Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16,
[ Read the texts
at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
"No one else can offer this service!"
"We have the real thing! Everything else is an imitation!"
"You can see this only on NBC!"
Sounds like advertising doesn't it. Companies love to have the one and only, true blue, "you can only get it here," exclusive on products they sell. And all the more so if the product is really popular. Most of us could name the company that came up with the great slogan, "... it's the real thing!" ¹
You would think the world of Christianity would be free from this kind of boasting wouldn't you. Jostling for position or berating the competition is not fitting for a community which claims to follow Jesus Christ and where humility and a gentle spirit are highly valued.
But think for a moment.
Do you ever hear words like this from people in one church or another?
"We're the real thing! All others are false!"
"We worship best at First Church!"
Our gospel lesson for today has an absolutely stunning insight into the source of much strife in the Christian community. Listen carefully to the words again:
Did you catch that? Why did Jesus' followers try to stop the man who was doing his work in the name of Jesus?
Why would the disciples want to stop someone from working in the name of Jesus? When they come to Jesus with their report, they were already on shaky ground. They came without grounds. They couldn't say, "Lord we saw a man of ill repute working in your name so we tried to stop him." Nor could they say, "Lord we saw a man doing a good work, but he was doing it in the name of a pagan god, so we tried to stop him."
If we can gain insight into this incident, we will gain insight into the sometimes troubled world of relationships between Christians and their churches.
Let's first look at the exorcist: Whoever the exorcist was - that is the man who was casting out demons - he was doing it in the name of Jesus. In other words, he believed in the person and the power of Jesus and was doing his work under Jesus' authority. ("...in your name" implies that the man was working under the authority of Jesus.)
The second thing we know about the man is that he was not one of the inner circle of twelve and apparently not one of the seventy Luke tells us Jesus sent out to do his work. This is a nameless disciple.
The third thing we know about this nameless disciple is that he was apparently successful at what he was doing. And this is quite likely where the rub began.
Now let's look at the disciples' motives. Earlier in our ninth chapter of Mark there is an incident that would have been quite fresh in the disciples' minds. Jesus had been in the Mount of Transfiguration with Peter, James and John. The other nine disciples remained behind. When Jesus and the three came down from the mountain, there was a bit of a flurry of activity going on with the disciples and a crowd of people. A group of scribes were arguing with the disciples. Here's how Mark tells the story:
A few verses later, when the crowd is gone and the disciples are alone with Jesus, they ask him about their failure and Jesus gives them an answer.
Does this clear things up a bit? There is a certain poignancy in their question. It is difficult enough to be unsuccessful in front of your teacher, but to be unsuccessful when someone who isn't even "following us" is successful can be a bitter pill. Not only that, but there is an implication here that the nameless disciple is doing better with his prayer life than they are.
The key difficulty with the disciple's report to Jesus is that their complaint about the nameless disciple is based solely on their desire to have an exclusive rights to bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to their world. It was a territorial sense and this exorcist - especially this successful exorcist was invading their turf.
There is one additional rub. The way Mark reports the story, the disciples were not even successful in stopping the man! "We tried to stop him," they say to Jesus. The work of God went on in spite of the disciple's interference.
Now we want to examine Jesus' response to the disciples.
Jesus enjoins the disciples not to stop this man ( and the implication is anyone like this man), and gives them two reasons or insights into those who do the work of God without necessarily being in our particular community of faith.
There are several lessons in this episode which apply directly to us and to the work of our church.
1. The words of the disciples to Jesus are the beginning point of understanding where Christian leaders and churches can get sidetracked. "...we tried to stop him because he was not following us."
The central allegiance of every Christian and every Christian community is to following Jesus Christ. We err when we follow someone other than Christ, even when the other person tells us that to follow them is to follow Christ. We also err when we assume that all who follow Christ will follow Christ as we do.
James and John were fishermen, Matthew was a tax collector, Paul was a religious professional who opposed everything Christian. Each one encountered Christ and made the decision to follow the Master in a unique way. One can imagine people who followed the Apostle Paul insisting that the only true way to meet Christ would be to ride a horse to Damascus until a bright light knocks you off the horse.
Jesus said, "I am the way the truth and the life..." You may have to untangle this a bit, but most division in the church comes when people are of the attitude, "My way is the way to the way."
The Apostle Paul addresses this in 1 Corinthians when he writes, "... it has been reported to me... that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." Has Christ been divided?" [1:11-13]
2. A second lesson in our text is good news. The man who was combating evil in the name of Christ was successful in ministry even though he is an "unknown." He is not one of the twelve or even one of the seventy or any other "named" person in the New Testament. Yet, he is out there following Christ and working for Christ in the power of Christ.
What a great example for you and me. We may not be well known or what historians will call a "pillar of the church," but there is no such thing as an insignificant disciple in the eyes of Christ. In spite of the fact that some who followed Christ told the man to stop, his ministry went on.
If we are to avoid making serious mistakes in saying who is and who is not an authentic follower of Christ, we will need to have the "Gamalian" attitude - namely, "... I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them--in that case you may even be found fighting against God!" [Acts 5:38-39]
Okay - There is more than one way to follow Christ and the proof of "followership" or discipleship is in the work that is done. There is one more crucial issue.
