19th Sunday after Pentecost – B LSB #’s 902, 568, 923
Text – Mark 9:42
And if anyone causes one of the least of God’s children to stumble in their faith, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck & to be thrown into the sea.
A HEAVY BURDEN
Prior to moving to the seminary, I spent about nine years on the local volunteer fire department. Being in a rural area we didn’t have a lot of fires but when we did, I remember thinking how terrible it must be for the families who had to go through this.
First of all, the fires usually occurred at night, so the family routine was seriously disrupted. Being woken up in the middle of the night, to find your house burning, must be a terrifying experience, no matter the extent of the fire. Having to stand there & watch as it burns, with all your valued possessions inside, must be a particularly helpless feeling.
Along with the fire damage, the process of putting it out also creates a lot of damage. The firemen come in with thousands of gallons of water & spray it over every possible nook & cranny that might be harboring the flames. Often, the walls & ceilings are ripped open to expose any possible source of the fire, or any hot spots that might cause the fire to restart.
When fully dressed for fighting the fire, we had on as much as 50 pounds of equipment. After several hours of wearing the air packs, you thought you’d never be able to use your shoulders, for anything useful, ever again.
And once the hoses had been pressurized & put into use, we usually moved them around while they were still full of water & very heavy. It could take several men to drag just one hose only ten or twenty feet.
Nevertheless, in spite of how exhausted I might have been after several hours of fire fighting, as I walked past the family members who were watching the material aspect of their lives being utterly destroyed, I clearly remember thinking, “What a heavy burden they have to bear.” PAUSE
Many of the burdens that we bear in life seem to fall on us out of the blue. There’s often no apparent connection between our actions & the burdens that we carry. However, some of those burdens are of our own making.
I’m thinking of one of my uncles who retired about 35 years ago. He was the 1st person in our area to have one of those large satellite dishes in his yard & since he had no active hobbies he spent much of his time watching television.
Though he was in relatively good health for those years, & well off financially, he frequently complained about having nothing to do. Especially the winter nights, they are sooo long. We heard that refrain for years, yet he never volunteered to use his time for helping anyone besides himself.
There’re an endless # of opportunities available to someone whom God has blessed, like my uncle. Still, he wouldn’t be part of anything that serves someone else’s interests. He was always concerned with looking out for number one, but in the end, number one was still losing. His heavy burden for those years was boredom, but it was largely one of his own making.
The sermon text also contains a heavy burden to bear. Jesus is describing someone as being better off with a large millstone hung around his neck while being thrown into the sea. Most of the English translations use the word large, but the original language is more graphic. It describes the millstone as that of a donkey.
The stone was large enough that it had to be turned by a donkey, because it was too large to be turned by a man. This stone could easily have been six feet in diameter. Imagine being tossed into the sea wearing one of those. It creates a stark picture of what a heavy burden is like. No matter how much you struggle you could never escape that burden, alive. Have any of your burdens ever felt that heavy? I know that some of mine have seemed to be.
Other times, part of the burden is wondering if it is of your own making. I won’t forget the day that my former neighbors lost their three-year-old son to a drowning accident. They were eating supper & he left to play out in the yard.
They had an above ground pool, with a fence around it, so they thought he was safe. Somehow he managed to get inside. After only 15 minutes they went to look for him, but he was already gone. For the next several weeks, I couldn’t help but think what a heavy & endless burden those parents would have to bear.
Even I was left wondering, if only I had been home, working in the back yard, or something… I could only imagine what his parents were going through… And still, our Savior said that drowning would be better for a man than to have caused even one of the least of God’s children to stumble in their faith.
Wearing that millstone to the bottom of the sea would be a heavy burden to bear, yet it is less of a burden than that of hell. Jesus uses an extreme example, in order to paint a vivid picture for the disciples, of the seriousness of causing someone to stumble in their faith.
At verse 48 Jesus describes hell as the place where the fire is never quenched & the worm never dies. That’s the kind of graphic language that the Gospel of Mark is known for. In the verses just preceding that He says it would be better to cut off your own hands or feet, than to go to hell. And the history behind the Greek word, used for hell, is even more graphic.
In the days of OT Israel, when the nation had gone completely astray from God, they used to sacrifice their own children to their false gods. They did this in the Valley of Hinnom, & in Jesus’ day, hundreds of years later, this valley was still considered unclean. As a result, it was used as a garbage dump. The trash was kept burning 24 hours a day, throughout the year. The name of this filthy, foul smelling, & fire-covered valley, had finally become symbolic of the unquenchable fires of eternal punishment. PAUSE
Have you felt bad for causing someone to stumble in their faith? How about offending or disappointing someone? Have you spoken words that you came to regret later on? Maybe you’ve even hit something or someone & later regretted it. Maybe you feel that you’ve been negligent, in the upbringing of your children, or in living up to a marriage commitment.
