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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Jesus Got Ticked Off (Mark 9 and Matthew 23)


John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.”

Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him.  No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me.  Whoever isn’t against us is for us.  I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded.”

“As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and to be thrown into the lake.”

 

[Jesus said,] “How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees!  Hypocrites!  You shut people out of the kingdom of heaven.  You don’t enter yourselves, and you won’t allow those who want to enter to do so.”

How terrible it will be for you, legal experts and Pharisees!  Hypocrites!  You travel over sea and land to make one convert.  But when they’ve been converted, they become twice the child of hell you are.”

“How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites!  You give to God a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, but you forget about the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith.  You ought to give a tenth but without forgetting about those more important matters.  You blind guides!  You filter out an ant but swallow a camel.

“How terrible if will be for you legal experts and Pharisees!  Hypocrites!  You clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside they are full of violence and pleasure seeking.  Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup so that the outside of the cup will be clean too.

“How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees!  Hypocrites!  You are like whitewashed tombs.  They look beautiful on the outside.  But inside they are full of dead bones and all kinds of filth.  In the same way, you look righteous to people.  But inside you are full of pretense and rebellion.

 

There’s at least one in every crowd.  Whether in a classroom, the workplace, the ball field, the PTA, or even a church, there’s always a few people who are a little more impressed with themselves than they probably should be.  It’s the person with the knowledge that they are a little bit smarter, better, more-skilled or qualified, or holier than everyone else, and it is their self-appointed mission in life to share this knowledge, lest anyone be unaware of their proper place in the social rankings.

 

You’d think at some point they’d get tired of tootin’ their own horn, but folks who are full of hot air can do an awful lot of horn tootin.’  Personally, I find it to be both tiresome and annoying.  Apparently, so did Jesus.  You might even say it’s the kind of thing that got Jesus ticked off.

 

Today’s message is part of a series called “Surprising Things They Never Told You About Jesus.”  We are looking at episodes in his life that often get missed in the ways we think about, and discuss, and understand Jesus.

 

Friends, the goal of this series is to help all of us get to know Jesus a little better, even if what we find out makes us a little uncomfortable or challenges what we think we know about him.  Last week, we learned this surprising thing about Jesus: Jesus could party.  That is perhaps surprising because so many Christians are just so serious all the time, you’d never guess that they follow a guy who graciously invites us to a joyful, endless party, and is himself the life of the party.  But, surprise surprise - Jesus could party, and he invites us to celebrate with him.

 

Today, we learn this surprising thing about Jesus: Jesus got ticked off.  This one’s a lot easier to believe, because Christians get ticked off all the time!  The surprising twist, however, is that the things many Christians get all twisted up about aren’t really the things Jesus got worked up over.  We see that in today’s Scripture readings from the Gospels of Mark and Matthew.

 

In Mark chapter 9, Jesus’ disciples come to Jesus with a complaint about someone from outside their group who was doing good and powerful work in Jesus’ name.  They are essentially tattling on this outsider, “He’s not one of us, Jesus!  Make him stop!”

 

We get the clear message, however, that all this finger-pointing won’t earn points with Jesus.  They needn’t be so concerned with what someone else is or isn’t doing; rather, they should give some attention to their own behavior.  In fact, Jesus tells the disciples to lay off, because their eagerness to bring judgment on this outsider is a particular danger to their own well-being.

 

Think of this way.  Are you supposed to point at people?  Why?  When I was a little kid, I thought the Pointer Sisters were going to be in big trouble if their mother ever found out what they were up to.  Just for a minute, point at the person next to you, and notice what your hand is doing.  You’ve heard the saying that whenever you point your finger at someone else, you have three fingers pointed right back toward yourself.  Our mothers rightly trained us not to point - not only is it rude, but pointing out the shortcomings of others serves only to incriminate ourselves, and according to Jesus, places us in a precarious position.

 

In particular, we are warned against creating difficulty in the faith journey of “little ones.”  This can refer to children, but it can also refer to people who are new to the faith, exploring the faith, even outside the faith.  Jesus gets ticked off when we get so wrapped up in what others are doing and pointing out their shortcomings.  He got ticked off at his disciples for doing it, and then in Matthew chapter 23, he really lets the Pharisees and legal experts have it for taking it even further.

 

Jesus finds them busy judging and condemning like it was their job, which it sorta was, and he really let them have it!  What Jesus says to them is probably the most condemning thing he said to anyone.  When we read those words, you could just feel the indignation in Jesus’ voice.  I’m not going to go into detail on what Jesus said to them - you’ve already heard it, you’ve already gotten the tone and meaning and intensity of Jesus’ feeling on this matter.  He very pointedly tells them that both they and their faith are nothing more than a sham, the equivalent of religious smoke and mirrors, that they may look fine and wonderful and upstanding and virtuous on the outside, but on the inside, they are empty at best, and disgustingly filthy at worst.

