. We don’t know if this just happened or if it was sometime earlier, but John says, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, but he wasn’t following us, so we told him to stop.” Mark talks a lot about following, but it’s always following Jesus. But for John, he’s concerned someone is not following us. His concern still seems to be his inflated, singular self-importance. That’s the context which is why Mark put it here. Who’s the greatest – it’s got to be one of us. Not this guy – we don’t even know his name. We told him to stop.
To which Jesus responded, don’t hinder them. The one who is not against us is for us. Only one thing matters – do they carry the name of Christ? This unnamed exorcist was doing it in My name. So, are they Christ followers? That’s what matters – not, are they part of our little band – our group. If they name Jesus, then what they are doing in My name is good. It doesn’t matter how big, or how small. Even giving a cup of water to someone who bears my name will not go unnoticed – it will be rewarded. So it doesn’t matter if your service is big and seen like casting out demons or little and overlooked, like serving little ones a cup of water – it will be rewarded.
Which brings us to our text today. Remember last week I suggested Mark took several teachings of Jesus and strung them together in a meandering path of loosely connected words. It goes like this – who’s the greatest? Those who serve little children in My name. Hey, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, so we told him to stop. Jesus says, don’t do that. Even if you give a cup of water in My name, you won’t lose your reward. But conversely, if you cause a little one to stumble, big trouble. And while we’re talking about stumbling, if there’s something in your life causing you to stumble, cut it off. Better to go to heaven maimed then into hell in one piece. And while we’re talking about fire, everyone will be salted with fire. And while we’re talking about salt, be salty.
All of this has to do with life as disciples of Christ. This is how we live, this is what we look like. Don’t worry about who’s greatest. You serve and be last. Don’t worry about others serving in My name – in fact, you serve them. Even the least of them. And by the way, serve them, don’t cause them to stumble. Don’t even cause yourself to stumble. Be pure. Read the text with me – Mark 9:42-50.
Isn’t that a nice passage for the third Sunday of Advent? We’ll follow this outline:
- First, having been commanded to receive little ones in His name, Jesus warns against causing little ones to stumble in verse 42.
- Then, we’ll look at taking steps necessary to keep yourself from stumbling (43-48).
- Then, Jesus will close with some encouragement about salt and fire in verses 49-50.
Now remember, little ones is not speaking only of children, but the less-than-important, the least of these believers in His kingdom – the no-name exorcist, for example. Now, when Jesus says to receive little ones in My name, the word receive means just that – to accept them, to receive them, to welcome them warmly, to take pleasure in them; to show them hospitality and consideration. So, whoever receives/welcomes/accepts a believer in My name, receives Me.
Conversely then, to not receive them is to cause them to stumble. Your translation may have it, whoever causes one of these little ones to sin – the word is not sin – I think it includes sin – but the word is stumble. How do we cause little ones to stumble? To not receive them, and thereby discourage or destroy the faith of a fellow believer – a brother or sister – to perhaps even cause them to fall away from following Christ. This is why Jesus has some strong words to say.
Let’s go back to this idea of receiving. Jesus is saying, receive a child like this because they carry My name. They’re members of the family – that is enough. They need no other credentials, they need no other initiation, they don’t need to jump through any of your performance hoops, they don’t need to look just like you – they know Me, they come in My name, they carry My name – that’s enough. Receive them. And in so doing, you receive Me.
Let’s make this receiving practical for our gathering this morning – or for our relationships together in the body of Christ. Suppose Tim Tebow and the thief on the cross, or a comparable sinner-turned-saint, walked into the back of the auditorium. Which one, do you suppose, would be received more warmly, more hospitably, more excitedly? Now listen, I have no problem with Tim – I like Tim, but in comes a broken person of society – this one not as well known as Tim. In fact, he comes in with nothing really to offer – he or she is nothing, they have nothing. They’ve not been used greatly in the kingdom, at least in our estimation. They don’t bring a lot to the table – they’re just a broken sinner saved by grace. Who excites you more?
Let’s identify some who may come in those doors, shall we? Recovering alcoholics, drug addicts, people struggling in their marriages, divorced people, homeless people, sick, poor people, needy, abused, ex-cons, homosexuals, pierced, tattooed, shabby people, shaggy people – whoever it is that would never make your list of great people from whom most turn. People who have never been on anybody’s who’s who list. People who have tried to find life in things that could never give life – and now, they walk with a limp. And in their misery, they come to faith in Christ – hallelujah, isn’t that great? But their lives are still a wreck – they still struggle, they still carry scars. What do we do with those kinds of people? What do we do with them when they show up here? Do they feel welcomed? Special guest, extra care required?
Some time ago I challenged us to be a hospital – a place where broken people can come to find grace, healing and forgiveness. Are we? Do society’s broken come here? Are they drawn here? If one of those people I just mentioned came through those doors – would they be received? You see, doing kingdom work is messy. It’s not easy. Let’s face it, people can be emotionally draining. They can be high maintenance. I’ve got enough to deal with, I don’t have time for them. What criteria do you use when evaluating guests?
What can they bring to the table?
If I give to them, what could they possibly have that I want in return?
Wonder how much they’ll tithe?
Looks like a lot of work to me.
I would never be choose to be friends with them out there.
They’re emotionally draining.
They don’t look too good – I would never show up like that to church.
They probably won’t give – they probably need money.
Teach a class – what do they have that’s worth hearing?
James described the problem very clearly for us, “…if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and you say, ‘You sit here in a good place [right here next to me],’ and you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?”