The pain of our own regrets can cut deeply into our soul. And the devil wants to use those regrets to convince us that we’re no good, which is an easy thing to believe. After all, who knows the sin of our own hearts better than we ourselves! After years of living, the burden of guilt can be as heavy as any millstone that has ever sunk to the bottom of the sea.
The millstone of our guilt can grind us down to a very pitiful, wretched, & God forsaken state. Alcoholism & drug abuse can be the result of unbearable guilt. One of my seminary professors thought it likely that up to 90% of all psychological disorders are the result of unresolved guilt.
Apparently, no matter how much we might try to deny it, deep inside us we always know that it’s there. It appears that keeping our guilt inside, & unforgiven, is the heaviest burden of all. There, it drives us further & further away from our sinless & holy God, who created us to be holy as well. We were not created to be sinful & we are not capable of dealing with it.
So God sent His own Son to deal with the burden of our sin & our guilt. This Son,
God & Man, came to bear the heaviest possible burden that we might have. He came to have the millstone of our sins placed around His neck, & to be cast into the sea in our place.
Looking back at the last several months of Gospel lessons, we find Mark showing us that
Jesus is easily powerful enough for the job. Mark wants you to be certain that Jesus has carried the burden of your sin for you, no matter how heavy you think that burden is.
We’ve heard about the calming of the sea. With waves swelling over the top of the boat & the disciples fearing for their lives, they awoke Jesus. He then rebuked the wind & told the sea, “Be still.” The wind stopped & the sea calmed. Mark has shown us that Jesus controls the weather.
Later, we heard the story of a man possessed by a legion of demons. When chained up he would tear the chains to pieces & there was no one who could subdue him. Yet when he saw Jesus, he ran up to Him & bowed down before Him. The demons knew the power of the Son of God, & Jesus cast them out of the man. Jesus is powerful enough to cast out a legion of demons.
Another miracle involved the hemorrhaging woman. For 12 years she suffered & when she heard about Jesus she knew that if she simply touched Him, she would be healed. She touched Jesus & instantly her bleeding stopped. Jesus is in complete control of illness.
Finally, Mark records the healing of the daughter of Jairus, & some healing it was, because she was dead. While Jairus was with Jesus, members of his household came to tell him that his daughter had died. Overhearing this Christ tells Jairus not to be afraid, only believe.
So Jesus went into the room & said, “Little girl, I say to you, arise!” Immediately, she arose & walked. The mourners were astounded. They knew the girl was dead, but Christ spoke & she was alive. Our Savior has command even over death!
Jesus is God & Man. He has authority over nature, demons, illness & death. He lived & walked on this earth to bear the burden of the law, because we could not. He was nailed to the cross & shed His blood, in order to bear the burden of our sin, because we could not. Three days later He rose from the dead, proving that He had conquered our sinful nature, the power of death & the legions of the Devil, all because we could not. God only asks that you believe. Believe that He loves you & has paid for your sins, Himself. Whatever burdens you might be carrying today, leave them here. Leave them in the tomb from which our Savior arose on Easter morning.
Leave them behind in the waters of your baptism which cleansed you from all the sins you’ll ever commit. You may have heard of people that are unable to forgive themselves. But Scripture never tells us to forgive ourselves. Only God is able to remove our sin. Keeping our guilt inside is nothing more than unbelief. It says that we don’t trust God to forgive us.
It’s the Devil that wants you to NOT trust God. Unbelief is the ultimate, unbearable burden for man. Satan would love to destroy you with it. But God says that you can leave even that behind this morning. Christ has carried the burden of the sin of unbelief as well.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall NOT perish, but have everlasting life. Amen.
But now we find sweet peace & rest, despair no more reigns over us. No more are we by sin opprest, for Christ has borne sin for us. Upon the cross for us He died that reconciled we might abide with Thee our God forever. Amen. LSB 568:2.
18th Sunday after Pentecost – B LSB #’s 869, 737, 663
Text – Mark 9:30-31a NIV
They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because He was teaching His disciples.
TEACHING HIS DISCIPLES
Eighteen years ago, the USS Cole, a Navy destroyer, was struck by a terrorist bomb. With the 1st news of the attack, hundreds of family members of the sailors on board waited in agony. Hour after hour was filled with overwhelming tension. The sister of one sailor commented that she suffered with an enormous amount of anxiety.
She spent most of the 10½-hour wait outside the house, because she couldn’t stand the tension on the inside. With circumstances like that people are afraid even to ask the question: “Is our loved one dead, or alive?” For this one family, the call came at 6:45 that evening. Their brother & son was unharmed.
