Sermon for the weekend of September 30/October 1

Seventeenth Sunday in Pentecost

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


May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.


There once was a king.  He was a very charitable king.  There were also two beggars who came to the palace daily to ask for food and each day the king gave them both a loaf of bread.  Each day the first beggar thanked the king for his generosity, the second beggar thanked God for making the king wealthy enough to be charitable.


The king enjoyed hearing the praise from the first beggar but he was disappointed by the ungratefulness of the second.  He decided to teach the beggar a lesson.  He ordered the baker to bake several costly jewels into one loaf of bread and to give that loaf to the first beggar.  The baker was extremely careful to give the right loaf to the right man because he knew the king could be a hard master. 


When the first beggar felt the loaf with the jewels, he thought that it was poorly baked.  “This bread is hard and heavy, not soft and light like the other loaf.”  So, he asked the other beggar to switch loaves.  The second beggar, who was always ready to do a good deed for a friend, agreed.  When the second beggar ate his loaf he found the jewels and praised God for His grace.


The next day the first beggar was once again at the gate of the king’s palace seeking bread, but the second beggar was not.  The king questioned the baker who assured him that he gave the right loaves to the beggars.  Then the king asked the beggar what happened to the loaf he had been given.  The beggar told the king that it felt hard and poorly baked, so he traded with his friend.  The king realized that the second beggar was right all along.  All good things truly come through God.  Only God can change the circumstances of men.


The Israelites were tired.  They had been traveling for some time in the wilderness, wandering seemingly without purpose or direction.  They had little food and water, no place to truly rest.  They were living in tents they had to carry on their backs as they moved from one place to another.  Though they’d been excited about escaping slavery in Egypt, that suffering seemed less than the suffering they were experiencing in the desert.


Most of all, they were tired of manna.  They wanted meat.  They remembered all the good and flavorful food they had in Egypt and thought that even a life of slavery had to be better than the daily work of grinding and cooking the bland food they had to eat. 


Moses heard their complaining and he had enough.  He went to the Tent of Meeting and met with the LORD.  Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me?”  He was so tired of leading those ungrateful people that he asked God to kill him.  He said, “If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin."  He does not want to face failure.


John knew what it was like to face failure.  Earlier in the ninth chapter of Mark, the disciples were asked to cast a demon out of a young boy, but they could not do it.  When Jesus came, He saw their distress and healed the boy.  The story is a sermon in itself, a message about faith.  The faith of the disciples and the crowd was in doubt.  The father even said, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”  Jesus’ answer was, “Everything is possible for him who believes.”  Immediately the father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”  Later Jesus told the disciples that this kind of demon could only be cast out by prayer.


Apparently the disciples had become complacent about the gifts and power they had been given.  They took it for granted and then they failed.  Not much later, the disciples witnessed a person casting out demons in Jesus’ name.  Though he was a believer, he was an outsider.  He was not part of their crowd; he was not part of the circle.  How could he do what they could not do? 


John was part of the inner circle.  He went up on the mountain with Jesus and he was a witness to the Transfiguration.  He was there when Jesus healed and when Jesus cast out demons.  He had even done so himself.  He was a very special friend of Jesus, and he expected that Jesus would show His gratitude in some special way when it was time for Jesus to rule.  John even went so far to ask Jesus if he could sit at Jesus’ right hand when He came into His kingdom.  Just last week we heard the story about how the disciples were quarreling over who was the greatest.  John thought he was one of the greatest.


How hard it must have been for him to see some stranger do the very thing that he was unable to do.  He was one of the inner circle and he couldn’t even cast out one demon.  All the disciples were facing jealousy, fear and doubt.  They were inadequate at doing the miraculous things Jesus was doing and that Jesus was telling them to do.  They saw success in ministry, but they also saw failure.  It must have been especially hard for them to see someone else gifted with the power and authority they could not harness.  It was a humbling moment.


Yet, they were not humbled.  John went to Jesus and told him about the stranger.  “We told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”  Jesus responded, “Do not stop him.  No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.”  Whoever is not against us is for us. 


God solved Moses’ problem by calling seventy elders together to anoint them as leaders.  The Spirit came upon the seventy and they prophesied.  The story then tells us that they prophesied no more.  The gift was given for a moment, perhaps to give them strength and courage to face the work of leading a million grumbling people through the wilderness.  Though they did not prophesy, they still had work to do and they still had the Spirit that would give them the power and authority to do so. 


While this was happening at the Tent of Meeting, two elders who had not come were also anointed and they too prophesied.  A boy reported this to Joshua who then told Moses to forbid them.  Moses simply answered, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the LORD's people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!"  He knew from whence the gift had come.  He knew that only God can change the circumstances of men and that all power and authority is His to give or take according to His will and purpose.  Knowing this helped Moses live in peace with the people of Israel.


