Grand Rapids MI
March 20, 2022
Watch the video instead. The scripture reading begins at 22:14, followed (after brief technical difficulties) by the sermon.
Recent days, months, and years have disturbed and shaken me. Maybe you too? Haven’t we all felt at sea? I ask, with the Psalmist: When the foundations are shaken, what can the righteous do? And then I ask: What, am I “righteous”? Is anyone? So many doubts.
So I am grateful to be standing here this morning. Standing in the pulpit, one is in a doubt-free zone, standing on the Word, “that Word above all earthly powers,” which “no thanks to them abideth.” It is the best place to be standing.
Pray with me:
Almighty God, in many times and places, in time of peace and war, of plague and prosperity, you have been your people’s help and guide and sure defense. Be with present with all your children today, in all the troubled places in our world, and also with us here. Help me not to misrepresent you. Help us all to hear your voice, and heed it. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
During Lent, we are reading in Mark about discipleship. Two weeks ago Roy led us through Peter’s recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus’s subsequent invitation to his disciples to take up their cross and follow him. Last week Lynn led us through the passage where Jesus predicts his own betrayal and death—after which the disciples argue among themselves about which of them is greatest. We learned about the difference between an admirer of Jesus and a follower.
And now, for this third week, I was assigned a text in which Jesus warns that we—which I think means you and I, right here in Christian America, in Christian West Michigan, right here in this room—can cause others who might follow him to stumble; and that if we do that, it would be better for us to have a millstone tied around our neck and be thrown into the sea.
And then he tells us that we can cause ourselves to stumble, and that’s such a bad thing that we should give up anything, even parts of our own selves, to avoid it.
What are we to do with such a text? I am not going to joke and smile and reassure you that we’re just fine and Jesus wasn’t talking to us. I’m also not going to bang on the lectern and point my finger. I’m going to set some context, then we’ll walk right into this hard text.
What is discipleship?
What is discipleship? It means the following things.
1. Looking to Jesus
Discipleship means looking to Jesus, focusing our attention on Jesus, listening to Jesus. Every day we look at many things. We focus on our work, on our families and friends. But what is our default? Where do we start and end each day? To whom do we turn our attention when we have a quiet moment? Who do we look to when things get hard, or painful? When we feel threatened? When we feel great joy? When we’re angry? To whom do we offer all these emotions?
Whose loving gaze do we feel upon us from moment to moment throughout the day? Whose stern glare do we feel upon us when our thoughts, words, actions are veering off track? Disciples learn to look—always—to Jesus.
2. Following Jesus
And not just to look: disciples follow Jesus. Where he goes, we go. What he does, we do. Not just eyes. Also feet: our feet follow in his footsteps. And hands: our hands take up his work. Our tongues repeat his words, finding how they fit new situations. We don’t just quote him; his words dwell in us as the rich soil, watered by the Sprit, from which our own words grow.
Those two points are positive: we focus on Jesus, we follow Jesus. Two negative points follow.
3. Not following anyone else
We do not focus on or follow anyone else. We have to check ourselves. Honestly. Is someone else’s face always before us, someone else’s voice always in our ears? Does anyone else, or anything else, get our fervent, unconditional loyalty? Are we so devoted to anyone else that we say to those around us, or don’t say but feel: if you are not with me in this loyalty, then you and I are not together?
I have heard media voices say: Just give me three hours of your time each day. Really? To whom I should open my mind and heart so trustingly as to listen to their voice three hours each day? How many hours do I spend in scripture, in prayer, in spiritual reading? Do we say that we belong to Jesus while paying more attention to someone else? Whose disciples are we, really?
We are not really saying yes to Jesus unless we are also saying no to his every rival. A true yes requires also a no. This is why the great declarations of Christians in defiance of political anti-Christs always include both WE AFFIRM statements and WE DENY statements. Note these documents:
- The Theological Declaration of Barmen. This was a statement by confessing Christians in Germany over against the German-Christian nationalism promoted by the Nazis. You can read it on pages 279–84 in the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
- The Confession of Belhar. This was a statement against the White-Christian racism of the apartheid state in South Africa. You can read it on pages 299–306 in the Book of Confessions
- A Declaration on the “Russian World” (Russkii Mir) Teaching. This is a March 13, 2022, statement by leading Orthodox theologians against the perversion of Christianity into a justification for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Christian discipleship rejects all idolatry. For true followers of Jesus:
- There is no “God and” anything else.