The result would not be the same for the Son of God. His death was eminent, but His disciples did not understand. And out of the fear brought on by ignorance, they were afraid to ask the question, “Would their Teacher live, or would He die?” Jesus had just, for the 2nd time, plainly told them that He’d be killed & then raised from the dead.
Yet, for the 2nd time, the disciples did not understand, & the prediction of His death & resurrection is not all that they had missed. The 2nd half of today’s gospel reading reveals how the disciples have completely misunderstood the main thrust of Christ’s teaching. They were arguing about who was the greatest.
Jesus was teaching that those who follow Him must strive to be the least. And if Christ’s own disciples completely misunderstood what it is to be a Christian, does it not follow that we probably misunderstand as well? And, like the disciples of Christ, we too are afraid to
ask Him about it, because we’re afraid of what the answer might be.
When Adam & Eve sinned for the 1st time, do you remember what their reaction was as God came calling? It was fear – the natural human condition since the fall. We’re scared of our Creator. That’s totally the opposite of how our Lord desires things to be. Jesus became a man & entered our time & space in order to deal with that very problem.
However, teaching people the solution to their fear is not as easy as sending your children to Sunday School. It’s not as easy as spoon-feeding children the correct information. Even the demons have the correct information about Christ, & in the Gospel of Mark the demons are calling Jesus the Christ long before any human beings are.
Rather than merely spoon feeding the disciples, Jesus often challenges them as He teaches them. In this gospel text, it’s the challenge they are afraid of. Their sinful nature prefers to strive for greatness & it shies away from a life of service.
They want nothing to do with Christ’s suffering & death, not because of their great concern for His welfare, but because of their concern for themselves. If their master must suffer & die, does it not follow that they might have to suffer & die as well? That’s a challenge that not one of us looks forward to.
Still, it is a challenge that Christians must come to grips with in order for their faith to blossom. The fear o f suffering & death has stunted the growth of many a person’s faith, but it takes far less than suffering & death to scare many Christians away from God’s calling.
Often, people are far more concerned with their reputation before men than they are with their reputation before the almighty Lord. Many Christians have a home & yard that are immaculately clean & organized, yet their soul is dusty & cluttered with false teaching. They’re afraid of the effort involved in putting their spiritual life in order, but they’re willing to work around the house or garage for 8 hours a week. The greatness they feel depends upon how perfect they maintain the outward appearances.
Other Christians think nothing of devoting 60 or 70 hours a week towards their career, yet they’re afraid that an hour in church on Sunday, or an hour in Bible study every week, will be the straw the breaks the camel’s back of their precious schedule. The greatness they feel depends upon how far or how rapidly their career advances.
College & high school students can be very focused on schoolwork or sports because their reputation with their peers depends upon their performance. But somehow, their reputation before God becomes invisible to them. They frequently learn that from those same parents who are spending all their spare time on their career or their home & their yard.
At the bottom of all these efforts to make ourselves look good in the eyes of men, is our desire to be the greatest. Years back the Army had a recruiting slogan that said, “Be all that you can be.” The Marines were looking for just a few good men. Muhammad Ali promoted himself with the claim that he was “the greatest.”
Those slogans are catchy manifestations of the same disease the disciples had, & that Adam & Eve had long before them. The desire of man’s heart is to be god. Satan is well aware of that desire. Yet mankind is satisfied to live in ignorance & blindness, too afraid to ask Jesus about it, for fear of what the answer might be.
As a result, suffering & hard times become our teacher. God uses those tools to break through our blindness & ignorance. Once He breaks through, then the lessons can begin. Hard times commonly cause us to slow down & reflect upon the question of “Why?”
Studies have shown that significant life changes are the best time for evangelism work, because the person is then reevaluating priorities & lifestyles. Times of illness, or the loss of something dear to us, tend to open our eyes to a much larger perspective on life. They bring us out of our cozy little world. They challenge our mistaken view of reality.
Have you been dealing with any challenges lately? Do you know of someone who is? Think of them as opportunities for God to reach into your heart & instill in you the depth of His love. Place your trust in the love He has for you. Then sit back & watch how your life unfolds before your eyes. As God touches your heart you will want to reach out in response.
In the Gospel reading we don’t find Christ simply teaching His disciples about His own death & resurrection. We also find Him teaching you & me how to live with our fellow man. As Christ served us, through His suffering & death, we are to reach out & serve others. That could mean serving people other than ourselves even when the lawn needs mowing.
It might be that the extra hour studying for a major exam could be better spent in caring for someone else’s needs. There are probably even times when your career agenda should be put on hold in order to use your talents for another person’s benefit. Those people might be your spouse, your children, even your church.
