Sunday, September 30, 2012

Pentecost Eighteen
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me. Then I shall be upright, and I shall be clear from great transgression.

“Keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me. Then I shall be upright, and I shall be clear from great transgression.” Psalm 19:13, ASV

We are told to be bold. We should be bold in our witness and bold in our generosity. We should be bold in our faith. The Christian boldly trusts in God and follows Christ without fear. The Christian boldly shares the Gospel without concern for how the world will respond. The Christian boldly gives everything for the sake of others with no regard for ourselves because we know that God will provide. It is good to be bold for God. defines boldness as, “not hesitating or fearful in the face of actual or possible danger or rebuff; courageous and daring; not hesitating to break the rules of propriety; forward; impudent; necessitating courage and daring; challenging; beyond the usual limits of conventional thought or action; imaginative; striking or conspicuous to the eye.” It is good to be bold, to step out in faith and do what God wants us to do, although it is terribly difficult. Who wants to face danger or the rebuff of those who do not believe? Who wants to go out of their way to face unknowns or risk the challenges that come? Who wants to step out of our comfort zone to go another way? Who wants to follow a different path than the norm that is uncertain? And yet, this is exactly what God is calling us to do.

But we must be careful because it is easy to take boldness too far. The psalmist today asks God to “keep me from presumptuous sins.” The Urban dictionary defines presumptuous as, “Arrogantly assuming something without knowing all the facts; going beyond what is right or proper; excessively forward; too straight forward--to the point of being harsh and/or abrasive.” There is a fine line between boldness and arrogance.

Now, we can’t allow the world to define our boldness as arrogance. After all, a non-believer will say that we are arrogant for believing that the Gospel is the only way to salvation. An agnostic will call us arrogant for believing in something that they don’t think they can know exists. A person of another faith will call us arrogant for saying that our God is the One and only God and that they must believe in Jesus to be saved. We cannot allow their opinion to form our ministry.

While we must be bold with our witness, we must also beware of how easy it is to fall into presumptuous sins. As I was trying to think of an example of presumptuous sin, my thoughts turned to a friend in a church a long time ago. She was brilliant at coming up with ideas of projects and events we should do. She would present them to the council and everyone would get on board. They were good ideas. When it came time to do the work, she was always too busy. She encouraged people, delegating every task to someone else. We worked hard to make the events or programs happen, pressing on through the details, creating the materials, finding the resources, solving the problems and serving at the event. When it was all over, she would take credit for everything because it was her idea.

Others had excellent ideas, too, but she was never available to help when we chose one of those. She wanted to be in control, and refused to be a part of anything that was not hers. I have to admit that I eventually stopped liking her ideas. I felt like she was trying to control the ministry. I suppose I was trying to do the same when I stopped supporting her. We both took the ministry into our own hands, ignoring God’s hand in the situation. By our attitudes we set ourselves above others and probably missed opportunities to share God’s grace with the world.

In last week’s Gospel lesson, the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest. They wanted to be the one in charge. They wanted to be the idea people. They wanted to sit at Christ’s right and left hands, to rule with Him over others. They were presumptuous, assuming the authority to appoint people to leadership without considering what God intends. Jesus showed them a different way. Instead of trying to be number one, they were to lift the lowly, to give value to those who were considered insignificant.

The conversation continues this week with John telling Jesus about someone who was ministering in Jesus’ name. “He wasn’t following us,” John said. John wanted to control the ministry, and he couldn’t control someone who was outside their group. The same thing happened to Moses in today’s Old Testament lesson. When God rained the Holy Spirit on the elders in the camp, some of the Spirit fell on two men who did not attend the meeting. Joshua was upset. “Moses, tell them to stop,” he said. Moses answered, “Art thou jealous for my sake? would that all Jehovah's people were prophets, that Jehovah would put his Spirit upon them!”

Jesus felt the same way. He told the disciples that anyone doing good works in His name could not quickly speak evil of Him. “For he that is not against us is for us.” Jesus knew that God was in control, and if that man had a gift and was using it to God’s glory, then he should not be stopped. We don’t always know what God has in mind, so we should not stop a ministry because it doesn’t follow us. The sin is to presume that we are can control what God is doing in the world. The psalmist prays that God will keep him from doing that.