- There is no “Christ and” anything else.
- There is no “God and our race.”
- There is no “God and country.”
- So there is no Christian nationalism or nationalist Christianity, whether you are German, or Russian, or American.
We all have countries, just as we all have families, but for the disciple of Jesus no other loyalty is on the same level as loyalty to Christ, or even close. No other devotion is absolute or unquestioning. No other symbol than the cross stirs us to the very core of our being. We do not delight in ritually pledging our allegiance every day or at every gathering to anything or anyone but God our savior.
“Christ alone,” we sing. Do we mean it?
Jesus said: You cannot be my follower unless you hate your father and mother, your wife and children, your brothers and sisters. Luke 14:26. Jesus said that. Surely also you cannot be his follower unless you hate your race and your country—not to mention your party, your president, your candidate. Preachers—and even some Bible “translations”—find ways to soften that statement. Jesus doesn’t soften it. If we are uncomfortable with that statement, we are uncomfortable with Jesus.
Maybe we need to sit in that discomfort for a while and see what God might teach us through it.
4. Not closing off any part of our life to Jesus
Here’s another no: We don’t close off any part of our life from discipleship to Jesus. Our work life. Our family life. Our church life. Our political life. Our entertainment and recreation life. Our secret life in our solitary hours. We don’t stop focusing on Jesus when we enter these compartments of our life. It is all wide open to Jesus, all devoted to Jesus.
- If we exempt our business ethics—and not just our ethics, but our goals, our aims—from discipleship to Jesus, then we are not following Jesus.
- If we exempt our political philosophy, our hopes for our life together with our neighbors—neighbors—in public society—from our discipleship to Jesus—then we are not fully following Jesus.
- If we shut Jesus out of what we look at on our phone and computer screens, then we are not following Jesus.
- If our basic attitude toward every person we encounter face-to-face at any point during our day is anything other than the love of Jesus—if it is envy, lust, hatred, scorn—then we are not following Jesus.
Is this easy? No. But it’s what Jesus requires. And there’s more.
5. Becoming Jesus to others / leading others to Jesus
In following Jesus, we become Jesus to others. The apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11: “Be imitators of me, just as I am also of Christ.” In saying that he claimed his own apostolic status, to be sure. But he also gave us a commandment. If Paul, in following Jesus faithfully, became a model for other followers of Jesus, then you and I in following Paul following Jesus, also become models for others.
Now, the gospel of Jesus comes to each of us for our own sake. When I proclaim the good news, I look you in the eye and say: God created this world, and Christ entered it as savior, for you. You, individually! So deep is God’s love for you! But when that truth has transformed your mind and your heart, you will think maybe God put you here to save someone else who may follow you. If you say YES to Jesus, you will naturally be leading others to Jesus.
6. Not misleading others / not causing others to turn away from Jesus
There is a corresponding NO for this YES. We can lead others to Jesus; or we can become a trap, a snare, a cause of offense. (We approach the millstone.) Jesus seriously does not want us labeling ourselves with his name and then becoming misleaders of, or obstacles to, people who would otherwise be inclined to trust him.
With points 5 and 6, we would prefer to excuse ourselves. Even if we can stomach 1 through 4, we try to bail out at 5. I rarely think that I could be a misleader of others, an obstacle to others. Do you? And also, in my false humility, I ask: who am I to be Jesus for anyone else?
But I’m afraid that if we’re not deliberately, persistently, prayerfully engaged in being Jesus to others, we are almost certainly also failing at (1) looking constantly to Jesus and (2) following Jesus; and we are probably (3) following someone or something other than Jesus; we are probably (4) shutting Jesus out of certain compartments of our life. And then also we are becoming causes of stumbling to others. We can fool ourselves about all of this. Only ourselves. Not God, and not the people watching us.