Certainly welcoming a child won’t clean your home. It won’t improve your grades nor will it increase your cash flow. Nevertheless, Jesus illustrated His lesson for the disciples by taking a child in His arms. He then stated that whoever welcomes a child in Christ’s name, welcomes our heavenly Father Himself.
Jesus was talking of a very young child, one that certainly could make no claims to importance or greatness; one too young to have accomplished anything, & having nothing of which to brag about or be proud of; a child who is totally dependent upon someone else to care for them; the kind of position that no adult wants to be in.
Being servant to a child, like that, will bring no honors or reputation among kings. It’ll
gain you no position of worldly power or prestige. Yet in God’s sight greatness comes from serving those who need it, because they need it. And that is how the Son of God has served us. He served us with His suffering & death – because we needed it.
We’re afraid of getting too wrapped up in religion, because Yahweh destroys our “rose garden” view of it. He does not bring the good life or even justice to the oppressed in any worldly sense. He does not eliminate poverty, misery or crime. People still commit the most filthy & disgusting of sins, & then boast of them.
We are tempted to look at the world & say, “What good has religion accomplished?” “Why bother?” becomes the mantra of a spiritually cynical & callused world. The tension can become unbearable. To escape it all we fantasize about & dwell upon who is the greatest. Is it the Yankees, or the Red Sox? Is it U of M, or MSU? Is it me, or is it you?
Anything to avoid the real question. Are you great enough to deserve eternal life? Have you done enough to please the Creator of all that exists? That is where our real fears lie. Will I live, or will I die? Christ came that we might stop being afraid to ask that question.
Those who believe in Jesus as Savior will live. It’s that simple. The answer is so uncomplicated that we struggle in believing it. In spite of our calling to be servants, in spite of the suffering & the death that ultimately awaits us in this life, the final answer to all our questions & all of our fears is Jesus Christ & His suffering, His death & His resurrection.
Yahweh Himself guaranteed that His children will never die, but have everlasting life. Because Jesus has been raised from the dead, so shall we. Though our natural man looks at God as the heavy handed persecutor, & is afraid, the new man in us looks at Christ as our Brother & is at peace.
All the solemn, mysterious beauties of the Gospel are hidden from the heart of man until
God the Holy Spirit, opens your heart & mind to reveal the beauty of God’s assurance to His children. This morning, in the Lord’s Supper, you have the privilege of partaking of one of those mysteries. For there, Christ becomes one with you. He feeds your body & soul with His very body & blood.
Yes, it is a mystery too difficult to fathom, but through the equal mystery of faith, God works the assurance that He has forgiven your sins. It’s that very message which Messiah taught His disciples 2000 years ago, & today He’s teaching you. His Holy Spirit is at work in your heart, right now, through the power of His Word that never returns to Him empty.
If you partake of Communion today, God’s Holy Spirit will be at work as you receive Christ’s body & blood, given & shed for you, for the remission of your sins. You can stop striving for greatness & reputation. You can stop being afraid that God will discover your innermost thoughts & fears.
Your Savior has already nailed them to the cross & forgotten them. Whosoever believes in Christ will live, even though he dies. Our coming to grips with that message is the work of the Holy Spirit, & He is faithful unto the end. Amen.
Rejoice, my heart, be glad & sing, a cheerful trust maintain; for God, the source of everything, your portion shall remain. He is your treasure, He your joy, your life & light & Lord, your counselor when doubts annoy, your shield & great reward. Why spend the day in blank despair, in restless thought the night? On your Creator cast your care; He makes your burdens light. Amen. LSB 737:1-3.
17th Sunday after Pentecost – B (Proper 19) LSB #870 tune
Text – James 3:8
But no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
A RESTLESS EVIL
You’ve heard these powerful words. You may have spoken them yourself. How would you describe their power? They have the ability to cover over many of life’s most awkward moments. Like the time you gave someone a gift, & the moment they opened it you knew it was something they did not appreciate.
Yet, maybe they were still gracious enough to say these words: “It’s the thought that counts.” Those magic words have a way of covering our shame & embarrassment. They enable us to see, behind the outward intention, to the love & the care that lie within. They take our emotions off of the superficial things of life & help us to focus on what really is important.
James says much the same thing in his letter to the church at Jerusalem. He asks his readers to look at their spiritual lives & know, “It is the thought that counts.” However, as James writes his letter, he’s not working to cover over any of life’s awkward moments. In fact, his purpose is to uncover them, to lay bare the evil that lives within our souls.
