Monday, October 8, 2012

Sermon -- 19th Sunday after Pentecost (October 7, 2012)

MARK 9:38-50

In the name + of Jesus.

     In 2003, a man named Aron Ralston went on a hike.  He went by himself to a remote location in Canyonlands National Park to climb up and down the rock formations there.  At one point he fell, and a boulder came down behind him.  The boulder pinned Ralston’s right arm to the canyon.  He was stuck.  Shouts and screams were heard by no one.  Hours went by – 127 Hours, if you want to rent the movie.  Eventually, Ralston recognized that if he were going to come out of that canyon alive, it would have to be without his right arm.  So, in order to survive, Ralston took a knife and cut off his own right arm.  He put on a tourniquet and hiked several miles until a family found him.  He was finally rescued from the canyon by a helicopter.  Aron Ralston is alive today for one reason – he cut off an arm that, if he had kept it, would have meant his death in the canyon.
     Now, no one wants to lose a limb like that.  Aron Ralston would prefer to have two functioning arms as well.  But when one’s survival is on the line, you make the sacrifice.  It is not a hard choice, even if it is a painful act.
     Jesus wants you to consider the same thing in our Gospel.  He says, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off.  It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell.  And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out.  It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’” (Mark 9:43-48)  
     Jesus’ words seem too vicious, too cruel.  We do not tell people to maim themselves in order to be Christians.  We do not keep a stash of eye patches, expecting that you would have gouged out your eye by now.  After all, it is not my hand that causes me to sin; it is my self-serving heart.  It is not my eye that covets other people’s possessions or abilities; it is my discontented heart.  My corrupt heart produces all kinds of wicked thoughts, words, and actions.  But I can hardly cut my heart out.  Jesus’ point is this: If it causes sin, it must be cut off; because if it is not cut off, the result is death.
     Aron Ralston did not want to cut off his arm.  Who would?  But it was a matter of life and death, so he did.  You may not always want to cut off that which causes you to sin.  There are just too many reasons why such drastic repentance seems too much to ask.  Do you really want to sever a source of income?  Do you really want to miss out when the group gets together?  Do you really want a friend who will make you accountable for your abuse of alcohol or your visits to seedy web sites?  You can find all of the excuses in the world why your sins are not that bad.  You may even convince yourself that you are really in control.  But when you willingly walk into temptation, should you be surprised that you are drawn into sin?   If such things cause you to sin, then cut them off.  There is not one sinful pleasure that is worth even a moment in hell.  Whether it happens in Vegas or in the privacy of your own home, if it causes sin, it must be cut off.
     The Lord had warned Cain, “Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:7)  As you know, Cain’s jealousy mastered him, resulting in the murder of his brother.  He would not admit his sin.  His jealousy did not scare him.  He embraced it.  He acted on it.  And he was forever cut off from God because he would not repent of it.  Beware, lest in your pride you dismiss how deadly your sin is.  Many will end up in hell who knew that they were devoted to evil, but they just did not want to give it up.  Sin desires to master you, too.  But if it causes sin, it must be cut off.
     Jesus also warned, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42)  Rarely will you see people who are teaching their children to purposely go out and perform wicked deeds, although – shockingly – it happens.  It is far more common simply to teach children that God does not really need to be listened to.  That is done when parents do not bring their children to church or teach them to pray.  Children are the only thing that God gives you in this world that you might see in heaven.  By failing to bring them to Jesus, you cause them to sin by teaching them to despise and dismiss him.  In the end, they are cut off from grace, mercy, and salvation.  It would be far better to be cast into the depths of the sea than to have to answer to God and your children: When you had your chance to teach your children to rely on their Savior, why didn’t it matter?
     There are countless sins we commit for which we would like to hide in the depths of the sea or crawl under a rock.  But that doesn’t fix your sinful condition any more than cutting off your hand or gouging out your eye fixes your sin.  Rather than drown you in the depths of the sea, our Lord has drowned you in the waters of baptism.  Rather than cut you off, through baptism the Lord brings you into his family.  Baptism is where Jesus cleanses your heart and produces in you good and godly desires.  This is where the Holy Spirit delivers to you all of the blessings of Jesus’ perfect obedience on your behalf.  Jesus has shunned every sin for you, overcome every temptation for you, and satisfied all of God’s demands for you.  He puts his righteousness on you.  In your baptism, Jesus kills of your sinful heart and raises up a new one which loves and craves righteousness not just in status but also in practice. 
     If it causes sin, it must be cut off.  It would be nice if one cut would do the job.  Aron Ralston has lost his arm, and it will not grow back again.  But the sin that desires to master is different.  It is more like the box elder tree in our back yard.  The box elder bugs which accompanied the tree had become unbearable, so the tree was cut down.  But soon, branches began to grow back from the stump.  They were trimmed down once.  Now they have grown back again.  And so it is with your sinful nature.  While the Lord has redeemed you from your sin and given you a new nature, sin still clings to you.  It desires to have you back.  That is why you find yourself drawn back to the same sins, the same greed, the same jealousy, the same coveting, or whatever temptations vex you. 
     Jesus’ words still stand: If it causes sin, it must be cut off.  Your whole life remains one of repentance.  You will be fighting against sin, against Satan, and against your very self your whole life long.  Your solution remains Jesus.  He continues to pour out his mercy.  He continues to deliver you from your sin and from yourself.  He takes you back to your baptism where you again drown your sin and where Jesus raises you up a new creation – forgiven of sin, free from guilt, free from death, and free to live without fear.  Back at your baptism, Jesus reminds you that your sins are washed away in his blood and that they are drown in the depths of the sea.  The waters of your baptism have quenched the fires of hell; they will not harm you.  At your baptism, Jesus assures you that his obedient life has completed the task.  At your baptism, Jesus promises you that you are the Lord’s, that the Father loves you, that the Spirit dwells within you, and that eternal life awaits you.
     Aron Ralston may have lost an arm; but today he still retains his life.  If you are still embracing any sin, cut it off.  While it may seem like an inconvenience to lose something you have become accustomed to, it is better to be inconvenienced than to be damned.  Besides, your Lord who forgives your sin does not abandon you after he forgives you.  He will be faithful to the promises he gave you in your baptism.  After all, he was cut off from his Father so that you would be brought into God’s family.  He will keep you in his care.  He will sustain you through weaknesses.  He will bring you into life everlasting.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.