Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on September 27 2009.
Psalm 124:1-8; Mark 9:38-50
As you might imagine, this is not a particularly good passage of scripture for me to consider so soon after knee replacement surgery… especially given the problems I’ve been having of late. Jesus says, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off… and if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off… and if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out…” The idea of anything being cut off is hardly appealing to me, certainly so soon after having had a knee replacement.
You see, I know what they did to me during that procedure last month. I’ve done the research. And I admit, I had a little help.
At the beginning of the summer, Janet and I spent a week of vacation with our daughter Emily and her family. As soon as we arrived, Alex, our ten year-old grandson, wanted me to see what he had discovered on the Internet. It was a simulated knee replacement surgery, done in cartoon style, that went through all the different phases of this procedure. You got to pick the various surgical instruments that were used, so the website put you right into the operating room and smack dab in the middle of the procedure.
He was fascinated by it, not only because I was anticipating this surgery for myself, but because his other grandmother, his Mamaw, had had one a few years ago. So Alex wanted to “share” this website with his Poppa. About half-way through, I said to my grandson, “You know, Alex, I’m, uh… I’m starting to sweat a little bit and don’t feel so good. Can we finish this some other time?”
If you’re not familiar with a knee replacement procedure, let me give you a layman’s synopsis. After the incision is made – mine is a bit over seven inches long – and the tissue and ligaments are moved out of the way, the end of the tibia (the lower leg bone) and the end of the femur (the upper leg bone) are cut away by saws. Then holes are drilled into the ends of the bones where the prosthetic pieces, made of titanium, will be hammered in and attached by means of cement or super glue. In between these two metal pieces is a slab of plastic which simulates cartilage and provides movement within the joint.
That, in a nutshell is what a knee replacement is about. The leg is literally cut in two and put back together again.
Infection is a real possibility in this type of surgery. Surgical personnel wear “space” suits so there is no skin-to-skin contact. The operating room has a special circulating system that pushes the air directly out of the room rather than around it. All precautions are taken so that the surgery will prove to be as successful as possible.
Jesus was obviously not an orthopedic surgeon, wasn’t into operating rooms with special air systems or anesthetics or infection-free procedures. He had a point to make and he made it quite starkly and directly. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off… and if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off… and if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out…”
Yes, Jesus had a point to make. The question is, what’s the point? Well, before we try to answer the question, we might first have to get around our own difficulty with this imagery he uses.
Somehow, I don’t think you have to have had a joint replacement to be offended – or at least shocked – by the imagery in this scripture. Frankly, we’re not very good at doing what Jesus tells us to do anyway, but when it comes to these kinds of commandments we feel quite justified in not following them, thank you very much. Go to just about any church in the land – even those where the women would never think to wear slacks and the men would never enter a business on Sunday – and you’re not going to see many stumps or eye patches. Even those who profess to take every word of the Bible literally back away from this one. And for good reason.
Some people, unfortunately, over the years have taken literally what Jesus said and mutilated themselves. You may be aware that every year at Easter some people in the Philippines submit themselves to an actual crucifixion. But c’mon, they’re not in their right mind. No sane person would do such a thing, would they? And do you think, when Jesus said it, he thought they would?
Well, if not, then why did Jesus say it? For the shock value? Perhaps a better question is, to whom was he saying it? Let’s set it up, shall we?
First of all, his disciples come to him and inform him that they’ve run across a man who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Now, you need to know that this follows on the heels of the story where the disciples themselves had attempted to do the same with the epileptic boy, and were unable to pull it off. When he sizes up the situation, Jesus then does for the boy what his followers have been unable to do. When his disciples question him about it, as to why they couldn’t do it, Jesus implies it is because they do not know properly how to pray.
They’re more than halfway through their public ministry with him. By now, you would think, they would have learned enough from him to be able to do such thing. But no, it is evidence all over again that they just don’t get it… which is a major theme in Mark’s gospel. When it comes to knowing Jesus, knowing what he knows, knowing what he wants them to know, doing what he wants them to do, they just don’t get it.
So, the disciples are still smarting from this rebuke, the one where he tells them they don’t know how to pray. When they come across a man who is apparently successful in performing an exorcism – in other words, doing something they’ve not been able to do – and he does it in Jesus’ name, they try to stop him. Why? Because he is not one of them. He is not a known follower of Jesus, has not yet joined Jesus’ church. It could be argued that they had tried to prevent the man from casting out demons because he was not of the correct denomination. The chances are, however, it’s simply a case of sour grapes.