Our scriptures this week cause us to consider how we determine who has the power and authority to do the work of the kingdom in this world.  All too often we are quick to point fingers, like Joshua and John, at those who do not stand in a right relationship with God.  For Joshua, that meant standing at the Tent of Meeting.  For John it meant being part of their circle.  What does it mean for us?  Do we determine who is in a right relationship?  Do we establish the criteria for ministry?


Jesus established the criteria we can use to test whether they are against us.  Do they do the work in Jesus’ name?  Then they are for us.  If they are casting out demons in Jesus’ name, then the power and authority comes from God.  If they give us a cup of water in Jesus’ name, then they will receive the reward.  If they can do these things, then they will not work against us.  Why would we want to work against them?


Have you ever noticed that some of the most passionate people are those who are new and fresh to the situation?  A brand new Christian, one who has recently turned their life over to Christ, is often the best evangelist.  They are excited and thankful.  They want to share the great gift they’d been given.  For too many of us, that excitement fades.  We become complacent, taking for granted the gift God has given.  Perhaps we, like the disciples, forget the foundation of all our power and authority – our relationship with Christ.  We let other things rule – our ego, our security, our knowledge, our position, our clique, our tradition, our doctrine, our hopes and our dreams.  Yet, we miss the very purpose we have received faith – to glorify God and to praise Him.


Jesus said that we should cut out those things in our life that cause us to sin.  He exaggerated a bit to make the point – if your eyes, hands or feet cause you to sin, cut them off.  While He is not advocating amputation, He is calling us to look at ourselves.  Why are we questioning the ministry of others?  Are we jealous?  Are we afraid?  Do we doubt that we are able to accomplish the work of the kingdom?  Do we work with wrong motives, seeking honor and glory for ourselves rather than for God? 


I began this message with the final verse of today’s Psalm.  David writes, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.”  Was Moses pleased with Joshua’s request to stop the elders?  Was Jesus pleased with John’s point of view about the outsider?  Was God pleased by the jealousy, fear and doubt displayed by His people in these stories?  Is He pleased with the way we treat one another, our brothers and sisters in Christ?

James gives us the purpose of the Church – we are to be a visible manifestation of God’s power in the midst of suffering.  With prayer and praise, God’s grace shines.  We are also to share the power and authority of God, bringing healing and forgiveness to those who suffer dis-ease.


Finally, James tells us that we must deal with error.  James writes, “My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”  Jesus warns us, however, to be careful how we address our brothers and sisters in Christ, especially those who are like little children in the faith.  If we cause a little one to stumble, it would be better for us to be cast into the sea with a millstone around our neck.  If we allow our jealousy, our fear or our doubt to halt the ministry of someone, we might just chase them away from Christian fellowship.  We might stop them from doing the work God has called them to do.  We might quench the Spirit that God has showered upon their life.


Instead, Jesus says, “Be salt.”  Though salt is inexpensive for us, it was quite valuable in the days of Jesus.  As a matter of fact, it was nearly as expensive as gold.  Soldiers were paid with salt and slaves were traded for salt.   Since salt is vital for human survival, salt became an important part of religious and social life.  Salt is used in religious rituals and is used to establish covenants.  If salt was served at a meal, a promise was made.  Both parties agreed to a relationship of loyalty, protection and hospitality.


Jesus said, “For everyone shall be salted with fire.”  When God salts with fire, He does so with the Holy Spirit, anointing His people to be salt.  He makes a covenant with others through our lives and establishes that relationship of loyalty, protection and hospitality.  As we pray and praise, offer healing and forgiveness, provide correction and reconciliation to those who err, we share the grace of God.  That is being salt.


Jesus said, “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again?”  When we allow our concerns – our jealousies, our fears and our doubts – to get in the way, we lose our saltiness.  We lose touch with the One who has anointed us for ministry.  We become complacent and unable to accomplish the work we have been called to do. 


All good things truly come through God.  Only God can change the circumstances of men; all power and authority is His to give or take according to His will and purpose.  As we remember this and keep God as the center of our work, seeking His blessing through prayer and praise, we will be salt.  As salt, we will live in peace with one another. 


I suppose that David’s words in today’s psalm sound a bit cliché; it is an overused sentiment that is often rote and insincere.  Yet, these are words that we should take to heart and remember every time we have the opportunity to speak.  As we seek God’s blessing upon our words – whether they are prayer or praise, words of healing and forgiveness or words of correction and reconciliation – He will help us to cut out that which might cause us to stumble, or that which will cause another to stumble.  He will help us to be salt and to be at peace with one another.  Thanks be to God.