And for that reason the letter of James makes us uncomfortable. He intentionally opens our eyes to the thoughts that often lurk behind our words & our deeds. Those thoughts are painful to consider:
“[The tongue] is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord & Father, & with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing & cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:8b-10 ESV)
“It’s the thought that counts,” like many things in life cuts both ways. Sometimes those thoughts are good & at other times they’re evil. James wants us to consider our actions both 1) in relationship to the world around us & 2) in relationship to God. When James thinks of the life of Christians in the world, he sees a field of battle. This struggle arises from an overestimation of ourselves. In 4:6 James identifies that root sin as pride. Thinking we deserve more than we have, we’re envious of what others have been given, so we work to achieve more for ourselves.
The housing crash & recession that occurred ten years ago stemmed partly from this very problem – envy of what others had. Marketing often uses the envious nature in us so that we unduly reflect upon what we have, what we want & what we can do to get more. It’s the thought that counts, & those thoughts are too often the distorted ambitions of a sinful soul.
Those distorted ambitions turn the world into a field of battle. They turn our relationship to God into a self-help religion. For example, what are the thoughts behind our prayers? Don’t our prayers often end up being the manner in which we rub the magic lantern so the genie pops out in order to grant our three wishes?
Compare how much time you spend in prayer thanking Him for things versus how much time you spend asking for things. Isn’t it true that envy, pride & selfish ambition affect us even in our conversations with God? And when our prayers are not answered in the way we like, don’t we suffer frustration & tend to drift away from our heavenly Father?
Isn’t it far easier to come up with a list of the things we want as compared to the things that our Lord has already given us? In the reading from the book of James we are challenged to recognize that it is the thought that counts, & that Word of God reveals how our thoughts can turn the world into a field of battle just as they turn our God & our religion into a magic lantern.
Meditation on the book of James can make us feel uncomfortable. However, in all our thinking, in all our questions, there’s one thing we never could have conceived of – what is going on in the heart & mind of Yahweh. In Isaiah, God speaks to His people, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways & my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9 ESV) Yes, James does ask us to consider our thoughts this morning, yet, even more important to him is that we stop for a moment & hear the thoughts of our Creator. His thoughts are the ones that count.
James longs for us to ponder the wisdom of God, hidden for ages & now known fully among us in Christ. He is wisdom. He comes from above. He has worked salvation among us. He is the one who stills the restless evil; so we can be still & know that He is God. (Psalm 46:10) Jesus is the thought, the word & the deed that counts.
God’s wisdom is intimately bound up with His love for fallen creatures that need to be rescued. When we sin & deserve nothing but punishment, when our tongue reveals the restless evil within, Jesus continues to think of you & me in love. For the joy of that love, set before Him, He endured the cross. (Hebrews 12:2)
In Christ we see God’s wisdom from above working out our redemption. Jesus is submissive to His Father’s will. The Holy Trinity uses its wisdom to oppose our pride & to give grace to the humble. As thoughts lead to deeds, God’s thoughts regarding His fallen creatures led to action from Christmas to Good Friday to Easter morning.
Yahweh put His thought into words, the Word, entering our fallen world & taking our sins upon Himself in Jesus. It is our Lord’s thought that counts, for His thinking & acting save us, not only from the restless evil of the tongue, but from hell itself. When we’re frightened by how easily our lives can be soiled by thoughts of pride, envy & ambition, Jesus washes us clean.
We proclaim that very work of Jesus right here in this place, through the Word & water & bread & wine. Today, Yahweh sees the perfect thoughts of Jesus in the place of your own sinful thoughts. The consequences of that are far reaching! Your heavenly Creator’s thoughts will follow you all week. His thoughts & actions for you bring about a marvelous change. They change your relationship with God. No longer do we pray hoping to get God on our side; He is already thinking of us before we pray. Instead, through prayer we humbly turn our hearts to God asking that His kingdom would come & His will would be done among us.
Instead of seeing God as a magic lantern that we use to accomplish our will, we humbly confess Him to be the light of the world, a lamp unto our feet & a light unto our path. The Good News points to His work for us, & then to our life for Him.
The thoughts of God change our relationship to the people around us. Yes, we enter a world that remains a field of battle, a place of envy & ambition. Advertising has not changed & people have not stopped wanting to get ahead just because we went to church. But leaving here, we enter that world with a different vision.
In God’s hands this world is not a field for battle but a field for growth. It is still a world that Yahweh created: a fertile ground ready for planting & a field ready for harvest. Our life in this world is a creative life empowered by the thoughts of God’s Spirit as we share the wisdom from above. You see, it is the thought that counts – God’s thought, the Good News of Jesus.
God’s thought has taken a fallen world & turned it into His harvest field. He takes great pleasure in seeing the fruit that our lives yield as our tongue now sings praise to Him. About the most important issue in life, where we spend eternity, the thoughts of Jesus count far more than our thoughts. Be still, accept the rest that He offers, from the restless evil, & go in peace. Amen.
