Avoiding Hell with All Limbs Intact

Mark 9:38-50

We are upon maybe my favorite season of the year: Fall! One of the best parts of Autumn is of course Halloween, and with it comes some great corn mazes, parties, and of course, haunted houses! There is this one haunted house in my town that has taken ‘scaring the hell out of you’ to another level. I went with a friend for the first time just last October on a brisk fall night. After standing in what seemed like an endless line that resembled more of a Disney World ride, we finally made it to the entrance. The last time I was in a haunted house was back in high school, so I’ll admit my nerves were a little on edge!

There were three sections to this haunted house. The first was definitely meant to scare you! Monsters jumping out at you, flashing lights, and loud noises were enough to send me shrieking like a little girl and pushing my friend ahead of me as I ran the other way! Eventually we survived…and after collecting myself we were ready for the next section.

The second section was not quite the same as the first. This time there seemed to be a sequence of scenes as you passed through the house, telling the story of someone who had died. We visited the hospital room, the funeral home, the grieving family members, and then…darkness.

Finally, the third section led us to a line where college-age students took us in groups of 15 people and shared with us…the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I will admit that this was my first ever haunted house that seemed to seamlessly transition into a bible study.  What a truly terrifying…and uplifting (?) experience! Later I would go on to the website of the haunted house as it reads, ‘Approximately 26,000 people have made decisions for Christ over the past two decades. Ironically, this House of Death points to the Way of Life!’ From decapitated bodies, to the fires of hell, to the story of Jesus, this experience…would certainly end up in a sermon someday!

You may be struggling a bit with this story as it relates to our message today…or just struggling in general with this story. Here’s what I want us to think about today. How many of us struggle with this notion of sin and brokenness in our lives and the world? If you struggle with this part of the Christian understanding of our existence, then how many of us struggle with how the Christian message has been shaped to respond to such sin in the world with its consequences?

If you are anything like me this notion of sin and hell in this world, yes, is scary, but it may also not be the most faithful way to understand human response to a broken world. And while saying ‘the sinners prayer’ may offer initial relief for those who suffer in this world, we all also understand that there continues to be sin, pain, and brokenness in this world…each and every day, even if we do accept Jesus into our lives as Lord and Savior. Is our Gospel message about the fear of condemnation, or is there something else?

Jesus was sharing something larger at work when he discussed with the crowds the Kingdom of God in the midst of a broken world. But if the answer is not to ‘scare the hell out of people,’ then how do we respond to human brokenness in the world today?  Well, I won’t pretend to answer all of our questions in the next few minutes, but I think our text for this morning begins to share such a response.

The Gospel of Mark is a quick read. One will note that there are only 16 chapters in the Gospel, and the word ‘immediately’ is repeatedly used to describe the actions of Jesus and others, so we should not be surprised when we read how fast things seem to transpire in chapter 9. Just before we pick up with verse 38, we read that Jesus is now continuing his ministry and teaching in Capernaum. He will teach the disciples about the value of servant leadership, and even point out the importance of sharing the Good News of God’s love with children in the community.

In verse 38 we read that the disciple John asks him about other teachers who were not ‘following protocol’ as they had determined, and Jesus tells John basically to leave those people alone. In the words of Jesus in verse 40, ‘Whoever is not against us is for us.’

We could spend some time talking about such a topic, but I want us to move forward to the next set of teachings that Jesus is accredited with, and this has to do with stumbling blocks. We all have experienced stumbling blocks before in our lives; these are times when life doesn’t go according to plan. Sometimes we are the ones who stumble; other times, maybe we are the ones who cause others to stumble. Jesus picks up with this idea in verse 42; first mentioning us causing children to stumble in their faith, but secondly, discussing our personal lives and struggles.

42“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

Some harsh words; huh? I always have struggled with this passage, and with good reason. Should we take these teachings literally and amputate our limbs if they cause us trouble? In some Middle Eastern cultures this was the case as a form of punishment for stealing as the offender’s hand could be cut off! Can you imagine this congregation if each time we sinned in some way we physically removed parts of our bodies? We’d be a sad sight indeed…if we even had eyes to see it!

And what’s the deal (Seinfeld reference) with all of this talk of the fires of hell? Are we bound for a time of torment…with worms? Well, here is a whole other sermon waiting to be preached, but I’m not going to focus too much on this concept hell today either; sorry. What an intense series of teachings from a guy who just previous to this was holding a child on his lap! What are we to make of all of this?

At first, this all seems pretty extreme; maybe even un-relatable. However, if we can get past the amputated limbs, fires, and worms, I think we discover a message that we can relate to, and that is about sin and ‘repentance’.

Jesus will conclude this section here with a pretty tame instruction after such extreme teachings, as he talks about being salt, and he tells those around him to ‘be at peace with one another.’

If we are able to get past this sensationalist imagery that Jesus uses about limbs and fire (he was way ahead of the social media sensationalist headlines that tell us ‘you won’t believe what happens next…’), we can pick up on a larger lesson of ‘stumbling’ (sin), and taking reparations, or repentance.

What does repentance have to do with sin? That’s a great question, and different communities have responded in their own ways. While we may laugh or be disturbed by the methodologies of the haunted house that seeks to ‘scare the hell out of you,’ at the end of the day they are seeking a way for individuals to understand sin in their lives, and offer the opportunity of repentance.

The Jewish community’s High Holy Days revolve around this topic of repentance as they celebrate Yom Kippur, which was just last Wednesday.  Yom Kippur, known as Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the year in Judaism.  Jewish people traditionally observe this holy day with an approximate 25-hour period of fasting and intensive prayer, often spending most of the day in synagogue services. According to Jewish tradition, God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into a book, the Book of Life, on Rosh Hashanah, and waits until Yom Kippur to “seal” the verdict. During the Days of Awe, a Jew tries to amend his or her behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God and against other human beings. The evening and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt. At the end of Yom Kippur, one hopes that they have been forgiven by God.

So why was Jesus, and humans of all times, places, and beliefs, so extreme in their imagery of sin, sin’s consequences, and the offer of repentance? Is the Christian Gospel really about condemnation, or is there something more that Jesus was getting at?

I don’t believe Jesus wanted us as his followers to focus on the punishment and condemnation for living with sin in our lives. And this is the Good News for us this morning as we read our scripture text: Christ offers us forgiveness from sin through his life, ministry, death, and resurrection.

 The second part of this Good News is a little more on us, however. In response to God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ, we are instructed to turn from our sinful and broken lives, to repent, and to instead use our lives to serve as disciples of Christ, as agents of God’s grace and love, as we together strive towards reconciliation between one another, and God. We are called to be the salt of the earth.

49“For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

While confession begins with admitting our guilt in this world, repentance is not merely about feeling scared or guilty about our lives, so we apologize. Repentance is action we take to reconcile ourselves to God and to one another in this world. We are called to act.

Just this past Thursday Pope Francis spoke before a joint meeting of Congress. He spoke on a variety of topics, but one thing stuck with me, which has to do with what we are talking about today. He was talking about reconciliation…with Congress,

“Our response must instead be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice. We are asked to summon the courage and the intelligence to resolve today’s …crises… Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.”

Friends, we have been offered a gift of new life in Christ Jesus, and this not of our own doing, but of God’s. But we do have a role to play in this world as we are called to repent from our brokenness and to work towards that common good. This, we can gladly share with the world, during these beautiful Autumn days.

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