In “The Message” the passage is written, “Keep me from stupid sins, from thinking I can take over your work.” We might think ourselves to be wise enough to make decisions for God, but we aren’t. We are constantly seeing the world through our own biases and desires and we want to pursue ministries that fit into our world view. Unfortunately, we tend to look at other ministries with doubt. We question their work. We ridicule the choices they make. We reject the direction they go. We even claim that they can’t be led by the Spirit because they aren’t following us. But are they? Are we guilty of presumptuous sin because we reject what God is doing through them?

Now, there is a place for correcting our brothers and sisters in Christ, because we can all be led down dangerous path. Jesus didn’t say that we couldn’t ever turn away. He told the disciples that those who work in His name could not be easily led astray. In “The Screwtape Letters,” C. S. Lewis writes, “Indeed the safest road to hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

Here is another quote, “All these, as I find from the record office, are thoroughly reliable people; steady, consistent scoffers and worldlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortably towards our father’s house.” And, “And while he thinks that, we do not have to contend with the explicit repentance of a definite, fully recognised, sin, but only with his vague, though uneasy, feeling that he hasn’t been doing very well lately. This dim uneasiness needs careful handling. If it gets too strong it may wake him up and spoil the whole game. On the other hand, if you suppress it entirely – which, by the by, the Enemy will probably not allow you to do – we lose an element in the situation which can be turned to good account. If such a feeling is allowed to live, but not allowed to become irresistible and flower into real repentance, it has one invaluable tendency. It increases the patient’s reluctance to think about the Enemy.”

Screwtape suggested to his nephew Wormwood that he take things slow, do things one step at a time. A person does not commit the great sin immediately; he first commits tiny sins until it becomes habit and then they grow larger. A little white lie might not matter much, but it leads to greater lies that ruin lives. A puff at a cigarette might not seem like a big deal until it has become an addiction to heroin. A boldness in ministry might seem like a good thing until we try to take control of it for ourselves.

James reminds us that we have the responsibility to keep our brothers and sisters focused in the right place. If we see someone falling we are given the authority to remind them of God’s Word. We are called to help one another stay on the right path. Christianity is about forgiveness and inclusion, but it is also about repentance. And we constantly need to repent. How can there be no forgiveness if there is no knowledge of our sin? We are called to help one another see our sin and turn from it, so that we will stay in the loving embrace of God’s grace.

So we walk a fine line. Though we are called to correct our brothers and sisters, and they to do the same for us, how do we keep from crossing the line to presumptuous sin? How do we keep ourselves humble and focused on God’s will rather than our own? We have to pray with the psalmist, “Keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me.” God will keep us on a right path if we keep Him in the forefront.

The disciples wanted to stop the others who were doing ministry. Joshua wanted to stop those given the power of God because they did not things the way he thought was right. But we see in these stories that God does what God does for His own reasons. He knows more than we know. It is presumptuous of us to assume we know more than Him. We are called to trust in Him, to follow Him and to do what we are called to do without fear or concern.

Jesus said that we are all salted with fire. The salt is the power of God to do His work in the world and it comes to us by fire of the Holy Spirit. What is salt? What does it do? How does it relate to ministry? Salt flavors things, but it has a host of other purposes. It is used to heal, to bring blood to the surface of a wound. It is used to preserve other things. It is used to melt ice and to make ice cream. We are told that we are the salt of the world. What does that mean? The salt in us does more than just add flavor; God uses our lives to bring healing and to preserve the faith of others. When we speak the Gospel and heal in Jesus' name, ice cold hearts are melted and unbelievers are made new creations through faith in Christ.

Jesus continued, “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” Sin takes away our saltiness, it destroys peace among brothers. And so we ask God to give us all that we need to live as salt in this world. We seek His continued blessing so that we can do what is good, right and true. It is by His grace that will continue on a right path, doing what is good and acceptable to Him. Salt can lose its saltiness when we try to be in control. So Jesus reminds to stick together, to keep each other salted and on the right path, following God. “Be at peace with one another.”

Ok, so we’ll all run into people in ministry who do things differently than we do. We will disagree about the work to be done. We’ll get frustrated by one another. We’ll probably argue with one another more than we should. We will, unfortunately, sin against one another. We will be bold in ways that are not always deemed right by others. We will try to take control of the ministries in which we are involved, especially if we think another is not following the right path. But let us never presume to be God, because when we do we do our prayers are mistaken.

We are reminded that there is a way forward when we fail one another. We can repent; we can seek forgiveness, healing, and restoration. God will provide that and more. He hears our prayers and answers. And so we pray that our words and our hearts will always be acceptable to God because He is our rock and redeemer. By His hand we will remain salted, upright and free from sin.

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