Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Picture this scene. You pull up to the church. The lawn is littered with half-empty liquor bottles, beer cans, syringes, used needles, and various other items that you assume must be drug paraphernalia. You grab your child’s hand and pull him closer to you when you realize he’s reaching down to pick up one of those shiny objects. You try to direct his attention elsewhere. You don’t want to have to explain at this time what you see in front of the church, and you certainly don’t want him to get cut by broken glass or get poked by a dirty needle.
A little further down the sidewalk, you find a pile of basketballs, soccer balls, baseballs, and softballs. You catch sight of the latest I-phones, I-pads, gaming systems, designer handbags, stock portfolio, big screen TVs, and the keys to a Cadillac Escalade just lying on the ground near the edge of the sidewalk.
As you get near to the entrance, the scene is even more disturbing. There are body parts strewn everywhere. Eyes, hands, feet. You wonder, “What kind of church is this? Has there been some sort of terrorist attack?”
The church you are approaching, of course, is the church of radical denial. It is otherwise known as the Church of Jesus Christ… at least if you are listening to our Lord in the reading from Mark today.
Jesus makes a passionate plea to His disciples for radical self-denial: “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’” (Mk. 9:43-49).
While the previous verse (42) focuses on the sin against the littlest ones, Jesus here speaks of sins against ourselves. Don’t let eternal salvation slip from your own careless hands. Nothing is more important than faith unto eternal life. Guard it at all costs. The real threat to being a follower of Christ does not come from the world or Satan but comes within oneself. It is what proceeds out of a person, as Jesus argues in Mark 7:20-23, that is the problem.
This passage is an answer for those who try to claim there is no Hell, that “a loving God would never send anyone to such a place.” Three times in six verses, our loving Lord Jesus speaks about Hell, and He describes it in alarming terms. The Greek word translated as Hell comes from Gehenna, the Hebrew name for the Hinnom Valley southwest of Jerusalem, where humans were once sacrificed (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6) and garbage was dumped (2 Kings 23:10). Fire was constantly present in the Hinnom Valley due to the sacrifices and burning trash. This became a figure for the everlasting fire of Hell, as the ESV translation suggests. The phrase “worm does not die” is a particularly frightening image of an inner torment that never ceases. The worm and fire are insatiable, recalling Psalm 30:16 and the list of four things that never say “enough.” First and last on that list are Sheol (Hell) and fire.
Obviously, Jesus is speaking in hyperbole and biblical scholars are quick to say that Jesus is not advocating that we engage in self-mutilation or amputation. I agree. Jesus is using hyperbole and He does not want us to maim ourselves. But I disagree that we should so quickly explain away what He says. Jesus is speaking dramatically for a reason.
“Flannery O’Connor was an American author who knew the value of shock.”[i] When she was questioned about how such a devout Christian, like she, could write such earthy, gritty stories, filled with grotesque characters and graphic violence, she replied, “To the hard of hearing, you shout and, for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.”[ii] If you have read any of her short stories, you know this is what she did. And that is what Jesus is doing in our text. He is shouting, drawing large and startling figures trying to shock some sense in His hearers. He calls for amputation. He reminds us of the fires of Hell.
Why? Because He knows how, by nature, we are hard of hearing. We are spiritually blind. We are more interested in the things of this world now than the possibilities of a future eternity. We care much more for our own piddly kingdoms here on earth than the Kingdom of God. We love ourselves much more than our neighbors. And all these things could very well keep us out of the Kingdom of God and finding ourselves suffering the eternal torments of Hell.
Jesus is calling us to His Church, the church of radical denial. Here is its mission statement: “Lose your life and you will find it” (Mark 8:35). Jesus tells His would-be disciples, “If anyone would come after Me, let Him deny Himself and take up His cross and follow Me” (Mark 8:34b). Your quest for status and success with praises and promotions—give it up! Your pursuit of peace through pastimes and parties—cut it out! Your thinking, saying, doing whatever God condemns because it is “what you want, what you really, really want”—stop![iii]
In our world today, hearing a mission statement like that is like walking up to a church surrounded by bottles, beer cans, and body parts. Our culture does everything it can to accommodate the desires of the human heart. We live in a world of radical fulfillment not radical denial.[iv] “If you think it might be good for you, do it,” our culture says. “You do you.” “Be all you can be.” “Don’t let others decide your life for you.” “My body. My choice.”