Now that the daylight fills the sky, we lift our hearts to God on high, that He, in all we do or say, would keep us free from harm today; would guard our hearts & tongues from strife; from anger’s din would shield our life; from evil sights would turn our eyes, & close our ears to vanities. So we, when this new day is gone & night in turn is drawing on, with conscience by the world unstained shall praise His name for victory gained. Amen. LSB 870:1-3.
15th Sunday after Pentecost – B (Proper 18) LSB #’s 702, 850, 587
Text – James 2:5
Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith & heirs of the kingdom, which He has promised to those who love Him?
RICH IN FAITH
In Australia, the year 1938, a young boy accidentally discovered a large black crystal while playing around in the claim where his father used to prospect for sapphires. Immediately after picking up the enormous rock the boy lost no time in running home to show his new treasure to his father, one of the pioneering miners of the Queensland gem fields.
Mr. Spencer was not impressed. After examining it he set it aside, saying it was just a large black crystal. Since the most common color for sapphires is blue, apparently the father did not suspect what the stone might be worth. Fortunately it was not thrown away as worthless, but ended up being used as a doorstop.
After about a decade Mr. Spencer came to know that sometimes sapphires do exist as black gemstones, & may be worth quite a fortune depending on its quality. So he subjected the humble black stone, that had served well for almost a decade as a door stop, to a thorough examination & realized that it may be worth a fortune.
He weighed the crystal & found it was an enormous 1,156 carats. Mr. Spencer was quite sure now of the quality of the stone, but not experienced enough to know that it could be transformed by an expert jeweler into a star sapphire. The humble doorstop began receiving royal treatment from the poor miner as he started the search for an appropriate buyer.
Word got around that an enormous gem-quality rough black sapphire was available for sale. In 1947, the Armenian-born jeweler Harry Kazanjian traveled all the way from his adopted hometown of Los Angeles, CA to have a look at the stone. Upon examining it he was impressed, & began negotiating with Mr. Spencer for the purchase. Finally the jeweler agreed to pay $18,000, which Harry Spencer accepted. Until then, he’d been running a sheep station scraping by with barely enough to live on, except for an occasional sheep dinner & the little money they made from selling the wool.
Eventually, the stone was cut by an expert, & in the year 2002 the black star sapphire, now at 733 carats, was estimated to be worth about $100 million. A valuable treasure had been sitting on the floor for almost a decade while the family was fretting & scraping, trying to make the mortgage payments & stay in business for just one more year.
Could it be in your life that there are blessings & opportunities from God, lying on the floor as it were, neglected & used nowhere near their potential?
With the state of the visible church today it is easy to get depressed. Commitment & attendance have been on the decline for many years. It’s a simple matter to give up hope & fail to properly apply our talents & energies. God’s Spirit is still preparing in advance good works for us to do, but the results we see often do not appear to be worth the effort.
The faith we have in Jesus as Savior, quite often, doesn’t appear to be anything special. Our role in God’s kingdom doesn’t always impress us as especially important. More & more our culture is ridiculing the beliefs that God’s Word clearly teaches. Comparing things to the way the church used to be, we’re tempted to be depressed, bitter & impatient.
The people James was writing were dealing with poverty & persecution. They too were tempted to be depressed at the fate of the condemned nation of Judah. They were tempted to be bitter at the fact they were offering God’s grace in vain to those doomed people. They were impatient in waiting for the times of refreshment which Jesus’ resurrection had promised.
They were, in this apathetic slackening of their energies – this decline in their Christian
stamina – tempted to relapse & accommodate their lives to the world which pressed upon them from every side. Satan was seeking to put his mark on them & in just 20 years the armies of Rome would burn Jerusalem to ground, killing about 800,000 Jews in the process. Exactly as Jesus prophesied, there was not one stone of the temple left upon another.
That is the future for the Christians to which James wrote his letter. There’d be no earthly glory or success for these congregations of God’s people. Nevertheless, the poor & oppressed people of God are heirs of the Kingdom. The Lord of the universe has chosen them to be rich in faith. That is their identity & that is their destiny.
The world mockingly refers to faith in Jesus as blind faith, because they cannot see what Christians do. The truth is this – it is the world that is blind. It is our calling to love them as Christ did for it’s only God’s love that will enable unbelievers to see. James is effectively telling the people, “You are able to love your neighbor as yourself because you are rich in faith.”
Many of our sinful choices come from our belief that we have less than we want – less time, so we drive faster; less money so we cheat others; less love so we seek it in wrongful ways. To combat our sinfulness, James wants all believers to remember their identity – that we are rich in faith & chosen by God. The devil would have us focus on our weakness, failures & sins.