Now the type of discrimination James discusses is related to the socio-economic status of people who are actually attending the meetings of the church. Jesus is talking about something much more basic – they’re just broken, humble people coming in the doors. Notice, James said these people were coming “into your assembly” – they were coming to church. And, there were two kinds of people coming. The first were the obviously well-to-do. In our context today, they might be the ones driving up in nice cars, wearing expensive clothes and fine jewelry. After a little conversation, we find out they have the kind of jobs that bring comfortable incomes.
In the story as James tells it, the discrimination is overt. His readers show the rich special attention and give them a good seat, perhaps a place of honor, in short, they’re received. Today, we might not be as overt. It might look more like this – we’d be careful to spend a little extra time with them, ask them to sit with us, perhaps even invite them over for dinner.
The second person to come in is the poor man. The man is shabbily dressed, and rather than the special treatment due a brother, he is made to sit on the floor or stand in the back, out of the way. For our purposes, maybe he’s in ripped jeans and a tee shirt – oh wait, people pay a lot of money for that now. It’s obvious from the smoking clunker he drove into the parking lot he is not a man of great material means. In fact, after we carry on brief, disinterested conversation, we find his occupation beneath us – maybe he’s even unemployed. And in an heir of dismissal, make our way to a seat, leaving him to find his own.
And Jesus’ words come ringing through, whoever receives one such child receives Me. Jesus is passionately committed to one child like this. Let me be clear, Jesus is not talking about salvation – unbelievers. He’s talking about sheep who are not received as they should be, one child like this that we don’t receive hospitably – we don’t warmly welcome. Jesus loves them, even if we don’t.
This, I think, illustrates what it is to receive and not receive little one. But let’s look quickly at the rest of the text to see how important this is to Jesus, how serious He takes the issue in vs. 42.
Keeping with the context – Jesus says, whoever causes one of the little ones who believe in Jesus to stumble – meaning, in the context – we don’t receive them. Consider them unimportant, unimpressive, unworthy of our time or attention. Jesus says, lose your standards of greatness – lose your grading system – don’t cause one of my little children to stumble, because the world doesn’t think them great.
It would be better, in advance, before the evil, before he causes my little one to stumble, it would be better for him to die a horrible and sure death. Better to tie a heavy millstone around his neck and cast him into the depth of the sea. Heavy millstone is not the little millstone women used in the home – it was the great big millstones turned by animals/donkeys that could weigh up to a couple tons. Matthew says, in the depths of the sea which means way out there where it’s really deep. You think Jesus is serious about this? You bet He is – He loves His children, and He says, whoever causes one of them to stumble is in big trouble. It would be better that you died a horrible death before you did.
Not only that, point two, I don’t even want you to do anything that would cause you to stumble. It would be better for you to cut off your own foot, your own hand, it would be better for you to pluck out your own eye if they are a source of your own stumbling. Those three body parts pretty much cover the gamut – whatever you do with your hand, wherever you go with your feet, whatever you see with your eye must be consistent with holiness, discipleship, being My followers. And if you are doing things, going places, seeing things which cause you to stumble – to sin or tempt you to wander from the faith, cut it off. This is serious. Discipleship is serious.
Of course, Jesus is not speaking literally – most agree He is speaking in hyperbolic metaphor. But He is talking about radical measures. Do whatever it takes to make sure you don’t stumble. It’s better to enter life crippled, maimed, blind, then to enter hell with your equipment in check.
The word for hell is Gehenna – the Valley of Hinnom. It was the city refuse dump right outside the city walls of Jerusalem. There, garbage and even unclaimed corpses were dumped. The fire never stopped – it was unquenchable. The worm didn’t die – there was always plenty to eat. It became an apt metaphor for hell – the place of suffering for unbelievers. Let me be clear, Jesus is not saying that by our works – what we do, where we go, what we see – we earn salvation and go to heaven or hell. He is saying true discipleship involves a cost – a rabid pursuit of Jesus and holiness. You can’t name the name of Jesus, then not act like it.
You say, that sounds so severe. You’re right. The way of discipleship is self-sacrificing and purifying. That’s what verse 49 means – bringing us to our last point. Salt and fire were used in sacrifice – and everyone who would be a follower of Jesus will face the sacrifice and purification of fire and salt. You can’t follow Jesus and keep following your old ways. You’ve got to follow Him into personal suffering and sacrifice. You must be rabid about your pursuit of Christ.
Finally, Mark adds one more saying of Jesus. Salt is good – in both its savor and its preserving qualities. That’s who were supposed to be as Christians in the world. But the context here is with each other. We are supposed to be savoring and preserving with each other. But, if salt becomes unsalty, you can’t make it salty again. So, have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another. There is no place in His kingdom for not receiving one another, not caring for one another. No place for cliques or partisanship or competition. Receive one another warmly, hospitably, peaceably. Can you imagine what kind of church we would be if we that with each other. I know we do – I think we do it well. But let’s do better.
Can I challenge us as we close this morning to be a church that receives His little ones – a hospital where broken, humble, dependent people – least of these kind of people can come and be received to find grace, healing and forgiveness. And can I do one other thing. If you’re one of those broken people and you’ve come into this church, and you haven’t felt received, you haven’t been warmly welcomed, you haven’t been shown hospitality – in fact, you’ve felt shunned, you’ve felt rejected – right now, I want to ask for your forgiveness. I’m sorry that we’ve not loved you, accepted you, the way Jesus wants us to. Will you forgive us? Will you allow us to become the church God wants us to be to you? Look around, folks. These are His little ones – this is your family – we’re going to spend eternity together – we might as well start practicing now.