Our schools, our social media, our news media, our political systems—even our sciences!—are all changing to support the ability of individual people to determine who they are and what they want to be (as long as you don’t insist on any sort of morality that is traditional or has its roots in historic Christianity or western civilization). Been married for twenty years, but now found your “soulmate?” Go for it! It’s time to trade up. Feel like a woman trapped in a man’s body? You can change! What are your preferred pronouns? Find that archaic understanding of marriage and the union of one man and one woman too restrictive for you? Go to court. Lobby your congressman. No one can tell you can’t “love” whomever you want. Force that Christian baker to make a cake to celebrate your union. Facing an unplanned pregnancy that threatens to upset all your plans? There’s a “women’s healthcare center” who will help you with your “problem.”
Those are some of the shocking examples out there in world that are not consistent with Christian faith and life. But there’s plenty of them right here in this assembly today, centered in your own heart and mine as well. “We can’t make it to church because we’re so busy. Sunday is the only day we can have together as family.” “Yes, I know the 8th commandment forbids gossip, but it’s not a rumor if we know it’s true, is it?” “What she did to me was so terrible! I’ll never be able to forgive her, even if she comes to me crawling on her hands and knees.” “Yes, he’s made it quite clear that church is not for him, but I really love him, and I think I can change his mind once we’re married.”
In speaking of the removal of the hand, foot, and eye, Jesus shows the extreme value of preserving eternal life. While no one wants to go through life without one of these vital organs, life here is short and eternity is endless. The loss of much more than hand, foot, or eye might be needed to preserve faith. Many things might need to be cut out of life. It could be a relationship which would lead to doubt and denial. It could be revenge, cutting out the pursuit of satisfying payback. It might be the search for a lifestyle to which you feel entitled. Any of these things might seem your natural right, something anyone else might have. But considering eternity, it is better to preserve the faith than to enter eternal death with your hands full of your personal privileges.
Jesus’ call is radical. It almost sounds as crazy as asking people to amputate their limbs. You cannot “be what you want to be” and follow Jesus. It is He who gives you identity as a child of God. Jesus has a higher calling for you, a calling which is more personal. He wants you to be what He has created you to be. He designed you and now He has come calling for you to follow Him.
Jesus was there at creation. He knows what God intended His creatures to be. And Jesus has chosen to be there during your desolation. He is going ahead of you to the end of your road. He will be cut-off from the Father, cast into the depths of Hell, and suffer the punishment for your sin. But He bears that suffering for you so He can restore you as God’s creatures. His death is your death and therefore, His life is your future. Come, follow Him.
“Wherever you are in the journey toward self-fulfillment, come here”.[v] Come to Jesus, to His Church of radical denial. It is hard. He asks you to leave your schemes and your dreams at the door. He asks to leave behind those things of this world in which you have wrongly sought your identity, sense of purpose, joy, and hope. Why? Because you will be loved into life by someone who created you, who redeemed you, and who knows what is truly fulfilling for the children of God.
Jesus has come to transform your life, not to some cultural fad or fashion. No, your life will be transformed into something better. You will be a child of God, conformed to the life of Jesus Christ, and set free to live as His child in His world. Here you will find who you truly are, what you were always meant to be.
Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Gospel: Mark 9:38-50 (Pentecost 18: Series B ) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-mark-938-50-pentecost-18-series-b.
[ii] Flannery O’Connor, “A Fiction Writer and His Country.” Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
[iii] Gospel: Mark 9:38-50 (Pentecost 18: Series B ) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-mark-938-50-pentecost-18-series-b.
[iv] Gospel: Mark 9:38-50 (Pentecost 18: Series B ) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-mark-938-50-pentecost-18-series-b.
[v] Gospel: Mark 9:38-50 (Pentecost 18: Series B ) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-mark-938-50-pentecost-18-series-b.