And Jesus tells us: if you are going to cause others to go astray, it would be better for you to have a large millstone placed around your neck and be thrown into the sea.
Reading Mark 9:42–50
So now a close look at the passage that was read to us.
Some of you may notice that a couple of verses seem to be missing. Verses 44 and 46 were just the same as 48. Older English Bibles included those verses because they were in some later Greek manuscripts. They are not in the best manuscripts. Probably a scribe who was used to hearing “where their worm doesn’t die and their fire isn’t quenched” after the third occurrence of the word “hell,” went ahead and wrote it in after first two occurrences. The phrase comes from the last verse in Isaiah, which announces the future victory of God and says that when the last battle is over the smoldering, worm-eaten carcasses of those who rebelled against God will be lying there for all to see.
So: no verse 44 or 46.
What this passage is not about
With regard to that word “hell”— in the Greek text the word isn’t “hell.”
It’s Γεεννα, a Greek spelling for the Valley of Hinnom. Old Testament writers tell us that idolatrous worship, including child sacrifice, took place there. It later became a huge refuse dump, with fires continuously burning, and worms infesting any organic matter that wasn’t on fire. As the Jewish concept of punishment after death developed, “Gehenna” was picked up as a metaphor for that. So the word was in the air, available in the vocabulary, in Jesus’s day, and he used it. That doesn’t mean that the point of this passage, either for Mark or for Jesus, was to teach us in any detail about the afterlife. It is not. The passage is intended to teach us about discipleship, and Jesus introduces the picture of Gehenna to emphasize to us some things that disciples really do not want to do.
Speculation about the structure of the cosmos, or details of the afterlife, or who does what, when, in the end-times is usually a distraction used by people who want to evade the real message of scripture.
What this passage is about
So what is this passage about?
Note the recurring words. Four times. Someone causing someone to stumble. What is this “stumble”?
What do the Greek words in the skandal- family mean in the New Testament?
Here’s the Greek text.
In English, now:
I have spelled “skandalize” with a “k” rather than a “c” just to mark it as a Greek word rather than English. The meaning of the English word is closely related to the Greek word but a little different.
The Oxford English Dictionary sums up the word history.
An old Greek word for “trap” came to be used metaphorically for “snare,” which was then used in the sense of a “cause of offense or stumbling.”
The Cambridge Greek Lexicon gives that same history concisely.
A skandalēthron is a little piece in a trap for small furry animals. The skandalon is the trap itself. So when we see places in the New Testament that talk about a “cause of offense” or a “stumbling block,” the mental image is probably not a rock or a block that happens to be lying on the ground, and someone unfortunately trips over it. We should picture a trap that’s deliberately set.
Thus when Jesus warns about SKANDALIZING one of his little ones—by which, Mark tells us, he means simply one who believes in him, one who trusts him—he is seeing it as active entrapment, as culpable ensnaring. And he takes that very seriously indeed.
The millstone image
The trapping and snaring is an implied metaphor. Jesus is a master in the use of metaphor and imagery. We already saw how he picked up and used the image of corpses burning or rotting in the Valley of Hinnom to stand for God’s judgment. Here he uses the image of a large millstone placed around someone’s neck, who is then thrown into the sea. This is a garish image, overblown, almost like the one about trying to pull a camel through the eye of a needle.
In Jesus’s first-century Israelite setting, grain was ground into flour with millstones of various sizes. Some of them were small enough that one person could manage, basically rubbing two rocks together with the grain in between them. Other mills were much larger.
You need a couple of strong people, or a donkey, to move this stone around. Where your English translation says a “large millstone,” the Greek says mylos onikos, the donkey kind of millstone. Jesus pictures that huge upper millstone hung around someone’s neck. Not many people could even stand up on dry land with that kind of weight on them. And then that person is thrown into the sea? Forget about it.
It’s a graphic way of saying: you’d be better off dying a horrible but quick death by drowning than letting Jesus catch you taking someone who might believe in him and turning them into someone is going to be unable to trust Jesus because of what they saw in you.
