Power

When God Pledged Allegiance?

Pastoral Prayer: Lord God, we often mistake our need for people to follow us or do things our way as confirmation that you are on our side. Like the disciples, we often think we have a monopoly. Today we will, as we do each week, remind ourselves that the measure of faithfulness is not in who follows us, but that you pledged your allegiance to us. For your love and faithfulness, your allegiance to us, we give thanks. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.

Mark 9:38-50

Fewer things are more exciting than when a church gathers to witness Christian baptism. Earlier we were not just onlookers as Anna, Michael, Tyler, Paxton, and Grace entered the baptistery publicly declaring Jesus is Lord. Their actions conveyed their hearts to embrace what God has done in Jesus Christ. Nothing they did today ensured or secured them in Christ. Instead, they received what Jesus Christ has already done for them in his life, death and resurrection.

At their age, the burden is on us. Our charge is to live with them and in front of them modeling what it looks like to respond to God’s pledge of allegiance to us.

Already Jesus has used children to scandalize adults. Last week, Nathan preached from the previous passage. The adults following Jesus found it hard to overcome their old thinking. Rather than follow Jesus, they became more obsessed with who would replace Jesus after he died. To remind the disciples his soon coming death would work life in them he aimed to help them reject their established way of thinking. Here is how he did it. In verse 36 we read,

He took a child, had him stand among them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, Whoever welcomes one little child such as this in my name welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me does not welcome me, but him who sent me.

Placing a child in the position of priority was a way to undermine the pattern that says authority runs downward – from top to bottom. Choosing a person that was not yet considered a value to the social order was Jesus way of telling those in the kingdom must desert their allegiance to other forms of thinking.

Our established habits and patterns die hard. The pursuit of power and position is always our temptation. Whether you are a Christian University President or the Alpha personality in your social in-group, there is still a temptation to choose the fruit that will make you or me more than what we are. For when we give in to the temptation, we do not become more than we are, we become less. Jesus will say as much.

John, one of the Sons of Thunder, whose mother wanted her two sons, to sit on the right hand and left hand of Jesus, approaches Jesus in much the same way Joshua came to Moses. Let’s look for the parallels. It would be Joshua that would succeed Moses as leader of Israel. We read the story,

A young man ran and reported to Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” Joshua son of Nun, assistant to Moses since his youth, responded, “Moses, my lord, stop them!” But Moses asked him, “Are you jealous on my account? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets and the Lord would place his spirit on them!”

What a piercing question! “Are you jealous on my account?” Yes, it may be a lesson to Joshua, now older than when he started out as Moses’ assistant. Could be that Moses wanted to let Joshua know he felt no threat, he was the leader. Or, maybe Moses asked such a question to get to Joshua’s motive for the appeal. Joshua may well have been asking Moses to protect Joshua’s position. He was not so concerned with what was beings prophesied but that somehow Eldad and Medad might take his place.

“Forbid them,” stop them, was his appeal. 

Now John is in the role of Joshua. It is not Moses that he appeals to, it is Jesus. Where Moses responded with a penetrating question that would expose Joshua’s motives, Jesus used much the same expression but flipped it, “Don’t stop them.” He did not tell the disciples to stop them. Instead, he set a precedent for how we respond to others in the kingdom – “don’t stop them.”

When we feel the threat of our position, we may reveal what is important to us. Our actions become an at all cost attempt to preserve our way, to make sure we have our spot at the top, or at least a seat at the all-important tables of power. Hear me carefully. When we adopt a storyline that says the only way we may preserve our way of life is to influence the powerful, we have deserted the way of Jesus. And when our actions and attention becomes so focused on what happens in the Nation’s Capitol, we place a stumbling block for these little ones. We scandalize them by offering something different than living in the allegiance God pledged to us in Jesus Christ.

Jesus warns against scandalizing these little ones. When we present to them that something is more important than welcoming those on the bottom side of power, we scandalize them. We tempt them to reject Jesus’ way. We tell them that what we have told them to resist is more important than following Jesus. We tell them that the well-established habits and patterns of human beings seeking to protect their way and gain power are the better way. Jesus puts the warning this way,

But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to fall away – it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.