3. One of the strong themes in the gospel story is the fact of human sinfulness. As uncomfortable as it was for the disciples to have to admit it. The fact was, a nameless disciple was able to do something in the name and in the power of Christ that they were unable to do. (Cast out a demon) There is a bit of envy that lies "between the lines" of our text.
Sometimes, we just plain don't like it that someone else succeeds where we fail. That's human nature. Or more correctly, sinful human nature. It takes a good degree of spiritual maturity to be able to recognize this envy streak in ourselves and in our institutions when it comes to who is really accomplishing something for Christ!
Some years ago, I attended a workshop for area pastors on church growth. Much of the discussion in that workshop had to do with what was wrong with growing churches, how they were perhaps compromising the gospel. Most of it seemed rooted in envy or defensiveness rather than honest insight.
It is through prayer, Jesus told his disciples, that the tough battles of faith are won. In prayer, we open ourselves to the light of God where envy or jealousy can be examined and jettisoned in favor of eagerness for the success of the good news and rejoicing that the power of Christ is able to overcome evil.
May our gracious God give us courage to follow Christ and grace to rejoice with all who work for Christ in a world in need of the good news of God. For none of us has exclusive rights to the gospel!
¹ Coca Cola
Connections in the Text
Envy, jealousy and the real thing. These are two of the themes that run through the texts as first the followers of Moses and then the followers of Jesus are struggling with who has the spirit or power of God for their lives. "Someone other than us is prophesying," they complained to Moses. "Someone else is casting out demons," they complained to Jesus. The reality is that there is work to be done, a world to reach and God will get the task done through those who give themselves to it - authorized by human authority or not!
The dynamic in Numbers and the beginning of the Markan text for today, both point to human sinfulness as well as the fact that no one can claim exclusive rights to God's power. James and the latter half of the gospel text both point to the absolute call of God on the disciple's life. The hyperbole of plucking out an eye, and cutting of a hand are pointers to absolute commitment. When the fact of human sinfulness is juxtaposed with the holiness demanded by God, we are overwhelmed and ushered into the redemptive grace of God.
Nowhere will you find a more wonderful and insightful encounter between Moses and the people of Israel and Moses and God. There is some good instruction here about the life of prayer:
This passage could provide a message on the dynamics of prayer in times of crisis.
There are two themes / lessons in this lection. The first provides our full text sermon. The second [vv.43-50] is a call to absolute commitment in the life of discipleship. The clash of the wickedness and sin of this world and the life God intended for the world is so profound that one must turn absolutely toward God and away from sin.
Jesus words translate to, "If you have a choice between eternal life and eternal death, you must choose life no matter the cost." In other words, life without God is no life at all.
Verses 49-50 are difficult. "Salted with fire" and "Have salt in yourselves" point to two different meanings for the imagery of salt. Verse 49 may be saying, "Trial will come to everyone - but you want your trial to be for the kingdom." This could be directed to a persecuted church where there is comfort in the thought that the fires of trial are purifying for faith. These themes relate well to 1 Peter and a suffering church. Verse 50 is another thought entirely. "Salt is worthless if it is not salty." This is not a statement about chemistry, but a fact. Salt is only good for preserving and purifying. To have purity within and be at peace with others in the community of faith may point back to the original dialogue initiated by the disciples about an "unauthorized" person doing ministry.
James has three injunctions for the church that would serve us well today:
The "saving of a soul from death" is a theme that connects with both Numbers and Mark. The preacher could choose between the narrative and didactic portions of these texts in shaping the message.
A Call To Worship ( Based on Psalm 19)
The word of God is a joy to embrace,
A Prayer of Confession
O great God of grace and mercy, we come before you today with a full awareness that we are too soon removed from our faith foundations and too easily led away from our commitment to you. We confess that we are often short on faith and long on self reliance. We get lost in a stormy world and loose sight of the harbor of safety which is your will and your word. Forgive us and renew our spirits to follow our Savior more nearly. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
Friends in Christ, hear
the words of the Psalmist, * "O you who answer prayer! To you all flesh shall come.
When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions."
Rejoice in the good news that in Jesus Christ you are forgiven.
A Prayer of Thanksgiving
O Lord of grace and mercy, we rejoice today in your forgiving, redeeming, renewing love. We can do nothing alone, but in the strength of your love and by the power of your Holy Spirit within us, all the impossible barriers of our living seem to diminish.
Like a child sitting on the shoulders of a strong parent, we can see more clearly the road that you have prepared for us. We are lifted up from the trials and tensions of our living and given a peace that can not be measured in human terms.
We rejoice, Lord of our lives, that you are present with us in every moment of every day - though we are so often unaware. How glorious it is that you are never unaware of us. It is sometimes so hard for us to change old patterns and damaging habits, but by your strength we are able to choose the good - to choose life. We thank you today for the peace that comes from you and the security that fills our souls when we are centered in you.
We thank you today, our Lord, for all our brothers and sisters around the world who worship you, serve you and seek your peace for our world. Though we are of many tongues and tribes and are called by many names, we give thanks for our unity in Christ and pray that we might become true witnesses of your good news.
In the name of Jesus Christ we make our prayers.
A Prayer of DedicationO Lord Jesus Christ, Master of our souls, receive our gifts today as the token of our commitment to you. Bless and sanctify these gifts and these hearts for the work of your kingdom. Amen.