What Jesus is warning against
So these words refer something about one person that makes it impossible for another person to trust in Jesus.
Some other uses of skandal-:
- In the parable of the sower in Mark 4, the seed sown on rocky ground represents people who don’t persevere in faith because they are SKANDALIZED by trouble or persecution.
- In Luke 7, Jesus talks about his ministries of healing and bringing good news to the poor and pronounces a blessing on those who are not SKANDALIZED by him, i.e., by the fact that there are things about him that don’t fit their concept of a messiah.
- In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul says that the message about a Messiah who suffered public execution of the most demeaning sort was folly to Greeks and a SKANDALON to Jews. He mentions the SKANDALON of the cross again in Galatians 5.
Here in Mark 9, Jesus is not talking about that, not talking about the SKANDAL constituted by his own paradoxical existence and work. He’s not talking about the fact that to many people in our world, a savior who came to us in weakness and suffered death on our behalf makes no sense because they think power, wealth, and success are the best indicators of God’s blessing.
Rather, Jesus is talking about the fact that people all around us—including people who are not wealthy or powerful, people who are not accepted or influential, people who are locked out of the economy, people who are not proper, who don’t fit the prescribed roles, people who are regarded as morally untouchable, in the same way that many in the crowds who followed Jesus were dismissed as dirty sinners by the religious establishment of his day—people like this are not SKANDALIZED by the poverty of Jesus, or by the fact that he was hunted down and tortured and killed by the powerful and the wealthy and the self-righteous. They understand that!
No, when they see Jesus, they see someone who might accept them, someone who might address them on their own level, someone who might see exactly who and what they are, and what their lifestyle is, and reach out to them anyway, not with condemnation or scorn but with compassion.
How Christians make it impossible for others to trust Jesus
But then they see Christians, and they are SKANDALIZED by us.
- They hear Christians singing Jesus songs, and meeting in nice Jesus buildings, and enjoying the prosperity that we call God’s blessing.
- They hear Christians demeaning them.
- They hear Christian leaders, and the politicians Christians support, telling them their poverty is their own fault, their identity is despicable, their bodies and souls are irregular, illegal, unnatural, or disgusting.
- Even when they don’t hear us saying those things, they don’t see us reaching out to them in a Jesus-like way, ready to spend time with them and accept their hospitality and friendship and treat them as valued friends
—and they are SKANDALIZED. It becomes impossible for them to trust Jesus, because we have revealed something ugly to them about what it means, and what it doesn’t mean, to be a Christian.
And Jesus, who also sees all this, stands up and says—to whom? who do you think he says this to?—it were better for you to have a big-donkey millstone fastened around your neck, and be thrown into the sea, than to SKANDALIZE my little ones. And we buy books, and tune in, and hire preachers, or leave one church for another, to find someone who will reassure us that Jesus is talking to somebody else and we are just fine.
Thursday I saw a report on a new IPSOS poll.
People were asked what characteristics they associate with Christians in general. Christians said: Christians are giving, compassionate, loving, respectful. That’s how we like to see ourselves, isn’t it? But people who were not religious said Christians are hypocritical, judgmental, and self-righteous.
People were asked: How well do Christians you know represent the values and teachings of Jesus? When evangelical Christians answered that question, 50 percent said “a lot” and another 33 percent said “a little.” But when people who were not religious answered, only 2 percent said “a lot,” and only 15 percent more said “a little.”
The question for us
I did not conduct these polls. I did not choose this textI’m just reading it. I’m just telling you what the poll found. If you’re not particularly comfortable with all this—do you think I feel any better about it myself?
The question is: are we going to just brush it all off again, and say the polls are messed up, and none of this applies to us? Or might we, this time, sit quietly with the discomfort, and invite God to speak to us in the stillness, and perhaps show us something that we have not previously been able to see?
How Christians make it impossible for themselves to trust Jesus
But the text goes on. It takes a turn in verse 43. From warning about SKANDALIZING the little ones, it moves to warning about SKANDALIZING yourself.
