Reading Ramblings – September 30, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 23, 2018

Texts: Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29; Psalm 104:27-35; James 5:1-20; Mark 9:38-50

Context: God works how and where He pleases. Sometimes this is encouraging and helpful and other times it is disconcerting, but it is always done with the ultimate goal of drawing us to him in repentance through Jesus Christ.

Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29 – The assigned reading included vs. 4-6, continuing on with 10-16 and then concluding with 24-29. I always dislike when the assigned reading is chopped up like that. In this case, the reason seems to be eliminating some extraneous material. But the material isn’t extraneous, it’s just that there are two separate issues dealt with in Chapter 11. One is the complaint of the people for meat which leads them to wish they were back in Egypt as slaves again. The other is God’s provision to Moses of additional leaders to delegate some of the work of guiding God’s people. The hinge is 10-16, where Moses laments to God that he has been asked to carry too great a responsibility. The psalm leads us to contemplate the meat issue, but the Gospel leads us to contemplate the matter of God’s freedom to work through the Holy Spirit in whatever fashion He determines. This sometimes may seem counter-intuitive. Yet God who creates and sustains all things is also working all things towards his purposes. We aren’t able to discern his patterns and works, yet we can oftentimes discern his work by the fruits.

Psalm 104:27-35 – These verses start out referencing the creatures God created. He sustains and provides for them in ways that are still a great mystery to us. For instance I read an article this morning describing the migration of Great White sharks across the Pacific Ocean. Scientists only just discovered that an area between Baja California and Hawaii that the sharks travel to isn’t an empty stretch of ocean but rather an area of remarkably dense creatures that the sharks feed on. We should continually marvel at the ways God provides for his creation! What an endless source and reason for the praise of our God’s wisdom, power, and love!

James 5:1-20 – The first dozen verses of this chapter were optional, but if we’re supposed to be reading more or less through entire letters in the New Testament, we might as well go ahead and do so! James’ warning to the rich in vs. 1-6 is clearly not aimed at wealthy Christians, but those outside the community of faith who place their faith in their riches and abuse and cheat others in order to increase their wealth. He then turns his attention to Christians, many of whom were likely poor and dependent on the work provided by the wealthy, and therefore sometimes the victims of predations and unfair labor practices. James encourages his brothers in the faith to patience. While this encouragement may be related to the unfair treatment of the wealthy it may not be, but rather may be a more general encouragement to make the coming of the Lord their main concern, rather than focusing on what they have to endure here and now. A brief warning against taking oaths follows, and then a longer section on the role of the Church in the Christian life.

We remember that James is writing about the life of faith, providing some concrete warnings and exhortations about various different arenas and issues of life that have no direct relation to each other beyond that most people will deal with some or all of them and therefore Christians ought to know how to do so. Some interpret vs.13-20 as, in part, a ritual of sorts for healing, as though following this particular process will result in divine healing. But anointing with oil was a standard medical practice for the relief of various ailments and conditions, and so to interpret it in a spiritualized way may not be completely accurate. James could just be indicating that the Church should provide what comfort and help they are able to for a suffering person, chief of which is keeping that person in prayer. Is the result in v.14 a promise of healing? God the Holy Spirit certainly does provide miraculous healing in response to prayer sometimes, but perhaps the statement the Lord will raise him up is not specifying physical healing but our ultimate and final healing in the resurrection of the dead when our Lord returns? This would make good sense in association with the following statement about the forgiveness of sins. Our sins are forgiven in Christ already, regardless of whether or not we suffer physical illnesses!

Mark 9:38-50 – The most relevant verses appear to be 38-41, in terms of relation to the Old Testament reading. Jesus’ disciples are concerned that someone unaffiliated with them or otherwise a disciple of Jesus was casting out demons. This might seem a petty matter of protecting their turf, but we tend to be concerned about this still today. Someone claiming to perform wonders in Jesus’ name – are they legitimate? Are they out for personal gain? Is there an agenda or something below the surface that might impugn Jesus’ name? Jesus’ response is not entirely comforting – don’t stress so much over it. If someone is able to perform a work in Jesus’ name, then at some level we can’t discern the Holy Spirit is willing to work through them. Jesus doesn’t, however, promise that such things are always done by people who are fully in Christ, but that even if they aren’t, for some time after the event they won’t be able to speak evil of Jesus. When the Holy Spirit works the outcomes are not under our control, even if we’re who the Spirit works through. Rather, we should trust that God knows everything and will ensure that any misunderstandings or apparent misuses are ultimately made right.

Jesus then turns the conversation from speculating about others to being discerning about ourselves. We can speculate about the motives of others or their potential (or actual) sin. But we need to first and foremost be concerned about our own sinfulness. And not just our sinfulness, but how our sinfulness affects others. We are to be very careful to not mislead others into sin. Such strong words Jesus uses here! This is not a casual issue – eternity is at sake not just for us, but for the other person and untold numbers of other people that could be affected either in the short or long term.

We are always tempted to soft-peddle sin, to not make too big a deal about it. After all, it’s not like we’re Hitler, right? But sin is sin. The scale of sin matters a great deal to you and I but the sin remains identical before God. Is Jesus advocating self-mutilation here? Many are quick to say no, but some think He’s more literal than you and I might like to think.

Sandwiched between two predictions of his betrayal, death, and resurrection, however, Jesus is likely doing something else. As we recognize the sin in our lives, wouldn’t it be nice if it could be as simple as eliminating a part of the body and eliminating the sin? But what we would quickly realize is that sin will express itself by another means. The punishment of sin is eternal death and therefore we need to take it seriously. But do we seriously think we can stop our sin on our own, even by resorting to such drastic means as cutting off parts? Sin is more pervasive than this. Jesus dealt with this in 7:14-23.

Our hope must come from another source then – and that source is the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is to save us from our sin, to offer his life rather than ask us to offer up pieces of our body, that Jesus goes willingly to the cross and suffers humiliation and agony and death. We can put the knives and cleavers away because Jesus’ death and resurrection has freed us from the mastery of sin and made possible our becoming children of God.

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