 

Caveat here: not exactly the best strategy if you’re trying to win friends and influence people.  Jesus spoke this bare truth to powerful people, and you can imagine they didn’t particularly care for his tone.  If you speak truth to power, there will be consequences.  Eventually, it got Jesus killed.

 

The temptation that is constantly before the people of faith is to quickly point at others, to point out what “they” have done, what “they” are getting away with, how “they” are ruining things.  We all grow strangely quiet when our attention shifts to passages like the ones we’ve read today, where Jesus is harsh toward those who are harsh, where he condemns those who condemn, where he pronounces judgment against all those who judge. Jesus invites us to consider more closely what is being done with our own hands and feet, our own thoughts, our own words, our own deeds.

 

Many times, like the disciples, like the Pharisees, like the legal experts, we are quick to harshly judge all that is “out there,” when we would all be better served by a closer examination of what’s “in here.”  It’s as though Jesus is saying, “Don’t worry about others - they are not the problem.  Rather, look to yourselves.  How are you getting in the way of the gospel?  How are you a stumbling block?  How are you placing barriers on the path between God and the very people he loves?”

 

With such a clear warning from Jesus about judging or excluding or causing a little one to stumble, I would rather err on the side of grace than judgment, of inclusion rather than exclusion.  I will have to give an account for my life one day, as will you, and I’d rather be accused of being too gracious and loving rather than too judgmental and exclusionary.  Jesus is clear here: it would be better to get thrown into a lake with a stone around my neck than to exclude or separate someone else from God’s presence.

 

Jesus reminds us that there is more than enough sin within each of us to deal with, so why should we be so concerned with the sins of everyone else?  There is enough rebellion and disobedience and separation within me to keep me and God busy for a lifetime, so why get caught up in what I perceive to be the shortcomings of others?

 

I am well aware that the world in which we live is a far cry from what God intends it to be.  It’s tempting to focus on those we consider to be the evil-doers and try to make them shape up and fly right.  But at the end of the day, none of us can make anyone else do anything.  Focusing on and trying to fix the sins of others isn’t going to get any of us anywhere.  So instead, start in the place where you can make the biggest difference: yourself.

 

There’s a line in the Gospel song, Put Your Hand in the Hand, that says, “Take a look at yourself and you can see others differently / by putting your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee.”

 

Friends, if you want the world to be a more Godly place, then start with you.  Each of us is responsible for the behavior of only one person - know who that is?  If you are concerned with all that is wrong “out there,” the best thing you can do is pay attention to everything “in here.”

 

Sometimes, we need the help of someone else to see ourselves clearly; sometimes our own self-perceptions can get in the way.  Personally, I’m grateful for the person who loves me enough to let me know I’ve got a boogie hanging out of my nose, or my fly is down, or I’ve got toilet paper stuck to my shoe and doesn’t just let me go through the day like that.

 

Other people can help us see things in ourselves that we might have otherwise missed or ignored.  I am grateful for those people in my life who both know me well enough and love me enough to point out the places I have made a mistake and need to correct it.

 

But - and this is important - what gives them the right to say something is the fact that I know they love me.  It presumes an already-existing relationship that is based on mutual trust and care.  I can hear it when I know that the person cares about me and has my best interest at heart, as well as a concern for what is best for the entire body of Christ.

 

Yes, it is important to speak the truth, but let us not forget that the people of God are called to speak the truth in love.  The right to speak the truth in love is an earned trust, sown in the soil of a life-giving relationship.

 

Where the disciples got it wrong, where the Pharisees got it wrong, where we continue to get it wrong if we’re not careful, is to make rules without relationships, to insist on guidelines without grace, to enforce laws without love.  Doing so places huge burdens on people and causes them to stumble, and it would be better for us to have a 40-pound stone tied around our neck and take a long walk off a short pier than to be caught up in something like that.

 

We are called to something better.  We are called to be imitators of the God in whose image we are all created (Ephesians 5).  God was demonstrating care for each of us before we were even born, and every rule is born out of relationship, and every guideline is based in grace, and every law is rooted in love.  The relationship piece is really, really important, and it’s the first piece for God, it should be the first piece for us, as well.  The covenant with Abraham came long before the 10 Commandments.  The loving, nurturing, grace-filled relationship always comes first.

 

It’s easy to stand around and make pronouncements and point fingers at people without ever engaging them on a personal, human, relational level.  It is both infinitely harder yet abundantly more faithful to do the long and hard work of getting to know someone and demonstrating that we love them.  Until we’ve done that work, our words will be as hollow whitewashed tombs.

 

No one will care what we think until they have reason to think that we care.

 

What got Jesus ticked off were those who presumed to speak on behalf of God, yet were devoid of God’s love in what they said.  For rules without relationship, guidelines without grace, and laws without love, are empty.

 

When we resist the temptation to point fingers, and instead open our hands and our hearts to each other, that’s something Jesus can get on board with.

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