Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (September 27, 2009)

“Have Salt in Yourselves” (Mark 9:42-50)

England is not known for its fine cuisine. Back when I was there in 1990, I had some pretty good fish and chips in the village of Blackheath just outside of London. But the food I ate the rest of my trip was very bland. In one pub in particular, I tried their lasagna. (I suppose my first mistake was ordering lasagna in an English pub.) That lasagna was so bland it was offensive. It was a struggle getting it down. Fortunately, I had some good English ale to cover up the taste.

Sometimes, all it takes is adding a little salt to bland food to make it taste better. In years past, salt was used not only as a seasoning, but also as a preservative. A little bit of salt can improve the taste of certain foods. It also can keep food from rotting and decaying. But it's possible for some naturally occuring salt to lose its flavoring and preserving qualities.

Jesus tells his followers to “have salt in yourselves.” In Matthew's Gospel, he tells them, “You are the salt of the earth.” (Matt. 5:13) Just as salt can do wonders for bland food, Christians are to be sources of positive influence in this sinful world … doing acts of mercy in the name of Jesus, even something as simple as offering a cup of water … speaking words of encouragement and comfort … seeking to reconcile where there is disharmony and disunity.

Now, some people may disagree and say that Christians are really the bland ones. They don't know how to have any real fun. They're missing out on all the real spicy stuff in this life.

Does being a Christian mean you're not supposed to have any fun? Of course not. True Christianity is not all about being a killjoy. But if what you think is fun is sinful, then, by all means, run away from it. That's what Jesus is getting at when he's talks about getting rid of assorted body parts if they have any part in causing you to sin. Are you looking at something you shouldn't? Pluck your eye out. Are you helping yourself to something that doesn't belong to you? Cut your hand off. Are you walking into an environment where you know you don't belong? Then cut your foot off.

Are you kidding? Is Jesus really asking us to perform some radical acts of self-mutilation? No. That would be creepy even according to First Century standards. But what Jesus is teaching us is that it would truly be better to be maimed and lame than to go into hell with all our body parts intact. Besides, what good would removing a few body parts do when our heart is still sinful?

Instead of being a seasoned positive influence, we often lose our saltiness and have a negative influence on others around us. We're especially in trouble if our unsalty, unsavory behavior causes “one of these little ones to sin.” Who are these “little ones”? Jesus could be referring to those who believe in him with a childlike faith. Or he could be referring to actual little children, ones who are vulnerable and impressionable. Either way, if something we have done or said causes one of these “litte ones” to sin, Jesus says that we'd be better off if we were thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around our necks, one of those huge round stones used to grind grain in days gone by. Better off drowned and dead than dragging someone else into hell right along with you.

So, how salty have you been? Or have you been so bland as to be offensive in God's sight? Have you lost your saltiness? We must all admit that we have each failed to be a seasoned, preserving influence in the circles in which we travel. Because of our sinful hearts, we're only fit for the eternal garbage dump, where the worms that eat the refuse never die and the fire that incinerates the trash never goes out.

Yet there's another fire that Jesus mentions here, one that is meant to keep us from the eternal fire. He says “everyone will be salted with fire.” When a sacrifice was offered in the Old Testament, salt was added to the sacrifice when it was laid upon the altar. Salt in those days was costly. It was an important part of the diet. And so, it's thought this is why God had the Israelites add it to their animal and grain offerings. This was another way in which the sacrifice was made acceptable to God, by adding costly salt to that which was being offered.

God knows that it's often through fiery trial and suffering that we are led back to him in repentant trust. And so he sends “fire” our way so that we might be driven to fully trust in him and not rely on our own abilities and resources. Just like salt is used as a preservative, our gracious Lord uses suffering to season our lives and to preserve our life of faith. Peter writes about this in his first epistle. His hearers were suffering all kinds of persecution. But listen to what he says to them. He tells them not to bemoan and complain about their suffering, but to rejoice in their suffering. “In this you rejoice,” says Peter, “though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and honor and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet. 1:6-7) God allows suffering and trial to come our way because he wants us to continue to trust in the salty, fiery sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

Jesus' life was a sinless life, but it was anything but bland. He brought his seasoning influence of love, mercy, and forgiveness to sinners and outcasts. He brought his preserving power of restoration to fallen creation when he touched the maimed and the lame and healed them. And he confronted the powers of darkness and their hypocritical followers with fiery words of judgment.

Yet God the Father also knew that it was necessary for Jesus to undergo the fiery trials of temptation and suffering for us. All that Satan had, he threw at Jesus. Jesus withstood those temptations, feeling their full force, but never gave in. All the sins of the world, God the Father laid upon Jesus at the cross. There, Jesus felt the full weight of God's wrath over sin, and drank the cup of God's wrath to the last drop. He shed his blood for you and for me, for “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness,”the author of Hebrews writes (9:22). It was a salty sacrifice our Lord offered on your behalf that first Good Friday, with his salty sweat and tears added to his blood that was shed. And it's only by trusting in that “salty” sacrifice of Jesus that you and I can have forgiveness and life everlasting.

And that helps us understand what Jesus means when he says “Have salt in yourselves.” Trust in the “salty” sacrifice of Jesus. Believe in your heart that Jesus died for your sins and rose again three days later. The costly salt added to the Old Testament sacrifices made them acceptable to God. The priceless salt of the New Testament sacrifice of Jesus alone makes us acceptable to God. And we dare not think we can add any of our own “salt” to Jesus' sacrifice, any of our own works or best efforts. Only Jesus' salty sacrifice is sufficient.

This is not to say that we have no sacrifices to offer to God. We do. We offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God. We offer our sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving to the Father for what he has done for us through his Son. But once again, it's not the act itself that makes our offering holy and acceptable. It's only through the sacrifice of Jesus that our sacrifices become holy and acceptable.

So, with the salt of Jesus' sacrifice in you, you can be the salt of the earth that Jesus calls his Church to be. The preserving influence of God's Word and Sacraments seasons our speech and lives. Through the offering of our bodies as living sacrifices, serving one another in love, the salty Word of Christ is sprinkled upon others. We participate in Christ's mission as he sends his Church to proclaim him as the Savior, do good works in his name, live in peace with one another, “pray for each other” (James 5:16), and give our Triune God the glory and honor in all that we say and do.


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