Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost Study

18TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST   09-26-2021

FIRST READING:   Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

This entire chapter, part of the Old Testament account of the forty year wilderness journey of the Hebrew people (Israel) from slavery in Egypt toward the “promised land”, is full of murmuring and complaining and regret. The Israelites – who pretty much from the very beginning were disenchanted with life in the wilderness – are complaining here about the food they are given to eat as they travel. They nostalgically mis-remember the wonderful variety, and perhaps quantity also, of food they had back in Egypt… and they falsely think that their slavery was not all that bad after all. Have you ever remembered “the good old days” as they never really were? 

It’s not just the wandering band of freed slaves who are murmuring. God is also angry in this chapter because the people seem so quickly to have forgotten God’s saving acts on their behalf. Have you ever felt under-appreciated for all that you were trying to do on behalf of others? Do you understand how God might feel at times? When was the last time you thanked God? 

And Moses is also murmuring and complaining – against God – for allowing him to be burdened with these people and their nasty, negative attitudes. Moses doesn’t want all that responsibility of leadership, such a heavy burden, and would even prefer immediate death over all the whining and weeping and complaining he must deal with.

In this reading, God makes adjustments in response to the situation. He sends help for Moses – 70 elders are  touched with the spirit of prophecy to share in that task of leadership. Even here, there is some complaining and murmuring. Eldad and Medad, two of the elders chosen for leadership, are zapped by God’s spirit and begin to prophesy as intended. But they had not been in the official right place when they were zapped with the spirit. So now young Joshua – already an assistant to Moses and later to be the leader as they entered the Promised Land – objected, “My lord Moses, tell them to stop!” [You can see in the Bible, and also in everyday living, that even the seemingly great servants of God have had and will have their shadowy, shaky moments – and each of us as well.] But Moses rebuked Joshua: “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that ALL THE LORD’S PEOPLE were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on EACH OF THEM!”

As you read today’s Gospel, you will readily understand the literary connection between these two readings.

When are you, like Israel and Moses, most likely to become discouraged with your life situation or responsibilities? What are some of your recent personal murmurings against God or the persons who are trying to lead and guide you on the right path? 

Moses did not feel personally threatened or angry when the plan of God did not unfold as intended. And even Joshua could not shift his thoughts and emotions to turn against Eldad and Medad. Moses kept sight of the bigger picture. In our own life’s journey, we ought to be just as careful to focus on what really matters as we follow Jesus, and not allow others to tempt and tease us into detours.

 

SECOND READING:   James 5:13-20

Here James, speaking about the Christian faith in action, lifts up marks of the Christian community: praying for and anointing those who are sick or in need… celebrating with those who are in good health and spirit… seeking and offering and practicing mutual confession and forgiveness… honestly trying to restore those who have strayed.

It takes a special trust of God, humility and obedience, and lots of genuine love and effort to be and become the family of God that God has intended for the Church.

James doesn’t say it directly, but he is certainly confident in the presence, the peace, the power, and the promises of the Risen Christ to make a real difference – in and through the community of faith – in spite of the suffering, sin, and searching that humanity encounters.

When was a time that you came the closest to losing your faith? Who or what helped bring you back? And when was a time that you felt that you were a part of the healing ministry of the body of Christ?

As we conclude our time in James and read its last verses, ask yourself how you might be a “doer” of God’s Word, how your faith in Jesus Christ might be genuine beyond lip service, and how we might sing together, pray together, bear one another’s burdens, forgive each other, share in the sufferings of others, build one another up, walk and work together in humble servant love, and truly be and become the family of God.

As we said at the beginning of our readings of James several weeks ago, the German monk, priest, and professor named Martin Luther did not really like this book and, if allowed, might have excluded it from the Bible. He thought that it emphasized doing good works and could be misunderstood as saying that human beings can or need to save themselves through their own good deeds… and that God’s grace, freely given in the sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection of Jesus Christ, is not itself effective or sufficient for our salvation. But, as Luther himself said – but not in connection to the Letter of James“You are saved by faith alone, but if faith is alone it is not faith.” Stop sinning! Live right! Obey God! Love!

 

GOSPEL READING:  Mark 9:38-50

Today’s reading follows last Sunday’s. In light of what Jesus has just taught in Mark 9:30-37 about humility and receiving the little ones… and about freely loving, sacrificially loving… the disciple John and probably all the disciples did not learn very much. Just after arguing about who was the best disciple, the greatest among them, the first above the rest… and just before the disciple brothers James and John would ask Jesus for positions of glory, seats to the right and to the left of Jesus, when he’s on his throne (Mark 10:35-45)… here they are reporting to Jesus, their leader and teacher, that they saw an anonymous healer casting out demons in Jesus’ name. One or several of the disciples might have noticed this person, but I’m guessing that all of them were irritated, all of them were indignant. This person was unknown to them. He must have been peripheral to the Jesus movement. The words in Mark’s Gospel story almost sound whiney, like a four-year old tattletale. “He was NOT ONE OF US”, they complained, “so we told him to stop!”  NOT ONE OF US! OUTSIDE THE CIRCLE! HE DOESN’T BELONG! WHO DOES HE THINK HE IS! HE MUST BE STOPPED! “In the name of Jesus, you stop that healing!” 

In reply, Jesus again defends those who do good things, show kindness, help save others in his name. He does not feel that such ministry needs to be under his or their direct control. When have you and I tried to play the “us” and “them” game in our individual congregation, our denomination, our community… been tempted to become suspicious, unaccepting, judgmental, and excluding of “them” because “they” aren’t like “us” or with “us”? LORD, PLEASE HAVE MERCY ON US! 

    Perhaps Jesus is still holding that little child from last Sunday’s Gospel as he speaks to his disciples about drowning with a millstone necklace… as he speaks to them about committing radical self-surgery –

“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 giant millstone were hung around your neck and you were tossed into the sea.  If your hand causes you to stumble… cut if off! If your foot causes you to stumble… cut it off!  If your eye causes you to stumble… tear it out!”  

There’s a lot of “stumbling”  in our world… there’s a lot of people acting like “stumbling blocks” in the path of Jesus… in the way of God’s Kingdom. What are we doing to “these little ones” in our world? (And I’m not just talking about size and age.) We’re raping them, we’re killing them, we’re building walls, we’re ignoring them… we’re treating them all wrong… and they are hurting, they are hungry, they are searching, they are suffering, they are desperate, they are lost, they are lonely… these “little ones”, fellow human beings, God’s children. I tell you, we listen to these powerful words from Jesus this morning and – if God were not so gracious and loving and merciful and forgiving – we would surely see a whole bunch of one-handed, hopping-on-one-foot, one-eyed people with large weights around their necks heading towards the ocean to sink and drown. And you and I – are we in that line? “I tell you, it would be better for you if a giant millstone was hung around your neck and you were tossed…”

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