The Christian Standard Bible, the translation I use, translates the Greek word as causes. Fifteen times in the New Testament the word is used. Often it is translated stumbling block. It is the word where we get our word scandal. It is pronounced scandalon in the Greek. If we insert it into our translation, it will read,

But whoever scandalizes one of these little ones.

Whoever.

Scandalizes.

Whoever.

Places a stumbling block.

Whoever.

Causes.

Right there in John’s appeal to Jesus we see it. 

We tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.

We may be tempted to think that John was working to protect Jesus and the disciples. But, if we call back to the Joshua story, his statement reveals his motive, in the same way, Moses question to Joshua revealed his. Us. Jesus had told the disciples,

The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after he is killed, he will rise three days later. But they did not understand, and they were afraid to ask.

Hearing that Jesus would be betrayed and killed meant the need for someone to take his place. Imprinted on the disciples’ minds, at this point, is how do we protect us when Jesus is gone. We need someone to be our top-down authority figure. Who will it be? When they saw someone else doing a work of power in the name of Jesus, they feared that they would not be viewed as the authority for the movement. They were not interested in protecting Jesus; they were defending themselves.

For at least forty years we have been told that individual leaders do what they do to protect the Christian way of life. When the President of a Christian University suggests that Christians need a street fighter, he is not interested in protecting us – he is interested in maintaining his disciples’ power and position. We must stop being fooled that there is another way in the kingdom top-down Jesus’ way. When we assert that there is another, that Jesus way is just not tough enough, we have done two things. First, we have not understood what it means to take up our cross, deny ourselves and follow Jesus. Second, and more scandalous, is that somehow that what God has pledged to us in Jesus Christ is insufficient.

This, this is what scandalizes both little ones, young ones, and those who have looked up to find their mentors abandoning the way of Jesus for another.

Key in on Jesus’ response to John, and the disciples,

For whoever is not against us is for us. And whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in my name, because you belong to Christ – truly I tell you, he will never lose his reward.

Did you catch it? Jesus associates the work of power that the disciples seek to stop as giving a cup of what to drink. That is, it is life giving. Stopping those who offer life in Jesus name runs counter to Jesus.

Whoever is not against us is for us.

A friend relayed a great insight. An old sermon offered two important insights,

First, who is not against us indicates generosity toward others. We accept their profession.

Second, who is not with me calls for us to be honest and test ourselves.

Put another way, our generosity toward others doing works of power in Jesus name, giving a cup of water, puts Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount in front of us, Judge not, lest you be judged by the same measure.

And, our willingness to be honest about our own profession of faith indicates our commitment to examine ourselves.

Jesus then moves to issue the warning we noted earlier. 

But whoever scandalizes those little ones who believe – causes them to desert the faith, to abandon their own pledge of allegiance, reject Jesus’ way – it is better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.

You do get that the focus of the concern is not what someone who does not believe does to influence these little ones. It is not a warning to those who are not Christian, who offer a different way in the world. It is a warning for those of us in the faith – Christians.

And here we discover that should we be tempted by the work of our hands, what we see with our eyes and where our foot carries us, it would be better if we cut them off or gouge them out and enter the kingdom than be thrown into Gehenna.

So we return to these little ones who today have publicly pledged their allegiance to Jesus in the practice of Christian baptism. When this practice became a sign for Christians, it was a profoundly political statement. Those giving themselves to Jesus Christ were declaring that whatever else I have been immersed in – whatever way of thinking, whatever religious commitments, whatever social patterns, whatever structures of authority – I am now immersed/immersing myself with Christ.

The public act said no to Ceasar, not to the ways of power, no to choosing up sides, not to thinking power and position are to be sought at all costs. A baptized community gathers each week to say, No!

Sadly, today, recent surveys indicate that people choose their churches based on the political leaning of a given congregation. Are not Red enough. Are you Blue enough? Baptized Christians have decided that what matters is that God pledge allegiance to us in Jesus Christ and our response has been to make our pledge in return. Baptism is that public pledge that says no matter the time, the era or the Country, what we have given ourselves to is higher.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that no matter when we live, like Abraham we live as strangers in another land looking for a home whose architect and builder is God. We have found that home in Christ.

*I often have a manuscript available but do not always read it. It is part of my preparation. There may have been slight additions/differences to the preached version.

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