And much to their amazement, I’m sure, not to mention their bewilderment and possible anger, Jesus does not affirm them in what they have done. Instead, Jesus is quite generous toward the man. “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”
Before you tell someone he can’t, Jesus is saying to them, you need to make sure you can. And so far, the disciples have not proven they can pass muster.
The disciples lose again. They do that a lot you know, as we’ve mentioned, especially in Mark’s gospel. They just can’t seem to please Jesus, and you would think by this time it’s really starting to get on their nerves. Nothing they do seems to work, and Jesus, like a tough football coach, just keeps piling on the demands, making it more and more difficult to follow him. Right now, I’m sure the disciples are feeling discouraged and not a little bit depressed at the way things are going.
Jesus is talking about trials and persecution and crucifixion, and inviting them to join him in it. It should not be hard for us to understand that they’re doing their best to get their minds around all he is saying to them, but it’s hard. It’s really, really hard. They’re just young guys from Galilee who have caught a vision given them by their Master, and now the vision seems to be turning against them and they’re in a state of confusion, of not knowing what it is he wants from them. Apart from the day Jesus was crucified, this is probably about as low as they ever found themselves.
Not only that, but Jesus has been dropping hints that they’re about to leave Galilee, their native land, and head down toward Judea. Judea is the real hot spot, where the political action is roiling up and the very people Jesus has been talking about – the ones who will oppose him and persecute him – operate.
They’re about to head into enemy territory, so you’d think Jesus would cut them a little slack. But no, look at what happens next…
While Jesus hardly gives them room to breathe, he doesn’t think anything of cutting this total stranger a bit of slack. But when it comes to his own disciples, the ones who have committed their lives and ministry to him, he doesn’t give them any quarter at all. “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.” It is then that he starts talking about the radical surgery of cutting off one’s hand or leg or tearing out one’s eye. It is then that he starts talking about Gehenna, the closest thing first-century Jewish people could think of when it comes to hell.
What in the world does he mean by all this? May I offer what probably amounts to a fairly weak explanation? After all, to try and answer this question is an attempt to discern the mind of Christ. Who can adequately do that? Any time we are faced with a tough, tough saying of Jesus, we are standing before that dark mirror to which the Apostle Paul referred. At best we see things dimly… at best.
Perhaps Jesus is saying to his disciples, “While I don’t necessarily expect you to take me literally about this, I do want you to take me and my mission seriously. This enterprise is not about greatness in the kingdom. It is not about lording it over people politically. It is not about seats of honor at the heavenly banquet, nor is it about conquest and glory. What I am about has to do with how God wants things to be done on earth as they are done in heaven. And the only way to determine what that is, is to give of one’s self completely, to be willing to die to self, to yield up one’s own desires in order to seek my Father’s desire.”
The promise is that they will be given unlimited power if – if – they will join him in understanding what kind of kingdom he has come to embody and proclaim. If they are unwilling to do such a thing, they have become a stumbling block to him, Jesus tells them. It would be better, he says, for them to cut off their arms and legs and eyes or be tossed into the sea with a millstone around their neck than to keep anyone else from seeing and catching the vision that Jesus has given them.
I would imagine there’s not a person in this room, who has committed him or her self to Jesus, and who has not, at some point (or points) in time, like Jesus’ disciples, hit rock bottom. Everything we try seems to bring us to a dead end. We pray and pray, only to come to the conclusion that we’re talking to ourselves. We attempt to do better, to represent the presence of Christ wherever we are, and things just seem to get worse. Have you been there? Are you there now?
And just when you have hit your rock bottom, this very demanding Jesus comes along and makes it even tougher by suggesting radical surgery!
Here’s the question… Is there an answer for you, for any of us who have gone through such difficulty? Is there hope in the face of such despair? You would be surprised, I would think, if I said no. So let me put my yes this way…
This passage in Mark concludes with Jesus’ telling his disciples, despite their failures, that they are salt. You’ll find that same metaphor in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. I don’t think Jesus would have said that had he given up on them. It may just be his way of telling them to take this life of discipleship one day at a time. And as they do, make sure there is enough seasoning in their faith that it will make a difference, that they will make a difference. It doesn’t have to be a big difference. After all, it doesn’t take much salt to flavor a meal. A day at a time, walking in his direction, seeking his will, discerning his purpose, trying to do what he would do.
And while it might not be without some pain along the way, it sure beats radical surgery. Don’t you think?
Lord, find us taking your mission seriously, and may we faithfully follow you. In your name we pray, Amen.