The difference between Satan & Jesus is this – children of God confess their sins & then they are removed from us, as far as the east is from the west. Satan wants us to focus on what we lack & how we might achieve it with our own efforts. To boil it down, sin is basically this – doing it my way. Faith is this – doing it God’s way.
In the specific example from James 2, he warns us not to show favoritism to those who are rich. Verses 6 & 7 tell us that James’ hearers had dishonored the poor & favored the rich who had dragged them to court & had blasphemed the name of the Lord. They had closed their eyes to the destitution of the poor & they had closed their eyes to the sins of the rich. It’s one thing that reveals many politicians as so repulsive. That kind of partiality, James told us in verse one, is devastating to faith in the glorious Lord Jesus Christ. Since all of us struggle with it, we regularly pray to our Lord, after He has once again removed our sins:
“We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, & we implore You that of Your mercy You would strengthen us through the same in faith toward You & in fervent love toward one another; through Jesus Christ…”
What a treasure we have in the forgiveness of our sins, & in the repentant heart that Jesus has created within us. Yet, like the large black crystal used as only a doorstop for almost a decade, the richness of our faith in Jesus is frequently left on the floor doing nothing more than propping open a door.
The pains & struggles of life are often the very experiences that help us to appreciate the treasure we have with faith in Jesus as Savior from our sins. As we learn to appreciate that treasure, we find tremendous value then in sharing it. When we share that love & forgiveness other people too can learn from their pains & struggles in this life.
Much is said today of how people are being taught & encouraged to think of themselves as victims. St. Paul taught that, “…we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37 ESV) James teaches that “God has chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith & heirs of the kingdom…” (2:5 ESV)
The world would teach that we are victims. Our Creator teaches that we are conquerors who are rich in faith & heirs of an eternal kingdom. By the grace & power of God’s Holy Spirit our faith does not have to lie on the floor like a doorstop. Instead, it can be put to work in doing the good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do. Much of that includes loving our
neighbors as ourselves, because God 1st loved us & chose us to be rich in faith. Amen.
Lo, the hosts of evil round us scorn the Christ, assail His ways! From the fears that long have bound us free our hearts to faith & praise. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days. Cure Your children’s warring madness; bend our pride to Your control; shame our wanton, selfish gladness, rich in things & poor in soul. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage lest we miss Your kingdom’s goal. Amen. LSB 850:2-3.
15th Sunday after Pentecost – B (Proper 17) LSB #704
Text – Mark 7:21-22
For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.
OUT OF THE HEART OF MAN
A teacher, active in Japan around a hundred years ago, received a university professor who came to inquire about the Zen religion. As the teacher served tea, he poured his visitor’s cup full, & then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself: “It is overflowing! No more will go in!”
The Zen teacher responded, “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions & speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you 1st empty your cup?”
In the Gospel reading, Jesus encounters a group of Pharisees & scribes. Like the university professor, they are full of their own opinions & speculations. They need to be emptied if they’re going to receive His message.
The group has made the trip from Jerusalem because of Jesus, & Mark’s Gospel has already told us of the conspiracy to kill Him. (Mark 3:6) Since He will die in Jerusalem it seems particularly ominous that these people have come all this way to gather around Jesus.
What is it that they say to him? Do they look for some teaching that will guide them to live a better life? Do they seek some word of hope & encouragement? No. What they do instead is to find fault. They lack the nerve to confront Jesus directly, even though He’s violated many of their cherished traditions, so instead they find fault with some of His disciples.
What they criticize is not a huge failing, moral or spiritual, but that these disciples omit a law of human origin. Certain disciples of Jesus are caught eating with unwashed hands – a scandal to the scribes & Pharisees. But the hand washing in question is not for hygiene as we practice it. It was meant to wash away religious defilement, such as that caused by touching something or someone considered unclean. The Law of Moses mandated hand washing only for priests attending to their duties within the area set aside as sacred.
The Pharisees, however, extend the practice to other circumstances. They use this hand washing as what one scholar calls a “boundary marker,” a way for them to set themselves apart from the surrounding pagan population.
So these scribes & Pharisees who gather around Jesus ask Him why His disciples fail to keep the tradition of the elders. They are cups filled with their own opinions & speculations. Anything more poured in would only be wasted. They’ve pegged Jesus & His disciples as bad people. This condemnation absorbs their energy, leaving them with none for anything better.
Jesus recognizes these Pharisees & scribes as examples of a spiritual danger threatening all of us. He calls the people around Him so they can hear the warning He is compelled to offer. In effect, Jesus tells the crowd:
“Look out! Purity is not a matter of keeping external rules, without regard for what’s inside you. Righteousness is not simply how you behave when people are watching. Keeping rules is not what it’s about. You must pay attention to the condition of your heart!”
