September 30, 2012
Our Gospel reading today teaches many lessons, including a lesson about the power and importance of Jesus’ name. People were casting out demons by using Jesus’ name, even though they weren’t direct followers of his. The message here is clear– there is great power in the name of Jesus. A number of our hymns this morning mention the power, beauty and importance of Jesus’ name.
That being said, our sermon this morning will concentrate more on the last part of today’s reading. Here we have another word that is prominently used—“salt.” Jesus makes three different statements that include the word “salt.” I think all of us would agree that while salt is indeed important in life, we don’t necessarily think of it as being so powerful or beautiful. Do you think I could find any hymns for us to sing with the word “salt” in them? I couldn’t. Maybe there are some, but I couldn’t find any. At least not in our hymnal.
There are, however, a number of scriptural uses of the word salt. I’m not going to subject us to a whole listing of these, but some will come up during the course of the sermon. Our strategy, instead, will be to look at these three statements of Jesus and explain them, for at first reading they’re pretty confusing. Along with this we’ll think about applying these teachings of Christ to our lives. May God bless our consideration.
“Everyone will be salted with fire” – that’s the first statement. The “fire” has already been brought up. Jesus quotes a line from the prophet Isaiah which says: “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” These aren’t just any words from the prophet. They’re his last words. This is how the book of Isaiah concludes. Isaiah ends by speaking of God’s final judgment, and this last verse tells the destiny of those who have rebelled against God. It’s not a pretty sight.
The phrase “everyone will be salted with fire” means, first, that everyone will be judged by God. Jesus has been talking with his disciples about sin. They aren’t to cause others to sin. They are to get rid of that which causes them to sin. Sin will be judged by God, and this judgment will bring condemnation. Jesus describes this condemnation in graphic terms. It would be better for a person to be thrown into the sea and drowned than to face this condemnation by God. When we stand condemned we end up in hell, “where their worm – that which eats at us—does not die and the fire is not quenched.” Jesus wants us to repent and turn from sinful ways, because he knows God’s judgment is coming. We cannot escape it.
“Everyone will be salted with fire” means, first, that everyone will be judged. But it also means that everyone will be purified by suffering. Fire purifies. The prophets spoke of this purification often. Salt, on the other hand, preserves. People used it to preserve their food. The Temple sacrifices, as described in the Old Testament, were to be accompanied by salt as a sign of God’s people being preserved through these sacrifices.
God preserves His people today by the sacrifice of His Son Jesus. Though our sin leads us to judgment and condemnation, Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for that sin. Our lives have been preserved because of Christ.
But God also wants us to live purely, and so He works to purify our faith and purify our lives. He does this chiefly through His Word and Sacraments. But sometimes he also allows us to be salted with suffering.
When we suffer we realize the great sin that is in the world. Maybe it was our sin that led to the suffering. Maybe it was someone else’s sin that made us suffer. Or maybe it was just a consequence of living in this world, broken by sin, where disease, decay and the curse of death work toward their inevitable conclusions.
It is often during these times of helplessness that we most faithfully and earnestly turn toward God. That’s what we should do, anyway. As the scriptures teach, “our help is in the name of the Lord.”
I know I’ve turned more earnestly to the Lord in tough times, and I’m guessing you have too. I was thinking about specific applications of this to illustrate the point, and of all things I thought about… baseball. I happen to be thinking a lot about baseball these days, so maybe it’s no surprise! Here’s what I came up with. I think all of us in this area have been amazed and thrilled about the success of our local teams this year. The Nationals have been in first place most of the year and are looking great heading into the playoffs. And just as impressive, maybe more so, has been the performance of the Baltimore Orioles. Nobody expected much from them this year, but they’re almost certainly going to be a playoff team also. It’s very exciting.
Neither team has had any success for a long time. Could it be that after years of suffering, the teams have been purified? Maybe it’s a stretch to say this, but it just could be that the teams went back to the basics, got rid of all the pressures, restored the joy of playing, got players who were more focused on team success than individual success and played a more pure form of baseball. Just a theory. But you see how this can go. So also it may work this way in our lives.
A baseball team may have to cut off some of their players with huge salaries in order to turn their team around. Jesus in our text tells us we should consider cutting off that which causes us to sin. As he often does, he makes his point by using pretty graphic images. Cutting off body parts is extreme, but cutting off habits, friends, or temptations of any kind could definitely be a good idea, and is probably more of what Jesus had in mind here.
Having spoken about salt in terms of judgment and purification, Jesus then makes a second statement. He says, “salt is good, unless—and I’m paraphrasing here—it loses its saltiness.” By saying that “salt is good,” Jesus is simply affirming God’s actions of judging and purifying. We sometimes get upset with the notion of God judging us. We usually don’t like it when others judge us, and there’s probably always going to be a part of us that resents the judgment of God too. But when we think about it, the fact that God judges everyone is important. The alternative is a God who doesn’t care, and that would make for a very tough world.
However, there seems to be more in this second “salt statement” of Jesus than simply affirming that God’s ways are good. Jesus goes on to talk about salt losing its saltiness. God’s ways do not lose their saltiness. But our trust in God’s ways can be lost. This statement of Jesus seems to shift the focus toward us. We recall that Jesus once told his followers they were the “salt of the earth.” Indeed, those salted by God are the ones who are not only judged and purified by a good God, but they are the ones who bring God’s goodness to the world. They are the ones who have the good mission of preserving the world for God and keeping it from the clutches of evil. Christ’s followers might not always be the most powerful or beautiful, at least in the world’s terms, but they are the salt of the earth—a necessary ingredient to preserve the world.
There’s one more “salt statement” of Jesus in our text. This one is definitely directed to us. Jesus says, “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.” That phrase “have salt in yourselves” seems a little strange, but basically it means “be salty.” It’s an encouragement to live the faith, trust God, carry out the mission and rejoice that we have been salted!
You and I are “salty” when we bring Jesus to our life situations. We’re salty when we face adversity with faith, persecution with endurance and challenge with hope. We’re salty when we help others who are being salted with suffering. We’re salty when we do our best to be pure, and when we repent for the things we’ve done wrong.
Of special importance in salty living, says Jesus in this text, is being at peace with one another. We all know how precious a commodity peace is. My reference to sports earlier reminds us of how competitive players and fans can be. Good, clean rivalries can sometimes cross the line to becoming causes of bitterness or even violence. And then there are the divisions that exist in our political world. The upcoming elections remind us that great energy is being poured into the backing of one candidate over another. Passions are certainly inflamed in the process.
How important it is that the Church speaks a message of peace amidst all the conflict of the world. Being at peace with others can only come about when we are at peace with ourselves. Our faith in God’s care and His forgiveness of our sins allows us to achieve a true and lasting inner peace.
Yes, Jesus teaches us many things through the “salt words” of today’s text. One final thought occurs to me as I think about the characteristics of this mineral used by our Lord in his teaching. From what I understand, the shelf life of unseasoned salt is infinite. Salt endures.
So also, the Church which Jesus has established on earth will endure. Perhaps you’ve been hearing some of the same reports I have recently about the decline of Christianity in America. They may be true. In sports terms, it may seem like our team isn’t doing real well right now. But perhaps we should consider, instead, that we’re being purified. The teachings of our Lord will endure. They are necessary for human life, and they are being cared for by the God who knows and sees all. World-wide, the Christian Church continues to grow. God continues to salt the world according to His wisdom.
How good it is to know that we are being salted by a loving and wise God. May God continue to give us the wisdom to accept His salting and live out our calling as the salt of the earth. In the name of Jesus. Amen.