Apparently that’s possible. You can do things that entrap and ensnare you, that make it impossible for you to keep on trusting Jesus. Jesus tells us we really don’t want to let that happen either.
Here Jesus says basically the same thing three times in a row, for emphasis. Which means it’s very important. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be focused on Jesus, and to be focused on Jesus is to enter into life, and to enter into life the Jesus way is to enter into the kingdom of God, into God’s way of valuing everyone and everything.
But he also repeats it three times for various domains of life in which we can trap ourselves.
Hand can represent what you do. Foot can represent where you go. (In the Old Testament, “foot” is sometimes a euphemism for genitalia. Is Jesus thinking of that here? I don’t know.) Eye can represent what you look at, what you desire. Again we have graphic language.
Applying Jesus’s warning
We have to be careful with this “cut it off” / “pluck it out” language, because we know people can get into unhealthy states in which they feel compelled to self-harm. Jesus does not want you to cut you’re the skin on your arm, much less cut off your hand. OK? Nor does Jesus want you to put a millstone over my neck and throw me into Lake Michigan to keep me from sinning.
But the language is graphic because Jesus is quite utterly serious about this. If anything in your life, or mine, is ensnaring us, trapping us in a way that damages our ability to trust and follow Jesus, then we need to be urgent and absolutely dead serious about cutting that thing out of our life.
Eyes looking at screens have ensnared many in our society. We know this. It’s statistically quite certain that a good number of us sitting here in this room know that all too well. Click here, we are urged! We pause for an instant—we decide to click or not to click. What lies do we tell ourselves about our reason for letting our eyes rest on that image, for letting our finger click on that link?
But there is more than one kind of media addiction. What kind of adrenaline rush do we get from listening to this or that excited and snarky radio or television voice? Is that voice leading us into the way of Jesus, or out of the way of Jesus?
If we are focusing our attention, our energy, our loyalty, on anything that is leading us away from Jesus, or juicing us up to a greater intensity than we feel in our time with Jesus: better to pull the plug, don’t read that, don’t listen to that person, don’t touch that person’s hand or let your eyes linger on that person’s physique, don’t go to that gathering, don’t hang out in that chat, don’t ingest that substance. Cut it off, cut it out. It is better to enter into life. It is better to enter into life. It is better to enter into the kingdom of God.
Sayings about fire and salt
OK, two more verses. Tuesday I wrote to Michelle and said: drop those last two verses. I don’t know what they mean. Then I wrote again and said, no, leave them in. It’s OK not to know what everything means. Nobody does anyway.
Mark probably isn’t giving us a verbatim transcript of things that Jesus said all in a row on one particular day. The gospel are short books. If Jesus went around Galilee and Judea teaching for three years, or even for one year, he said a lot more than we have in the gospels. And nobody was running a tape recorder.
Here Mark appears to be pulling together disconnected sayings of Jesus according to keywords. SKANDALIZO connects the first verse with the next several verses. Then the mention of Gehenna in the sense of judgment brings up the word “fire.”
Now the word “fire” brings up another saying—an enigmatic saying: “everyone will be salted with fire.” Larry Hurtado says the fire in verse 49 refers not to judgment, though, but to the trials and hardships of everyday life. The things that we suffer make us salty.
This makes us better. Suffering can give us humility. It can make us more dedicated. More apt to focus on following Jesus.
And this saltiness, these qualities that make us followers of Jesus, are also the qualities that enable us to live in community, at peace with each other. So said my late friend Larry Hurtado many years ago, and that seems right to me. Following Jesus is not a solo project. If you think you’re in it all by yourself, you may be into something other than following Jesus. We need each other. We follow Jesus together.
Where this leaves us
My friends, we are members of a multitude from many times and places; and right here in this room today, this Sunday morning in West Michigan—though some may be joining us online from elsewhere—we are together with each other, talking and thinking and praying about what it means to follow Jesus faithfully. Sitting together with even the hard words of Jesus, the words that challenge us to examine ourselves, and to repent, and to follow more nearly. We can be followers who are not skandalizers. This is Lent. This is life. This is good.
Let us pray. . . .