What Jesus means by heart is not the muscle in your chest that pumps blood, nor our emotional aspect – the Valentine’s day heart. Jesus understands the heart in the Hebrew sense as the center or core of the person. It’s the inner self. Jesus announces that the heart is where the problem lies. Our hearts are full.
What fills them is, all too often, poison that kills our spirit & the spirit of people we influence. Jesus lists these poisons. He names evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. Like the tea cup, our hearts overflow. What they are full of is not simply our opinions & speculations, but poisons that can prove lethal for ourselves, & for others. Without Christ, you & I are not just partly sinful. We are completely & totally corrupted by sin.
The teaching in the Gospel of Mark is not intended to render us helpless, but to make us see a true problem, the challenge before us as people of faith. We live in a consumer society bombarding us with messages about how consumption can solve our problems. But it cannot solve this problem that Jesus exposes.
What we need is not to pour still more tea into our overflowing cup. What we need is to empty & detoxify our heart from the sin flooding forth from it. The problem is not external, & neither is the solution. What we require, at the center of our being, is for God to create a new heart. Earlier, in the Introit, we called for that, “Create in me a clean heart, O God…”
This needs to happen, not one time only, but continuously. Over & over again, the overflowing cup must be emptied, the poison purged from our hearts & lives, so that the transforming grace of Christ can build a home within. We must be set free from our opinions & speculations in order to wonder at the miracles Jesus causes around us & within.
In Leviticus, God had forbidden His people from eating unclean foods such as pork or camel. In the Gospel reading for today Jesus tells His followers: “‘Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, & is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.)” (Mark 7:18b-19 ESV)
Since Jesus had come to fulfill the Law of Moses, He was now taking the focus of the people away from regulations & putting it firmly onto relationships. Clean or unclean foods were no longer an issue. God’s foundational will is detectable in the Law of Moses, because it is a helpful legal version of it. Yet, God’s will is larger & far more encompassing than the Law of Moses. In fact, the will of God can never be adequately put into writing in the form of rules & regulations. For this reason ‘love’ – love of God & love of one’s neighbor – fulfills all that the Law seeks to articulate & command. Love is about relationships, & so is the will of God.
It’s not what we put into our bodies, in the form of clean or unclean food, that breaks our relationship to our heavenly Father. Rather, the sin that comes out of your heart or mine breaks the relationship; things like evil thoughts & sexual immorality. When Adam & Eve chose not to trust God, & ate the forbidden fruit, they broke the relationship with their Creator.
Jesus came to earth as God & as a human being. At His conception in Mary’s womb Jesus reunited God & man within Himself. He restored the relationship between us & our Creator. Love is to define that relationship, not rules & regulations. If we love God above all things & love our neighbor as ourselves, then our relationships will be in perfect order.
The Law of Moses, or the Old Covenant, was mainly a ‘surface’ covenant designed to regulate outward human behavior. Yahweh responded to human success or failure, over against that standard. The New Covenant operates on a deeper level, concerning itself with what’s really happening in your inmost being. In it, Yahweh responds to the success of Christ on our behalf.
Jesus did pay the price for the sins of the world, successfully. It is finished. The New Covenant got to the heart of the matter with human beings, but it also facilitates in us a true understanding of God’s will, & of His actions in judgment & in grace. The Law helps us to relate to God & to His creation, but mostly in a superficial way. It can easily be faked.
The other problem is that we simply cannot keep the Law in any way, shape or form. So Jesus came to do that for us. He came to remove your cold & legalistic heart so the Holy Spirit might replace it with a living & loving heart. When we are emptied of ourselves & filled with Christ, then our energy will not constantly be absorbed by condemnation of others. Instead, our energy will be available for use by the Holy Spirit who guides & directs us in this New Covenant where the Law has already been fulfilled.
The Word of God & Baptism & Holy Communion, the three means of grace that our Lord has promised to work through, are there to empty us of ourselves & to fill us with Christ. May we always put them to use in order to receive the blessings that our Savior longs to give us. Amen.
Renew me, O eternal Light, & let my heart & soul be bright, illumined with the light of grace that issues from Your holy face. Remove the power of sin from me & cleanse all my impurity that I may have the strength & will temptations of the flesh to still. Create in me a new heart, Lord, that gladly I obey Your Word. Let what You will be my desire, & with new life my soul inspire. Amen. LSB 704:1-3.
 Paul Reps & Nyogen Senzaki, compilers, “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen & Pre-Zen Writing” (Tuttle Publishing, 1998), p. 19.
 Morna Hooker, “The Gospel According to Saint Mark” (Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), p. 445.
 Much of the first 2.5 pages of this sermon are from a sermon written by the Rev. Charles Hoffacker, titled, “The Overflowing Tea Cup.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet