Imagine walking up to a church. As you approach, you see half-empty liquor bottles in the grass and a few needles on the ground. You grab your child’s hand. You do not want her to step on a bottle or accidently get stuck by a needle.

Further along, you see a Gucci bag and then the keys to a BMW. You wonder what is going on.

As you get closer, the vision gets more puzzling. It almost looks like a horror film. There are body parts on the ground: An eye, a hand, a foot. You wonder, “What kind of a church is this? Has there been a domestic 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 this morning.

Jesus is making an appeal. It is 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” (9:43-49).

Obviously, Jesus is speaking in hyperbole and biblical scholars are quick to say Jesus is not advocating 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. She once said, “To the hard of hearing, you shout and, for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.” [1] If you have read any of her short stories, you know this is what she did. And that is what Jesus is doing. He is shouting, drawing large and startling figures. He calls for amputation. He reminds us of the fires of Hell.

”To the hard of hearing, you shout and, for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.”-Flannery O’Connor

Why?

Because He knows how, by nature, we are hard of hearing. 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” (8:35). Your quest for success with degrees and promotions, give it up. Your quest for peace through recreation and parties, cut it out. Your thinking, saying, doing whatever God condemns because it is, “What you want, what you really, really want,” stop.

In our world today, hearing a mission statement like this is like walking up to a church surrounded by needles and Gucci bags and torn flesh. Our present culture does everything it can to accommodate the desires of the human heart. We live in a world of radical fulfillment, not radical denial. “If you think it might be good for you, do it,” our culture says. “You do you.” “Be all you can be.” “Do not let others decide your life for you.” “My body. My choice.”

Our educational systems, our social media, our news media, and our political systems are all changing to support the ability of individual people to determine who they are and what they want to be. After all, America is the country of, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But Jesus calls us to be the Church in America, not to be an American church.

But Jesus calls us to be the Church in America, not to be an American church.

His 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. 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 in the midst of our desolation. He is going ahead of us to the end of our road. He will be cut-off from the Father, cast into the depths of Hell, and suffer the punishment for our sin. But... He bears that suffering for us so He can restore us as God’s creatures. His death is our death and, therefore, His life is our future. Come, follow Him.

Wherever you are in the journey toward self-fulfillment, come here. 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. Why? Because you will be loved into life by someone who created you, who gave His life for you, and knows what is truly fulfilling for the children of God.

He 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.

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Mark 9:38-50

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Mark 9:38-50.

Lectionary Podcast- Dr. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Mark 9:38-50.